Everyday Hinduism

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Joyce Flueckiger
Lived Religions
  • West Sussex, UK: 
    Wiley-Blackwell
    , May
     2015.
     256 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781405160216.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Although fine undergraduate textbooks on Hinduism certainly exist, Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger’s Everyday Hinduism is nevertheless a most welcome arrival on the scene. A number of lacunae in most existing Hinduism textbooks are filled by this work. Notably, while existing textbooks tend to focus almost exclusively on Hinduism as it is practiced in India, Flueckiger’s new book includes a significant amount of coverage of Hinduism as practiced in the United States, within the Hindu diaspora. This coverage is also not in any way “ghettoized” or segregated in Flueckiger’s work, but is integrated throughout, as appropriate to the topic under discussion. This feature of Everyday Hinduism addresses a concern that often arises among Hindus in North America–including, as Flueckiger notes, Hindu college students taking courses on Hinduism–namely, that they do not recognize the Hindu traditions that they practice in the scholarly work on these traditions that the academy produces. Flueckiger admirably finds the middle path. She does not elide the rich variety of Hindu traditions, going into topics that may often seem alien to American Hindus, such as caste and possession, and presenting Hinduism in its rich variety, to the extent that this is possible in a single short work. But she also does not simply dismiss her American Hindu interlocutors as ignorant of their own religion, but rather affirms that the diasporic practice of Hinduism is as valid as any village practice in rural India, and weaves diasporic practice throughout her presentation as one more version of the lived Hindu tradition.

Flueckiger’s approach—integrating diasporic Hinduism into the discussion instead of suggesting that it is somehow less “authentic” than the Hindu traditions of rural India—is one example of another welcome feature that pervades this text: the profound respect that the author gives to the self-understanding of Hindus in all settings, diasporic and Indian. Given the very sharp criticisms that have been leveled by some members of the diasporic Hindu community at the perceived—and not always wrongly perceived—flaws of academic scholarship on Hinduism, it is no small feat to present lived Hinduism in all of the rich variety in which it exists, while at the same time acknowledging that the Hinduism of these diasporic critics is also a real part of the picture. The Hindu whose picture of Hinduism has been shaped by Amar Chitra Katha comics and the televised Hindi Ramayan is as much a part of the tradition as the Hindu whose self-understanding has been shaped by village practices and oral traditions. Flueckiger threads this needle admirably.

Another great quality that characterizes this book is its clarity and engagingly readable style, both of which are important for communicating with and maintaining the attention of college students. The book’s intentional focus is lived practice—as the title indicates—and not so much the Hinduism of ancient and revered Sanskrit texts. As Flueckiger indicates, however, her intention for this book is not for it to serve as the single comprehensive source on Hinduism in a course on this tradition, but as a guide to lived practice, supplemented by readings from or about historical and textual sources. It would seem to serve that purpose very well, and this reviewer intends to incorporate it into his reading list for an introductory course on Indic religions in future semesters.

The author also shows a great deal of sensitivity with regard to terminology, going into the question of the meaning of terms like religion, dharma, and way of life that are often contested when applied to Hinduism. She also gives a clear sense of what she means by the term Hinduism itself, tackling the issues of the “construction” of Hindu identity and the continuity of Hindu traditions through time, again, with simplicity and clarity.

One terminological issue that is likely to be raised by at least some Hindus is the author’s use of the terms myth, mythology, and mythological. Many Hindus deploy these terms without any sense that they are at all problematic; but some Hindus see these terms, when applied to Hindu narrative traditions, as derogatory, given the popular meaning of myth as something that is untrue or that need not be taken seriously, as well as its etymological resonance with the Indic term mithya, meaning falsehood, or false consciousness. It is interesting to note that in the fine chapter on Hindu narrative, Flueckiger hardly uses the term myth at all (at least in comparison with other chapters). It would have been possible, it seems, to eschew this terminology altogether. If Flueckiger is deploying these terms because she finds them to be meaningful categories, some explanation of what, precisely, she means by myth, mythology, and mythological—a paragraph, or even a footnote—would be helpful: some indication of a narrative whose truth rests beyond its literal details. Again, it is fairly clear from the subtle, well-presented chapter on Hindu narrative that this is what Flueckiger intends. But it nevertheless stands as a likely objection from at least some Hindu readers.

It should also be noted that while Flueckiger does an excellent job of incorporating both Indian and diasporic Hindu practices and perspectives into this fine work, as in so many other textbooks on Hinduism, non-ethnically Indian or South Asian Hindus—who make up, according to a recent Pew poll, roughly seven percent of the Hindu community in the United States—remain invisible here. This is a lacuna that still remains to be taken up in future work on Hinduism in America, though work in this direction has begun in recent writing by Lola Williamson and Ann Gleig (such as in their edited volume, Homegrown Gurus, SUNY Press, 2013).

In short, this is a sensitive, richly detailed, deeply researched, and engagingly written introduction to Hinduism in practice, and is highly recommended both for college courses and for the interested lay reader.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffery D. Long is Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Elizabethtown College.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger is a Professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. She is the author of When the World Becomes Female: Guises of a South Indian Goddess (2013), In Amma’s Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India (2009), and Gender and Genre in the Folklore of Middle India (1996).

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