In yesterday’s post, I discussed Philip Goldberg’s contention that “Eastern religions” (i.e., Hinduism and Buddhism) are science friendly. To support his argument, Goldberg relies on a very specific — and Westernized — understanding of these traditions. Yesterday’s post was devoted to the Western construction and consumption of Buddhism; today’s post will cover the highly problematic and contested category of “Hinduism.”
In his classic article “Constructions of Hinduism at the Nexus of History and Religion,” Robert Frykenberg (1993) notes that this category is recent and has a specific origin: “Hinduism as a single religion, which with the coming Swami Narendrath Datta Vivekananda to the First World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893, was gradually recognized and then elevated by liberally minded and eclectic Western clerics into the rank of a world religion.” Frykenberg, along with many other scholars, contends that “Hinduism was constructed, invented, or imagined by British scholars and colonial administrators in the nineteenth century and did not exist, in any meaningful sense, before this date” (Lorenzen 1999:630).
This imperial construction lead to an understanding of Hinduism that remains with us today:
This codification of an “official” or establishment Hinduism as a conceptual framework is one of the most remarkable legacies of the [British imperial administration]. The idea that “Hinduism” was a single and ancient religion gradually spread and solidified, becoming dominant and pervasive. In so doing, it created and perpetuated two accompanying myths. Both of these myths were expedient, if not essential, to the continued political integration of India (under the Raj); and both are no less expedient for the same political ends today.
First, and above all else, was the belief that Hinduism is a benign, “inclusivistic,” and singular religion, epitomizing all that is eclectic, syncretistic, and tolerant in human behavior, doctrine, and ritual; second was the belief that Hinduism, as the religion of India, represents (and hence should command allegiance from) the majority of India’s (if not all of South Asia’s) peoples.
The history (and current status) of hinduisms is of course far messier than this story suggests. This, however, was the starting point for the importation of Hinduism to the West, where it underwent additional transformations — all designed specifically to appeal to Western sensibilities and make Hinduism more palatable for Western consumption. These sensibilities are evident throughout Golderg’s article, in which he contends that Hinduism is akin to a science of consciousness and is a form of psychology.
What all this ignores — but is evident to any observer of “on the ground hinduisms” as practiced in India today — is that official or Westernized constructions of the many traditions that are flattened together as “Hinduism” captures little of the intensely theistic, ritualistic, and exclusivist aspects of Vedic beliefs. Whatever Hinduism might be, it involves far more than yoga, meditation, consciousness, and energy — those selected aspects of the faith that can be packaged and sold to Westerners (for a profit, and as science friendly).
None of this is to suggest there is not a Hindu religious tradition that has ancient roots and which revolves around various and diverse texts, rituals, gods, and beliefs. In “Who Invented Hinduism,” David Lorenzen (1999) makes a persuasive case for such a tradition and details its history. It is to suggest, however, that what is conceived as “Hinduism” in the West differs significantly from beliefs (and practices) in the East, which have little in common with science.