The shapes of the worlds within
Last week, I visited my ancestral village and found myself listening to family stories told by my aunts who are well into their 70s. These were stories I had heard before. Nevertheless, like always, they were repeated at family gatherings, attesting to the axiomatic truth of all collective storytelling since Vyasa in the Mahabharata: repetition endows potency. In my head, I often divide these family stories into two categories: stories of the times and stories of people. The former are tales of perilous years when hunger was common and scarcity the rule. These aren’t moral tales but merely their recounting — a survivor’s sigh of relief — of how far we have all come from the India of the 1950s to this day. The latter stories about people are invariably morality plays — tales filled with ethical breaches, betrayals, and comeuppance.
This time, I heard a real-life story about a man who was a shrewd and feared feudal presence in their village — the kind who had managed to be both a functionary of the young Communist party and also relentlessly acquire land and wealth. Now in his 80s, after being felled by a stroke, he lay in coma, while, as my aunts described not without some schadenfreude, his children squabbled over his ill-gotten properties even as they refused to shoulder any responsibility towards his care. It all seemed a bit squalid, but none too uncommon, familial tragedy in play. What struck me vividly, however, was a statement by one of my more religious aunts: “It is inevitable given the [bad] karma he accrued by unconscionably fleecing illiterate Mapillahs [Muslims of Malabar] off their lands.”
Irrespective of the truth of her statement about his purported actions, what struck me was the ease with which a religious Hindu woman could imagine that a Hindu man could “pay” for his actions towards Muslims. The doctrine of karma, as she understood it, supplemented her intuitions about justice towards a fellow citizen, irrespective of her fellow citizen’s faith in the very same doctrine. It is this generosity of her theological interpretations, made on her own — without the sanction or permission of a clergy, without the approval from a book — that allowed her to be secular in practice without any supervised tutelage of the state regarding secularism. In many ways, she is not unique for a practising Hindu across India. But hers is the kind of everyday secularism borne from the generosity of her religious piety that is often mistaken by Hindutva ideologues for weakness and is often ignored by Left liberals who have little use for religion, far less religiously inspired ethical commitments.
The inner lives of devout Hindus gains all the more salience this week as Kerala begins to celebrate the next three months as a period earmarked for expressions of bhakti. Public and private forms of religiosity will soon decorate the streets. Millions of men from all of south India, dressed in black, heady with vows of brief asceticism, will trek to the temples at Sabarimala. Innumerable festivals at large and obscure temples, performances of various temple arts, concerts and processions, readings and discourses that run for days, if not weeks — it is all quite extraordinary. All of these are public reiterations of a way of living that has evolved over decades, if not centuries — a way of bookmarking human existence as seasons change and time flows.
Given all this, it is tempting to think of these external displays as the sole marker of being a Hindu. But unlike Islam or even doctrinaire forms of Christianity, what is less explicitly understood are the set of beliefs that constitutes one’s self-identification as a Hindu. What does ‘being Hindu’ mean? This is a question whose answer goes well beyond any worship of a god or belonging to a specific constellation of traditions (sampradaya). The answer — not in an academic or anthropological sense, but as a lived practice — is inescapably tied to the question of what does “being” mean? And then upon answering that, asking what does the descriptor “Hindu” entail. There are maximalists who argue that being human and being Hindu is the same. On the flip side, there are those who deny — usually after suffering from various inequities within the Hindu society — that one can’t be Hindu and human simultaneously. For most people, the truth lies in the proverbial middle not because that is the easy way out but because most human experiences are rarely at the extremes. To answer what it is to be a Hindu in our times is then ultimately an exercise to reduce an archipelago of subjective understandings into an island of objective knowledge.
The result is that most writings about being Hindu, even by “insiders”, is indistinguishable from historical accounts of concepts, a cornucopia of myths, or are explorations of high philosophical subtleties. All of these are important, of course, but ultimately they are merely the scaffolding inside which Hindu identities learn to organize their inner worlds. If we are to be students of modern India, then this means learning to see how Hindu beliefs, commitments and affiliations are formed, sustain and change. To do this, away from the heat of reactionary furies and banal identity politics, is to learn to see the world for what it is. 
A version of this article was published in The Hindu on November 19th' 2017.