Sometimes in these comments or on social media, I see Hindus bemoan the passivity and weakness of their religion in the face of faiths with greater vigor and asabiyyah. This is such a common occurrence that I don’t often comment on it. But I have to say ironically that these sorts of comments exhibit a narrowness of perception, and a broader cultural involution, that typifies so many Hindus and is why they are often caught flatfooted against the partisans of other religions, usually Christianity and Islam.
First, there are 1.2 billion Hindus in the world. There is no near-term future where Hinduism will go extinct. And this number of Hindus is the very source of the religion’s likely rebirth: evolution operates upon heritable variation to drive adaptation and change. In a cultural sense, Hinduism has a great deal of variation, whether it be obscure ethnicities like the Cham Hindus of Vietnam, or the expansion of ISKCON around the world.
ISKCON itself is interesting because its reactions illustrate the weakness and likely end of some forms of Hinduism in the Diaspora, and likely ultimately in India itself. Though from what I can tell ISKCON does exhibit a level of unpalatable cultishness, some of its orthodox Indian Hindu critics exhibit a literal reactionary mindset that illustrates why many forms of this religion are not long for this world. After the hammer blow of Islam in the Indian subcontinent around 1200 AD Indian religious traditions, what we call Hinduism, nevertheless preserved and survived. This very fact illustrates a robustness that was lacking in Near Eastern Christianity and Zoroastrianism. But that survival likely depended upon particular Indian institutions, like jati-varna, that were decentralized and flexible in a manner that allowed Hinduism not to be decapitated in the same manner that Persian Christianity and Zoroastrianism were in the centuries after the Islamic conquest.
The centuries of dhimmitude transformed Hinduism into a far more Indian religion than it was in 500 AD. This may sound strange, but the genetic and cultural evidence are clear that a massive cultural extension of Hindu Indian civilization existed in Southeast Asia during this period. If Islam had not interposed itself, and India itself become part of the Dar-ul-Islam during the medieval period, it is quite plausible that a Hindu-Buddhism dharmic condominium may have emerged from the Indus to the Gulf of Tonkin over the last few thousand years.
But that is not what happened. At the same time as the Turco-Muslims invaded India maritime Southeast Asia began to realign itself with the Islamic international, a trade network that was beginning to dominate the Indian ocean. After 1500 most of the Hindu kingdoms collapsed and turned to Islam (with Bali and Champa being the exceptions). The geographic purview of the religions that ultimately drew from the Vedic traditions became constrained, and within India cultural adaptations emerged that allowed the religion to resist the stress tests of Islam.
The centuries after the fall of the Mughals the rise of the British, and now the rise to political domination by Hindutva, are creating new cultural configurations. Many Hindus retain the cultural mindset of the past, denying that Hinduism proselytizes when the very faces of the Balinese illustrate that this was not so in the past. These traditionalists assert jati-varna in a time when even within India inter-caste marriage is eroding the power of this communalism gradually but inevitably. They also deny that non-Indians can ever be genuinely authentically Hindu, even when those non-Indians oftentimes show a vigor of belief and practice that put Indians to the same.
Those who value purity above all else will slowly fade and diminish as they look back to the past. A new future comes, and we don’t know what it will be, but cultures are resilient.