What's the why?

What's the why?

What's the why?

Most 'Why I am' and 'Why I am not' books are polemical and argumentative, because they are written with a purpose with special reference to the author's beliefs and experience. They are different from 'What is' books, say, like 'What is Relativity Theory', which tend to be more explanatory than aggressive, apologetic or rejectionist, as the case may be, when the narrative gets personal. Tharoor's account of Hinduism also has a personal touch, especially when he describes what he believes in and how he practises his faith, and how he acquired it from his family rather than from a study of its precepts. This is largely true of a follower of any religion, and so there is nothing special about Tharoor's explanation of his credentials. But it is interesting to compare Tharoor's Why I Am A Hindu with Kancha Ilaiah's Why I Am Not a Hindu. Tharoor also rejects all ideas and practices of Hinduism for which Kancha Ilaiah rejects Hinduism. Yet Tharoor says he is a Hindu because there are other elements in the creed which he does not reject. So the difference is one of perspective and personal experience.

Tharoor's book is an exposition of all these elements, seen within an overarching framework, and it gives a fair idea of Hinduism from a liberal's viewpoint. The main features and ideas like the Advaita Vedanta are explained, scriptures and texts are mentioned and quoted, and the contributions of important teachers like Adi Shankaracharya and Swami Vivekananda are explained.

The running argument through the book is that Hinduism is a creed with many strands of faith and it accepts all other religions as true, tolerates them and accepts them as other viable paths to God. In fact, even the idea of God is fuzzy and there is room for those who do not believe in one. And since Hinduism basically is about an individual's, not a community's, relationship with what is beyond, there are perhaps as many Hinduisms as there are adherents. These and other ideas in the book are not new, and for centuries commentators and interpreters have presented and explained them. Tharoor summons a lot of scholarship to present his view, and it pleasantly surprises the reader that a politician has such an extensive intellectual repertoire to explain and back up his arguments. But Tharoor is a leading public intellectual of the country and has gone into politics after notable diplomatic and writing careers.

Since there is nothing very special and original in Tharoor's exposition of Hinduism in the first part of the book, the entire exercise becomes relevant only in the context of the second part, in which he deals with Hindutva and criticises it for its misrepresentation of the real creed and violation of its spirit. Hindutva, defined by V D Savarkar in 1923 and adopted as their guiding idea by the RSS, the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations, is political Hinduism. In theory, it is more than Hinduism, and would consider followers of other religions like Muslims and Christians as Hindus if they declare allegiance to the essentials of Hindutva. But Tharoor sees that in practice it is exclusionary and intolerant, and imposes a single uniform ideology over the diversity and plurality that has existed in Hinduism.

Tharoor posits his open Hinduism against this narrow reading of the Hindu religion and tradition. He explains the basic tenets of Hindutva, and in some detail the idea of Integral Humanism, the philosophy of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, though he does not seem to be too critical of it. He traces the recent growth of the Hindutva ideology through the BJP's attacks on 'pseudo-secularism', the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and other issues like cow slaughter to the formation of a BJP government at the Centre. Issues like conversions and love jihad are also discussed. He condemns the 'saffonisation' attempts and the efforts to rewrite history, take fiction for fact and misread culture, including exercises to glorify the past.

Tharoor wants to rescue Hinduism from what it has been made into by Hindutva politics. He thinks it has all the attributes of a universal religion, which should make it the religion of the 21st century. But it "must first be revived and reasserted, in its glorious liberalism, its openness and acceptance, its eclecticism and universalism, in the land of its own birth." He is proud to offer such a religion to the world, though it does not share with the Abrahamic faiths a desire to universalise itself. In this remark, and some other observations, there is a sense, however implicit and unstated, that Hinduism is a better, greater and truer faith than others, though he thinks one strength of the religion is that it considers all other religions equally good and true, and appreciates it for that.

The book presents a politician's view, alongside those of a student of religion and a believer. It is informed, and intelligently and clearly articulated. The writing is facile and easy, and has the elegance and sophistication that Tharoor is known for. It is well supported by information from a variety of sources including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the epics and the writings of scholars. It is a good and simple guide to Hinduism, not an original work which it is not claimed and meant to be. While it traces Hinduism and its history from thousands of years ago, it is also contemporary and discusses some of the latest social and political issues, like the attacks on Padmaavat.

Personal anecdotes and experiences make the writing more interesting. Tharoor says, every morning, for longer than he can remember, he has begun his day with a prayer to his ishtadevata, Ganapathi. But it is surprising that with all his scholarship the invocation is 'Om maha Ganapathe namaha, sarva vighnoba shantaye' instead of 'Om maha Ganapathaye namaha, sarvavighnopashantaye'.