The religion of Hindus before Hinduism

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India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765 is a good read and I recommend it. But the author, Richard Eaton, is not a guru or a sheikh, and should not be taken as such.

A comment Eaton makes offhand several times is that the conflict between Turks and Indians should not be understood in confessional terms. This is a commonly asserted, and on some level, it reflects elements of the truth. Hindu Rajputs served under Muslims, and Turkic soldiers served under Hindus. You can’t reduce everything to confession.

But, it is clear that confession and civilizational identity did exist, and it was robust. Going from the specific to the general.

  1. A great deal of text given over to Man Singh’s glorification of his conquests as an Indian warrior, and his patronage of Indian religion, in particular Vaishnavism.
  2. Eaton highlights the rapid Indianization of practices and hegemonic motifs present among the Turks and Afghans who were born and raised in India. And yet despite the syncretistic tendencies which occurred, ultimately these ashraf elites remained identified as Muslims and often were pulled back to world-normative Islam over the generations.
  3. Vijayanagara persisted as a Hindu polity for three centuries. The cross-cultural analysis shows that recalcitrant pagan powers always convert to the religion of their enemies eventually. The leader of the pagan resistance in Saxony became a Christian. Pagan resistance to Christianity in Sweden, Lithuania, and ancient Rome were only temporary, as resistant lineages eventually were assimilated into the new order. Resistance to Buddhism in Japan and Tibet was initially violent, but futile. In iterative games, paganism is the eternal ‘beatable’ strategy.

The only point to posting this is that there is a common assertion that Hinduism as a religion or identity only emerged in the 19th century. I am now convinced that this confuses the name of the phenomenon for the phenomenon. The Indian religion of the Hindus was clearly bundled together in a way that allowed for their elite deployment as a meta-ethnic identity that separated them from the Turks and Afghans who ruled them. Similarly, the Islam of the Turks and Afghans (and variegated Ethiopians, Arabs, and Persians), separated them from the Indians whom they conquered to prevent full assimilation as an Indian elite with popular roots in early modernity.

There is a major issue where our conception of religion qua religion is conditioned on an intellectual revolution rooted in the Second Reformation of the Calvinists. But, I think it is important not to get carried away with this construct, and assert that Calvinist religion is qualitatively different from pre-Calvinist religion. I don’t think it is. Rather, it simply shifts some of the parameter values within the model. Similarly, the identity of a coherent Hindu Rashtra with a post-caste socio-religious identity is an invention of modernity, but its roots are ancient and indigenous, and not postcolonial fictions.

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Getting beyond the nerd understanding of religion

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Since about 2006 I’ve had to write the same post again and again due to the nature of my audience: religion is not the purview of technically oriented nerds, and technically oriented nerds just don’t “get” it intuitively. This is something that is relevant to me personally, because I am myself a technically oriented nerd, and I just don’t “get” religion.

A few years ago I was asking a co-worker whey he believed in ghosts, and he stated: “because I’m human.” This is actually a good response, as all societies have the sorts of supernatural beliefs that we might categorize under beliefs about gods, spirits, and demons. This is the cognitive raw material of religion, which is a universal feature of human cultures.

Do you believe this stuff???

A minority of people lack such intuitions. At least with any strength. I am definitely one of those. My realization that I was an atheist occurred when I was eight, as I thought for a few moments about the idea that God might not exist. At that moment I realized I did not think God existed, and, I also realized I hadn’t really thought about it before because religion was simply something I never really gave much thought to.

When I began to give more thought to religion when I was a teenager in the 1990s it was due to its cultural salience. By this, I mean two things. First, the rise of Islamic terrorism and political violence. Second, the emergence of the Christian Right in the United States. In my personal and private life, I had many conservative Christian friends and would engage them in the discussion from my atheistic vantage point.

Between 1995 and 2005 I went through a “Richard Dawkins” phase. As it happens, I met Dawkins casually in 1995 at a talk and had been reading his biology works. I was not particularly interested in his religious commentary. Rather, I read books such as Atheism: A Philosophical Justification or relevant portions of Summa Theologica. I plumbed the depths of ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments. I engaged with the works of men such as Norman Malcolm and Richard Swinburne.

Continue reading “Getting beyond the nerd understanding of religion”

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Why Hinduism is not inchoate paganism

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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.

Continue reading “Why Hinduism is not inchoate paganism”

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Looking to the east: a different secularism than the West

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Why Hagia Sophia, Turkey And The Charismatic Figure Of Erdogan Bristle With Resonances For India:

The Hagia Sophia reconversion ultimately points to the failure of the Kemalist project of top-down secularism. Much like the state secularism of nationalist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Iran, Iraq etc had failed to lead to the secularisation of the wider society, it seems Turkey is no longer the exception it was long hoped to be. More fundamentally, the failing secularism of Turkey and India begs the question: is secularism even possible in non-Christian/non-Western societies? Without the Western experiences of Reformation and the Enlightenment, hard-fought victories as they were, can non-Western societies value the principles of freedom and secularism? Why is it that, unlike in the West where democratisation and secularism went hand in hand, greater democratisation has seemed to only bring religious chauvinism in India and Turkey?

Too often non-white intellectuals, in particular those from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, look only to Europe as their historical exemplars.

There is a legitimate argument that secularism in the Westphalian nation-state context, and using the model of the American republic, is the contingent outcome of the Reformation, and in particular Radical Protestant anti-state sentiment as well as Calvinist disenchantment with the world, and the sieve of the Enlightenment. But I don’t think this is what the author meant. Rather, I think the author is highlighting the importance of religious identity across the world.

In India and Islamic societies, your religion defines you in a very deep way. Religion and state have been deeply connected. The American and French models are objects of emulation but from a deeply alien tradition.

But these are not the only models and outcomes. China, Korea, and Japan are all societies where public religious identity is not nearly as important as it is in the Indian subcontinent and the world of Islam. I am not saying that people in East Asia are not religious or do not have supernatural beliefs. On the whole, they are less religious and more atheistic. But looking at religious affiliation numbers overstates this truth.

Rather, these are societies where religion does not dominate public political life because they have a particular history with organized religion which subordinates it to the political life of the society and nation.

Let me give three examples

– In the 9th century, the Tang dynasty expropriated property from Buddhist monasteries and defrocked monks and nuns. This is due to the fact that Buddhism was starting to become as powerful in China as the Catholic Church was to become in Europe.

– In the 15th century, the Joseon dynasty of Korea suppressed Buddhism in cities and drove the religion to the mountains. The percentage of Buddhists in Korea has actually increased in the 20th century for this reason.

– In the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga broke the power of Buddhist monasteries, in part by burning the down.

There is a history out there that is not European. Read some books.

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On Being Hindu in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

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Most readers of this weblog will already know this story. Far more than I do at least: Construction work at Hindu temple site in Islamabad halted. This part jumped out at me:

The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), an ally of Prime Minister Khan’s ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf recently opposed the construction of the temple by claiming that it was “against the spirit of Islam.”

Let’s be frank: isn’t this correct?

Religions are what people make of them, and there are some latitudinarian Muslims who would object to the assertion that the building of a Hindu temple was “against the spirit of Islam.” But historically this action, the obstruction of the building (and repairing) of religious buildings of minority communities has been normative in many Muslim majority societies. Egyptians Copts, for example, have long had to obtain very high level dispensations to repair their churches.

The basic theory from what I recall from Islamic jurists is that minority communities under the protection of Islamic rulers were tolerated, but they need not be encouraged. Their religious liberties were provided at sufferance, and that was enough.

The issue with Hinduism is even deeper: Hinduism is rather explicit in that it is a form of shirk. Whether you conceive of your Hinduism as fundamentally monotheistic or polytheistic, from a Muslim perceived it is polytheistic, and therefore an abomination. The Pakistani polity is illiberal in its behavior, but it is operating squarely within the orthodox parameters of Islamic accommodation to some level of religious pluralism, which combines subordination with delimiting the purview of minority religious beliefs and practices.

This is not limited to Islam, as some readers will be aware that Late Antique pagan practice slowly reconfigured its outline into a shape less offensive to Christianity as the price of toleration (e.g., public animal sacrifice disappeared). In Indonesia Buddhism and Hinduism are both explicitly monotheistic religions, so as not to offend Islamic sensibilities (though in Indonesia Muslims can also convert to Christianity or Hinduism legally, unlike many Muslim nations).

What’s the solution to this illiberality? In the long term, the only answer is greater secularization. As long as orthodox Islam, looking back to the past remains central to Pakistani identity I can’t see any other reaction to the attempt by Hindus to practice and express their religion in the public domain, as opposed to private practice.

Note: There is a long tradition in Abrahamic religions which believes that the gods of polytheistic faiths are actually devils and demons. This is one reason that Christians in Korea have attacked Buddhist statues, and Muslims in Pakistan are expressing horror at the building of a temple to Krishna, who they believe to be a demon who actually exists.

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Resilience in the face of religious change

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Recently my friend Josiah Neely mentioned offhand how in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon argued that one reason paganism couldn’t reverse the tide of Christianity is that once a society or individual became Christian and ceased pagan practice, there wasn’t a good roadmap on how to reembrace the old traditions. In contrast, Christianity’s ideological content meant that even if there was a period of apostasy or public cessation of practice, ideological continuity could be maintained.

To be more explicit and extend the argument, I think the key is that there was a class of religious professionals who were devoted in a deep way to the ideological content of Christianity. If, as occurred in Britain and the Balkans, Christianity collapsed, they would endeavor to reconvert the populace, as they did.

There are other cases of this. Han Yu was a Confucian scholar who denounced Buddhism in the year 800 A.D. during the Tang dynasty. This period, between 600 and 900 A.D. was the “high water” point of public state Buddhism in China. But there always remained an alternative tradition of Chinese scholars and officials who were expositors Confucianism. Eventually, these people “recaptured” China during the Song dynasty for Confucianism, and Buddhism became a religion of the popular people and not the state.

As I said elsewhere, this may explain the persistence of Hinduism. Hinduism, like Greco-Roman paganism, is diverse and variegated. But unlike Greco-Roman paganism, there seems to have been a dynamic and reciprocal tension between philosophy and folk religion, mediated by Brahmins. Greco-Roman paganism was fundamentally an expression of ethnicity and identity. Tradition and custom. Greco-Roman metaphysics was the purview of secular philosophers. Hinduism is arguably more fused, and this may have given it more robustness.

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The gods of place

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Two books recently have made me wonder about the insights into the development of religion and culture in the Indian subcontinent. The Final Pagan Generation: Rome’s Unexpected Path to Christianity explicitly makes an analogy to local Hindu gods and shrines to allow us to conceptualize what pre-Christian Roman religion was like. The whole city was the purview of the gods, and their presence pervaded the world. The Final Pagan Generation notes that even though the attack on grand public temples such as the Serapion at the end of the 4th century are salient and notable, even 100 years later Christian mobs were able to collect thousands of items of religious significance through Alexandria.

Recently I have been reading The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. The author notes that though the great traditions of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, warrant public notice, the reality is that pre-modern Chinese religion was dominated by local gods, with numerous temples to the gods of a particular city, or a particular profession. Reviled as “superstition” in the early 20th century, these local gods and their shrines were torn down and destroyed first by the Nationalists, and later the Communists. 21st century China has only slowly been allow for the reemergence of this religious substrate.

One could argue that Abrahamic religions lack these organically developed local twists. But this is actually not true, as for Catholic Catholics saints and relics are a critical intermediary layer in their religious institution, and within many forms of Islam, the shrines of saints are critical. Rather, particular forms of Protestant Christianity and Salafist Islam are peculiar in their abstraction and rational decoupling from place.

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Cultural evolution at work!

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‘God Will Protect Us’: Coronavirus Spreads Through an Already Struggling Pakistan:

And the extremist clerics who often heckle or march against the civilian government, with the tacit approval of the military, are refusing to help. They largely ignored Mr. Khan’s call to limit Friday prayer gatherings. And even after the military deployed to try to enforce a lockdown, several clerics made videos that went viral in recent days, urging Pakistanis to come back to the mosques to worship.

To avoid mosques on Fridays would only invite God’s wrath at a time when people need his mercy, the clerics warned.

“We cannot skip Friday prayers because of fears of coronavirus,” said Shabbir Chand, a trader who attended a packed service in Karachi, the country’s biggest city. “Instead, we should gather in even larger numbers in mosques to pray to God to protect us from this fatal disease.”

One of the major aspects of Islam that some Hindu nationalists are obviously jealous of is its seeming unitary cohesion. A hadith attributed to Muhammad is that “the Ummah shall not agree upon error.” And Muslims famously come together weekly to pray together.

But in a time of coronavirus, the fractured and somewhat antisocial aspect of Hindu religion may have some benefits.

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The rise of Islam after 1500 in the Indian subcontinent

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For me, Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760, is the best analysis of the peculiar spatial distribution of religion in South Asia today. This is not because Eaton’s work is without flaw, or beyond reproach. It is because few have made as concerted an effort to analyze this issue in a dispassionate manner.

The map to the right shows the proportion of Muslims within united Bengal in ~1870 by region. The outlines of Bangladesh and West Bengal are already clear. That being said, one feature that seems clear is that the more marginal areas are curiously mostly Muslim (e.g., the far southeast). Eaton’s broad argument, following upon others, is a consequence of the fact that these areas came under intensive cultivation only during the Mughal period, and therefore under the aegis of Muslim elites. Therefore, the local peasantry took up a nominal Muslim identity as a matter of course. To reinforce the mechanism, Eaton points out that there are noted cases of villages founded by Hindu zamindars in the east where Hindu shrines were built, and the peasants nominally adhered to the sect of Hinduism professed by the zamindar.

The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760 is fully available online. I encourage you to read it. One thing that is now clearer to me again after reading it is that Islam as a religious identity of the peasantry of eastern Bengal is a notable feature only after the Mughal conquest of 1576. Visitors to Bengal from other regions before this date mention Muslims only as residents of cities and towns. Additionally, these Muslims often have some foreign connection, whether it be Afghan, Turk, or Persian. As far as the rural people go, none are mentioned as Muslim. Some of them described in eastern Bengal also seem likely to have been Tibeto-Burman in origin. They are described as “beardless”, and Muslim commentators assert they are neither the religion of India nor are they Muslims.

After 1600 visitors began to observe large numbers of Muslims in places such as the lands on either side of the Meghna river. In contrast, observers of the Hooghly basin note that all the inhabitants are Hindus (e.g., a Jesuit declares they are all “idolaters”).

In another paper Eaton analyzes Punjab. While the Islamicization of Bengal was driven by small mosques and shrines in newly founded hamlets, Eaton argues that in western Punjab Islamcization was driven by the transition of pastoralist Jatts to farming, and their settlement around charismatic Sufi shrines. But, he presents data that suggests that this process of Islamization was gradual and somewhat later than the present-day Muslims assert. Siyal Jatts of Jhang in northern Punjab assert they have been Muslim since 1250. But a record of names of notables from this community suggests this is unlikely.

Islamicization began in the period between 1400 and 1500. But the shift from Punjabi names to self-conscious Muslim names did not complete in totality until 400 years had passed.

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