Shashi Tharoor is a prolific writer--nine books, in addition to many articles, op-eds and literary reviews--and is the recipient of several journalism and literary awards. And that's in addition to his day job as the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information at the United Nations. Now, Tharoor is looking to take on an even more demanding role: He is running for secretary general of the U.N., and if he wins, he'd be the first practicing Hindu to lead that organization. Tharoor says he hopes to bring change to the United Nations; quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he says, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world. What is true for individuals applies also to institutions. The U.N. is no exception. If we want to change the world, we must change too.” Tharoor recently spoke with Beliefnet about his faith and how it empowers him.
How does faith shape a person's career and life? Or does it? It does, if you have faith. For some, it’s merely a question of faith in themselves; for others, including me, that sense of faith emerges from a faith in something larger than ourselves. It’s what gives you the courage to take the risks you must take, and enables you to make peace with yourself when you suffer the inevitable setbacks and calumnies that are the lot of those who try to make a difference in the world.
Describe your faith and religion? What do you like most about your religion?
I am a believing Hindu. Hinduism is uniquely a religion without fundamentals. We have an extraordinary diversity of religious practices within Hinduism, a faith with no single sacred book but many. Hinduism is, in many ways, predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages about divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book. We have no compulsory injunctions or obligations. We don't even have a Hindu Sunday, let alone a requirement to pray at specific times and frequencies.
What we have is a faith that allows each believer to reach out his or her hands to his or her notion of the Godhead. A faith which uniquely does not have any notion of heresy--you cannot be a Hindu heretic because there is no standard set of dogmas from which deviation would make you a heretic. Here is a faith so unusual that it is the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find that most congenial.
For me, as a believing Hindu, it is wonderful to be able to meet people from other faiths without being burdened by the conviction that I have embarked upon a “right path” that they have somehow missed. I was brought up in the belief that all ways of worship are equally valid. My father prayed devoutly every day, but never used to oblige me to join him: in the Hindu way, he wanted me to find my own truth. And that I believe I have.
So many of the problems in the world today are a result of people’s beliefs and their faith. The role of faith ought to be to bring peace and happiness to the world, but is that really happening? What is it about yours or any religion that troubles you the most?
As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, the problem is never with the faith, but with the faithful. All faiths strive sincerely to animate the divine spark in each of us; but some of their followers, alas, use their faith as a club to beat others with, rather than a platform to raise themselves to the heavens.
As I said, Hinduism believes that there are various ways of reaching the ultimate truth. To me, the fact that adherents of this faith, in a perversion of its tenets, have chosen to destroy somebody else's sacred place, have chosen to attack others because of the absence of foreskin or the mark on a forehead, is profoundly un-Hindu. I do not accept these fanatics’ interpretation of the values and principles of my faith.
Are you currently a practicing Hindu? Do you visit temples? Why or why not?
I believe in praying every day, even if it is only for a couple of minutes. I have a little alcove at my home in Manhattan, N.Y., where I try to reach out to the holy spirit. But I believe in the Upanishadic doctrine that the divine is essentially unknowable and unattainable by ordinary mortals; all prayer is an attempt to reach out to that which we cannot touch. While I have very occasionally visited temples, I don't really frequent them, because I believe that one does not need any intermediaries between oneself and one’s notion of the divine. "Build Ram in your hearts" is what Hinduism has always enjoined. If Ram is in your heart, it would matter very little what bricks or stones Ram can also be found in.
Members of Rationalist International, an Indian-dominated forum for "rationalist ideas and positions of world-wide concern" have asked for the withdrawal your candidature, because of your belief in Sathya Sai Baba, the self-proclaimed saint who is very controversial but extremely popular. How do you react to that?