Hinduism a liberal faith: Exclusive excerpts from Shashi Tharoor's new book, Why I Am a Hindu

I grew up in a Hindu household. Our home always had a prayer room, where paintings and portraits of assorted divinities jostled for shelf and wall space with fading photographs of departed ancestors, all stained by ash scattered from the incense burned daily by my devout parents. I have written before of how my earliest experiences of piety came from watching my father at prayer. Every morning, after his bath, my father would stand in front of the prayer room wrapped in his towel, his wet hair still uncombed, and chant his Sanskrit mantras. But he never obliged me to join him; he exemplified the Hindu idea that religion is an intensely personal matter, that prayer is between you and whatever image of your Maker you choose to worship. In the Hindu way, I was to find my own truth.

I think I have. I am a believer, despite a brief period of schoolboy atheism (of the kind that comes with the discovery of rationality and goes with an acknowledgement of its limitations). And I am happy to describe myself as a believing Hindu: not just because it is the faith into which I was born, but for a string of other reasons, though faith requires no reason.

One reason is cultural: as a Hindu I belong to a faith that expresses the ancient genius of my own people. I am proud of the history of my faith in my own land: of the travels of Adi Shankara, who journeyed from the southernmost tip of the country to Kashmir in the north, Gujarat in the west and Odisha in the east, debating spiritual scholars everywhere, preaching his beliefs, establishing his mutts. I am reaffirmed in this atavistic allegiance by the Harvard scholar Diana Eck writing of the 'sacred geography' of India, 'knit together by countless tracks of pilgrimage'. The great philosopher-president of India, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, wrote of Hindus as 'a distinct cultural unit, with a common history, a common literature, and a common civilisation'. In reiterating my allegiance to Hinduism, I am consciously laying claim to this geography and history, its literature and civilisation, identifying myself as an heir (one among a billion heirs) to a venerable tradition that stretches back into time immemorial. I fully accept that many of my friends, compatriots and fellow-Hindus feel no similar need, and that there are Hindus who are not (or are no longer) Indian, but I am comfortable with this 'cultural' and 'geographical' Hinduism that anchors me to my ancestral past.

But another 'reason' for my belief in Hinduism is, for lack of a better phrase, its intellectual 'fit': I am more comfortable with the tenets of Hinduism than I would be with those of the other faiths of which I know. I have long thought of myself as liberal, not merely in the political sense of the term, or even in relation to principles of economics, but as an attitude to life. To accept people as one finds them, to allow them to be and become what they choose, and to encourage them to do whatever they like (so long as it does not harm others) is my natural instinct. Rigid and censorious beliefs have never appealed to my temperament. In matters of religion, too, I found my liberal instincts reinforced by the faith in which I was brought up. Hinduism is, in many ways, predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages and of divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book; we have many, and we can delve into each to find our own truth (or truths). As a Hindu I can claim adherence to a religion without an established church or priestly papacy, a religion whose rituals and customs I am free to reject, a religion that does not oblige me to demonstrate my faith by any visible sign, by subsuming my identity in any collectivity, not even by a specific day or time or frequency of worship. (There is no Hindu Pope, no Hindu Vatican, no Hindu catechism, not even a Hindu Sunday.) As a Hindu I follow a faith that offers a veritable smorgasbord of options to the worshipper of divinities to adore and to pray to, of rituals to observe (or not), of customs and practices to honour (or not), of fasts to keep (or not). As a Hindu I subscribe to a creed that is free of the restrictive dogmas of holy writ, one that refuses to be shackled to the limitations of a single volume of holy revelation.

And while I am, paradoxically, listing my 'reasons' for a faith beyond understanding, let me cite the clincher: above all, as a Hindu I belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenial to be able to face my fellow human beings of other faiths without being burdened by 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. 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father [God], but by me' (John 14:6), says the Bible; 'There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet', declares the Quran, denying unbelievers all possibility of redemption, let alone of salvation or paradise. Hinduism asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, and Hindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths. I am proud that I can honour the sanctity of other faiths without feeling I am betraying my own.


What does this 'Abrahamic Hinduism' of the 'Sangh Parivar' consist of? The ideological foundations laid by Savarkar, Golwalkar and Upadhyaya have given members of the RSS a fairly coherent doctrine. It rests on the atavistic belief that India has been the land of the Hindus since ancient times, and that their identity and its identity are intertwined. Since time immemorial, Hindutva advocates argue, Hindu culture and civilisation have constituted the essence of Indian life; Indian nationalism is therefore Hindu nationalism. The history of India is the story of the struggle of the Hindus, the owners and custodians of this ancient land, to protect and preserve their religion and culture against the onslaught of hostile alien invaders. It is true that the territory of India also hosts non-Hindus, but these are invaders (Muslims, Christians) or guests (Jews, Parsis); they can be tolerated, depending on their loyalty to the land, but cannot be treated as equal to the Hindus unless they acknowledge the superiority of Hindus in India and adopt Hindu traditions and culture. Non-Hindus must acknowledge their Hindu parentage, or, better still, convert to Hinduism in a return to their true cultural roots.

Those political forces in India who are opposed to the Sangh ideology are mistaken, the doctrine goes on, since they make the cardinal error of confusing 'national unity' with the unity of all those who happen to be living in the territory of India, irrespective of religion or national origin. Such people are in fact anti-national, because their real motivation is the selfish desire to win minority votes in elections rather than care for the interests of the majority of the nation. The unity and consolidation of the Hindus is therefore essential. Since the Hindu people are surrounded by enemies, a polarisation must take place that pits Hindus against all others. To achieve this, though, Hindus must be unified; the lack of unity is the root cause of all the evils besetting the Hindus. The Sangh Parivar's principal mission is to bring about that unity and lead it to the greater glory of the Hindu nation.

The problem with this doctrine, coherent and clear though it is, is its denial of the reality of what Hinduism is all about. What Swami Vivekananda would have seen as the strength of Hinduism-its extraordinary eclecticism and diversity, its acceptance of a wide range of beliefs and practices, its refusal to confine itself to the dogmas of a single holy book, its fluidity, the impossibility to define it down to a homogeneous 'Semitic' creed-is precisely what the RSS ideologues see as its weakness.

The Sanghivadi quest for polarisation and unity is also a yearning to make Hinduism what it is not-to 'Semitise' it so that it looks like the faiths of the 'invaders': codified and doctrinaire, with an identifiable God (preferably Rama), a principal holy book (the Gita), a manageable ecclesiastic hierarchy, and of course a unified race and a people to profess it. This is not the lived Hinduism of the vast majority of Hindus. And so the obvious question arises: Must every believing Hindu automatically be assumed to subscribe to the Hindutva project? And since manifestly most do not, does the viability of the project require a continued drive to force the dissenters into the Hindutva straitjacket?


Unsurprisingly, a [particular] period of Indian history, following the Muslim conquests of north India, has become 'ground zero' in the battle of narratives between the Hindutvavadis and the pluralists. When, with the publication of my 2016 book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, I spoke of 200 years of foreign rule, I found it interesting that at the same time the Hindutva brigade, led by Prime Minister Modi himself, was speaking of 1,200 years of foreign rule. To them, the Muslim rulers of India, whether the Delhi Sultans, the Deccani Sultans or the Mughals (or the hundreds of other Muslims who occupied thrones of greater or lesser importance for several hundred years across the country) were all foreigners. I responded that while the founder of a Muslim dynasty may have well have come to India from abroad, he and his descendants stayed and assimilated in this country, married Hindu women, and immersed themselves in the fortunes of this land; each Mughal Emperor after Babar had less and less connection of blood or allegiance to a foreign country. If they looted or exploited India and Indians, they spent the proceeds of their loot in India, and did not send it off to enrich a foreign land as the British did. The Mughals received travellers from the Ferghana Valley politely, enquired about the well-being of the people there and perhaps even gave some money for the upkeep of the graves of their Chingizid ancestors, but they stopped seeing their original homeland as home. By the second generation, let alone the fifth or sixth, they were as 'Indian' as any Hindu.



This challenge of authenticity, however, cuts across a wide intellectual terrain. It emerges from those Hindus who share V.S. Naipaul's view of theirs as a 'wounded civilisation', a pristine Hindu land that was subjected to repeated defeats and conquests over the centuries at the hands of rapacious Muslim invaders and was enfeebled and subjugated in the process. To such people, independence is not merely freedom from British rule but an opportunity to restore the glory of their culture and religion, wounded by Muslim conquerors. In this Hindutva-centred view, history is made of religion-based binaries, in which all Muslim rulers are evil and all Hindus are valiant resisters, embodiments of incipient Hindu nationalism....

Communal history continues past the era of Islamic rule. Among those Indians who revolted against the British, Bahadur Shah, Zinat Mahal, Maulavi Ahmadullah and General Bakht Khan, all Muslims, are conspicuous by their absence from Hindutva histories. And of course syncretic traditions such as the Bhakti movement, and universalist religious reformers like Rammohan Roy and Keshub Chandra Sen, do not receive much attention from the Hindutva orthodoxy. What does is the uncritical veneration of 'Hindu heroes' like Rana Pratap (portrayed now in Rajasthani textbooks as the victor of the Battle of Haldi Ghati against Akbar, which begs the question why Akbar and not he ruled the country for the following three decades) and of course Chhatrapati Shivaji, the intrepid Maratha warrior whose battles against the Mughals have now replaced accounts of Mughal kings in Maharashtra's textbooks. The Maharashtra Education Board's newly-revised class VII history book of 2017 has eliminated all mention of the pre-Mughal Muslim rulers of India as well, including Razia Sultan, the first woman queen of Delhi, Sher Shah Suri and Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who notoriously and disastrously moved India's capital south from Delhi to Daulatabad. (The educational system is the chosen battlefield for the Hindutva warriors, and curriculum revision their preferred weapon.)


As a believing Hindu, I cannot agree with the Hindutvavadis. Indeed, I am ashamed of what they are doing while claiming to be acting in the name of my faith. The violence is particularly sickening: it has led tens of thousands of Hindus across India to protest with placards screaming, 'Not In My Name'. As I have explained... and would like to reiterate, I have always prided myself on belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief; a religion that acknowledges all ways of worshipping God as equally valid-indeed, the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. As I have often asked: How dare a bunch of goondas shrink the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics? Why should any Hindu allow them to diminish Hinduism to the raucous self-glorification of the football hooligan, to take a religion of awe-inspiring tolerance and reduce it to a chauvinist rampage?

Hinduism, with its openness, its respect for variety, its acceptance of all other faiths, is one religion which has always been able to assert itself without threatening others. But this is not the Hindutva that destroyed the Babri Masjid, nor that spewed in hate-filled diatribes by communal politicians. It is, instead, the Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda. It is important to parse some of Swami Vivekananda's most significant assertions. The first is his assertion that Hinduism stands for 'both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true'. He... [quotes] a hymn... to the effect that as different streams originating in different places all flow into the same sea, so do all paths lead to the same divinity. He repeatedly asserted the wisdom of the Advaita belief that Truth is One even if the sages call It by different names. Vivekananda's vision-summarised in the credo 'sarva dharma sambhava'-is, in fact, the kind of Hinduism practised by the vast majority of Hindus, whose instinctive acceptance of other faiths and forms of worship has long been the vital hallmark of our culture...




I reject the presumption that the purveyors of hatred speak for all or even most Hindus. The Hindutva ideology is in fact a malign distortion of Hinduism. It is striking that leaders of now-defunct twentieth-century political parties like the Liberal Party and the pro-free enterprise Swatantra Party were unabashed in their avowal of their Hinduism; the Liberal leader Srinivasa Sastry wrote learned disquisitions on the Ramayana, and the founder of Swatantra, C. Rajagopalachari ('Rajaji'), was a Sanskrit scholar whose translations of the Itihasas and lectures on aspects of Hinduism are still widely read, decades after his death. Neither would have recognised the intolerance and bigotry of Hindutva as in any way representative of the faith they held dear. Many leaders in the Congress Party are similarly comfortable in their Hindu beliefs while rejecting the political construct of Hindutva. It suits the purveyors of Hindutva to imply that the choice is between their belligerent interpretation of Hinduism and the godless Westernisation of the 'pseudo-seculars'. Rajaji and Sastry proved that you could wear your Hinduism on your sleeve and still be a political liberal. But that choice is elided by the identification of Hindutva with political Hinduism, as if such a conflation is the only possible approach open to practising Hindus.

I reject that idea. I not only consider myself both a Hindu and a liberal, but find that liberalism is the political ideology that most corresponds to the wide-ranging and open-minded nature of my faith.


The irony is that Hindutva reassertion is a reflection of insecurity rather than self-confidence. It is built on constant reminders of humiliation and defeat, sustained by tales of Muslim conquest and rule, stoked by stories of destroyed temples and looted treasures, all of which have imprisoned susceptible Hindus in a narrative of failure and defeat, rather than a broad-minded story of a confident faith finding its place in the world. Looking back towards the failures of the past, it offers no hopes for the successes of the future.

This seems to be conceded even by one of the foremost voices of contemporary Hindutva, the American Dr David Frawley. Hindus, he writes in his foundational screed Arise Arjuna! (1995), 'are generally suffering from a lack of self esteem and an inferiority complex by which they are afraid to really express themselves or their religion. They have been beaten down by centuries of foreign rule and ongoing attempts to convert them'. Frawley's answer is for Indians to reassert Hindu pride, but his diagnosis calls that prescription into question.

As a Hindu and an Indian, I would argue that the whole point about India is the rejection of the idea that religion should be a determinant of nationhood. Our nationalist leaders never fell into the insidious trap of agreeing that, since Partition had established a state for Muslims, what remained was a state for Hindus. To accept the idea of India you have to spurn the logic that divided the country in 1947. Your Indianness has nothing to do with which god you choose to worship, or not. We are not going to reduce ourselves to a Hindu Pakistan.

That is the real problem here. As I have mentioned earlier, Nehru had warned that the communalism of the majority was especially dangerous because it could present itself as nationalist. Yet, Hindu nationalism is not Indian nationalism. And it has nothing to do with genuine Hinduism either.

I too am proud of my Hinduism; I do not want to cede its verities to fanatics. I consider myself a Hindu and a nationalist, but I am not a Hindu nationalist. To discriminate against another, to attack another, to kill another, to destroy another's place of worship on the basis of his faith is not part of Hindu dharma, as it was not part of Swami Vivekananda's. It is time to go back to these fundamentals of Hinduism. It is time to take Hindu dharma back from the fundamentalists.


Thanks in many ways to the eclectic inclusiveness of Hinduism, everything in India exists in countless variants. There was no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no 'one way'. This pluralism emerged from the very nature of the country; it was made inevitable by India's geography and reaffirmed by its history. There was simply too much of both to permit a single, exclusionist nationalism. When the Hindutvavadis demanded that all Indians declare 'Bharat Mata ki jai' as a litmus test of their nationalism, many of us insisted that no Indian should be obliged to mouth a slogan he did not believe in his heart. If some Muslims, for instance, felt that their religion did not allow them to hail their motherland as a goddess, the Constitution of India gave them the right not to. Hindutva wrongly seeks to deny them this right.

We were brought up to take this for granted, and to reject the sectarianism that had partitioned the nation when the British left. I was raised unaware of my own caste and unconscious of the religious loyalties of my schoolmates and friends. Of course knowledge of these details came in time, but too late for any of it to matter, even less to influence my attitude or conduct. We were Indians: we were brought up (and constantly exhorted) to believe in an idea of nationhood transcending communal divisions. This may sound like the lofty obliviousness of the privileged, but such beliefs were not held only by the elites: they were a reflection of how most Indians lived, even in the villages of India. Independent India was born out of a nationalist struggle in which acceptance of each other which we, perhaps unwisely, called secularism was fundamental to the nationalist consensus.

It is true that Hindu zealotry-which ought to be a contradiction in terms-is partly a reaction to other chauvinisms. As I have pointed out, the unreflective avowal by many Hindus of their own secularism has provoked the scorn of some Hindus, who despise the secularists as deracinated 'Macaulayputras' (sons of Macaulay) or 'Babar ke aulad' (sons of Babar). They see such Hindus as cut off from their own culture and heritage, and challenge them to rediscover their authentic roots, as defined by the Hindutvavadis.


[F]rom time to time, a Hindutvavadi, reminding me of the religion that has been mine from birth, succumbed to the temptation to urge me predictably to heed that well-worn slogan: 'Garv se kaho ki hum Hindu hain.'

All right, let us take him up on that. I am indeed proud that I am a Hindu. But of what is it that I am, and am not, proud?

I am not proud of my co-religionists attacking and destroying Muslim homes and shops. I am not proud of Hindus raping Muslim girls, or slitting the wombs of Muslim mothers. I am not proud of Hindu vegetarians who have roasted human beings alive and rejoiced over the corpses. I am not proud of those who reduce the lofty metaphysical speculations of the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their own sense of identity, which they assert in order to exclude, not embrace, others.

I am proud that India's pluralism is paradoxically sustained by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus, because Hinduism has taught them to live amidst a variety of other identities.

I am proud of those Hindus, like the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, who say that Hindus and Muslims must live like Ram and Lakshman in India. I am not proud of those Hindus, like 'Sadhvi' Rithambhara, who say that Muslims are like sour lemons curdling the milk of Hindu India.

Source: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/cover-story/story/20180129-shashi-tharoor-new-book-why-i-am-a-hin