New Delhi: When senior Congress leader and former Union minister Shashi Tharoor came out with the book, Why I am a Hindu, a couple of years ago, he was accused by many, including this reviewer, of first building a wonderful edifice of arguments, and then decimating it with arguments more familiar with a politician than an intellectual. With The Hindu Way (Aleph, Rs 799), his second book on Hinduism in as many years, Tharoor seems to have reached out to his critics. “This one is meant for those who wrote after my previous book on Hinduism that I should have written on the faith without getting into politics. I have tried to do that with this book,” says the author.
The Hindu Way may have avoided politics overtly, but the nature of the book is such that it inadvertently creeps in. For any discussion on Hinduism won’t be complete without an examination into obsessive secularisation of Indian discourse in independent India, leading to a backlash in the 1980s that resulted in the Ram Mandir movement. Ask Tharoor about it, and he says matter-of-factly, “I don’t believe in the either/or binary. Given the aastha (faith) of millions of Hindus on Ayodhya being the birthplace of Lord Ram, it makes a case for a temple there. But it should not happen at the cost of another community’s place of worship.” He, however, is quick to add that since the matter is with the Supreme Court, “we should wait for the judiciary to take the decision”.
In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, Tharoor talks about why he is a proud Hindu, how “secularism” is a misquoted and misunderstood word in India, and why the Opposition should avoid being a compulsive critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Following are the edited excerpts of the interview:
Q: In this book you say that Hinduism is almost the ideal faith for the 21st century and it can help strengthen Indianness. Why?
A: Because Hinduism teaches not just tolerance, but also acceptance. We are often told that tolerance is a good thing, but the fact is tolerance is a rather patronising idea. It is like saying that I am right and you are wrong, but I would magnanimously indulge you in the right to be wrong. Acceptance, in contrast, is different. Acceptance is I believe I have the truth. You believe you have the truth. I will respect your truth, and you respect mine.
Q: We are often being told that all religions are same, but when I read your book I realise Hinduism is different from other religions, especially the Abrahamic ones. How?
A: Hinduism is different from Abrahamic religions in particular because the latter claim theirs is the only true faith and the only way to reach God. We, in Hinduism, never say that there’s only one truth. For me, there are two fundamental aspects about Hinduism: One, the principle of the acceptance of difference both within and outside the religion; two, diversity of the practice of worship. One can be a good Hindu by worshiping different gods and also by not believing any of them. Neither side has the right to say that the other one is wrong.
Q: The Creation Hymn in the Rig Veda or even the discussion between young Svetaketu and his father Uddalaka Aruni in the Chandogya Upanishad remind us how rational and scientific Hinduism was. Why do you think we are not taught about our own culture and religion in schools? Many blame obsessive Nehruvian secularism for all this. Your take?
A: I have always believed that Indian accomplishments must be taught to our students. Therefore, I came to the defence of Dr Harsh Vardhan when he was wrongly attacked for saying that Algebra and Pythagoras’ theorem originated in India. I have, however, problems with nonsensical claims of aircraft and jet engines being present in ancient times. We are discrediting the genuine accomplishments of our forebearers when we graft temporary, semi-educated fantasies. For example, when our own Prime Minister says that Ganesha’s head is the proof of plastic surgery in ancient times, he not just fails to understand that it’s a metaphor, a symbolic story. Such statements push real accomplishments under the carpet. The truth is that we are the nation which had the first recorded evidence of plastic surgery; there was a rhinoplasty surgery on the nose performed 2,000 years ago by Sushruta.
Q: If Indian culture and tradition have been innately so secular, what was the need to push so aggressively secularism in the country’s political and intellectual discourse?
A: I concede we used the word secular wrongly. When the Western dictionary defines secularism, it talks of Godlessness. Whereas when we talk about secularism, we mean respect for all religions. We are not Godless secularist, we are God-respecting people. The correct interpretation is not dharma nirpekshata. For, every Hindu will have to live according to his/her dharma. Instead, it has to be panth nirpekshata. The state must not be seen to be favouring one particular religion.
Q: You are also unapologetic about the history of Islamic vandalism and barbarism in India, including that of Tipu Sultan. Don’t you think this kind of stand puts you in a very contrarian position to that of your own party?
A: I am discussing history and not any party line. There is no denying that in North India Muslim invasion did take place, and a large number of temples were destroyed. It was vandalism pure and simple. But to reduce the entire experience with Islam to just a Ghori or a Ghazni is also wrong. Because Islam in India isn’t just that story. It’s also about the emergence of Sufism, impact of Islam on the Bhakti movement, etc. Also, we must not visit the sins of the past on the Muslims of today. Likewise, we must understand that Islam came peacefully in South India. We have been trading with the Arabian world for centuries and travellers from Arabian Peninsula brought the message of Islam to Kerala long before Muslim invaders knocked the doors of the country in the West. One of our kings actually travelled to the Arabian Peninsula to meet the Prophet. He never made it back, but the Kerala coconuts he took with him are still growing near the coastlines of Muscat and Oman. Kerala’s experience with Islam is much different from that of the North and we must acknowledge both sides of the story.
Q: Senior Congress leader A.K. Antony, in his report, not long ago, said that the party must shed its anti-majority image. A major impediment in its course correction is the Ram Mandir issue. How do you think the matter can be resolved?
A: I have not seen the Antony report, but if what you are saying is correct, then it was particularly referring to a specific time and context. In Kerala, we have a very strong identification with the minorities and we should not be ashamed about it. I believe it was being exploited against us. I think perhaps the report was related to that particular context.
As for the Ram temple issue, I don’t believe in the either/or binary. Millions of Hindus believe in Lord Ram. Given their aastha (faith) on Ayodhya being the birthplace of Lord Ram, it makes a case for a temple there. But it should not happen at the cost of another community’s place of worship. The Supreme Court is now hearing the case. Since the matter is with the court, we should wait for the judiciary to take the decision.
Q: You were recently criticised by senior party leaders like Veerappa Moily for supposedly praising Modi. What do you have to say about that?
A: I am wrongly accused of praising Modi. All I was talking about was strategy, and not Modi. If the BJP came back to power with greater numbers in 2019, then it must have done something right. For instance, if people have voted for Modi on the issue of toilets, then we must not say nothing was done on that front. Instead, we must show that 65% of toilets have no running waters. If they have voted for gas cylinders, then we must inform people that the government has made no provision for subsidy on refills. We must not pretend that nothing was done in the last five years.