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Religion Library: Hinduism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

The debate over the merits of the Aryan Invasion Theory is embedded in a much larger controversy over whether the West, with its colonial legacy, should even attempt to represent Hinduism. Western scholars, many Indian (and western) critics argue, are so conditioned by colonial misrepresentations of Hinduism—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—that they cannot ever be anything but biased. These critiques argue that Hindus alone can properly describe and analyze the tradition.

The issues here will not go away anytime soon. One positive effect of these discussions and debates, however, is that it has forced many scholars in the West to be much more careful in their assumptions and representations of Hinduism, and to ask whether basic western (Christian) understandings of what religion is and what religion does really fits the Hindu context. Should European and American understandings of religion be taken as the norm? Should explanatory theories that are distinctly western—Freudian theories, say—be used to understand Hinduism? Or should scholars look to Hindu theories and Hindu explanations to understand the tradition?

Over the past two decades some (but certainly not all) historians and anthropologists in the West have addressed these questions and tried to be much more sensitive about perpetuating old stereotypes. Many have turned away from sweeping generalizations and looked instead at religion at the local, village level. Many western scholars have explicitly entered into dialogues with their Indian contemporaries. Although it may not be the case that scholarly depictions of Hinduism in the West are always more accurate than they have been in the past, they have at least become significantly more self-aware.


Study Questions:
1.     Describe the relationship between colonialism and the Aryan Invasion Theory.
2.     Why is Hinduism so fascinating to western scholars?
3.     Why could Hinduism's role as a “religion” be contested?

 

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