In search of Hinduism

Hindol Sengupta's Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You is a breezy and ambitious book


Kranti Saran
Hindol Sengupta
256 pages, Rs 399 

Hindol Sengupta's Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You is a breezy and ambitious book. Mr Sengupta’s three guiding questions are: What is Hinduism? What are the ramifications of a Hindu ethos? What is Hinduism’s personal significance to him? Sengupta seeks to "...aggressively proclaim that to be Hindu is to shun bigotry, to accept diversity, embrace differences, respect gender rights and actively adopt new technologies and sciences." What’s not to like?

But ambition is one thing, achievement is another.

Mr Sengupta is at his best in the Prologue where he touchingly recounts his early education at a zealously Protestant school in Calcutta.The concept of sin puzzles him, triggering a long process of reflection on his Hindu faith. Yet even in the Prologue a troubling pattern emerges: imprecise prose and foggy thinking — one the mirror of the other — coupled with a tendency to be uncritically impressed by similarities that are only superficial.

For example, consider Mr Sengupta's discussion of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi's assassin. After seemingly blaming Gandhi for his own assassination ("...a complete disregard to [sic] his own personal safety finally felled him to an assassin's bullett [sic]") Mr Sengupta marvels at Godse's avowal of plurality and Hindu-Muslim co-existence. Mr Sengupta reads Godse and Gandhi’s similar avowals of pluralism as a measure of "the inherent, genetic plurality of Hinduism". But does Mr Sengupta really think that Hinduism's pluralism is “genetic”, such that Gandhi and Godse carry it in equal measure? Only Godse’s “pluralism” licensed assassinations. As Godse and Gandhi’s differing lives attest, any similarity in their avowals of pluralism is entirely superficial.

In later chapters Mr Sengupta endorses Fritjof Capra's tome of middlebrow waffle, The Tao of Physics, which trades on superficial similarities between physics and elements of Indian philosophy. Mr Sengupta even divines connections where there are none, reading a passage from Vivekananda on the existence of souls in both humans and animals as evidence that Vivekananda embraced the theory of evolution; the existence of souls entails nothing about natural selection.

In "How to Write about Hindus?" Mr Sengupta denies that Hindu myths lack historical validity. He thinks that the point of turning to mythology is to see how it "cross-polinates [with history] to give us a sense of our national moorings" — by which he presumably means “Hindu”, not “national”, moorings — and to determine "which parts of our myths and legends are intrinsically tied to history and which are not". However, mythology is one thing, historical truth is another. Positioning mythology as a map for historical research muddles their differing functions. Whether or not the Ramayana has a shred of historical truth is independent of how the epic shapes the practices and values of Hindus. Should Ram be any less significant to a Hindu if no such person had ever lived? No, because to think otherwise would mistake the yardstick of historical truth as the appropriate measure of his significance over that of the lived reality of the epic for Hindus. Using myths as maps for historical research mistakenly elevates what should be at best one among other sources of evidence to the status of a script for research, distorting what counts as valuable questions that the state, amongst others, will pay to answer. Even if mythology and history are amalgamated in modern Hindu identity, that's no reason to let mythology guide history.

Mr Sengupta thinks that Western scholarship unjustly dominates the production of knowledge about Hinduism, arguing that "What ought to be a debate leapfrogged into a monologue. ...Sanskrit and ancient systems of knowledge had gathered a thick film of colonial sneer". Whatever “a thick film of colonial sneer” may be, Mr Sengupta’s response is an artless screed on how to write about Hindus modelled on Binyavanga Wainaina's artful satire "How to Write about Africa". In it Mr Sengupta writes: "The pictures you use along with the writing can never have kind, well-adjusted, pleasantly God-fearing folk. They should have great matted hair...They can't wear too many clothes"; the cover of the book features the naked blue torso of a Sadhu with matted hair.

In the next chapter he argues for a conception of Hinduism indigenous to the people living in the lands demarcated in Hinduism’s sacred geography. Mr Sengupta recapitulates Diana Eck’s claim that the sacred geography of Hinduism delineates the frontiers of Bharat; he argues that the idea of Bharat as a “unified, plural, composite cultural homeland” is at least 3,000 years old and that its geography “constitutes the nation”. But what bridges the disparate concepts of a sacred geography, a cultural homeland, and a nation? Mr Sengupta endorses Vivekananda’s claim that “There must be the recognition of one religion throughout the length and breadth of this land,” and it is that religion, rather than political ideals, that links the disparate concepts.

Which religion would Vivekananda have us recognise? The point is crucial because if there is no such religion, then the idea of Bharat cannot simultaneously be that of a sacred geography, a cultural homeland and a nation. Vivekananda didn’t think it was any particular creed but rather the common ground between them all. However, the faith that there is such a substantive common ground withers on inspecting the relations of priority and exclusivity claimed by various philosophical schools, relations that are too interesting and rich to be reductively read down to any comforting piety about a common essence. For example, proponents of Vaidika orthodoxy like Medhatithi, Kumarila, Manu and Aparaditya rejected other non-Vaidika orthodox Hindu schools in the harshest possible terms. There simply isn’t a common creed shared by all orthodox Hindu philosophical schools, let alone all the other major world religions existing in India. Rather than grappling with difference and contestation within (even) the orthodox tradition, Mr Sengupta offers long-winded vapid falsehoods like “Hindu philosophy is bewilderingly diverse because what an ancient seers [sic] did was paint out the myriad experiences without force fitting a uniformity as they realised what made the philosophical unity — the final truth as it were — more magical was the countless diverse processes and paths one could take to reach it.”

The weakest part of the book is its core: Mr Sengupta’s delineation of Hinduism. Hinduism is not Vedanta alone. There is little to show for Mr Sengupta’s often repeated claims of having thought about these issues for decades and done extensive background reading. Instead of presenting the reader with a flavour of the variety, depth, and intellectual novelty of the tradition, the reader is fobbed off with “The Hindu mind sees the inherent seamless unity in all things and, therefore, does not seek to separate the strands and distance one from the other, but instead revel in the oneness.” There is no singular Hindu mind — a fact that should prompt celebration, not embarrassment. Mr Sengupta’s grip on his material is often tenuous – as, for example, when he mistakenly asserts that the materialist Carvaka school is an orthodox Hindu school.

If all this weren’t enough Mr Sengupta’s prose style (“…mobile phones are more rampant than toilets…” and “[The Kamasutra] was perhaps written at that unique time when Hindu society was lush with sexual advice notes.”) does him no favours. Mr. Sengupta’s incurious book belongs in the genre of books that are no more than notes for better versions of themselves.

The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Ashoka University and Research Associate, Harvard University

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First Published: May 24 2016 | 9:25 PM IST

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