Defining Hinduism

Published on 1st October, 2017, in Mumbai Mirror

A young British Muslim girl visited Mumbai and saw the line of people making their way to the Dargah at Haji Ali. She turned to her friend, and said, ‘That’s not real Islam.’ She herself did not wear a hijab as she was educated and privileged enough to argue that wearing a hijab is not an essential feature of Islam. Religious leaders in Saudi Arabia would not agree, however.

Defining the truth of any religion is tough. More so in Hinduism, than Islam, as Hinduism has no clearly identifiable ‘go-to’ holy book such as the Quran. So how does one define Hinduism? Must one define Hinduism at all? Isn’t the strength of Hinduism that it needs to be discovered rather than defined? Sadly, modern scholarship is designed around definitions. And different people are defining Hinduism differently, from American academicians to Indian politicians, from Brahmin clergy to Dalit revolutionaries. Each has an agenda.

Until the 19th century, only religious leaders defined what religion was; no outsider was allowed to do it. Those who opposed these leaders and came up with their own definitions were cast out, and forced to start sects of their own, which thrived only if they secured political support.

Europeans invented the word religion only in the 19th century. Until colonial times, there was no need for the word as most Europeans believed that only one religion existed in the world — their own — and everyone who did not share their views was either an infidel or a heretic. Yet, at the time Europe was busy burning witches and Jews, Kabir was composing songs of religious harmony in India.

Europe grudgingly acknowledged the existence of alternate religions, such as Buddhism, only to gain a foothold of trade in Japan, whose rulers brutally blocked all missionary activities. It was a strategic, not an authentic, move. The violence of 1857 in India, forced the British crown to pull back the religious, or rather ‘civilising’ agenda and focus on commerce. But efficient commerce meant efficient governance, which meant good law, and law demands documentation, and definition. That is when the fluid Hinduism became fixed, in templates created by outsiders.

But as the colonisers discovered, Hindu society had no single authority, and was mapped around caste. Then they realised even local Muslims and Christians clung to their caste roots that determined their position in the village hierarchy. Worse, there was no uniform caste structure across the land. Castes that existed in the North did not exist in the East or West, or South. This made documentation, and defining, difficult. But the British were determined to conquer the beast, give Hinduism a proper shape, complete with a holy book (Veda? Manusmriti? Gita?).

This has led some academicians to conclude that Hinduism was an invention of the British, just like India. Such a conclusion reveals an engineering mindset — a mindset that assumes that if something does not fit into a box (as elements fit into a periodic table), it cannot exist.

Most academicians studying Hinduism were familiar with religions that have a top-down origin, descending from a person and/or a book like Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The idea that religion can be bottom-up, an organic creation of tribes and communities, over hundreds of years, with no singular authority, despite the presence of numerous authority figures, was, and is alien to many.

That is why we are, just like Orientalists of 19th century, conditioned to look to the Vedas to understand Hinduism, rather than looking at practices and beliefs around them. We assume there is a ‘real’ Hinduism out there, in the past, and the pathfinder is either a religious guru or a secular academic. Thus we hand over power to those on top, when in fact, the power exists at the bottom.

This is what has ruined Africa. Unable to formalise tribal religions, European rulers simply displaced it with monotheistic mythologies. The continent, once home to many tribes, was first cut like a cake into nation-states, with boundaries splitting tribes, and is now the warzone between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, both of whom deny the existence of homosexuals and transgenders, and, in the name of God, even refuse to give contraceptives to heterosexual men and women. Religion is being forced from the top, as it is powerful tool to harness votes.

Democracy demands subscription to one idea if one wishes to dominate. What should this idea be? Science mocks diverse tribal beliefs as irrational. Secular ideas are not empowering. How does one rally a mob? The idea of one God is so much easier. And hence the need for Bharat Mata as a goddess, and a song to praise her, Vande Mataram, never mind if the song was actually written for Bengal, not India. This new artificial top-down view of Hinduism is convenient for politicians, and activists. For the rest, a bottom-up exploration of Hinduism, with its refusal to be boxed, makes better sense.