Tuesday, November 08, 2005

I am a Hindu, but..... October 9, 2005

The confident, handsome friend of our son’s gave a telling reply to a visiting Englishwoman the other day in Khan Market. “I am a Hindu, but …”, and he went into a winding reply about his beliefs. He hastily added that he was an Indian first. It was a perfectly honest answer, and any other person might have made it about Islam or Christianity. But I sensed an unhappy defensiveness–the ‘but’ betrayed that he was ashamed of being Hindu.

This happened a few weeks after I got a call from one of Delhi’s best schools, asking me to speak to its students. “Oh good”, I said, “in that case, I shall speak about dharma and the moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata.” The principal’s horrified reaction was, “Oh don’t, please! There are important secularists on our governing board, and I don’t want controversy about teaching religion.” I protested ineffectually, “But surely the Mahabharata is a literary epic, and dharma is about right and wrong. Where does religion come in?”

As I think ought about these two incidents, I ask myself, why should these two successful young professionals be embarrassed of their heritage? Something has clearly gone wrong. With the rise in religious fundamentalism, it seems to me that it is difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit being Hindu for fear they will be automatically linked to the RSS. I certainly blame Hindutva nationalists who have appropriated our culture and tradition into a political agenda. But I also blame our secularists who behave no better than fundamentalists in their antipathy to tradition.

One of the strengths of Western civilization is that in times of crisis it seeks sustenance and inspiration from the rational ideals of Greece and Rome, from Homer, Pericles and Virgil. My fear is that modern, liberal Indians may not have any use for their past, and they will abdicate our wonderful traditions to the narrow, closed minds of fanatical Hindu nationalists. If Italians are proud of the Divine Comedy, the Spanish of Don Quixote, and the Greeks of the Illiad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? Why should it become ‘untouchable’ for a sensitive, modern, school principal? In part this is due to ignorance. We do not read our ancient classics with a critical mind as secular works of literature and philosophy, as young Americans read the Western classics in their first year of college as a part of their “core curriculum”. So, we depend on our grandmothers or Amar Chitra Katha or second rate serials on Sunday morning television. Meanwhile, the Sangh Parivar steps into this vacuum with its shrunken, defensive, and inaccurate version of our history and happily appropriates this empty space. And the richness of tradition is lost to this generation.

No one reads Edmund Burke these days. He opposed the French Revolution because he feared that killing the church and aristocracy would cut off links with the past. I too value continuity in our “custom, community and natural feeling” in Burke’s language, which is so necessary to realize our full human potential. To respect tradition means that one must criticise it as our 19th century reformers did. But I fear that our secularism is unwittingly undermining tradition. The challenge before modern, decent Indians today, it seems to me, is essentially the same as the one Ram Mohan Roy faced in the early 19th century: how to grow up mentally healthy, integrated Indians? How do we combine our liberal modernity with our traditions in order to fully realise our potential?



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I certainly blame Hindutva nationalists who have appropriated our culture and tradition into a political agenda.

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