Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thapar, Romila “Syndicated Hinduism”

Thapar, Romila “Syndicated Hinduism” in Hinduism Reconsidered ed. Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke. Manohar, 2001, pp 54-81 [article originally published in 1985]


SUMMARY: Article briefly summarizes “what might be called Hinduism through history” and the development of modern Hinduism, which Thapar says is unique, and terms it Syndicated Hinduism. His main point is that traditional Hinduism was incredibly varied, in theology and praxis, while modern Hinduism has been modeled on Semitic religions and more streamlined, allowing for less variations. Thus there is increased emphasis on a single book, on a “founder”, and on congregational worship. This happened for several reasons, but two in particular: Christian education of Hindus (exposing Hindus to Christian religion styles) and the need in nationalism to have a single Hindu identity.

54-“The term Hinduism as we understand it today to describe a particular religion is modern…”; unlike Christianity and Islam “Which began with a founder and a structure at a point in time and evolved largely in relation to them, Hinduism…has been constituted largely through a range of relation to specific historical situations.” That’s why some prefer “Hindu religions” instead of “Hinduism”; changes in a historical dimension “are more easily seen in individual Hindu sects rather than in Hinduism as a whole” (as opposed to “linear religions” like Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, or Islam) and so scholars have been reluctant to place manifestations of Hinduism in their historical context, emphasizing Hindu philosophy and texts.”

55-“The kind of Hinduism which is being currently propagated by the Sanghs, Parishads and Sammelans, is an attempt to restructure the indigenous Hindu religions into a monolithic, uniform religion, paralleling some of the features of Semitic religions. This seems to be a fundamental departure from the essentials of what may be called indigenous Hindu religions.”

-goal of article “is to briefly review what might be called Hinduism through history, and observe the essentials of the earliest beginnings and the innovations introduced over time.”

-linear religions “do diversify into sects, but this diversification retains a particular reference point—that of the historical founder and the teaching embodied in a single sacred text or a group of texts regarded as the canon. The area of discourse among the sects is tied to the dogma, tenets and theology as enunciated in the beginning. They are themselves as part of the historical process and of the unfolding of the single religion even though they may have broken away from the mainstream.” [PROB: SUFISM, eg] and this isn’t like Hinduism, (56) in which individual religions were made and they were assimilated into dominant sect later on by amalgamating “new forms of recognized deities, of new deities as the manifestations of the older ones, and by incorporating some of their mythology, ritual and custom.”; “what has survived over the centuries is not a single monolithic religion but a diversity of religious sects which we today have put together under a uniform name.”—“Hinduism” is just a convenient label for study, it could range from atheism to animism, though for some practitioners, it is gaining a specific meaning

56-“Hinduism as defined in contemporary parlance is a bringing together of beliefs, rights and practices consciously selected from those of the past, interpreted in a contemporary idiom in the last couple of centuries and the selection conditioned by historical circumstances,” and its groups are often “rooted in ritual practices and beliefs rather than in texts”


57-there’s no distinct starting point of Hinduism; the Vedas were originally regarded as beginning until the 1920s when people discovered the Indus civilization; no historical founder, no original text—and all this makes it easy to reinterpret it afresh when required; though some of these historical features appear in some of its sects

-The Vedic religion has Brahmans as intermediaries with gods, so it’s the beginning of brahmanic religion; (58) it had a caste system, while early on there were sects who had universal (no-caste) ethics and there was polemics between Brahmanism and sramanism (no-brahman religion); because they had to know Sanskrit for rituals, (59) brahman literacy helped them get work in “upper levels of administration and gave them access to high political office in royal courts.”; this, plus patronage for their shrines/temples by elites, gave Brahmans “exclusive status”

59-the Bhakti tradition “is sometimes traced to the message of the Bhagavad-gita” which “endorsed a radical change in that it moved away from the centrality of the sacrificial ritual [the Brahman’s specialty] and instead emphasized the individual’s direct relation with the deity. An earlier formulation of a similar idea was current through the Upanishads where the sacrificial ritual was questioned, the centrality of rebirth was emphasised with release from rebirth being sought through meditation and yoga and the recognition of the atam-brahman relationship…The Gita did however, concede that dharma lay in observing the rules of one’s own caste, svadharma, and the arbiters, of dharma remained the brahmanas.”—dharma was its key concept—and it gave rise to a number of Bhakti sects, which also varied in terms of their acceptance of Vedic traditions, caste system, and untouchability, (60) temple rites, pilgrimage performance, or asceticism

60-Bhakti groups did not come either from a shared teaching or from conversion, “they arose as and when historical conditions were conducive to their growth, often intermeshed with the need for particular castes to articulate their aspirations. Hence, the variation in belief and practice and lack of awareness of predecessors or of an identity of religion across a subcontinental plane.”, some had icons, some didn’t


-Tantric rituals became widespread in every level of society by around 1000 ce, though it is downplayed now by middle class Hindus (61) and scholars—it was originally a subordinate group practice

61-low caste Hindusim had rituals to gods that were not performed by Brahmans and included libations of meat and alcohol (what upper caste considered impure)

-there were many philosophical and belief differences—and so that’s why dharma (duty—which varies between sects) has been emphasized for understanding Hinduism; (62) though it was central only to upper caste groups—sp there’s a problem when you say dharma is central because it makes Hinduism appear in terms of upper caste religion—and that’s what Hindu missionary organizations use (like Rama Krishna Mission, the Arya Samaj, the RSS and VHP)


62-Word Hindu was used originally by the Achamaenid Persians to describe the people who lived on the cis-Indus side of the Sindhu river, later Arabs described that region as al-Hind—so at first it had a geographical and ethnic sense, then the (63) Muslim rulers started using it in a religious sense to describe those who weren’t Muslim or Christian—it was “a term of administrative convenience”—and it grouped together upper and lower castes

63-there was much religious persecution prior to Muslims coming, “The definition of the Hindu today has its roots more in the period (64) of Muslim rule than in the earlier period and many of the facets which are regarded today as essential to Hinduism belong to more recent times.”, and these new sects “often” hold wealthy patronage from Hindu and Muslim rulers and “more innovative sects were in part the result of extensive dialogues between gurus, sadhus, pirs and Sufis…”

64-when low caste hindus converted to something else assuming there’d be equality, there usually wasn’t and they retained their low caste status and identity

-Muslim rulers both helped and destroyed hindu temples, “Nor should it be forgotten that the temple as a source of wealth was exploited even by Hindu rulers such as Harsadeva of Kashmir who looted temples when he faced a fiscal crisis or the Paramara ruler who destroyed temples in the Chalukya kingdom, or the Rastrakuta king who tore up the temple courtyard of the Pratihara ruler after a ictorious campaign.”

65-when Christian missionaries came, this and colonial control made Indians who were close to these events do “soul searching” and the result was the creation of new groups (eg Brahmo Samaj, the Theosophical Society, Divine Life Society, Swaminarayan movement, etc) “which gave greater currency to the term Hinduism”; plus there was now more dialogue between upper caste Hindus and Christians than between them and Muslims “partly because for the coloniser power also lay in controlling knowledge about the colonised and partly because there were far fewer Hindus converting to Christianity than had converted to Islam.”

“The Shaiva Sidhanta Samaj was inspired by Arumuga Navalar, who was roused to re-interpret Saivism after translating the Bible into Tamil. The movement attracted middle-class Tamils seeking cultural self-assertion>”

-plus Orientalist scholars “interpreted religious texts to further their notions of how Hinduism should be constructed.”


-The ones recreating Hinduism in response to Christianity modeled their religion on Christianity; (66) “they sought for the equivalent of a monotheistic God, a Book, a Prophet or a Founder and congregational worship with an institutional organisation supporting it..The monotheistic God was sought in the abstract notion of Brahman, the Absolute of Upanishads with which the individual Atman seeks unity in the process of moksa; or else with the interpretation of the term deva which was translated as God, suggesting a monotheistic God…Unlike many of the earlier sects which were associated with a particular deity, some of these groups claimed to transcend deity and reach out to the Absolute, Infinite, the Brahman. This was not a new feature, for some Bhakti teachers had earlier pointed out the incongruity of worshipping images rather than concentrating on devotion to the deity.” [eg focus on one book is in Sikh worship]

67-unlike Semitic literature which has centrality for a book, Hindu sacred literature was passed orally and certain epic stories that existed independently were adapted to sacred literature; the focus on a sacred book didn’t arrive in Hinduism until later (says 15th ce)—“Interpolations become far less frequent when the text is written.”

-“These new religious identities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were in part the inheritors of the odler tradition of combining social aspirations with religious expression and establishing new sects. But at the same time they were conscious of the attempt to create a different kind of religion from the past and which gave currency to the term Hinduism.”, “Traditional flexibility in juxtaposing sects as an idiom of social change as well as the basic concepts of religious expression now became problematic. In the absence of a single ‘jealous’ God…there were instead multiple deities, some of which were superseded over time and others which were created as and when required. Thus the major Vedic deities—Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Agni—declined with the rise of Siva and Visnu at the turn of the Christian era.”, though in Northern India a new deity has been created: Santoshi Ma.


-“The attitude to deity would in part support the argument that it is not theology which is important in Hinduism, but the mode of worship. The Vedic yajna has a carefully orchestrated performance of ritual with the meticulous ordering of every detail including the correct pronunciation of the words constituting the mantra. Worship as bhakti in Puranic Hinduism is more personalised and informal.”, (68) “Devotion could also be expressed in various ways. There was no requirement of uniformity in methods of worship or in who performed the ritual. There was little ecclesiastical order involved and no centralised church.”, caste frequently determined how you worship—and in this situation, conversion was irrelevant

68-creating new sects helped with caste mobility because “Imitation of higher caste norms or the dropping of caste obligations would normally not be permitted unless justified by the creation of new religious sect.”, and (69) “Gradually if a sect acquired a large following cutting across castes, it tended to become a caste in itself.”

69-However there is one agency “which could legitimately transgress the rules of caste and this was the range of renunciatory orders…most of them recruited from a variety of castes.”, though they did prefer certain castes, but generally, because they renounced all social obligations, it was open to all—though converts often retained original caste identity


70- the birth of the myth of non-violence in hinduism is “Partly” due to early Orientalists like Max Muller, (71) and partly due to emerging nationalism which, in order to maintain the “spiritual superiority of Indian culture”, emphasized non-violence (a central tenet “first enunciated and developed in the Sramanic tradition of Buddhism and Jainism” and often persecuted by Hindus; “Ghandiji’s concern with the ahimsa is more correctly traced to the Jaina imprint on the culture of Kathiawar.”)

71-there were no ecclesiastical organizations, just shrines that attracted large numbers of people—though visitors were usually from one area for each shrine; a theory for Bhakti expansion is its links to feudalism after 500 ce, (72) and its emphasis on moksa and karma was a convenient means to control people

74-“Syndicated Hinduism” [in the rest of these notes it will be referred to as SH] is what the author calls modern Hinduism, Bhrahmanical-based, in response to Christianity and Islam and links with politics and nationalism, (75) its voice is “created to support aims of majoritarianism based on a religious identity in the functioning of democracy.”—appeals to middle class because “it becomes a mechanism for forging a new identity aimed at protecting the interests of the middle-class” and it appeals to lower caste because it offers upward mobility

*75-SH “draws largely on reinterpreting Brahmanical texts of which the Gita is an obvious choice, defends the Dharmasastras and underlines a brand of conservatism in the guise of a modern reformed religion.” And it searches for a central book—it’s been focusing on the Ramayana and making Rama a founder, plus (76) ecclesiastical authority is sought, asking Sankaracaryas to make rulings; “meetings of the dharmasansads call upon dharmacaryas, sadhus and sants to give opinions on any matter of importance, which is then said to be binding even if opposed to the Constitution or the rulings of the Supreme Court of India. This is described as the Hindu Vatican.”, “worship is increasingly congregational and the introduction of sermon-style homilies on the definition of a good Hindu and Hindu belief and behavior, are becoming common at marriages and funerals and register a distinct change from earlier practice. This form of Hinduism ends up inevitably as an over-simplified Brahmanism with garbled versions of elements of Bhakti and Puranic forms of belief and practice, largely to draw in increasing numbers of supporters.”

76-plus as a proselytizing religion, SH, unlike traditional Hindusim, cannot accept a wide range of religious views as equal—so sources must be selected; (77) modern propagation of old stories with mass media “are an attempt to erode variants”

77-SH also reaches the Hindu diaspora who frequently live in Christian or Islamic countries and want a Hinduism that parallels and is “comprehensible” to their neighbors’ religions; Sanghs and Parishads increasingly hold meetings abroad


78-says SH was originally made for nationalism as a response to British; now it’s used to respond to insecurity in a changing world; says its concern for lower castes “is essentially a form of tokenism” and it is essentially endorsing middle class values

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Romila Thapar is a lady

Anonymous said...

Romila Thapar is a lady

Dinesh D said...

nice post! I had a confusion on who is romila thapar and the lingashtakam team.