The Evolution of Hinduism
Asia Times, 11.11.2005
William Wilberforce, a British parliamentarian who died in 1833, once spoke of the "dark and bloody superstitions" that embody the creed that came to be termed Hinduism.
Prior to that, the mind-boggling diversity in sub-continental religious practices existed without a common definition to bind them together, and this "crystallization of the concept" is what Brian K Pennington traces in his book Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians and the Colonial Construction of Religion.
Between 1789 and 1832, the Orientalist fascination for the "cloud of fables" – according to William Jones, the 18th century Indian historian – embodied in Vedic literature was replaced by the East India Company-backed intelligentsia who were preoccupied with utilitarian criticisms of the "sinister principles" of the same, depicted nowhere more vividly than in the works of James Mill and Thomas Macaulay.
Pennington argues that the modern avatar of the somewhat homogenized ancient religion that can be loosely termed Hinduism is a direct reaction to such seething and degrading criticism from the colonial academics, some of it indeed valid (such as vilifying the sati tradition – the traditional Hindu practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre).
He argues that the elites within Hindu society entered a "dialectical space" with colonialism, thereby producing a defensive self-determined version of their faith. While celebrating colonial promotion of certain scriptures, they vehemently opposed stereotyping, as can be seen in the outcry among the Bengali educated middle classes over the label of the effeminate babu. This similar dialectic process was behind the rise of Hindu nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as behind the progress made by the Hindutva movement of the late 1990s.
Nevertheless, Pennington refuses to present the colonial state with the credit of transforming "fragmented, disparate, localized, particularistic and ever-changing mini traditions" into a world religion. Whereas "Indophoebia" and the "racist science" of the 19th century did indeed contribute substantially toward the development of a defensive definition of Hinduism, crediting the state with the invention of Hinduism as we know it is ignoring the "mess of encounters" that can better explain this development.
Whereas literary critic Edward Said accused the West of essentializing the East, the opposite argument is also true. Pennington makes a distinction between various classes of Hinduismís "other", and argues that class, nationality, outlook and background of the actors on the ground made the encounters between, say, a missionary and a peasant much different from that between a colonial academic and a local historian.
What follows from the importance of the nature of the "other" is the fundamental significance of religious values in this discourse, discarded by many schools of historians preferring to focus solely on socio-economic trends. Pennington associates himself with Partha Chatterjee who wrote in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies about the various ways in which the downtrodden communities often express themselves in the form of their religion. This is also seen in the works of David Hardiman on Adivasis or indigenous people in western India, as well as that of Saurabh Dube on the Satnamis of central India.
Pennington uses a relatively small number of first-hand sources, but adheres closely to them. The archives of the Church Missionary Society reveal the attitudes of missionaries toward evangelizing the natives, an attitude advocated by many including Charles Grant, the Scottish politician, and Wilberforce. On the other hand, the transformation in colonial attitudes can be seen in the archives of the Asiatick Researches, which gradually gets taken over by colonial influences, sidelining the Orientalists. He also dwells on the religious newspaper Samacar Chandrika published by Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyaya, which took on the task to refute much of the essentialism dished out by colonial literature. However, all of this does strengthen the author's point about the importance of religion, explicit or implicit, in colonial policy-making.
Two questions beg to be answered by Pennington. First, he says nothing about the crude distinction made by the colonial state between "martial" and "non-martial" races in the subcontinent, and the various categories of castes it defined. Such essentialization went a long way toward complicating the already juxtaposed threads of Hinduism, and much of that legacy exists to this day.
Moreover, whereas the colonial state may not have explicitly defined Hinduism, its criticisms of the same nevertheless led to Hindu nationalism adopting a very homogenous and essentially narrow view of Hinduism. As Amartya Sen has argued in his recent work The Argumentative Indian, Hinduism is simply too diverse to speak of in one single breath. Therefore, the prevalent definition of Hinduism (as in the stereotype used in the public domain today) may well have been invented during the high noon of colonialism.
Second, Pennington argues that there is increasingly a "need of structuring the relationship of religion and the nation state". This contemporary universal "need" can be readily questioned if one looks at secular Europe and India. Debates about race relations in Britain and France, and that of minority reservations in India are more to do with social exclusion and opportunities rather than any concerns about delineating the contours of state and religion. A more relevant discussion is the Middle East, where Islam and the nation state remain problematically juxtaposed.
However, Pennington is in need of recognizing the "essence" of Hindu philosophical writings during times much before his book covers, but which can indeed be a useful apparatus to determine the role of the state vis-a-vis religion. The image of the Brahmin holding the sveta-chattra (white umbrella) over the king was never involved in the analytical modus operandi of the colonial state while defining Hinduism.
On the larger question of whether contemporary Hinduism was invented, Pennington seems to adopt a persuasive argument. Whether there exists an alternative and distinct definition is a question that he leaves unexplored.
Aruni Mukherjee is based at the University of Warwick, England.