Is Hinduism an Indian or Universal Religion?

Journal for Young Religious Studies

1What is commonly referred to as ›Hinduism‹ in public religious discourse today, on closer inspection, is a heterogeneous conglomerate of the most diverse religious currents. The traditions summarized under this term are so diverse that it is hardly possible to make general statements about them (cf. Jacobs 2010, 6). According to Richard King1 (1999a), the standardization and consolidation of the Indian religious landscape into a single ›world religion‹ took place in the 19th century under British colonial rule, among other things because Western actors2 did not recognize the diversity of the prevailing traditions due to their Judeo-Christian understanding of religion (cf. King 1999a, 90).

2For some time now, on the basis of these arguments, voices have been increasing in religious studies that speak out against the further use of Western concepts such as ›religion‹ or ›Hinduism‹ in relation to the Indian context. Examples include King Timothy Fitzgerald3 (2000) and the philosopher S. N. Balagangadhara4 (1994). King fears that the transfer of Western concepts to Indian traditions will contribute to their “westernization” (King 1999a, 101) and thus inflict “epistemic violence” (King 1999b, 180) on them.

3In this article, an alternative perspective on this problem is presented with the help of the appropriation concept of the ethnologist Hans Peter Hahn (2005). Using the example of the use of the term religion in India, it is argued that if Western concepts are adopted by non-European societies, their traditions will not be homogenized. Even in hegemonic conditions, actors who appropriate foreign cultural elements have creative leeway that enables an 'authentic' appropriation that is adapted to local conditions.

4Then it will be shown on the basis of two examples that the post- and post-colonial5 Hinduism discourse and its rejection of the term ›Hinduism‹ have already had an impact on the self-image of religious currents in India in a similar way as the colonial discourse of Western Orientalists. This is a reminder of the thesis that all forms of religious studies conceptualization can have an impact on the religions studied and that a mutual influence between researchers and those researched is inevitable.

5Hinduism is far less standardized and centralized than, for example, Roman Catholicism or Sunni Islam. In fact, it is so diverse that there is hardly anything that can be said in general terms about all the currents that are grouped under this category today. There is neither a founder figure nor generally recognized beliefs, texts, religious authorities or institutions (cf. Jacobs 2010, 6). Although some currents are similar or loosely connected to one another, others fight bitterly and mutually question their existence (cf. Knott 2009, 164). That is why what is now called ›Hinduism‹ can only be defined negatively in contrast to other traditions, as is the case in the Indian constitution.

6However, various scholars are critical of this approach, as it can lead, as in the example of the Indian constitution, to subsuming under the term ›Hinduism‹ religious traditions that do not see themselves as Hindu (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism; see King 1999b, 180). King warns, for example, that epistemic violence will be inflicted on smaller traditions if they are grouped under the umbrella term ›Hinduism‹, as this puts them under pressure to adapt and also lose the ability to define themselves. If this is the case, the South Asian religious landscape could lose diversity in the future because the subaltern currents would increasingly be assimilated by the more dominant traditions over the course of time (cf. King 1999b, 180).

7 As will be explained in more detail below, this fear is probably unfounded. However, it appears that Hinduism went through great changes at the time of British colonial rule. Up until the 19th century there was no generally applicable collective term for the religious currents in India. It is true that the Persians used the term »Hindu«To the inhabitants of the Indus Valley (cf. Becke 1996, 11), but it was also a foreign name and it is disputed whether this was used in an ethnic or religious sense.

8 Less controversial, however, is the fact that the suffixed term Hinduism first emerged in the 19th century during British colonial rule under the influence of western orientalists and was henceforth used as a term for a single, unified religious tradition (cf. Jacobs 2010, 6). How exactly this summary of the South Asian traditions came about and what part the ingenuity of the orientalists on the one hand, and the reality they found in India on the other, played a part in a controversial scientific discourse: proponents of the invention or construction thesis, their position In this essay, Richard King will exemplify, locate the focus of the unification of the Indian religious landscape to a single world religion in the 19th century. According to King, Western orientalists and missionaries imagined Hinduism during British colonial rule in conjunction with the Indian elite (»imaginative«) (Cf. King 1999a, 105). The author uses in his work Orientalism and Religion (King 1999a) the verbs »to construct" and "to invent«Synonymous, which indicates that he is not only starting from a new conceptualization of the Indian religious landscape by the Europeans, but from the new creation of a religion that did not previously exist in India.

According to King, this colonial construction and consolidation of the Indian religions into Hinduism occurred primarily for two reasons, both of which testify to a strong bias on the part of Western observers: On the one hand, because of their exclusivist Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, they were unable to explain how different religious communities participate rival deities could coexist peacefully without belonging to the same religion (cf. King 1999b, 174). On the other hand, Europeans in the 18th century only differentiated Christianity, Judaism and Islam from one another by name and grouped all other religions under the all-encompassing category of “paganism” (cf. King 1999b, 164). In addition, the amalgamation under a single category was in the interests of the colonial administration, since it simplified the colonial control and manipulation of the from now on unified ›Hindus‹ (cf. King 1999b, 174).

The fact that this conglomerate of heterogeneous traditions was inherently very contradictory was explained by the Orientalists by the fact that the traditions found only represented the corrupt shadow of a former high culture that has degenerated over time (cf. King 1999b, 174). Shaped by their Protestant worldview, the orientalists and missionaries suspected the core of this former high religion in the religious writings (cf. King 1999b, 166-167, 174). Aided by the colonial power imbalance, according to King, the British authors succeeded in spreading their views on Hinduism in India via various channels such as the media and educational institutions, so that the Indian religious landscape was permanently changed in a European sense (cf. King 1999b, 165-166) .

11In his work Orientalism and Religion King focuses heavily on British colonial rule and the 19th century. Critics of his approach point out, however, that the European conceptualization of ›Hinduism‹ began with the arrival of the first European missionaries in India. Elements of what would later become known under the term ›Hinduism‹ can already be found in her writings (cf. Sweetman 2003a, 154-157).

12 One of these critics is Will Sweetman 6. In his book Mapping Hinduism he argues that there are different stages of the European view of Hinduism, which are often ignored or at least greatly simplified by post-colonial authors like Richard King, who advocate the thesis of a construction during colonial rule (cf. Sweetman 2003a, 154). Gelders and Balagangadhara, who deal with the European representation of Hindu traditions, use documents from early Spanish and Portuguese missionaries from the 16th and 17th centuries to show that the first Christian visitors to India, unlike the later Orientalists, either one saw proto- or post-Christian space. The starting point for the perception of a proto-Christian India was the firm conviction that all still living humanity must descend from Noah, since according to the Old Testament only he and his family survived the great flood (cf. Gelders, and Balagangadhara 2011, 113) . Other missionaries, however, who described India as a post-Christian space, did so because they believed they recognized elements of Christianity (such as the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary or allusions to Christ (›Krishna‹)) in Indian religiosity (cf. Gelders and Balagangadhara 2011, 117-123).

13The European view of Hinduism therefore requires a differentiated view in terms of space and time and must by no means be standardized. It seems that the modern conception of Hinduism cannot be traced back to the ingenuity of Western authors alone. As will be explained in more detail below, it is more likely that it is based on a dialogical negotiation process that has taken place between various Western and Indian actors.

14For this reason, King's thesis should also be viewed critically, which states that until the 19th century, Europeans did not further differentiate between various non-European religions. Several authors recently pointed out that early missionaries such as Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656), Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719) and Marco della Tomba (1726-1803) recognized the plurality of the Indian religious landscape and even differentiated by name understood (see Sweetman 2003a, 159-161; Lorenzen 2006, 18-19). All of this seems to escape King because he focuses too much on the colonial era and thus loses sight of the heterogeneity and changes in European discourses. The same applies to the changes in the European concept of religion, as will be explained in more detail in the following chapter.

The following chapters will show how different authors understand the concept of religion and what conclusions they draw from it with regard to its applicability to non-European traditions. It is argued that some of the authors who are critical of the term see it as a static construct and ignore the continuous development of the term religion from the colonial era to the present.

The western concept of religion according to Richard King

King begins his remarks on the Western concept of religion with the early etymological considerations of the two Latin rhetoricians Cicero and Laktanz. Cicero spoke religio on the verb religere back, which can be translated as “tie back” or “read again”. So the term meant religio in the pre-Christian Roman Empire similar to ›Tradition of the rituals of the ancestors‹ and became almost synonymous with traditio (= Tradition) used. According to King, this indicates a pluralistic conception of what was understood as religion in Cicero's time, as different ethnic groups convey different cultural heritage (see King 1999a, 35-36).

17 In the 3rd century AD. the Christian apologist Laktanz explicitly contradicted this etymology and led religio on religious (= unite, connect) back. For him, religion represented a 'connection in faith', whereby he differentiated between 'worship of the truth' and 'superstition in falsehood'. Henceforth there was the possibility of differentiating between correct and false religions, a distinction that was made when using religio with the meaning of traditio would have been absurd, since traditions can neither be right nor wrong. This change in meaning is not due to lactance itself, but, according to King, reflects the general use of the term religion, with the emergence of Christianity and its monotheistic exclusivism ‘(cf. King 1999a, 36-37). According to King, this exclusivist definition has largely persisted to the present day. Accordingly, the word 'religion' still represents a Christian theological category today, which makes it difficult to apply the term to other traditions.

Since the term is loaded with Christian assumptions, when it is applied to other religions, Christianity acts as a guideline according to which the other religions have to orient themselves (cf. King 1999a, 39-40). Among other things because of the universal use of the term religion, according to King, religious studies have contributed to the construction of a small number of homogeneous, text-based world religions based on Western ideas (cf.King 1999a, 82), to which - as already explained above - the belongs to modern Hinduism.

Other religious concepts

19 Various authors support King's thesis that the transfer of the concept of religion to Hinduism is nonsensical or causes (irreversible) damage to Hindu currents through epistemic violence. This chapter uses the two authors Balagangadhara and Staal as an example to illustrate the most important argumentation patterns of the representatives of this position.

20Balagangadhara argues with the help of the following analogy: The Semitic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) are characterized by a set of characteristics that make them religions. He mentions beliefs by name (»creeds«), Belief in God, holy scriptures and sacred buildings (»churches«). He compares this with different machines: Both the photocopier and the locomotive are machines because they have one property in common, namely a motor. Although the ideas, writings and buildings differ in the religions mentioned above, which makes them distinguishable in the same way as the photocopier and the locomotive, they are, like the engine in the analogy, present in all three traditions. For this reason, these very different traditions (analogous to machines) can be summarized under the collective term ›religion‹ (cf. Balagangadhara 1994, 23-24).

Since the Indian traditions now lack the characteristics mentioned above, which according to Balagangadhara belong to a religion based on the Semitic model, these cannot be called 'religions' (cf. Balagangadhara 1994, 23-24; Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Illustration of Balagangadhara's analogy (own illustration based on Balagangadhara 1994, 23-24).

The Indologist Frits Staal argues similarly when he writes:

"Doctrines and beliefs are regarded as religious when they involve belief in a god or gods, in paradise and hell, salvation, and similar religious concepts that are characteristic of the three monotheistic religions of the West." (Staal 1989, 389)

23 Although Staal admits that this definition is somewhat narrow, and even plays with the idea of ​​interpreting the concept of religion a little broader and more flexibly, he also comes to the conclusion that ›religion‹ cannot be universal and is either discarded by science or its use should be restricted to the Abrahamic religions (cf. Sweetman 2003a, 43). In order to avoid this designation, Staal speaks from then on of ›Western‹ and ›non-Western traditions‹, whereby the first group differs from the second by the existence of doctrines and can therefore be described as religious. By juxtaposing western and non-western traditions, Staal implies that both groups can be assigned to the same category and compared with one another. However, he does not call this common category “religion” but “tradition” (cf. Sweetman 2003a, 45).

In both Balagangadhara and Staal we find a pattern of argumentation that occurs in a similar form with King and other scholars who speak out against the transfer of the concept of religion to South Asian traditions.In a first step, they define religion on the basis of specifically Christian or Abrahamic character traits, as if this approach were firmly established based on the history of the concept of religion in Europe, and then point out that the corresponding traits are not or only partially found in India. The problem is not the much criticized concept of religion as such, but rather the fact that it is viewed by the authors mentioned above as static and at the same time interpreted very narrowly (cf. Sweetman 2003a). An alternative view on this subject can be found in Will Sweetman.

Will Sweetman's concept of religion

25Sweetman agrees with the authors discussed above that the concept of religion does not result from the nature of things, and that the study of religions is still too much influenced by Christian assumptions even today. However, he sees precisely in the assertion that Hinduism is not a religion, a Christian influence precisely by those authors who vehemently oppose such an influence (cf. Sweetman 2003b, 330-331).

26For Sweetman it is clear that Hinduism cannot be called a religion as long as religion is substantially defined on the basis of specifically Christian (or Semitic) elements, such as a founding figure, uniform beliefs or an authoritative script. Such a definition has to be abandoned by religious studies if it has not already done so (cf. Sweetman 2003b, 333; 338). For this reason it is important to differentiate between the two different concepts “religion in the western sense” and the “western concept of religion”. According to Sweetman, "religion in the western sense" essentially describes the form of religion that the three monotheistic religions produced in the West. The “Western concept of religion”, on the other hand, is not to be equated with it, since historically speaking it developed from the criticism of these religions (especially Christianity) from the 16th century onwards and no longer corresponds to the self-definition of these religions (cf. Sweetman 2003b , 341; 349).

27 In contrast to King, Sweetman does not assume that the Europeans came to India with a preconceived concept of religion and that they constructed 'Hinduism' on the basis of this model. Rather, by means of the correspondence between various missionaries, he shows that both concepts (›religion‹ and ›Hinduism‹) developed in parallel and in close interaction with one another in the 17th century. The Jesuit missionary Roberto de Nobili already struggled with the difficulties of defining religion that arose from studying Indian traditions (cf. Sweetman 2001, 213-218). The resulting change in the Europeans' concept of religion had an impact on the self-image of Christianity and other religions. Or as the anthropologist van der Veer aptly put it:

“It is in the field of historical interaction, established by imperial expansion, that the category of religion receives its significance. One could therefore argue that the modern category of religion was constructed in imperial encounters during Western expansion and that it transformed both Christianity and other religions such as Hinduism and Islam. «(Van der Veer 2002, 176)

It can also be assumed that the definition of the term religion was not yet completed with the end of the colonial period. Even today, discussions about the recognition of various groups such as Scientology or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as ›religions‹ testify to the fact that the term is continuously negotiated and that it is constantly being adapted to social reality.

29 Authors such as King, Balagangadhara and Staal take this development of the concept of religion into account too little in their considerations. They themselves define religion based on the Christian model, which they criticize. The problem is less with the construct itself than with the fact that the authors forget that it is a construct that can also be changed (cf. Sweetman 2003b, 351).

There is no direct access to reality in religious studies. Religious scholars, too, have to use language as a medium to convey their ideas. However, all linguistic terms are nothing more than constructions that reflect the worldview in which they are formulated. It is therefore unavoidable that the application of the concept of religion that emerged in the West to the Indian context leads to distortions (cf. Sweetman 2003a, 165-166). The same also applies to concepts such as ›science‹, ›politics‹ or ›tradition‹.

The question that arises for religious studies is therefore: Is the concept of religion a useful analytical tool? The fact that many authors find it difficult to find a good alternative for the term religion (»the so-called religions«, »what is now called ›religious‹ tradition«Etc., see Sweetman 2003b, 344), is an indication that there is currently a lack of more suitable expressions.

As will be explained in the following chapter, the continued use of Western terms in religious studies need not necessarily lead to a “westernization” of non-European traditions. Even under hegemonic conditions, societies have a certain creative leeway in the appropriation of initially foreign cultural elements and concepts.

Up until the beginning of the 1990s, there was a consensus in cultural and social science research that with the diffusion of Western cultural elements, other cultures of Western society would become more and more similar. Above all, the Marxist perspective, which has also flowed into the post-colonial Hinduism discourse, described the non-Western societies primarily as victims of Western capitalist expansionist efforts. It was only with the deepening of empirical research into globalization processes that the strategies for maintaining independence, even in hegemonic conditions, were rediscovered (cf. Verne 2007, 229).

The thesis of the increasing westernization of the world, also known as the “homogenization thesis”, is increasingly being called into question in the cultural and social sciences (cf. Hahn 2005, 99-100). Instead, an attempt is made to investigate the local interpretations of global phenomena with a more detailed examination of the appropriating societies.7 In the post-colonial Hinduism discourse, however, this perspective falls short.

35 Authors, who, like Richard King, are shaped by the post-colonial paradigm, focus too strongly on colonial power relations and ignore the fact that the South Asian population, even under colonial rule, had a certain leeway to accept, reshape or even adopt concepts and ideas from the West 8 It therefore makes sense to introduce the action-oriented perspective of the concept of appropriation into this discourse. It makes it possible to view the exchange of ideas in the colonial era in a more differentiated way and not as a mere “homogenization” or “westernization” of non-Western societies.

The first theories on the diffusion of cultural elements, such as the diffusionism of the founder of the anthropogeography Friedrich Ratzel (1891) or the culture group theory of the archaeologist and ethnologist Leo Frobenius (1933), concentrate on the migration of cultural elements across cultural borders, with cultures still as independent and self-contained systems are considered. More recent globalization theories, such as hybridization and creolization, overcome this paradigm of static culture by focusing on the intermingling of cultural practices. However, like Richard King, they assume an automatic adaptation and neglect the perspective of action and the individual strategies of the local actors (cf. Schneider 2006, 19; Hahn 2008, 197).

37Hans Peter Hahn tries to close this gap with his draft of the appropriation concept. He not only wants to research the macro-sociological change of societies that receive cultural elements from other societies, but rather tries to show from the perspective of the appropriating protagonists how cultural elements are selected, transformed and integrated into the local society. It turns out that the appropriating population has opportunities to maintain a certain self-determination in the appropriation of cultural elements, even with a strong power gap (cf. Hahn 2008, 197), so that something as a result of the appropriation process through reinterpretation and reinterpretation of the originally foreign 'Authentic' local things are created.

Cultural appropriation according to Hahn

38 Today global goods, ideas, concepts and institutions are so widespread that almost every individual and every society is affected. The presence of these cultural elements alone does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about their significance within the society that has appropriated them (cf. Hahn 2005, 11). On closer inspection, the meaning and use of cultural elements that can be found in different societies around the globe are not the same everywhere, since they are appropriated differently by the actors in different places (cf. Dobler 2004, 360).

When a new cultural element enters a society, different patterns of meaning and use are conceivable. Only in the course of time will there be a consensus in society as a whole. Hahn describes this process of cultural appropriation in six steps (acceptance, transformation, naming, cultural transformation, incorporation and traditionalization; cf. Hahn 2005, 102-104), whereby he also states that this is not a linear process, and some steps can be left out or repeated several times (cf. Hahn 2004, 222).

40 Hahn originally designed his concept to explain the social change that goes hand in hand with the diffusion of material cultural goods. As will be explained in more detail below, his theory can also be applied to immaterial cultural elements such as ideas, concepts or definitions of religion

41At the beginning of every appropriation there is the adoption of a foreign cultural element. This is usually followed by a redesign, which can be of varying degrees. In the case of intangible cultural elements, the remodeling, for example by translating texts or terms into another language, which can open up new ranges of meaning. A prominent example of this is the translation of the Buddhist Sanskrit canon into Chinese, where the concept nirvāna (= Extinguishing) with the Taoist term dào (= Way) was equated. The same applies to the translation of the Vedic texts into European languages, in which terms such as moksha or ātman due to their cultural character, were translated with originally Christian terms such as enlightenment, redemption and soul.

42 As a result of the transformation, it can also lead to a renaming of the foreign thing10 come. With the new name, the foreign cultural element is assigned to an already existing class of things at the same time (cf. Hahn 2005, 103). In the appropriation of Indian traditions by the Europeans, this is shown, for example, in the fact that over time they have been added to the category of ›religions‹, a category that did not exist in this form in the South Asian region before the increased influence of European colonial powers had given.

43The renaming marks the beginning of the cultural transformation In this process, culture-specific meanings and uses are assigned to the external thing. In the case of material goods, for example, it is negotiated which population group (according to status, age or gender) may use them for what purpose (cf. Hahn 2005, 103). Even in the case of the immaterial, the cultural transformation offers the appropriators a scope for interpretation that enables new definitions.11 As soon as a social consensus has arisen on the attribution of meaning, a closure occurs and what was once foreign is perceived as being adapted to local conditions (cf. Hahn 2005, 103).

In addition to acquisition, cultural transformation is the only sub-step in the process of appropriation that takes place without exception in every appropriation. It seems to be impossible for a thing to be transferred from one society to another without new interpretations resulting from its assignment to an already existing system of worldview. Even if the appropriating subjects should consciously imitate the bringing society in using the new cultural element, closer inspection will show that something new has also arisen here (cf. Hahn 2005, 105).

45 According to Hahn, cultural transformation is the key to understanding social creativity, which explains why, despite the worldwide spread of the same consumer goods, ideas and concepts, cultural diversity will persist even in a globalized world (cf. Hahn 2004, 216- 217). This awareness of the creative appropriation of foreign cultural elements through cultural transformation is lacking in the authors mentioned above, who assume a one-sided construction of Hinduism by Western actors.

46 In the course of the - partly associated with the cultural transformation - Incorporation The appropriating subjects learn to use the foreign cultural element in everyday situations. It is about learning the ability to deal properly with the originally foreign. Whereby the 'correct' approach is not defined from the perspective of the delivering society, but rather by the new consensus in the recipient society. Through the process of incorporation, the behavioral patterns of the subjects change and this is accompanied by a change in the perception of one's own society. Patterns of action and thought that were previously considered normal can now suddenly be viewed as wrong, outdated or old-fashioned (cf. Hahn 2005, 103).

47This knowledge can also be transferred to the changes that European conceptions underwent during the colonial era. Hahn points out in his theory of cultural appropriation that Western concepts, such as the concept of religion, were probably not transferred unilaterally from Western actors to Indian ones during colonial rule. Rather, in view of the appropriation theory, it must be assumed that the various actors involved (missionaries, brahmins, orientalists, etc.) first renegotiated the term in a dialogical exchange process. A cultural transformation happened to him through the encounter with Indian traditions. In a second step, the newly defined concept was disseminated both in the West and in Asia and presumably adapted in a similar way to the respective circumstances before it was finally incorporated by a large part of the population (see Fig. 2). By adopting the new concept of religion, a new semantic category was now available to both Western and South Asian societies, with the help of which they could interpret their own traditions from a new perspective

Fig. 2: Schematic representation of the process of appropriating the concept of religion.

48After a long period of time a consensus has been formed in a society about its meaning and purposes, it can lead to a Traditionalization of the formerly foreign cultural element. Not everything that enters a society from outside is traditionalized, and even that which is traditional is subject to an often slow but constant change in meaning, which goes hand in hand with the intrinsic social change and the changes in society that are brought about by the appropriation of new foreign cultural elements . The acquisition process is therefore never complete. Meanings and purposes of use can change again and again over time and adapt to the context of the recipient society anew (cf. Hahn 2005, 106).

However, cultural elements that are transferred from one society to another also have an obstinacy that restricts the attribution of meaning and use for the appropriating subjects (cf. Spittler 2002, 17-18). The smaller the creative leeway, the less the cultural element can be adapted to the appropriating society, and the more the appropriators have to adapt to the foreign cultural element (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The process of appropriation, slightly modified according to Hahn (cf. 2005, 102).

In this context, the historical context and - with regard to India during colonial times - the power imbalance between the social actors must also be taken into account. Because especially in the case of immaterial things, which can be appropriated in very different ways, the bearers can influence the appropriation process to a certain extent through structural violence and thus reinforce the “stubbornness” of the cultural element.This reduces the creative scope for the recipients, which in turn entails a major change in the recipient society.

51This is one of the main reasons why the introduction of concepts such as 'Hinduism' or 'religion' in India led to a marked change in the religious landscape, and one of the central points which King sharply criticizes in his writings on this colonial exchange process. King ignores the fact that the result of the appropriation always represents a local interpretation of the formerly foreign, which is perceived by the appropriators as something local (cf. Hahn 2005, 103). It can therefore be assumed that the two terms “Hinduism” and “religion” are associated with different meanings and connotations in everyday Indian conversations than in Western academic discourse.13

52Scientific and popular concepts of ›religion‹ and ›Hinduism‹ interact in constant interaction with one another. As illustrated below using two examples of the appropriation of the post-colonial Hinduism discourse, there is much to suggest that this mutual influence is inevitable and would also take place in other scientific conceptualizations if, for example, Indian religions are no longer grouped under the term ›Hinduism‹ or referred to as 'traditions'.

The appropriation of the post-colonial Hinduism discourse

53Richard King writes in the conclusion to the fifth chapter of his work Orientalism and Religion The following regarding the essence of modern Hinduism:

“My thesis in this chapter has been that this› essence ‹did not exist (at least in the sense in which Western Orientalists and contemporary Hindu movements have tended to represent it) until it was invented in the nineteenth century. In so far as such conceptions of Indian culture and history prevail and the myth of ›Hinduism‹ persists, contemporary Indian identities remain subject to the influence of a Westernizing and neo-colonial (as opposed to truly postcolonial) Orientalism. «(King 1999a, 117)

With these words, King criticizes the fact that the European view of Hinduism shaped today's understanding of Indian identities. In the following I would like to argue that post-colonial religious studies research does not take place in a vacuum, but shapes the current Indian self-image in a similar way to the colonial discourse. Post-colonial and post-colonial paradigms of Hinduism research have long since arrived in India and have been adopted by younger ›Hindu‹ movements. For example, gurus such as Prabhupada (ISKCON) and Dayananda Saraswati explicitly rejected affiliation with Hinduism in the second half of the 20th century and instead sought a link to more 'traditional' - that is, pre-colonial Indian traditions that were not influenced by Europe.

55Prabhupada justified his rejection of the designation ›Hinduism‹ with the two arguments that ›Hindu‹ is on the one hand not an indigenous Indian term but a foreign name, and that his teaching of Krishna consciousness represents a universal system that stands above religions (cf. Neubert 2010, 32-33). Presumably because of this reasoning, the ISKCON website until 2003 said:

“Today the collective term Hinduism refers to all sorts of religious currents and traditions in India that are of Vedic origin. In this sense, the ISKCON is not a movement of Hinduism, but represents the original Krishna religion of the Vedic culture, from which the Hindu and Buddhist currents later developed. On the other hand, the Krishna religion is one of the main currents of Hinduism today and many millions of Hindus are devoted to Krishnas. "(ISKCON 2003)

This reflects the post-colonial scientific Hinduism discourse, which ISKCON creatively appropriated. The fact that ›Hindu‹ is a foreign name has been known since the 19th century, but representatives of this tradition such as Vivekananda and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi at the beginning of the 20th century were not bothered by it. It seems that more recent currents only began to distance themselves from the term when various public actors argued that even the teachings of modern Hinduism were a British construction.

57 Although Prabhupada rejected the term “Hinduism” and referred to a pre-colonial school of faith (cf. Prabhupada 1968), ISKCON cannot speak of a “traditional Indian movement”. Rather, it is a modern religious movement that ties in with old traditions but incorporates many new elements. Traditionally, it would not have been appropriate for an Indian swami to ignore the Brahmanic taboo and to cross the ›black waters‹ (the Indian Ocean) in order to initiate men and women and those without castes into the secrets of the Vedas all over the world in addition to men of certain castes ( see Wilke 2003, 324).

58 In the course of its development, ISKCON could not ignore the fact that, especially in the diaspora, a large number of Indians who visited ISKCON temples saw themselves as ›Hindu‹ - still shaped by the colonial Hinduism discourse. The globally active organization reacted to this by moving closer to ›Hindu ecumenism‹ after Prabhupada's death and ultimately accepting the term ›Hinduism‹ (cf. Neubert 2010, 33-34). ISKCON could not unconditionally appropriate the post-colonial discourse because the orientalist paradigm of the Hindu world religion was already anchored in many of their Indian devotees. She therefore had to find a creative way and create a new form of ›Hinduism‹, which on the one hand met the scientific discourse and on the other hand the needs of Indian devotees.

Another example of the appropriation of the post-colonial scientific discourse is Dayananda Saraswati's interpretation of Hinduism. Like Prabhupada, he distances himself from the modern understanding of Hinduism and sees himself as a representative of the original Vedic tradition. Nevertheless, he is also modern in the dissemination of his knowledge, which is expressed in the form of instruction, among other things, in a psychologization of his teachings (cf. Wilke 2003, 338-342).

60However, in his understanding of the Vedas he differs significantly from Prabhupada. While this is based on the dualistic Gaudiya Vishnuism of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and worships Krishna as a personal deity (cf. Prabhupada 1968), Dayananda Saraswati interprets the Vedas monistically in the Advaita tradition of Shankara (cf. Wilke 2003, 332). These two ›Hindu‹ movements are current examples of how, through the creative leeway in the appropriation process, different interpretations of the same object can endure even in a globalized world.

61 If King were correct in his thesis that the Indian traditions would be brought into line with one another through European influence, new teachings that differ so greatly from one another as those of Prabhupada and Dayananda Saraswati should not emerge today. With its action-oriented perspective, which sees the appropriators not just as plaything of external forces, but as acting subjects, Hahn's appropriation theory can explain precisely this.

All religions arise in a specific historical and social context that shapes them. Right from the start, their followers react to changes in this context by appropriating foreign cultural elements or by deliberately setting themselves apart from other traditions. This discursive process is not perceived as a compulsion by the believers, as it is to a large extent controlled by their own creativity. For this reason, it would be misleading to claim that something more 'authentic' emerges when attempts are made to counteract this tendency or to revive past traditions. Due to the changed social, historical and technological context in the 21st century, it is impossible for a South Asian to live his religion as it did in the 17th or 18th century.

Since religions always arise in interaction with their historical and social context, they are in a certain sense syncretistic from the start. Now, when modern Hinduism is called a construction, it is implied that pre-colonial 'Hinduism' was purer or more authentic. This, too, was merely the Indian answer to the context of the 18th century, which already differed considerably from the traditions of the early Vedic period.14 Certainly, the Indian traditions during the colonial period changed through various externally initiated changes, such as the transfer of the concept of religion or the summary of Indian traditions under the term ›Hinduism‹, are going through a major change. However, the social and cultural processes underlying this change are the same as in pre-colonial times.

64King seems normatively to understand ›post-colonial Hinduism‹ as something better than the so-called ›neo-Hinduism‹ of the colonial era. But how is this statement legitimized? Is ›post-colonial Hinduism‹ really closer to its pre-colonial predecessor? Or is it not much more shaped again by the ideas of predominantly western socialized scientists?

Even if the consensus prevailed in the scientific discourse that 'Hinduism' was abolished as a term and that Indian traditions were no longer to be called religions, India would not be reintroduced to the pre-1800 state, but something completely new emerge that reflects both the orientalist discourse of the colonial era and the post-colonial paradigm shift and adapts it to the context of the 21st century.

66 Fitzgerald, who is just as critical of the transfer of the concept of religion to Asian traditions as King (cf.Fitzgerald 2000), argues in one of his older publications that there is no unity between the various offshoots of a religious movement in different regions of the world, which is why, for example ISKCON in southern England is not the same as in Bengal or California. According to Fitzgerald, anyone who, according to Fitzgerald, does not study religions in their socio-historical context, but assumes that they transcend social groups, is shaped by an "essentialist theological concept" (cf. Fitzgerald 1990, 111). This observation can also be transferred to the use of terms such as ›religion‹ or ›Hinduism‹. It cannot be assumed that these mean the same in Punjab as in South India, in Suriname or in the Western-dominated discourse on religious studies. Anyone who argues in this way assumes that these words (significant) certain meanings (signifiés) are inherent. However, this is not the case. Rather, the attributions of meaning are shaped by the socio-historical context in which they are formulated, and they are renegotiated anew in each generation.

In order to get to the bottom of these local processes of appropriation, Hahn's concept presented above is suitable: With its action-oriented, actor-centered approach, it represents a good addition to the previous Hinduism discourse from one society to another, constantly opening up new scope for interpretation, with the help of which the foreign can be integrated into the local society.

Top of page