Swami Shashi – The political Hinduism of Shashi Tharoor by KANCHA ILAIAH SHEPHERD
AT THE OUTSET of Why I Am a Hindu, the politician and writer Shashi Tharoor—a member of the Nair castes, and so a Shudra—writes that the book is in large part a response to the “intolerant and often violent forms of Hindutva that began to impose themselves on the public consciousness of Indians in the 1980s.” I am also a Shudra, part of what are now officially called the Other Backward Classes, and I wrote my book Why I Am Not a Hindu in response to the rise of Hindutva as well.
How does Tharoor come to a different view of Hinduism than any Shudra writer of great prominence before him? Simply put, it is by not applying any critical or analytical thinking. His main strategy of persuasion is not argument, but repetition with rhetorical flourishes of a two-in-one premise and conclusion, stated already in the very first paragraph of the book where he describes Hinduism as “that most plural, inclusive, eclectic and expansive of faiths.”
Traditionally, the basic work of Nairs, as of many Shudra castes, was agriculture, but the caste system that allotted them this work also denied them land rights. Over the centuries, Nairs moved away from their typically Shudra occupation, and under the influence of Brahminism entered into a unique relationship with the dominant Nambudiri Brahmins. Well into the nineteenth century, Nair women lived in sambhandham with the Nambudiri Brahmins’ younger sons. This was a form of sexual slavery, with the women denied marital rights and the men freed from obligation towards any children of the union, and it had full spiritual and religious sanction under the caste order.
It is difficult to pretend that Hinduism can be exempted from the problems of casteism,” Tharoor states at the start of a passage examining caste in general, yet taken as a whole that is exactly what the passage does. He writes that “many modern Hindus have grown up rejecting the discriminatory aspects of the caste system, while still observing caste preferences when it comes to arranging the marriages of their children.”
Tharoor sees no contradiction between the two parts of the sentence. He says that “the rigidities of the caste system as we understand it today were introduced by the British in their desire to understand, categorise, and classify the people they were ruling, in order to control them all the better” yet also that historically “social mobility was relatively rare in Hinduism.”
According to Tharoor, “the Upanishadic insistence on the unity of being, a divinity available to everyone … implies the equality of all souls and argues against caste discrimination,” but “there is little doubt that many Hindus believed that the caste system had religious sanction.” He cites the Rig Veda’s theory of the creation of human life, where Brahmins are created from the mouth of Purusha, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet—with those falling outside these four varnas, Dalits and Adivasis, given the lowest standing of all. Yet, even as he profusely references this highly revered Hindu text by Brahmins, Tharoor maintains that “Hindu society may have maintained a distasteful practice”—that is, the caste system—“but no one can credibly argue that it is intrinsic to the religion.”
In fact, many have credibly argued that. The most prominent of them is perhaps BR Ambedkar, whose fundamental thesis, in works such as Riddles in Hinduism and The Annihilation of Caste, is that caste and Hinduism are one and the same, and if one dies the other cannot survive. Tharoor mentions Ambedkar just a handful of times in the almost 300 pages of his book, each time only in passing. Much of the analysis Ambedkar used to arrive at his conclusions relied on close readings of Hinduism’s holy texts, yet Tharoor does not address or challenge Ambedkar’s analysis even while extensively citing the Upanishads, Puranas and Vedas to defend his proposition that Hinduism is an “almost ideal” faith. The fact is that these texts never gave any rights to Shudras, let alone Dalits—who together form the majority of India’s population.
Tharoor points out that “Manu declared ‘where women are honoured, there the gods rejoice, but where they are not honoured, there all rituals are useless.’” If he had any knowledge of feminist discourse, he would have known that the problem lies exactly in Manu’s regressive concept of female honour.
Shudra philosophy is very clear that pure vegetarianism is unnatural, and that the people involved in the cattle economy have dignity, as do all productive workers. Brahminism, whether it is of the BJP or the Congress kind, is not going to make India great, but a productive philosophy can push the country to develop. The RSS and BJP’s ideology of gau raksha, and the entirety of sanyasi economics, can only be defeated through the philosophy of the country’s productive workers—not through standing by Brahminism like Tharoor does.
Shashi feeling proud that he was born a Hindu from the feet of the Brahmin god. He has surrendered to Brahminism for the sake of political power. This surrender may keep him in the Congress now, but could also take him into the BJP camp as things unfold. His Hinduism suits him personally and politically, but it has no promise for the future of India.
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