Rishi’s Religion – the UK has its first Hindu PM

Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, celebrates many important things; new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, and light and hope in the darkness of the approaching winter. But this year, Diwali heralded a particularly monumental event – the announcement of the UK’s first ever Hindu Prime Minister.  

The ‘election’ of Mr. Rishi Sunak on the most auspicious day of the Hindu calendar seemed like a coincidence of divine proportions, with Indians and Hindus alike across the UK feeling a sense of pride at being represented in the highest position of our government. But to what extent does this Oxford-educated, ex-investment banker, multi-millionaire actually adhere to the principles of Hinduism, and how – if at all – will his religion guide his tenure at 10 Downing Street?  

Southampton-born Sunak is one of the roughly 800,000 Hindus living in the United Kingdom, practicing this multi-faceted religion that has myriad practices and customs as well as many different gods to choose from. It is, at its core, a religion of peace, evident in such practices as yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism. Its values are deeply rooted in family, community, and education – all things that Sunak appears to have championed during his time in politics. Ironically, even Sunak’s immense net-worth could be linked to Hinduism – the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi, is one of the most worshipped deities in the pantheon. Above all, one of the most important tenets of the Hindu religion is that of dharma, best translated as ‘duty’. Coming into office in these uncertain times, it is clear that Sunak has a crucial duty to carry out, however he chooses to go about it. 

In terms of his career, Sunak made his religion clear from the outset. When becoming an MP in 2015, he swore his oath on the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred Hindu texts. In November 2020 he was photographed lighting diyas (clay lamps associated with Diwali) outside 10 Downing Street to symbolise hope during times of darkness. He makes publicised yearly visits with his family to The Vedic Society Hindu Temple in Southampton, which was established by his own grandfather in 1971. 

Being the first Hindu leader of the United Kingdom – there have been Christians, atheists, agnostics and even a Jewish man, but never anything else – many questions have been raised as to how Sunak’s religion will affect his role as PM, if at all.  

Whilst media all over the world, especially in India, has been focusing on Sunak’s religious heritage, the UK media is more concerned with the fact that he is the first Prime Minister of colour. Personal political preferences aside, it is indisputable that the election of a non-white Prime Minister heralds a great social shift in the UK, a country where, less than a century ago, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to Indians as a “beastly people with a beastly religion”. (What would Churchill think of Sunak, I wonder?). With Indians across the UK describing Sunak’s appointment as their “Barack Obama moment”, it goes without saying that Sunak’s achievement marks a moment of great social change and cements the UK’s position as a multicultural and multi-faith society, setting the tone for great progress in equality moving forward. 

So, will Sunak’s religion affect his premiership? It is unlikely. The UK is one of the most secularised societies in the world, rendering the religion of our Prime Minister practically irrelevant in terms of the policies they pursue. However, there is something to be said about one’s cultural upbringing and how it affects their worldview and the way that they treat others. At the time of writing, Sunak is two weeks into his tenure, so only time will tell. 

Thus, on the 24th of October this year, while Hindus across the UK were setting off fireworks to celebrate Diwali, no household had more reason to celebrate than the Sunaks. But whether or not Rishi Sunak can be the ‘light in the darkness’ that this country needs in the difficult and austere days ahead, remains to be seen.


Image: Udayaditya Barua on Unsplash

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