Review Essay: Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I am a Hindu’
By Mohan Ramanan
Title: Why I am a Hindu
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Let me say at the outset that Shashi Tharoor’s book, Why I am a Hindu, has many resonances for me. For one thing, I admire his prose and in this book he surpasses himself in the eloquence and passion with which he makes his arguments and attempts to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva and determinedly takes back Hinduism, as he understands it, from Right Wing political Hinduism or Hindutva. Tharoor’s Hinduism is both a result of a particular practice and an understanding of its tenets mainly from English translations. Many of us English educated people (I count myself among them) like Tharoor also got to know our Hinduism from a reading of translations of the Vedas, Upanishads and The Gita, and the writings of Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananada, and Radhakrishnan. That is a good training, no doubt, but I would have liked this book, which is timely, to have been written by a person who not only knew the Sanskrit scriptures in the original but practised the Dharma in its centrality and essence. Such a person would have been an adherent of one of the great Sankara Maths or a follower of one of the Jeers or a Sishya of a Guru who propounded Vedanta. This equipment would have given such an author a formidable grasp of the concepts first hand so to speak, compelled him or her to know and avow that without a Guru you can hardly be on the way to understanding, that the doctrine of Karma is an essential part of the Dharma, that acceptance of past and future births is a logical consequence of such belief and that the Purusharthas would be your guide to a good life. Tharoor touches on all these ideas but his understanding has come from a translated Hinduism and in any case he has little use for Gurus and god-men, for many of the practices of Hinduism and is not a ritualistic or temple-going Hindu. His liberal and secular Hinduism is of a piece with his English educated distancing from what I have described as a core set of Hindu beliefs. As such it is a comfortable Hinduism and I would imagine that this also affects his way of describing Hinduism and attacking Hindutva which is political Hinduism and from Tharoor’s point of view a distortion of Hinduism.
I have spoken of resonances and I could very well imagine myself in Tharoor’s place, speaking the same secular language and rejecting, as many of our kind do, the practices of Hinduism which to my mind are intimately linked to the Dharma. I have, like Tharoor, a Kerala connection. He is a Nair, I am a Tamil Brahmin from Palghat. Kerala and its syncreticism, which Tharoor celebrates, has shaped his thinking. Kerala has shaped mine too but differently. I remember my father telling me of his poverty stricken childhood in Kozhikode where the Malayali teachers at school told our family that they would not continue to teach Sanskrit for a bunch of Pattars, the Malayali slang for Tamil Brahmin. Later when I went to a posh Public school in Bangalore, which my father could hardly afford, but to which he sent me because he wanted me to get a good English education, I was teased by the Coorgi boys who called me a Bomman, a word which meant Brahmin, but which I did not then understand, but which tied up with my father’s sense of discrimination in Kerala as a Pattar. In Calcutta, where I was born and where the Tamil diaspora had quite a presence, I was exposed to Tamil culture, specifically Brahmin culture, and this was accentuated by the bullying of the Bengali boys of our locality who were in those days intolerant of difference and used to make fun of the “tetul pani” we drank (Bengali for Sambar) and the “under punder” sounds which they thought were the main feature of the Tamil we spoke. Thus from childhood I had this sense of being an outsider, of being singled out, and as I grew up, consciousness of caste was forced upon one because of its ever present factor in society and University, where after Mandal, one was forced to become conscious of it in ways never imagined in my childhood. I became self-conscious of my Tamil Brahmin status. I do not know if Shashi Tharoor experienced Kolkata the way I did for he was educated there but when he speaks of the ecumenical, tolerant Hinduism he has been brought up on, I can understand it but clearly his non-ritualistic, non-temple going, and slightly westernized Hinduism is not mine. I sympathize with much of what he says and I am with him in his liberalism when he condemns those who want to protect cows but think nothing of slaughtering human beings, who exclude whole swathes of humanity because they either eat differently, pray differently or think differently. This intolerance (only matched by the intolerance of the secular Left) bothers me but leaves me thinking. Given my history, I could be one of these Trishul carrying, saffron-wearing zealots, and I could easily have been part of a crowd which lynched someone on suspicion of storing beef in his home. But I did not and Thank God for that because the Hinduism I grew up on, which is quite different from Tharoor’s, made me feel repelled by this violence. And let me say that this assertion of non-violence comes directly from the religion taught by my parents and by the great Sankaracharyas of Kanchi and Sringeri who are our Gurus. Tharoor, while he spends time on Adi Sankara as one of Hinduism’s great preachers, only touches on the Peetams Sankara created and has nothing to say of the teachings of these highly influential Gurus of our time. The Tamil Brahmin community true to the Gurus’ teachings also is quiet and docile (that is why Bengali landlords like them!) and most of them, if Smarthas (those who follow the Smritis), follow these Gurus, if Vaisnavas then the Jeer Swamis who are also models of piety and correctness. They represent Sanatana Dharma in its orthodox form and it would be very difficult to detach Brahminical consciousnesss from them. Implicit in the teaching is a reverence for the Sruti, the Vedas, a belief that they are true and that all argument must begin with that premise. It is also expected of you to live life according to the well understood tenets of Dharma, in which Ahimsa is central, perform rituals, go to temples, worship ancestors (Pitrus) and implicitly accept the doctrine of Karma which asserts that we live many lives and that the laws of Karma determine us. This framing of life allows us to have a larger perspective on reality and enables the devotee to live life as a sacrament, in tune with the Purusharthas (Dharma-Artha-Kama-Moksha ), the good and righteous life leading to liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Tharoor understands these values but he is unable to give this form of Sanatana Dharma primacy and that for me is an essential difference between me and him. This, therefore, gives me a perspective on many of the arguments of his book and I can take a critical position while admiring his sincerity. The book is topical and addresses issues we need to think about and resolve, if we want to prevent the country from disintegrating. That clear and present danger makes such a book urgent and relevant but also by implication makes the criticism of it equally relevant and something necessary.
Shashi Tharoor has a simple organization for this book. It has two sections – “My Hinduism” and “Political Hinduism”. The first section begins with a personal account of what for him is Hinduism and a description of his kind of Hindu. Then he launches into a discussion of what he calls the Hindu way, though he will grant that it is a personalized account and would admit of many modifications, if not corrections. His scepticism and ‘secular’ credentials are now touted for he attacks many of the Hindu customs – caste and its hold on HIndu practices, Gurus and god-men, Fatalism, factors he has deep distrust of and many of which he himself does not accept or believe in but which he is gracious enough to admit others believe and practice. After this tour de force, he selects from the vast pantheon of Hinduism, great souls like Sankaracharya, Ramanuja, Vivekananda, and Mahatma Gandhi and skillfully contextualizes his account of each with a quick and deft treatment of the Vedic culture, the Bhakti Movement and Basava, and the Indo- British encounter. Admittedly this can only be sketchy and not comprehensive but we do get a sense of the kind of Hinduism which Tharoor espouses as a logical consequence of his tendentious account. As I said it is a Hinduism which he derived from his reading of English books and not necessarily from the inside, as it were, of experiencing the grace of the Guru and following as is humanly possible the traditions and rituals which are an intimate and inextricable part of that Insider Hinduism which I believe I can relate to, and which I practice in some manner.
The Second Section of Tharoor’s book is a no-holds-barred attack on what the RSS, and the Sangh Parivar stand for, but Tharoor’s political sympathies are latent under an intellectualized account of Hindutva and the politics of this brand of political religiosity. The great names of this Right wing Hinduism are listed and criticized – Savarkar, Golwalker, and most importantly, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. On this last named figure, I must grant that Tharoor, in the finest traditions of Indian debating discourse, gives a full description of Hindutva thinking or more accurately of what Upadhyaya called Integral Humanism. The Purva Paksha is well described and one is almost persuaded that Upadhyaya is a rational, sympathetic, and humane figure in contrast to the other Hindutva icons. Tharoor devotes considerable space to Upadhyaya and to a criticism, in the most civilized terms, of Integral Humanism for its dangerous tendencies. This chapter provides him the framework to go hammer and tongs at the abuses of Hindu culture by Hindutvavadis and into fascinating disquisitions on secularism, syncreticism, nationalism, science, history, freedom, culture, bigotry, the Taj Mahal, the cow and beef, conversion. On each of these items, he is eloquent and logical and this enables him to take on Hindutva and reclaim Hinduism from the ones who use it for political purposes. Because Hinduism, as opposed to Hindutva, is accepting and inclusive and not cock-sure of itself, it is a religion which can be practised without compromising the secular values of a democratic modern nation like India. Hindutva, by contrast, is authoritarian and absolutist, excludes huge numbers of Indians and is intolerant and therefore not suitable for modern India. Further Hindutva is a distortion of the catholicity of Hinduism and being political, it is compromised and unrepresentative of the Hindu community. Tharoor urgently seeks to recover his Hinduism from Hindutva.
Space does not let me go into great detail on every one of the issues Shashi Tharoor takes up. Suffice it to say that he makes an excellent anti-Hindutva ideologue. While I have my reservations about political Hinduism and Hindutva, I must however take issue with Tharoor on a few ideas. First, he does not admit that his own political sympathies are also responsible for many of his formulations. Broadly speaking, he surely understands that there is much justification for the Hindu community to feel aggrieved that their secular Governments have distorted the meaning of secularism and covered up their electoral appeasement of the minorities. The Congress continues to practise the divide and rule policy of the British and as I am writing they have divided Hindu society once again by promoting the idea of minority status for the Lingayats who are prosperous enough and do not need this divisive ploy. The Congress among others is also exploiting fault lines in India for the sake of getting power. It plays on caste, gender, and religious divisions and widens them and there is no overt recognition of this and acceptance by Tharoor while he names and debunks the BJP and the RSS for doing all this and more. I don’t hold a brief for the present ruling establishment but politics must be played according to the rules of Dharma and what is happening, on both sides of the political divide is Adharmic. Specifically, Tharoor, for all his liberalism, does not have the cross-bench mind of a Rt Hon Srinivasa Sastri, the ability to see the other point of view even at the cost of rejecting one’s own and this compromises his attack on Hindutva. I shall merely suggest that Hindutva is, at one level, a reaction to secularism or pseudo-secularism as practised by people of Tharoor’s persuasion. If the causes for its rise are attended to and corrected Hindutva woud disappear. In what follows, I shall take up the following items from Tharoor’s book, for a detailed criticism and hopefully set the record straight. First is the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), second is Caste, third is Dharma, fourth is his concept of Nation which emerges in his account of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, and finally I shall attempt a critique of the translated Hinduism Tharoor espouses and point to some shortcomings.
Shashi Tharoor calls the Aryan Invasion Theory which is being challenged as “an amusing spin off” of Hindutva theory about the origins of our people. I find nothing amusing in it. It is tragic the way secularists like Tharoor dismiss what is now slowly but surely being understood from linguistic, philological, and scientific evidence that Indic civilization is older than any other and that the Vedic period is much earlier in time than some historians would admit. In fact, that is why the Paramacharya of Kanchi, with whom Tharoor to his loss shows no familiarity with, symbolically says that our religion was the world’s religion in the beginning and that is why we call it Sanatana Dharma. David Frawley, whom Tharoor dismisses as a Hindutva idealogue, Nagaswamy the eminent archaeologist, Nilesh Oak, Raju Vedam, Rajiv Malhotra, and many others are now in possession of irrefutable evidence that Vedic civilization and the Indus Valley civilization are co-terminus and that the Saraswati civilization, as it is also called, makes Hinduism (more correctly Sanatana Dharma) an indigenous civilization which is very ancient indeed. There was in fact no Aryan invasion of India. This theory would have far reaching implications for Indian civilization and the imputation that these scholars are doing things at the behest of a dead Hindutva icon like Savarkar is laughable. Tharoor says that they are offering evidence for Savarkar’s ideas of India as a Punyabhoomi. Can the secular Left not see that one can be fair and scholarly about India’s history without accepting divisive and malicious Hindutva ideas? Nagaswamy has shown the deep interaction Tiruvalluvar, upon whom the Dravidian politicians swear, had with Vedic seers and the parallels between contemporaneous Vedic Hymns and the great Tamil classic the Tirukural. His views clearly puncture tendentious and divisive notions of an Aryan-Dravidian divide. Arya means noble and Dravida is a reference to a region, that is South India. Sankaracharya in his travels to the North of India introduced himself as a Dravida Sishu – a child of the South. They are not racial terms at all. Tharoor has only a reference to a peer reviewed paper by Martin P. Richards and fifteen other scientists in BMC Evolutionary Biology which using genetics puts paid to the theory of an indigenous civilization. He has no other argument and Tharoor slightingly refers to the effort being made to refute the AIT as the handiwork of RSS-inclined historians and that it is a veritable cottage industry. This is unfair and Tharoor cannot simply ignore the work of eminent scholars from the time of B. B. Lal onwards. In any case, the scholars I have named are not mentioned in Tharoor’s bibliography. It is precisely this dismissiveness of ancient India that enables Hindutva to thrive. A greater openness on Tharoor’s side on this point would be a welcome addition to this otherwise engaging book.
Tharoor is quite comprehensive in his discussion of Caste. He seems to be in no state of denial and how can he be otherwise? The fact is that all of us in the last few decades after affirmative action has become widespread are more conscious of Caste than before. Tharoor notes this but he also projects his own upbringing as completely ignorant of Caste till such time as he came to national politics. I can understand his situation because I know many others of my class who would vouch for this and who would strenuously reject Caste in all its forms. But my upbringing, to which I have already alluded, is not peculiar to me and is indeed representative of a large Hindu constituency. Tharoor is not in sympathy with that mindset but it is a compelling one and one that cannot be ignored. We are talking about the same educated set as Tharoor who, for one reason or the other, like me, have come into contact with the reality of Caste and what one might even dare to call reverse discrimination. I would even argue that Sanatana Dharma cannot be understood without reference to Caste but then Caste is not what the British made of it particularly after Risley’s census of 1900. Originally it was a division of labour based on innate qualities and as Sri Aurobindo and S. Radhakrishnan (whom Tharoor admires and quotes frequently), put it, Caste was a practical organization of society in terms of aptitudes and a division of labour in which society was seen as organic and interrelated. The metaphor of Indra Jaal (Indra’s Net), popularised by Rajiv Malhotra, is apt. In this Net, there are jewels which shine on others and the others shine on these so as to create a multi splendoured effect. Hindu society was conceived like this and in sub aeternatis it is to be read as a multi-cultured, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic, multi-splendoured thing. Tharoor is sympathetic with this view but he does not take the logic forward that perhaps the division in the name of Caste the political parties revel in is no answer. To abolish Caste is not possible but its horrifying manifestations can be addressed. Upadhyaya speaks of Varna Vyavastha and I am in agreement with him that Caste can be used creatively to produce a humane world order. Realism compels it but Tharoor is not able to go that far. He totes the usual secular arguments which only hope to legislate caste out of the way, or get Hindus collectively to act in ways that erase the satin of caste from their religion, and this seems to me impossible. I suggest, as Tharoor does not, that Caste is intrinsic to Sanatana Dharma and I do believe that we will have to live with Caste and indeed work with it for creative purposes. That creative purpose in building a new world order where Sanatana Dharma could (Tharoor himself suggests that Hinduism is well qualified to be a religion for the 21st Century) well become the leader of thought and set an example in creative and harmonious living. Because, after all, Sanatana Dharma has had no truck with colonizing people or through violence imposing its will on others. Its structural principle is Shanti or peace and non-violence is its DNA. Caste as it has been practised, along with untouchability, is obnoxious, but Gandhi understood that without Caste there would be no Hinduism and the destruction of untouchability would in time shake up and purify the Caste system and make it a useful tool for a society to be forged where all are equal, all contribute to the public weal and all develop to their fullest level.
On Dharma, Tharoor is acute and penetrating. Dharma is part of the Good Life and it is the overarching frame against which Artha or the economic life and Kama or the instinctive life may be lived so that we are ready for Moksha. Though Tharoor does not say so, I believe that he thinks this a worthwhile ideal for India, and actually says something which the normal secularist would better be found dead than uttering. He quotes a policeman on Dharma and also Swami Ranganathananda of the Ramakrishna order that Dharma should govern our lives both secular and spiritual. Too much emphasis on rebirth has led to the neglect of our duties in this world. That has resulted in our becoming unfit for both the secular and the spiritual spheres. The implication is that Dharma should be all permeating. If that is so, can it ignore Governance and politics? Now I am sure Tharoor will fall foul of the Left and his own Congress friends. He says: “I do believe that propagating Dharma—and instilling deeply at all levels of society the need to live according to one’s Dharma—can be the key to bridging the present gap between the religious and the secular in India.” This is nothing short of an explosive statement. It means that our politics has to be sacred and what is sacred will be infused with the worldly. The distinction of secular and sacred will disappear. I have often wondered, and here I am with Upadhyaya, that our Constitution was made by westernized educated persons and the Dharmic wisdom of India was not central to it. If we want a truly great India Dharma, the Dharma of Sanatana Dharma must inform all aspects of life. This in turn would mean that all citizens should accept this Dharma, whatever caste or religion they belong to. Dharma is not religion and this unfortunate translation of a complex category has created much confusion. As my Gurus in Kanchi and Sringeri and my master Sri Ganapathy Satchidananda Swami of Dattapeetam say – Dharma is good conduct and that underlies all religions and it has to do with truthfulness, non-violence and cleanliness (of both body and mind). This is universal and everyone can accept it. There is neither dogma nor doctrine here as there would be in organized religion and in the Abrahamic faiths. Sanatana Dharma is a way of life. Did Tharoor understand the implication of what he said? I like to believe that he did and if that is so I heartily agree with him. Too much secularism has given rise to fundamentalism and India’s traditional society had no fundamentalists. We need to recapture that spirituality and faith which gave India her tolerant and accepting culture. Hindutva, as Tharoor paints it, is intolerant and the antithesis of the religious society governed by Dharma. In a Dharmic society we can be Dharmic and secular in the best sense of that term because we would be practising not Dharma Nirpekshata (which is absurd in the Indian context where if there is one thing that marks our people it is that we are a religious people and distancing ourselves from religion is simply not possible) but a healthy respect for the religious faith of all because Sanatana Dharma believes that all religions lead to God. That this will mean turning over public policy to Sadhus and Sants as the secular Left argues, is not true and hardly the case, but like in the ancient past, we in India would certainly take advice from the Rishis of our times, to whichever religion they may belong and provide a true and equitable government.
There is much talk of the idea of India as though there can be only one idea. Tharoor is firmly on the Nehruvian side of this debate and Congress and the Left have created an impression that there is no other Idea of India or should be. If Dharma is all-embracing then I believe that this has some implications for that idea of India which is under discussion. We are talking of nationhood and here the pages Tharoor writes on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya are illuminating because Upadhyaya has a view which is appealing and a challenge to the Nehruvian and Tharoor finds himself swept along as I was. Those are Tharoor’s best pages in this book.
Upadhaya is an important voice and he is a theorist who, because he had no hope of coming to power, could afford to dream and he has expressed the Hindutva philosophy in its ultimate and essential form. Much of his philosophy, as Tharoor points out, is concerned with Indian nationhood. Upadhyaya does not think that India is unified and he sees this as a failure. He saw this failure in moral terms and the result of a weakness of the people in making the country strong, the degeneration of society into purely materialistic pursuits, the fading of Nationalist idealism visible during the Independence struggle. He did not believe in territorial nationalism where it is incumbent on the citizens to treat all people in that geographical area as equal. Territorial nationalism does not ask fundamental cultural questions. Whose nation is it? What is freedom for? What kind of life or culture will this nation espouse? What are the values we will live by?
If people went by the territorial dimension of nationalism, then all people in it – Hindus, Christians, Muslims would have to be embraced. A Cultural nationalism on the other hand would inculcate a sense of the past and the values of the past and a feeling of sacredness of the land and a sense of belonging to the Punya Bhoomi. This feeling of belonging had not been inculcated by the present rulers because they thought that their work was over with removing the British from our land. This absence of an ideal left people free to concentrate on material pursuits and the making of money. We are aping the West and do not have a sense of our essence. Upadhyaya went back to Hindu philosophy to lay the foundations of this nationalism. As Tharoor puts it in a well-articulated passage which Upadhyaya would have appreciated: “This would have to be based on a positive concept of patriotism and a comprehensive vision of the nation as a complete entity—its security, its unity, its development , the welfare of its entire population and the full development of every individual—based on its inherent character, culture, spiritual underpinnings and permanent values that have, as he saw them stood the test of time.” Upadhyaya believed that our ancient country had its essential values embedded in Sanatana Dharma. Western ideas of democracy, individualism, socialism, communism, capitalism were at odds with our values of eschewing conflict between individual and society, coordination and understanding, not conflict and hatred. If Indians turn their search-lights inward they will discover themselves. Conflict of classes, conflict of Haves with Have-Nots, between Individual and society was not our way. Our way was cooperation and synthesis, not conflict. Sanatana Dharma espoused Duties not Rights. Self-wareness is central to this discourse and the Nation like the individual will gain Moksha. He is aware that in a modern nation the people who live in the territory will have to be accommodated as citizens but he feels that they have to be nationalized and educated in the values of our culture. In fact he sternly warns us about the misconceived idea of secularism which wishes to accommodate the Muslims who did not go to Pakistan, and then having accommodated them appeased them with favoured treatment. This appeasement is not conducive to national unity. A nation, he says, must contribute to the world, as indeed India can, only by being true to its culture and traditions. For him, this is Hindu culture and there is no other. Muslims and Christians must accept and identify with this basic cultural stream to be accepted as citizens of the nation. Just the fact that they inhabit a territory does not give them citizenship. “Mecca and Medina, Hassan and Hossain, Sohrab and Rustom and Bulbul may be very significant in their own way but they do not form a part of Indian life and stream of culture,” says Upadhyaya. If they cannot identify with Rama and Krishna, they cannot be Indians. Such people are likely to prefer Ghazni and Ghori to Prithviraj, Rana Pratap, Govind Singh and Shivaji. If one does not burn with anger at the names of Aurangzeb, Alauddin, Clive and Dalhousie, then your patriotism is suspect. Hindus feel anger at these historical wrongs but not the Muslims. If anything they want to destroy the values of Indian culture, its heroes, its traditions, places of worship and they cannot possibly be part of the Indian nation. So what is to be done with minorities? Unlike Golwalker, he did not speak of eradicating Muslims. Rather he asserted the need to nationalize them. A situation has to be created where the political nature of Islam which was responsible for the Partition of the country has to be weakened and then only will Muslims have a stake in this country.
Upadhyaya is sophisticated in his approach but his tendency is the same as Savarkar, Golwalkar, and Hedgewar. He focuses on the Indian Constitution as the instrument for change. It was made by westernized Indians who did not give our Dharma primacy of place in the making of this document. Conceiving the nation improperly was at the root of the problem. Our National culture and traditions should have been reflected in such a document and unfortunately this did not happen. It is a patchwork of the ideas in the constitutions of Western countries. A nation is not the agglomerate of people living in a territory but the soul of that people getting a body. The Constitution has no soul. It was given to us in haste by men who were not necessarily selfless and who did not understand Dharma. They were Anglophile Indians who did not possess Bharatiyata. And what they have done is to perpetuate the slavery of India to the West.
For Upadhyaya, Dharma was central to a Constitution for India. Dharma is not a personal matter as the secularists would have it. For him, Dharma was all pervading and encompassed all aspects of life. It transcended caste, gender, class, and race. It led to a culture which was basically non-hegemonic and could have no truck with colonizing people or dominating them. Temporal power and military might are not part of it. It is other-worldly. Its root is Chiti or soul power which is also its essence. This does not change with circumstance and temporal alterations. Modern India with a westernized Constitution had no sense of its Chiti. An example was the decision to ape the Americans by reconstituting the nation which had Provinces into States and making India a federation of States. This diluted the idea of Bharatavarsha. The Constitution should have spoken of a unitary State rather than of a union of States. This Chiti is what gives a Nation its Virat Shakti and this India does not have. For Upadhyaya, the nation was not theocratic and Hindu Rashtra was a cultural concept and not a religious one. He noted that Hinduism was inclusive and would accommodate all and practice discrimination against none. He was full of praise for nationalist Muslims like Chagla and Dalwai but the Muslim community was problematic, not because of its faith, but because it was politicized. He had respect for the faith and the prophets and said not a word against them. But political Islam tried to increase its population for the sake of domination and convert forcibly. During the British Raj, Christians tried to convert but failed to make a dent but Muslims did it violently. This had to stop. Under a Hindu Rashtra, much of this would be contained. And most importantly, Christians and Muslims would be part of it; they would be allowed total freedom to follow their faith and modes of worship; but they would need to acknowledge ancient traditions of Bharat, revere national heroes and develop devotion to Bharata Mata and merge with the cultural mainstream.
Upadhyaya is inclusive in his political and social philosophy. He believed in decentralization and carrying Swaraj to the last individual. He understood that socialism was a response to large landowners and the Zamindari system whose abolition he supported. He was an opponent however of both socialism and capitalism because both emerged from materialistic and acquisitive instincts. And both had faith in machines and technology. The result was conflict and inequality. Human development got retarded and an inequitable society resulted. For him the individual was important and all economic activity should concentrate on the development of the individual. A system should emerge which would balance the spiritual and the worldly. This is his famous Integral Humanism.
Integral Humanism advocates the simultaneous and integrated functioning of the whole Man –body, mind, soul and the Individual would relate to the larger world where the material and the spiritual, the individual and the collective, would be synthesized. Humanity, Upadhyaya felt, had a common soul – the Atman – and amidst the apparent diversity there is unity of the Ekatmata.
Man is, for Upadhyaya, a conglomerate of body, mind, intellect and soul, and all four have to develop simultaneously and harmoniously. The Sanatana Dharma idea of the good life, the Purusharthas, embody this principle ably. Ekatmata ensures the proper harmony between individual and society. The key word is Unity and action proceeds on the assumption that every action is for the common good. This attitude promotes cooperation rather than conflict. He condemned unequivocally the materialists who were against Dharma, which is not religion, but the good and righteous life. When the individual follows the Purusharthas, then society develops harmoniously. From the individual, we move to the family, then to the society and then the nation. Society is no social contract. It is born of a sense of the organic unity of all aspects of life and Upadhyaya does not forget the ultimate need to transcend life itself and merge with God. Society was a Dharmic concept which overarched the other Purusharthas. It was organic unity at work. And the pursuit of Artha should avoid both Prabhav (enriching a few) and Abhav (poverty of the many). Kama should be pursued as a national end to produce and desire the great nation. Such a society could use Caste, which is not what the secularists imagine it to be, as a creative force, by identifying the special qualities and attributes of people and putting them together to work for society by contributing their special skills. This is Varna Vyavastha, according to him.
It will be seen that Upadhyaya is not limiting his scheme to the Hindu community. Christians and Muslims can promote Dharma which is not a sectarian concept at all. The final leap to the transcendental to the Parameshti from Samashti is possible for all religious groups. All can move in the direction of Advaita and Bharatiya Advaita.
This is a close rendition of Upadhyaya as Tharoor has presented it. I have not made it brief because I do think that Upadhyaya is almost unknown to many of us and needs to be known, and Tharoor’s best pages needed foregrounding. Clearly, there is much in Upadhyaya which is food for thought and the fact that this is philosophy at its detached best, done not in relation to particular crises, or electoral compulsions, but as a vision for the nation of the future compels respectful attention and even emulation. In Dreams begin Responsibilities, says Yeats. I am not at this point interested in elaborating the point if Upadhyaya’s vision has been implemented by the present ruling dispensation. In brief, it has not and some of Upadhyaya’s formulations have resulted in some terrible doings in our country. That is Hindutva in its worst avatar. But the vision of an honest thinker is worth debating about and in my next section I shall follow Tharoor in his critique of Upadhyaya.
Tharoor has presented Upadhyaya as best he could with objectivity and even sympathy but he sharply differs in the following respects. In the first instance, Tharoor is a votary of territorial nationalism. This means that all people in a geographical space must be accommodated as citizens with equal rights. Territory is a concrete reality and the people residing in it are real. They cannot be wished away and whatever their past, they have a right to the nation. Thus in the Indian context Muslims and Christians in addition to Hindus people the geographical space called India and have equal rights. Upadhyaya’s insistence on love of the motherland and acceptance of its essential culture as preconditions is flawed for Tharoor because it is exclusionary. But is it exclusionary? I feel that a demand has been made to the citizen to love the motherland. I see nothing fundamentally wrong here. Our nation is in the making and Upadhyaya’s ideas need time to work. Give it time instead of dismissing it as Tharoor does. There is much in Upadhyaya one can relate to. But one must have a sense of Dharma from the inside and Tharoor stops short of that.
Tharoor is not in agreement with Upadhyaya about the Constitution being made by westernized Indians, that it was a patchwork of elements from different Western concepts, that the men who made it were not necessarily selfless and not rooted in Dharma. I cannot understand this, as Tharoor does not, because men like Ambedkar, Kuppuswamy Sastri, and several Hindu scholars were on the Constituent Assembly, and men like the revered Jerome De Souza represented the Christians. These were men of great ability and patriotic. That the Constitution fails the Dharmic test is debatable but the fact is that this Constitution has been amended so many times that it is perhaps a good idea for a relook at it. When that is done a creative look at Upadhyaya seems a reasonable thing to do. But we find violent opposition to any talk of revising the Constitution. It does seem that the secular lobby has some vested interest. The Constitution is the latest in our tradition of Smritis. These as opposed to Sruti (the Vedic utterances) are changeable in relation to changing social needs. A New Smriti for the 21st Century in place of that of the 1950s seems a reasonable demand. Tharoor does not make such a demand but the thrust of Upadhyaya’s views makes this a need.
Another point which Tharoor makes is that the Muslim mind is not a monolith and that it is so diverse that a pan Indian identity does not exist. The fact is that a fanatical streak of Wahabism is visible among the community and its leaders and the worst kind of regressive attitudes keep getting expressed by them. This is true of Right wing Hinduism also. We don’t need either. But a future India needs to be created where all are equal and this means that people of Tharoor’s persuasion must be more sensitive to the needs of the majority community and not do the special pleading I find in this book. He forgets the injustice done to Kashmiri Pandits and the manner in which EMS and the communists created a Muslim majority district of Malapuram in Tharoor’s own home State of Kerala and the social tensions such an act has released.
Upadhyaya’s idea that the individual would merge with the collective in a form of Advaitic realization also draws Tharoor’s disagreement. He writes: “This conviction required a leap of faith: the idea that the individual pursuing Artha, for instance, would always do so selflessly in ways that would serve society collectively, did not seem grounded in practical experience.” Tharoor is surely wrong because in that case Gandhi’s ideas of Trusteeship or the dreams of Nehru which even after 70 years of Independence have not fructified must be impractical. Upadhyaya dares to dream. His vision needs time to fructify. That is a concession we have to make for this daring thinker. By pointing to the BJP’s inability to either implement Upadhyaya’s philosophy or directly contradicting his vision, Tharoor scores a debating or political point but the searchlight can be also focused on Tharoor and his politics and we can ask whether Gandhi and Nehru would not be turning in their graves at the picture of India which 70 odd years of Congress rule in this great country has left behind. Congress’s inability to live up to its founding ideals perhaps is the reason why the Idea of India is now under revision.
We end where we began. I spoke of my Hinduism and I do not want to say that it is the only kind of Hinduism which exists but it is grounded in a hoary tradition, a Guru Parampara, in theories like Dharma, Purusharthas, Karma and in practices like Shraddha, Yagnas, and temple worship. One worships an Ishtha Devata and performs devotion in nine ways and worship in sixteen ways. This is central and popular Hinduism. Tharoor’s liberal Hinduism is his but if he were to follow the Sanatana Dharma in its core, he may find Integral Humanism to be quite in harmony with Sanatana Dharma. An intellectual Hinduism is a complement to this but not a substitute and those who follow the path of Knowledge like Tharoor are either greatly evolved souls or have transcended the usages of the majority of his fellow Hindus. Is that not a disadvantage in this book?
Why I am a Hindu is available here.
Dr. Mohan Ramanan retired as Professor of English, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India, in 2014 after nearly 40 years in the profession. He is the author of eighteen books and scores of articles on British, American, and Indian literatures published in forums here and abroad. He has been a British Council fellow at Merton College, Oxford, and a Fulbright Scholar (twice) at Amherst College and Missouri Southern University. He was Monteserrat Fellow at Barcelona University and has held several administrative positions, including the Deputy Directorship of the then ASRC, Hyderabad. He writes frequently on Indian Culture and Hinduism.
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