There is nothing ‘Hindu’ about Shashi Tharoor’s book on the Hindu way of life.
On the contrary, it is just a smart-selling manifestation of Anglican disgust for anything Indic.
The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism, Shashi Tharoor, 340 pages, Aleph Book Company, Rs. 470.
It is a story most of us learn at school or at least from our parents. It is the story of the wounded swan and prince Siddhartha.
In the end of the story, the swan wounded by Devadatta and healed by Siddhartha was handed over to Siddhartha because he who saves a life has a right over it than the one who wounds it.
And then, Siddhartha sets the swan free. When reading Shashi Tharoor’s recent book The Hindu Way (2019), one cannot but remember that Buddhist tale.
The book, like its predecessor, flaunts Tharoor’s newfound compulsion to express his love for Hinduism.
It makes an interesting read because, despite all platitudes he harps on Hinduism, the real intentions do come out at large throughout the book.
The love he has for Hinduism ultimately is the love a butcher has for the submissive nature of the sheep he is going to slaughter (Or should I say calf keeping in mind the Kerala Congress tradition of public slaughtering of calves?)
Let us consider where he talks about Ganesha — the Divine worshipped at the beginning of all endeavours to be auspicious. Shashi Tharoor goes on to give all the spiritual meanings interspersed with the local legends his grandmother says to him.
Leave the fact that they are superficial like in the case of the famous race between Murugan and Ganesha. The legend is quite popular throughout South India.
Narada, the celestial news-carrying mischievous sage, brings to Kailasa the wisdom fruit that should not be cut into pieces but should be consumed as a whole. So, Shiva and Parvati, in order to give the fruit to one of their two children, Muruga and Ganesa, devise a competition.
The fruit would belong to the one who first completes the circumambulation of the universe.
Murugan at once speeds outwards in His peacock while Ganesa circumambulates Siva and Parvati and wins the fruit.
Murugan gets angry and assumes the form of a mendicant and leaves to a hillock in Tamil Nadu where he gets convinced that he himself is the fruit of wisdom — ‘Pazham Nee’ (Fruit Thou art) which stands today as Palani, a famous South Indian pilgrim centre.
The legend has levels of meaning — from the simple ‘parents are the world to the children’ to not through the outward looking but inward gaze that one arrives at the wisdom and that wisdom itself is you.
In the hands of Tharoor, the story is stripped off all its richness. The fruit of wisdom is removed from the story (pp. 39-40). This is strange because Palani hills in Tamil Nadu attracts quite a lot of Bhaktas from Kerala — a symbol of spiritual unity of the nation beyond the linguistic barriers just like Sabarimala.
It is strange our MP from Trivandrum gives a watered down, uninteresting version of this ‘story’ which even an eight-year-old could tell you with much richness and colour.
Nor does he care about Paul Courtright who has used Freudian deconstruction along with text torturing of verses after verses just to provide a demeaning distorted picture of Ganesha in the modern academia of the West.
But what Tharoor does choose to talk about is this:
Ganesh devotees in Western India in the 1890s allowed the bubonic plague to take many lives rather than co-operate with a British campaign to exterminate the rats that carried it (for the rats were also after all Ganesh’s mounts).(p.40)
Anyone familiar with Hindu rural households knows that every village farm and every household has impoverished devices for trapping and killing rats and mice.
But what Tharoor says and does not say here provides also a key to his entire project.
There was indeed Indian resistance to the so-called British campaign against Plague. Under the British, cities expanded with no proper sanitary conditions. When at last the plague came, the person appointed was W.C. Rand whom historian Prof. Mike Davis calls ‘a haughty racist’.
With special military powers to ‘detain and segregate plague suspects, to destroy property, inspect, disinfect, evacuate and even demolish dwellings suspected of harbouring the plague, to prohibit fairs and pilgrimages....’, he ran a terror campaign taking special pleasure in humiliating Indians.
Prof. Davis further describes how ‘plucking out men, women and children from their homes, he burnt their belongings and desecrated their shrines.’
And most of those able-bodied healthy Indians who entered the camps of Rand never returned home alive.
All these angered Indians. Naturally, the pro-colonial narrative of history would like us to believe that Indian resistance to this so-called anti-Plague campaign by the British was because they considered the rats sacred animals.
This makes all the excesses of the Empire justifiable as a ‘civilising mission’.
But what is amusing is that a person who wants to project himself as an ‘enlightened Hindu’ in love with his religion in its true spirit and form should buy and recycle this colonial narrative hook, line, and sinker.
Then, of course, Tharoor does not fail to mention about the so-called miracle of milk drinking by Ganesa in 1995, without failing to mention the ‘miracle’ as a Hindutva ploy as suggested by some.
Rationalist explanations are listed. That Dr. Murali Manohar Joshi, who was then President of BJP also considered the ‘miracle’ only as resulting from capillarity somehow misses the author’s attention.
Among the different guesses one stands out peculiarly. ‘Mass hysteria’ was alleged says Tharoor and ‘some’ said that ‘Indians priests were trying to whip up more custom’.
But what interests one is that Tharoor adds within brackets to the words ‘Indian priests’ these words ‘(who live off the offerings of devotees in the temples)’.
Tharoor himself considers the whole thing a kind of innocent fun.
In the second chapter, Tharoor does the proverbial reinventing of the wheel with a flourish, making one wonder who his target audience really is.
There are among others two interesting things worth mentioning.
One is that he identifies Thiruvalluvar strictly within the Hindu universe, calling his work as ‘another magnificent work of early Hinduism’ which ‘has been called by some ‘the Veda of the Tamils’’. (p.84)
Then, he identifies the horned deity seated in what seems to be Yogic posture holding a serpent and surrounded by animals depicted in Gundenstrup cauldron with Pasupathi.
Already in 1995, Prof. Kak, Feuerestein and Pandit Frawley had given quite a detailed account of this artefact in their ‘In Search of the Cradle of Civilization’.
Tharoor simply presenting the image adds essentially nothing valuable to his readers except for some confusion.
Even here there are fallacies galore.
For example, he goes by the typical AIT/AMT (Aryan Invasion Theory/Aryan Migration Theory) timeline of ‘1500 BCE and 500 BCE’ and more importantly approaches the inner dynamics of Hindu religion through that frame work. So he speaks of
... enormous evolution from the nomadic faith of the Rig Veda … to the evidence in the later Vedas of adjustment to new social realities, such as the Yajur Veda’s reference to the new gods, clearly taken into Hinduism from prevailing local faiths – including Pashupathi, lord of the beasts and Aushadi, lord of medical herbs.(p.73)
Now consider how Stella Kramrisch of Ananda Coomraswamy – Tagore school approaches the same dynamics though she lived at a time when AIT/AMT was unquestioned.
To her though, a thousand years gap exists between Harappan and Vedic period (remember she had no reason then, to question AIT/AMT), there was a connection between the imagery of bovine divine and the horned figure, a connection between later Yogic philosophy and the seated figure and all these getting connected to Siva:
By whatever name the central figure of the Harappan seal was called, it embodies yoga power in its posture. The axis of its erect body is marked by the crossed feet below the urdhvalinga. Thence it ascends and carries the wide curves of the horns. Bovine power and yoga power are united in the hieratic form of the figure that dominates the field. Lord of Animals-Lord of Yoga---only Rudra has these names and powers. No other god is known in such seemingly disparate majesty. In each of these forms Rudra is fully present. They are more than aspects, more than modes of his being. He has many aspects, many modes, many names-a hundred, a thousand.Stella Kramrisch, The Presence of Shiva, Princeton University Press, 1981, pp.14-15
Kramrisch had no reason to doubt AIT/AMT. Yet in her narrative, we see no ‘absorption’ of ‘local deities’ for her. There is an organic continuity, transformation and evolution in which the AIT plays no important role.
But Tharoor has the advantage of voluminous archaeological data. If not reject, at least he would doubt AIT/AMT. But he not only chooses to adhere to it but more importantly he makes it the glass through which he views early evolution of Hinduism — the nomadic people with their primitive but at times beautiful hymns, ‘taking into Hinduism from prevailing local faiths’, Pasupathi.
Then again, paradoxically, he claims that idol worship and temple construction became ‘a feature of Hinduism only since the fifth century CE’ (p.86). Next time Tharoor goes to Cambridge, one strongly suggests that he should meet Cambridge University professor of Hinduism Julius J. Lipner as well as archaeologist Prof. Dilip Chakrabarti.
They would be able to tell him how temple construction had been present particularly for Vishnu and Shiva at least as early as two centuries BCE.
Going through the monumental and definitive work on Hindu temples by Stella Kramrisch could have provided our scholar a framework to understand the evolution of ‘idol worship and temple construction’ and its continuity as well as connection with Vedic cosmology.
One the one hand, Tharoor identifies Pasupathi ‘image’ in the BCE and yet declares a few pages later that ‘idol worship’ came into Hinduism only around 5th century CE — a claim also falsified by not only archaeological but also literary evidence of ancient Tamil Sangam literature that shows temples and ‘idol worship’ even from third century BCE to fifth century CE in a very developed form.
In writing this book, what Tharoor wants to accomplish is to set a narrative among the culturally vacuous elite who control the discourse in the old establishment and who still exert a considerable influence in certain circles.
That narrative is this: Hindutva and Hinduism are different and that the latter not only does not need the former but the former is against the very spirit of the latter.
One vital problem with the peddling of this narrative is that those who assert this at one point or other openly exhibit their Hinduphobia. Tharoor is no exception. Though well guarding his real intentions at places, he does let his real negativity for Hindu Dharma get the better of him.
A classic example comes when Tharoor makes a blatantly aversion-filled statement on Sri Aurobindo, making him like a Hindu Zakir Naik, no less.
It was said of Sri Aurobindo that he could trace almost every modern Western idea to the ancient Hindu scriptures and that if one could not find a specific reference upon examination, that was because one was reading the words literally and failing to comprehend that the ancient Hindu sages had elliptical and metaphorical means of conveying the ideas that today we consider modern.(pp.182-3)
Then on the authority of none other than Christophe Jaffrelot, another virulent Hinduphobe, Tharoor categorizes this as ‘strategic syncretism’.
Anyone who has read Sri Aurobindo even customarily would not dare to make such an erroneous statement. Far from Sri Aurobindo claiming that ‘every modern Western idea’ could be traced to ‘the ancient Hindu scriptures’, let it be said that some of the latest modern trends in psychology in the West have been traced to Sri Aurobindo.
Felicity Edwards, a scholar-theologian of Rhodes University, in her article about Sri Aurobindo in the 'Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature' points out that leading transpersonal theorists consider Sri Aurobindo 'the pioneer of Transpersonal Psychology'.
Sri Aurobindo is by himself an important phenomenon in the history of world religions. He pioneered understanding and integrating of evolution as a process with human spirituality .
This is a profound continuation of Sankhya Darshana of Hindu Dharma. In this, Sri Aurobindo seems to have, what could be seen as premonitions of some of the recent developments of evolutionary science in his essay that was written in 1915.
For example, he rightly points out that the ‘struggle for life at least as popularly understood, formed no real part of Darwinism’.
This is something that many social philosophers in the West never understood and even today remains a fallacy in popular understanding of evolution.
He further points out in this that what gets inherited is more a predisposition towards a trait than the trait itself in a mechanistic way.
He also knows that the inheritance of acquired characters had been discarded. At the same time, he cautions: ‘The propagation of acquired characteristics by heredity was too hastily and completely asserted; it is now perhaps in danger of being too summarily denied.’
Today, with the hindsight of epigenetics, one cannot but marvel at the way this Hindu seer had envisioned the way science would progress. Alas, all these are lost for our politician-writer in his new pretentious act of neo Hindu-phile.
That a person who jeers at the so-called Hindutvaites for being ignorant of the inner riches of Hindu Dharma should be so ignorantly dismissive of one of the greatest Hindu phenomena of recent centuries is indeed telling.
As we near the end of the book, the rhetoric against Hindutva reaches a fevered pitch. Here again our author gets it all wrong. Like all Hindutva-bashers, Tharoor also contends that for both Savarkar and Golwalkar ‘India being the punyabhumi of the Hindus required the Aryans to be indigenous to India, in contrast to India’s Muslims, whose faith clearly originated in the Arabian peninsula.’ (p.230).
The straw-man argument is demonstrably wrong. For, Savarkar considered all ideas of races and racial purity fallacious. They were to him ‘artificial barriers’ and 'to try to prevent the commingling of blood is to build on sand'.
And as early as 1924, Savarkar could say something even the most radical of Western humanists were then finding it hard to comprehend: ‘Truly speaking all that anyone of us can claim, all that history entitles one to claim, is that one has the blood of all mankind in one's veins.'
But going beyond superficial constructs and mediocre arguments is not Tharoor’s strong point. So he continues to fill pages with rhetoric flourish.
Did not Nandivarman II of Pallava dynasty who built the Vaikunta Perumal Temple, have genetic component of Cham dynasty of Cambodia-Vietnam people? Are not the shallow Hindutvaites going against history in claiming Aryans to be indigenous?
In reality, the ‘Hindutva brigade’ does not call Aryans indigenous. Rather they claim that there is no such thing as Aryan race and they are right. They claim that there is no racial basis to the traditional social structure with all its social stagnation and innate ability for social emancipation.
And they are right. But Tharoor purposefully goes full throttle on this straw-man because and only because his international audience and elite culturally vacuous Indians would not know both HInduism and Hindutva.
One of founding fathers of modern Indian State and the chief architect of Indian Constitution, while discussing Pakistan, emphasised the spiritual unity of 'Hindustan’ as being more with Burma than with ‘Pakistan’ though when he wrote those lines there was no Pakistan as a separate nation.
Similarly, there is indeed a spiritual and cultural unity between Java and Sumatra, Cambodia and Vietnam with India.
Hindutva has always accepted it and Hindutva has placed this spiritual unity more valuable than biological lineage.
Then, he comes to one of his real agendas — defending attacks on Hinduism in the form of conversions. There is an argument once proselytizers in our district used to make. Hinduism says all religions are true. So Hinduism itself says Christianity is true. Christianity says Hinduism is a false religion. So Hinduism itself admits that it is a false religion. Tharoor does not hesitate to make a variant of the same ‘logic’:
In any case, as we have discussed, Hinduism teaches ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti. Why, then, are any of my co-religionists unhappy about some tribal Hindus becoming Christians?(p.253)
Then he goes real ballistic and states:
To suggest that an Indian Hindu becoming Christian is an anti-national act not only insults the millions of patriotic Indians who trace their Christianity to more distant forebears, including the Kerala Christians whose families converted to the faith of Saint Thomas centuries before the ancestors of many of today’s Hindu chauvinists even learned to think of themselves as Hindu.(p.255)
Here, Tharoor has provided the gist and objective of why he wrote the book. The entire book is an opium to the elite English speaking Hindus and propaganda to the non-Hindu international audience.
He asserts here the hoax of Thomas coming to India that has no proof whatever and which also carries a blood libel against Hindus of early South India. He also reinforces the yet another slander on Hinduism that Hindus felt themselves as Hindus only after the colonial rule.
That a person has to resort to a libelous hoax and a colonial Hindu-phobic view of Hinduism to defend the conversion war waged on Hindus should define this book and Tharoor’s real intentions for all Hindus to see.
Now let us look into some of the ways in which conversions are made in tribal areas of India and their consequences.
- In Arunachal Pradesh, many Hindu and Buddhist tribes have complained about forced conversions to Christianity at gun point. Who cares to protect the right of Donyi-Polo spiritual tradition to exist even as foreign funded evangelical forces threaten their very existence?
- In Tripura, AK-47 wielding Christian fundamentalist terrorists have been massacring tribal Hindus issuing fatwas that they do not celebrate their festivals. Who talks for their rights?
- Unconverted Reangs have been driven away by Mizo Christian fascist organizations. Driven out of their villages nearly 40,000 Reangs from Mizoram living in subhuman conditions in Tripura as refugees in their own nation. Who got their fundamental right to vote in their own country through a legal battle?
- Tharoor flaunts the photograph of Vivekananda Rock Memorial in his book (p.195). After Christian fanatics created all kinds of barriers to the rock memorial, going to the extend of demolishing the plaque installed there by then President of India and planting a cross there, who fought for years made sure that the rock memorial came there?
For each of these questions the answer is Hindutva organisations like Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Hindutva seers like Eknathji Ranade.
Let us come back to Siddhartha-Hamsa Nyaya.
If Hindu Dharma is the swan wounded by the cruel arrows of fraudulent and forced conversions, then Hindutva is the Siddhartha who is trying to save the swan. Shashi Tharoor playing Devadutta tries to argue in flawless English that the greatness of the swan is in succumbing to the wounds and healing the wounds is against the swan.
Let me finish this ‘review’ with a blatant lie that Tharoor makes which is shameless even by by Tharoorian standards. He accuses Hindutva mobs of vandalising a great seat of learning at Pune:
Hindutva mobs attacked and vandalized the invaluable Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s library in Pune to protest its co-operation with the research work of the historian James Laine, whose book allegedly cast aspersions on the parentage of the Hindu warrior hero Shivaji.(p.233)
Indologist Christian Lee Novetzke in his detailed study of the incident points out the real nature of those who vandalized BORI:
During the attack by the Sambhaji Brigade on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in January, the vandals chanted slogans identifying their mission as the defense of Jijabai’s honor, a defense from a perceived insult generated by a scholar influenced by Brahmans, his informants, and a “Brahmanical” institution. We should note that there were no slogans raised deriding Muslims or extolling the power of “Hindus.” Indeed, what was witnessed in Pune that morning was violence by Hindus against other Hindus or, specifically, by a group identifying themselves as “Marathas” against a group they identified as “Brahmans.”Christian Lee Novetzke,’The Laine Controversy and the Study of Hinduism’, International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1/3 (Jan., 2004), pp. 183-201
At that time, Maharashtra was ruled by a Congress-NCP government. They banned the book and their home minister issued a ridiculous arrest warrant for Prof. Laine who was then in the US.
On the other hand, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee a Hindutva icon while decrying the mediocre and even shoddy academic work of Laine on Shivaji, he clearly stated that arguments should be countered by arguments.
Pune BJP MP Pradeep Rawal who too had considered the book mediocre called the attack on BORI 'an act of cowardice resulting from a Taliban-like attitude.'
Sambhaji Brigade, which carried out the attack, is not only an anti-Hindutva organisation but as most anti-Hindutva organisations go, it is also a ‘Breaking India’ force which dissociates Shivaji from his Hindu identity and instead identifies him with Maratta pride.
They also do propaganda that they are not Hindus but as a separate non-Brahminical religion. Let us remember that all these are hallmarks of the logic presented by anti-Hindutva political rhetoric in Indian polity and the academic as well as activist nature of such rhetoric has been the staple diet of Nehruvian, Marxist and Dravidianist polity against assertions of Hindutva.
Despite all these facts, only a brazen murderer of truth and other things alone can shamelessly peddle a lie to his international audience that it was ‘Hindutva mobs’ which desecrated BORI.
Tharoor provides lofty quotes from Vedas and Upanishads to flaunt his new-found love for Hinduism. Instead of all those exquisite quotes he can start by practicing one simple Dharmic injunction – सत्यं वद.