To Be or Not to Be

In Hinduism, the right to spiritual equality is restricted. In glossing over the fact in his new book, Shashi Tharoor is playing into the hands of the proponents of Hindutva

Written by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd Source

Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, Why I am a Hindu is political rather than academic or intellectual. The title is the very opposite to my book, Why I am Not a Hindu: A Shudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (1996). In Chapter 1 — My Hinduism — he answers, “Of course, that it is because I was born one”. This answer raises two fundamental questions: one, is one born into a religion or must be baptised into it, irrespective of one’s parents’ religion? The definition of religion rejects such a possibility. Second, with what status was he born into Hinduism? We come from the same South Indian Shudra background (Tharoor is a Nair from Kerala), but we have come to altogether different conclusions based on birth.

I said I am not a Hindu because of the unequal birth of different communities in that religion. I also examined it’s negation of productive culture and maltreatment of productive communities. The Rig Veda that Tharoor quotes profusely starts with the divine theory that Brahmins are created from the head of Purusha, Kshatriyas from the shoulders, Vaisyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet. This theory goes against the fundamental, universal religious principle that God created all humans equal.

In his writings, Tharoor does not let the readers know that he comes from a Shudra (Nair) background, as if he has no caste roots. He may think so, but the religion he writes about in this book does not think so. It did not allow others to operate outside the cultural frame of caste. Since Tharoor missed the core aspect of Hinduism in this book, he missed all of India and Hinduism, in a historical sense.

Nowhere in the book does he mention the social status of his family and the caste system of Hinduism. He writes as a politician. Having been born a Hindu, according to him, all the Hinduness he wears on his sleeve comes from the early poojas of his father, the stories told by his mother and grandmother and the received godhead. Is there no caste-centred restriction in that religious life? Is there no segregative systemic life in it?
Instead of studying in a English medium school, if he were to study in a Sanskrit one like the elder sons of Kerala Namboodiris were supposed to, and because of this mode of imbibing Hinduism if he were to think of becoming a priest in the Guruvayoor Srikrishna temple, would he have been allowed to be one? No, because he comes from the Nair caste.

This is exactly what the RSS also does. The structural Hinduism that Tharoor praises by quoting from the Vedas, the Upanishads, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja and so on, and the RSS-owned Hinduism, differ in very few respects. Every RSS theoretician approves of the scriptures and saints and justifies the Varnadharma system that it engendered. Tharoor is silent about it. He approves every aspect of the religion, as any Namboodiri writer from Kerala would do, and there is no attempt to suggest reforms.

The fundamental question, in wearing Hinduism on his sleeve, is: does he have anything in common with Nehruvian secularism, leave alone Ambedkarism? Ambedkar laid a radical foundation for the reform of Hinduism and Indian society: “I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable (as Tharoor was born with the stigma of a Shudra). However, it is not my fault,; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.” He embraced Buddhism, which did not accept caste and untouchability in theory or practice.

But Pandit Nehru, who had many stakes in Hinduism, said: “By education I am an Englishman, by views an internationalist, by culture a Muslim and a Hindu only by accident of birth.” Nehru was the most celebrated PM of India for almost 17 years, and the masses liked him. Nehru was a Kashmiri Pandit, whose ancestors were said to have composed the Vedas. How could Tharoor, a Kerala Shudra, become more Hindu by birth than Nehru? Here lies the danger for the secular foundations he lays. The muscle power of Shudras is already available in the ranks of the RSS, willing to attack anybody who is not Hindu or critiques Hindutva. Shashi Tharoor has given them a theoretical weapon. Brahminism would be very happy with him.

Neither Indira Gandhi nor Rajiv Gandhi followed the Nehruvian secular conviction. Rahul Gandhi, I thought, would follow his grandfather but seems to be slipping into Tharoor’s idea of Hinduism. Not just one Tharoor, who deliberately wrote this book at this juncture when the Congress is trying to come back by mediating between RSS/BJP Hindutva and Hinduism, my fear is that Nehru’s well-defined secularism is being put on the back burner by the whole party.

It is clear that Tharoor has nothing to do with Nehru and Ambedkar, and certainly has something to with Savarkar, Hegdewar and Golwalkar, along with his venerable seers like Adi Shankara, Ramanuja and so on. He is only saying that they should not be politicised, and hence describes the RSS and BJP’s Hinduism as “Political Hinduism’’. His repeated reference to Mahtma Gandhi’s Hinduism does not make any difference because if only Nathuram Godse had not killed Gandhi, his idea of Hinduism would have fit into that of any other Hindu school of thought, including that of RSS. We know that Narendra Modi is owning Gandhi more legitimately than Tharoor could do. Gandhi was a Bania (Modi is an OBC Bania), Gujarati Hindu. Tharoor’s claim to his heritage is comparatively weak.If Tharoor were to join the RSS, he would not have been allowed to become the sarsanghchalak like Mohan Bhagwat because they look at caste background quite carefully. Shashi Tharoor, like Modi, can become Prime Minister because of the Constitution, not because of the Vedas or the Bhagvad Gita. But he could not be the priest of Tirupati or Guruvayur temple. In Hinduism, let alone Hindutva, the right to spiritual equality is restricted. However, since the Nair caste had been in a sambandham with Kerala Brahmins for long, claiming that the Shudras are “Hindu by birth” makes some sense. But if Tharoor were born a Pulaya in Kerala, would he have written a book with the same title? A scholar of KR Narayanan’s stature and attainments did not say, “I am a Hindu” with such facility because of the inherent contradiction in such a claim.

I am also surprised at the praise for this book from a sensible social science scholar like Neera Chandhoke, in another review. Caste-blind scholarship which draws a quick distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva is forcing the Congress of Rahul Gandhi to own Hinduism, as a strategy to bring the Congress back to power. While Gandhi calls himself Brahmin and presents himself as a temple-going Hindu, the Shudra upper caste Tharoor tries to provide a theoretical framework to ‘Congress Hinduism’ against the BJP’s Hindutva.

But in the long run, the nation is endangered by this competition to assign Hinduness to India, which is not a religion like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. When Modi claimed that he was an OBC in 2002, I wrote that he was likely to become the PM of India. After reading Tharoor, I can only say that the Congress will be lucky if he does not join the BJP if it retains power after the 2019 elections. He has left enough room for a transit.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is chairman, T-MASS, Telangana