Preservation and Emergence: Hinduism's Role in the Public Sphere

Gavin FloodBy Gavin Flood

In talking about the future of Hinduism, one of the first problems we face is precisely what do we mean by the term? The actual word ‘Hinduism' is of fairly recent origin, only being coined in the 19th century. The term ‘Hindu' itself was coined in the 8th century C.E. in Persian sources to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslim ‘Hindus,' as Muslims settled in the Indus valley (in present day Pakistan). As a term of self-description by ‘Hindus,' the term only goes back to the 15th century.

When speaking of Hinduism we are then speaking of a number of traditions of text and practice that have developed into the contemporary religion. Predicting the future is, of course, always precarious but I would anticipate the continuing development of the ancient traditions along with the emergence of new forms of Hinduism, particularly global Hinduism connected with Hindu diaspora. Let us look briefly at traditional and modern Hinduism.

There are many traditions of Hinduism with great historical depth, particularly those focused on the deities Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess (Devi) as well as the brahmanical, Smarta tradition. These traditions face significant challenges as India becomes a thriving economy and nation with a developed infrastructure and cutting-edge technology. Many of the old forms of cultural knowledge, particularly the learning and recitation of textual sources, is becoming eroded as new generations are educated in modern ways and lose interest in traditional modes of learning.

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Yet despite the diminution of ritual and textual experts within the traditions, they have great tenacity and survive by adapting to modern conditions, to new technologies and new social attitudes, particular toward gender. For example, the Nambudri Brahmans of Kerala continue to pass their textual knowledge through the generations, and a modern school, the Tantra Vidya Peetham, has been established to teach young boys the old ritual traditions and how to become an officiating priest in a temple. The school is arguably not so much a sign of the erosion of tradition but rather of the ability of tradition to adapt to modern conditions. These institutions are still exclusively male but their future might be more open to modern gender equality. Religions associated with particular castes will also continue as long as caste remains a foundational social structure, which it arguably will.

Related to the preservation of tradition is the need to preserve the great heritage of India's manuscripts written on palm leaf or birch bark in the ancient languages of India, particularly Sanskrit and Tamil. Much of the textual heritage has been lost due to the manuscripts perishing in adverse conditions, but there are enterprises in India to preserve the texts for future generations such as the German-Nepal manuscript library in Nepal and the Centre d'Indologie in Pondicherry.

New forms of Hinduism also emerge. The sanatana dharma variety of Hinduism includes two global forms, one that is focused on a particular religious leader or guru (such as Satya Sai Baba) and another that is of a more general nature that wishes to unite Hinduism under a common banner of ‘eternal truth'. This kind of Hinduism sees all Hindu deities as manifestations of a single, transcendent power and all forms of Hinduism as leading to this one goal. Whether this more recent development will survive the test of time in the way that the traditions of Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess have done remains to be seen.

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.