T A K I N G   B A C K   H I N D U I S M 

— Shashi Tharoor

Dallas Indian Arts Collective (DIAC), in partnership with Teamwork Arts, will have a Fireside Chat with Indian politician, diplomat and author, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, on Tuesday, September 18, 2018, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Center Stage, located at 111 Oak Lawn Avenue in the Design District. The conversation will be moderated by Sanjoy Roy, founder and producer of the world-renowned Jaipur Literature Festival.

Tickets are $50 and are available at www.diactexas.org. Both Tharoor & Roy will be available for one-on-one media interviews, upon request, from 5 to 6 p.m.

Tharoor, an award-winning author of 17 books of fiction and non-fiction, including Inglorious Empire (published in June 2018) and the newly published Why I Am A Hindu (not available for sale in North America until October 2018, but available at this event), is a second-term Member of Parliament representing Thiruvananthapuram and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. He has served as Minister of State for Human Resource Development and External Affairs in the Government of India. Photo (c) Bharat S Tiwari

In a profound re-examination of Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest and greatest religious traditions, India’s leading public intellectual, Shashi Tharoor, lays out Hinduism’s origins and its key philosophical concepts, major texts and everyday Hindu beliefs and practices, from worship to pilgrimage to caste. Tharoor is unsparing in his criticism of extremism and unequivocal in his belief that what makes India a distinctive nation with a unique culture will be imperiled if Hindu “fundamentalists”— the proponents of “Hindutva,” or politicized Hinduism—seize the high ground. In his view, it is precisely because Hindus form the majority that India has survived as a plural, secular democracy. A book that will be read and debated now and in the future, Why I Am a Hindu, written in Tharoor’s captivating prose, is a revelatory and original contribution to our understanding of the role of religion in society and politics.

the conversation will be moderated by Sanjoy Roy, founder and producer of the world-renowned Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo(c) Bharat S Tiwari
The conversation will be moderated by Sanjoy Roy, founder and producer of the world-renowned Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo(c) Bharat S Tiwari

यह कहना गलत है कि हिंदू भाग्य के भरोसे चुपचाप बैठा रहता है

'यह कहना गलत है कि हिंदू भाग्य के भरोसे चुपचाप बैठा रहता है और कि उसकी किस्मत लिखी हुई है...हिंदू भगवान के साथ मिलकर अपनी क्षमता बनाता है। हम हिंदुओं के लिए भगवान सिर्फ हमसे ऊपर और परे ही नहीं है, वह हम में भी है...जब हम जूझते हैं तो वह भी झूझता है, साथ तकलीफें सहता है, संघर्ष करता है। कुल मिलाकर ऐसा समझ लीजिए कि हिंदू जानता है कि उसका भाग्य वह और ईश्वर साथ मिलकर बनाते हैं।'

PRAISE FOR WHY I AM A HINDU (available for pre-sale at the event): 

Shashi Tharoor is the most charming and persuasive writer in India. His new book is a brave and characteristically articulate attempt to save a great and wonderfully elusive religion from the certainties of the fundamentalists and the politicization of the bigots.”—William Dalrymple

One of India’s most articulate liberals and a leading voice of those who reject the aggressively fundamentalist strains of Hindu nationalism.” —Victor Mallett, Financial Times

A profound book on one of the world’s oldest and greatest religions.”— Hindustan Times

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India

In the eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was as large as Europe’s. By 1947, after two centuries of British rule, it had decreased six-fold. Beyond conquest and deception, the Empire blew rebels from cannon, massacred unarmed protesters, entrenched institutionalized racism, and caused millions to die from starvation. British imperialism justified itself as enlightened despotism for the benefit of the governed, but Shashi Tharoor takes on and demolishes this position, demonstrating how every supposed imperial “gift”— from the railways to the rule of law—was designed in Britain’s interests alone. He goes on to show how Britain’s Industrial Revolution was founded on India’s deindustrialization, and the destruction of its textile industry. In this bold and incisive reassessment of colonialism, Tharoor exposes to devastating effect the inglorious reality of Britain’s stained Indian legacy.

PRAISE FOR INGLORIOUS EMPIRE (available for sale at the event):

Rare indeed is it to come across history that is so readable and so persuasive.”—Amitav Ghosh

Tharoor’s impassioned polemic slices straight to the heart of the darkness that drives all empires. Forceful, persuasive and blunt, he demolishes Raj nostalgia, laying bare the grim, and high, cost of the British Empire for its former subjects. An essential read.”— Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times

His writing is a delight and he seldom misses his target … Tharoor should be applauded for tackling an impossibly contentious subject … he deserves to be read. Indians are not the only ones who need reminding that empire has a lot to answer for.”—Literary Review
Dallas Indian Arts Collective (DIAC)
Dallas Indian Arts Collective (DIAC)

Excerpts from Shashi Tharoor's , Why I Am a Hindu



One unavoidable issue to be dealt with relating to popular notions of Hinduism is that of 'Hindu fatalism'- does not our belief in destiny, in karma and predestination, make us inured to our lot in life and accepting of Fate, rather than seeking to change it? There is an old story, from our ancient Puranas, the kind of story Hindus have often told to illustrate larger points about themselves

 A man-the quintessential Hindu, one might say-is pursued by a tiger. He runs fast, but his panting heart tells him he cannot run much longer or faster. He spots a tree. Relief! He accelerates and gets to it in one last despairing stride. He climbs the tree. The tiger snarls beneath him, but he feels he has at least escaped its snapping jaws. But no-what's this? The branch on which he is sitting is weak, and bends dangerously. That is not all; wood- mice are gnawing away it. Before long, they will eat through it and the branch will snap and fall.

  The man realizes this, sees the tiger below him waiting for him to tumble into its grasp. But as the branch bends, it sags over a well. Aha! Escape? Our hero looks hopefully into the well. Perhaps he can swim! But the well is dry. Worse, there are poisonous snakes writhing and hissing on its bed, waiting for prey. What is our hero to do? As the branch bends lower, he perceives a solitary blade of grass growing on the wall of the well. On the tip of the blade of grass gleams a drop of honey.

 What action does our Puranic man, the archetypal Indian, take in this situation?

 He bends with the branch, and licks up the honey.

 This story is at least 2,000 years old, but it could be told today. It speaks of what the Orientalists saw as Hindu fatalism, a tendency for us to be resigned to our lot and to accept the world as it is ordained to be. The story speaks of our self-absorption in the face of impossible circumstances, and our willingness to make the best we possibly can out of those impossible circumstances.

 That is the Hindu answer to the insuperable difficulty. One does not fight against that which one cannot overcome, but seeks instead to find the best way, for oneself, to live with it. In many ways, it explains what Westerners have tended to see as Hindu fatalism, and V. S. Naipaul referred to as a tendency for 'non-doing And yet this is a very partial understanding of Hinduism.

 The Bhagavad Gita in fact asks Hindus to raise themselves by the self; that is, to use whatever elements Fate has dealt them-the circumstances of their birth, their location, their access to wealth, the opportunities for education and so on-as best they can to move towards self-realization. The fact that circumstances are what they are does not deny the Hindu the freedom of will to seek to change them. The position of the planets at the time of a Hindu's birth may have determined some of his possibilities, charting good phases and bad ones in his life, but then it is up to him to make what he can of them. It is wrong to suggest that everything is willed by Fate for the quiescent Hindu, that his destiny is decreed. The Hindu works with God to fulfil his potential. God is not just above and beyond us; to the Hindu, He is also within us. He struggles with us, suffers with us, strives with us. To that degree, the Hindu knows he makes his own fate, in partnership with God.

यह कहना गलत है कि हिंदू भाग्य के भरोसे चुपचाप बैठा रहता है और कि उसकी किस्मत लिखी हुई है
यह कहना गलत है कि हिंदू भाग्य के भरोसे चुपचाप बैठा रहता है और कि उसकी किस्मत लिखी हुई है...हिंदू भगवान के साथ मिलकर अपनी क्षमता बनाता है। हम हिंदुओं के लिए भगवान सिर्फ हमसे ऊपर और परे ही नहीं है, वह हम में भी है...जब हम जूझते हैं तो वह भी झूझता है, साथ तकलीफें सहता है, संघर्ष करता है। कुल मिलाकर ऐसा समझ लीजिए कि हिंदू जानता है कि उसका भाग्य वह और ईश्वर साथ मिलकर बनाते हैं। https://twitter.com/BharatTiwari/status/964391692127289344 

 Early in my United Nations career, my first boss, a lay preacher in his native Denmark, asked me a pointed question: Why should a Hindu be good? Not, I replied, in order to go to heaven or avoid hell; most Hindus do not believe in the existence of either. heaven is a place where a soul should sprout white wings and sing the praises of God, it must be rather a boring place, hardly worth aspiring to, and God must be a rather insecure Being. And as for hell, the very notion of hell is incompatible with Hindu cosmology, since it suggests there is a place where God is not, and that, to the Hindu, is impossible to conceive, for God is everywhere or He would not be God.

 If Hinduism is, indeed, a manava dharma, an ethical code applicable to the whole of humanity, then it is legitimate for a non-Hindu to ask why indeed should a Hindu be good? First of all, because he is bound by the moral obligation to fulfil his dharma, the right action his religion enjoins upon him always to undertake

 The Hindu is taught that there are six principal obstacles to the performance of dharma: two are Purusharthas gone wrong, kama as lust rather than desire, and lobha as greed and avarice for material possessions (beyond artha which is the legitimate acquisition of wealth and worldly goods for a worthy life). Four other vices are personal failings that are within an individual's capacity to prevent: krodha (hatred), mada (vanity), matsarya (envy) and moha (delusion arising from ignorance or infatuation) These six obstacles are prevented and overcome through the practice of seven essential virtues laid down from the time of Adi Shankara: ahimsa (non-violence), satyam (truth), shivam (piety), sundaram (the cultivation of beauty), vairagyam (detachment), pavitram (purity) and swabhavam (self-control). The rejection of these vices and the practice of these virtues are essential for a Hindu to lead a good life.

 My boss was a worldly-wise man; he wanted a more pragmatic reason for why a Hindu should be good. If it was not the promise of a better life in the next world, or a desire to avoid eternal damnation in Hell, what was a Hindu's incentive? I explained that whereas in Christianity the body has a soul, in Hinduism the soul has a body. In other words, we are emanations of a universal soul, the atman, which does not die; it discards its temporal form, the body, from time to time. Since the purpose of the soul is ultimately to reach moksha, to attain union with Brahman and hustop the endless cycle of birth and rebirth in various bodies, the incentive for a Hindu to be good lay in the desire to progress towards this goal. An amoral Hindu, one who lived in adharma, would be in disharmony with the world and be set back in his soul's striving for moksha.

 I am not sure he was satisfied with my answer, and I am not sure you, the reader, will be. There was, however, a catch in what I was propounding. If the soul is permanent and the body is not, it makes sense that the soul sheds bodies and keeps returning to earth until it has attained moksha; from this flows the doctrine of punarjanmam (reincarnation), the idea that one will be reborn until one has attained that level of self-realization.

 The idea of reincarnation, emerging from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, is basic to Hinduism. If in other faiths the individual is a body which has its own soul, in Hinduism the individual is a soul which happens to be in temporary possession of a certain body; the immortal soul occupies a mortal corpus, which it discards at the end of its physical life, only to re-emerge in another form, until it accomplishes true self-realization and moksha, and merges with Brahman. This cycle of birth, death and rebirth is known as Samsara, and it is a belief that addresses one of the central challenges facing every believer in God-if God is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-compassionate and merciful, why does He permit so much suffering, pain, inequality and inequity to bedevil his creations? The Hindu answer is that such suffering is the result of man's own actions in a previous life; our present circumstances are caused or enabled by our past deeds and misdeeds, action and inaction. The soul continues from life-cycle to life-cycle, hopping from body to body as a caterpillar climbs onto a blade of grass and jumps to a new one (the metaphor is Upanishadic, not my own.)

 I always considered this deeply unfair: why should a human being, conscious only of himself in his present life, have to suffer for wrongs he does not recollect and misdeeds he has no memory of having committed in previous lives of which he is unaware? Still, I had to accept it was a more coherent explanation than the contradictory ones offered by other faiths, which struggled to reconcile the world's injustices with their theological belief in a merciful God. If you thought of God as, for instance, an old man in a white beard looking down benevolently at you from the heavens, listening to your prayers and interceding when He saw fit, then it was difficult to accept that His benevolence stopped short of your well-being despite your prayers, or that He was indifferent to the cruelty and suffering assailing His creatures. If you stopped thinking of God that way, however, but saw God in everyone and everything, in the bad and the good, in the unfair as well as the just, as an impersonal cosmic force that just is-then you can come to terms with the world's tragedies as well as its joys

 The idea of reincarnation is related to that of karma, or action- the accumulated actions of your life. So the very circumstances of your birth-the home, the place, the nation and the opportunities into which you are born-are determined by your soul's actions in its previous incarnation. The time and circumstances of your death, too, are beyond human agency; when you have finished enjoying the benefits earned from (and paying for the misdeeds committed in) your previous life, your time on earth ends and your soul discards your body, to enter another. This is known as prarabdha karma. Then there are your characteristics, tendencies and aptitudes, themselves emerging from the accumulated learnings of your previous lives; this is called sanchita karma and can be changed by your efforts, education and conduct in your present life. Finally there is agami karma, those of our actions which will pave the way for our future (reborn) life. Our evil words or deeds in the present life will mar our soul's prospects in the next, whereas good deeds, right actions and the fulfilment of our dharma without regard to reward, will ensure our rebirth at a higher stage of the progress towards moksha

 To some this suggests another, somewhat simplistic, answer to the question Why should a Hindu be good?' Be good so that you are reborn in a better situation in your next life than in the present one; if you are good, you may reappear as a king or a sage, whereas if you are bad, you might come back as an invalid or a mosquito. (Or as Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, put it: As a Hindu, if you are a good economist in this life, you come back in the next as a physicist. If you are a bad economist in this life, you come back in the next as a sociologist.') Jokes apart, your prarabdha karma is established by what your soul has experienced in its previous foray in a human body: your incentive to be good is to improve its chances of a better time in its next innings

 I was never comfortable with this idea, since it seemed to me to have been devised somewhat self-servingly by the upper castes to ensure social peace. Do not rebel if you are born poor or 'untouchable', the doctrine seemed to imply, since it's merely your soul paying for the sins of your past life; and do not blame us for leading a much better life than you, since we are merely reaping the benefits of our past good deeds.

 Behave, conform, accept your lot and serve your betters, the doctrine seemed to suggest, and you will enjoy the rewards next time around. As a philosophy to reconcile people with their lot, and that would help maintain social peace, such a belief-system was of inestimable value. (It also justified human suffering in terms that no other religion's theology could match.) But I found it ethically dubious-and so, no doubt unfairly, looked askance at the idea of reincarnation itself. I was wrong to do so, since the socio-political rationale was irrelevant to the Hindu sages who had advanced the theory of punarjanmam. They were less concerned about issues of socio-political conformism than I was; the rishis' interest lay in the soul's unsteady and imperfect progress towards self-realization and merger with the cosmos. Their doctrine was about the divine soul, not the social circumstances of the body it happened to occupy.


As a believing Hindu, I cannot agree with the Hindutvavadis. Indeed, I am ashamed of what they are doing while claiming to be acting in the name of my faith. The violence is particularly sickening: it has led tens of thousands of Hindus across India to protest with placards screaming, 'Not In My Name'. As I have explained... and would like to reiterate, I have always prided myself on belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief; a religion that acknowledges all ways of worshipping God as equally valid-indeed, the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. As I have often asked: How dare a bunch of goondas shrink the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics? Why should any Hindu allow them to diminish Hinduism to the raucous self-glorification of the football hooligan, to take a religion of awe-inspiring tolerance and reduce it to a chauvinist rampage?

Hinduism, with its openness, its respect for variety, its acceptance of all other faiths, is one religion which has always been able to assert itself without threatening others. But this is not the Hindutva that destroyed the Babri Masjid, nor that spewed in hate-filled diatribes by communal politicians. It is, instead, the Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda. It is important to parse some of Swami Vivekananda's most significant assertions. The first is his assertion that Hinduism stands for 'both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true'. He... [quotes] a hymn... to the effect that as different streams originating in different places all flow into the same sea, so do all paths lead to the same divinity. He repeatedly asserted the wisdom of the Advaita belief that Truth is One even if the sages call It by different names. Vivekananda's vision-summarised in the credo 'sarva dharma sambhava'-is, in fact, the kind of Hinduism practised by the vast majority of Hindus, whose instinctive acceptance of other faiths and forms of worship has long been the vital hallmark of our culture...

I reject the presumption that the purveyors of hatred speak for all or even most Hindus. The Hindutva ideology is in fact a malign distortion of Hinduism. It is striking that leaders of now-defunct twentieth-century political parties like the Liberal Party and the pro-free enterprise Swatantra Party were unabashed in their avowal of their Hinduism; the Liberal leader Srinivasa Sastry wrote learned disquisitions on the Ramayana, and the founder of Swatantra, C. Rajagopalachari ('Rajaji'), was a Sanskrit scholar whose translations of the Itihasas and lectures on aspects of Hinduism are still widely read, decades after his death. Neither would have recognised the intolerance and bigotry of Hindutva as in any way representative of the faith they held dear. Many leaders in the Congress Party are similarly comfortable in their Hindu beliefs while rejecting the political construct of Hindutva. It suits the purveyors of Hindutva to imply that the choice is between their belligerent interpretation of Hinduism and the godless Westernisation of the 'pseudo-seculars'. Rajaji and Sastry proved that you could wear your Hinduism on your sleeve and still be a political liberal. But that choice is elided by the identification of Hindutva with political Hinduism, as if such a conflation is the only possible approach open to practising Hindus.

I reject that idea. I not only consider myself both a Hindu and a liberal, but find that liberalism is the political ideology that most corresponds to the wide-ranging and open-minded nature of my faith.

मैं उस धर्म को चाहता हूं जिसमें सृष्टि के रचयिता पर, ऐसे ज़मीनी सवाल (नासदीय सूक्त, ऋग्वेद, 10:129) उठाए जा सकते हो कि 'उसे यानी रचयिता को भी 'ब्रह्माण्ड का सब' मालूम हो कि न हो?'


From time to time, a Hindutvavadi, reminding me of the religion that has been mine from birth, succumbed to the temptation to urge me predictably to heed that well-worn slogan: 'Garv se kaho ki hum Hindu hain.'

All right, let us take him up on that. 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. 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 proud of those Hindus, like the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, who say that Hindus and Muslims must live like Ram and Lakshman in India. I am not proud of those Hindus, like 'Sadhvi' Rithambhara, who say that Muslims are like sour lemons curdling the milk of Hindu India.

Why I AM A Hindu by Shashi Tharoor
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 not proud of those Hindus who say that people of other religions live in India only on their sufferance, and not because they belong on our soil. I am proud of those Hindus who realise that an India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us.

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.

The reduction of non-Hindus to second-class status in their own homeland is unthinkable. As I have pointed out here, and in my other writings, it would be a second partition: and a partition in the Indian soul would be as bad as a partition in the Indian soil. For Hindus like myself, the only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts. That is the only India that will allow us to call ourselves not Brahmins, not Bengalis, not Hindus, not Hindi-speakers, but simply Indians.

How about another slogan for Hindus like me? Garv se kaho ki hum Indian hain.


What does this 'Abrahamic Hinduism' of the 'Sangh Parivar' consist of? The ideological foundations laid by Savarkar, Golwalkar and Upadhyaya have given members of the RSS a fairly coherent doctrine. It rests on the atavistic belief that India has been the land of the Hindus since ancient times, and that their identity and its identity are intertwined. Since time immemorial, Hindutva advocates argue, Hindu culture and civilisation have constituted the essence of Indian life; Indian nationalism is therefore Hindu nationalism. The history of India is the story of the struggle of the Hindus, the owners and custodians of this ancient land, to protect and preserve their religion and culture against the onslaught of hostile alien invaders. It is true that the territory of India also hosts non-Hindus, but these are invaders (Muslims, Christians) or guests (Jews, Parsis); they can be tolerated, depending on their loyalty to the land, but cannot be treated as equal to the Hindus unless they acknowledge the superiority of Hindus in India and adopt Hindu traditions and culture. Non-Hindus must acknowledge their Hindu parentage, or, better still, convert to Hinduism in a return to their true cultural roots.

Those political forces in India who are opposed to the Sangh ideology are mistaken, the doctrine goes on, since they make the cardinal error of confusing 'national unity' with the unity of all those who happen to be living in the territory of India, irrespective of religion or national origin. Such people are in fact anti-national, because their real motivation is the selfish desire to win minority votes in elections rather than care for the interests of the majority of the nation. The unity and consolidation of the Hindus is therefore essential. Since the Hindu people are surrounded by enemies, a polarisation must take place that pits Hindus against all others. To achieve this, though, Hindus must be unified; the lack of unity is the root cause of all the evils besetting the Hindus. The Sangh Parivar's principal mission is to bring about that unity and lead it to the greater glory of the Hindu nation.

The problem with this doctrine, coherent and clear though it is, is its denial of the reality of what Hinduism is all about. What Swami Vivekananda would have seen as the strength of Hinduism-its extraordinary eclecticism and diversity, its acceptance of a wide range of beliefs and practices, its refusal to confine itself to the dogmas of a single holy book, its fluidity, the impossibility to define it down to a homogeneous 'Semitic' creed-is precisely what the RSS ideologues see as its weakness.

The Sanghivadi quest for polarisation and unity is also a yearning to make Hinduism what it is not — to 'Semitise' it so that it looks like the faiths of the 'invaders': codified and doctrinaire, with an identifiable God (preferably Rama), a principal holy book (the Gita), a manageable ecclesiastic hierarchy, and of course a unified race and a people to profess it. This is not the lived Hinduism of the vast majority of Hindus. And so the obvious question arises: Must every believing Hindu automatically be assumed to subscribe to the Hindutva project? And since manifestly most do not, does the viability of the project require a continued drive to force the dissenters into the Hindutva straitjacket?

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