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NY Times Book Review: The British invented Hindu religion

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HamdenRice Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 08:55 AM
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NY Times Book Review: The British invented Hindu religion
Edited on Tue May-12-09 08:55 AM by HamdenRice
A few weeks ago, the NY Times Book Review published a review of "The Hindus: An Alternative History" by Wendy Doniger.

One of the more important claims of the book is that British Indophiles played a major role in creating the modern version of the Hindu religion by privileging Sanskrit and re-"discovering" the major sacred texts, like the Bhagavad-Gita.

Doniger's thesis is based on a historiographical theory proposed several decades ago by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger in a collection of essays they edited, "The Invention of Tradition," the idea that many "traditions" that appear to be age old -- from the traditions of African "tribes," to Scottish highlanders, to the British monarchy -- are, in fact, recent inventions given "fictitious continuity" with earlier practices.

Another Incarnation


Published: April 24, 2009


Repelled by such pagan blasphemies, the first British scholars of India went so far as to invent what we now call Hinduism, complete with a mainstream classical tradition consisting entirely of Sanskrit philosophical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. In fact, most Indians in the 18th century knew no Sanskrit, the language exclusive to Brahmins. For centuries, they remained unaware of the hymns of the four Vedas or the idealist monism of the Upanishads that the German Romantics, American Transcendentalists and other early Indophiles solemnly supposed to be the very essence of Indian civilization. (Smoking chillums and chanting Om, the Beats were closer to the mark.)

As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame Indias chaotic polytheisms had a Protestant bias in favor of scripture. In privileging Sanskrit over local languages, she writes, they created what has proved to be an enduring impression of a unified Hinduism. And they found keen collaborators among upper-caste Indian scholars and translators. This British-Brahmin version of Hinduism one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis--vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The Hindu nationalists of today, who long for India to become a muscular international power, stand in a direct line of 19th-century Indian reform movements devoted to purifying and reviving a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly upper-caste and middle-class nationalists have accelerated the modernization and homogenization of Hinduism.

Still, the nontextual, syncretic religious and philosophical traditions of India that escaped the attention of British scholars flourish even today. Popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals, rites and legends that vary across India still form the worldview of a majority of Indians. Goddesses, as Doniger writes, continue to evolve. Bollywood produced the most popular one of my North Indian childhood: Santoshi Mata, who seemed to fulfill the materialistic wishes of newly urbanized Hindus. Far from being a slave to mindless superstition, popular religious legend conveys a darkly ambiguous view of human action. Revered as heroes in one region, the characters of the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata can be regarded as villains in another. Demons and gods are dialectically interrelated in a complex cosmic order that would make little sense to the theologians of the so-called war on terror.
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AngryAmish Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 09:02 AM
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1. Look at what the Wiccans and neo-pagans have done recently
Same thing really, just making stuff up.
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Glorfindel Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 09:15 AM
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2. Not to mention the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah's Witnesses
All 19th Century cults.
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AngryAmish Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 09:20 AM
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3. Quite frankly, Roman Catholic Church also
Constantly remaking itself over the years - starting with Constantine, Council at Niciea, et al.

Luther invented Lutherans.
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HamdenRice Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 10:31 AM
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5. I think the difference is the claim that members of a different culture, the Brits, ...
Edited on Tue May-12-09 10:32 AM by HamdenRice
had such an impact. She is not just claiming that the Hindus have reinvented themselves, but that they did so on the basis of British anthropology.

Reminds me of a weird story about Botswana and its legal system.

The Tswana were in precolonial times, one of the most legalistic cultures in Africa, with men spending an awful lot of time in court arguing cases.

During modern times, the main source of law in Botswana is a book of laws collected by a British anthropologist in iirc the 1930s, Isaac Schapera, "A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom."

The double irony though, is that a very modernizing Tswana chief in South Africa, Tidimane Pilane, claimed to have dictated most of the Handbook to Schapera when they were both young men stationed in Botswana.
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bananas Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 06:01 PM
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7. Reminds me of something Lao tse said to Confucius
When Confucius was starting his career, he was advised to have Lao tse review his work.
Hilarity ensued.

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struggle4progress Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 10:19 AM
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4. Here's another review
Sandip Roy, Special to The Chronicle
Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Hindus
An Alternative History
By Wendy Doniger
(Penguin; 779 pages; $35)

... It's a touchy exercise, especially when conducted by a Westerner. Doniger has had eggs thrown at her for daring to bring up Hindu texts that have shown heroes to have feet of clay. Sita is now idealized as the ultimate dutiful wife of Lord Rama from the epic Ramayana. But the Ramayana could also be read as Sita walking out on Rama in the end when she returns to her earth mother - "an extraordinary move for a Hindu wife." In a more contemporary retelling, Sita promises one of the ogresses who befriends her in captivity that she would be reborn as Queen Victoria!

Doniger is able to take some key threads - the role of women, animals (cows, dogs, horses), nonviolence - and follow the evolution of attitudes toward them. Hinduism became notorious for the ritual of suttee, in which a wife burned herself (or was burned) on the husband's funeral pyre. But Hinduism also boasted heroines like Draupadi, with her five husbands. Or Jabala, who is asked by her son Satyakama who his father was. "My dear, I don't know the line of your male ancestors," she tells him. "When I was young, I got around a lot, as I was working, and I got you. But my name is Jabala and your name is Satyakama (Lover of Truth)." This is from the Chandyoga Upanishad (c. 600 B.C.)!

But Doniger also cautions modern-day feminists from reading too much into stories of nonconformists like Jabala. Hindu goddesses tend to be, as folklorist A.K. Ramanujan described them, either goddesses of the breast (wives to gods) or goddesses of the tooth (fierce demon killers), but goddess worship has not translated into political or economic power for women. The goddesses might ride lions and do things otherwise forbidden, yet as Doniger wryly comments, "in taking the mythology of goddesses as a social charter, the goddess feminists are batting on a sticky wicca."

Doniger will no doubt raise the ire of many purists - any discussion of whether the Vedic people ate cows always unleashes a firestorm of protest. (The sacred cow notwithstanding, there are few temples to cows.) But there is room for that debate in Hinduism. Hinduism has always been a syncretic religion, absorbing its invaders. That in modern times has been read as a weakness, a sort of passive femininity. Hindu nationalists want a more masculine, definitive religion with a single party line. But they have their work cut out in a religion with a deity like Ardhanarishvara, half man (Shiva), half woman (Shakti) and fully divine ...
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Lydia Leftcoast Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-12-09 12:01 PM
Response to Original message
6. I don't know about Hinduism but Shinto was definitely invented by
Japanese nationalists in the nineteenth century.

They took what was essentially a collection of (authentically indigenous) rural fertility cults, attached it to some national epics written in the 8th century, and created a state religion that involved worshiping the emperor as a descendant of the sun goddess.
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