An Illiberal Hinduism Is a Contradiction in Terms
Hindu fundamentalists are destroying everything that makes their faith unique and profound
In an unguarded moment over dinner recently, an American friend, without intending any malice, jokingly remarked to me how “weird” Hinduism, the faith I was born into, was. I no longer practice Hinduism, not because I think it’s “weird,” but because I am just not religious. But if I were to embrace a faith again, it would be my birth faith (with the possible exception of Buddhism) because it is non-dogmatic, laissez faire, makes few demands on believers, yet offers the most elaborate—and customized—resources for spiritual self-help.
All this makes Hinduism, properly understood, different— or “weird”—to the unacquainted. Hindus are used to the difficulty of explaining their faith to people of more systematized and streamlined religious traditions, especially Abrahamic ones. (If I had a penny for all the times I’ve fielded inquiries from wide-eyed Westerners about whether Hinduism truly believes in millions of gods, I’d be a millionaire!) But in the 21st century, Hindus are confronted with an even weirder task: Explaining Hinduism to Hindu nationalists who, in the name of protecting Hinduism, are transforming it beyond recognition.
That is the task that Shashi Tharoor, author, an opposition member of the Indian Parliament, and orator par excellence, undertakes in today’s installment in our series on Liberalism and Religion. (Tharoor became a household name in India and an instant global sensation after his knockout 2015 performance in an Oxford debate on why Britain owes reparations to India for colonialism.) In the age of rising religious nationalism, strident and illiberal interpretations are emerging in nearly every faith. But no other has gained as much political traction in as short a time as Hindu nationalism. The aggressive, majoritarian, and illiberal Hinduism that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inaugurated in the 21st century couldn’t be more different from the tolerant, pluralistic, and liberal Hinduism that Mahatma Gandhi presented to the world in the 20th century.
In his passionate and erudite polemic, Tharoor, a believing Hindu and author of many authoritative books on Hinduism, digs into Hindu philosophy, scriptures, and history to show that liberalism and Hinduism are synonymous. Trying to save Hinduism by rejecting its liberal core, as Hindu fanatics are trying to do, is like trying to save someone by plucking out their beating heart.
For anyone who wants to understand Hinduism and its intimate connection to liberalism, his spirited account is a must read.
As a believing Hindu and a political liberal, and a third-term Member of Parliament for the opposition Congress Party, I have always been proud of belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief, a religion that acknowledges all ways of worship as equally valid—indeed, the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. So it has been distressing to witness the surging Hindutva (or “Hindu nationalist”) movement in India shrink the soaring majesty of the ancient Hindu texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of its brand of identity politics.
My Hinduism is not the raucous self-glorification of the football hooligan who takes a religion of awe-inspiring tolerance and reduces it to a chauvinist rampage. Or one that tauntingly celebrates the construction of a temple on the rubble of a mosque razed by a worked-up mob, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to do on Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day.
So I have been proud to echo the hundreds of thousands of Hindus across India protesting with placards saying “Not In My Name” to the spate of lynchings of Muslims in the name of cow protection, the beating to death of Muslims by Hindu vigilante mobs chanting “Jai Shri Ram!”( Hail Lord Ram) among other excesses.
Equality Of and Among Religions
Core to Hinduism is its openness, its respect for variety, its acceptance of all other faiths. It is one religion that has always been able to assert itself without threatening others. This was most eloquently articulated by Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk and brilliant 20th century theologian renowned for introducing the Vedas and yoga to the West. Hinduism stands for “both tolerance and universal acceptance,” he said. “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” He often recited an ancient Sanskrit hymn, the Shiva Mahimna Stotram, to the effect that as different streams originating in different places all flow in different ways into the same sea, so do all paths lead to the same divinity. He repeatedly asserted the wisdom of Advaita, the philosophy that articulates basic Hindu epistemology, which held that Truth is One—"Ekam Sat Vipra Bahuda Vadanti”—even if the sages call it by different names. Vivekananda’s vision—summarized in the credo “sarva dharma sambhava” (all religions are equal)—is, in fact, the kind of Hinduism practiced by the vast majority of Hindus, whose instinctive acceptance of other faiths and forms of worship has long been the vital hallmark of Hindu culture.
Even the Maratha warrior-king Shivaji, whom the Hindutva brigade likes to portray as a heroic Hindu rebel against the Muslim Mughals, exemplified this Hindu respect for other faiths. In the account of a critic, the Mughal historian Khafi Khan, Shivaji made it a rule that his followers should do no harm to not just women, as per the laws of a just war, but also mosques or the Quran, as per Hindu tenets. “Whenever a copy of the sacred Quran came into his hands,” Khafi Khan wrote, Shivaji “treated it with respect, and gave it to some of his Mussalman followers.” Other sources confirm Shivaji’s standing orders to his troops that if they came across a Quran or a Bible they should preserve it safely until it could be passed on to a Muslim or Christian.
Vivekananda had given his fellow Hindus a character certificate many of them no longer deserve. “The Hindus have their faults,” Vivekananda had noted, but “they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbors. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition.” These words have a tragic echo 130 years later in an India in which Hindu fanaticism is rising, and adopting a form that Vivekananda would not have recognized as Hindu.
The Hindu: A Natural Liberal
Many Hindus like myself were brought up to venerate the sacred tenets, divinities, and sages of our faith without necessarily endorsing orthodox Hindu social practices like the iniquitous caste system. To discriminate against another, to attack another, to kill another, to destroy another’s place of worship, is not part of the Hindu “dharma”—code—so magnificently preached by Vivekananda. That’s why, strikingly, leaders of now-defunct 20th century political parties like the Indian Liberal Party and the pro-free enterprise Swatantra Party were unabashed in their avowal of Vivekanand’s Hinduism. The Liberal leader Srinivasa Sastry wrote learned disquisitions on the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic that uses parables to explore fundamental questions of moral philosophy and offer guidance for negotiating the ethical dilemmas encountered in daily life. And the founder of Swatantra, C. Rajagopalachari (‘Rajaji’), was a Sanskrit scholar and a deeply learned Hindu whose popular versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics and translations of the Itihasas, the collection of writings about the important events in Hinduism, as well as his lectures on Hinduism, are still widely read, decades after his death. Neither would have recognized the intolerance and bigotry of Hindutva as representative of the faith they held dear. It suits the purveyors of Hindutva to imply that the choice is between their belligerent interpretation of Hinduism and the godless Westernization of the “pseudo-seculars.” Rajaji and Sastry proved that you could wear your Hinduism on your sleeve and still be a political liberal. Liberalism naturally corresponds with the wide-ranging and open-minded nature of Hinduism.
The DNA of Eclecticism
As reflected in many ways in the eclectic inclusiveness of Hinduism, everything in India exists in countless variants. There is 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 Hindutvaites demanded that all Indians chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”—Victory to Mother India—as a litmus test of their nationalism, many of us insisted that no Indian should be obliged to mouth a slogan they did not believe in their hearts. 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. While most Hindus accept this, Hindutvaites wrongly seek to deny Muslims this right.
Indian liberal Hindus were brought up 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 raised (and constantly exhorted) to believe in an idea of nationhood transcending communal, caste and sectarian 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 poorest 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.
Hinduism’s suitability for the modern world lies in many ways in its recognition of uncertainty and its pragmatic non-dogmatism. The religion whose oldest text, the Rig Veda, ends a verse about Creation, the “Nasadiya Sukta,” with the line “maybe even He [the Creator] does not know” is a faith for the non-dogmatic, rising above the grim certitudes of lesser mortals to the acknowledgement of the scope for doubt, for different points of view on the great questions of life and death. Vivekananda’s immortal “we believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true” is a prescription for peace and coexistence among competing dogmatisms in a world full of too many dogmas.
Skepticism of Certitude
Hinduism does not see the world in terms of absolutes. A black and white binary is largely absent from its ethos. It sees competing notions of good and evil, duty and betrayal everywhere, and seeks wisdom in finding the right approach suited for each specific circumstance.
Hinduism is not a totalizing belief system; it offers a way of coping with the complexity of the world. It acknowledges that while the truth is one it can take plural manifestations, that there is no one correct answer to the big questions of creation, or of the meaning of life. In its reverence for sages and rishis, it admits that knowledge may come from an exchange between two or more views, neither of which necessarily possesses a monopoly on the truth. The greatest truth, to the Hindu, is that which accepts the existence of other truths.
Hinduism sees life as an evolving dynamic, not a contest that can ever be settled once and for all. It is open to negotiation on ways of being and believing; it permits negotiation—even with God. It offers rites and rituals, but leaves it up to each individual to choose which ones he or she wishes to adhere to. Each Hindu must find his or her own truth. Each individual achieves his or her own salvation and self-fulfillment.
But Hinduism is also anchored in the real world. The wise Hindu can hold two or more opposing ideas together in the mind at the same time. That is the way the world is. For the Hindu texts uniquely operate from a platform of skepticism, not a springboard of certitude. The Rig Veda verse interrogating Creation and the Creator is not an invention of post-modernism, but the wisdom of a timeless text that has lasted for three and a half millennia and retains its validity.
Multiple Identities, Many Truths
Most faiths prioritize one identity, one narrative, and one holy book. Hinduism recognizes that everyone has multiple identities, accepts diverse narratives, and respects several sacred books. Indeed, the folk Hinduism of multiple beliefs cannot be forced into the Abrahamic framework of One Book, One Deity, and one way of doing things. The more the Hindu grapples with the great questions, the more he or she understands how much is beyond one’s understanding.
In the 21st century, Hinduism has many of the attributes of a religion made for our times —a religion that is personal and individualistic, privileges the individual and does not subordinate one to a collectivity; a religion that grants and respects complete freedom to the believer to find his or her own answers to the true meaning of life; a religion that offers a wide range of choice in religious practice, even in regard to the nature and form of the formless God; a religion that places great emphasis on one’s mind, and values one’s capacity for reflection, intellectual enquiry, and self-study; a religion that distances itself from dogma and holy writ, that is minimally prescriptive and yet offers an abundance of options, spiritual and philosophical texts and social and cultural practices to choose from.
In a world where resistance to authority is growing, Hinduism imposes no authorities; in a world of networked individuals, Hinduism respects the truths of others; in a world of open-source information-sharing, Hinduism accepts all paths as equally valid; in a world of rapid transformations and accelerating change, Hinduism is adaptable and flexible, even introducing the world’s oldest and farthest-reaching affirmative action program in the Constitution to overturn the institutional hierarchies of the orthodox caste system—which is why it has survived for nearly 4,000 years. And why a committed liberal can so easily embrace it.
Hindu Fundamentalism: Identity Over Faith
Hindu nationalists seek to reinvent Hindu identity with a new belief structure and a new vocabulary. They seek to make Hinduism more like the Semitic religions they resent but wish to emulate: to privilege just a few sacred books, notably the Gita, and exalt them to produce a less “baggy,” tighter version of the faith; to focus on fewer gods that provide a sharper sense of Hindu divinity; to standardize religious practices around specific familiar festivals, rituals, and gatherings, in order to provide a greater sense of conformity and community. Their associated efforts include a desire to control and restrict what Hindus eat, rejecting beef (even though several Hindu communities and individuals, irrespective of caste, did eat beef in the past) and make that rejection a marker of identity; to promote Hindi as a national language (though it is quite foreign to nearly half the country) so as to ensure that the vocabulary of Hindudom can be more easily transmitted. This invented Hinduism has much more to do with an era of political and cultural insecurity and a faltering new sense of aspiration than with the actual teachings of the Vedas, the Puranas, or the Bhakti movement (a reform movement in medieval times that sought to show everyone, without discrimination, the path of love to God): it denies the lived history of Hinduism even while claiming to speak in its name.
India’s liberal pluralism is a natural outgrowth of Hinduism. It 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. That Hinduism realizes that an India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us.
The majoritarian Hindu nationalism of the ruling party is, at its root, a separatist movement. Majorities are never seen as “separatist,” since separatism, by definition, is pursued by a minority. But majority sectarianism is in fact an extreme form of separatism, because it seeks to separate other Indians, integral parts of our country, from India itself.
It is utterly in keeping with the Hindu ethos that the Indian flag sports both saffron (the color of Hindu sadhus) and the green (the sacred color of Islam) equally. The reduction of non-Hindus to second-class status in their own homeland is unthinkable. It would be a second partition: and a partition this time in the Indian soul, not just in the Indian soil. For Hindus, like myself, the only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts. That is the only India that will allow us to call ourselves not Brahmins, not Bengalis, not Hindus, not Hindi-speakers, but simply Indians.
So I take pride in the openness, the diversity, the range, the sublime philosophical aspirations of the Vedanta. I cherish the diversity, the lack of compulsion, and the eclectic variety in the practice of Hinduism. And I admire the civilizational heritage of tolerance and acceptance that makes Hindu societies open their arms to people of every other faith, to come and practice their beliefs in peace amidst Hindus. Western Christian countries had to develop a political liberalism to justify tolerance and accommodate pluralism. But these ideas are intrinsic to Hinduism.
That Hinduism, I gladly embrace.
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