The Invention of the Hindu

Vivekananda and Superman, arbiters of pulp mythos.

“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.”
Pankaj Mishra

Mishra's article describes how the once vast and complex interlocking web of local customs and culture, ideas and values, gods and ritual, became cast under a singular conceptual umbrella. Though India's encounter with the European Enlightenment project of the 18th and 19th centuries, this was labeled as Hinduism. Texts, predominantly unknown throughout India at the time, became canonized largely because these Europeans could not imagine what was happening in India as anything else but a singular religion. Moreover, they could not imagine that any religion could exist without a central text or doctrine. In reality they couldn't fathom interlocking multiplicities.

Traces of this bygone era remain active within the folk attitudes of Indian people to this day, although with India's rapidly rising middle class, this scent is fading.

More of an attitude than a theory, a few of my favorite aspects to the "scent" include—

  • The appropriation of ideas as they are encountered and deemed useful. Mishra's pullquote above describes this point.
  • The practice of holding contradictory views, when sensible. We find some kinship with modern physics here (Is light a particle or a wave?... Well it depends on why you ask...) and also with Wittgenstein (a logical inconsistency isn't necessarily proof that's something is untrue).
  • Finally, India's ideas/practice of historicity and authorship, where the spirits of teachers and beings (egregores as Dr. Svoboda calls them in the new Namarupa) act through the living. In this way history remains alive within the present, and our concepts of self look more like Venn Diagrams of competing agendas than some island alone in the sea. Jorge Luis Borges discusses this peculiar aspect of the Indian consciousness and how these circuitous concepts have boggled and frustrated western historians for centuries in the absolutely wonderful book and CD, This Craft Of Verse.

Guru-busting warning... Vivekananda gets raked over the coals for his pivotal role in the creation of the Hindu identity-fiction.

Link.

Image(s): Vivekananda; Superman comic.

posted by
Spiros Antonopoulos

TAGS — Borges, Hinduism, history, India, Indiaspora, Indology, Pankaj Mishra, Vivekananda

Remarks

4 total remarks for this post. Add your own remarks below.

Sun 15 Apr 2007 at 09:58AM

Isaac

This is not particularly new. At a theoretical level, ideas of "authenticity" and "tradition" are generally very difficult to defend, being polemical categories rather than absolutes.

Much of our received knowledge about Indian historiography is in flux right now as it becomes more and more clear the extent of the influence of our own position on what we are thinking about. I don't think Mishra goes far enough... his ideas about historicity and authorship are questionable at best, for instance.

I would recommend "Mimamsa and the Problem of History in Traditional India" (Sheldon Pollock,1989, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 109(4), p603-610) for a start on something interesting.

Sun 15 Apr 2007 at 11:27AM

Spiros Antonopoulos

I agree Isaac.

Do you have a copy of that article that you can scan and send/post?

Sounds great.

Thanks.

Mon 16 Apr 2007 at 09:56PM

Matthew

This article makes some interesting and usefully provocative points, but also makes some problematic assertions. The assertion that most Indians were unfamiliar with the Bhagavad Gita before western influence is odd, for instance, and counter evidenced by its being taught by Shirdi Sai Baba who was not highly educated, and would have relied on some degree of recognition of the text among his followers, as well as by other examples. Also Gita like teachings were widespread in the Bhakti and Shaiva movements, so his point seems questionable. I think he goes a little too far while making good points.

Wed 14 Nov 2007 at 06:38AM

bhargavsai

what is the use of talking? There is no use!
No body gets anything from talking, only personal satisfaction. There are many people who have realized God! that's it, that is all.

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