An individual, who I have come to conclude is a troll after further comments (they are banned), mentioned offhand that Hinduism and/or Hindu identity is reactive Islam and the British, and that its origins are in the 19th century. This is a common assertion and presented recently by one of our podcast guests. I myself have entertained it in the past. It’s not prima facie crazy.
But I have come to conclude that this is not the right way to think about it. Or, more precisely, it misleads people on the nature of the dynamic of Indian religious identity and its deep origins. This is why I think Hindus themselves self-labeling ‘polytheists’ or ‘pagan’ can mislead people. Not because these are offensive terms. People can refer to themselves however they want. But these terms have particular relational resonances with other groups, periods, and peoples.
One can point to al-Biruni’s external observations about Indian religion, or Shijavi’s personal opinions in his correspondence, to make a case for Hinduism and Hindu identity (using both terms to avoid troll-semantic ripostes) being older than the 19th century. But this is not the argument that is strongest to me. I have spent many years and books reading about the cross-cultural emergence of religious identity, and its change, in places as diverse as Classical Rome, post-Arab conquest Iran, and 7th century Japan, to name a few places. Many of these places and times had local religious cults and practices. In all of these places, they were assimilated and absorbed into the intrusive “meta-ethnic” religion. In Rome, Tibet, and Japan, the religion had major initial setbacks, but eventually, the meta-ethnic “higher religion” came back and captured the elite.
In the modern world, we see massive Christianization, and to a lesser extent Islamicization, in Sub-Saharan African. The traditional religions persist, in particular in West Africa, but history is clearly against them. Importantly, most of the religious change occurred after the end of colonialization.
The relevance of this is clear. The Indian subcontinent would be an exception for all these above cases if the vast majority of people were unintegrated animists with only local religious cults. The precedent from Europe and the world of Islam is that Brahmins and a few other pan-Indian groups (e.g., Jains) would persist as religious minorities, while the vast majority converted to the newly introduced meta-ethnic religion.
There is another case where there was some resistance to meta-ethnic religions. That is China. Islam, Christianity, and Manichaeanism were present in Tang China by the 8th century at the latest. Manichaeanism was totally absorbed into the Chinese religious milieu by the 14th century, and Christianity disappeared multiple times before its permanent arrival with “Age of Discovery” Europeans (Nestorian Christians disappeared after the 9th century persecution of foreign religions, the Catholics who arrived with the Yuan were not present by the time the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century). Islam seems to be an exception, having transformed into an insulated religious group, but even in this case, there are plenty of cases of people of Muslim religion who seem to have assimilated into becoming Han. European ethnographers even discovered and documented several groups in the midst of such a transition before globalization “standardized” and “internationalized” Chinese-speaking Muslim practice and belief (Islam and Christianity seem to often melt into Pure Land Buddhism).
The exception to Chinese resistance to foreign religion is obviously Buddhism, the original “Western religion.” There are a few things to note about this. First, Buddhism introduced original ideological and institutional concepts into China, which were eventually influential or integrated into both Daoism and Neo-Confucianism to varying extents. Religious Daoism cannot be understood without the existence of Buddhism, and Chan and Zen Buddhism cannot be understood without the existence of religious Daoism. Similarly, Neo-Confucianism metaphysics is clearly Buddhist influenced.
Second, Buddhism was popularized by barbarian and semi-barbarian dynasties. It was clearly initially a way for non-Chinese elites in the period after the fall of the Han dynasty to legitimize their rule and domination through a sophisticated elite ideology unconnected to Confucianism. In the period between 650 and 850 AD Buddhism occupied a role in Chinese society analogous to what it came to occupy in Japan, Silla Korea, and Tibet: the dominant elite religion and ethos which bound together national identity. But eventually, after 850 it was “driven to the masses” and Neo-Confucianism became the elite ideology at the center of the Chinese state, with Buddhism simply being the most popular religious cult among many.
The key here though is that China had a binding elite religio-philosophical ethos before Buddhism, though it was lacking in some elements (e.g., a fleshed-out metaphysics and an institutional “third estate”).
Looping back to India, the persistence of non-Islamic identity among subalterns is a miracle in a cross-cultural context. Perhaps the Hindu gods exist, and they protected the indigenous religious traditions. But I do not think this is the case. Rather, the religion that came out of popular and elite strands of thought that we came to call Hinduism, which has philosophical schools such as Advaita, and popular local religious cults, did have coherence and self-identity across much of the subcontinent. The elite and the local were threaded together in some level of self-awareness.
This analysis, which is cross-cultural, leaves much unaccounted for. The persistence of non-Islamic identity in the Doab in particular requires an explanation in terms of mechanism. One could argue that the far south of India was not long enough under direct Islamic rule, though one might point out maritime Southeast Asia was never under direct Islamic rule, and the collapse of Majapahit in Java led to rapid nominal Islamicization of the populace after 1500, with a few indigenous Hindu religious minorities.
It also prompts us to ask: were Pakistan and eastern Bengal ever Hindu? Though there are other explanations for why these regions became Muslim while the Doab did not, this cross-cultural analysis does open the opportunity for the idea that the cultural identity which was strong in the middle and upper Gangetic plain was far weaker on the western and eastern periphery. Large Hindu minorities persisted in both regions into the modern era, but vast swaths of the peasantry converted to Islam, just as they did in Kashmir. The fact that Kashmir was obviously Hindu, and occupies an important role in elite Hinduism historically, suggests this may not be the right answer, but the argument above means we need to investigate the probabilities implied by the outcomes we see around us, not abstract ideas of what was.