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Why I am a Hindu, by Shashi Tharoor.

August 4, 2018

Why I am a Hindu
Why I am a Hindu, by Shashi Tharoor.  Scribe US, 2018.

4 stars

A former United Nations official and member of the Indian Parliament shares what he sees as valuable about his faith tradition and points out how that tradition is being misused today by those who seek to turn it into an intolerant political tool.

Shashi Tharoor is a prominent Indian diplomat and author. After growing up in India, he came to the United States where he obtained a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of law at tufts. He served 29 years in the United Nations, becoming Under-Secretary-General.  Since 2007 he has been a member of the Congress Party serving in the Indian parliament.  In addition he has published sixteen books on various aspects of Indian politics and culture.  He has long written regular columns in various global newspapers and journals.  He considers himself a liberal and a nationalist and often at odds with the ruling party in India.

The portrait of traditional Hinduism that Tharoor paints is an appealing one. Historically Hindus have stressed that the Divine is unknowable. No one image or text or institution can claim that they alone have the Truth about God.  The Hindu response is radical tolerance to the religious and spiritual practices of all.  A wide variety of gods and goddesses are honored and worshiped by Hindus, each meant to reveal a particular aspect of the Divine.  Such an approach to religion has served the diversity of India well, even for long periods allowing Hindus and Muslims and others to live peacefully with each other, sharing their practices.  Tharoor is not blind to more negative practices that have become connected to his faith, such as the caste system.  He sees them as political and social practices which are not connected to Hinduism, but have falsely claimed religious validation.

Tharoor is deeply angry, however, over the movement now in control in India, to turn the Hindu faith into an intolerant, political force.  Logically the hateful, repressive version of Hinduism is a rejection of its deepest roots, but Tharoor takes us through the historical processes that allowed this to happen.  Tharoor reveals the dangerous, illogical practices by which leaders have combined race and religion to gain totalitarian control since the 1930s.  He notes the similarity of such ideas and actions to classical Fascism developing in Germany at the same time they were emerging in India.  Tharoor believes in the goal of national unity, but he rejects a unity has no place for religious or racial minorities.  He warns us against the “communal majoritarianism” which refuses to accept Muslims and Christians.  As he points out, the same fundamentalist instinct that is in power in India is growing in the white supremacy movement in the United States.  The idea of religious and national harmony is appealing, but it simply cannot be forced on today’s diverse populations.

For me, this was an important book.  For the first time, I felt I understood the power of Hinduism and the power of those who would misuse it for personal gain.  I needed such an introduction.  Tharoor’s depiction of traditional Hinduism and its contemporary fundamentalism, I also found wisdom in the larger question of how we actually live with diversity.

At the same time, I regularly found the book repetitive and confusing. I simply could not follow all the unfamiliar names.  I was sometimes unclear whether Tharoor was addressing readers who knew little about Hinduism or whether he was writing for an Indian audience, knowledgeable about the religion but accepting of its potential for use by totalitarian dictatorship.

Despite my ocassional frustration, I recommend this book to all of those who, like myself, need a deeper understanding of Hinduism, as a religion and as a tool for political power and oppression.  Indeed, as Tharoor makes clear, we all need to learn about the fundamentalism in power in India and its threat to all of us. And we all need to find ways to practice tolerance while holding onto our own beliefs.

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