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