In his new book, with its self-explanatory title, former Indian Foreign Service officer-turned-writer Pavan K. Varma pegs the greatness of Hindu civilisation on the various “proofs” he finds for its undeniable capacity to be cerebral, to enunciate, engage with and transmit abstract ideas. A number of Varma’s recent books have the word “great” in their title—the one about Shankaracharya, for example, the other about Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas, even the one on India’s middle class. Unlike a historian or a philosopher, who would likely refrain from overt didacticism even before a single page of their argument had been considered, Varma establishes himself as a polemicist with the title, and when we read his book, we see that he is extremely skilled at his self-propelled task.
With The Great Hindu Civilisation, which explicates at length the “true” meaning of Hinduism, Varma joins other Delhi gentlemen inhabiting the corridors of power who have recently engaged in the same enterprise: reassuring us all, Hindus and others, that the essence of Hinduism is not about aggressive identities that revolve around creed or denomination, that civilised people like themselves can be proudly Hindu. Shashi Tharoor’s Why I Am A Hindu (2018) immediately comes to mind.
Varma argues that Hinduism is fundamentally a quest for, and recognition of, an ultimate reality, something that can rightfully be called sanatana, that which is eternal and primeval. The innermost truths of this system of belief are contemplative and transcendental, peaceful and quietist, not the kind that inspire bloodthirsty battle cries, lynch mobs, demolitions and harassment of minority communities and Dalits. I can’t imagine anyone who knows even a shloka of Hinduism would find this an entirely false statement. The problem is that these beautiful, sophisticated, enormously compelling truths, in the time and place of their articulation, remained largely the intellectual and spiritual property of caste elites. Centuries after the Vedas, Upanishads and Darshana Sutras, bhakti poet-saints tore through the hierarchies of caste and gender as best they could. Some kind of mediated access to the sanatana philosophical formulations they contained was then proffered to women and others who could not claim them as a birthright.
Varma ably mines the scholarship of philosophers, translators, ethicists, anthropologists and mythologists to construct an edifice that places Hindu thought at the apex of all cultures, ancient and modern. Whether this is true or not is a matter of opinion. Some might prefer to think of Egyptian achievements, for example, as more sophisticated. It is here that my dismay with Varma’s project begins—why is it necessary to exalt one system of belief or set of cultural mores by undermining another? Ancient systems of thought can be compared for similarities and differences, we don’t have to pick one as being better than the other.
Varma is erudite and persuasive—if he says he finds Hindu cerebration unique and completely fulfilling, his readers will follow his argument and agree there is something exceptional about Hinduism. His sideswipes against the Abrahamic traditions (in wilful opposition to Hinduism) are neither dignified nor insightful. Further, like many lesser thinkers, Varma jumps on to the bandwagon of naming the scores of Western academics who have been critical of Hinduism and are, therefore, complicit in the larger colonial legacy that makes Indians ashamed of their own traditions and themselves. In a recent podcast conversation, Varma insisted several times that “foreigners” could not possibly understand Hinduism simply because they were, well, “foreigners”.
Unfortunately, The Great Hindu Civilisation is littered with such dog whistles when it doesn’t need to be. The constant denigration of other belief systems makes the book seem like a weak apologia for a tradition that has powerfully critiqued and subverted itself frequently over the centuries.
The attitude and tone of the book belie what Varma says in interviews around its publication. A few weeks ago, I saw him stand fiercely against a right-wing interlocutor who kept insisting that Hindu aggression was justified and that this, too, could be an important contemporary interpretation of the tradition. Varma did not raise his voice or lose his temper. Rather, he pushed back, arguing that the crude, violent and lumpenised Hinduism that has been unleashed on our streets was simply incorrect. He went on to talk about his view of Hinduism, which could not endorse such acts of provocation and hatred. Of course, like so many of us, Varma makes Hinduism “good” and Hindutva “bad”.
The Varma who speaks with such conviction about a non-combative, constantly changing religious tradition is so much more interesting and valuable to our times than the one who writes a book, no doubt a potential best-seller, which ticks all the boxes of Hinduism’s current discomfort—we are the best religion, foreigners have never understood our glorious tradition, and so on. Anyone these days can write a book about Hinduism that covers these grievances but it would take an especially courageous person to say Hinduism may not be the best, the oldest, the most brilliant tradition, but it allows me to make sense of the world, gives meaning to my life, and helps me to be a better person.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked what she thought was the first sign of civilisation in the ancient past. She replied it was a human femur, found at an archaeological site, which had broken and healed. For an animal, a broken leg meant being abandoned by its mates and death. The healed bone suggested the injured person had not been left behind, someone had stayed to help them.
For Mead, the first sign of civilisation was compassion, the idea that companions should be cared for, that an individual was as, if not more, important than a community. I would like to take this as a way to think about how to live in the world, rather than think about whose sacred texts are oldest, biggest, best.
Arshia Sattar is a scholar, writer and translator based in Bengaluru.