Business Standard

Hinduism as it is lived


The end of the Cold War created new global antagonism­s. As Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s memorable “clash of civilisati­ons” posited, the future fault lines of internatio­nal conflicts would occur around the major religions of the world. He was talking specifical­ly of Islam and Islamic militancy versus the Christian West, but the western academic world responded to this trend of religious militancy by expanding religious studies in university curricula. This is the context of the voluminous writings on Hinduism, beginning with the last decade of the 20th century, of which this edited volume is an example.

The book consists of 20 scholarly contributi­ons, and unlike other books on Hinduism in which the authors interpret and explain this religion on the basis of scriptures and great traditions, this one focuses attention on “lived Hinduism”. Anthropolo­gists, sociologis­ts and other scholars have presented different aspects of the religion by studying the daily lives of Hindus following the many different “traditions” that constitute this tradition.

What are their broad findings? As the editors observe, “For Hinduism, the meaning of ‘tradition’ is cumulative, not unchanging…”. Further, religion continues to dominate the daily lives of most people in the most modern city and “here modernity intimately interacts with religion”. Thus, the editors warn those who project Hinduism as a monolith that “the diversity of Hinduism is legendary”. This “lived diversity” is presented in eight parts: Worship; The Life Cycle; Festival; Performanc­es; Guru; Caste; Diaspora; and Identity.

One story in section II offers an interestin­g account of a conversion of sorts that highlights the innate flexible nature of the religion. It is a story of a monk in the Ramakrishn­a Monastery, a German who wanted to become a Sadhu. But because of his birth, the Brahmanica­l order ordained he was not entitled to sanayas. To get round this, the German aspirant was told to imbibe raining from different swamis. “You live like us and we will make you one of us,” he was told.

Part III shows how all festivals are linked with religion. On Holi, the authors provide an anthropolo­gical interpreta­tion based not on the basis of sacred texts but on the observatio­n of myriad rituals in rural India to understand the meaning of myths. “What both, I and the villagers, had taken to be their timeless living tradition within a primordial local myth of Krishna appeared instead to represent rather the latest in a legendary series of revivals and reinterpre­tations mingling local, regional, and even some quite remote moments of religious fashion,” the author writes.

This ties in well with chapter 9, “A Ramayana on Air”, which focused on putting a video epic in its cultural context. It is devoted to Ramanand Sagar’s 1987 blockbuste­r TV series presented every Sunday morning on Doordarsha­n, the popularity of which grew beyond all expectatio­ns. The author observes that “to most viewers, Ramayana was a feast of darshan”,

and Mr Sagar exploited the potential of the TV screen “to allow his viewers an experience of intense communion with epic characters”.

The other side of Mr Sagar’s hit series was that Hindu religious ritual-based identity was strengthen­ed by this regular viewing of gods and goddesses, and this may have played its part in encouragin­g the forces of Hindutva to champion the cause of Ram Temple at Ayodhya, which has polarised India on religious basis since 1988-89.

The various approaches to the Goddess Durga, the role of gurus, the Bhakti movement as a message of social protest (the Dalit poet Ravidas suggesting that untouchabl­es have their own reference points) are all put under the scrutiny of the anthropolo­gist’s miscroscop­e in this book to underline the central point of Hinduism’s intrinsic diversity. A chapter on the Hindu diaspora is devoted to the way Hindus try to remain Hindus in foreign countries.

The strength of the book lies in its exposition of the intrinsic mutability of the religion in practice. It highlights what we all know well: That unlike other major world religions, Hinduism is an evolving and dynamic system of rituals and beliefs. The tragedy of Hinduism is its politicisa­tion by the forces of Hindutva, which are constructi­ng a mythical monolithic religion around ancient Hindu scriptures that can be interprete­d only by a small Sanskrit-educated Brahman caste. This a caricature of one of the world’s most dynamic belief systems.

The book highlights what we all know well: That unlike other major world religions, Hinduism is an evolving and dynamic system of rituals and beliefs

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