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THE ESSENCE OF HINDUISM

 

By Shashi Tharoor (Under Secretary United Nations)

 

Openness is the essence


The questions a candidate for public office has to answer from the media can cover any subject, and intrusiveness is difficult to resist. Still, I have been surprised with the frequency with which, of late, journalists from Boston to Berlin have expressed curiosity about my religious and beliefs. I tend to think of faith as something intensely personal, not really a matter I feel any desire to parade before the world. But, in an era where religion has sadly become a source of division and conflict in so many places, I had to concede that the question was a legitimate one — especially after one of my rivals specifically appealed for support on the grounds of his religion.

 

Nature of faith

 

It's true, in my view, that faith can influence one's conduct in one's career and life. For some, it's merely a question of faith in themselves, for others, including me, that sense of faith emerges from a faith in something larger than ourselves. Faith is, at some level, what gives you the courage to take the risks you must take, and enables you to make peace with yourself when you suffer the inevitable setbacks and calumnies that are the lot of those who try to make a difference in the world.

 

So I have had no difficulty in saying openly that I am a believing Hindu. But I am also quick to explain what that  phrase means to me. I'm not a "Hindu fundamentalist." I see Hinduism as uniquely a religion without fundamentals.  

 

We have an extraordinary diversity of religious practices within Hinduism, a faith with no single sacred book but  many. Hinduism is, in many ways, predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages about divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book.

 

We have no compulsory injunctions or obligations. We do not even have a Hindu Sunday, let alone a requirement to pray at specific times and frequencies.

 

Unusual religion

 

What we have is a faith that allows each believer to reach out his or her hands to his or her notion of the Godhead. Hinduism is a faith, which uniquely does not have any notion of heresy — you cannot be a Hindu heretic because there is no standard set of dogmas from which deviation would make you a heretic.


So Hinduism is a faith so unusual that it is the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find that most congenial. For me, as a believing Hindu, it is wonderful to be able to meet people from other faiths without being burdened by the conviction that I have embarked upon a "right path" that they have somehow missed. I was brought up in the belief that all ways of worship are equally valid . My father prayed devoutly every day, but never used to oblige me to join him. In the Hindu way, he wanted me to find my own truth. And that I believe I have.

 

It is a truth that admits of the possibility that there might be other truths. I therefore bring to the world an attitude that is open, accommodating and tolerant of others' beliefs. Mine is not a faith for those who seek certitudes, but there is no better belief-system for an era of doubt and uncertainty than a religion that cheerfully accommodates both.

 

The misuse of religion for political purposes is of course a sad, sometimes tragic, aspect of our contemporary reality. As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, the problem is never with the faith, but with the faithful. All faiths strive sincerely to animate the divine spark in each of us, but some of their followers, alas, use their faith as a club to beat others with, rather than a platform to raise themselves to the heavens. Since Hinduism believes that there are various ways of reaching the ultimate truth, the fact that adherents of my faith, in a perversion of its tenets, have chosen to destroy somebody else's sacred place, have attacked others because of the absence of foreskin or the mark on a forehead, is profoundly un-Hindu. I do not accept these fanatics' interpretation of the values and principles of my faith.

 

Divinity and the self

 

But what does it mean to me to be a practicing Hindu? I have never been particularly fond of visiting temples. I do believe in praying everyday, even if it is only for a couple of minutes. I have a little alcove at my home in Manhattan , where I try to reach out to the Holy Spirit. Yet, I believe in the Upanishadic doctrine that the divine is essentially unknowable and unattainable by ordinary mortals. All prayer is an attempt to reach out to that which we cannot touch. While I have occasionally visited temples, and I appreciate how important they are to my mother and most other devout Hindus, I don't really frequent them, because I believe that one does not need any intermediaries between oneself and one's notion of the divine. "Build Ram in your hearts" is what Hinduism has always enjoined. If Ram is in your heart, it would matter very little what bricks or stones Ram can also be found in.

 

Essential openness
So I take pride in the openness, the diversity, the range, the lofty metaphysical aspirations of the Vedanta. I cherish the diversity, the lack of compulsion, and the richness of the various ways in which Hinduism is practised eclectically. And I admire the civilizational heritage of tolerance that made Hindu societies open their arms to people of every other faith, to come and practise their beliefs in peace amidst Hindus. It is remarkable, for instance, that the only country on earth where the Jewish people have lived for centuries and never experienced a single episode of anti-Semitism is India. That is the Hinduism in which I gladly take pride.

 

Openness is the essence of my faith. And that's the perspective from which I would seek to serve in an office which must belong equally to people of all faiths, beliefs and creeds around the world.

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