February 26, 2010

This very diversity gets labelled as a single thing, “Hinduism”

Did Hinduism exist? by Amod Lele on Aug.11, 2009

My father, Jayant Lele, has often liked to say of Hinduism that it doesn’t exist. His view made a lot of sense to me when I first travelled around India – first encountering claims that Hindus were vegetarians because of their deep respect for animals, and then visiting the temple in Calcutta where the priest suggested I stick around to watch them sacrifice a goat. Could there be anything in common here?
I’ve moderated my own views on the subject a little. I think there is such a thing as Hinduism now; it’s just a relatively recent invention. The first person to use the word “Hinduism” was Rammohun Roy, a modern reformer who wanted to see a modernized, politically active Hinduism. I have no problem using the term “Hinduism” and “Hindu” to refer to modern Hindus who follow Roy’s example (like Gandhi, Aurobindo, the Arya Samaj, or Swami Vivekananda). Hinduism, then, is something closely parallel to Yavanayāna Buddhism: a modern reform movement that can be intellectually honest as long as it recognizes itself as such.
Before that, things get hazy. True, Muslims in India referred to non-Muslim Indians as “Hindu.” But it was a generic term for exactly that: non-Muslim Indians. When “Hinduism” is used to mean anything other than the 19th-century reform movement, it means little more than “miscellaneous Indian traditions”: Indians who are not Muslim or Christian, and in more recent cases not Buddhists or Jains or Sikhs. (Muslim chroniclers like al-Biruni would have been startled to hear Buddhists called anything other than Hindu.)
I’m fairly comfortable, then, in saying that premodern “Hinduism” doesn’t really exist. But let me be clear on this point, as it’s one of the things that’s got me into trouble with Hinduism’s would-be defenders before: this isn’t a criticism. I like the fact that in early India, “religious” boundaries were so porous: the same king might pay homage to Buddhist monks and Śaivite bhakta mystics. Early India is comparable more to “Greek and Roman religion,” or perhaps to “Chinese religion,” than it is to Judaism or Christianity: a set of philosophies, practices, supernatural beings moving around between traditions. If you were going to give yourself to a certain idea wholeheartedly (as a monk would do), your loyalty might have needed to be more absolute – as it would have been in Greece for those who wanted to follow Epicurus in his garden. For most people, though, it wasn’t, and the point strikes me as something worth learning from now. Wisdom can be found in many places, and we do well to look for it in as many of those places as possible, rather than refusing to look at ideas and practices that aren’t Christian – or are Christian, depending on where our allegiance has been declared. al-BiruniEpicurusJayant LeleRammohun Royreligion 2 Comments for this entry

Shankara would of course have recognised that Buddhism had arisen out of the Vedic matrix to put it at its most general but he did at the same time regard it as unorthodox and applied himself to exposing its epistemological and ontological errors. It might then be said that he was instrumental in the creation of boundaries and differentiation. Even within the orthodox fold he could hold that although the Sankhya were in the tent they promulgated error also.

Certainly there were boundaries being created – the āstika/nāstikadistinction being a particularly important one, mattering for someone like Śakara. I don’t want to suggest that there were no claims of orthodoxy in classical India; clearly there were many. The same holds true, I think, for classical Greece and China; you’ll see Confucians striving to place Mozi outside the fold, and Epicureans not admitting those outside the tradition. But in all these places, it seems to me, the boundaries were more fluid than in European Christianity or Arabian Islam, with more movement back and forth across the traditions that stake out their territory; that’s what I like about those non-Abrahamic traditions.
The trick with “Hinduism” is that then this very diversity gets labelled as a single thing, in a way that it usually doesn’t in Greece and China. The āstika philosophical traditions don’t correspond very well with what we now think of as Hinduism. The bhakti movements of Kabir and Basavanna rejected the Vedas (and are thus nāstika pretty much by definition), and the caste system along with them; but they’re part and parcel of Hindu tradition as Muslims, British and North Americans have understood it.

One reason I turn back to premodern philosophies so much is that they often show us questions larger than those generally asked in philosophy today. Especially important among these: “what kind of life should I live?” What sorts of major life decisions should I make? It still surprises me how rarely academic philosophers concern themselves with these questions, when we spend so much time teaching people in their late teens and early twenties – for whom these questions are in the foreground.

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