Being Hindu

Understanding a Peaceful Path in a Violent World

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Hindol Sengupta
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , October
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781442267459.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With this audacious and articulate book, journalist Hindol Sengupta presents an impassioned and most welcome case for Hinduism as an ancient and sophisticated tradition with great relevance for the contemporary world. Noting quite rightly that Hindu traditions are poorly understood not only in the West but often even within India itself, Sengupta first traces his own journey as a Bengali Hindu growing up in Calcutta (today Kolkata), attending a Christian missionary school while also being introduced, through his family, to the Vedanta tradition as taught by Swami Vivekananda. The book is not so much a scholarly presentation of Hinduism, as one might find in an introductory textbook, as it is an invitation to the reader to join the author in his discovery of the tradition of his upbringing.

Why is Sengupta’s book particularly welcome at this current time? Its importance can be discerned on several levels. We human beings, collectively, are currently living through one of the most culturally, politically, and religiously polarized periods of modern history. Neither Hinduism nor India has escaped this polarization, which not only pits Hindu against Hindu and Indian against Indian, but also, quite strongly over the last couple of decades, scholars and practitioners of Hindu traditions against one another. The situation has become so toxic that an impassioned defense of Hinduism will typically be written off by many scholars as a work of Hindu nationalism and put in the same category as some of the more outrageous expressions of this movement that have made their way into the headlines of mainstream journalism in both India and the West. Indeed, it is not at all unlikely that this book, too, will be similarly written off by many academic scholars.

If this proves to be the case, then it will be a tragedy, because Sengupta has some important things to say, not only about Hindu traditions, but about the contemporary human condition. His book is not only as a defense of Hindu thought and practice against stereotypes and distortions, but an argument against extremism of all kinds. The Hindu tradition that Sengupta presents is the one that has attracted, if we care to admit it, so many of us to study it, and in some cases, to practice it as well: a tradition that does not problematize but rather celebrates diversity, and does not discourage but actively promotes free inquiry into the deepest questions of existence, such as the nature of consciousness and morality, and the ultimate purpose of our existence. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Who are we? And how ought we to relate to one another? As Sengupta points out, and as this book powerfully presents, Hinduism has a great many important things to say about these issues.

The book is at its strongest when Sengupta is presenting his journey of questioning the divergent views of Hinduism that he was given in his missionary schooling, by his family, from interlocutors in the West, and subsequently, in scholarly presentations of Hinduism. It is also well-researched, even though it is not, technically speaking, a scholarly work so much as a presentation for a popular audience.

Sengupta is also frank in rejecting the political extremes found in contemporary Hinduism, while at the same time presenting these in a balanced and subtle way. His remarks on Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, are particularly interesting. Without drawing any moral equivalence between these two figures, or falling into a lazy relativism, he shows where, as fellow Hindus, they held certain ideals in common. On Sengupta’s account, Godse’s accusation against Gandhi was not that he wanted Hindus and Muslims to live in harmony, but that, in Godse’s view, Gandhi had allowed the partition of India, a partition premised on the idea that such harmonious co-existence was impossible—which of course also led to untold violence between the two communities. The claim Sengupta is making is not that Godse was correct in his assessment of Gandhi’s role in the partition, which is a much-debated issue. It is that as Hindus, even figures as opposed as Mahatma Gandhi and the man who murdered him each adhered, in his own way, to an ideal of harmony: an ideal for which the contemporary need is profound.

Sengupta also celebrates the many Hindu contributions to science and mathematics throughout the millennia without falling into the trope of making unfounded, science-fiction-like claims about the ancient Indians having cell phones and spaceships. Part of the importance of Sengupta’s book is that he shows that it is possible to celebrate Hinduism without going to the kinds of extreme lengths that have given such celebratory rhetoric a bad name.

The first chapter of the book, “How to Write about Hindus,” contains an earlier piece by Sengupta, modeled on Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” (Binyavanga Wainaina, “How to Write about Africa,” Granta 92 (January 19, 2006), which many will no doubt find jarring. It is here that Sengupta’s anger at the ways in which Hindu traditions are misrepresented or distorted in scholarship comes through most clearly. It is not an unfortunate piece, but is rather, an important piece of the puzzle of what has motivated Sengupta to write this book. But it is the part on which unfriendly critics are most likely to seize if they simply wish to denounce this book as the work of another angry Hindu.

I would like to have seen some discussion of the phenomenon of non-Indians being drawn to the practice of Hinduism, beyond Sengupta’s passing references to Sister Nivedita and ISKCON. Incomprehension and distortion are far from being the only Western responses to this ancient tradition. But this book is about Sengupta and his experience of Hinduism. It is, again, a very important work which will hopefully receive a wide readership.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffery D. Long is Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Elizabethtown College. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Hinduism (2011), Jainism: An Introduction (2009), and A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism (2007), as well as co-editor of the Buddhism and Jainism volumes of the Encyclopedia of Indian Religions (2016).

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hindol Sengupta is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University. He has been short-listed for the Hayek Book Prize given by the Manhattan Institute in memory of the Nobel laureate economist F. A. Hayek. He is the winner of the PSF Award in India, which includes among past winners the late Indian scientist and president A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. He is founder of the global information network on change-makers, Grin (https://grin.news). He has been a journalist with Fortune India, the Indian edition of Fortune magazine; Bloomberg TV India; CNN-IBN; and CNBC-TV18.

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