India: A Context for Diversity

Throughout its long history, the Hindu tradition has shared common soil with other religious traditions. India is the homeland of Buddhism, which flourished in India for over 1,500 years from the time of the Buddha in the sixth century BCE until about the eleventh century. The Jain tradition of monks, nuns, and laity, which began about the same time as the Buddhist tradition, continues to flourish in India today. The Christian tradition also has ancient roots in India, where Christians trace their origins back to the Apostle Thomas in the first century. The Jews have an old community started by traders in the southern state of Kerala and in Bombay. The Parsis are followers of the Zoroastrian tradition with roots in what is now Iran.

Beginning in the eleventh century, the Muslim tradition took root in India and developed a distinctive Indo-Muslim culture. Before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, about one third of all Indians were Muslims, and even now about 13 percent are Muslims. Finally, the Sikh tradition began in northwest India in the sixteenth century with the teaching of Guru Nanak and has evolved into a vibrant and distinctive religious community. With the British Empire, beginning in the late seventeenth century, came Protestant Christianity and the mission movement. As commerce developed between India and the West, currents of intellectual and religious thought traveled back and forth as well.

In the millennia prior to widespread Euro-American contact and colonial rule, religious identities throughout South Asia tended to be particular, context-sensitive, and somewhat fluid.  While the surviving sources for the study of precolonial India are overwhelmingly brahmin—presenting the views of elite males for the consumption by elite males—much evidence suggests that “Hindu” identities were far less fixed than they would later become.  To be a devotee of Shiva, for example, marked one a “Shaiva,” but did not imply in any way that Viṣṇu, the Goddess, and other divine beings were irrelevant.  The medieval bhakti poet-saints sing the praises of multiple deities, although only one is recognized as supreme, able to bestow mokṣa upon the worthy.  Large temple complexes contain shrines to all major divine beings—often including the Buddha and the Jina—and the medieval inscriptional record reveals patterns of royal patronage that cut across religious boundaries without notice or comment.

Forms of identity began to change, and new forms emerged, in the encounter with European powers indebted to Enlightenment ideals of personhood, separation of church and state, and democracy.  Early understandings of “Hinduism”—on the part of scholars both European and Indian—celebrated the elite traditions of Sanskrit and Veda over the “degradations” of those who resided outside of elite circles; women, low-caste communities, and other marginalized groups seemingly could not properly be “Hindu” without ritual intervention.  The Arya Samaj, founded in 1875 by Dayananda Saraswati, pioneered the ritual “purification” of low-caste or non-caste groups in order to render them properly “Hindu,” a public practice continued today by the Sangh Parivar.  Religious identity unmoored from caste or other social markers caused great confusion in the mid-nineteenth century, as the new British Raj sought to identify colonial subjects on the basis of religion.

“Hindu” as an identity marker grew more significant, as its scope both expanded and contracted, during the struggle for independence from Britain.  The British Partition of Bengal in 1905 into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas generated a merging of religious and national identities.  The All-India Muslim League was founded the following year to promote Muslim interests; when Mohandas K. Gandhi assumed the leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1920 under a banner of religious inclusivism, many Muslims feared an independent India dominated by Hindu values, and the seeds for the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent into the independent nation-states of India and Pakistan were sown.  Under Gandhi’s leadership, women and members of non-elite castes could proudly assume Hindu identities.  Alongside of (and in contrast to) Gandhi’s inclusivism, the progenitors of the Sangh Parivar reestablished Veda, Sanskrit, and caste hierarchy as the only authentically Hindu models for the new Indian nation.  These different understandings of “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are illustrations of the internal diversity within traditions that a religious studies approach represents. 

Today, questions about religious identity often mask deeper socio-economic tensions.  Many scholars have argued, for example, that the re-emergence of Hindu nationalism in the last two decades of the twentieth century cannot be understood apart from the political and economic changes of the last sixty years that have allowed the most disenfranchised in India access to higher education and socio-economic mobility.  In 1980, for example, the year that the central government’s Mandal Commission issued a controversial recommendation that the government job and public university quotas for marginalized groups be substantially increased, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh reorganized itself as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—the political organ of the Sangh Parivar—and re-entered the national political scene.  When, in 1989, another attempt was made to implement the Mandal recommendations, a wave of violence swept across much of India, increasingly framed in religious terms and directed against low-caste Christians and Muslims.  In 1992, a mob of Hindu nationalists demolished a mosque in Ayodhyā built, they claimed, on the site of the Hindu god, Rāma’s, birth, and thousands died in the religious riots that ensued all across India.  Discerning clearly how religious, socio-political, caste, and economic class identities intermingle poses complex and ever-evolving challenges.

Image Sources:

"Ritual for Hanuman," Joel Dousset, 2006, from Flickr Creative Commons.

"Gandhi in the 1930s," from Wikimedia Commons.

See also: Hinduism