Shashi Tharoor’s new book handy refresher on Hinduism

Deccan Chronicle.  | R. Mohan

Nation, Current Affairs

Those who may have studied the texts may challenge a few of the facile conclusions drawn by the author.

Shashi Tharoor.

These are not the best of times for one of the major religions of the world. The image of a young man being beaten up and being asked to chant “Jai Shri Ram” was a heart rending reminder of how wrong things have gone. This kind of inhuman action of beating a defenceless human being to death could only be inspired by the worst kind of zealotry. It does nothing for the powerful imagery of a God who stood for purity of mind in all his actions and compassion, and not a whit for a religion that teaches tolerance and acceptance. The spectacle of such barbarism, so well documented by perpetrators themselves who shoot such videos on their mobile phones in order to propagate their act, is an insult to mankind, and to the religion that the apology for civilised human beings belong to.   

By sheer coincidence, these are also the best of times for the Hindu religion if only because a book - 'The Hindu way - An introduction to Hinduism' has just come out. Shashi Tharoor may not be everyone's cup of tea, not because of his brand of politics and the party he belongs to but also because he is singled somewhat by the mysterious circumstances in which his wife Sunanda died. But when it comes to wielding the pen felicitously he has few equals among his contemporaries, especially when it comes to taking up such a complex subject as religion. A substantial part of this book had also figured in his earlier effort, but that was a sort of political treatise careening off into a critique of ‘Hindi, Hindu and Hindutva.’

The new Tharoor book is a handy refresher to Hinduism. It does a huge favour to all those who have lost touch with it or lost the intensity of their faith over time to become doubters. They can, at one reading, become familiar once again with what sets their religion apart from the Abrahamic faiths that dominate today’s world. They can go right back to the basics to relearn what they may have once been taught but had long forgotten in their need to cope with the bare necessities of life. In fact, they may have been enjoying the quotidian as a catharsis or an escape from having to think too deeply of the meaning of life.

“Hinduism is a civilisation not a dogma,” is a good place to begin to understand the foundational premise on which Tharoor bases his analysis of a religion that has over time evolved into “a universal religion that is personal and individualistic, privileges the individual and does not subordinate one to a collectivity.” I am not being lazy in reproducing this line from the jacket of the book, it is just that I find this a revelation. The freedom the religion grants may be a reason why even the atheist or the agnostic could still experience the inner feeling that they too belong.  As authoritarianism expands, a fallback to a religion of ancient wisdom dating back 4,000 years becomes a great option for those born into it.

There is no more  obvious sign of an affirmation of the faith in the country now than to see the proliferating temples to deities on every street. And yet there is not the least compulsion that a Hindu must visit a temple in order to pray. The sheer logic of God being in the pillar (Thoon) as well as in straw (Thurumbu) means a prayer can be offered anywhere at any time as Hinduism is “a religion without fundamentals: no founder or prophet, no organised church, no compulsory beliefs or rites of worship, no uniform conception of the ‘good life’, no single sacred book.”

Those who may have studied the texts may challenge a few of the facile conclusions drawn by the author. His may be just opinions formed from observation and his own personal experience. What sets his work apart is the millennial can understand this excellent analysis as much as people of older generations. The book is recommended reading for anyone wishing to go back to ‘Om! Tat! Sat!’ to comprehend the foundational logic of faith. The atheist may refuse it, but he must believe in evolution at least, as postulated two millennia before Darwin  in the ‘Dasavatharam,’ a representation of Hindu gods.

Tharoor traces Hinduism also through four great souls - most of all Adi Shankaracharya who demonstrated that it allows plurality of thought - who helped interpret it and define it for the faithful. He makes forceful arguments to propagate it as a great 21st century religion capable of helping mankind amid the contradictions and confusion of radicalism, fundamentalism and much else that is changing today's world into a complex planet. I find his assertion compelling - “Liberalism  is the political ideology that most corresponds to the wide-ranging and open-minded nature of my faith.”