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Sociological Study of Religion

This article explores and critiques the semblances between the discourse on sociology of religion and that of ideology of Hindu majoritarianism. Both were fashioned in late 19th century and drew from the binaries inherited through colonial modernity. Sociologists of religion in India have asserted similar propositions regarding the discrete cultural practices of groups in India, and thereby implicitly propounded a theory of majoritarianism. We need to develop an alternate sociological language and free ourselves from the language of colonial modernity in order to evaluate the processes that make majoritarianism a dominant ideology today.


Sociological Study of Religion


Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 31, 20071090Religion as tradition naturalised therelationship of domination-subordination,together with processes and forms of in-equalities, exclusions and violence preva-lent in the subcontinent. The discourse ofcolonial modernity became a tool forcreating a new knowledge of power anddomination to classify, categorise, orderand thus divide into new representation thedisadvantaged and underprivileged groups.This paper weaves together the 19thcentury representation of Hindu majori-tarianism with an examination of the socio-logical discussion on religion and religioustraditions in India. In the first section, Ievaluate the work of T N Madan, a socio-logist of religion, and assess his positionon India’s religions, his discussion on thenature of Hinduism, modernity, secular-ism and pluralism and show how thisposition remains embedded in the binariesformulated during colonial modernity.The sociological discourse on religionneeds to assess, understand and interrogatethe discourse that has constructed thebinaries of majority-minority. These bina-ries and the processes that it generatesstructure modes of domination againstextreme exclusions governing the subcon-tinent, restructuring dissent in terms ofreligious expression. Religious identitiesof majority-minority govern the fault linesof conflicts in south Asia. The languageof social science should recognise this roleand refrain from using this language ofdomination and power.Theory on Religions in IndiaI have taken the work of Madan fordiscussion because his perspective drawsfrom that of Louis Dumont and resonatesamong some scholars working on southAsian studies in Europe. Dumont’s oeuvre,is steeped in the binaries of colonialmodernity. Dumont constructs a separatesociology for the west based on the conceptof equality in juxtaposition to the sociologyof the east that is based on hierarchy.Though Madan wishes to interrogatewestern modernity, because his conceptuallanguage is based on Dumont binaries ofthe west and east he cannot do so.In the course of the last two decades,Madan has written extensively on thesociology of religion and has edited twobooks on religions in India. His paper titledSecularism in Place has evoked sharpcriticisms not only from radical socialscientists [Baber 2006] but also fromsociologists such as F G Bailey (1991) andAndre Beteille (1994). While agreeing withthem I want to expand this appraisal toinclude criticism of his use of methods,methodologies and perspectives. In theintroduction to his latest edited book India’sReligions (2004), Madan starts the discus-sion on religions in India by using thecensus and suggesting that the Hindus arethe largest community followed by theMuslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists andlastly the Jains.There are two issues that need to beconsidered here. The first is the use ofnumbers to understand the proportionatestrength of religious communities andrelated to it, is the use of census to identifyreligious groups in India. To what extentcan and does the census represent thecomplexities of religious beliefs and iden-tities? It is important to note that the censususes self-definition to enumerate religiousaffiliation. B S Cohn (1987) suggests thatthe census does not only portray the waygroups identify themselves but is also aresponse to the project of objectificationof identities that the colonial governmentinitiated.…(i)t was felt by many British officialsin the middle of the 19th century that casteand religion were the sociological keys tounderstand the Indian people. If they wereto be governed well then it was naturalthatinformation should be systematicallycollected about caste and religion…Theimpetus to collect information…went waybeyond the intellectual curiosity of a fewofficials and was based on widespreadbeliefs about Indians by the British [Cohn1987:243].Nandini Sundar extends this idea whenshe argues that the census “was signifi-cant as numbers were fetishised andbecame objects of governmentaction inthemselves”. She continues, “statistics onidentities became important as com-munities demanded entitlements on thebasis of numbers, in a politics whichconflatedrepresentation (standing onbehalf of) with representativeness(comingfrom a particular community)”[Sundar 2000:113].Dirks (1997:121) argues that the inven-tion of new “social technologies, printingand the standardisation of languages, self-regulating and autonomous legal systems,official histories of the state and peopleandthe production of celebration of nationalshrines, symbols and pilgrim centres” werepart of the larger political project of thenation state now imposed by the colonialelite in India. He argues that the colonialconquest was sustained not only bysuperiorarms and military organisation,or by political power and economic wealthbut also through cultural technology ofrule. Colonial conquest and knowledgeboth enabled ways to rule and to constructwhat colonialism was all about – its ownself knowledge [Dirks 2001:13].How did the census realise this goal?Historians and anthropologists have shownthat it was extremely difficult to imple-ment this project. Some of the groups couldbe classified as being part of two or threereligions. At another level two or morecastes would have identical names but havedifferent customs and mores and could beclassified in different religions. Alternately,castes having different names would havesimilar customs. No wonder the effort todocument social behaviour, customs andmores of individual communities becamea major project for the colonial state whichused not only enumeration, but scripturaland indological methods to categorise andclassify groups.The second issue relates to the conceptof “tradition”. Since the mid-19th centurythere had been attempts to codify “tradi-tion”. Indological texts came to be usedin devising theories regarding Hinduismand the caste system. Also British officialsrelied on “native informants” (generallyBrahmins) to obtain information regardingplacements of castes within the hierarchy.Earlier the Brahmins had elaborated thetheory of the four-fold classification. Laterthey reinterpreted it in order to legitimiseit, when they became the informants inhelping the British to codify practices andclassifying castes.As a result, in the census, classificationthrough ‘varna’ (caste) categories came tobe used and became part of the state project.And as the varna categories were relatedto Hinduism, religion became a key refer-ence in the first identification of groupsand thus the constitution of the majorityand minority. Thus Cohn shows that in thefirst census, in 1871-72, the classificationof castes was based on the initial classi-fication of all groups into religious com-munities. After this, officials tried to placejatis in the four varnas or in “categoriesof outcastes and aborigines”. Cohn addsthat these officials recognised the difficul-ties and the “absence of a uniform systemof classification”. However, “(f)rom thebeginning of the census operations, itwaswidely assumed that an all-Indiasystemof classification of castes could bedeveloped” (1987:243), reaffirming asavarna view point.
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 31, 20071091Madan’s position as those of many othercontemporary sociologists, has continuitywith this perspective and remains etchedin this discourse. He considers “four outof five Indians”, Hindus reiterating the useof numbers to define the majority [Madan2004:1]. Like the earlier Indologists helooks at the scriptures and especially theManusmriti for guidance in assessing theconstituents of religion. Later his argu-ment collapses all Indians (including theone out of five) into being Hindus whenhe states that though Islam and laterChristianity “broke the bond between Indiaand her indigenous traditions”,…from a cultural perspective, anthropo-logists and sociologists have provided de-tails of the many components of cultureand aspects of social structure of the non-Hindu communities that have either beenborrowed from the Hindus or are survivalsfrom their pre-conversion Hindu past withor without significant alterations [Madan2004:1].In a profound sense Madan was influencedby Louis Dumont who reconstructed thebinaries into an elaborate theory of thesociology of hierarchy for the east andcontrasted it with the sociology of equalityin the west. While sociologists like Srinivashad used the empirical method to demystifysome of the received indological assump-tions and had distinguished between varnaand jati, [Srinivas 2002], Dumont made acritique of this empirical position, byinsisting that not only does “a sociologyof India lie at a point of confluence ofsociology and indology” [Dumont 1957:7],he also argued that Vedic Hinduism is themost ancient religion and defines theorganic character of India. “…The veryexistence and influence of the traditionalhigher Sanskrit civilisation demonstrateswithout question the unity of India… …itdoes not demonstrate but actually consti-tutes it” [Dumont 1957:10].Madan continues this assessment whenhe asserts that religion has “…immenseimportance …… the lives of the peopleof South Asia” [Madan 1994: 395]. Nowonder he argues that,…religion in India is not discrete elementof everyday life that stands wholly apartfrom the economic and political concernsof the world…the religious domain is notdistinguished from the secular, but ratherthe secular is regarded as being encom-passed [Madan 2004:2].What is this critical holistic notion thatunifies all religious activity in India? ForMadan, this is Dharma, the maintenanceand sustenance of moral virtue. This broadstrand of a self-sustaining cosmo-moralorder runs through all the religions in India,especially Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhismwhich incorporated Hindu principles withsubtle difference of nuances. He thus assertsa continuous and a long tradition ofHinduism. This tradition, he argues, wasnever a source of conflict, for “the scopeof interreligious understandingis…immense and it is in no way contra-dicted by the holism of the religious tra-ditions of mankind” [Madan 2004:385].The differences that are there within Hin-duism are part of this long history.In the introduction to his latest editedvolume, titled India’s Religions: Perspec-tives from Sociology and History (2006),Madan characterises Hinduism as inher-ently plural and uses the concept of “plu-ralism” to depict its traditions and values.The argument of pluralism obviously drawsfrom the American tradition. In the US,religious pluralism is a loosely definedterm concerning peaceful relations betweendifferent religions. Pluralism acknowledgesthe diversity of interests and considers itimperative that members of society accom-modate their differences by engaging ingood-faith negotiation.It is connected withthe hope that this process of dialogue willlead to a re-definition of conflict in termsof a realisation of a common good that isbest for all members of society. This impliesthat in a pluralistic framework, the com-mon good is not given a priori. Rather itneeds to be constructed through a processof negotiation (a posterior). Consequently,the common good does not, accordingtopluralists, coincide with the principlesof one religion. Rather it evolves as nego-tiationshappen between religions.By suggesting that Hinduism is animmanent tradition, Madan accepts theconstruct of colonial modernity that indi-genous “Hindu traditions” determine itsessence. I am not debating whetherHinduism is essentially plural in nature.I am questioning the epistemic mooringsof Madan’s understanding of Hinduism.These moorings are located in 19th centuryprinciples of colonial modernity, whichdefined every aspect of social life to becircumscribed by Hindu traditions. Canthis form of Hinduism be plural in nature?Such a pluralism can evolve only if thereis equality among individuals and groupsof different religious affiliations.Madan together with many of his con-temporaries who argue the indigenousposition and uphold “traditions”, seemsnot to recognise that “traditions” are aconstruct of modernity. In their logic, Indiaparticularly and south Asia more gener-ally, lives in a world which is steeped intradition and which has the “native” re-sources to mitigate religious conflicts. Forhe states, “…for in truth, it is themarginalisation of religious faith, whichis what secularisation is, that permits theperversion of religion” [Madan 1991:396].But is secularism and modernity thesource of religious conflicts? Or is thesource of conflicts the knowledge processby which religion and religious affiliationshas become part and parcel of the politicsof identity construction? If it is the pro-cesses, how and in what contexts havethese processes developed? In being criti-cal of secularism and secularists, andparticularly the imposition of Europeannotions of secularism, Madan elides thequestioning of colonial modernity and theway its knowledge is intrinsic to the politicsof religious conflicts in south Asia. Surelywe should have the sociological languageto assess the way these processes havetaken place and to explicate the mannerin which knowledge construction, includ-ing our own, helped to construct and buildthese identities that have been articulatedthrough these processes? Andre Beteille(1994) has critically appraised Madan’suse of the concept of secularisation as aprocess related to secularism and indicatedthe need to dissociate these two terms. Andcommenting on Madan’s use of scripturesto evolve a position on India’s religions,Beteille has reminded us that theologicalanalysis need not be the sole criterion forassessing religion and for making a socio-logical assessment of religion.Knowledge alone cannot play the rolein hegemonisation. It also takes placethrough social movements and involvesintellectuals who mobilise the populacethrough a set of ideas. In the next sectionwewill go back to the 19th century to explainhow the Hindu majority was constitutedand discuss Vivekananda’s idea of ‘seva’,the guru tradition and the organisationalstructure of ‘sangathana’, all three thatbecame models to incorporate non-savarnagroups into a majority Hindu community.Making of a MajoritySince the late 19th century, there havebeen attempts to organise and mobilise theHindu majority as a nation under the hege-mony of a savarna male authoritarianleadership. This project continues todefinethe social and political processes within
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 31, 20071092India and south Asia, now in the contextof global processes of change. Thesangathanas and its movements lent legiti-macy not only to the colonial modernity’sproject but also codified and systematisedHinduism in terms of a savarna reading oftradition. It also provided a model ofmaintaining savarna and patriarchaldomination.After independence and par-ticularly since the 1970s, this model hasbeen reformulated by the RSS and its‘parivaar’ (family). Sociologists need torecognise how institutions, processes andstructures of colonial modernity have beencarried forward after independence andcome to be reflected in the way binariesof majority-minority continues to bereconstituted.Historians such as Romila Thapar(1996:3-4) have argued that Hindusim was“a juxtaposition of flexible religious sects”before colonialism attempted to homo-genise these diverse traditions.Hinduismdid not affirm a single God, prophet,founder, church, holy book, religioussymbol or one centre. These diversitieswere reorganised in the colonial periodwhen for the first time, new religious groupswere formed and came to be organised assangathanas and around the figures ofgurus,who framed its objective in termsof the narrative of the nation. The goal ofthese organisations or the sangathanas wasto constitute a new community of believersof Hinduism, the majority, through themobilisation of these believers against thecolonial state on one hand and its dominantreligion,Christianity on the other. Thisphase saw a movement akin to prosely-tisation within Hinduism through the elabo-ration of the concept of seva, the creationof a set of practices together with alle-giance to gurus who led these sangathanas,or organisations and/or movements.Scholars have argued that though allthese three had some historical referencein pre-colonial periods the way these wereorganised as ideas and institutions wereradically different. Sangathana, whichliterally means organisation or associa-tion, emerged out of the religious reformmovements in colonial India and has hadits origin in organisational formationsaround sects and the temple towns inIndia.In its new form, in late 19th century,it attempted to replicate and reflect struc-tures of organisations established by thecolonial state and carried the hallmarkoftheorganisational culture present inwestern traditions [Copley 2000, 2003;Anderson and Damle 1987; Hansen 1999].Sangathanas emulated the Christian tra-ditions of building a congregation aroundthe church. No wonder some sangathanaswere named missions, such as one of thefirst the Ramkrishna Mission. Thesesangathanas were built around anotheridea,that of the gurus, who were nowconsidered the authentic interpreters ofHindu religion. In its initial phase, theseorganisations were revivalist in nature,seeking to defend one particular Hindutradition or denounce parts of it completely,in order to posit a less recondite, but asocially oriented religion. These missions/sangathanas were organised around vari-ous activities, called seva.These includeddiscourses by the gurus (pravachanas)and/or prayers (satsangs) and organisingthe ‘sevaks’ (volunteers) around otheractivities– work such as teaching in schoolsand helping in disaster relief. Somesangathanas also started medical helpcentres and in recent times hospitals,colleges and even universities [Hansen1999; Watt 2005].The guru has been defined as a spiritualteacher and the “one who brings light outof darkness” [Copley 2000:5]. Gurus areand have been of various kinds and thehistory of Hinduism, before and duringcolonial times and later has attested to theirsublime power together with their un-worthiness and dubious reputation. Thegurus that emerged during the colonialperiod and whose missions and sangathanasstood the test of time were distinctive. Notonly were they educated (most had Englisheducation), but also, they came from thesavarna upper caste groups, and had beenat some time teachers and educators. Theirwork and writings were mainly in English,oriented to the emerging upper and middleclasses in India. Copley also argues thatdominance rather than friendship andequality defined the relationship betweenthe guru and the disciples. No wondergurus encouraged obedience and loyaltyand have been considered elitist andauthoritarian [Copley 2000: 6].While the tradition of seva is as old asHinduism itself, it acquired new dimen-sions when the earlier individual basednotion of seva (as doing service to oneself,the family and god in the four stages oflife) was enlarged during the colonial periodto incorporate socio-political dimensions.In form and essence the earlier texts de-fined seva in terms of the personal aspectsof life and gave it religious overtones. Itbelonged to the private sphere, within thefigurative walls of karmic isolation. In thelate 19th century, seva was reframed tomean the acquisition and pride of the indi-vidual sevak, for a new religio-politicalidentity, that of an imagined Hindu nation,as defined by the gurus of the sangathanas.It is in this context one has to examinethe late 19th century developments withinHindu religion and the redefinition of theconcept of seva. Swami Vivekananda wasthe first to use the concept of seva whenhe gave it a new meaning and declared itas “organised service to humankind”[Beckerlegge 2000:60]. This reformula-tion was related to Vivekananda’s questto understand the reasons for India’s sub-jugation to colonial masters. UnlikeRamkrishna, his guru, who attempted tosynthesise and universalise the manypopular traditions within Hinduism [Sarkar1997], Vivekananda’s project was uniquein that it remained a social and politicalproject – a social project to reform Hin-duism and a political project to displacecolonial suppression by mobilising newgroups into an institutionalised structureof Hinduism. In order to create this con-stituency, he reconstructed the principlesdefining Hinduism by creating a blend ofthree distinct traditions, the orthodoxprinciplesof Hinduism, incorporated inthe earliest Hindu religious texts calledtheVedas, the contemporary sociallysensitiveand reformist aspects withinHinduismtogether with the principles ofcharity and service as embodied inChristianity.In his prolific speeches, talks and writ-ings Vivekananda did not wander awayfrom the realms of Vedantic metaphysics.Of the four yogas he emphasised Karmayoga, which he now redefined, to substi-tute “traditional caste-based rituals andobligations with humanitarian service. The‘jnana’ (knowledge) of Vedantic monismwas sought to be transformed… into amessage of strength and strenuous help toothers” [Sarkar 1997:347]. This fusioncreated a new set of ideas and structuredHinduism and influenced a generation ofreligious and political thinkers and contin-ues to have salience even now within Hindusangathanas. Drawing on the traditionalHindu concepts of seva as selfless serviceand‘sadhana’ as spiritual penance, heapplied these to the problem of resolvingthe manifold dimensions of what he iden-tified as spiritual and material poverty ofthe religion and its sevaks.The dominating note of RamkrishnaMission that Vivekananda founded washumanitarianism (“those who are kind to
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 31, 20071093all creatures, are sincere to God”), andphysical morality. In the mission, sevarepresented humane and ethical religios-ity. Seva, it was argued would forge a newHindu community integrated around acommon principle, that of selfless socialduty. The strength of this community wouldlie in its spiritual strength and physicalfitness and its objective was to amelioratethe lot of the downtrodden within thiscommunity by improvement of theirmaterial condition and social position andspread social awareness and spiritualenlightenment among the economicallystronger section by letting them connectto the lesser fortunate.There have been many treatises onVivekananda. Most scholars have seen hisideas as radical and revolutionary. Theyhave argued that by emphasising the con-dition of the masses, the deprived, under-privileged, weak, exploited, and diseasedpeople of the country, Vivekananda notonly modernised a very old religion steepedin fatalist traditions but also equippedtheHindu society to be confident, self-sufficient, strong and fair in its affairs bothin the public and private domains. Hisefforts to focus on the joys and sufferings,achievements and failures of the humanbeings within a society have been inter-preted to mean that he made Hinduism“human-centric”. Vivekananda’s criticismof mindless ritualism in ‘sanatana dharma’,(orthodox Hinduism) and his dislike ofmany elements of contemporary Hindurevivalism, has led some scholars to con-sider him a reformist. Because Vivekanandaargued that in his opinion Hinduism iswhat India, and indeed the whole of theworld needs in order to solve their social,economic and spiritual crises, his ideashave been lauded and considered to beuniversal in nature.Many commentators have argued thatthis orientation, that this sensitivity to the“masses”, his attempts to include “untouch-ables” into the mission’s activities, and hiscriticism of mindless ritualism makesVivekananda a radical and a democraticsocial thinker [Raju 2006]. It is howeverimportant to delve a bit on the wayVivekananda connected seva and the sevak(disciple). Vivekananda advocated that hisdisciples, the sevaks, need to train them-selves to be pure, noble and discerningsouls who could rise above superstitionsand appreciate the true character of Hin-duism, no matter how dogmatic it mayhave become in recent times. He also putemphasis on developing physical strengthand capacities. For, he suggested, whenone builds the body, the individual sevakbecomes a fit person, and then he canwithstand any challenge. A nation cannotbe made up of weak people. If there wereweak people, then its boundaries, bothspiritual and physical would be infiltratedand controlled by outsiders. Vivekanandaargued that seva was sadhana and bothshould become the key concepts that thesevaks can use in their efforts to spreadeducation, and overcome ignorance thathas brought poverty and subjugation to theHindus in India [Sarkar 1997].The seva that Vivekananda discusses isthe seva to be performed by the sevaks.It is the sevak who must understand whatHinduism represents and cleanse it of itsritualism. It is the Vedas that the sevak hasto appreciate in order to know what Hinduprinciples are. It is the sevaks whosesalvation Vivekananda is interested in andnot that of the masses. His ideas are notin continuum with those that we todayconsider radical social and political ideas.Rather I would argue that Vivekanandareiterates the early meaning of seva as theset of practices to be performed by thehouseholder/individual.I would thus agree with Sarkar (1997)when he argues that Vivekananda’s re-constitution of Hinduism distilled not onlythe many diverse traditions of Hinduism,including some associated with non-brahminic sects that Ramkrishna had at-tempted to synthesise in his writings, butitalso diluted in many ways the appeal thathispersona had for various underprivilegedgroups in contemporary society. Byassert-ing the vedic orientation of Hinduismandaddressing himself mainly to a literateEnglish educated upper caste and classaudience, Vivekananda asserted distinc-tions between the savarnas and the rest ofHindu society, as also between males andfemales in new and subtle ways and yetpreached for their reform.1 No wondercommunal organisations such as theRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) tracetheir ideologies to Vivekananda’s notionofseva and to his dream of making Hinduisma world religion [Beckerlegge 2003, 2004;Copley 2000, 2003; Sarkar 1997 andSharma 2003]. Thus Sumit Sarkar states:More relevant today, ominously so, istheimage of the Swami as one of thefounders of 20th century ‘Hindutva’, of aunified and chauvinistic Hinduism[Sarkar1997:291].I have tried to show how Hindu majorit-ariansim as a process was constituted inlate 19th century. Like the colonial officials,Vivekananda used indological sources toreconstruct and present a codified Hinduset of principles. He also operated in theprinciples of the caste hierarchy and pre-sented a brahminical upper caste maleviewof Hinduism. Ramkrishna, as Sarkarhas shown, tried to integrate the popularand tantric versions of Hinduism. This wasnot so for Vivekananda. AdditionallyRamkrishna did not create an organisationto propagate Hinduism. Vivekananda did.The mission/sangathana was also organisedthrough the principles of hierarchy and notonly made the guru the main interpreterof Hinduism, but it also demanded com-plete loyalty from the congregation. Hismission became a model for other gurustoemulate. I do not see the above as a processof revivalism or of reform in Hinduism.The codification of Hinduism, the estab-lishment of missions/sangathanas and theelaboration of the concept of seva was anintervention by the upper castes in variousregions of India to construct a religion-based community, a Hindu nation. It wasa political process and reflected many ofthe assumptions of “Hindu traditions” thatcolonial modernity had articulated.Today the same process is using themodel perfected in late 19th century. TheRSS established in 1925 as “an organisationof the self-motivated” and its parivar areleading this process. Keshav Hedgewarthe founder of the RSS shared withVivekananda the ideas that it is necessaryto use education, discipline, organisation,and the strategy of instilling pride inHinduism to create a band of (celibate)male sevaks. Vivekananda had argued fora need to create a “pure and fit self” andthe need for the sevaks to relate to the“served” (the oppressed groups) throughhumanitarian seva.After Hedgewar’s death in 1940, theRSS’s new leader, Madhav SadashivGolwalkar integrated Hedgewar’s notionof seva, of creating a “band of self disci-plined male volunteers” for doing humani-tarian service. In 1940, the RSS had fivehundred ‘shakhas’ (branches) and a struc-ture in which the head had absolute powerand all control over decision-making.Golwalkar’s message “to worship Godthrough serving society” became the mottothat still holds the RSS and its parivartogether even today. In 1997, the RSSincreasedits shakhas doing seva to 2,866units [Beckerlegge 2004:116]. The vari-ous commissions of inquiry established bythe government of India to investigate

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