I was born in a village in what is now Sivagangai district, then Ramanathapuram district, of Tamil Nadu. I am proud that Kaniyan Poongunranar was born a few kilometres away in a village called Poongunram (now Mahibalanpatti) in the same district. He was a poet who lived in the Sangam age between 6th century BCE and 1st century CE. He is best known for his 13-line poem starting with the words ‘Yaadum oore yaavarum kelir’. A simple translation is ‘Every place is my village, every one is my relation’. There are other gems in the poem.
The first line is inscribed on the walls of the United Nations. The poem is believed to reflect the way of life of the Tamils 2,000 years ago and earlier.
The word ‘Hindu’
Tamil literature records the religions of that age as Saivam and Vaishnavam. Samanam (Jainism) and Bouddham (Buddhism) were later religions. The words Hindu and Hinduism are in not found in ancient Tamil literature. According to Mr Shashi Tharoor, “the word ‘Hindu’ did not exist in any Indian language till its use by foreigners gave Indians a term for self-definition”.
Most Tamils are born in families that practise Hinduism. They worship many gods (including village deities), celebrate festivals like Pongal and Deepavali, and observe rituals like pongal, pal kudam and kaavadi. The Tamil Hindus have lived for centuries with people practising other religions, especially Christianity, for over 2,000 years and Islam for over 800 years. Muslim and Christian scholars and writers have made remarkable contributions to Tamil literature and the development of the language. To my knowledge, no Tamil Hindu king waged a war to establish the supremacy of the Hindu religion over other religions.
What is Hinduism apart from the name of a revered religion? Although I had read books by Dr S Radhakrishnan and Swami Vivekananda, I never felt it was necessary to undertake that inquiry. From what I have read, heard, gathered and gleaned, it seems to me ‘What is Hinduism?’ can be answered in a few simple paragraphs:
- Hinduism does not claim to be the only true religion. Swami Vivekananda said, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”
- Hinduism does not have One Church, One Pope, One Prophet, One Holy Book or One Ritual. There are many of each, and a Hindu is free to choose among the many or reject all. Some scholars have argued that one can be a Hindu as well as a believer or an agnostic or an atheist!
- In its secular aspects, Hinduism does not prescribe one system of marriage or one system of succession/inheritance. The Hindu law reforms (1955-1956) tried to bring about uniformity but there exist myriad variations even today.
- Hinduism allows a Hindu to worship other gods and saints. Thousands of Hindus go to worship at the shrine in Velankanni or pray at the Golden Temple in Amritsar or offer obeisance at the Dargah Sharif in Ajmer. Historians are not agreed whether the Sai Baba of Shirdi was a Muslim or a Hindu; he was perhaps both because he did not see any difference between the two. One of his famous epigrams was Allah Malik (God is King).
- Dr Wendy Doniger, Professor of History of Religions, University of Chicago, who studied Sanskrit and ancient Indian religion for over 50 years, has observed: “Scholars have known for centuries that the ancient Indians ate beef.” She has quoted texts such as Rig Veda and Brahmanas as well Yajnavalkya and M N Srinivas. Currently, most Hindus eat meat, fish and eggs, but not beef; many Hindus are vegetarian.
- Dr Doniger also points out that Gandhiji never called for banning cow slaughter, and quotes him as having said: “How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.” However, many Muslims and Christians do not eat beef and many non-vegetarians do not eat red meat at all.
I Don’t Need Hindutva
In his famous undelivered speech (1936) ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Dr B R Ambedkar, after tracing the conflict between the Indian National Congress (founded in 1885) and the Indian National Social Conference (founded in 1887), and noting with regret that the ‘political reformers’ had vanquished the ‘social reformers’, posed a series of questions to the “political minded Hindus”, that included the following: “Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to wear what apparel or ornaments they like? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to eat any food they like?” These questions ring true even today, but in a different context.
Like Mr Tharoor, “I was born a Hindu, grew up as one, and have considered myself as one all my life.” I am one among 81.6 per cent of the Hindus who said in a Pew survey that they were raised as Hindu and currently identify themselves as Hindu. I am happy with my Hinduism and with Kaniyan Poongunranar’s simple lesson ‘every one is my relation’. Why do I need Hindutva?