Shashi Tharoor’s new book begins with the argument that Hinduism is a civilisation, not a dogma

It is an intriguing phase in the nation’s history. The term Hindu, which many thought was a sullied word not very long ago, has suddenly become the fulcrum around which Indian politics and its practitioners seem to be revolving around. Temple run has turned fashionable and being a ‘janeudhari’ (thread-wearing) Brahmin a credential worth quoting publicly, even among those who were often accused of pandering to minorities. So, when the entire political spectrum of the country is unabashedly shifting towards the Right, is it any surprise to see Shashi Tharoor coming out with a book that calls itself Why I Am A Hindu?

However, to merely confine the book’s rationale to the tectonic shift in Indian politics would be utterly unfair. Tharoor’s quest to look inward may also be provoked by the rise of the likes of Karni Sena holding the nation to ransom for a film’s character whose historicity remains shrouded in mystery. Even the Right-leaning historian Kishori Saran Lal, an authority on the Khaljis, had his doubts whether Padmavati ever existed historically. The larger point, however, is that a film should be contested with a film, a book with a book, and an idea with an idea. Vandalism of theatres and burning of books are an alien idea, and Tharoor’s book is a reminder of that.

The book begins with the argument that Hinduism “is a civilisation, not a dogma”. Tharoor writes, “There is no such thing as a Hindu heresy. Hinduism is a faith that allows each believer to stretch his or her imagination to a personal notion of the creative godhead of divinity.” He then does the unthinkable: an assault on the Nehruvian notion that all religions teach the same thing. Writes he in his own indomitable style, “I find it immensely congenial to be able to face my fellow human beings of other faiths without being burdened with the conviction that I am embarked upon a ‘true path’ that they have missed. This dogma lies at the core of the ‘Semitic faiths’, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.”

The first half of the book, where Tharoor explores Hinduism and what it means to be a Hindu, is a treat to read. He is academic without being boring; he is reverential and yet retains the best of intellectual inquisitiveness. He never loses the plot as he moves seamlessly from Yajnavalkya and Svetaketu to Francois Bernier and Herbert Risley. The underlying theme being what Brahmins told the French traveller Bernier in the late 17th century: “We respect your truth;please respect ours.”

But when you read the book full, it reminds one of a formulaic Bollywood flick. The first half is all about good things in life. But postinterval, things begin to change drastically, often taking a conflicting stand. As Hindutva takes the centre stage in the book, the politician in him comes to the fore. There’s no doubt that Hindutva takes a cue from the Semitic religions and attempts to shape Hinduism in a similar hue. But Tharoor — sadly and predictably — is silent on the dubious role played by his own party in the rise of Hindutva through its vote-bank politics. The culture of minority appeasement — practised and perfected by the Congress — distorted secularism beyond repair. Hindutva was primarily the result of a backlash to such an anti-majoritarian ecosystem, in which even the Ramakrishna Mission had to seek the tag of a ‘minority institution’!

The tragedy is Tharoor, the intellectual, makes a wonderful edifice of arguments, and then in his later avatar as politician he almost destroys it. He first quotes from several classical sources to prove how the caste system was a British construct and that ancient India was hardly a misogynist society with the wife and the husband being “the equal halves of one substance”. And yet, for probably political reasons, he quotes later in the book, among others, historian DN Jha who has exhausted his entire intellectual strength in proving how there was no golden era in ancient India, and that Hinduism was mired with the divisive caste system in as early as the Gupta period. Tharoor highlights the plight of MF Husain and Wendy Doniger but doesn’t scrutinise Salman Rushdie whose book, The Satanic Verses, began it all. Taslima Nasrin too is largely missing from this saga of ‘rising Indian intolerance’.

The book hits the nadir when Tharoor says that “Hinduism has survived the Aryans, the Mughals and the British”. Here, it blunders on two major counts. One, the statement shows the author, despite himself reminding the same to the readers, has fallen for the well-oiled colonial myth that said the British were only the latest among a series of invaders who came to India, starting with the Aryans. The narrative suited the British as it provided them the legitimacy to rule the subcontinent. Two, the author, deliberately or otherwise, feigns ignorance of the latest scientific studies that refute any kind of Aryan invasion/migration into India. He takes the debunked invasion/migration theory for granted. Despite all this, Why I Am A Hindu must be read by all, especially in trying times like ours. Tharoor’s intellectual eloquence and steadfastness in the first part of the book more than make up for his flippant and self-contradictory stand later.