Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Where the mind is without fear

A father writes to his daughters on why practising Hindutva as a way of life is not tied to any religion

Dear Nayantara and Anugraha,

Your mum and I are often asked why we chose to name you Nayantara and Anugraha. When we ask “And why not?"—oftentimes, we meet a response that shocks us. “Because these are Hindu names and the both of you are Christians."

“We are Indians," we inevitably shoot back.

You are too young right now to understand the nuances. So, I thought it only appropriate I write you this note so when you grow up, you will know why.

The India the both of you are in now is a terribly confused country. It wasn’t like this when I was growing up. Life was simple. The devout Christians that your paternal grandparents are, they named me after your great-grandfather. And your mother’s parents named her after her maternal grandmother. It was tradition and they didn’t have to put any thought into it.

As I grew into an adult, much deliberation later, I gave up on god and religion and chose atheism over all else. Pushed to a wall, my only religion is science because it subscribes to falsifiability. Which means, if anything is proven wrong, science has the humility to accept it and move to what is proven as the truth.

When your mother and I got married, she first made it abundantly clear to me that she is a practising Christian. It didn’t bother me. I simply assumed that over time, I’d wean her away from the faith. I was wrong and I must confess it created an awful amount of friction between the both of us.

We finally arrived at a consensus. She would continue to practise her faith and bring the both of you up in the faith as well. When you are old enough to understand why I took to atheism, I will talk to the both of you about it. As you mature into adults, what you choose to practise will be a function of your free will and neither of us will quibble about it.

That is why every Sunday, I accompany the three of you to church and wait outside in the car while you attend to the ceremonies and participate in all of what the Catholic faith demands. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t irritate me—or that my declining to participate in proceedings inside church doesn’t annoy your mother. But like I said earlier, your mother and I agreed on this and have made our peace with it.

This arrangement isn’t entirely understood by the elders in our family. Not that either of us care about it. But when you were born, everybody in our extended family was delighted and thought up so-called “Christian" names for you.

But truth is, Nayantara, when I first saw you, the only name that came to mind was Nayantara. It means the star of my eye. And when you were born a few years later, Anugraha, I thought of you as a blessing. That is what your name means.

Your mother and I thought these delightful and were absolutely sure this is what we would call you. That these are “Hindu" names never crossed our minds. They are Indian names, which is what the both of you are. The only timid objections that came from your grandparents on both sides were that we were breaking from tradition.

That said, it rankles me now more than before when the “Why a Hindu name?" question comes up. I think it a sign of fissures in the country the both of you are growing up in.

When I was young, I’d have long walks with your grand-uncle and we’d speak of pretty much everything under the sun—Hindutva included. The both of us concurred that Hindutva is not a religion, but a way of life that is uniquely Indian. Allow me to put that into perspective for you by way of a few gestures we practise every day.

Before we get into someone’s home, we take our footwear off. We eat with our hands. We consider books sacred and don’t allow them to be soiled or placed on the floor. We stand up in the presence of an elder. Living in extended families that includes the patriarchs and matriarchs comes naturally to us. The oldest living person inevitably has the final word.

Is this an Indian way of life? Yes. Is this a Hindu way of living? Yes. To that extent, all Indians who practise this way of life are Hindus.

What riles me up completely now though is the current political environment that we live in, where the word Hindutva has been terribly twisted by militant ideologues of Hinduism.

Like I told you earlier, Hindutva is a way of life. It is most certainly not intended to be the militant and violent sociopolitical ideology that it has now mutated into. To my mind, this is a perverted world view that hijacks the benevolent Hindutva your atheist father and Catholic mother live by.

I abhor violence in all forms. That is one among the many reasons I gave up on all forms of religion and god in the first instance. I don’t claim to have read up thoroughly on all of the religious scriptures. But I know enough to argue with a degree of certainty that whenever any religion has tried to propagate itself, violence has followed. The ugly crusades of Christianity, the swords used by Islamic invaders, and even a virulent strain of the otherwise benevolent Buddhism in countries such as Sri Lanka are instances that come to mind.

That you live in turbulent times is obvious from the chart I have mapped here with a search on Google Books (see below, tap or click to expand). The number of times the word Hindutva appears in discourses has multiplied exponentially since the time the both of you were born post-2000. In some sense, it is an indicator that Hinduism, the religion, as opposed to Hindutva, the way of life, is terribly confused.

I suspect that is why your mother and I have to field questions on the religious dichotomy that now surrounds your names. My only submission to the both of you is that this dichotomy is a politically manufactured one. It ought not to confuse you about who you are, the choices you make, what path to follow, or your Indian and Hindu heritage.

And if you ever come to a crossroad where your back is pushed to the wall and you are asked to speak of where your affiliations lie, I want you to commit to memory and take solace from these lines by Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of trust

Where tireless striving stretches its arms to perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

As always, much love,


Charles Assisi is co-founder and director of Founding Fuel, a digitally led media and learning platform for entrepreneurs. He tweets on @c_assisi.