Hinduism scholarship and research
On one view a Hindu is defined as someone born into a certain segment of south Asian society called a caste (jati). This is a complex topic. Traditionally Indian society comprised many castes graded in a hierarchy from the most pure (the priests or Brahmins) at the top of the purity scale to the most impure (the Dalits who used to be called ‘untouchables’) at the bottom. Impurity is a property that can be transmitted and is linked to certain jobs. Thus leather workers and cleaners are low caste because polluted by their work. Caste is still an important part of Indian society and is marked by two main features: there must be marriage within caste (endogamy) – marriage outside of a caste is generally forbidden or frowned upon – and traditionally food was only eaten together with other caste members (commensality). The ancient Veda describes a fourfold class (varna) system: the Priests or Brahmins, the Warriors - Kshatriyas who ruled, the Commoners - Vaishyas, and the Serfs - Sudras who served the other classes. The caste system is probably a development from this structure. While the emphasis on equality in the west makes the west suspicious of caste, many Hindus regard caste as a positive thing because it is a strong family support system and generates networking within society.
Hindus generally believe that the soul (atman or jiva) is reincarnated over and over again in different bodies according to its actions (karma). Thus good acts will lead to a good rebirth, bad acts to a bad rebirth (perhaps as an animal). The ultimate goal of life is liberation (moksha, the fourth goal of life) from this cycle of reincarnation called samsara. Liberation is gained through the grace of God or through one’s own efforts in ritual and yoga.
The form of worship recorded in the early Vedas is animal sacrifice to different gods, often of natural phenomena such as thunder, the dawn, and fire. These gods dwell at different levels of a hierarchical cosmos of three layers – earth, atmosphere and sky. The Upanishads interpret sacrifice to mean the knowledge that the self (atman) is identical with the absolute essence of the universe or brahman. During the first hundred years BCE and into the first millennium CE, theism develops and sacrifice is replaced by worship (puja) accompanied by devotion (bhakti) to God as the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of the universe.
Three main deities become the focus of worship:
- Vishnu, whose followers are called Vaishnavas. One of their main sacred books is the Bhagavad Gita the ‘song of the Lord’ which is now regarded as a pan-Hindu text somewhat akin in importance to the New Testament in Christianity.
- Shiva, whose followers are called Shaivas. Shaivism was very important as a state religion in medieval kingdoms and is now practised in many parts of India. Generally worship is performed to the Shiva Linga, a ‘phallic’ form of Shiva that most temples will contain.
- Devi whose followers are called Shaktas because they worship Shakti, the power of God. Shaktas worship gentle forms the Goddess such as Lakshmi or fierce forms such as Durga and Kali. In Calcutta goats are still sacrificed to Kali.
The term ‘Hindu’ is first used around the fifteenth century to demarcate one group of South Asians from Yavanas or Muslims. ‘Hinduism’ was coined in the nineteenth century and used by Hindu reformers, particularly Ram Mohan Roy to present Hinduism as a coherent, ethical religion of reason. Other Hindu reformers such as Vivekananda, following his teacher Ramakrishna, saw Hinduism as depicting one God with many different paths leading to the ultimate reality. Hinduism today is sometimes associated with nationalism and a political ideology that wishes to exclude ‘foreign influences’ from India.
Controversies and Misconceptions
In the past Hinduism was thought to be polytheistic because of the many deities. In one sense this is true (there are indeed many gods in India), but generally Hindus regard the different gods as manifestations of a single, supreme reality. The different images of the gods – Krishna, Shiva, Ganesha (the elephant headed god) embody the power of the deity.
There has been some controversy about the origins of Hinduism. In the 19th century scholars developed the idea that Aryans, noble ones, who composed the Veda came from outside of India and invaded the Indus Valley civilisation around 1500-1200 BCE. Some have questioned this, particularly, but not only the Hindu political right, arguing that this is a construction from the colonial period. The question is complex and while there is archaeological continuity from an early period, the linguistic evidence (that Sanskrit is related to Greek, Latin and other Indo-European languages) is so great that Aryan migrations (rather than invasions) over a long period into the sub-continent is generally accepted by most scholars. Hinduism might be seen as comprising two cultural and linguistic spheres, the Indo-Aryan languages and cultures in the North and the Dravidian languages and cultures in the South.
One tradition of Hinduism is non-dualistic (following from the 8th century philosopher Shankara) which means that there is only one reality in the universe with which everything is non-distinct (hence a-dvaita, non-duality). Many Hindus, however, believe in a God to whom devotion (bhakti) should be offered and who is distinct from the universe and different to the self.
Hinduism is rich in art, artefacts, and architecture. There are many images of gods with particular characteristics (Ganesha the elephant headed god, Krishna with his flute, Shiva with his trident or in the form of the Shiva Linga, the goddess of learning Sarasvati, with her musical instrument and books).
Hindu temples comprise a hall and a ‘tower’ below which the deity is housed (in the ‘womb room’ or garbha griha). Many Hindu temples have ornate decorations. One of the largest in the west is the Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden, London. This is the focus of not only the Swaminarayan community but other Hindu communities as well.
Scholarship and Research
While much scholarship on the texts of Hinduism has been done, particularly Sanskrit texts but also regional language such as Tamil, much still needs to be done. There is also a solid body of ethnographic research.
For a good basic introduction see Kim Knott Hinduism, A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 1998.) For a thematic and historical overview see Gavin Flood Introduction to Hinduism (CUP 1996). For anthropological studies of Hinduism see Chris Fuller The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India (Princeton UP 2009 (2nd ed)). Also see Julius Lipner Hindus (Routeldge, 2009 (2nd ed)).
For web sites see http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/
There is a large amount of scholarship on Hinduism in the major European languages of English, French and German. The origins of this scholarship are partly due to colonialism but not only. Heinrich Roth (1620-68) began European scholarship on Sanskrit and Sir William Jones (1746-1794) discovered that Sanskrit is related to Greek, Latin and other European languages and correctly hypothesised that they were from a common origin, now called Proto-Indo-European. Jones translated the ‘Laws of Manu’ (Manusmriti) into English along with the play Shakuntala by Kalidasa and the Vaishnava poem, the Gita Govinda by Jayadeva. After Jones, many chairs in Sanskrit were established in European universities, particularly in Germany. Sanskrit had from a very early period developed a sophisticated analysis of language encoded by Panini (4th cent BCE) which influenced the development of nineteenth and twentieth century Linguistics. The multi-volume Sanskrit-German dictionary by Bothlink and Roth and the shorter English summary by Monier Monier-Williams (1899) gave impetus to the study of Sanskrit texts. These dictionaries are still in use today.
The study of the Vedas, Sanskrit editions and some translations were made in the nineteenth and twentieth century although accurate editions of texts and good, complete critical translations are yet to be achieved. There is a good popular English translation of some hymns from the Rig Veda by Wendy Doniger (1981) and an excellent edition and English translation of the Upanishads by Patrick Olivelle (1998). The study and translation of the two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana are well underway with the Robert Goldman’s translation of the Ramayana in a projected seven volumes published by Princeton University Press (vols 1- 6, 1990-2009) and the Mahabharata is being translated by James Fitzgerald and other scholars, following from the translation by J.A.B. van Buitenen, published by Chicago University Press (vols 1-7, 1980-2004). Although there are some translations of the Puranas available, good, critical translations into European languages along with editions of the texts are a desideratum. But there are developments and the Puranas are also being critically edited and translated. For example, an early edition of the Skanda Purana is being edited under the direction of Hans Bakker (vol. 1. 1998, vol. 2. 2004).
The study of the tantric traditions has developed in the twentieth and twenty first centuries with the work of Alexis Sanderson and his students along with scholars in France (Helen Brunner, Lilian Silburn, Andre Padoux, Gerard Colas), India (Dominic Goodall et al at the Centre d’Indologie, Pondichery), Italy (R. Gnoli, R. Torella), Germany (Gerhard Oberhammer, Marion Rastelli, et al), and in the USA (Ronald Davidson, David White, Shaman Hatley). There are also translations and studies of Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions (e.g. Jan Gonda Vishnuism and Shivaism 1970) and studies of particular traditions (e.g. David Smith The Dance of Shiva, 2003; David Haberman Acting as a Way of Salvation, 2001, Mark Dyczkowski The Doctrine of Vibration, 1988). The study of Sanskrit and its cultural impact has been developed by Sheldon Pollock (The Language of the Gods, 2006) and an important study of Sanskrit knowledge systems in pre-colonial India is underway (Sheldon Pollock, Christopher Minkowski, P. O’Hanlon).
Scholarship on Hindu traditions in vernacular languages has also developed. The importance of Tamil religious literature, particularly the poetry of love and war, has been translated by George Hart III. K.V. Zvelebil and Norman Cutler have done exemplary work on the Tamil religious literature. A.K. Ramanujan has produced beautiful English renderings of Shaiva and Vaishnava devotional poetry particularly from Kannada. Malayalam literature is beginning to be exposed to critical scrutiny with the work of Rich Freeman, and northern devotional poetry, particularly of Kabir, has been undertaken by Linda Hess and others and John Smith has produced a study of the Pabuji epic.
Hindu and more broadly Indian philosophical literature is quite well represented in English translation and in good secondary sources, particularly the introductions to Indian philosophy by Ninian Smart, Arvind Sharma, M. Hiriyanna, C. Ram Prasad, and Jonardon Ganeri along with more detailed treatment of Indian philosophy by J.N. Mohanty, B.K. Matilal and in a more recent generation C. Ram Prasad, A. Chakrabarty, and Jonardon Ganeri. The excellent Journal of Indian Philosophy has been edited by Phyllis Granoff for many years.
There are many anthropological studies of Hindu communities and events such as pilgrimage. Of particular note is the classic study of caste by Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus (1966). This has been questioned by some scholars such as N. B. Dirks The Hollow Crown (1993) and Declan Quigley, The Interpretation of Caste (1993). There is a moving, early study of untouchability by Freeman called Untouchable (1979). A classic anthropological study of Tamil life is by M.N. Srinivasan The Remembered Village (1980) composed after losing his notes in a fire. Other excellent anthropological studies are M. Trawick Notes on Love in a Tamil Family (1992) and a study of the Ayyapan pilgrimage by E. Valentine Daniel Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way (1984).
Full bibliographical details of the above can be found in the bibliographies of the following works:
- Knott, Kim Hinduism, A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 1998).
- Flood, Gavin Introduction to Hinduism (CUP 1996).
- Flood, Gavin (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003)
- Fuller, Chris The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India (Princeton UP 2009 (2nd ed)).
- Ganeri, J. The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of the Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology (OUP, 2007).
- Lipner, Julius Hindus (Routledge, 2009 (2nd ed)).
- Michaels, Axel Hinduism Past and Present (Princeon UP, 2003).
- Ram Prasad, C. Eastern Philosophy (Cassell, 1995).