I remember this awkward dinner conversation. I was with my colleague in Northern Ireland, and a friend of his joined our table. After we were introduced, he wondered at my name and asked me what religion I belong to. I went for the simpler answer and kept my doubts aside: "I am Hindu", I said. That made him even more confused. "What's a Hindu?" he said, "Is that some kind of Muslim?"
When I tell this story to my friends in India, they are usually outraged. What an ignorant person, they would say. Particularly treating Hinduism as a branch of Islam, when Hindus love to believe that everyone was originally a Hindu, upsets them. I have also reflected upon this conversation later. It may indeed be that he did not know. He was particularly ignorant, just as ignorant as the lady, who, standing inside the Irish Bar at Mumbai's ITC Grand Central hotel, asked my colleague - the same person as it happened to be - where Ireland was. But the confusion about Hinduism is more common than one may think. The 800 million Hindus live in one geographic corner of the world. This may make many people, who live their lives contentedly within the region, feel Hinduism engulfs the world, but the reality is just the opposite: Most people live in blissful ignorance of something called the Hindus (the same people indeed wish they could ignore Islam as well).
For me, I had to go through several cycles of finding my identity. Like any Indian, I had several layers, and knowing what to describe myself as has mostly been an act of negotiation. An Indian, I would most commonly say, despite my citizenship, because I defined myself by the Post-Imperial Republicanism that made India. This meant at once rising above my Hindu identity and being deeply into it, as the flavour of Hinduism I grew up with was, despite all the rituals and festivals, universalist. It fitted nicely with the idea of India then fashionable - with its emphasis on private faith, tolerance of other ideas and acceptance of the world as it is. There was casteism, but not in its virulent form of exclusion and violence; there was superstition, but in its comical manifestation in doing or not doing something on a particular day; but overall, this was a flexible, personalised religion, allowing me to pick and choose.
This may sound paradoxical for those who haven't had a similar experience. But, an apocryphal story, which I first heard from Shashi Tharoor, an Indian statesman, captures the spirit. Mr Tharoor tells the story of a young man who had doubts and approached his father to know about Hindu religion. The father said he was too young and perhaps they should have a discussion when he grew up. A few years later, the father offered to induct his son into Hinduism, but the son refused, stating he had already lost his faith. "Welcome to the atheist branch of Hindu religion", his father said.
A Hindu would perhaps appreciate the story, but it is harder for others. Confirming that religion makes awkward dinner conversations, I must talk about another dinner, this time in Salt Lake City, Utah, when I was asked the same question. By then, things changed for me: The extreme form of Hinduism that took over India made me question my own prejudices and superstitions, and lose my faith, as much as someone born a Hindu can possibly do. I said, "I am an atheist", perhaps smug in comfort of belonging to the atheist branch of the Hindu religion. This stopped all conversations around the table - Salt Lake City is indeed a more religious place than most others on earth - and everyone looking at me with some kind of incomprehension. Finally, someone rode to my rescue:"You are not an atheist! You don't go around telling people not to believe in God. You may say you are agnostic, but not Atheist." I am certain this wonderful specificity of English language and Christianity would be mostly lost on my Hindu brethren, but apart from the insight about religion's place on dinner table, there is not much to be learnt from this.
But I must also perhaps explain why I started questioning my faith. The universalist, tolerant ideas that I grew up with dissipated rather quickly. What we have now instead is a different version - intolerant, ignorant and ritualistic - an opportunistic amalgamation of politics and religion that sanctions everything and yet controls everything, makes hatred its centrepiece and claims a pre-scientific heritage of universal truth. WhatsApp groups in London Suburbs now discuss the merits of sprinkling cow urine on one's head, the Prime Minister of India straight-facedly claims that Lord Ganesha - the Hindu elephant god - was the first case of plastic surgery (taking the idea that Ancient Egyptians knew some techniques of skin grafting to its absurd maximum) and people in India are regularly lynched for being suspected of eating beef. At the same time, elaborate rituals are now performed in offices and businesses, consuming beef has become a public offence in some parts of India and campaigns against Muslim actors and artists are now acceptable nationalist indulgence. The astrologers are having a great time: Recently, one applicant told me that he delayed sending his CV by two weeks - this cost him the opportunity - because the times were not favourable. The animistic, ritualistic religion that we thought we left behind has arisen from the ashes as the only true faith: There is no longer any branch of Atheists in Hinduism.
Indeed, the torch-bearers of new Hinduism recoil at Max Weber's categorisation of Hinduism as a Non-rational, Inactive religion (in Weber's world, Christianity was Rational and Active, and trumped the Rational but Inactive Confucianism and Active but Irrational Islam), but fate is back in business. Samkara's dictum that Vedic rituals are for the ignorant have been totally forgotten, and Gita's insight that Inaction may destroy one's humanity, something Max Weber completely missed, has been erased out of consciousness as well (The more famous part of the verse says, "You have a right to action, but never to its fruits", but the later part, "Never desire the ends, and never indulge in idleness", is rather forgotten). This new Hinduism, fashioned as a pure faith, is built around elements borrowed from proselytising religions: It is ritualistic and with provisions for conversion (which one can't technically do in Hinduism, therefore the assumption that everyone was once a Hindu and conversions are merely purification rituals), and it is based on rejection of the very universalistic, tolerant faith that I knew as Hinduism.
In a way, therefore, this is the best and the worst of the time to be a Hindu. Suddenly, a third possibility - between the Ritualistic Hinduism and desolate Agnosticism - opened up for people like me. It is essentially an invitation to rediscover a civilisation that lasted for thousands of years, and despite being run over by invaders and moulded by many outside influence, which maintained its essence of faith - in humanity, above all else. One could perhaps see that my aversion of the Evangelical Hinduism has finally inspired me to get back to the basics - read Gita which I should have done long time ago - and find again the essential, rational, civilisation that is founded on the idea of tolerance. My wanderings took me to the American pragmatists and my foundational belief became - "Ideas should not become Ideologies" - and yet, my journey home to Hindu texts reveals essentially the same idea, an acceptance of the world as it is, with all its imperfections, diversities, redundancies and beauties.
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