A search for unity in a broad church

Makers of Modern Indian Religion in the Late Nineteenth Century - Seeking Bauls of Bengal - The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism - Indian Religions

May 14, 2004

Southern Asia has spawned or hosted myriad faiths, but Julius Lipner finds much common ground in our perception of these very different belief systems.

What unites this disparate group of books about Indian religions is a cluster of, at times, overlapping universals - universals that are a product of the critical and literary perceptions of a modern age.

To take Torkel Brekke's work first, his period spans the rise of modernity in India and Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then called) through the prismatic interventions largely of British rule. His focus is on representative activists and thinkers of three major Indian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Indeed, the confidence with which Brekke can impute the abstract "ism" to each of these three faiths is itself the result of 19th-century interactions between colonial political priorities and Indian/Sri Lankan initiatives. As we have come increasingly to appreciate, the colonial powers, to rule, needed to control - not least by stereotyping and classifying their subjects. Thus constrained, the South Asian intelligentsia took the opportunity to reinvent their faiths, many of them in the interests of an, at first imagined, national or religious unity. This eventually produced such generic descriptions as "Hindu", "Buddhist" and "Jain" as markers of an assumed religious identity, the contentious fallout of which haunts subcontinental politics to this day.

Brekke first provides a methodological backdrop: a consideration of three kinds of religious identity in the traditional Indian context, the "Brahminical" (based on placements of caste and stage of life); the devotional, which is described as "a matter of choice"; and that deriving from personal affiliation to a guru. This backdrop is painted with bold strokes - a characteristic of the book as a whole - without the finer nuancing that one might expect from what started life as a doctoral thesis, though Brekke notes that these distinctions represent a "multifaceted and intersecting array of social and religious identities". However, he is more interested in the fourth kind of identity, "a truly modern type of religious identity, one that was thought capable of forming the basis for a national identity", and via which, according to Brekke, the religious leaders he considers claimed made everybody within a community a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Jain. So here we have a universal "ascribed by birth and inclusive of all members of society".

In what follows, Brekke discusses the work of Swami Vivekananda, Anagarika Dharmapala and several Jain activists under the labels of "Hinduism", "Buddhism" and "Jainism" respectively, in the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The strength of these discussions is the author's plotting of the often-bold moves each of his subjects made to reconstruct his faith as a broad "church" capable of accommodating all who wished to join in the context of the religious, social and political modernising of the subcontinent under British rule. Each of these leaders took the initiative to seize the day; they were not passive agents just reacting to circumstance.

Thus we follow Vivekananda as he strove to create a Hinduism that could challenge, on the one hand, the Christianity and, on the other, the rationalism, of the day - a Hinduism that was the essence of true knowledge and thereby compatible with science, that consummated and assimilated in his reconstruction of traditional Advaitic (that is to say, monistic) thought, the plurality of what passed for Hindu belief among his compatriots, and that was "moral" in the way it redefined renunciation to include wholehearted engagement in political and charitable work. In the process, Vivekananda contributed to the shaping of a new meaning for the ancient Sanskrit term dharma , which became among Indian users of English more or less synonymous with "religion".

Similarly with Anagarika Dharmapala and his Jain counterparts: they brought Buddhist and Jain belief and practice in their respective milieux "up to date" by presenting their co-religionists with the ideal of a religion that engaged with the world but was not of it. Of particular interest in these discussions is the way Dharmapala sought to "territorialise" his version of Buddhism by a form of geopolity: symbolically (if not actually) reappropriating important Buddhist sites in India as markers of a concrete Buddhist identity, and the Jain attempts, with special reference to the tradition of Svetambara Jainism, to assert and prolong the separate identity of their historically important but tiny community.

We come now to Jeanne Openshaw's treatment of the so-called Bauls of Bengal. This work, the fruit of nearly two decades of fieldwork, is a model of careful scholarship expressed in clear, crisp yet nuanced prose. The Bauls played an important symbolic role in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Bengal (the vanguard of Indian nationalism) for a sort of return to Indianness, a rerooting in the national soil in terms of an idealised folk culture and indigenous spirituality. With immense skill, Openshaw traces and then debunks this mythic image, stripping away layers of accretion in the context of their tendentious development. Soon we are confronted, in all their frustrating complexity, with real-life "Bauls", or bartaman panthis as they call themselves, namely, men (predominantly) who rely on personal experience in pursuit of religious goals. Bartaman are opposed to anuman or reliance on hearsay, even scriptural hearsay, and the often second-hand lifestyle this generates.

Openshaw provides a fascinating analysis of the intricate thought-world and lifestyle of Bauls: their practice of the "four moons", namely the ritual (re)assimilation of tiny quantities of urine, faeces, menstrual fluids and the fluids produced in sexual intercourse in a way of life in which the woman partner is respected as the "completing element" of practice and belief, their resort to sandha-bhasa or encoded language in their conversation and songs to preserve secrecy, their "habit of relativising, opposing and subverting" the religious and cultural norms of conventional society, their "orientation towards material, immediate and perceptible realities, especially the body", their stress on individual autonomy in religious practice and so on. Thus what may appear to the observer as a discipline that is alien and even repellent in some respects, is, for the Bauls, a striving towards wholeness of self in the context of a "materialised version of non-dualism" since "the microcosm (the body) is identified with and imbued with the value of the macrocosm (the universe)".

Though on occasion Openshaw refers to the legacy of a particular Baul, Raj Khyapa, in her analysis, both "Hindus" and "Muslims" may be Bauls, who come from a variety of socioeconomic groups and walks of life. Indeed, the analysis throws these religious categories into question in wider context.

So, is there any place for a universal in this dense, sophisticated religio-anthropological study? "I hope to have shown," Openshaw writes, "that the critique offered by those who figure in this book... constitutes an opposition to all structures which divide person from person, not just caste. As such it constructs a universal around the category of the human being". Seeking Bauls of Bengal is a remarkable book, destined to become a landmark in the field.

Gavin Flood's edited collection, which deals with a religious tradition of vast complexity and ancient pedigree, might well raise expectations of another kind of universal, that of comprehensiveness of treatment. This is a tall order for a tradition as diverse as Hinduism, but adequacy of cover, it seems to me, must engage seriously, either methodologically or thematically, with the following features of a religion that resists the more familiar western moulds of the Abrahamic faiths: (i) the nature of Hinduism; (ii) basic models of belief and practice; (iii) the historical development of those traditions that characterise large segments of Hindus today; (iv) and the distinction between elite and popular forms.

No doubt there is much scope for originality of treatment under each of these headings, but it seems requisite in a work of this kind to engage seriously with them all.

On the whole, this anthology strives valiantly to succeed. Flood's introduction and the first two articles of part one ("Theoretical issues") tackle point (i) interestingly, although David Smith's extraordinary piece, "Orientalism and Hinduism" - while it makes some good points in defence of so-called Orientalist scholars of earlier generations - Jseems to end in a crescendo of impassioned assertion rather than sober argument. The 13 contributions to part two ("Text and tradition") deal variously with (ii), (iii) and (iv). The Vedas, Dharmasastras , Sanskrit epics and Puranas all find a place here, together with treatments of the Saiva, Vaisnava, Renouncer and Householder traditions, and there are essays on Tamil, Malayalam and north Indian Hindi literature. There are also two pieces on "Regional traditions" - the teyyam of Kerala and women's ritual devotions to Krishna in Benares - but one would expect more under this heading.

Moreover, some essays are so dense or technical in places that they do not fit easily into an introductory work (Michael Witzel on the Upanishads , Gérard Colas on Vaisnavism), while others lack contemporary relevance (Flood on Saivism and Patrick Olivelle on the Renouncer tradition).

Finally, there is nothing of substance, either here or elsewhere, on such key topics as the Goddess tradition(s), or the practice and rationale of pilgrimage or temple or domestic ritual.

Part three, "Systematic thought", which touches on (iii) and (iv), contains seven essays (with an introduction by Frits Staal) under two headings: "The Indian sciences" and "Philosophy and theology". There is a wealth of insight here, though some contributions are rather technical (Takao Hayashi on Indian mathematics, Staal's fascinating essay on the Sanskrit language, and Jonardon Ganeri's on the proper work of reason in Hinduism), and more care should have been given in the first instance to what is meant by "science" here (one of the essays contains "astrology" in its title).

Finally, part four ("Society, politics, and nation") deals with (i) and (iv) over five essays and does a good job of introducing the reader to modern Hindu politics (though why V. Narayanan's "Gender in a devotional universe" is placed in this part is not clear). All in all, this volume gives a broad and insightful survey of Hinduism in terms of contemporary scholarship.

Peter Heehs' Historical Reader is another worthwhile attempt in its effort to encompass Indian religion as spiritual experience within the covers of a single book. Under "Indian" he includes writings from not only Hinduism, but also from Jainism, Buddhism, Sufi Islam and the Sikh faith. "Hindu" readings include texts from the Vedas , the Bhagavad Gita , the Tantras , the Puranas , Samkhya, Yoga, the Vedanta and the bhakti movement. "Buddhism" has texts from Theravada and Mahayana traditions, while "Jainism" includes readings from the teachings of Mahavira and Jaina philosophy. Further, we hear from Indo-Persian and popular Sufism, and the Sikh gurus. Then there are such imponderables as the Bauls, the Mahasiddhas and the Sants, not to mention in a final and useful section, 12 mystics and poets of modern India. This diversity is all to the good, emphasising the fact that "Indian" has long included a wide range of faiths - though it is telling that there are no readings from Christianity, which has existed in the subcontinent for nearly two millennia, about twice as long as Islam.

Heehs' problem is that he relies on translations for his vast array of texts, and some of these read (and reflect the originals) better than others. Consequently, there is no way of gauging or comparing the liberties translators may have taken. The compiler provides introductions for the various sections and headings, and there is an index and glossary of terms.

Works such as these succeed when they dispel narrow-mindedness and inform.

Let us hope that this anthology does just that.

Julius Lipner is professor of Hinduism and the comparative study of religion, Cambridge University.

Makers of Modern Indian Religion in the Late Nineteenth Century

Author - Torkel Brekke
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 179
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 19 925236 X

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