Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Review: Being Hindu

Title: Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You
Author: Hindol Sengupta
Publisher: Penguin India
Genre: Non fiction/ Religion
ISBN: 978-0-143-42532-8
Pages: 192
Date of release: December, 2015
Binding: Paperback


Let me be honest. I started this book a little warily. In the perilous ride that is religion in India right now, I prefer to sit at the centre, leaning a little towards the Left. I watch with trepidation the loud voices coming from the Right side of things and fear that 'Hinduism' is turning into a dirty word. Therefore, I approach anything with 'Hindu' written on it with suspicion. In the strictly academic pursuit of subjects like ancient Indian History, Culture, Mythology and Mysticism, my skepticism is only heightened.

Yet like many of my generation, I'm drawn like moth to flame to anything with 'Hindu' written on it – even titles that sound like fashion labels of unscrupulous film stars. It comes from a deep, even perverted need to understand; to understand my roots, my place in the ever-changing world, and the volatile interplay between social, economic, political, and religious forces.

Neti, neti (not this, not this)

In his latest offering, Being Hindu, Hindol Sengupta tries to throw light on some of these issues. The apparent intent is to address some questions about identity and the relevance of religion in the life of a young Indian. But Sengupta does not do a convincing job. Let me explain why.

The author in question is not a cultural commentator, not a historian, nor a expert of religion. He is a journalist, and a good one at that, but he lacks the depth of an academic. And the result is that his book ends up reading like one long op-ed. He generalises and trivialises. His research sample seems to comprise only of his cosy elite Delhi circle. “...I noticed a general ennui and hesitance about declaring themselves Hindu, especially among the general youth, as well as my colleagues and friends. I felt it too.” “It was almost like we were asking for the responsibility of spiritual choice to be taken away from us...”, he says. We? Us? Speak for yourself, maybe? I know this India he's talking about – the one in high rises with glass facades, the one with the luxury of doubt and contemplation. 

But he doesn't seem to take into account the other greater India, where the people practice simple faith and have very little doubt, if any, about their religious identity. When one deems to delve into the sticky territory of religion, one ought to drink deeper than that.

In a commentary about the machinations of religion and society, his personal influences show up very jarringly again and again. One of his personal set of beliefs imposed all over the book is derived from the Ramakrishna Mission. He incessantly quotes their teachings and philosophy throughout the book. As great as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Vivekananda were, it cannot be the only lens through which Hinduism can or should be understood.

The second point I find hard to accept is his singularly Vedantic view of things. Yes, a large part of Hindu philosophy is inspired by the ideas of the Upanishads and Shankaracharya's Uttar Mimansika school, but that's not all there is to Hinduism. There are other schools of thought and other ways of spiritual understanding that he completely overlooks. In the mien of Vivekandanda, Gandhi and Ambedkar, he labels Hinduism's ritualistic aspect as regressive and repressive. But he forgets the cultural implications of these rites and rituals and the fact that they represent the living religion; not of course in the India of glass facade high rises. You cannot write a book about being a Hindu without writing about its daily manifestations.

Finally, he seems especially influenced/scarred by his American Christian schooling. Despite himself, he keeps trying to refute the Catholic idea of sinners. “None of us is a heathen. None of us is an infidel... you and me, we are not sinners. We are the divine. We just don't know it yet.” Too many negations a positive make, Mr. Sengupta. It seems like deep down he believes in the ideas of evil and sin and tries hard to persuade himself and his readers otherwise. It also makes him compulsively and excessively compare Hinduism with Christianity, reducing the scope of pure theology.

Right gone wrong

So he swings the other way, he goes Right. He joins this new band of people who, clad in saffron, their chests excessively puffed, proclaim their pride in Hinduism. Nothing wrong with being proud of one's religion, but everyone knows where this jingoism is headed. Perhaps those who swear by the Vedic culture would do well to remind themselves that our greatest works were anonymously composed.

The quest for knowledge through different paths, the Brahman, was sought in all humility. Greatness comes from doing, not saying. And here we have some of these puffy-chested creatures decrying any and all other differing points of view. Names are called, mockery is made and ultimately there is a subscription to the very tropes they claim to be rejecting. They're so ashamed of Hindu apologists that they become apologists for apologists. Heh. Case in point. Wendy Doniger, the Indic scholar everyone loves to hate. In trashing Wendy's children*, they become Dinanath Batra's children, or Rajeev Malhotra's. Every scholar who doesn't sing the glories of Hinduism, or reads it differently, is branded ignorant. The only 'good' Indologists are the ones like Diana Eck (Sengupta's favourite), who say what is desirable to these Hindu ears, hungry for validation. Only selective references, no place  or tark or vivaad. Yes, let's all scratch each others' backs over a tea party called 'How Great We Are'. 

Speaking of references, Sengupta loves to use them. Most of all, himself. Why else would someone reproduce an entire article published elsewhere in a new book? He must think his essay, 'How to write about Hindus with the Left Hand' – a tribute to Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, 'How To Write About Africa' – is particularly funny and/or brilliant. I am hard pressed to agree. In that essay he mocks foreign Indic scholars for using pictures of gods as cover images for their books among other things. Too stereotypical, he says. Wonder where he was looking when they picked the cover for his book.

At one point Sengupta laments how we don't consider our religious legacy worthy until some firang tells us so. So you would think that someone with this complaint would always eagerly turn to indigenous sources of knowledge. But, no. Here is a Hindu, trying to tell us how to understand Hinduism, while throwing all possible foreign sources at us. He quotes everyone from Schrodinger to Bohm to Capra to Dawkins to Jung to drive home his point, especially when using science as his fulcrum. Thankfully, he quotes a few Indian scholars too and manages to keep a semblance of balance. 

Being confused

As a reader, I find Mr. Sengupta lost. He doesn't seem to know where he belongs or wants to belong. His Anglicised, Christianised education and his station in life places him, like many of us, in that class of people with Hindu identities (or lack thereof) and Western aspirations. Having become financially comfortable, we can now indulge in some soul searching while we slave away at multinationals, eating global cuisine, tapping away at our foreign brand phones. In this time of global strife surrounding religion, finding one's place in the larger scheme of things is important.

Questions are many, and the answers are not simple. The author embarks on a personal journey of defining his Hindu identity with this book and assumes that his readers share and understand these real (and imagined) conflicts. He rambles about all sorts of issues – from the idea of the 'One True God', to 'Religion and Science' to 'Vegetarianism', never quite getting to the point. At one point he writes about Vedanta, quantum physics and the principle of singularity, and then decides to talk about homosexuality and then again, rural economy. Here he is giving us a litany of ancient Indian geniuses and their treatises before suddenly jumping to technology and loneliness and then again, the need for religious reform. By the seventh chapter, which ia on Vegetarianism, he completely loses the plot. The complexities of the subject inundate him.

Saving (spiritual) grace

The author may not know or understand the larger cultural import of Hinduism, but he knows well his spirituality – at least the Vedantic variety. The book has its moments of clarity, and they're lovely. My favourite parts are where he talks about the unity of the self and the universe, the need for stillness and the Avatar Syndrome. Sample these:

“Just by being alive, at every single moment, you are not just part of the universe, you are the universe.”

“...Hinduism survives because it sets people free.. The only truth that exists is inside oneself – not in a book.”

“We are the ones we have been waiting for. This waiting for a messiah goes against the very essence
of the philosophy of Hinduism.”

The book, then, is really about the author's own philosophical and spiritual inquiry of Hinduism, and not everything else that he tries to throw into the mix. It won't give you much meat (vegetables if you prefer) on Being Hindu as the title of the book claims. Sure, in his introduction the author says this view of Hinduism is based on his personal understanding of the religion, but then a more appropriate title would have been Being Hindol.


*A term used to denote the school of scholars who are inspired by Doniger's writings.