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Looking at Hinduism

Tradition and Modernity

Suvira Jaiswal ( is a historian who has extensively researched the origins of the caste system and has written several noteworthy books on the same.

Hinduism in India: The Early Period edited by Greg Bailey, New Delhi: Sage, 2017; pp 215, 695.

Hinduism in India: Modern and Contemporary Movements edited by Will Sweetman and Aditya Malik, Series Editor–Geoffrey A Oddie, New Delhi: Sage, 2016; pp 311, 785.

The view that the term “Hinduism” was invented in the 19th century (or late 18th century) to denote a unified religion of the Hindus is hardly a matter of debate among knowledgeable academic circles. But whether the concept of Hindu religion too is of recent origin or it can be traced back to the ancient period of Indian history is an issue that continues to be highly controversial. The editors of the two volumes of Hinduism in India, published by Sage, take the latter stand, devoting the first volume to the study of Hinduism in the early period, precisely between 200 BCE and 1200 ACE, although Geoffrey A Oddie, the series editor, takes a more nuanced position in his contribution to the second volume on the emergence and the significance of the term. The first volume edited by Greg Bailey is an aggregation of eight articles dealing with the doctrinal, theological, mythic, ritualistic and visual traditions that have gone into the making of Hinduism. The second, edited by Geoffrey A Oddie, has 12 articles, covering a large interdisciplinary canvas which provides space for divergent viewpoints and debates on the reorientation and functioning of Hinduism in contemporary times. The two books are welcome contributions towards a critical enquiry into the conceptual and material foundations of Hinduism and its use in the politics of Hindutva.

Bailey begins his chapter with a working definition of Hinduism as a religious and cultural system which allows the “coexistence and interaction of three behavioural and ideational complexes centered on ritual, asceticism and devotion.” Obviously, this is based on the Bhagavad Gita, which enunciates three ways of achieving salvation—karmamarga, the path of Vedic sacrificial rituals, jnanamarga, the path of knowledge as explicated by Upanishadic thinkers, and bhaktimarga, the path of devotion, with emphasis on the last. Bailey argues that the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is an integral part, is a text produced by the Brahmanas in the early centuries preceding and succeeding the Common Era to combat challenges to their hegemony.

The thesis was first propounded by the late erudite scholar V S Sukthankar, the founder-editor of the critical edition of the Mahabharata published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. His meticulous study of the epic had led him to conclude that the transformation of a popular heroic poem into Mahabharata, a dharmashastra, was accomplished by a corporate group of Bhargava Brahmanas, who were motivated to propagate among the masses Brahminical laws of social and religious morality, for which the popular epic provided a suitable medium, and the Bhagavad Gita formed the keystone of this remodelled version. The Bhargavas were partial to the worship of the Vedic god Vishnu and hence, he figured at the centre of this remodelled version. It is curious that Bailey does not mention Sukthankar’s seminal contribution in putting forward this thesis.

However, exploring the context of this major shift in the trajectory of Brahminism from Vedic to epic-Puranic religion, Bailey enumerates three major factors which necessitated this reworking. First, the pre-existence of many indigenous tribal communities who had to be drawn into the vortex of the Brahminical network in the course of its expansion. Second, the entry of foreign ethnic groups from the north-west, such as the Greeks and the Scythians, which added to the growing ethnic complexity, and third, the threat of Buddhism which denounced the cult of Vedic sacrifices and was successful in gaining wide popularity among the new ruling classes and local communities, receiving their generous patronage. Hence, the Brahmanas reinvented their religion in the form of “Hinduism,” providing an overarching framework to accommodate divergent religious beliefs, philosophical ideas, rituals, customs and worship of multitudinous deities to cater to the needs of classes with different backgrounds. The Bhagavad Gita epitomised this religion.

To the factors outlined above, one may add the presence of a new prosperous urban class of traders and artisans, owing to what has been termed as the second wave of urbanisation. This class was drawn towards Buddhism, Jainism and other heterodox movements, since Vedic ritualism evolving in a tribal, pastoral background had concentrated mainly on the Kshatriya nobility and had become too rigid and sacrosanct to adapt to changed circumstances. All these factors leading to the rise of neo-Brahminism were discussed in detail nearly half a century ago in a publication (Jaiswal 1967), which traced the origin of the syncretic cult of Vishnu–Narayana–Krishna.

It is not without significance that the other major epic, Ramayana, composed about the same time, makes its hero the incarnation of the same god Vishnu presenting the ideal of a householder’s life in contradistinction to the Shramanic ideal of celibacy and monkhood (Jaiswal 2016: 141). But to dub this transfiguration of Brahminical religiosity as “Hinduism” is anachronistic, and Bailey is aware of it. Nonetheless, since his own concept of Hinduism derives from the 19th century view of Hinduism as formulated by the colonial administrator—scholars in collaboration with their Brahmana and upper-caste informants, he has no hesitation in imagining the emergence of a unitary religious identity close to modern-day Hinduism in the ancient past. In his view, certain elements of Hinduism, “a unified religious tendency” of bhakti signifying a personal relationship between the deity and the worshipper, could be traced back even to the Harappan culture in the worship of the mother goddess.

But as far as the question of Hindu identity is concerned, he blandly concludes that although there may have been Brahmanas identified by their affiliation to various Vedic schools and Vaishnava and Shaiva sects, non-religious factors would have played a more important role in defining the identity of the majority of people who would have been quite unconcerned about their specific religious identity. In other words, Hinduism had come into existence in the early period of Indian history but a communitarian identity on the basis of Hinduism was non-existent. If Hinduism was the result of the “successful endeavour” of the Brahamanas to meet the challenge of Buddhism and Jainism and bring all devotional practices under an all-encompassing umbrella in order to “reaffirm their own position as religious specialists” (p 12), why not call it “neo-Brahmanism” instead of foisting an alien name which came into use in a very different context?

Hindu as a Religious Identity

Oddie’s essay on “The Emergence and Significance of the Term Hinduism” is concerned largely with the formation of a Hindu religious identity and usage of the word “Hinduism.” It is well known that the term “Hindu,” derived from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, is of Iranian origin, designating initially the territory around the river Indus and later extended to cover all trans-Indus land. In the course of time, the inhabitants of this country too came to be known by the same name. Oddie points out that the territorial usage of this term continued right up to the 19th century. In his view, a religio-cultural dimension to the Hindu identity was added by Islamic outsiders, and it was later appropriated by the Hindus themselves. He refers to the famous Arabic work of Alberuni, wherein a Hindu is clearly defined as constituting the non-Muslim “Other,” different from Muslim in every respect such as religious beliefs, customs, dress, language and so on.

Alberuni was disgusted with the fact that the Hindus considered foreigners polluting and called them “mlechchha.” But we may point out that Alberuni’s perception of the Hindus, their religion and customs, was based on his encounters with Brahmana intellectuals. His statement should be juxtaposed to that of Amir Khusrau (1325), who called himself a “Hindustani Turk.” Close interaction may lead to cultural synthesis as well as an awareness of differences. The idea of a Hindu religion in contradiction to Islam is found in the poems of medieval saints such as Kabir, Dadu and Eknath, but it was a reference to the caste-centric Brahminical religion, criticised comprehensively by these saints (Jaiswal 1998: 229f). There was no concept of a unified Hindu communitarian identity inclusive of the numerous fragmented identities, simply on the grounds that they used some common religious symbols.

Oddie on the basis of Andrew Nicholson’s book, Unifying Hinduism, suggests that although the seeds of Hindu unity were planted by some noted philosophers of the late medieval period, the real stimulus came from external pressure exerted by foreigners, who made the residents of India feel the religious difference between “insiders” and “outsiders.” This was accentuated in oppositional situations, such as the introduction of rigid Islamic policies by Aurangzeb undermining the status and position of the Hindus in Mughal administration, and Shivaji’s conflicts with the Mughals. But the credit for making the earliest attempt at unifying multifarious religious beliefs, modes of worship, etc, should be given to Shankaracharya (eighth century), who propounded the principle that there are different levels of truth. The world produced by the creator-god Brahma existed on the everyday level with gods and goddesses, but at the highest level the entire phenomenal universe, including the deities, was simply an illusion, the only reality being the impersonal Brahman or the world-soul with which the individual soul was identical.

Thus, Shankaras’s monism accommodated theism, subsuming various cults and image-worship within the framework of Vedanta. He himself was an ardent devotee of the goddess Shakti as Sharada, presiding over the Tantric Shrichakra. He is celebrated as the “Acharya who established various cults based on non-duality” (Pande 1994). However, it is important to note that the historical context of Shankara’s activities was not the “diffusion of Islam” but Buddhism, which was posing a strong threat to Brahminism. Shankara travelled throughout the length and breadth of India disputing with the Buddhists. He even founded a monastic order named Dashanamis to spread his teachings. Shankara’s aggressive campaigning against the Buddhists seems to have succeeded to some extent, but there was a marked proliferation of Puranic and Tantric cults, along with the continuation of Vedic ritualism in the subsequent centuries.

Role of Colonialism

However, Oddie is right in assuming that a sense of Hindu religious identity had begun to emerge during the late medieval period among some disaffected sections of the upper classes, particularly the nobility and the priestly caste, but it is doubtful that it had percolated down to the ordinary people and lower castes. It was a typical Brahminical caste-centred consciousness. The notion of a common India-wide Hindu identity, based on shared religious and cultural practices, developed first among the Western educated intelligentsia when they were confronted with the attitudes of colonial rulers and Christian missionaries, who had coined the word “Hindooism,” later spelt as Hinduism, to distinguish it from the types of Heathenism found prevalent in Africa, China and other regions. This had important consequences in more ways than one.

Like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, Hinduism became one of the units for the study of “Comparative Religion,” an area in which there was growing interest among the Europeans. Among the educated Hindus it fostered a sense of unity, uniting them as never before, particularly as they became defensive in the face of Christian missionary propaganda. It was further accentuated by the policy of colonial administration classifying the Indian people on the basis of their religion in census reports, making “Hindu” a large residual category, defined not on the basis of any particular religious belief system, but by excluding the followers of other religions, whether of Indian or foreign origin. It puzzled the census commissioner of 1921, the author of the Madras Census Report, that no Indian thought of his religion as “Hindu,” and when enquired about his religion, gave the name of his sect.

The situation has changed in the post-independence scenario, and there is a much greater consciousness of being a Hindu in a religious sense among all sections, particularly among the lower castes. Among the contributory factors, Oddie mentions the activities of political parties which debate over Hinduism and Hindutva and the Government of India’s policy of “compensatory discrimination” in favour of Dalit Hindus, while excluding Christian and Muslim Dalits from its ambit. No doubt there is a strong case for extending the policy of affirmative action to Christian and Muslim Dalit communities too, for a change of faith has not brought about the expected amelioration in their socio-economic status and they continue to suffer from the stigma of caste. But Oddie’s assumption that there could be many Christian and Muslim Dalits, who for the sake of social and other benefits declare themselves as “Hindu” in official records, leading to an increase in the population figure of the Hindus, is problematic.

The role of politics in the debate over Hinduism and Hindutva is discussed at some length by Robert Eric Frykenberg in his thought-provoking contribution to the second volume. Frykenberg argues that although the pattern of logic underlying the ideologies of Hinduism and Hindutva may be linked to paradigms of mandala nyaya (logic of circles or spheres) and matsya nyaya (logic of fish) in ancient Indian political thought and practice, both are modern constructions and are contradictory responses to the Orientalist–Imperialist discourse, which continues to influence the self-image and political choices of the Hindu people. While Hinduism is close to the mandala theory which is irenic, diplomatic and inclusive, Hindutva follows the other model which is “regressive, exclusive … relying on force rather than consent, contract or law.” Frykenberg regards these two polar opposite indigenous paradigms useful in illuminating the parallel historiographies of Hinduism and Hindutva.

The concept of a Hindu religion or “Hinduism” parallel to Christianity and Islam developed under Orientalist and Imperialist impulses, with crucial assistance from the Brahmana literati, who acted as informants, teachers and interpreters in the Western Indological enterprise. The Brahmanas were custodians of a vast corpus of religious literature. With the prevalent Semitic–Christian understanding of a religion being based on a text, a reified religion of the Hindus was abstracted from ancient texts. It was eclectic as it could accommodate within its overarching framework diverse traditions of numerous fragmented identities existing at the local, sectarian and caste levels on the basis of certain common sociocultural symbols. It suited the colonial administration which required a common inclusive categorisation for the governance of a large, heterogeneous subject population.

The development also awakened a sense of unity in diversity among the Hindu intelligentsia, who, faced with the derogatory projections of utilitarian, Imperialist and Christian missionary scholars, on the one hand, laid emphasis on the spirituality, universality and philosophical achievements of their heritage, and on the other, initiated reform movements condemning customs and traditions which were contrary to modern humanistic values as later aberrations. These events led to the evolution of a modern, tolerant and inclusive Hinduism which in the opinion of Frykenberg is aptly described by Romila Thapar as “Syndicated Hinduism” and has given rise to typically Indian forms of “secularism,” “religious neutrality” and “non-interference.”

However, the activities of reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj, as well as mass conversions to Christianity by people of lower castes in some villages of the South, had evoked a sharp reaction from conservative fundamentalists, who felt that the age-old traditional structure of castes and sanctified practices of ritual purity were under grave threat. They organised protests, and became increasingly aggressive, especially after 1920s, forming voluntary associations like the Vibhuti Sangam and Dharma Sabhas to defend the “old order” (Sanatana Dharma). Frykenberg describes these as “Proto-Hindutva,” progenitors of modern Hindutva, and argues that both “Hinduism” and “Hindutva” are “by-products” of the Raj. In the construction of the nation state after independence, the former has been a “secularising” force and the latter a “sacralising” force, with militant Hindu nationalism at its core.

The Rise of Hindutva

In his brief historiography of “Hindutva” till the formation of the National Democratic Alliance government, Frykenberg contends that the majority of the civil officers who administered and supervised the work of All-India Census Reports from 1871 onwards were Brahmanas, and they categorised all those who were not Christians, Muslims or Jews as “Hindus,” by default pushing the hitherto excluded communities of untouchables and tribals into the Hindu fold, thus manipulating a Hindu majority community. Curiously, he does not mention the role of British colonial administration in the formulation of this policy. However, this fanned both nationalism as well as communalism. Hindu–Muslim tensions escalated, often leading to riots, and the possibility of being dominated by the “low-born” in the democratically elected institutions of self-government, alarmed the Hindu elite.

This was the background in which V D Savarkar published his famous treatise “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu,” in 1923 in Marathi. He asserted that the Hindus are the descendants of Aryans, the original inhabitants of this holy land, bound together by common blood, common historical and cultural heritage; and a Muslim or a Christian cannot be a part of the Hindu nation even if born in India. The avowed objective was to depict the non-Hindu as the alien “other” in the political imagination of the Hindus, and construct a militant unified Hindu communal identity, submerging the issues of caste inequities in the name of defending Hindu culture. The work had a profound impact on Hindu ideologues and inspired the foundation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. Frykenberg emphasises the leading role of Maratha Brahmanas in the Hindutva movement. He remarks that the Shiv Sena led by Bal Thackeray is the only exception as this party has its base among the non-Brahmana Marathas, who generally stand only next to the Brahmanas in local hierarchy, and are not averse to the Hindutva agenda of defending the traditional caste-order, particularly in the context of Dalit awakening in Maharashtra.

Frykenberg remarks that despite its militancy, the RSS had kept aloof from any anti-British activity and political involvement in the pre-independence period. The Hindutva forces could gain political success only after the Emergency and the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was able to lead a coalition government after the 1999 elections and capture key portfolios. In assessing Hindutva as a political religion, he highlights its fascist, “totalising if not totalitarian” character and concludes that the Indological reconstruction of Hinduism provided a convenient political tool, initially to the colonial and later to the national rulers. Its textual basis gave it a Brahminical orientation, a process further intensified by Hindutva forces aiming at the establishment of Brahminical hegemony in the model of a Ram Rajya. But the convergence between ruling class interests and Brahminical hegemony has an ancient history, and it draws strength from the institution of caste (Jaiswal 2016).

In an earlier chapter, Will Sweetman briefly delineates certain elements of change and continuity in Hinduism, rejecting firmly the myth of an unchanging eternal Hindu religion. He points out that even before the British conquest, the 16th century movements founded by Chaitanya in Bengal, Vallabhacharya in Western India and Guru Nanak in Punjab had significantly altered the religious arena, and colonialism further impacted the concept and practice of Hinduism. The British in their attempt to govern the Hindus in accordance with their laws gave primacy to the textual authority of the Dharmashastras, and this resulted in the creation of a Hinduism which was “heavily Brahmanical in orientation.” The Indian diaspora too has in general laid stress on elements of “Sanskrit Tradition” as a strategy to forge a minority community identity situated in foreign lands. Sweetman analyses the factors leading to the large-scale migration of Hindus to various parts of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, and divergences in their religious practices stemming from the different cultural backgrounds of migrant communities.

Law, Rituals and Ethics

In the chapter on “Hinduism and Law,” Timothy Lubin delineates the role of Brahmana intelligentsia in the lawmaking process. Many of the legal concepts and terminologies still in use in India and countries of South-East Asia are derived from the Brahminical law books, which also recognise the validity of customary laws, and Lubin suggests that administration at various levels must have been guided by customary norms in the past. Apparently, this was an important feature of the Brahminical mode of integration which did not interfere with the internal customs of a community so long as the varna hierarchy was preserved. Hence, there was no common law in pre-British India. The article covers a large span of time and hence, there are only brief comments on Hinduism and the Indian constitution, caste panchayats and other topics of contemporary relevance, but Lubin has provided an excellent bibliography.

The notion of Dharma in the Mahabharata is examined by Adam Bowles. He regards the usage of this term in the epic crucial for its becoming a signifier of righteous conduct “encoding cultural and ideological legitimacy.” His analysis of the two contrasting concepts of Dharma enunciated by Bhishma and Yudhishthira at the end of the war, is illuminating in the context of the competing ideologies of Brahminism and Buddhism. Bowles is of the view that much of the Mahabharata is concerned with the crisis of Dharma, due to the mixing of social classes and their non-observance of ordained duties.

Axel Michels provides an analytical survey of the rich textual and ethnological material available on rituals, beginning with the Vedic sacrifices to modern-day religious processions and Hindu festivals. He also touches upon the theories of ritual, views of ancient Indian philosophers and theologians and modern constructs of Western scholars and concludes that rituals are not entirely “meaningless.” They have a multiplicity of meanings and functions, at least in the religious context. For Michels, the path of ritual or karmamarga is basically karma-kanda, formal ritual activities, but Angelika Malinar interprets it in the manner of the Bhagavad Gita. In her competent overview of the three pathways to salvation first enunciated in the Bhagavad Gita, she traces their genesis, stages of development and varying interpretations in changing sociopolitical contexts.

The karmamarga, she points out, was intrinsically connected in the Mimamsa school with Varnashrama Dharma, the acceptance of caste hierarchy and performance of duties in accordance with one’s caste and stage of life. As the last stage sanyasa (renunciation) was open to only those who had gone through the thread ceremony (upanayana) and were eligible to study the Vedas, this path was not open to women and Shudras. Malinar remarks that even the path of jnana was closed to them as Shankara, the founder of Advaita Vedanta, maintained that only those who had been “purified” by proper initiation and could study the Vedas were eligible for sanyasa and could pursue the jnana marga. However, modern commentators of the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Vivekananda, B G Tilak and M K Gandhi, have interpreted karma differently. In the perception of Gandhi, karma signifies action performed in a spirit of complete detachment from personal interest, in the service of society.

Mythology, Theology and Economics

The remaining three chapters of volume one (chapters five, seven and eight) deal with mythology, theology and the manifestation of Hindu religiosity in visual art forms, architecture, sculpture and painting. The last chapter contributed by Crispin Branfoot provides an insightful survey of the scholarly work done in this field and the possibilities of further research. On the question of “Muslim–Hindu” encounter, he is critical of the view that there was any disjunction in Indic culture with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. He points out that there was a great deal of temple-building activity from the 16th–18th centuries, associated with new forms of Vaishnava bhakti. Magnificent temples were built at Mathura and Vrindavan in Braj and in Bengal and South India despite the decline in royal patronage, with merchants emerging as new patrons who often sponsored innovative designs.

The chapter on “Theology” is written by Eric John Lott. Defining theology with reference to its literal meaning—“God-discourse”—Lott remarks that the Sanskrit term darshana is closest to its meaning. The discussion is text-centric, with little attention paid to popular forms of theological expression and their social roots. Greg Bailey’s essay on “Mythology” begins by indicating the pervasive use of myths as a form of communication in India and their continuing use in modern contexts with new meanings. He cites the example of the mythologist Devadutt Patnaik who attempts to explicate and provide guidance in business management through illustrations from Indian mythology. Obviously, this is with a view to satisfy the cravings of Indian corporate executives, particularly the diaspora, to connect to their traditional roots. From this entry point, Bailey presents a brief analysis of the scholarly studies of Hindu mythology from various angles, descriptive, historical, structural and synthetic, the last being a combination of the preceding two. He has also given brief summaries of myths relating to a few deities, to indicate the way mythic narratives have been modified and adapted to meet sectarian theological requirements in later Sanskrit and regional literatures.

The impact of electronic media on contemporary Hinduism is subjected to a penetrating analysis by Ursula Rao. The first section of her article underscores the role of the media in moulding public sensibilities through mythological films and television serialisation of popular epics, promoting a North Indian Brahminical version of Hinduism which has favoured the Hindu right, and the second deals with its effect on the cultural sphere, leading to certain subtle changes in devotional and sacral practices. Rao draws attention to the globalisation of Hindu fundamentalism and the involvement of the Hindu professional diaspora in “long distance nationalism.” The professional middle-class Hindus living in the West away from their homelands feel a cultural vacuum, and in order to connect to their roots, become members of fundamentalist organisations, donating generously to their “religious” and “educational” projects, which promote the Brahminical form of Hinduism and aggressive nationalism. They are oblivious or indifferent to the damage caused to the Indian polity and society by these exclusivist, fundamentalist forces.

Economic dimensions of these transnational online “new religious architectures” are demonstrated by Thomas Birtchnell in his persuasive article, “Hinduism and Economics.” He remarks that apart from providing avenues for site designers, moderators, priests, etc, these websites also facilitate collaboration in trade and other economic transactions through a flexible network of “religiosity.” But this benefits only the rich mobile urban groups. The changed economic environment has led to a “rebranding” of Hinduism in the West and the earlier 19th century perception of Hinduism as an impediment to economic growth is now replaced with a more positive assessment which looks upon it as helpful to business, consumerism, material accumulation and progress. Birtchnell also speaks of the “guru phenomenon,” its linkage with global capitalism and support to Hindu nationalism. He quotes approvingly the remark of Nirad C Chaudhuri that “those who left the world and adopted a religious life … lost nothing … on the contrary they ensured an alternative means of livelihood … which brought substantial wealth to many of them.”

Michael James Spurr adopts a different approach in his study of “Modern Hindu Guru Movements.” He notes that most of the modern gurus, godmen and godwomen are controversial figures. Those scholars who have taken any interest in them are either highly critical regarding them as charlatans and hypocrites or are attracted towards them, impressed by their personality and religiosity. Spurr himself belongs to the latter category and is an earnest follower of Sathya Sai Baba. His PhD thesis on his guru, “Sathya Sai Baba as Avatar: ‘His Story’ and the History of an Idea,” submitted to the University of Canterbury, is yet to be published. However, he provides an informative survey of the academic writings on modern Hindu gurus and the movements initiated by them. Spurr regards “inclusivism,” defined as “including in one’s own religion what really belongs to an alien sect,” an important trait of modern movements which have large international followings. This is facilitated by the interpretation of Hinduism in terms of Vedanta by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Vivekananda. Nevertheless, he notes that there is also often an “exclusivist subtext” imputing the ultimate value to Hinduism. On the issue of charisma and miracles associated with modern gurus, Spurr’s own assessment of Sathya Sai Baba’s miracles is that these were aimed at instilling “a sense of the impermanence and worthlessness of worldly objects!”

However, Spurr makes an important point that although there have been some female saints in the bhakti stream in medieval India, the emergence of female gurus in the 20th century is a genuinely new development. The general patriarchal set-up does not allow women to opt out of family life and become reclusive saints. Yet there are important exceptions like Mata Amritanandamayi (Ammachi), who has a low-caste background, but a large following both in India and abroad. Nevertheless, a holistic treatment of the subject needs to take note of the nexus between political leaders and modern gurus, and also that their financial empire is no less powerful than their spiritual one. Is it possible to make a scientific study of the subject without discussing these facts?

Tradition, Gender, and Caste

Aditya Malik titles his piece as “Folk Hinduism: The Middle Ground?,” the question mark denoting his tentative suggestion that this form covers the middle ground between classical and modern forms of Hinduism. He is mainly concerned with the problem of defining it. Quoting from many scholarly studies, he examines the key theories, such as the binaries of the “great and little traditions,” “classical and popular or folk traditions” and “Margi and Desi traditions,” and concludes that there are no fixed boundary lines, hence one should resist the temptation of essentialising. Instead, one should focus on the study of folk deities and their cults, the specificities of their social context, the mode of their worship and purpose, the community background of their worshippers, oral and written narratives about them and finally their linkages to classical and modern forms of Hinduism. One would like to add that the gender dimension is no less important, as the worship of many folk deities, such as goddesses Shitala and Santoshi Mata, is almost totally in women’s hands.

Fabrizio M Ferrari’s essay on “Hinduism and Healing” is remarkable for its depth and incisiveness in exploring the enormous corpus of Vedic, Ayurvedic, Tantric and devotional literature for medical knowledge, beliefs, myths and changing perceptions of disease and sufferance. Referring to the descriptions of “possession” by the divine or demonic spirits and protective charms against them in the Atharva Veda, Ferrari points out that the Ayurvedic physicians “slowly but resolutely, disengage from the divinisation of disease and explain possession as manasika roga (mental illness).”

Elisabeth Schombucher, however, approaches the phenomenon of “possession” from a different angle. Adopting an ethnographic approach, she is critical of “rationalistic reduction” which involves “desacralisation” of the phenomenon and recommends a “performative approach,” looking at it as a “speech event” in which the divine or demonic presence is invoked or “created verbally.” Alternatively, following Malik, she would look upon “possession” as “rituals of embodiment” or embodied consciousness, thus neatly avoiding questions of religious ethics, social contextualisation and a discussion of caste or gender-based variables.

The gender dimension of the custom of arranged marriages among urban middle-class Hindus in contemporary India is explored by Reshmi Lahiri-Roy in her fine essay, which is based on her readings of sociological literature on the subject. She underlines the role of caste, class and extended family in the perpetuation of this tradition. These are complex issues and one may not quite agree that the continuation of caste endogamy is due to a fear of “loss of status in caste hierarchy,” but she rightly comments that nowadays occasionally these boundaries are transcended in the interest of better material prospects, even in arranged marriages. Her perspicuous observations regarding the “commodification” of the urban educated Hindu woman, with an eye on her earnings in the marriage market and the pressure of traditional cultural discourse reveal that despite urbanisation, women acquiring high academic qualifications and lucrative jobs, there has not been much change in attitudes, “the same pattern has merely refashioned itself along different lines.”

The famous French anthropologist Louis Dumont was of the view that in India all that appears to be social is in fact religious and all that appears to be religious is in fact social. No study of Hinduism can be complete without analysing its connection with the institution of caste. But the final chapter “On Hinduism and Caste” by Vinay Kumar Srivastava does less than justice to this complex topic, presenting a simplistic upper-caste view without any serious analysis. The author makes the banal remark that although the practice of untouchability is legally abolished, the castes known as Bhangi, Mehtar, Achuta, continue to do polluting jobs, removing excrement from dry latrines, etc, “which is the main reason for being treated as an ‘untouchable’ group” (p 288), without realising that it is not a matter of choice.

Those who are born in the so-called “untouchable” castes are condemned to do the polluting tasks and their inherent impurity is not eliminated either in theory or in deeply entrenched popular perception, even when they are not engaged in such occupations. Hence, the emphasis on dignity and self-respect along with other material demands in Dalit literature and protest marches. More importantly, from early medieval times, the “untouchables” have provided the bulk of agricultural labour, with little control over the means of production and resources, and this structure was and is still maintained both by ideological and coercive means (Jaiswal 2016). Similarly, the assumption that the Kayasthas, not being ritual specialists, warriors or agriculturists, were given a “refugee status” and relegated to Shudra varna, ignores the changes in the conceptualisation of Vaishya and Shudra varnas in early medieval times and the historical background of the rise of this caste (Jaiswal 1998: 71–77). The assertion that the varna concept is “textual” (book-view) and that jati represents a “field-view,” is debatable. The two terms are often used interchangeably in the early Dharmashastras and popular parlance (Jaiswal 2016: 45).

Nonetheless, the editors deserve praise for bringing out the two collections of articles by distinguished scholars on key issues relating to Hinduism. One wishes that they were also able to include a few essays covering the long span from the 13th to 18th centuries, which has received only stray comments here and there, but was marked by intense debate between the hegemonic and subaltern forces in the bhakti stream. The impact of regional saints and poets like Chaitanya, Kabir, Ravidas and Tulsidas on the religious consciousness and practices of the Hindu communities positioned at different levels continues to be of contemporary relevance.


Jaiswal, Suvira (1967): Origin and Development of Vaisnavism, 1st ed, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

— (1998): Caste: Origin, Function and Dimensions of Change, Delhi: Manohar.

— (2016): The Making of Brahmanic Hegemony: Studies in Caste, Gender and Vaisnava Theology, Delhi: Tulika.

Pande, Govinda Chandra (1994): Life and Thought of Sankaracarya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Updated On : 14th Oct, 2018


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