(Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company. ‘Why I Am a Hindu’ by Shashi Tharoor is available on Amazon.)
At almost the same time as the ‘Taj controversy’, came one over a film on the Rajput queen Padmavati, who is said to have immolated herself, together with 16,000 other Rajput women, rather than be captured alive by the invading Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji.
The historicity of the incident is somewhat in doubt; no contemporary account of Khilji’s attack on Chittorgarh, including by historians accompanying his forces, mentions the queen.
But Padmavati became legend more than two centuries later, when the Sufi mystic poet Malik Mohammed Jayasi devoted his lyrical epic Padmavat to her story.
Excerpt #1: On the ‘Padmavaat’ Row
It has been suggested that Jayasi did not intend his tale to be taken literally, and that he had chosen Khilji’s attack on Chittor because its name included the word ‘chit’ (consciousness); his poem is said to have been an allegory for the union of mind and soul, under attack from external forces, with the man-woman story a standard trope of the Persian mystic poetry tradition.
But literature, once published, acquires a life of its own. The tale was picked up and retold with enthusiasm — by Bengali bards, Rajasthani folk-tellers, and even the English Colonel Tod, who included Padmavati’s tale in his compilation, Annals and Antiquities of Rajputana.
In countless retellings, Padmavati was soon deified: she became the symbol of Rajput female honour and purity, nobly resisting the lustful Muslim, her self-immolation (jauhar) the ‘epitome’ of sacrificial Hindu womanhood.
The controversy confirmed once again that to some Hindus, the difference between historical fact and cultural myth does not matter; what is remembered and believed is as important as what is verifiable.
I am indeed proud that I am a Hindu. But of what is it that I am, and am not, proud? I am not proud of my co-religionists attacking and destroying Muslim homes and shops. I am not proud of Hindus raping Muslim girls, or slitting the wombs of Muslim mothers. I am not proud of Hindu vegetarians who have roasted human beings alive and rejoiced over the corpses.
Excerpt #2: Why I Am Proud (& Not Proud) of Being Hindu
I am not proud of those who reduce the lofty metaphysical speculations of the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their own sense of identity, which they assert in order to exclude, not embrace, others. I am proud that India’s pluralism is paradoxically sustained by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus, because Hinduism has taught them to live amidst a variety of other identities.
I am not proud of those who suggest that only a Hindu, and only a certain kind of Hindu, can be an authentic Indian. I am proud of those Hindus who utterly reject Hindu communalism, conscious that the communalism of the majority is especially dangerous because it can present itself as nationalist. I am proud of those Hindus who respect the distinction between Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism.
Obviously, majorities are never seen as ‘separatist’, since separatism is by definition pursued by a minority. But majority communalism is in fact an extreme form of separatism, because it seeks to separate other Indians, integral parts of our country, from India itself. I am proud of those Hindus who recognise that the saffron and the green both belong equally on the Indian flag.
Indeed, Professor Truschke has disputed the widespread belief in India that Aurangzeb was a Muslim fanatic who destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus.
History is a complex affair: Aurangzeb was undoubtedly an illiberal Islamist unlike his ancestors or the brother he decapitated on his ascent to the throne, Dara Shikoh, but he was not the genocidal mass-murderer and iconoclast many Hindus depict him as having been.
Petty chauvinism is always ugly but never more so than in the field of science, where knowledge must be uncontaminated by ideology, superstition or irrational pride. It is not necessary to debunk the genuine accomplishments of ancient Indian science in order to mock the laughable assertions of the Hindutva brigade.
Separating the reasonable from the absurd is a necessary condition of well-founded criticism. A BJP government choosing to assert its pride in yoga and Ayurveda, and seeking to promote them internationally, is, to my mind, perfectly acceptable. Not only are these extraordinary accomplishments of our civilisation, but they have always been, and should remain, beyond partisan politics.
Excerpt #3: On the Modi Government
It is only if the BJP promoted them in place of fulfilling its responsibility to provide conventional healthcare and life-saving modern allopathic medicines to the Indian people, that we need object on policy grounds.
But when the national manifesto of the BJP for the 2009 General Election claimed that in ancient times, rice yields in India stood at 20 tonnes per hectare — twice what farmers can produce today using intensive agriculture in the most fertile and propitious conditions imaginable — all one can do is to throw up one’s hands in despair.
Well before Modi became prime minister, the sociologist Ashis Nandy had described him as an archetypal fascist. However, it must be said that Modi has not conducted himself in office in the manner Nandy’s analysis would have suggested.
He (Modi) has repeatedly spoken of being a prime minister for all Indians; arguably his most effective slogan has been “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” — ‘together with everyone, development for all’.
Nor can it be denied that the ascent of Hindutvavadis to the pinnacle of political power in India has occurred, significantly, under India’s secular constitution, and through entirely democratic and legal means. The great question before us today is, therefore: Will constitutionalism tame Hindutva, or will Hindutva transform the workings of the constitution?
Excerpt #4: Bridging the Gap Between Religiosity & Secularism
When I was a columnist for The Hindu, which despite its name has been a secular, even left-inclined, newspaper throughout its existence, I received a number of letters from readers on the subject of Hindu ethics and dharma, prompted by some of my writings on the subject. One letter, from the retired Director General of Police of Tripura State, Mr BJK Tampi, made a challenging point.
Arguing that dharma “has a pre-eminently secular meaning of social ethics covering law-abiding conduct,” Mr Tampi sought for dharma its due prominence in Hindu life. “In fact the four ends of human life,” he went on, “dharma, artha, kama and moksha, are always mentioned in that order”.
“The purport is that the pursuit of wealth and pleasure should be within the parameters of dharma and moksha (the final emancipation of the soul from rebirth through religious practices)”.
Mr Tampi adds, citing Swami Ranganathananda (1908–2005, the spiritual teacher who was the thirteenth and most famous head of the Ramakrishna Mission): “the excessive Indian fear of rebirth has led to the neglect of true worldly dharma for the sake of an other-worldly moksha. It has made men unfit both in the worldly (secular) and spiritual spheres”.
Now I have never met the good Mr Tampi — whose theological learning is all the more impressive in one who served in the practical profession of a policeman — but his analysis gladdens my secular heart.
The fact is that, despite having done so much to attract the opprobrium of the Hindutva brigade, 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.
The social scientist TN Madan has argued that the increasing secularisation of modern Indian life is responsible for the rise of fundamentalism, since ‘it is the marginalisation of faith, which is what secularism is, that permits the perversion of religion.’
There are no fundamentalists or revivalists in traditional society. The implication is that secularism has deprived Indians of their moral underpinnings — the meaning that faith gives to life — and religious extremism has risen as an almost inevitable antithesis to the secular project.
Excerpt #5: Returning to a Tolerant, Pluralist ‘Dharma’
The only way out of this dilemma is for Hindus to return to the tolerant, holistic, just, pluralist dharma articulated so effectively by Swami Vivekananda, which embraces both worldly and spiritual duty. After all, as Mr Tampi points out, the Hindu’s secular pursuit of material happiness is not meant to be divorced from his obedience to the ethical and religious tenets of his faith.
So the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ is an artificial one: there is no such compartmentalisation in Hinduism. When you conduct your life by performing your duties ethically, are you ‘secular’ or (since you are fulfilling your dharma while adhering to a moral code) a ‘good Hindu’?
There is also a terminological issue here. The secularism avowed by successive Indian governments, as Professor RS Misra of Banaras Hindu University has argued, is based on dharma-nirpekshata (‘keeping apart from dharma’), which is impossible for any good Hindu to adhere to.
BJP politicians like Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath have argued that Indian governments cannot observe dharma-nirpekshata but should follow the precept of panth-nirpekshata (not favouring any particular sect or faith).
In this they are not far removed from my argument — which I have made for several years before my entry into Indian politics — that ‘secularism’ is a misnomer in the Indian context of profuse religiosity, and what we should be talking about is ‘pluralism’.
(We Indians have much to talk about these days. But what would you tell India if you had the chance? Pick up the phone and write or record your Letter To India. Don’t be silent, tell her how you feel. Mail us your letter at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll make sure India gets your message)