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Question to Ponder: The Invitations textbook author’s argue that the future of Hinduism will hinge u

Question to Ponder: The Invitations textbook author’s argue that the future of Hinduism will hinge upon its ability to adapt to a changing, multi-cultural, and increasingly transnational or globalized world economy and accompanying cultural-political dynamics. What do you think? What sorts of resources within Hindu theology and philosophy could be employed in developing an appropriate cultural ethic and politics to face future challenges both for Hindus living in India and the diasporic communities throughout the world?


The history of Hinduism can be traced far back to the origins of the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 2600-1700 BCE) and to the composition of the Vedas.

The earliest archaelogical discoveries point to the existence of deity worship. For instance, the so-called “Proto-Shiva” seal found in Mohenjo-Daro (modern day Pakistan) along the Indus river seem to indicate an archaic form of Shiva represented in seating yoga posture with Bull Horns and surrounded by various animals (see figure on p.57). Many depictions of female terracotta figures would seem to indicate a widespread devotion to godesses in the early Indus river civilizations.

Scholars debate the reasons for the apparent decline of the early Indus River Civilizations (Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro) as being due to either dramatic climate change or perhaps the influx of semi-nomadic Aryan invaders into the region.

Who are the Aryans? Sir William “Oriental” Jones (1746-1794) theorized that the common linguistic (grammatical and etymological) connections between Sanskrit and many European languages, the so-called “Indo-European” language family could be explained by the existence of a proto-Indo-European discourse that was spoken before the Aryan peoples moved into the Indian sub-continent from somewhere in eurasia. The term Arya refers to “nobility” and “cultivation” or “civilization”. They were apparently an warlike and nomadic people who were skilled at horse handling and charioteering. Settling down into the Indian sub-continent the establishment of the caste system and the three kinds of “twice born” elites (Priests, rulers and warriors, farmers and merchants) helped to secure a new social-political order.

The Vedic Period refers to the times in which ritual (especially rites of sacrifice) was codified in various texts and hymns. The construction of fire altars was a highly elaborate process and involved lots of liturgy. It is thought that this focus on altars and unified ritualization was a result of the highly “portable” religion that the Aryan nomads brought with them into the region.

The fire god, Agni, was a manifestation of divine and natural energy and could be a kind of conduit for communicating with higher spiritual planes of being. But in Vedic mythology it is Indra (the god of thunder and lightning, and the virile god of fertility) who was usually presented as most powerful. It is interesting to note the demotion of Indra to a lesser deity in later Hindu traditions, usually presented in a semi-comic fashion as haughty, hubristic, and even drunk. The early Vedic literature gives rise to the late Vedic hymns and the creation of a philosophical literature as commentary and speculation known as the Upanishads. During the time of the Upanishads (900-200 BCE) we see more philosophical speculation and the emergence of the house-leavers as a class of religious mendicants and seekers after higher truth.

The Age of the Guptas (c. 320-540 CE) refers to a period oftenly understood as a kind of “Golden Age of India” wherein the Gupta dynasty (a ruling political clan of northern India) patronized the arts, sciences, religion, philosophy and literature. There was a long period of relative peace and prosperity and it was during this time that the first Puranas (canonical sacred texts) were compiled. Also during this period, although the ruling elites were practicing Hindus worshiping Vishnu and Shiva and building many new temples and shrines throughout the region, there was a high degree of respect for religious diversity and religious tolerance was codified and promulgated. The rise of devotional Hinduism (bhakti) was then from its inception not incompatible with appreciation of religious difference (especially towards Buddhism and Jainism). Tantra (lit. “loom”) also emerged as a distinct non-conventional set of practices during this time. The idea seemed to be that by violating certain social conventions and engaging in often secretive and seductive rituals of moral transgression one could realize a “sudden” liberation from the cycle of samsara and suffering. Tantric practices were part of Mahayana Buddhism as well as the various sects of Hinduism. For practitioners of Tantra “the material world is a manifestation of divine energy associated with pure consciousness (Brahman/Shiva). Their spiritual practices are said to give them the ability to manipulate or channel that energy in order to gain liberation. Unlike the ascetics who renounced the material world and its sensual pleasures as part of their spritual quest, practitioners of Tantra made use of material things and the senses as means by which to transcend them. For them, moksha could be found in the midst of everyday experience.” (Invitations, p.61). This seems like a relatively tame description of what Tantric practices amounted to in the tradition. The discussion of the risks of Tantra (e.g. elevating gurus to god-like status, belief in occult forces, suffering of mental breakdowns, stigma of anti-nomian lifestyles, etc.) would take up volumes.

Early Hindu Encounters with Islam and Rule Under the Mughal Dynasty

The Mughals ruled from 1526 CE until the mid-eighteenth century with the beginning of British colonial rule. The Mughals were Muslim rulers of Turkic-Mongol origin. The relationship between Islam and Hinduism during this period is complicated. Some Mughal leaders were openly hostile to non-Muslim faiths (especially those that weren’t “teachings of the Book” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). But other leaders like Akbar (1542-1605) were more tolerant and accomodating of religious pluralism. Holding official salons for inter-faith dialogue was part of Akbar’s regime and his own “religion” of “Divine Faith” (Din-I-Ilahi) was a hybrid combination of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Using religious pluralism to forge alliances and rule over a vast, multi-cultural dynasty was part of Akbar’s strategic success and political savvy during the Mughal period.

(Post)Colonial Critique and Hindu Reformers

With the establishment of an imperial-colonial presence in India by the British East India Company there was a dynamic of “Orientalism” wherein Hinduism and other indigenous religious practices and philosophical ideas were questioned (both by colonizers and the colonized) as being at least partly responsible for the imbalance of global power. Some, like Charles Stuart (1758-1828) an Irish general in the Bengal Army, were quite interested in learning about and translating the Hindu tradition(s) into English. Stuart’s Vindication of the Hindoos (1808) attempted to serve as a polemic against the colonial strategy of blaming Hinduism for the subjugation of India and other forms of social inequality (gender oppression and caste-based discrimination).

Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833) was a wealthy Bengali brahmin concerned with issues involving misogynistic practices like child marriage, polygamy, dowry, and the practice of sati. Roy campaigned to end end the practice of sati—the ritualized suicide of a widowed woman on her husband’s funeral pyre—and in 1829 this practice was made illegal in Bengal. The following year Roy travelled to Europe to help ensure that the British would not overturn this anti-sati law. Sadly, like in many colonial situations, the distinctive but harmful cultural practices are appealed to in promoting nationalist and anti-colonial movements (e.g. genital mutilation or so-called “female circumcision”, foot-binding, etc.) and sati was no exception amongst some hardline traditionalists.

Some modern Hindu thinkers in the colonial context were less concerned to answer Christian and anti-Hindu polemics than they were with reviving more primordial forms of spiritual teachings and practices. One notable figure is the Bengali mystic, Ramakrishna (1836-1886). He was a devotee of the goddess Kali and as a young man once praved and experienced her as an ocean of blissful light. He created a new set of spiritual practices drawing on a hodge-podge of traditions including Vaishnavism, Advaita Vedanta, Tantrism, Islamic Sufism and Roman Catholicism.

One of his students, Narendranath Datta (1863-1902) aka Swami Vivekananda, was influential in introducing Hindu teachings to the West. He came to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and taught the Bhagavad Gita and Hinduism as a world religion of tolerance and peace. Like his teacher he paired down Hinduism to be more iconoclastic and focused on the Vedas and Upanishads and the associated philosophical traditions.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was a towering figure in Hindu reform movements and a major leader in the Hindu struggle for independence. As a young lawer practicing in colonial, apartheid South Africa, Gandhi was struck by the ideas of the Bhagavad Gita as a young student studying in England. In struggling against racism in South Africa Gandhi helped develop the practice of non-violent resistance or what he called satyagraha (“grasping the truth”) in Sanskrit. Returning to India in 1915 Gandhi began a series of concerted satyagraha movements to overthrow British colonial rule. Establishing many ashram (a place of religious refuge) he taught the non-violent freedom fighters mottos derived from the Upanishads like satyameva jayate, “the truth alone shall prevail.” It was through this faith in progress the motivated the movement in the face of great violence and setbacks. Gandhi also worked to overturn the caste system of “untouchability” by referring to Dalit persons as Harijans (“Children of God”) thereby seeking to increase their recognition and dignity in Hindu society and culture. During his lifetime he was frequently referred to as Mahatma (“Great Soul”) and although a lifelong Hindu, he showed deep respect and interest in the world’s major religions. On January 30, 1948 he was tragically assasinated by a Hindu nationalist who thought Gandhi was too accomodating towards Muslims.

Hindu Nationalism and Hindutva

In the context of Hindu reformism and critiques of colonialism, some thinkers attempted to argue for a radical distinctiveness of Hinduism. V.D. Savarkar (1883-1966) argued in a 1923 pamphlet for hinduvata (“Hindu-ness”) as a grounding cultural and ethnic concept that he thought should shape India through forming a Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist party, in constructing a “Hindu Nation”. Such political theology lead to the establishment of groups like the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS; National Volunteer Corps) and later to the development of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP continues to be the dominant political party in Indian electoral politics and was originally founded as a more ethno-nationlist variant of Hindu political theology further to the right and more culturally insular than the party of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (the Indian People’s Alliance). In 1991 extreme violence and religiously-politically motivated terrorism was carried out by BJP supporters in an effort to purge the Ayodhya region of Muslims and to destroy the Babri Masjid mosque that the BJP nationlists argued had been built on an ancient shrine of Rama. Such religious and political conflict is a constant source of tension in the post-colonial political landscape of an India governed by the BJP but with over 189 million professing Muslims and many adherents of other faith traditions.

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