Mental shift

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Posts Tagged ‘Shashi’

Hindu Fundamentals are Under Attack

Posted by jytmkh on October 14, 2008

Shashi Tharoor

There are basically two kinds of politics in our country: the politics of division and the politics of unity. The former is by far the more popular, as politicians seek to slice and dice the electorate into ever-smaller configurations of caste, language and religion, the better to appeal to such particularist identities in the quest for votes. But what has happened in recent weeks in Orissa, and then in parts of Karnataka, and that threatens to be unleashed again in tribal districts of Gujarat, is a new low in our political life. The attacks on Christian families, the vandalism of their places of worship, the destruction of homes and livelihoods, and the horrific rapes, mutilations and burning alive that have been reported, have nothing to do with religious beliefs – neither those of the victims nor of their attackers. They are instead part of a contemptible political project whose closest equivalent can in fact be found in the “Indian Mujahideen” bomb blasts in Delhi, Jaipur, and Ahmedabad, which were set to go off in hospitals, marketplaces and playgrounds. Both actions are anti-national; both aim to divide the country by polarising people along their religious identities; and both hope to profit politically from such polarisation.

We must not let either set of terrorists prevail.

The murderous mobs of Orissa sought to kill Christians and destroy their homes and places of worship, both to terrorise the people and to send the message ‘you do not belong here’. What have we come to that a land that has been a haven of tolerance for religious minorities throughout its history should have sunk so low? India’s is a civilisation that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more important, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, Muslims and several varieties of Christians. Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St Thomas the Apostle (‘Doubting Thomas’), who came to the Kerala coast some time before 52 AD and was welcomed on shore by a flute-playing Jewish girl. He made many converts, so there are Indians today whose ancestors were Christian well before any European discovered Christianity (and before the forebearers of many of today’s Hindu chauvinists were even conscious of themselves as Hindus). The India where the wail of the muezzin routinely blends with the chant of mantras at the temple, and where the tinkling of church bells accompanies the gurudwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, is an India of which we can all be proud. But there is also the India that pulled down the Babri Masjid, that conducted the pogrom in Gujarat and that now unleashes its hatred on the 2% of our population who are Christians.

As a believing Hindu, I am ashamed of what is being done by people claiming to be acting in the name of my faith. I have always prided myself on belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief; a religion that acknowledges all ways of worshiping God as equally valid – indeed, the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms, since Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals; there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy. 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 spewed in hate-filled diatribes by communal politicians. It is, instead, the Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda, who, at Chicago’s World Parliament of Religions in 1893, articulated best the liberal humanism that lies at the heart of his (and my) creed. Vivekananda asserted that Hinduism stood for “both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” He quoted a hymn: “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 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 Indianness.

Vivekananda made no distinction between the actions of Hindus as a people (the grant of asylum, for instance) and their actions as a religious community (tolerance of other faiths): for him, the distinction was irrelevant because Hinduism was as much a civilisation as a set of religious beliefs. “The Hindus have their faults,” Vivekananda added, but “they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbours. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition.”

It is sad that this assertion of Vivekananda’s is being contradicted in the streets by those who claim to be reviving his faith in his name. “The Hindu militant,” Amartya Sen has observed, presents India as “a country of unquestioning idolaters, delirious fanatics, belligerent devotees, and religious murderers.” To discriminate against another, to attack another, to kill another, to destroy another’s place of worship, is not part of the Hindu dharma so magnificently preached by Vivekananda. Why are the voices of Hindu religious leaders not being raised in defence of these fundamentals of Hinduism?

(Originally published in the Times of India, September 29, 2008)


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Respect an Individual’s Decision

Posted by jytmkh on October 14, 2008

Shashi Tharoor

My last column has triggered an overwhelming response. Gratifyingly, many readers (including several describing themselves as believing Hindus) are as outraged as I was at the anti-Christian thuggery that has been perpetrated in the name of Hinduism. Killers of children are not Hindus, even if they claim to be acting on behalf of their faith; it is as simple as that. Murder does not have a religion — even when it claims a religious excuse.

Of course, it is easy enough to condemn anti-Christian violence because it is violence, and because it represents a threat to law and order as well as to that nebulous idea we call India’s ‘image’. But an argument that several readers have made needs to be faced squarely. In the words of one correspondent: could the violence ”be a reaction to provocations from those religions that believe that only their path is the right path and the rest of humanity are infidels?” He went on to critique ”the aggressive strategy being pursued by some interests in the US to get people in India converted en masse to Christianity, not necessarily by means fair.”

In his view, ”aggressive evangelism directed against India by powerful church organisations in America enjoying enormous money power, has only one focused objective — to get India into the Christian fold, as they have succeeded, to a considerable extent, in South Korea and are now in the process of conquering Mongolia.” Arguing that ”mass conversions of illiterates and semi-literates — and they also happen to be poor, extremely poor” is exploitative, he concluded: ”powerful organisations from abroad with enormous money power indulging in mass conversion” are ”a destabilising factor provoking retaliation”.

I have great respect for the reader in question, but on this issue I strongly disagree. I cannot accept any justification for the thugs’ actions, nor am I prepared to see behind the violence an ”understandable” Hindu resistance to Christian zealotry. Put simply, no non-violent activity, however provocative, can ever legitimise violence. We must reject and denounce assaults and killings, whatever they may claim to be reacting to. Our democracy will not survive if we condone people resorting to violence in pursuit of their ends, however genuine and heartfelt their grievances may be. The whole point of our system of governance is that it allows all Indians to resolve their concerns through legitimate means, including seeking legal redress or political change — but not violence.

Let us assume, for the purposes of argument, that Christian missionaries are indeed using a variety of inducements (development assistance, healthcare, education, sanitation, even chicanery — though there is only anecdotal evidence of missionary ”trickery”) to win converts for their faith. So what? If a citizen of India feels that his faith has not helped him to find peace of mind and material fulfillment, why should he not have the option of trying a different item on the spiritual menu? Surely freedom of belief is any Indian’s fundamental right under our democratic Constitution, however ill-founded his belief might be.

And if Hindu zealots suspect that conversion was fraudulently obtained, why do they not offer counter-inducements rather than violence? Instead of destroying churches, perhaps a Hindu-financed sewage system or paathshala might reopen the blinkered eyes of the credulous. Better still, perhaps Christians and Hindus (and Muslims and Baha’is, for that matter) could all compete in our villages to offer material temptations for religious conversions. The development of our poor country might actually accelerate with this sort of spiritual competition.

Of course i am being frivolous there, but my point is a serious one. Freedom of conscience is not a negotiable right. An India where an individual is not free to change his or her faith would be inconceivable. Some have been citing Gandhiji’s criticism of conversions, but his view was based on an eclectic, all-embracing view of religiousness that is a far cry from the narrow bigotry of those who today quote him in opposing conversions. Gandhiji’s point was that there was no need to convert from any religion to any other because all religions essentially believed the same thing. But when he famously asserted that ”I am a Hindu, a Christian, a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Jew”, Jinnah sharply retorted, ”only a Hindu could say that!”

The fact is that many faiths do tend to see theirs as the only true path to salvation, and their religious leaders feel a duty to spread the light of a supposedly superior understanding of God to those less fortunate. As Gandhians or as rationalists we are free to decry their views, but the Indian Constitution gives each Indian the right to ”propagate” his religion — and to challenge that right would, in the most fundamental sense, be unconstitutional.

So, let each religion do its thing, and let each Indian be free to choose. At the same time, let conversion be an issue of individual conscience and not mass delusion. I would have no difficulty in considering, in principle, the idea of a democratically-elected legislature deciding that the constitutionally-protected right to convert to another faith can only be exercised by an individual, rather than by an entire clan, tribe or village.

An end to ceremonies of mass conversion might not be a bad thing: let each individual who believes he or she has seen the light go through an individual act of conversion — one in which he or she must affirm that they know what they are giving up and what they are entering into. If an entire village wants to convert, that will make for a very time-consuming process, but at least it will not be open to the suggestion that a large group has been duped, or forced, collectively to embrace a faith that its individual members do not properly understand.

Of course, the debate is not merely a religious one — it is profoundly political. So i will brace myself for more mail and return to the topic next week. (huffingtonpost)

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