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BOOK REVIEW

Title: Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You


Author: Hindol Sengupta
Publisher: Penguin India
Genre: Non fiction/ Religion
ISBN: 978-0-143-42532-8
Pages: 192
Date of release: December, 2015
Binding: Paperback

Being Hindu tries to offer clarity on the faith of the majority of Indians but ends up
being confused
Reviewer: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Let me be honest. I started this book a little warily. In the perilous ride that is religion in India right
now, I prefer to sit at the centre, leaning a little towards the Left. I watch with trepidation the loud
voices coming from the Right side of things and fear that 'Hinduism' is turning into a dirty word.
Therefore, I approach anything with 'Hindu' written on it with suspicion. In the strictly academic
pursuit of subjects like ancient Indian History, Culture, Mythology and Mysticism, my skepticism is only
heightened.
Yet like many of my generation, I'm drawn like moth to flame to anything with 'Hindu' written on it
even titles that sound like fashion labels of unscrupulous film stars. It comes from a deep, even
perverted need to understand; to understand my roots, my place in the ever-changing world, and the
volatile interplay between social, economic, political, and religious forces.
Neti, neti (not this, not this)
In his latest offering, Being Hindu, Hindol Sengupta tries to throw light on some of these issues. The
apparent intent is to address some questions about identity and the relevance of religion in the life of
a young Indian. But Sengupta does not do a convincing job. Let me explain why.
The author in question is not a cultural commentator, not a historian, nor a expert of religion. He is a
journalist, and a good one at that, but he lacks the depth of an academic. And the result is that his
book ends up reading like one long op-ed. He generalises and trivialises. His research sample seems to
comprise only of his cosy elite Delhi circle. ...I noticed a general ennui and hesitance about declaring
themselves Hindu, especially among the general youth, as well as my colleagues and friends. I felt it
too. It was almost like we were asking for the responsibility of spiritual choice to be taken away from
us..., he says. We? Us? Speak for yourself, maybe? I know the India he's talking about the one in
high rises with glass facades, the one with the luxury of doubt and contemplation. But he doesn't
seem to take into account the other greater India, where the people practice simple faith and have
very little doubt, if any, about their religious identity. When one deems to delve into the sticky

territory of religion, one ought to drink deeper than that.


In a commentary about the machinations of religion and society, his personal influences show up very
jarringly again and again. One of his personal set of beliefs imposed all over the book is derived from
the Ramakrishna Mission. He incessantly quotes their teachings and philosophy throughout the book.
As great as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Vivekananda were, it cannot be the only lens through which
Hinduism can or should be understood.
The second point I find hard to accept is his singularly Vedantic view of things. Yes, a large part of
Hindu philosophy is inspired by the ideas of the Upanishads and Shankaracharya's Uttar Mimansika
school, but that's not all there is to Hinduism. There are other schools of thought and other ways of
spiritual understanding that he completely overlooks. In the mien of Vivekandanda, Gandhi and
Ambedkar, he labels Hinduism's ritualistic aspect as regressive and repressive. But he forgets the
cultural implications of these rites and rituals and the fact that they represent the living religion; not
of course in the India of glass facade high rises. You cannot write a book about being a Hindu without
writing about its daily manifestations.
Finally, he seems especially influenced/scarred by his American Christian schooling. Despite himself,
he keeps trying to refute the Catholic idea of sinners. None of us is a heathen. None of us is an
infidel... you and me, we are not sinners. We are the divine. We just don't know it yet. Too many
negations a positive make, Mr. Sengupta. It seems like deep down he believes in the ideas of evil and
sin and tries hard to persuade himself and his readers otherwise. It also makes him compulsively and
excessively compare Hinduism with Christianity, reducing the scope of pure theology.
Right gone wrong
So he swings the other way, he goes Right. He joins this new band of people who, clad in saffron, their
chests excessively puffed, proclaim their pride in Hinduism. Nothing wrong with being proud of one's
religion, but everyone knows where this jingoism is headed. Perhaps those who swear by the Vedic
culture would do well to remind themselves that our greatest works were anonymously composed.
The quest for knowledge through different paths, the Brahman, was sought in all humility. Greatness
comes from doing, not saying.
And here we have some of these puffy-chested creatures decrying any and all other differing points of
view. Names are called, mockery is made and ultimately there is a subscription to the very tropes they
claim to be rejecting. They're so ashamed of Hindu apologists that they become apologists for
apologists. Heh. Case in point. Wendy Doniger, the Indic scholar everyone loves to hate. In trashing
Wendy's children*, they become Dinanath Batra's children, or Rajeev Malhotra's. Every scholar who
doesn't sing the glories of Hinduism, or reads it differently, is branded ignorant. The only 'good'
Indologists are the ones like Diana Eck (Sengupta's favourite), who say what is desirable to these
Hindu ears, hungry for validation. Only selective references, no place for tark or vivaad. Yes, let's all
scratch each others' backs over a tea party called 'How Great We Are'.

*A term used to denote the school of scholars who are inspired by Doniger's writings.

Speaking of references, Sengupta loves to use them. Most of all, himself. Why else would someone
reproduce an entire article published elsewhere in a new book? He must think his essay, 'How to write
about Hindus with the Left Hand' a tribute to Binyavanga Wainainas essay, 'How To Write About
Africa' is particularly funny and/or brilliant. I am hard pressed to agree. In that essay he mocks
foreign Indic scholars for using pictures of gods as covers images for their books among other things.
Too stereotypical, he says. Wonder where he was looking when they picked the cover for his book.
At one point Sengupta laments how we don't consider our religious legacy worthy until some firang
tells us so. So you would think that someone with this complaint would always eagerly turn to
indigenous sources of knowledge. But, no. Here is a Hindu, trying to tell us how to understand
Hinduism, while throwing all possible foreign sources at us. He quotes everyone from Schrodinger to
Bohm to Capra to Dawkins to Jung to drive home his point, especially when using science as his
fulcrum. Thankfully he quotes a few Indian scholars too and manages to keep a semblance of balance.
Being confused
As a reader, I find Mr. Sengupta lost. He doesn't seem to know where he belongs or wants to belong.
His Anglicised, Christianised education and his station in life places him, like many of us, in that class of
people with Hindu identities (or lack thereof) and Western aspirations. Having become financially
comfortable, we can now indulge in some soul searching while we slave away at multinationals,
eating global cuisine, tapping away at our foreign brand phones. In this time of global strife
surrounding religion, finding one's place in the larger scheme of things is important.
Questions are many, and the answers are not simple. The author embarks on a personal journey of
defining his Hindu identity with this book and assumes that his readers share and understand these
real (and imagined) conflicts. He rambles about all sorts of issues from the idea of the 'One True
God', to 'Religion and Science' to 'Vegetarianism', never quite getting to the point. At one point he
writes about Vedanta, quantum physics and the principle of singularity, and then decides to talk about
homosexuality and then again, rural economy. Here he is giving us a litany of ancient Indian geniuses
and their treatises before suddenly jumping to technology and loneliness and then again, the need for
religious reform. By the seventh chapter on Vegetarianism, he completely loses the plot. The
complexities of the subject completely inundate him.
The author may not know or understand the larger cultural import of Hinduism, but he knows well his
spirituality at least the Vedantic variety. The book has its moments of clarity, and they're lovely. My
favourite parts are where he talks about the unity of the self and the universe, the need for stillness
and the Avatar Syndrome. Sample these:
Just by being alive, at every single moment, you are not just part of the universe, you are the
universe.
...Hinduism survives because it sets people free.. The only truth that exists is inside oneself not in a
book.
We are the ones we have been waiting for. This waiting for a messiah goes against the very essence
of the philosophy of Hinduism.

The book, then, is really about the author's own philosophical and spiritual inquiry of Hinduism, and
not everything else that he tries to throw into the mix. It won't give you much meat (vegetables if you
prefer) on Being Hindu as the title of the book claims. Sure, in his introduction the author says this
view of Hinduism is based on his personal understanding of the religion, but then a more appropriate
title would have been Being Hindol.