Why Rishi Sunak is an ideal ambassador of Hinduism

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's version of Hinduism might not impress some Hindus in India, but it is clearly more authentic.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's version of Hinduism might not impress some Hindus in India, but it is clearly more authentic.


As a group, Hindus of Indian origin in the West are good ambassadors of India, usually, but not of modern Hinduism.

Probably for the first time since the birth of global perceptions, the image of Hinduism, like that of Islam, can be said to have suffered on account of the actions of its followers. Indians claiming to act on behalf of Hindus have acquired the reputation of tormenting people from other communities and even their own from other castes. Frequently, Hindus are wrongly seen as conducting “a genocide" against Muslims and correctly perceived as rewarding politicians who have made India a minor hell for that minority group. Once, the meandering cow on Indian streets was merely material for foreign correspondents who wanted to be amusing, but today the cow is a brooding foreshadow of lynchings. Modern India appears to the world as a place where Hindus have a low bar for quality of life but very specific views about the school uniforms of Muslim girls and what others should eat; a place where even a progressive politician like Arvind Kejriwal, whose schooling policy is celebrated in The New York Times, demands images of deities on currency notes. And where people spend a lot of energy on claims that an old mosque was once a temple.

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We are observed in this manner by whom? Is it only by some people in the West who track international news? Isn’t most of the world ignorant of others? And if most people are religious and conservative, wouldn’t they be more considerate to Hindu assertion? No, not necessarily. As this column has argued before, there is no such thing as a global right-wing. People are practical only at home; when it comes to other regions, everyone is a ‘humanitarian’, as it costs nothing to be so.

As a group, Hindus of Indian origin in the West are good ambassadors of India, usually, but not of modern Hinduism. Their success is secular and their grouse is religious. For instance, in America Hindus are often seen as overt and covert supporters of a muscular Hinduism back home. In the UK, recently, after a cricket match, British Hindus clashed with local Muslims. Meanwhile, articulate Muslims in the West are beginning to portray muscular Hinduism as a global villain on par with fanatical Islam.

It is in these circumstances that some help has arrived for that new global reputation of Hindus in the unexpected form of a new British prime minister. Rishi Sunak is an Englishman. He speaks like one, but is of Indian descent. His Indian links might seem convoluted, but what is beyond dispute is that he is Hindu. Sunak is seen as Hindu in a way that a Salman Rushdie or Javed Akhtar isn’t seen as Muslim. Sunak is not an amateur Hindu. As he has conveyed, he is a practising Hindu. He is a temple-goer. He lights diyas, which even many devout Hindus do not. He took an oath recently with his hand placed on the Bhagawat Gita.“I am now a citizen of Britain. But my religion is Hindu," he has said, “My religious and cultural heritage is Indian. I proudly say that I am a Hindu and my identity is also a Hindu."

Sunak says modern things, reassuring things, and he is suave, a feature that most people find impressive if the person is not saying anything uncomfortable. Like most men with a side hair parting, Sunak looks dependable. During his campaign to head his Conservative Party, perhaps to reassure people that his Hinduness should not worry them needlessly, he tweeted this: “My constituency is home to hundreds of beef and lamb farmers and I am committed to supporting the fantastic industry they represent. People’s food choices are their own. I would lead a government that champions our livestock farmers at home and abroad."

Sunak will find himself the brand ambassador of not just global Hinduism. He is also claimed by Britain as an ambassador of one of its peculiar self-compliments—its diversity. When Britain celebrates its ‘multi-cultural’ character, it usually means that a gregarious migrant has the mike, or that it is so reassured of the dominance of one ethnic group that it allows others to thrive—as long as they are ‘multi-cultural’ only in appearance, and under the hood are very British. Sunak is a Briton, even if he looks a bit different from the dominant ethnic type. But his Hindu identity is not a farce.

Hinduism allows Sunak to be anything, to say anything, and still be a ‘practising Hindu’. Nothing he does or say can disqualify him as a Hindu, for there are no disqualifications in the faith and nothing is heretical. He need not even believe in God to be considered Hindu, as atheistic traditions have long existed within Hinduism. Even B.R. Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism, adhered to what he called “the Hindu culture". Sunak seems to have taken fine aspects of the Hindu religion and culture and conflated them.

Modern political Hinduism in India has started dictating how non-Hindus should conduct themselves, but outside India, Hinduism is broadly still seen as an endearing if quaint cultural force as always. Sunak represents this Hinduism of festivities, which is different from the Hinduism of mysticism, the faith’s image the last time it was popular around the world—in the 1960s, when people from the West who had a void within, or some drug, popularized the myth that only Hinduism had all the spiritual answers.

Sunak’s version of Hinduism might not impress some Hindus in India, but it is clearly a more authentic version of the great ancient faith than the mystical exaggerations of hippies and of the muscular hyper-emotional Hinduism that looks set to remain a feature of Indian politics for a long time.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’.

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