Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is without question the most prominent, and arguably the most influential, of the figures associated with modern Hinduism. Gandhi points to one of the central tensions of modernity and Hinduism: on the one hand, Gandhi was a traditionalist, holding up the Bhagavad Gita as the pinnacle of Hinduism, singing the praises of a return to a unified, whole, pre-colonial India; on the other hand, though, Gandhi was radically progressive, advocating the destruction of caste, the tolerance for other religions, and the elevation of women. Indeed, Gandhi was assassinated by an orthodox Hindu who felt that he was undermining the religion.
In late 1992, an event took place in the sacred city of Ayodhya that would, for at least the next decade, have a profound effect on Hinduism in India. An angry mob of Hindus destroyed the Babri Masjid, a major Islamic mosque that the Hindus claim had been built on the very site where the Hindu god Rama was born. The actual destruction of the mosque was the culmination of years of dispute about the site, an argument that was largely fueled by a growing conservative, militant voice in Hinduism. Although it is not exactly correct to call this "Fundamentalism," this movement does have some aspects that make such a label appropriate.
These Hindus argue that India is a not only the home of Hinduism, but its exclusive domain, and they argue that other religious groups—Christians, and most of all Muslims—do not belong in India, which is a sacred, Hindu country. Furthermore, they assert that Hinduism is not simply a religion, not simply something does some of the time. Hinduism is an all-encompassing worldview, and thus should inform every aspect of Indian social and political life.
It would be wrong to think that Hinduism in the modern age can be easily or uniformly characterized. Certainly there are substantial challenges and, as a result, new developments. At the same time, however, practices and beliefs that have existed for thousands of years are maintained.
1. What is the Brahmo Samaj? How was it developed?
2. Who was Swami Vivekenanda?
3. Why was Gandhi controversial?