This article has similarities to my article I wrote several years ago and relisted at: http://worldmuslimcongress.org/why-am-i-a-muslim/
The following article was published as “People of No one book” at Indian Quarterly
In this paean to doubt, Shashi Tharoor argues that Hindutva does a disservice to a religion that encourages the seeking of answers rather than the giving of sermons
When I stood for the post of UN Secretary General in 2006, journalists quizzed me about the role my Hindu faith played in my worldview. I conceded that it was true that faith can influence one’s conduct in one’s career and life. For some, it is merely a question of faith in themselves; for others, including me, that sense of faith emerges from a faith in something larger than ourselves. Faith is, at some level, what gives you the courage to take the risks you must take, and enables you to make peace with yourself when you suffer the inevitable setbacks and calumnies that are the lot of those who try to make a difference in the world.
So I had no difficulty in saying openly that I am a believing Hindu. But I was also quick to explain what that phrase means to me. I’m not a “Hindu fundamentalist”. As I have explained in my recent book, Why I Am a Hindu, the fundamental thing about Hinduism is that it 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.
Mine is a faith that allows each believer to reach out his or her hands to his or her notion of the godhead. I was brought up in the belief that all ways of worship are equally valid. I relished pointing out that my father prayed devoutly every day, but never used to oblige me to join him. In the Hindu way, he wanted me to find my own truth.
Finding my own truth gave me a truth that admits of the possibility that there might be other truths. I therefore bring to the world an attitude that is open, accommodating and tolerant of others’ beliefs. Mine is not a faith for those who seek unquestioning dogmas, but there is no better belief-system for an era of doubt and uncertainty than a religion that cheerfully accommodates both.
Hinduism professes no false certitudes. Its capacity to express wonder at Creation and, simultaneously, scepticism about the omniscience of the Creator are unique. Both are captured beautifully in this verse from the 3,500-year-old Rig Veda, the “Nasadiya Sukta” or Creation Hymn:
Who knows whence this creation had its origin?
He, whether He fashioned it or whether He did not,
He, who surveys it all from the highest heaven,
He knows—or maybe even He does not know.
—Rig Veda, X 1291
“Maybe even He does not know!” I love a faith that raises such a fundamental question about no less a Supreme Being than the Creator of the Universe Himself. Maybe He does not know, indeed. Who are we mere mortals to claim a knowledge of which even He cannot be certain?
Hinduism is also a faith that uniquely does not have any notion of heresy in it: you cannot be a Hindu heretic because there is no standard set of dogmas from which you can deviate that make you a heretic. Indeed, not even what one might think of as the most basic tenet of any religion—a belief in the existence of God—is a prerequisite in Hinduism. An important branch of Hindu philosophy, the Charvaka School, goes so far as to embrace atheism within the Hindu philosophical framework.
Hinduism, in other words, incorporates almost all forms of belief and worship within it; there is no need to choose some or reject others. Mahatma Gandhi famously appreciated this quality of Hinduism: “Its freedom from dogma makes a forcible appeal to me,” he wrote, “inasmuch as it gives the votary the largest scope for self-expression.”
It is therefore a timeless faith, populated by ideas at once ancient and modern, hosting texts, philosophies, belief systems and schools of thought that do not necessarily all agree with each other. But none has ever been rejected by some supreme authority as beyond the pale; there is no such authority in Hinduism. There can be no Hindu Inquisition because there is neither an exacting theology that everyone must subscribe to as holy writ, nor an exalted authority empowered to appoint an Inquisitor. Hindu thought is like a vast library in which no book ever goes out of print; even if the religious ideas a specific volume contains have not been read, enunciated or followed in centuries, the book remains available to be dipped into, to be revised and reprinted with new annotations or a new commentary whenever a reader feels the need for it. In many cases the thoughts it contains may have been modified by or adapted to other ideas that may have arisen in response; in most, it’s simply there, to be referred to, used or ignored as Hindus see fit.
The misuse of religion for political purposes is, of course, a sad, sometimes tragic, aspect of our contemporary reality. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, the problem is never with the faith, but with the faithful. All faiths strive sincerely to animate the divine spark in each of us, but some of their followers, alas, use their faith as a club to beat others with, rather than a platform to raise themselves to the heavens. Since Hinduism believes that there are various ways of reaching the ultimate truth, as a Hindu I fully accepted the belief systems of others as equal to my own.
But what does it mean to me to be a practising Hindu? I believe in the Upanishadic doctrine that the Divine is essentially unknowable and unattainable by ordinary mortals. All prayer is an attempt to reach out to that which we cannot touch. While I do occasionally visit temples, and I appreciate how important they are to my mother and most other devout Hindus, I believe that one does not need any intermediaries between oneself and one’s notion of the Divine. If God is in your heart, it matters little where else He resides.
So I take pride in the openness, the diversity, the range, the sublime philosophical aspirations of the Vedanta. I cherish the diversity, the lack of compulsion and the richness of the various ways in which Hinduism is practised eclectically. And I admire the civilisational heritage of tolerance that makes Hindu societies open their arms to people of every other faith, to come to practise their beliefs in peace amidst Hindus.
In many ways, Hinduism’s suitability for the modern world lies in this. The religion of “maybe He does not know” is a faith for the non-dogmatic, one which looks beyond the blacks and whites, the grim certitudes of lesser mortals, to the acknowledgement of the scope for doubt, for different points of view on the great questions of life and death.
In his historic speech at Chicago’s Parliament of the World’s Religions on September 11, 1893, Swami Vivekananda spoke of Hinduism as teaching the world not just tolerance but acceptance. The Swami believed that Hinduism, with its openness, its respect for variety, its acceptance of all other faiths, was one religion that should be able to spread its influence without threatening others. At the Parliament, he articulated the liberal humanism that lies at the heart of his (and my) creed: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” He went on to quote a hymn, the “Shiva Mahimna Stotram”, which he remembered from his formative years at school: “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”
Vivekananda’s is a prescription for peace and coexistence among competing dogmatisms in a world full of too many dogmas. This is why it was perhaps the ideal faith for a candidate for United Nations Secretary-General to profess. (And when I lost the race, my faith offered me consolation too, in the Bhagavad Gita’s dictum that one did what was one’s dharma to do, regardless of the consequences.)
Hinduism does not see the world in terms of absolutes. Blacks and whites are largely absent from its ethos. It sees competing notions of good and evil, duty and betrayal, everywhere, and seeks wisdom in finding the right approach suited for each specific circumstance.
Vivekananda used to tell a parable of the frog in the well: “I am a Hindu. I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christians sit in their little well and think the whole world is their well. The Muslims sit in their little well and think that is the whole world.” To Vivekananda, the world was one where each frog had much to learn from the others, if he would only look beyond his well.
Hinduism is not a totalising belief system; it offers a way of coping with the complexity of the world. It acknowledges that the truth is plural, that there is no one correct answer to the big questions of creation, or of the meaning of life. In its reverence for sages and rishis, it admits that knowledge may come from an exchange between two or more views, neither of which necessarily possesses a monopoly on the truth. The greatest truth, to the Hindu, is that which accepts the existence of other truths.
Hinduism sees life as an evolving dynamic, not a contest that can ever be settled once and for all. It is open to negotiation on ways of being and believing; it permits negotiation even with God. It offers rites and rituals, but leaves it up to each individual to choose which ones he wishes to adhere to. Each Hindu must find his own truth. Each individual achieves (or fails to achieve) his own salvation and self-fulfilment.
At the same time, Hinduism is also anchored in the real world. A superficial view of Hinduism sees its other-worldly “timelessness”. But, in fact, the religion is anchored not in a world-denying spirituality, as the philosopher Raimon Panikkar points out; in his words, it is not the timeless, but the “time-full”, which wins Vedic approbation. Hinduism is a life-affirming religion of joy and play (“leela”). It sees the world as suffused with radiance rather than darkness; as the Bhagavad Gita says, “That splendour which is from the sun, which illumines this whole world, which is in the moon and in fire—know that splendour is also mine.” In turn this refulgence is Man’s, since he is enjoined by the Upanishads to see all beings in himself and himself in all things; he therefore radiates in his person the splendour of the Universe.
Yes, the Hindu scriptures acknowledge the existence of human sorrow and suffering, but see them as part of an awakening to the transcendent. The Vedas do not ask why we suffer; they take human sorrow as a given, an affliction to be dealt with and overcome. The Upanishads are more questioning of suffering; they use a word, dukha, sadness and existential distress, a word not found in the Vedas. Ideally one must be detached from such suffering, as the Gita teaches, and by eliminating sorrow in oneself through self-realisation, help remove it from others.
Similarly, the Hindu scriptures speculate about the mystery of what lies beyond human life, but they are not obsessed with death; as Panikkar brilliantly put it, “they seem to describe an existential attitude that takes cognizance of the phenomenon of death but denies to it any character of ultimacy… It is by integrating the fact of death into life, by reabsorbing, as it were, death into life…by finding a ground that is common to both death and life, that we can find the proper Vedic perspective.” This notion of the continuity between life and death is a particularly Hindu idea, with death, as it were, built into life. Once again, no black-and-white here.
Hindus believe that, at most, religion can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can be attained. Destiny, knowledge, reflection and prayer may equip you to achieve fulfilment. The Hindu is a seeker, but the holy grail he seeks is within himself. Hinduism urges you to explore your own mind and heart to discover the truths about life. Yoga, meditation, prayer, social service are all means to that end, but not the only ones. You have to work hard yourself to achieve those things that are worth achieving. The doctrine of karma yoga preached by both Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi is a doctrine of action, not of passivity or fatalism. There is no lassitude in the pursuit of the Purusharthas, the worldly goals set before every Hindu: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
The wise Hindu can hold two or more opposing ideas together in her mind at the same time. That is the way the world is. For the Hindu texts uniquely operate from a platform of scepticism, not a springboard of certitude. The Rig Veda verse that says “maybe He does not know” about the Creator is not an invention of post-modernism, but the wisdom of a timeless text that has lasted for three and a half millennia and will always be valid.
Most faiths prioritise one identity, one narrative and one holy book. Hinduism recognises that everyone has multiple identities, accepts diverse narratives and respects several sacred books. Indeed, the folk Hinduism of multiple beliefs cannot be forced into the Abrahamic framework of One Book, One Deity and one way of doing things. The more the Hindu grapples with the great questions, the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.
Yet the Hindu lives in reality, in the here and now, conscious that, on the way to renunciation and liberation from the world, there are worldly duties and responsibilities to family, community and nation that must be performed without regard to their rewards. Hindus do not shelter from the besieging forces of life behind the safety of their doctrinal battlements, the omniscience of their dogmas, the fatwas or encyclicals of their priests. They are unafraid to face the crosscurrents, acknowledging how little they know. Indeed Hindus are not awed by the complexity of the world, because they accept the world is complex, and much passes their understanding.
The harm religion does when it is passionately self-righteous—wars, crusades, communal violence, jihad—is arguably greater than the benefits religion produces when it does well (teaching morality, answering prayers, providing balm to troubled souls). In its long history, Hinduism has never launched an apocalyptic war of religion or tried to impose one correct answer on all of life. Hindus like to speak of theirs as a religion of peace, but then so do other faiths. Still, the Hindu scriptures are replete with hymns to peace, and are infused with the idea that human beings must seek peace within themselves and peace with all other human beings.
In the twenty-first century, Hinduism has many of the attributes of a universal religion—a religion that is personal and individualistic, privileges the individual and does not subordinate one to a collectivity; a religion that grants and respects complete freedom to the believer to find his or her own answers to the true meaning of life; a religion that offers a wide range of choice in religious practice, even in regard to the nature and form of the formless God; a religion that places great emphasis on one’s mind, and values one’s capacity for reflection, intellectual enquiry, and self-study; a religion that distances itself from dogma and holy writ, that is minimally prescriptive and yet offers an abundance of options, spiritual and philosophical texts and social and cultural practices to choose from. In a world where resistance to authority is growing, Hinduism imposes no authorities; in a world of networked individuals, Hinduism proposes no institutional hierarchies; in a world of open-source information-sharing, Hinduism accepts all paths as equally valid; in a world of rapid transformations and accelerating change, Hinduism is adaptable and flexible, which is why it has survived for nearly 4,000 years.
In 1926, Professor Clement Webb suggested that Hinduism, with its tradition of openness, tolerance and acceptance of the Divine in the most diverse forms imaginable, “could perhaps more easily than any other faith develop, without loss of continuity with its past, into a universal religion…” This remains true almost a century later. Universalism comes easily to Hinduism. Hindus respect the environment because it embodies the unity of all creation, and in this, too, theirs is a faith for the twenty-first century.
Dr Karan Singh, the former maharaja of Kashmir and Indian politician who is also a superbly readable scholar of Hindu philosophy, identifies five major principles in Hinduism that lend relevance and validity to the faith in today’s world. At the risk of inadequate paraphrase, these are, according to him: the recognition of the unity of all mankind, epitomised in the Rig Vedic phrase “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”, the world is one family; the harmony of all religions, epitomised in that Rig Vedic statement that was Swami Vivekananda’s favourite, “ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti”; the divinity inherent in each individual, transcending the social stratifications and hierarchies that have all too often distorted this principle in Hindu society; the creative synthesis of practical action and contemplative knowledge, science and religion, meditation and social service, in the faith; and finally, the cosmic vision of Hindu philosophy, incorporating the infinite galaxies of which the Earth is just a tiny speck. Hinduism gives humanity the chance, in his words, “to transcend the throbbing abyss of space and time itself.” This, Dr Singh says, is the message of Hinduism, and it is a message that can and should resonate throughout the world.
Yet such a universal creed can only be the Hinduism described in my book, rather than the petty intolerant Hindutva being propagated by bigots today in a travesty of the majesty of their faith. Hinduism does not seek to proselytise, only to offer itself as an example that others may or may not choose to follow. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths it manifests no desire to universalise itself; yet its tenets and values are universally applicable. But first it must be revived and reasserted, in its glorious liberalism, its openness and acceptance, its eclecticism and universalism, in the land of its birth.
This essay was published in the April-June 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine. The theme of the issue was “Black and White”.