~A Review of “Being Hindu, Old Faith, New World and You”~ by Hindol Sengupta
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world. A religion which has 33 million gods and which has somehow become synonymous with cows, snakes, female infanticide, and lingams. Books about Hinduism usually depict a Sadhu with rudraksha about his neck who may or may not be naked, if the sadhu is smoking chillum then so much the better. So is Hinduism only about all this or is it something more, something deeper? Hindol Sengupta in his book Being Hindu has tried to answer some questions and delves deeper into a religion which has survived and even thrived for the past three thousand years.
This book attempts to look at Hinduism in a rational way from its roots to the relevance of Hinduism in this digital age. It starts with a prologue in which the author narrates the reason why he undertook to write about Hinduism. In essence, this book is about his own spiritual path and his own journey in understanding our faith. The chapters of the book are divided into questions starting with the most obvious “How to write about Hindus?”. He then tackles questions likes “Who is a Hindu?”, “What makes you a Hindu?”,”Who is the One True God?” , “Is God afraid of Science?”, “How do books portray Gods?”, “Does being Hindu mean you are vegetarian?” “What do we know about History?”, “The Internet Hindu- How does Hinduism fit in Digital Age?”, “ A Start-Up for the Soul: Why should we re-examine the Hindu Way?”
As you can make out the author covers basically all the pertinent topics, from the origin, the impact of the Hinduism in science, the ills of Hinduism, its dietary requirements, the relevance of Hinduism and of course the changes/reforms that need to be done at the way we look/follow Hinduism. You can make out the author has researched the topic well and gives extensive sources, Indian as well as Western, to back up his arguments.
This is the first book where I have actually marked out the passages which struck a chord with me. The book spoke to me on so many levels. When I read the prologue it brought back memories of the convent school where we learned the God’s prayer without even understanding it. I was, in fact, so used to saying “Amen”, that I would say it even after reciting the “Gayatri Mantra”!! (I still do it sometimes, when I am not concentrating on prayers and just reciting by rote). While we sang hymns, celebrated Christmas and went to the school chapel before exams, we sang aartis and celebrated Dusshera and Diwali at home. After marriage, I dutifully followed the religious rituals, went to some pilgrimage sites, attended the religious events I was invited to. I discovered peace in following the age-old rituals and traditions but as I grew older I realized that there was something lacking in just following the rituals. A casual conversation with a relative brought up the point that we are becoming more ritualistic than religious. My confusion about my religion grew. While I am a steadfast Hindu, I refuse to accept the view that chanting mantras will lead me to moksha, nor do I believe that keeping a fast will lead me to salvation. Though reading “Sri Ramcharitmanas” brings me peace, the feminist in me sees the misogyny in the book. I was, as you can see, very very confused.
This confusion led me to read books dealing with religion, its myths and stories. There were a few books which popped out in my search, namely, The Gita for Children by Roopa Pai and Devdutt Pattanaik’s My Gita. This book differs from the other two as Being Hindu deals with the basic underlying philosophy of Hinduism, stripped of all its symbolic rituals. The author specifically mentions that it is “his journey” about discovering Hinduism. He is not saying that it is the only way to understand Hinduism and that is the charm of this book. The author has tried to peel back the layers, tried to find the identity of Hinduism and its association with science and digital age.
My favourite chapter of the book was the chapter “A Start-Up for the soul: Why we should re-examine the Hindu Way?”. While the book deals with the inter-relation of the religion with science, its impact on history and the literary sources, this chapter looks ahead. It talks about how Hinduism needs to reform itself away from the ritualistic jargon that has entrapped it, to a form which shows its true essence. It points out how we have forgotten that the real meaning of Hinduism is to look inwards and quotes Mahatma Gandhi when he said he would not accept any Shastra as an infallible guide if it opposes the maxims of morality. This basically drives home the point which the author is making in the book.
I was also re-acquainted with the “Nasadiya Sukta”, the hymn of creation in the Rig Veda. I had heard the hymn for the first time on television when the Hindi version of the hymn used to be the title track of a series called “Bharat Ek Khoj”. Even though at that time I was unaware that it was the “Nasadiya Sukta”, I was mesmerized by the words of the track. Reading the words of the hymn in English not only brought back memories but also made me realize how little I know about this religion that I believe in. The author has compared this hymn with the chapter of Genesis in the Bible and you will be surprised at the marked difference in the theory of the creation of both the religions.
The author also raised some very relevant points like vegetarianism in Hinduism (not mandatory as per me and the author) and the point about scientific inquiry and Hinduism. Another point raised by him which I totally agree upon is the concept of messiah in Hinduism, which the Hindus have used as a crutch for centuries.
The chapter “What do we do about History?” is in my eyes one of the weaker links in this book. This chapter deals with the three main issues in Hinduism namely gay and third gender rights, caste discrimination and Islamic invasions of India. While Gay and Third gender rights have been argued well, caste discrimination seems to be from a very urban point of view. Though the author talks about statistics and the economics of caste discrimination we all know it still exists especially in the rural heartlands. Even the issue of Islamic invasions seems to be skimmed over though he does lay across a very valid point that History should be seen in its entirety and should not be distorted by the political lens (something which seems unavoidable as long as politicians decide our History).
India is a Hindu majority nation with 80 percent of the population following a religion to which they are born in and is deeply ingrained in their day to day lives. However, as the author has pointed out if you ask the same people their thoughts about religion and its philosophy they will not be able to define it. Being a Hindu is also not very easy in today’s India. On one hand, you have the BJP’s firebrand Hinduism in which nationalism and religion are mixed into a deadly cocktail. On the other, you have the opposition’s peculiar brand of secularism, which to most people, seems to be anti-Hindu. Where does this scenario leave us, the educated, rational thinking Hindu, how do we define our identity as a Hindu?
I would recommend this book as a stepping stone to understanding Hinduism. It does not claim, nor is it, a treatise on Hinduism. If, however, you were like me, floundering and wondering about your faith then this is a thought-provoking read. The arguments are lucid and most of the time you will be nodding your head while you are reading. The book has definitely opened my eyes to the myriad ways I can interpret Hinduism and still be correct.