Hinduism: The Hindu Tradition Through History

Origins

Image by QASIM REHMANI from Pixabay

Hinduism originated as a civilisational theology, which many political bodies laid claim to in order to cement their authority. As we have discussed in these pages, like other civilisational theologies Hinduism is animated by a core sacred language; sanskrit. The works that have been composed in this language provided a connection to the divine which spread across the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. Older origins can be traced to the Indus Valley Civilisation, but Hinduism in a form that is recognisable today originated as what is often referred to as Vedic culture over 3000 years ago, named after the central texts that came to be seen as the ultimate source of wisdom and authority for this tradition. 

Image by manusama from Pixabay

After this Vedic Period, various Kingdoms rose and fell, using the authority and legitimacy conferred by this tradition to expand across the Indian subcontinent and into South-East Asia. As they expanded, so did the influence that Hinduism held over the people living in these lands. The tradition, as traditions do, evolved and incorporated numerous pantheons and traditions, giving Hinduism the massive variety of traditions that it is famous for. It became more of an amalgam of traditions, a loose shared identification that can be traced back to the legitimacy conferred by the authority of the Vedic texts and the Sanskrit language,

Evolution

Hinduism was pushed from politics by British colonisation. Who introduced a Euro-centric version of humanism and the organisational structure of the Nation-State. This involved the introduction of the term ‘religion’ into Indian society, which led to the categorisation and organisation of different groups; Hindu, Sikh, Jain; into the framework which was dominant in Europe. Naturally, this was often done in a way that benefited the British as the colonial power.

Image by naeim a from Pixabay

The transition placed the Hindu theological tradition at a crossroads that, for many, defines the impact of ‘modernity’. For its long history Hindu theology conceived of itself as cosmically central. At the hands of the British colonial powers this was proven to be false. This Copernican shift creates a crisis in identity as the Theological system seeks to redefine itself in the face of this inconvenient truth. Should it accept its relativisation and regional significance, tying itself solely to the Indian subcontinent; thereby relinquishing any strong claim to the relevance for the other people of the world. Or, should it embrace its cosmic scale and seek to share the wisdom that it holds at its core with the world; but at the same time relinquish its uniqueness, forcing itself into difficult conversations with the other great theological traditions of the world.

Current State

Hinduism seems to remain at this crossroads. Stuck between some who wish to build a Hindu Nation, and others who wish for Hinduism to expand as a Global Theology. The only thing that has changed is that this question has become even more pressing, and has in places spilled out into widespread political and social conflict. Currently the battle lines are drawn between the two main political parties that define Indian politics. 

The Indian National Congress Party, INC, was founded in 1885 and spearheaded the national independence movement against British colonial rule. Its most famous leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were instrumental in laying the foundations for what an independent Indian nation would look like. They envisioned one that was disconnected from Hinduism, rejecting the image of India as a ‘Hindu Nation’. The National Congress Party thus can be seen as answering the dilemma of modernity in a more globalist way; Hinduism is not solely for India, and Indians are not solely Hindu. 

‘Indian Flag in the Sky’ is from Wikimedia Commons

The other main party in Indian politics is the Bharatiya Janata Party, often abbreviated to BJP. The BJP was founded in 1980, but has its origin in the much older RSS organisation, which in some form or another can also be traced back to the times of British colonial rule. The BJP, and the RSS, are animated by Hindu Nationalism. This means that they embrace the regional relevance of Hinduism and argue that it should be seen as the sole basis for legitimate rule for any government on the Indian subcontinent. This means a re-definition of what it means to be Indian, tying it to specifically Hindu structures of authority and practices. I say re-definition because this runs counter to the Indian Constitution which was largely the work of those loyal to the INC.

There is widespread unrest in India at the moment because since the BJP came to power in 2014 there has been increasing moves to realise this vision of India as a Hindu Nation. This is seen most plainly in 2019 when the BJP passed two citizen amendment bills: the first took citizenship away from anyone who could not prove that they had it through official documentation; the second gave citizenship to all migrants from South Asia except for Muslims. Taken together this was widely seen as a move to strip millions of Muslims of their Indian citizenship, moving one step closer to making India a largely Hindu nation. 

Narendra Modi

Future

The future is difficult to predict, but based on other civilisational theologies such as China, there seems to be a growing rejection of the humanism that defines the current global order, making it easy for civilisational theologies to reassert their dominance over specific regions. More than this, it is very easy to make the argument that these civilisational theologies should be the basis for any claim to legitimacy of authority made by a governing body; both because of the historical precedent and the connection that can be made between the globalist opposition and the Imperial powers that they were reacting to.

This seems to be the current trend on the Indian subcontinent. That currently benefits the BJP and their quest for Hindu Nationalism, but over time that might not be the case. It seems that the question is not whether Hinduism will come to define the political theology of the region, in many ways it already is. The question is what form of Hinduism will come out on top; how will it treat minorities within the region, especially Muslims. These are not new issue, but with the amount of power and control over people’s lives that new technologies and national level political institutions wield, it is perhaps more pressing than ever.

Hinduism is one of the oldest Theological traditions in the world and it isn’t going anywhere. But the challenges that it faces are staying around as well. We hope that through these pages you’ve been able to grow in understanding of this great and ancient tradition. These pages are a constant work in progress, so as always please get in touch with us if you have any suggestions or corrections. We’d love to hear from you. Please also feel free to check out our other explorations of the great Theological traditions of the world.

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