Why Hinduism is as much a political invention as an ancient tradition

The God of new things
The Boston Globe, Dec. 1, 2002
By Pankaj Mishra

Earlier this year, I was in Rishikesh, the first town that the river Ganges meets as it leaves its Himalayan home and embarks upon its long journey through the North Indian plains. The town’s place in Indian mythology is not as secure as that of Allahabad or Benares, even holier cities further down on the Ganges. People seeking greater solitude and wisdom usually leave Rishikesh and head deep into the Himalayas. With its saffron-robed sadhus and ashrams, its yoga and meditation centers, and its Internet cafes, Rishikesh caters to a very modern kind of spiritual tourist. The Beatles came, most famously, in the ’60s to learn transcendental meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Their quick disillusionment seems not to have deterred the stylishly disaffected members of the Western middle class that can still be found wandering the town’s alleys in tie-dyed outfits, trying to raise their kundalini in between checking their Hotmail accounts.

I was in Rishikesh last winter to see my aunt, who had just retired to one of the riverside ashrams. She has known a hard life; widowed when she was in her 30s, she worked in small, badly paid teaching jobs to support her three children. In my memory, I can still see her standing at exposed country bus stops in the middle of white-hot summer days. She had come to know comfort, even luxury, of sorts in later life. Her children travel all over the world as members of India’s new globalized corporate elite; there are bright grandchildren to engage her at home. But she was happiest in Rishikesh, she told me, living as frugally as she had for much of her life, and devoting her attention to the end of things.

True detachment, however, seemed as difficult to achieve for her as for the spiritual seekers with e-mail. I had only to mention the political situation – India was then threatening to attack Pakistan – for her to say, angrily, ”These Muslims need to be taught a lesson. We Hindus have been too soft for too long.”

In the last decade, such anti-Muslim sentiments have become commonplace among the middle-class, upper-caste Hindus in both India and abroad who form the most loyal constituency of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party that governs India. They were amplified most recently in Gujarat last winter, during the BJP-assisted massacre of almost 2,000 Muslims; they go with a middle-class pride in the international prominence of Indian beauty queens, software professionals, and Bollywood films. Perhaps I wouldn’t have found anything odd about my aunt’s anti-Muslim passions had I not later gone up to her monastic cell and noticed the large garlanded poster of a well-known Sufi saint of western India.

Did she know that she revered someone born a Muslim? I’m not sure. The folk religion to which the Sufi saint belongs, and which millions of Indians still practice, does not acknowledge such modern political categories as ”Hindu`’ and ”Muslim.” I think the contradiction – between the narrow nationalist prejudices my aunt had inherited from her class and caste and the affinities she generously formed in her inner world of devotion and prayer – would only be clear to an outsider. This contradiction is not easily understood. But it reflects the extraordinary makeover undergone by Hinduism since the 19th century, when India first confronted the West and its universalist ideologies of nationalism and progress.

Indeed, there was no such thing as ”Hinduism” before the British invented the catch-all category in the early 19th century and made India seem the home of a ”world religion” that was as organized and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam. The word ”Hindu” itself was first used by the ancient Persians to refer to the people living near the river Indus (”Sindhu” in Sanskrit). It later became a convenient shorthand for those who weren’t Muslims or Christians.

Certainly, most Hindus themselves felt little need for such self-descriptions, except when faced with blunt questions about religion on official forms. Long after their encounter with monotheistic Islam and Christianity, they continued to define themselves through their overlapping allegiances to family, caste, linguistic group, region, and devotional sect. Religion to them was more a matter of unselfconscious practice than of rigid belief; at any given time, both snakes and the ultimate reality of the universe were worshipped in the same region, sometimes by the same people. Religion very rarely demanded, as it did with many Muslims or Christians, adherence to a set of theological ideas prescribed by a single prophet, book, or ecclesiastical authority.

It is partly for this reason that Indian theology accommodates atheism and agnosticism. Rituals and deities have always varied greatly, defined often by caste and geography. And they are also flexible: New deities, such as an AIDS goddess who is believed to both cause and cure the disease, continue to enrich the pantheon even today.

And so a history of Hinduism, no matter how narrowly conceived, has to describe several very parochial-seeming Indian religions, almost none of which contained the evangelical zeal to save the world.

The first of these – the Vedic religion – began with the nomads and pastoralists from Central Asia who settled North India in the second millennium BC. It was primarily created by the priestly class of Brahmans who conducted fire sacrifices with the help of the Vedas, the earliest known Indian scriptures, in order to stave off drought and hunger. But the Brahmans wished to enhance their own glory and power rather than propose a new all-inclusive faith. They presented themselves as the most superior among the four caste groups, which were based first on racial and ethnic distinctions between the settlers and the indigenous populations of north India and, eventually, on a division of labor.

A new religion was also far from the minds of the Buddhists, the Jains, and many other philosophical and cultural movements that emerged in the sixth and fifth century BC and sought to challenge the social hierarchy and the power of the Brahmans. Later, those dissatisfied with the sacrificial rituals of the Vedic religion grew attracted to the egalitarian cults of Shiva and Vishnu that became popular in India around the beginning of the first century AD. But the Brahmans managed to preserve their status at the top of an ossifying caste system. They zealously guarded their knowledge of Sanskrit and esoteric texts, as well as their expertise in such matters as the correct pronunciation of mantras. Their specialized knowledge, and their presence across India, gave them a hold over ruling elites even as the majority of the population followed its own heterodox cults and sects.

Today, the Hindu nationalists present Muslim rulers of India as the flag bearers of an intolerant monotheism. But during the long Muslim presence in India, which began as early as the 10th century AD, there was an even greater religious plurality in India. Sufism mingled with local faiths; the currently popular devotional cults of Rama and Krishna and the network of ashrams and sects expanded rapidly. In medieval India, there was more sectarian violence between the worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu than there was between Hindus and Muslims.

The British who arrived in India in larger numbers in the 18th century were both appalled and fascinated by the excess of gods, sects, and cults they encountered there. It was not unlike the pagan chaos a Christian from the eastern provinces of the Roman empire might have encountered in the West just before Constantine’s conversion. As it turned out, the British in India, like the powerful Christians in Rome, sought and imposed uniformity.

There were intellectually curious men among them: for example, a judge named William Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, whose amateur scholars began in the late 18th century to decipher the language and culture of the strange, bewildering country they found themselves in. It would be too simple to say that this great intellectual effort, to which we owe much of our present knowledge of India, was merely part of a colonialist or imperialist enterprise. What’s more interesting than the by now familiar accusations of Orientalism is how the assumptions of the earliest British scholars mingled with the prejudices of local elites to create an entirely new kind of knowledge about India.

These scholars organized their impressions of Indian religion according to what they were familiar with at home: the monotheistic nature of Christianity and its exclusive claims to truth. When confronted by diverse Indian religions, they tended to see similarities among them. They assumed that different religious practices could only exist within a single overarching tradition.

They also had a strong literary bias. They thought that since Christianity had canonical texts, Indian tradition must have the same. Their local intermediaries tended to be Brahmans, who alone knew the languages needed to study such ancient texts as the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. Together, the British scholars and their Brahman interpreters came up with a canon of sorts, mostly Brahmanical literature and ideology, which they began to identify with a single Hindu religion.

The Brahmanical literature would later create much of the appeal of Indian culture for its foreign connoisseurs, such as the German Romantics, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and Thoreau. It also provided the British the standards with which to judge the state of contemporary religion in India. Since few Indians at the time seemed capable of the sublime sentiments found in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Rig-Veda, Hinduism began to seem a degenerate religion, full of evils like widow-burning and untouchability, and in desperate need of social engineering from above. The idea appealed both to British colonialists and their Brahman allies, who had long felt threatened by the non-Brahmanical forms of religion that most Indians followed. It was equally convenient to blame the intrusion of Islam into India for Hinduism’s fallen state, and to argue that British rule would save India from Muslim tyranny and prepare the path to a higher civilization.

These ideas about the Muslim tyrants, Hindu slaves, and British philanthropists were originally set out in such influential books as James Mill’s ”History of British India” (1817), books that today tell us more about the proselytizing vigor of some Enlightened Scots than about Indian history. Nevertheless, they had a profound impact on a new generation of upper-caste Indians who had been educated in Western-style institutions. These Indians wished to do for India what a few enterprising Britons had done for a tiny island, and they found a source of nationalist pride in the newly-minted unitary ”Hinduism.”

Only a tiny minority of upper-caste Indians had known much about the Bhagavad-Gita or the Vedas until the 18th century, when they were translated by British scholars and then presented as sacred texts from the lost golden age of Hinduism. But in the 19th century, movements dedicated to recovering that glory grew rapidly.

Consider the case of Ram Mohun Roy, who is often called the ”father of modern India.” In 1828, Roy – a Unitarian – founded the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist society whose aim was to turn Hinduism into a rational, monotheistic religion. (The group had a strong influence on the poet Rabindranath Tagore and filmmaker Satyajit Ray, among other leading intellectuals and artists.) In 1875, the social reformer Dayananda founded another such society, the Arya Samaj, in Western India. He exhorted Indians to return to the Vedas, which he said contained all of modern science; he also echoed British missionary denunciations of such ”Hindu” superstitions as idol-worship and the caste system. Even the more secular and universalist visions of Gandhi and Nehru – the former a devout Hindu, the latter an agnostic – accepted the notion of a decayed ”Hinduism” in need of reform.

But it was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who in his lifetime was witness to, and also most responsible for, the modernization of Hinduism. Vivekananda was the middle-class disciple of the illiterate mystic Ramakrishna, who lived until his death in 1886 at a temple near Calcutta and preached the essential unity of all religions. (The British writer Christopher Isherwood wrote a reverential biography of him.) But Vivekananda moved very far away from his guru’s inward-looking spirituality in his attempt to make Hinduism intellectually respectable to both Westerners and Westernized Indians. During his lecture tours of England and America, where he acquired a mass following, Vivekananda presented India as the most ancient and privileged fount of spirituality. At the same time, he exhorted Hindus to embrace Western science and materialism in order to shed their burden of backwardness and join together in a manly nation.

Vivekananda borrowed from both British-constructed Hinduism and European nationalist realpolitik. In doing so he articulated the confused and aggressive desires of a Westernized Indian bourgeoisie that was then trying to find its identity. But his ambition of regenerating India with the help of Western techniques – science, technology, nationalism – did not separate him entirely from the folk religious traditions he had grown up in. He remained a mystic. Looked at today, his contradictory rhetoric seems to prefigure the oddly split personality of the modern Hindu, where devotion to a Muslim saint can coexist with an anti-Muslim nationalism.

Vivekananda’s importance doesn’t end there. The marriage of Indian religiosity and Western materialism that he tried to arrange makes him the perfect patron saint of the BJP, a political party of mostly upper-caste, middle-class Hindus that strives to boost India’s capabilities in the fields of nuclear weapons and information technology while also revering the cow as holy.

A hundred years after his death, the BJP has come closest to realizing his project of fully Westernizing Hinduism and turning it into a full-fledged nationalist ideology: one that has pretensions to being all-inclusive but demonizes Muslims, one that places itself above caste divisions while aiming to block, or at least delay, the long-overdue political empowerment of lower-caste Indians.

Vivekananda’s modern-day disciples are helped considerably by the fact that the Indian bourgeoisie is no longer small and insignificant. Affluent, upper-caste Indians in India and abroad largely bankrolled the BJP’s rise to power, and now they long for closer military and economic ties with the West – a process that has only been accelerated by globalization. As a global class, they are no less ambitious than those in the Roman empire who embraced Christianity and made it an effective tool of this-worldly power. Hinduism in their hands has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of popes and mullahs, and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians.

The growing prominence of this group suggests that Vivekananda may yet emerge as more influential in the long run than Gandhi, Nehru, or Tagore – the three great Indian leaders whose legacy of liberal humanism middle-class India already is frittering away as it heads for times as intellectually and spiritually oppressive as those the West suffered after its own elites chose a severe monotheism as their official ideology.

Pankaj Mishra is a writer based in New Delhi and Simla. He is the author of “The Romantics,” a novel, and a forthcoming book about the Buddha.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday December 3, 2002.
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