Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You
Gurgaon: Penguin Books. 2015
Pages 192 | Rs 399
Being Hindu – A tour de force
Hindol Sengupta’s Being Hindu is a personal search to understand what being a Hindu really means – a journey that has taken him almost two decades of deep enquiry and study to unravel the core essentials of his faith: ‘Who am I? What do I want? What is my purpose?’ The book, an outcome of this introspection, offers a masterly insight into several aspects of the sanatana dharma. With extensive quotes from the works of a large number of national and international scholars, scientists and savants, the book makes compelling reading.
The book is divided into ten engrossing chapters, but it is in the three chapters of “Who is a Hindu,” “What Makes You a Hindu,” and “Who is the One True God” that Sengupta covers the most salient aspects of Hindu faith and presents it as the most powerful argument for plurality and unity in diversity. The chapter on ‘Who is a Hindu?’ takes up the question that has repeatedly been raised in Indian politics on the relationship between Hinduism and the Indian State. He rhetorically asks: If Pakistan is a land of Muslims, is India that of Hindus? Answering in the negative, he says the Indian Constitution declares our county a secular State where each individual and community finds a place. He goes on to probe: Then what really reflects the collective memory of a nation? He quotes Diana Eck, “Bharat is not merely a convenient designation for a conglomerate of cultures … Nor was Bharat ever the name of a political entity like a Nation State, at least until 1947 … a sense of connectedness seems to have flourished for many centuries without the overarching political expression of embodiment.” She also says that Hindu mythology (Ramayana and Mahabharata) was constantly grounded in the topography of the land. It is the char dham, the pilgrimage spots across four corners of the imagined landscape that patterned and created India’s Hindu landscape through countless treks by thousands of pilgrims who archived the first indigenous idea of the Indian nationhood.
Quoting the historian Radha Kumud Banerjee, Sengupta says that the river hymns of the Vedas provide a succession of images of the different rivers defining the limits of the country, traversing the entire area of this native land and giving the image of the whole as a visible unit and form. He goes on to argue that the largest part of the history of the land we now know as India involves philosophies of what we today call Hinduism. Those ancient philosophies are the founding blocks of our civilisation. Hindu plural imagination sustained its civilisation for 3000 to 4000 years during which Vedic texts were composed before the arrival of the Islamic age (800 years) and British rule (less than 200 years). He quotes historian R C Majumdar, “It is the pre-Islamic India that laid the philosophical bedrock for the syncretic, composite culture that India has been able to build.”
Talking of Vedic ideology, Sengupta says that if there is one central idea of our civilizational intellect, then it is the understanding that the inner oneness among human beings lies at the heart of understanding the intelligence of the universe. Hinduism preaches us to look inwards and not outwards, to realise the ultimate reality. No truth is found outside oneself. “The self of all beings is Brahman.” This essential teaching also means that each person is potentially divine as there is no distinction between our consciousness and the universal. This perspective removes all distinctions and discriminations between people, making us one unified humanity. Sengupta argues that only with this ideology will the prevailing disharmony and rancour among different people and nations in the world be eliminated and amity restored. He says this non-judgemental and non-discriminatory approach is the unique genius of Hinduism among all world religions.
Sengupta also points out that Hinduism is the only world religion that asserts that there is no one path or one faith in the spiritual pursuit of God. Every path is valid and acceptable, and all paths lead to the same ultimate Reality. Hinduism encourages everyone to discover his or her own path in this search. The thousands of Hindu deities (the personal ishta devatas) that people worship are fine, because each one helps in the progress of the pilgrim. All rituals – though they may appear irrational to some – are fine too as they provide the initial crutches in the spiritual road. Eventually these crutches would be given up with a realisation of the essence of inward search. It is this open mindedness that helps Hinduism accept and assimilate all rituals and creeds within its fold. It is due to this spirit that India has been home to migrants from many lands in the past.
In the chapter “Is God Afraid of Science,” pointing out to persecution and inquest of scientists (like Galileo) in the West by the Church, Sengupta says that there is no parallel in Hinduism to this. In fact in Vedic India, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, grammar, and medical sciences had reached their pinnacle. The chapter details several instances of remarkable achievements in these fields by Indians, which preceded similar discoveries in the West by several centuries. This was basically the result of emphasis on an enquiring mind and a scientific outlook. This took Indian philosophy to dizzying heights as acknowledged by some of the greatest minds of the West. Swami Vivekananda argues that it is the scientific approach to religion that Vedanta follows, which ensures that it cannot be trapped in advocating a singular path. The noted cosmologist Carl Sagan has said that the Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. Scholar K V Sarma has listed 3,473 texts of scientific discoveries from 12,244 science manuscripts that had been found in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Only 7 percent of these have been printed so far. Our understanding of the entire range of Vedic mathematics and sciences is based only on this 7 percent. Imagine what would be the impact if the rest were printed and made available!
The chapter “Does Being Hindu Mean You Are Vegetarian” should be of particular interest to those following the debate on beef eating, currently raging in India. Sengupta points out that Vedic Indians were buffalo meat eaters (and possibly cow meat eaters). He quotes Vivekananda (incidentally, a non-vegetarian), “there was a time in this very India when, without eating beef, no Brahmin could remain a Brahmin.” The Swami and Mahatma Gandhi both felt that we Hindus forget the main lesson of our own faith – the unity and divinity in all of us, and the search for truth within – and instead, focus on the meaningless and peripheral. The Swami was unequivocal that our minds should not be enfeebled by centuries of shallow routines and rituals, but focus on the timeless philosophies of the Vedas.
In another chapter, Sengupta touches briefly upon the caste system and untouchability. Quoting Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, he says casteism has nothing to do with religion. “The Hindu faith has no hierarchy, no established authority. There is no persecution, no excommunication for dissenters within Hinduism … Modern degenerative influences have led to social evils like casteism and untouchability. I regard these tendencies as blots on the Hindu faith,” said Vivekananda. Hinduism does not proscribe LGBT relationships either, considering them as natural phenomena. To prove that there is no economic discrimination against the lower castes anymore, Sengupta presents statistical data to show the significant growth in the economic conditions of this section of the society.
Sengupta also briefly touches upon the four forms of Yoga to discover oneself – Jnana, Bhakti, Raja and Karma Yoga. These are the four different paths to self-realisation and one can adopt any to suit one’s nature. The author rounds up the discussion with his observations on Hinduism in the digital age and the need for re-examining the Hindu way.
On the whole Being Hindu is invigorating and refreshing, a must read not only for Hindus to deliberate on the essence of Vedanta, but also for non-Hindus to understand Hinduism in a proper light and perspective. It is literally a tour de force from Hindol Sengupta that positions achievements of Hinduism as unparalleled, and the path it shows as the one that holds the promise to lead the world into an era of peace and amity.