The invention of the Hindu
By Pankaj Mishra Axess Magazine
Hinduism is largely a fiction, formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a multiplicity of sub-continental religions, and enthusiastically endorsed by Indian modernisers. Unlike Muslims, Hindus have tended to borrow more than reject, and it has now been reconfigured as a global rival to the big three monotheisms. In the process, it has abandoned the tradition of toleration which lie in its true origins.
Earlier this year, I was in Rishikesh, the first town that the river Ganges meets as it leaves its Himalayan home and embarks upon its long journey through the North Indian plains. The town's place in Indian mythology is not as secure as that of Hardwar, which lies a few miles downstream, and which periodically hosts the Kumbh Mela; nor is it as famous as places like Allahabad and Benares, even holier cities further down on the Ganges. People seeking greater solitude and wisdom usually head deep into the Himalayas. With its saffron-robed sadhus and ashrams, its yoga and meditation centres, and its internet and dosa cafes, Rishikesh caters to a very modern kind of spiritual tourist: the Beatles came, most famously, in the sixties to learn Transcendental Meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Their quick disillusionment seems not to have deterred the stylishly disaffected members of the western middle class that can be found wandering the town's alleys in tie-dye outfits, trying to raise their kundalini in between checking their Hotmail accounts.
I was in Rishikesh to see my aunt, who has just retired to one of the riverside ashrams. She has known a hard life; widowed when she was in her thirties, she worked in small, badly paid teaching jobs to support her three children. In my memory, I can still see her standing at exposed country bus stops in the middle of white-hot summer days. She had come to know comfort, even luxury, of sorts in later life. Her children travel all over the world as members of India's new globalised corporate elite; there are bright grandchildren to engage her at home. But she was happiest in Rishikesh, she told me, living as frugally as she had for much of her life, and devoting her attention to the end of things.
True detachment, however, seemed as difficult to achieve for her as for the spiritual seekers with email. I had only to mention the political situation-India was then threatening to attack Pakistan-for her to say, angrily: "These Muslims need to be taught a lesson. We Hindus have been too soft for too long."
In the last decade, such anti-Muslim sentiments have become commonplace among the middle class upper-caste Hindus in both India and abroad who form the most loyal constituency of the Hindu nationalist BJP. They were amplified most recently in Gujarat during the BJP-assisted massacre in early 2002 of over a thousand Muslims. They go with a middle class pride in the international prominence of Indian beauty queens, software professionals and Bollywood films. Perhaps I wouldn't have found anything odd about my aunt's anti-Muslim passions had I not later gone up to her monastic cell, one of the several in a large quad around a flower garden, and noticed the large garlanded poster of a well-known Sufi saint of western India.
Did she know that she revered someone born a Muslim? I don't think so. The folk religion to which the Sufi saint belongs, and which millions of Indians still practise, does not acknowledge such modern political categories as "Hindu" and "Muslim." I think the contradiction between her beliefs and practice would only be clear to the outsider: the discrepancy between the narrow nationalist prejudices she had inherited from her class and caste, and the affinities she generously formed in her inner world of devotion and prayer. It is not easily understood; but it is part of the extraordinary makeover undergone by Hinduism since the nineteenth century when India first confronted the West, and its universalist ideologies of nationalism and progress.
THE REMARKABLE quality of this transformation is partly shown by the fact that there was no such thing as Hinduism before the British invented the holdall category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a "world religion" as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam. The concepts of a "world religion" and "religion" as we know them now, emerged during the late 18th and early 19th century, as objects of academic study, at a time of widespread secularisation in western Europe. The idea, as inspired by the Enlightenment, was to study religion as a set of beliefs, and to open it up to rational enquiry.
But academic study of any kind imposes its own boundaries upon the subject. It actually creates the subject while bringing it within the realm of the intellect. The early European scholars of religion labelled everything; they organised disparate religious practices into one system, and literally brought into being such world religions as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Not only Hinduism, but the word Hindu itself is of non-Hindu origin. It was first used by the ancient Persians to refer to the people living near the river Indus (Sindhu in Sanskrit). It then became a convenient shorthand for the Muslim and Christian rulers of India; it defined those who weren't Muslims or Christians. Modern scholarship has made available much more information about the castes, religious sects, folk and elite cultures, philosophical traditions and languages that exist, or have existed, on the Indian subcontinent. But despite containing the world's third largest population of Muslims, India is still for most people outside it, a country of Hindus; even a "Hindu civilisation" as it featured in Samuel Huntington's millenarian world-view.
The persistence of such labels in the West is not just due to ignorance, or to some lingering Christian fear of unconvertible heathens. Perhaps, the urge to fix a single identity for such diverse communities as found in India comes naturally to people in the highly organised and uniform societies of the West, where cultural diversity now usually means the politically expedient and hardened identities of multiculturalism. Perhaps, people who themselves are defined almost exclusively by their citizenship in the nation-state and the consumer society cannot but find wholly alien the pre-modern world of multiple identities and faiths in which most Indians still live.
Certainly, most Hindus themselves felt little need for precise self-descriptions, except when faced with blunt questions about religion on official forms. Long after their encounter with the monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity, they continued to define themselves through their overlapping allegiances to family, caste, linguistic group, region, and devotional sect. Religion to them was more unselfconscious practice than rigid belief; it is partly why Indian theology accommodates atheism and agnosticism. Their rituals and deities varied greatly, defined often by caste and geography; and they were also flexible: new goddesses continue to enrich the pantheon even today. There is an AIDS goddess which apparently both causes and eradicates the disease. At any given time, both snakes and the ultimate reality of the universe were worshipped in the same region, sometimes by the same person. Religion very rarely demanded, as it did with many Muslims or Christians, adherence to a set of theological ideas prescribed by a single prophet, book, or ecclesiastical authority.
This is why a history of Hinduism, no matter how narrowly conceived, has to describe several very parochial-seeming Indian religions, almost none of which contained an evangelical zeal to save the world. The first of these-the Vedic religion-began with the nomads and pastoralists from central Asia who settled north India in the second millennium BC. It was primarily created by the priestly class of Brahmans who conducted fire sacrifices with the help of the Vedas, the earliest known Indian scriptures, in order to stave off drought and hunger. But the Brahmans who also formulated the sacred and social codes of the time wished to enhance their own glory and power rather than propose a new all-inclusive faith; they presented themselves as the most superior among the four caste groups that emerged during Vedic times and were based upon racial distinctions between the settlers and the indigenous population of north India and then on a division of labour.
A NEW RELIGION WAS also far from the minds of the Buddhists, the Jains and many other philosophical and cultural movements that emerged in the sixth and fifth centuries BC while seeking to challenge the power of the Brahmans and of the caste hierarchy. People dissatisfied with the sacrificial rituals of the Vedic religion later grew attracted to the egalitarian cults of Shiva and Vishnu that became popular in India around the beginning of the first century AD. However, the Brahmans managed to preserve their status at the top of an ossifying caste system. They zealously guarded their knowledge of Sanskrit, esoteric texts, and their expertise in such matters as the correct pronunciation of mantras. Their specialised knowledge, and pan-Indian presence, gave them a hold over ruling elites even as the majority of the population followed its own heterodox cults and sects. Their influence can be detected in such Indian texts as the Bhagavad-Gita which was interpolated into the much older Mahabharata, and which, though acknowledging the irrelevance of ritual sacrifices, made a life of virtue, or dharma, inseparable from following the rules of caste.
At the same time, India remained too big and diverse to be monopolised by any one book or idea. Today, the Hindu nationalists present Muslim rulers of India as the flagbearers of an intolerant monotheism; but there was even more religious plurality during the eight centuries of Muslim presence in India. Sufism mingled with local faiths; the currently popular devotional cults of Rama and Krishna, and the network of ashrams and sects expanded fast under the Mughal empire. Medieval India furnishes more evidence of sectarian violence between the worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu than between Hindus and Muslims.
In the 18th century, the British were both appalled and fascinated by the excess of gods, sects, and cults they encountered in India. It was a religious situation similar to the pagan chaos a Christian from the eastern provinces of the Roman empire might have encountered in the West just before Constantine's conversion to Christianity. As it turned out, like the powerful Christians in Rome, the British in India sought and imposed uniformity. There were intellectually curious men among them: a judge called William Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, whose amateur scholars began in the late 18th century to figure out the strange bewildering country the British found themselves in. Jones, a linguist, confirmed the similarity between Sanskrit and Greek. Another official, James Prinsep, deciphered the ancient Indian script of Brahmi, the ancestor of most Indian scripts, that the British found on pillars and rock faces across south Asia, and threw the first clear light on the first great patron of Buddhism, Ashoka. A military officer called Alexander Cunningham excavated the site near Benares where the Buddha had preached his first sermon.
These days, there is a common enough presumption, which was popularised by Edward Said's Orientalism, that much of western scholarship on the Orient helped, directly or not, western imperialists. Some people take it further and assert that any, or all, western interest in India is tainted with bad faith.
IT WOULD BE TOO simple to say that this great intellectual effort, to which we owe much of our present knowledge of India, was part of a colonialist or imperialist enterprise of controlling newly conquered peoples and territories. What's more interesting than the by now familiar accusations of Orientalism is how the assumptions of the earliest British scholars mingled with the prejudices of native Indian elites to create an entirely new kind of knowledge about India.
These scholars organised their impressions of Indian religion according to what they were familiar with at home: the monotheistic and exclusive nature of Christianity. When confronted by diverse Indian religions, they tended to see similarities. These similarities were usually as superficial as those found between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the British assumed that different religious practices could only exist within a single overarching tradition. They also started off with a literary bias, which was partly the result of the mass distribution of texts and the consequent high degree of literacy in Europe in the eighteenth century. They thought that since Christianity had canonical texts, Indian tradition must have the same. Their local intermediaries tended to be Brahmans, who alone knew the languages-primarily Sanskrit-needed to study such ancient Indian texts as the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. Together, the British scholars and their Brahman interpreters came up with a canon of sorts, mostly Brahmanical literature and ideology, which they began to identify with a single Hindu religion.
The Brahmanical literature, so systematised, later created much of the appeal of Indian culture for its foreign connoisseurs, such as the German romantics, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau. The strange fact here is that most Indians then knew nothing or very little of the hymns, invocations and liturgical formulae of the four Vedas or the philosophical idealism of the Upanishads that the British and other European scholars in Europe took to be the very essence of Indian civilisation. These Sanskrit texts had long been monopolised by an elite minority of Brahmans who zealously guarded their knowledge of Sanskrit. It was these Brahmans who educated the British amateur scholars. So they studied earnestly the canon of what they supposed to be ancient Indian tradition and managed to remain mostly unaware of the more numerous non-textual, syncretic religious and philosophical traditions of India-for example, the popular devotional cults, Sufi shrines, festivals, rites, and legends that varied across India and formed the worldview of a majority of Indians.
But the texts provided the British the standards with which to judge the state of contemporary religion in India. Since few Indians at the time seemed capable of the sublime sentiments found in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Rig-Veda, Hinduism began to seem a degenerate religion, full of such social evils as widow-burning and untouchability, and in desperate need of social engineering: an idea that appealed both to British colonialists and their Brahman collaborators who had long felt threatened by the non-Brahmanical forms of religion that most Indians followed. It was equally convenient to blame the intrusion of Islam into India for Hinduism's fallen state, even the caste system, and to describe Hindus as apathetic slaves of Muslim tyrants: a terrible fate from which the British had apparently rescued them in order to prepare their path to a high stage of civilisation.
These ideas about the Muslim tyrants, Hindu slaves and British philanthropists were originally set out in such influential books as History of British India, written by James Mill, a Scottish utilitarian, and the father of John Stuart Mill. Such books now tell you more about the proselytising vigour of some enlightened Scots and utilitarians than about Indian history.
BUT THEY HAVE HAD very serious political consequences. Many westernised upper-caste Indians, including middle class Hindu nationalists, now believe that Muslim invaders destroyed a pure and glorious Hindu civilisation, which a minority of Brahmans then managed to preserve. The rather crude British generalisation that Hindus and Muslims constituted mutually exclusive and monolithic religious communities-a view which was formed largely by historians who never visited India, such as James Mill, and which was then institutionalised in colonial policies of divide-and-rule-was eventually self-fulfilled, first, by the partition of British India, and then by the hostility between India and Pakistan.
Even at the time, these ideas had a profound impact on a new generation of upper-caste Indians, who had been educated in western-style institutions, and so were well placed to appreciate the immense power and prestige that Britain then had as the supreme economic and military nation in the world. These Indians wished to imitate the success of the British; do for India what a few enterprising men had done for a tiny island; and they found a source of nationalist pride in the newly-minted "Hinduism."
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, educated people everywhere in the colonised countries of Asia and Africa were forced into considering how their inheritance of ancient tradition has failed to save them from subjection to the modern West. This was what preoccupied such Muslim intellectuals as Mohammed Iqbal, the poet-advocate of Pakistan, the Egyptians Mohammed Abduh, the intellectual founder of modern radical Islamist, and Sayyid Qutb, the fundamentalist activist who inspired Osama Bin Laden.
These were mostly people from the middle class who were educated formally in western-style institutions and who became the leading modernist thinkers within their respective traditions. Their most crucial encounter was with the West whose power they felt daily in their lives, and whose history they learned before they learnt anything else.
Travelling to the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they came up against the paradox that the western nations, which were mortal enemies of each other, and brutal exploiters in their colonies, had created admirably liberal civilisations at home. They remained opposed to the colonial presence in their countries and aspired for independence. But they were also dazzled by the power and prestige of the West, and they couldn't but grapple with the complex question of how much space to give to western values of science, reason, secularism and nationalism in the traditional societies they belonged to.
THIS QUESTION BEGAN to haunt Vivekananda when in 1893 he travelled to the West for the first time in his life. Born in a middle class family in Calcutta, he was educated in western-style institutions, and was studying law, in preparation for a conventional professional career, when he met the mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and renounced the world to become a sannyasi. He travelled all across India and first exposed himself to the misery and degradation most Indians then lived in. When he travelled to the Parliament of Religions as a representative of the Hindu religion in 1893, he hoped partly to raise funds for a monastic mission in India and, more vaguely, to find the right technology for alleviating poverty in India.
The Parliament of Religions was part of a larger celebration of Christopher Columbus's so-called discovery of America. The organisers planned to "display the achievements of western civilisation and to benefit American trade." Vivekananda addressed himself directly to such self-absorption. He spoke eloquently and enthrallingly on Hinduism in Chicago, drawing on his great knowledge of western philosophy. He claimed that it was an Indian achievement to see all religions as equally true, and to set spiritual liberation as the aim of life. Americans received his speech rapturously. He lectured on Hinduism to similarly enthusiastic audiences in other American cities.
The news of Vivekananda's success flattered insecure middle class Indians in India who wished to make Hinduism intellectually respectable to both themselves and to westerners. But Vivekananda himself, during the next few years he spent travelling in America and Europe, was to move away from an uncritical celebration of Indian religion and his hostility towards the West. He came to have a new regard for the West, for the explosion of creative energy, the scientific spirit of curiosity and the ambition that in the nineteenth century had made a small minority the masters of the world. He could barely restrain his admirations in letters home: "What strength, what practicality, what manhood!"
Vivekananda also claimed to sense a spiritual hunger in the West, which he said India was well-placed to allay. He thought that India could be Greece to the West's Rome, by offering its spiritual heritage to the West in exchange for the secret of material advancement. Together, he hoped, India and the West would lead a new renaissance of humanity.
Vivekananda returned to India after three years, his admiration for the West undiminished. He set up a monastic order devoted to social service and to reforming Hinduism which he saw as a decadent religion. In the midst of his endeavours, he died young, at thirty-nine. Nothing much could come out of what was mostly well-intentioned rhetoric: India was too far away from the West, which was then only in the middle of its extraordinary rise. It was not up to India, then a subject country, to impose terms on anyone.
Vivekananda appeared to have struggled in his short life with many new ideas. He didn't always have clear solutions. His value lies in that he was among the first Indians to realise clearly the fact of western dominance over the world; he attested above all to the inevitability of the West's presence, if not superiority, in all aspects of human life. There were other people who had reached the same conclusion:
Europe is progressive. Her religion is....used for one day in the week and for six days her people are following the dictates of modern science. Sanitation, aesthetic arts, electricity etc are what made the Europeans and American people great. Asia is full of opium eaters, ganja smokers, degenerating sensualists, superstitious and religious fanatics.
This could be either Vivekananda or Iqbal. It is actually Angarika Dharampala, the greatest figure of modern Buddhism. Born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1864, Dharampala was just a year younger than Vivekananda. He even went to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a representative of Buddhism but was more prominent than his Indian colleague. Like Vivekananda, Dharampala was influenced by the West, particularly by the Protestant missionaries that came with British rule over Sri Lanka, and came to denounce traditional religion in Sri Lanka as corrupt and unmanly. He wished to modernise Buddhism and also give it a political role. Following these contradictory desires, he became an anti-colonial nationalist, and the major icon of the Sinhalese nationalism that later brought Sri Lanka to civil war in the 1980s.
COMPARED TO SUCH Hindu and Buddhist modernists as Vivekananda and Dharampala, the Muslim intellectuals were more divided in their attitudes towards the West. Some of them, such as the young Turkish intellectuals of early twentieth century, wished totally to remake their countries along western lines so as to reach the summit of power and affluence that the West had arrived at. There were many others who chose the way of suspicion or antipathy. Iqbal stressed the need of Indian Muslims to form their own state where they could follow Islam in its most spiritual form and be able to resist the material ways of the West. Qutb advocated a return to the Koran and preached revolutionary violence against the West and its values that he saw incarnated in Arab nation-states.
But whether choosing nationalism or revolution, almost all of these intellectuals from colonised countries seemed to concede that the West had become the best source of ideas about effecting large-scale change and organising human society. They admitted the need for modernisation even in the sphere of religion and for cultivating a rational and scientific outlook.
ONLY A TINY MINORITY of upper-caste Indians had known much about the Bhagavad-Gita or the Vedas until the eighteenth century when they were translated by British scholars and then presented as sacred texts from the paradisiacal age of something called "Hinduism." But in the nineteenth century, movements dedicated to reforming Hinduism and recovering its lost glory grew very rapidly. The inspiration or rhetoric of these neo-Hindu movements might have seemed archaic. In fact, they were largely inspired by the ideas of progress and development that British utilitarians and Christian missionaries aggressively promoted in India. Modernist intellectuals in Muslim countries then exposed to European imperialism similarly absorbed western influences, but their distrust of the Christian and secular West was deeper.
Unlike Muslims, the Hindus tended to borrow more than reject. Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1932), who is often called the "father of modern India," was a Unitarian. He founded the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist society that influenced the poet Rabindranath Tagore and filmmaker Satyajit Ray, among other leading Indian intellectuals and artists, as part of an attempt to turn Hinduism into a rational, monotheistic religion. The social reformer Dayananda exhorted Indians to return to the Vedas, which contained, according to him, all of modern science, and echoed British missionary denunciations of such Hindu superstitions as idol-worship and the caste system. Even the more secular and catholic visions of Gandhi and Nehru-the former a devout Hindu, the latter an agnostic-accepted the premise of a "Hinduism: that had decayed and had to be reformed.
Gandhi drew his political imagery from popular folklore; it made him more effective as a leader of the Indian masses than the upper caste Hindu politicians who relied upon a textual, or elite Hinduism. But it was Swami Vivekananda who in his lifetime was witness to, and also mostly responsible for, the modernisation of Hinduism. Vivekananda was the middle-class disciple of the illiterate mystic Ramakrishna Paramhans; but he moved very far away from his Guru's inward-looking spirituality in his attempt to make Hinduism, or the invention of British and Brahman scholars, intellectually respectable to both Westerners and westernised Indians. In his lectures in England and America, where he acquired a mass following, he presented India as the most ancient and privileged fount of spirituality-a line that many Indian Gurus were profitably to take with their western disciples. At the same time, he exhorted Hindus to embrace western science and materialism in order to shed their burden of backwardness and constitute themselves into a manly nation.
Vivekananda borrowed from both British-constructed Hinduism and European realpolitik. In doing so he articulated the confused aggressive desires of a westernised Indian bourgeoisie that was then trying to find its identity. But his ambition of regenerating India with the help of western techniques did not sunder him entirely from the folk religious traditions he had grown up in. He remained a mystic; and his contradictory rhetoric now seems to prefigure the oddly split personality of the modern Hindu, where devotion to a Muslim saint can co-exist with an anti-Muslim nationalism.
HIS IMPORTANCE DOESN'T END THERE. The marriage of Indian religiosity and western materialism Vivekananda tried to arrange makes him the perfect patron saint of the BJP, a political party of mostly upper caste middle class Hindus that strives to boost India's capabilities in the fields of nuclear bombs and information technology and also reveres the cow as holy. A hundred years after his death, the BJP has come closest to realising his project of westernising Hinduism into a nationalist ideology: one which has pretensions to being all-inclusive, but which demonises Muslims and seeks to pre-empt with its rhetoric of egalitarianism the long overdue political assertion of India's lower caste groups.
Vivekananda's modern-day disciples are helped considerably by the fact that the Indian bourgeoisie is no longer small and insignificant. It is growing-the current numbers are between 150-200 million. There are millions of rich Indians living outside India. In America, they constitute the richest minority. It is these affluent, upper caste Indians in India and abroad who largely bankrolled the rise to power of Hindu nationalists, and who now long for closer military and economic ties between India and western nations. The new conditions of globalisation-free trade, faster communications-help them work faster towards the alliance Vivekananda proposed between an Indian elite and the modern West. As a global class, they are no less ambitious than the one which in the Roman empire embraced Christianity and made it an effective tool of worldly power. Hinduism in their hands has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of Popes and Mullahs, and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians. Their growing prominence suggests that Vivekananda may yet emerge as more influential in the long run than Gandhi, Nehru or Tagore-the three great Indian leaders, whose legacy of liberal humanism middle class India already seems to have frittered away as it heads for intellectually and spiritually oppressive times.
PANKAJ MISHRA: Author. Regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, The New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement as well as several Indian publications.