The limits of semantics; Hindus before Hinduism

When I was a 20-year old atheist I would read books on the philosophy of religion and explore arguments for and against the existence of god(s). Though I was never naive enough to think that just if people could be exposed to arguments against the argument for design people would be atheists, I wouldn’t have rejected it out of hand.

This is not a view I hold on to in any way because I believe religion as a social-cultural phenomenon is too complex and multi-faceted to reduce to a set of philosophical propositions. The “god of philosophers” ultimately misses the point of the reason so many people believe in god, and what sustain’s religion. But because the philosophers write the histories and dominate the priestly class, they have rewritten religion in their image.

A more complex view has to be brought to bear when we talk about ideas such as the “invention of Hinduism” by the British. If one limits the term “Hindu” to its utilization to point to a self-conscious and concise confessional community unitary across South Asia and disjoint from that of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc., then one can assent to the proposition that the “Hindu identity” was “invented” relatively late in history.

But this is a piss-poor resolution to understanding the dynamics of human cultural evolution in South Asia.

As I have noted before, 1,000 years ago al-Biruni presented and anthropological understanding of the religion of Hindus that is totally recognizable and comprehensible to us. I say here “religion of Hindus” because he was referring here to the people of India, Hindus, rather than a religion called Hinduism. This is a shading which refines the descriptions with more precision, but if you actually read al-Beruni you notice that the term “Hinduism” is pure semantic sugar. It doesn’t add much substance, though it tightens up the style. He clearly outlines a religious system and communal identities which we would recognize today as Hindu.

For the philosophers and intellectuals, religion can be reduced down to particular parameters. My own view is that when people say a “Western view” of religion, they are actually alluding to the conception that arose out of the Calvinist framework, which strongly informed the American conception in relation to church-state interaction (and, in some ways, modern atheism is the child of the demystified Calvinist cosmology). Even within the West, this highly rational, confessional, and individualistic, understanding of religion is an artifact of the past few centuries, and not normative across all Christian traditions and societies.

When it comes to this weblog the usage of terms always needs to be framed in the context of their times. If you speak of the “Sunni-Shia” conflict of the 7th-century, you need to realize this is highly anachronistic. Sunni Islam, as we understand it, only developed organically over the centuries in reaction to the claims of the party of Ali and his scions, those who became Shia. Similarly, if one talks about “Hindus” in the context of Maurya India, one realizes that one is bracketing a host of philosophical schools and religious sensibilities which are at variance with Buddhism and Jainism. One can argue whether the term “Hindu” is more or less informative, but one should also understand that one can extract significance from the term even before its 19-century maturation.*

* I would be personally cautious about using the word “Hindu” before the Gupta period, but think that it makes sense after that, even if there was no a self-conscious Hindu religion for many centuries after. Your mileage may vary.

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19 Replies to “The limits of semantics; Hindus before Hinduism”

  1. “I would be personally cautious about using the word “Hindu” before the Gupta period,”

    I feel that pre Gupta or post Gupta “Hindu-ism” didn’t change that much to really necessitate that difference. I think i know perhaps what you are alluding to (correct if if that’s not the case) . The Gupta’s period semi-codification of Hindu-ism in N-India through separate grants to Buddhist Viharas and temples. Their use of Hindu iconography to separate them from Buddhism etc. Also the later rise of Shankracharya who completed the job of separation. But in my view this are still only degrees of change and fundamentally it didn’t alter that much.

    In the South of India there was no Gupta empire to necessitate this changes and still going by your thesis we would also have to consider this age as the demarcation for “Hindu-ism” for S-India as well. Long story short apart from Gupta empire i dont see why this age should be considered as the period to demarcate. Happy if you could shed some light on it.

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    1. in general i think hinduism is best understood as a reaction sramaṇa critiques btwn 500 bc and 0 ad. same reason why i generally don’t use the word ‘judaism’ for the religion of the jews and hebrews before the early christian centuries. judaism can’t understood without its rxn/assimilation of zoroastrian, pagan, and yes, christian, ideas (someone in the comments ask about jews as a ‘gotcha’, and this is what i said at the time).

      i am also now much more wary of thinking that islam as we understand really existed before the abbasids…tho it’s more about ignorance that a counter-view.

      but i think it’s all made-up, so use whatever word you want. just make sure to be clear what you mean.

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  2. I feel that pre Gupta or post Gupta “Hindu-ism” didn’t change that much to really necessitate that difference.

    do you feel or know? i don’t give a shit about your feelings 😉

    tbh the ‘dates’ for hindu chronology are so fuzzy that it’s really hard to say. biruni is definitely a ‘hard date’ though. he outlines views of indian religion which are totally comprehensible to us.

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  3. On the whole, an agreeable line of thought , including Gupta period fulcrum take or leave few centuries..

    The main dividing line ‘Hinduism’ from pre-Hinduism is image worship of
    personal god both in temples and home, and elaborate ‘vedic’ justification for bhakti towards personal god.

    Few other observations. In the new Hinduism the ruler of the realm was thought of as an aspect of god. The new Hinduism basically arose in south India and south east Asia (that will set the cat among pigeons 🙂 )

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  4. The idea that Hinduism did not exist prior to the 1871 census is so difficult to defend… I don’t know why Hindu liberals and Western liberals insist on it with such vigor. Not only is the veracity of such a claim in serious doubt, which it is… it also seems to have considerable negative consequences. It allows Hindu nationalists to cast doubt on the other claims put forward by White/Hindu liberals, many of which have considerable merit.

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    1. This came up on a BP thread before, but Manu Devadevan’s recent A pre-history of hinduism suggests the 12th century as the genesis of distinct hereditary confessional identities, starting in the western deccan and spreading elsewhere. Haven’t made my way through the it yet , but it directly addresses one of the perennial topics here and would be really interesting to see what the commentariat make of it.

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      1. 12th century as the genesis of distinct hereditary confessional identities,

        well, i do know for a fact that the jati groups in the south seem way older than 800 years. closer to 2000 years (perhaps 1,500?).

        no idea how such endogamy could be maintained without a very strong ideological basis.

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        1. no idea how such endogamy could be maintained without a very strong ideological basis.

          Aren’t you doing exactly what you accuse philosophers of when you say “they have rewritten religion in their image.”?

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          1. Aren’t you doing exactly what you accuse philosophers of when you say “they have rewritten religion in their image.”?

            i don’t think so? layout your reasoning because it’s clearly not self-evident to me. (95% sure i didn’t mean what you think i mean, but i don’t really know what you think i mean)

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          2. Meaning (naive-conjecture), jAti and endogamy probably arose just from arguably evolution-sponsored human predisposition working out differently thanks to a peculiar geography and economy that supported ~30% of the world population in a (relatively of course) small territory, which might as well be related to a host of other phenomena that make India unique or pathological depending on your view – skinny fat gene, vegetarianism, etc.

            This endogamy might have rigidified by 2000 years ago because the same reasons had been operating, but had already been setting in for several centuries (AFAIR Greek writings also support this) and later didn’t give away due to “uncanny valley” kind of reasons.

            When people talk about “ideology” (which I read as “Hindu scriptures”) necessitating endogamy, as your comment seemed to, they are probably giving too much credit to long dead Hindu philosophers who were writing the socio-economico-evolutionary phenomenon “in their own image”. (In other words, varNa might have come, to an extent, from philosophers rewriting jAti in their image; of course this is conjectural).

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  5. froginthewell, i didn’t mean all that. from a population genetic perspective the extent of endogamy is really just not plausible is all. you don’t need that much intermarriage per generation to remove genetic differentiation. the endogamy seems greater than btwn ashkenazi jews and non-ashkenazi jews over the last 1,500 years.

    i’m at a loss to explain what could maintain such endogamy, but the norms in modern india seem to present an explanation.

    as for all the detail you imputed, yeah, i don’t know. not a big fan of the idea of ideology being so powerful tbh.

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    1. I think the notion of karma combined with soul migration and reincarnation may have been a very powerful force, yet simple enough for peasants to grasp: do your duties according to your caste’s strictures, otherwise you’ll be reborn as a cockroach. Once such a meme takes hold and spreads, it can’t be falsified either, at least in the absence of alternative powerful belief systems.

      What do you think?

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  6. I believe it is OK to attempt to define a broad period in history when a given religion acquired its currently recognizable form. However caution should be exercised in making too much fuss about a pre and post formative period demarcation of a given religion.

    For example, I do not remember anything revolutionary happening to the core philosophy of Hinduism in Gupta period that should warrant such a sharp demarcation of pre and post Gupta Hinduism.

    Tamil writer Jayamohan once described Hinduism as an aggregate religion. An aggregate religion will keep evolving naturally as new religious traditions keep getting assimilated in it, and older ones fade out. To some extent this is true of religions of the books too, because no living tradition can remain immune to the changing world around it.

    So if we keep insisting that Islam did not exist before Abbasids, then the problem arises – what should we call this pre-Abbasid religion. We can call it proto-Islam, or the religion of Arabs between post-pagan and pre-abbasid period, or whatever. Instead, won’t it be simpler, and probably closer to the mark to just call it Islam, and implicitly understand that since this was the formative period of Islam, the religion was necessarily different in look and feel from what is practiced as Islam today.

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    1. “For example, I do not remember anything revolutionary happening to the core philosophy of Hinduism in Gupta period that should warrant such a sharp demarcation of pre and post Gupta Hinduism.”

      Yeah that’s what i was alluding to too. Apart from rise of Shankracharya in the fag end of Gupta period, nothing major really happened vis-v Hinduism in that period. Ditto with solidifying of caste . Perhaps something sub terrain was happening which is not captured in the elite conversation (considering the gupta period is perhaps one of the few better recorded history of pre medieval India)

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      1. I think what happened during Gupta period was that Hinduism became the religion of rulers. (Perhaps the kings got bored of ascetic and moralistic Jainism and Buddhism). With state patronage, visible footprint of the religion increased (more temples, more idols). However I suspect the religious practices of the masses weren’t impacted much during this period.

        I believe a better demarcation can be made around the medieval Bhakti-movement period (~1500-1600 AD), during which the devotional aspect of Hinduism became prominent, and still remains so.

        But again, for a religion as complex as Hinduism, I would call them all mere milestones in a long evolutionary journey.

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        1. Well post Maurya and pre Kushans, lot of rulers have had Hinduism as the state religion. Even the later Kushans became Hindus while the later Guptas became Buddhist. I do agree that Guptas were perhaps like the most “Hindu-ized” of the lot.

          If Hinduism wasn’t a religion pre Gupta, its likely it wasn;t post Gupta too. That is true of the Bhakti movement too, considering Bhakti movement was in different times for different regions of India and it meant different things to these people of different regions. So 1500 -1600 could be true for N-India , while in the South the bhakti cult was already winding to a halt by this time.

          This mostly leaves us with only one period that;s pre and post Shankracharya, considering he was the only person who sort of differentiated Buddhism/Jainism with the others (Hindu-ism) in any articulate way. I dont know whether even his era could be seen as clear demarcation though.

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    2. So if we keep insisting that Islam did not exist before Abbasids, then the problem arises – what should we call this pre-Abbasid religion. We can call it proto-Islam, or the religion of Arabs between post-pagan and pre-abbasid period, or whatever. Instead, won’t it be simpler, and probably closer to the mark to just call it Islam, and implicitly understand that since this was the formative period of Islam, the religion was necessarily different in look and feel from what is practiced as Islam today.

      it wasn’t a continuous evolution. sunni islam as we understand it really formed btwn 850 and 1050 AD (end of any abbassid flirtation with the shia and rationalists to al-ghazali). the ‘islamic sciences’ emerge during this period, and begin to scaffold peoples’ lives.

      the islam of today is comprehensible in light of the islam of 1000 AD. the islam of 1000 AD is not nearly as comprehensible IMO to what ‘islam’ was beginning to be around 700 AD.

      i’d call it the ‘arab religion’ (which seems to have been a melange of syrian christian traditions, with accretions from judaism, sabianism, and zoroastrianism). islam as a universal religion with a strong self-identity aside form arabness is probably due to the entrance of converted peoples into the hauls of power during the abbassids.

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