Of religion and skepticism
First let's note the possibility of cultural nepotism: this is a book review of an Indian by an Indian about a book that says nice things about India. Then again author Amartya Sen is a Nobel prize-winning economist and thinker and the reviewer, Shashi Tharoor, a talented author and UN diplomat.
Now here's what the Post article has to say about Hinduism:
Sen's argument for his idea of India is constructed not just in opposition to Western stereotyping but also to the homegrown Hindutva ("Hindu-ness") movement, which in recent years has sought power on a platform asserting that India is a Hindu nation that ought to be a Hindu state, while defining Hinduism in crudely sectarian terms, both as a religion and as a badge of cultural and political identity.
In several of the essays in this collection, Sen demolishes each of these "narrow and bellicose" premises of Hindutva, along with Western religious reductionism. Sen reminds us that even the sacred epic the Ramayana , much beloved of today's Hindu revivalists, features the skeptic Javali, who advises the god-king Ram that "there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that. . . . [Religious] injunctions . . . have been laid down in the [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people." India's skeptical tradition is as old as the Rigveda , composed around 1500 B.C., when most Europeans were clad in animal skins. "Who really knows?" it asks about creation. "Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?. . . perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not -- the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows -- or perhaps he does not know."
I love that final "or perhaps he does not know." The reach of rationality in Indian thinking goes far; Hinduism is the only major religion with an explicit tradition of agnosticism within it. ...
Unlike in the West, Indian secularism has tended not to be about the separation of church from state and the prohibition of religious activities but about tolerance of a profusion of religions, none of which is privileged or favored by the state. [LINK]I quote this not to praise or make an argument for the tradition I was raised in, but to note that this may be the reason why the Western opposition between religion and rationality (and/or skepticism) rings false to me. And because of this I tend to view Christian extremism as very much like Hindu extremism -- a fully modern attempt to recast an ancient and diverse religious tradition into a narrow ideology rather than as evidence of the essential dogmatism of faith.
Am I wrong in reading the Christian right in this way? I truly wouldn't know because I can't speak for a religious tradition that -- having been raised in India -- I have mostly encountered in books. But the article serves as a good reminder to me that even a word like "religion" may not convey the same universe of meaning for someone else as it does for me.