After his insightful book, Adi Shankaracharya, Pavan K Varma has come up with a collection of essays written over a period of six years. Named Chanakya’s View, it is based on the name of the column the author wrote for a national daily. Varma gives an elaborate introduction on why Chanakya is relevant today and emphasises the need for debate and discussion.
The book is loosely divided into four parts with the sub-titles, ‘This is not India,’ ‘Politics’, ‘Viewpoint’, and ‘Diplomacy’.
A common thread, if any, in this assorted collection of essays is the typical neo-liberal method of asserting the ‘real Hindu’ viewpoint against the ‘Hindutva’ views.
Neo-liberal Hindu identity comes from the anguish felt by the elite among Hindus who take pride in the Brahminical and Sanskrit tradition and find the present-day wanting to the tall standards, as imagined by them, set by some scriptures or thinkers of a glorious past.
It works on the premise that India was once the most liberal country and suddenly it has become intolerant. In theory, we can selectively quote a few scriptures and claim India always was a tolerant country that allowed all kinds of thoughts. In some elite circles, where Shankaracharyas and Chanakyas dwelled, this might have been true.
But in practice, India, and Hinduism, always had its intolerant streak. What could be more intolerant than the social divisions based on the brutal caste and varna system? Foreigners were ‘mlech’¸ the Veda deniers were ‘pashandas’ and before Islam arrived, there was enough internal strife between Shaivism and Vaishnavism like any other religious wars. The people who blunted this intolerance were not intellectuals such as Shankaracharya or their high-brow Advaita, but the grassroot movements based on folk Bhakti.
Advaita or Upanishads or even the Gita, hardly touched the common man in any era. Hinduism is more of an amalgamation of a mind-bogglingly diverse folk religions with a thin veneer of Brahamanical scriptural thought above it.
The problem with neo-Hindu liberal thought is, it glorifies this top, forgetting the foundations. Hence, the solution it offers is mostly theoretical with few practical values, just like the intellectual acrobatics in Brahmanical scriptures. The essays, in short, reflect this thought process.
Many essays offer glimpses of the author’s brilliance and perception. Some are thought-provoking but lack a practical solution to the issues they mull over. It could be because of the limitations of the neo-liberal Hinduism that runs as a common thread.
Or, to be fairer to the author, it could be because of the word limit imposed by the newspaper columns. A column is highly time-sensitive. What would have been an interesting read six years ago would have lost relevance when we read it now. And 2014 or 2015 is not far enough in time to create a historical interest.
This assorted collection of essays is not offering anything more than a glimpse into the author’s neo-liberal Hindu anguish.
The essays which are political in nature suffer from the issue of irrelevance the most. When the author delves into art or culture, it is a pleasure to read his works, as his insights do not lose their relevance. The essay on ‘the shocking neglect of culture’ is an example. Had the author elaborated from the newspaper columns he had written and utilised the wider and deeper canvas a book gives over a word-limited newspaper column, it would have been a more interesting read.