Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I Am Hindu’ – Book Review
Shashi Tharoor’s cautiously considered rebuttal to the hypothesized Hinduism of the Hindutva ideologues is entitled “Why I Am a Hindu.” It is mostly geared towards Rightist discourse that confuses secularism with being anti-Hindu as well as Hindu nationalism (and by that very logic, anti-national). As Tharoor has plainly said, his retort is based on his status as a practising Hindu rather than as a secularist.
The text is a threefold examination of Tharoor’s personal, political, and counterproductive interaction with modern Hindu discourse projections. In the first segment, titled “My Hinduism,” Tharoor explores his personal relationship with the religion he was raised in. According to him, Hinduism is a religion without guiding principles that is naturally eclectic and commodious in its capacity to adapt to historical circumstances. Hinduism, which is an ever-evolving spectrum (Sanatana Dharma), is a reflection of the presence of several opposing viewpoints. Some have considered Hinduism’s paradoxical complexity as a weakness since they believe it lacks the unifying organisational power that underpins other religions. Such worries have fueled the Hindutva mission, which fervently works to unify and codify Hinduism under its banner. Tharoor, however, emphasises that Hinduism’s essential strength and what laid the groundwork for India’s democratic culture is the validity and acceptance of heterogeneity.
In the second section of the book Tharoor documents the birth of what he terms “Political Hinduism ”. The religious culture of the British colonialists, who asserted to hold all the trappings of modernity, scientific knowledge, and progress, as well as the influence of 19th-century fascist discourse on nationalism and racial purity, all contributed to this. Tharoor’s observations also include a striking similarity between Hindutvavadis and 20th-century Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East and South Asia with regard to their cognitive process, emphasising a glorious past, attributing decline to rapacious invaders, bolstering grievances against prior injustices, opposing westernisation (many aspects of which they have unconsciously imitated), and striving for political power.
In the book’s concluding chapter, “Taking Back Hinduism,” the author’s primary goal is made clear. Tharoor’s main complaint is with what he sees as the usurping and distorting of an almost completely uncontainable, flowing, syncretic religion into a straitjacketed masculinist racist ideology in the name of nationalism. He points out that lay Hindus should not be given any more authority than Hindutva ideologues to define what Hinduism is or who a Hindu is. He disapproves of the idea that being a Hindu and being a nationalist are synonymous. Hinduism and liberalism are in no way incompatible in Tharoor’s opinion. The syncretic nature of Hinduism is furthermore best suited to liberalism as a political theory.
While acknowledging the value of valuing one’s religious and cultural heritage, Tharoor emphasises that the Sangh Parivar’s promotion of cultural nationalism through the stoking of old grievances and instigation of hostility and suspicion towards minorities is not only extremely divisive but also accountable for weakening India’s soft power abroad. It is an ideology that thrives on the story of failure, humiliation, and retaliation and derives its power from the idea of victims. The basic foundation that separates India from Pakistan, according to Tharoor, is the idea that religious identity should define nationhood. Additionally, he argues that while majoritarian communalism could appear to be nationalism, minority communalism clearly looks like separatist.
At this point in Indian democracy, Tharoor’s claim that Hindu nationalism is neither Indian nationalism nor real Hinduism is helpful. Since some Sanghivadis claim that a true Hindu (and nationalist) is anti-secular, there may be individuals who believe that in order to express their commitment to secular ethics, one must be anti-Hindu or at the very least, Hindu-distant. The importance of the author’s work lies in the fact that it provides an alternative to the discourse that is rigidly divided into religion, secularism, and nationalism. Without being anti-Hindu, one might be nationalist, anti-Hindutva, and anti-majoritarian. It is also crucial for beginners, whose lack of knowledge about Hinduism may cause them to believe incorrectly that the adherents of the Hindutva ideology are the only representatives of Hindu culture and that being a follower of their philosophy is the natural next step after becoming a Hindu. Similar to how the story of liberal Muslims avoids the extremes of Islamic fundamentalism and secularism (in the Western sense), Tharoor offers the chance for practising Hindus or just liberals to look past the polarities of political Hinduism and steadfast atheism, if they so choose.
As he emphasises, the author is a practising Hindu who wants to free the discourse of Hinduism from the control of extreme forces. In his eagerness to recapture Hinduism (and possibly as a politician, the Hindu vote bank), he is fast and impetuous in clearing up the confusion of Hinduism, even though he does not fully ignore the importance of the caste issue. Although Tharoor devotes a substantial amount of words to his personal involvement with Hinduism, his criticism of the non-egalitarian and overly rigid expressions of Hindu culture, which are the daily lived experiences of many people, is rather scant. . While it may be true that Hinduism has numerous postulates and theoretical foundations that demonstrate adaptability, acceptance of variety, and belief in the all-pervasiveness of divinity, different cultures have diverse experiences with Hinduism on a practical level.
While relevant and notable, citing a few instances of gender equality and female devotion in Hinduism does not absolve a religious philosophy that has for ages exemplified and displayed a horrendous patriarchal and caste-based bias. While in his position as a privileged Hindu, he is free to reject traditions and practises that he disagrees with, thousands of Hindus are constrained by the restrictive dogma of caste hierarchy and are even shackled to caste discrimination based on ideas of purity and superiority of one group over the other. They don’t have access to the freedom and adaptability that Hinduism grants him.
His opinions on caste are ambiguous. He does not want to be accused of neglecting the problem that is there in front of him, on the one hand. He openly acknowledges that caste consciousness is so ingrained in the Hindu mentality that it is challenging to shed the caste identity even hundreds of years after conversion to other faiths. On the other hand, he is quick to assert that caste is solely a social practice and has nothing to do with religion; yet, the categorization of “caste” is unique to “Hindu” society. By doing so, he is doing exactly what the Hindutvavadis are accused of doing—excluding the “lived Hinduism ” of many dalits and Bahujan communities.
Additionally, he erroneously believes that antiquated customs like child marriage were an effective deterrent against Muslim invaders when, in reality, marriage of girls before puberty—a practise that was intended to limit caste mobility because girls were seen as the entry point into a caste because of their ability to procreate—was a fundamental component of patriarchal caste endogamy. It’s not as if the Hindu civilization had never experienced social injustice; yet retrogressive customs may have been created out of apprehension over invasions and their effects.
Even though Tharoor has harsh criticism for the current administration on the subject of communalism and secularism, he has a guarded attitude toward the mistakes made by the Congress administration. It is obvious that his membership in the party has implications for his independence as a writer. For instance, he smears over the Rajiv Gandhi administration’s efforts at racial tolerance in a remarkably soft and evasive manner. The Congress government’s secular policy has been erratic and a persistent reflection of an underlying unease. This has not only tarnished the idea of secularism but has also contributed to the rise of Hindu extremism in India.
Despite individual political commitments and failures, Tharoor’s book is essential for fostering a more varied political dialogue on nationalism, secularism, and democracy. His biggest worry is that Hinduism’s legacy will be diminished to Hindutva propaganda. It has unquestionably given India a philosophical and spiritual foundation that supports and helps the notion of an all-encompassing secular Indian nationalism, a quality deserving of preservation. His endeavour to revive diversity and inclusivity in this day of extreme polarisation between individuals and ideologies is well-intentioned and may provide the practising Hindu, the secularist, and even the Hindutvavadi a plausible point of view.