The family and Indian religion

November 5, 2004

Hinduism is a much contested term used to describe the wide range of religious beliefs and practices of more than 800 million people, most of whom live in India. While some regard Hinduism as diverse but coherent, others argue that because of the lack of any core (there is no founder, no single scripture, no central organisation), the sheer diversity of beliefs (Hinduism allows for atheism, polytheism and monotheism) and the variety of practices across social groups and regions, the term is almost meaningless.

Axel Michaels argues that his concept of the "identificatory habitus" offers a new solution to this question. But he uses the term to essentialise Hinduism and India. For example: "It [the habitus] is one, but not the only characteristically Indian way of thinking, feeling, and communicating, and is thus encountered by everyone who has dealt with India."

Indeed, a few sentences later, Michaels says: "Contrasts and tensions are endured more easily in India than can be accommodated by an analytical mind." (So much for India's much-vaunted - and equally essentialised - skills in maths, information technology and grammar.) I am not convinced that Michaels uses this concept other than for arguing that all people who live in India are bound to think in ways that make them Hindu. The main contribution of his concept of habitus is his strong emphasis on the joint or extended family, in particular his emphasis on descent.

Hinduism: Past and Present is reminiscent of a 19th-century work, with one section that lists all the major texts of Hinduism while the other reads like a gazetteer, listing its practices. The book is divided into three parts: the first lists all the major texts from the Vedas to the present; the second covers the life rituals; and the third is subdivided into two sections: one on space and time, the other on immortality.

With its encyclopaedic ambitions, this book is more suited for use as a reference work alongside other volumes, rather than as an introductory textbook for undergraduates, who would be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of detail.

However, for the more experienced reader, it is easy to find key information, which is explained exhaustively and well footnoted and has useful charts and tables throughout.

While Michaels argues that his work is not concerned with modern urban culture, the detailed listing of Sanskrit texts and the concentration on contemporary high-caste, mostly rural, practices squeezes out marginalised groups, urban groups, the diaspora and politicised Hindu nationalism.

Michaels does not look at new ways of thinking and forms of modernity that have reshaped Hinduism. There is almost no mention of Hinduism's interaction with any other religious group - including, notably, Muslims - nor how it is perceived by non-Westerners.

The English translation is often inelegant and occasionally incomprehensible. Transliteration is always hard going for non-Indologists (and the howler in the sandhi of Swaxminaxraxyan. will annoy them too).

This and the density of the information presented are initially off-putting, but the reader who perseveres will be rewarded with an unusually rich presentation of key material, making the book a distinctive and welcome addition to other introductory volumes on Hinduism.

Rachel Dwyer is reader in Indian studies and cinema, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Hinduism: Past and Present

Author - Axel Michaels
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 429
Price - £41.95 and £12.95
ISBN - 0 691 08952 3 and 08953 1

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