Why I am a Hindu - Hinduism Vs Hindutva?

image credits: Ananda Prabhu Naveen Kumar


Shashi Tharoor says he wants his book to help take back Hinduism from hijackers.


Dr Shashi Tharoor is an author, politician, and former international civil servant, currently serving his second term in Lok Sabha as a Congress MP representing the Thiruvananthapuram constituency. He has written multiple fiction (Pax Indica, Show Business, Great Indian Novel etc) and non fiction (An Era of Darkness, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, Shadows Across the Playing Field etc) books in English and known for his literary skills and observations. In January 2018, Mr Tharoor came out with his latest book of non-fiction, titled "Why I am a Hindu". The book, almost 300 pages long, is divided into two sections - the first half dealing with the history of the religion with the help of multiple anecdotes, and the second half dealing with political Hinduism.

Spoiler Alert: The following article might contain multiple points explained in detail within the book, and also both positive and negative opinions of the same, which can colour your view of the book's contents before you have read it. If you would like to buy the book first, click here.


Only Dr Shashi Tharoor can write about a religion which such suave and style as he has done in "Why I am a Hindu". Reviewers have praised it, saying the book reads like a thriller. "Why I am a Hindu" encapsulates the essence of Hinduism, and what it honestly represents, as is understood by most liberals, including Dr Tharoor himself. It is an effort to decouple the pristine and spiritual Hinduism from its politically motivated offspring - Hindutva.

Tharoor's writing in the first half of the book tells us about the Hinduism in which he was raised. A religion with no central tenet or Holy Book, no single God nor any accepted form of worship, Hinduism is the most democratic faith in the world. It is a religion that can only be experienced and understood subjectively, with each person's version no less true than the next. The only two common threads tying together the myriad threads of Hinduism are ahimsa and Dharma - non-violence and tolerance for fellow beings, and always doing what is morally right. A religion, thus defined by these two yardsticks of morality of the self, is indistinguishable from a way of life. Dr Tharoor reaffirms this fact. Further, with his unique perspective as a career diplomat and politician, he also splendidly and thought-provokingly deals with the sticky topics of caste, rituals and the rise of 'godmen'.

In the second half of his book, titled "Political Hinduism", Tharoor bats for secularism and communal harmony. He argues that India is and has long been a pluralistic society and a land of many religions. In today's times of majoritarian communalism masquerading as nationalism, Tharoor doesn't mince words to critique the 'bhakts' for twisting Hinduism to further their political needs via the victim-turned-avenger complex that is the basis for Hindutva.

The concept of Hindutva was propounded by VD Savarkar and built upon by RSS supremos like MS Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyay. Basing itself on a narrative of failure and defeat of the Hindus at the hands of Muslim invaders and separatists through the centuries, Hindutva thrives on hatred for the Muslim community thinly veiled in arguments of taking back what once might have been. The lack of representation of the largest religious minority community in the current Indian government, run by the BJP, is glaring. Alarmist calls to action against ideas such as love jihad, falling demographic ratios, forced conversions and other blatant lies thrive in social media with the full blessings of the ruling party and RSS. Ghar wapsi, cow vigilantes, mob lynchings etc are all aberrations on the fabric of India which would rightly distress any peace-loving Indian, and Tharoor correctly echoes this alarm in the book.

The saffronisation of India's past and the phenomenon of even educated people in high positions in society using anecdotes in ancient texts as proof of India's past surreal glory is strongly condemned. Tharoor asserts throughout his book that tolerance and acceptance are a hallmark of Hinduism, and should not be mixed with the narrow-minded worldview of Hindutva. Hindutva as a form of political propaganda does not adhere to the underlying fabric of Hinduism. Politics by itself is incompatible with religion, with the former seeking power and the latter seeking to comprehend the myriad meanings of good and God. With its aim of reducing the lofty ideas espoused in the Upanishads to petty bigotry to exclude and not embrace others, Hindutva is cut from the same cloth as Islamist fanaticism and white-nationalist Christian fundamentalism.

"Why I Am A Hindu" is ultimately a book on a religion that defies any form of classification or rigidity. In the tumultuous times, we live in, Tharoor attempts to bring together the often incompatible and complicated strands of the world's oldest practised religion and, in that process, holds up a mirror to the burgeoning forces of Hindutva attempting to mobilise the Hindu community for political power. It is a necessary reminder to all Hindus that plural is the way we were, and plural is what we should continue to be.

Flip Side:

After the sins of decades of caste bank politics culminated in a decimating defeat, Congress is now moving towards a 'soft Hindutva' approach to wooing voters. Rahul Gandhi's sudden spate of temple visits, 'Shiv bhakti' and religious fervour during election time is a prime example of the same. Shashi Tharoor, Congress' most suave and glib mouthpiece, attempts nothing more than further this approach in his new book "Why I am a Hindu". The book is blatant in its political motivations and has the sole objective of debasing the ruling party, albeit quite subtly. In fact, half the book is titled "Political Hinduism" and devoted solely to Congress propaganda. The intentions seem obvious, and the emphasis in the title seems to be on the 'I' rather than 'Hindu'.

Author Sahana Singh on Twitter rightly ridiculed Tharoor's understanding of Hinduism for being at the same superficial level as a beauty pageant contestant's understanding of world peace is. Filled with cherry-picked references designed to clinically cut to the heart of a Hindu conscious of political realities in today's world and draw a veil of idealism over his or her eyes, "Why I am a Hindu" is not a chronicle of Tharoor's spiritual journey, but rather a book-length selective criticism of political opponents. The hypocrisy of the man who once denied he is a Hindu in a court filing (https://mobile.twitter.com/i/web/status/968079868092035073) writing a book titled "Why I am a Hindu" is glaringly obvious in this excuse for a rampage through the pet topics of the Congress.

One of the arguments of Tharoor is that Hinduism as a religion is undefined and is open to speculation. That is but partially true. Hinduism does have a basic tenet, that of Dharma. Further, every religion has its own diversities and subgroups, and because Hinduism is polytheistic (henotheistic to be more accurate) and not monotheistic, it will by consequence have a wider variety of beliefs and rituals co-existing within it. Twisting this diversity to imply the lack of a unified Hinduism within our culture is but a creative leap of imagination. Tharoor himself states that Hinduism's meaning is defined by the individual, but paradoxically enough, he goes on to effectively claim only his version of Hinduism, a hyper-tolerant and complacent one, is the only true Hinduism. If his former argument holds, the political Hinduism of Hindutva is no less the truth than his own version. Being the career politician that he is, Tharoor expertly beats around the bush in his book without addressing the contradiction in his own words.

In his attempt to delegitimise Hindutva, Tharoor lambasts certain statements and quotes made by freedom fighters Savarkar and Golwalker in his book. As objectionable as their words might have been, it is imperative that we view them in the larger context of the socio-political scenario of the times during which they were made. The Muslims had become a political force under the Muslim League and were actively pushing for the second state of Pakistan whereas the Hindu Mahasabha had failed to unite Hindus under one umbrella to safeguard their needs. The ideas of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ were thus born from a desire to safeguard Hinduism and Hindus from the violent and destructive march of Islamic forces. Today, Hindutva as a political force is but an incarnation of this desire, the modern day Hindus coming together politically to safeguard themselves and their religion.

There is no dearth of reasons for Hindus to form a political force themselves. Being the majority in the country, the Hindu community has been denied almost all benefits of the state. As 'secular' governments pandered to the minority community vote banks, the average Hindu was sidelined and left to fend for himself. Hindutva is but a response from this long-oppressed community to reclaim their rightful place as equal citizens in the country. By ignoring these realities and focussing solely on Hinduism's image as a religion of tolerance and not of assertion, Tharoor fails to stand up for his own community, but at the same time indirectly brings to fore one of Hindutva's greatest dilemmas which has to be addressed.

Hinduism is a religion of tolerance with all Gods being equally accepted as true. This is the same truth which Gandhi pointed to when he said "Ishwar Allah Tere Naam", that all Gods are one. But the problem arises when looking at this issue from the perspective of monotheistic religions. For these communities, God is only one, and all those who do not believe in that One are essentially heretics. This simple reason explains the historical and wide gap in the assertiveness of their religious identity between Hindus and members of other religions like Islam and Christianity. The latter grow their numbers by conversions and making people pledge allegiance to the one true God. Hindus, on the other hand, lack this assertiveness by its very definition.Thus, any attempt to grow more assertive, even if to safeguard its own interests, invariably causes a loss of what we define as Hinduism. Thus it is a Catch-22 whereby complacency strengthens those with a non-Hindu worldview, but action will cause us to lose a portion of our own. "Why I am a Hindu" would have been a balanced book had it addressed this inherent dilemma in Hindutva, but it fails to do so amidst its shrill propaganda of secularism. A parallel, and an answer, can be found in the Mahabharatha however. When Arjuna is faced with the dilemma of action or inaction, Krishna wisely counsels him, and this wise counsel, the answer to the Hindutva dilemma, is found in the Gita.

Dr Tharoor fails in his politically motivated book to address the real issues faced by Hindus' like himself; rather he spends quite a few words to demonise Hindutva. Equating the whole spectrum of Hindu assertion to the action of a handful of fringe elements is akin to reducing all of the Muslim world to the few jihadi Islamists. This trope of using a few convenient instances of anomalous behaviour to tarnish the whole of political Hinduism is peppered throughout the book and is glaringly obvious to any informed Hindu. Hindus are normal people, neither more magnanimous nor less, neither more violent nor less, neither more tolerant nor less than the rest of the world. Only a community safe in its own identity can be tolerant of others. Hindutva thus is a stepping stone to a more assertive and tolerant society.

Dr Tharoor is a liberal Hindu and a Congress politician, and his book safely adheres to these themes. "Why I am a Hindu" is less about reclaiming Hinduism from fringe elements and more about disbanding the rising tide of assertion that is challenging the many years of ill-treatment and the Congress misrule of the country.

Why I am a Hindu, published by Aleph Book Company, is now on sale. Buy the book here.

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