The Caravan has a piece up intended to inflame, The Hindu Hoax – How upper castes invented a Hindu majority. If you are a sudra or an avanra who believes in the Hindu religion the piece seems geared to denying you all agency or independence. You are a dupe, the victim of “false consciousness.” The Brahmins control you!
That is fine as far as it goes. I am not a Hindu or from a Hindu background. Instead of being offended, mostly I just roll my eyes. And yet I have to admit that twenty years ago I would have been interested in, perhaps even attracted to, the idea that “Hindu identity” or “Hindu religion” was “invented” in the past few centuries. It’s one of those counterintuitive “Freakonomics-style” facts that you can deploy for fun and rhetorical profit. “Actually, did you know….”
But after reading and thinking about this for a few decades, I think this is wrong. I don’t think this is wrong because of what I know about Hinduism, as such. I think this is wrong because of what I know about the spread of religion over history.
For many decades astronomers have been arguing about the existence of “planet X”, which is an undiscovered planet-sized object in the outer solar system which may need to exist to explain the orbits of the planets we can see. That is, we don’t have any evidence of this planet itself, but, we have evidence of its impacts on the other planets. Whether “planet X” exists is irrelevant. Every time I check the consensus seems to change. The point is your model of something can allow you to infer facts through deduction.
As many of you know, one of the mysteries and miracles of human history is how India maintained its religious uniqueness despite 500 years of predominant Islamic rule. In Iran, the best data suggests Muslims were a majority after 300 years. Egypt, it probably took a little longer, but 400 years seems right. I’ve written extensively on hypotheses why India was different. This post isn’t about that. Rather, the very persistence of a non-Muslim majority is indirect evidence of the religious character and identity of the people under Muslim rule.
The stylized fact that I see bandied around is that non-Brahmins, at more modestly Hindus who were not twice-born, had their own non-Hindu religious traditions. These local and indigenous traditions were bracketed into and assimilated as Hindu only within the last few centuries. Before that, it’s best to think of them as not Hindu at all. A conspiratorial and unflattering model is that Brahmins and their allies engaged in a massive re-identification and implicit conversion campaign against the pagan masses, who were as distinct from Brahmanical Hinduism as Muslims were.
The fundamental problem with this is in other areas the pagan and marginal people invariably defect and convert to an alien and novel new religion first. This is the Iran and Kashmir, model. Most of the non-Muslims remaining are of the priestly caste (this is the origin of the Parsis). The core of the old religion. But people on the margins or who were always outside of the boundary of pre-Islamic elite identity quickly switched to becoming Muslim. Turan, north of Iran proper, Islamicized more rapidly than Iran, because it was multireligious, to begin with. In the Roman Empire, nobles from the frontier provinces converted to Christianity faster from the inner core zone. The Roman and Iranian example actually has resonances to the Indian subcontinent, as one argument for early and pervasive Islamicization in the northwest and northeast (Punjab and Bengal) is that its Hindu matrix was weak to nonexistent at the time of the Muslim conquest.
Where am I going with this? If I was a believing Hindu, perhaps I would contend that the persistence of Hinduism in the face of Muslim domination is a function of the power of God and the gods protecting their people. It is a literal miracle. But I’m not a believer in religion. Another hypothesis is that India is the exception to the rule universal elsewhere. A mass of pagan people without any religious connection to a priestly caste (Brahmins) somehow maintained their identity and practices in the face of a dominating “higher religion” (Islam). Then, the cunning Brahmins during the colonial people convinced these non-Hindu pagans that they were actually Hindu!
Both scenarios are implausible to me. First, because there is probably no God in the first case. Second, because I’ve met Brahmins, and they aren’t that incredibly persuasive and Machiavellian. Rather, like “planet X”, I default to the thesis that there’s an identity, a self-conception, a set of beliefs and practices, which suffused itself through the matrix of indigenous Indian groups. Though there was some defection, for various reasons, the cultural matrix was strong enough to maintain itself down the modern period, when information technology and modern identity formation created something much more coherent. That cultural matrix is the precursor to Hinduism today. It wasn’t a conspiracy. Just a natural evolution.