Shashi Tharoor felt “moral urgency” to write new book amid rise of Hindu nationalism

Shashi Tharoor felt “moral urgency” to write new book amid rise of Hindu nationalism

06 June 2018

Luke Foddy, Communications Manager

The political hijacking of Hinduism was a key motivation for Shashi Tharoor in writing his new book, ‘Why I Am A Hindu’, the eminent author and politician told an Asia House audience last night.

Tharoor – one of the most prominent and popular public figures in India, was in conversation with writer Kavita A. Jindal about the book and the wider issues it explores.

One of those issues is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, which has cultivated a form Hindutva – the ideology of Hindu nationalism – to create a powerful political force in the country. For Tharoor, this presented a “moral urgency” to write the book.

“In the last few years we have seen, through the majoritarianism triumphalism of the BJP and the fellow travellers of the BJP, a certain portrait of Hinduism being offered to the nation, and indirectly therefore to the world, that’s at complete variance with the Hinduism that most Indians have grown up with,” he said.

“Hindutva is a political ideology, not a religious one,” he added, saying it can be traced to the rise of fascism in the 1920s. The final section of Tharoor’s book is about taking back Hinduism “from the stand of distortion and misrepresentation,” he said, and his passion in this regard was clear to see. He equated the mindset of proponents of Hindutva to “the team identity of the British football hooligan.”

“They’re saying my team is the best football team and I’ll hit you on the head if you don’t support my team.

“It’s not Hinduism and I don’t feel I should accept it.”

Tharoor is no theologian, as he himself made clear. Instead, the book draws on his own relationship with Hinduism – a faith which he describes as inclusive and accepting. When Kavita declared her agnosticism, Tharoor quipped, “You can be a Hindu and be agnostic!”

But how does Tharoor reconcile his liberal interpretation of Hinduism with the injustices of the caste system?

While recognising that it would be “disingenuous” to argue that Hinduism can disavow caste, Tharoor pointed to the wealth of 3,500 years of Hindu thought – “a library in which no book ever goes out of print” – to answer Kavita’s question.

“The ancient texts give you just as much justification for rejecting caste as they do for upholding caste,” he said, illuminating his answer with a tale of a respected sage who, upon encountering and being impressed by a Dalit’s knowledge of theology, surprises his followers by deferring to him as his guru.

The politician argued that the extremes of the caste system are already eroding, as new generations move away from earlier traditions. Of course, this argument could lead to a similar conclusion about religion itself, prompting Kavita to ask if religion is relevant today. Do we need it?

“Religion isn’t about to disappear,” Tharoor said. Indeed, more people practising religion would be no bad thing, he suggested, warning that a world in which only those with extreme interpretations of their faiths practice religion would not be a good thing for humanity. For Tharoor, Hinduism is relevant, and has the hallmarks of a “universal religion” for the 21st century.

Yet even he confessed to struggling with aspects of his faith. Speaking openly of his conflicted relationship with reincarnation, Tharoor described how he used to feel it was “something designed to promote social conformity.”

He interpreted reincarnation as a theology which tells the poor or the sick that their condition in life was because “your soul did bad things in your previous life. It’s not your fault, or my fault for oppressing you; just be good and kind and obedient and next time around your next innings will be a lot better.”

“To me that was troubling and I was very sceptical,” he said, before sharing that he now interprets reincarnation as being philosophically concerned with the permanence of the soul, rather than the social circumstances of the body it occupies.

It was an intriguing glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most important thinkers on politics, religion and history, and the Asia House audience were treated to more insights during a wide-ranging and expansive discussion.

Kavita expertly weaved the conversation through political issues, such as India’s response to the Rohingya Muslim crisis (Tharoor believes India should take refugees and that it is “unconstitutional to discriminate on grounds of religion”), to Indians’ obsession with astrology (a Hindu without a horoscope is like an American without a credit card, he said).

Perhaps the most intriguing point regarded Hinduism’s relationship with modernity, and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular.

Tharoor said they’d make a good match, entertaining the audience with a ghost story about a motorcycle in India which mysteriously returned to its crash site every night – a shrine quickly developed around it.

“That’s why I think they would go well together,” Tharoor said. “Hindus have the capacity to see the divine in anything.”

Shashi signed copies of his new book Why I Am A Hindu after the talk. Don’t miss out on future Asia House events – join our mailing list today at our Homepage