‘In his new and controversial book Why I Am a Hindu, writer, Indian MP and former UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor offers a re-examination of one of the world’s oldest and greatest religions…’ In conversation with Michael Field.
Piece below, by Emma Johnson
Dr Shashi Tharoor – former UN Under Secretary, MP, writer and intellectual – arrives at the lectern with no notes and a vast vocabulary. Back home he is a rock star; his fan base includes some 6.7 million followers on Twitter, and we soon understand why. Throughout the course of this sold-out session, he effuses a genteel scholarship.
Why I am a Hindu, he explains, was born out of the moral urgency he felt to write it, given the current climate of India, where Prime Minister Modi and his BJP party are in power. He rejects their reductive, dogmatic and politicised faith (part of the Hindutva movement) and seeks to reclaim the vast, all-encompassing pluralism of Hinduism – to take it back from the bigots who ‘betray the faith in whose name they purport to represent’. This prescriptive, and at times violent, brand of Hinduism is not present, he tell us, in the ancient texts, nor in the words of the mahatmas and gurus.
With a refined ease, an array of verbal accoutrements and ready knowledge of the ancient texts he makes his case. Shashi-ji has been writing about the Hindutva movement, which finds its origins in the 20s, since it reared its ugly head in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by a Hindu mob in Ayodhya. Today, Hindutva manifests in a manner similar to the ‘team identity of the British football hooligans’. It is reductive and far removed from the Hinduism that he knows, a Hinduism that is lived and practiced by the majority.
In the first pages of the book, which he reads from, he asks ‘What does being a Hindu mean?’ and examines the term ‘Hindu fundamentalist’. The term first appeared to Hindus when the foreign press used it in the 80s. ‘We needed to interrogate ourselves’ he reads, as ‘we didn’t consider ourselves fundamentalist’. Hinduism has no founder, no central text, no obligatory creed, no compulsory dogma and ‘no binding requirements, not even a belief in god’.
In fact, the word Hindu was a term applied by outsiders (it has no origin in any Indian language) to a vast range of eclectic practices, from pantheism to agnosticism. He takes us back to the Rig Veda, written (or received/heard) circa 1500 BC, and its Creation Verse (Nasadiya Sukta). He quotes its final verse (I have taken a translation from Wikipedia here): ‘Whence all creation had its origin/ he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not/ he, who surveys it all from highest heaven, / he knows – or maybe even he does not know’. He petitions us to consider the spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical tradition that would animate and nurture such an enquiring faith.
But the hooligans fashion things as they like, to political ends. Even his guru, Swami Vivekananda, who brought the Hindu philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world in the late nineteenth century, is not spared. He called on Hindus to be proud, but this was in no way a call to violence. Vivekananda often preached ‘There is only one truth but the sages call it by many names’; he advocated not for tolerance, but acceptance. And Shashi-ji makes this important distinction – acceptance is mutual respect, tolerance is patronising and implies that its bearer has unique access to the truth: ‘I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong’.
The Hindu, he explains, understands that no one knows what god is. And whether your imagining is an eight-armed goddess on a tiger (Durga) or a man bleeding on cross, that is accepted. Hinduism ‘has no desire to universalise itself, but it is universally applicable’. There is choice in practice, even in the form the formless might take.
Shashi-ji compares Hinduism to a vast library of books that never go out of print – within which are a few that are blood curdling misogynistic, but many more that are not. Religion is giving us a choice, he explains, and what ‘you choose to hang your prejudices on is your responsibility’.
Hinduism – void of absolutism, personal, democratic, unwieldly and alive. Perhaps, as Shashi-ji’s host quips, we should all join up.
Illustrated notes by Tara Black, extended notes by Emma Johnson
Shashi Tharoor will also appear in:
Inglorious Empires, in conversation with Michael Williams
Saturday, 19 May 2:30pm – 3:30pm
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre