Defender of a faith

Book cover of the The Hindu Way: An Introduction To Hinduism | Photo: Amazon
The Hindu Way: An Introduction To Hinduism: Shashi Tharoor
Aleph, 340 pages, Rs  799

The greatness as well as the complexity of the Hindu belief system is that there is no one precise way of defining it. For instance, there are Hindus who are believers and there are also Hindus who are non-believers. There has always been room for both varieties of people in the world of Hindus. Not without reason has it been said that Hinduism is not strictly a religion but a composite and syncretic way of life.

In his latest book, The Hindu Way: An Introduction To  Hinduism, Shashi Tharoor, a prolific writer and a current member of Parliament, makes a brave attempt to bring out the diversity and several apparent contradictions in the many ways Hindus observe their religion and practise their beliefs. Mr Tharoor’s lucid English prose is his asset and in this book he eschews the many difficult words for which he has now acquired a reputation. Neither does the book have a “farrago” of Hindu mythological tales, nor does the author indulge in “rodomontades” about his knowledge of Hindu scriptures. 

Quite to the contrary, Mr Tharoor could be accused of having made minor compromises by endorsing the mistaken belief that the popular phrase of Vedas, just as the distinction between a Hindu name such as Sivaramakrishnan and completely non-religious names such as Shyamal or Kanika should be kept in mind. 

Nevertheless, the five sections containing 14 chapters in Mr Tharoor’s book is a good introduction to prevailing Hindu beliefs, particularly for someone who is a complete stranger to Hinduism. To most Indians, the detailed account of Swami Vivekananda or Adi Shankara will hardly reveal anything strikingly new. But to the uninitiated foreigner, the book is a good starting point in understanding the Hindus. And those who want to know more, there is a diligently compiled list of books for further reading.  

What makes Mr Tharoor’s book easy and readable is the highly personalised account of his interface with the various facets of the Hindu religion. His realisation of the importance of caste provides a fascinating account of an India that has not changed very much from what it used to be half a century ago. The young boy in his Bombay (now Mumbai) school who made him realise that he belonged to the Nair caste is not named, but the author’s description leaves very few in doubt who he was actually referring to and it underlines the role caste plays in even urban India. Similarly, a short section of the book is devoted to why he loves to worship Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, and how he came to understand his many facets. 

The book also has many short and simplified stories from Hindu scriptures including the Geeta. 

The chapter on the proliferating business of Hindu gurus touches upon a disturbing phenomenon. The Hindu religion has, in the last many years, manifested itself in a highly distorted manner. The rapid rise of gurus with huge mass followings is an example. Many of these gurus have exploited their religious appeal for commercial gain. Critics will find this section to be slightly biased in the manner in which only a few of these gurus have been highlighted while many others are simply ignored. This was perhaps because of the obvious limitation of space, but the exclusion of many gurus with dubious credentials suggests that the author may have played safe by avoiding any controversy. 

It is in the last section of the book that the author reveals the politics that is behind the manner in which the Hindu religion has expanded its footprint and become more popular in different ways including as a tool for political mobilisation. Mr Tharoor rejects the idea of an intolerant Hindu religion, arguing that tolerance and acceptance of diversity are integral to Hinduism. He is unequivocally critical of the obscurantist political parties that have been propounding the idea of a Hindutva thriving on division and exclusion. 

That is also a political question that the author leaves readers with. It is noteworthy that Mr Tharoor does not dwell on this issue adequately, in spite of having raised it in the last section of the book. The role of Hindutva politics in India for the next few years is critical for the survival of many political leaders such as Mr Tharoor, who professes to be a different kind of a Hindu and abhors the idea of narrow, caste-obsessed, Hindu majoritarian politics. In that sense, the book seems to be an attempt by Mr Tharoor to reiterate his political convictions and relevance in an India that is rapidly changing its political colours.

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