Future of Hinduism
Preservation and Emergence: Hinduism's Role in the Public Sphere
One of the major challenges that Hinduism faces is the way it exists in the public sphere and the way it has been politicized in recent years. The term ‘Hindu' is often associated with communal politics in India. Cultural organizations such as the VHP and RSS have linked the term ‘Hindu' with a particular vision of India as a Hindu nation. The major political articulation of this was by the political party, the BJP, who were elected to office for a period of time. This view is at variance with the vision of India as a secular state that wishes to relegate religion (Hinduism) to the private realm and restrict the public realm purely to governance. On this secular view, religion should have no place in the public, political sphere.
Both these positions are products of modernity. On the one hand what might be called conservative, political Hinduism claims that religion should have a voice in the public sphere and should inform government policy; on the other the secularists reject religion in the public sphere on the grounds that it is undesirable when there is such a diverse range of religious voices in India and public religion has led to a terrible recent history of communal violence. These Indian issues have been exported to the Hindu diaspora, and Hinduism in America, for example, has come to have a strong voice in articulating a Hindu identity, often in conflict with the American academy, which it sees as a kind of neo-colonialism.
The issues here are complex. On the one hand, ideologies of religious exclusivism and intolerance, such as we have seen with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, express genuine concerns of people at what they perceive to be the erosion of their identity. On the other hand, the secularist critique of religion on rationalist grounds is in danger of not recognizing the legitimate concerns and voice of people who regard Hinduism as fundamental to who they are. In spite of recent voices critical of the application of ‘religion' to India, it seems to me that India continues to be, and will continue to be into the 21st century, a deeply religious and even pious, country. We will find in India a great diversity of religious voices and these voices need to be heard, and will be heard, in the public sphere alongside the voices of secular modernity. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Hinduism faces is finding communicative voices that express religious and traditional concerns in an articulate and rational manner that steers Hinduism away from the literalism and fundamentalism that have dogged other religions. These voices must be an equal match to Indian intellectual secularism; the voice of the Hindu intellectual is yet to be heard.
Gavin Flood is Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion at Oxford University. Professor Flood's main work has been on South Asian traditions, particularly Hindu Tantra, and he has research interests in sacred texts, phenomenology, asceticism, and theory and method in the study of religion. His published works include: An Introduction to Hinduism (Cambridge University Press, 1996); The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2004); and The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (Tauris, 2005). He is also the editor of The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003) and general editor of the Routledge series Studies in Tantric Traditions. His current research develops beyond India through re-visiting the idea of 'comparative religion' and in exploring the relation between self, text, and tradition across cultures.