By Jeremy Hanes
Religion in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka), informs the lives of the roughly 1.9 billion people who live there today. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are major players in South Asia, not to mention the Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—that have flourished there for centuries. Factoring in diasporic communities outside South Asia and converts to South Asian religions worldwide, the religions of the subcontinent have an enormous impact throughout the world.
Recent work on religions from South Asia draws on textual studies and critiques of Orientalism and colonial attitudes lingering in the field, to recent ethnographies in modern cities and online. While there are a multitude of approaches in the field, from ethnography and interreligious case studies of marginalized communities to new manuscripts and translations of texts from regional languages, the volumes noted here attempt to understand both the past and the influence of global forces on religions, even at the village level.
Overviews and Textbooks
Many overviews of South Asian religions allude to the colonial construction of “world religions” and how religion on the ground might differ from textual depictions. Religions of India: An Introduction, 2nd Edition, edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene R. Thursby, offers a broad perspective on the subject. As reviewer Anjeanette LeBoeuf says, this work is an “invaluable resource” that recognizes “ the tentative nature of making a generalized chapter on religious systems that host hundreds of different ways of understanding and experiencing these religious traditions.”
Manu V. Devadevan approaches the constructed nature of the discipline directly—though here focused on a single religious tradition—in A Prehistory of Hinduism. Devadevan balances the ways Hinduism has been constructed, reviewer Herman Tull argues, with a recognition that we can “engage Hinduism as a something even though it was and is still shaped by discourses of power.” While many populations would only later call themselves “Hindus,” this work argues there is at least an ideal of connections from which South Asian religious practitioners and thinkers would later work to build this “something” called Hinduism.
The study of religion and philosophy of religion brings South Asian materials into conversation with other traditions. Roy W. Perrett’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy brings an analytic approach to philosophy to new translations of South Asian primary sources and has been reviewed by Swami Narasimhananda. Perrett offers thematic discussions that draw on a single topic—“value, knowledge, reasoning, word, world, self and ultimates”—from a range of different schools of thought. This study attempts to place South Asian epistemes of reasoning and logic in conversation with other traditions of philosophy without resorting to a paradigm dividing philosophical from religious concerns.
The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics, edited by Shyam Ranganathan, likewise demonstrates the interest of Indian theorists in ethics, which has tended to be ignored in certain accounts of Indian philosophy and theory. Be the first to review this new installation in the Bloomsbury Research Handbooks in Asian Philosophy here.
Vedic and Shramanic Periods
While religious practices can be inferred from the archaeological remains of sites such as Mojendo-daro and Harappa in what is now Pakistan, dating from around 2500-1800 BCE, the earliest surviving practices that are now a part of Hinduism that we can reliably date begin with the oral tradition of the Sanskrit Vedas. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India is a three-volume set edited and translated by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton. This earliest of Indian religious texts—one of the longest oral traditions to be continuously passed on—is presented in translations that supplement a somewhat sketchy coverage of the Rig-Vedic corpus in English translation. (Prior to this volume, some passages of the Rigveda were only accessible to non-specialists via Orientalist translations dating to the early 20th century.) Jamison and Brereton’s attention to the social, ritual, performative, and agonistic sense of Vedic ritual life is a rich source of historical information on this period.
While the Vedas were eventually written down, their status as oral texts can’t be dismissed since they were memorized phoneme by phoneme to ensure their accuracy. Borayin Larios’s Embodying the Vedas: Traditional Vedic Schools of Contemporary Maharashtra shows how this tradition is still being learned and performed today by male Brahmins in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where Vedic rituals are UNESCO sponsored cultural events financed by the state. This form of learning historically influenced all South Asian traditions of passing on knowledge through intensive study and apprenticeship. It is called the guru-kula system. Larios’s exploration is important in showing how this tradition continues today alongside new systems of authorization and granting expertise such as the Western academic bestowal of degrees. We’ll have a review soon from Caleb Smith. David M. Knipe also has a recent book, waiting to be reviewed, called Vedic Voices: Intimate Narratives of a Living Andhra Tradition. Focusing on the southeastern coastal area of Andhra Pradesh, Knipe’s ethnography of living Brahmin communities describes the intense decades-long training regime required to learn the Vedic textual corpus in this 3700 year lineage.
The ancient performative reason for these hymns was the Vedic sacrifices (yajña): the ritual killing of animals. This sacrificial violence would eventually become self-directed in the period of religious development and urbanization (c. 750 BCE to c. 250 BCE) when wanderers (shramanas) began to appear as major thinkers and ritualists throughout South Asia. From the self-sacrifice of Jain renunciants to practitioners of asceticism and yoga, these themes are explored in Indian Asceticism: Power, Violence, and Play, by Carl Olson. Engaging South Asian epistemes from a range of traditions as well as current theories of power including Foucault, Olson argues for the affective power of this self-directed violence as a form of control over others through terror as well as playful negotiation with the boundaries of reality seen in the actions of divine beings. Alongside these groups, normative practices were also established to “reign in” these groups and establish a fixed form for meditation, austerities, and dietary restrictions that would become yoga. Olson’s book has been reviewed by Karen O’Brien-Kop.
Sir James Mallinson and Mark Singleton’s Roots of Yoga offers an extensive textual history of the term yoga and its development in specific traditions. Reviewer Ellen Goldberg writes, “Mallinson and Singleton succeed not only in bringing together an unprecedented range of materials from various linguistic sources, including vernacular languages and non-Indian texts, they also contribute to an emerging body of scholarship on the interaction among India’s ‘trans-sectarian’ and ‘pan-Indic’ traditions (e.g., Brahmanical, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Vaiṣṇava, Śākta, and Śaiva).” The latter three sectarian groups started to emerge in archaeological evidence and inscriptions c. 250 BCE-c.150 BCE around Shiva, Vishnu, and the goddess (called Shakti).
Divine beings and their empowered human descents and descendants are one of the major sources for storytelling traditions in South Asia. From the two main Sanskrit epics (itihāsa), the paradigms of proper living, decorum, ritual practice, ethics, gender tropes, and relation to outsiders has long been negotiated and the internal tensions of early South Asian traditions put on display. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VII: Uttarakānda, translated by Robert P. Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman, is the final book of their series on this first Sanskrit epic poem. This fascinating climax to the battle between Rāma, the exiled prince of Ayodhyā, and his battle to rescue his wife Sītā from the demonic Rāvaṇa, is also the most controversial section of this poem wherein the titular hero, a paragon of virtue and duty (dharma), abandons his pregnant wife due to rumors among his subjects about her faithlessness. We’ll have a review coming soon for you from Aleksandar Uskokov.
If you too would like to review something in an epic vein, we have two books on the other South Asian oral epic tradition, the Mahābhārata. Translated by Pradip Bhattacharya, The Mahābhārata of Vyāsa. Book XII. The Complete Santa Parva Part 2: Moksha-Dharma explores one of the larger sections of the Mahābhārata, formulated to be an encyclopedic coverage of all topics under the sun relating to proper duty toward the goal of “liberation” (moksha). Volunteer to review this compendium of the “dharma of liberation” here.
Similarly, Rāja Yudhiṣṭhira: Kingship in Epic Mahābhārata, by Kevin McGrath, explores one of the epic’s five protagonists, Yudhishthira, whose moral struggles throughout the epic seem to put a focus on other-worldly goals of moksha as antithetical to being a worldly ruler. This book discusses how Indian ideals of kingship in the Sanskrit epic bridge Vedic and early Brahminic cultures, while continuing to be relevant as the heroes are worshiped as kingly gods today. Rāja Yudhiṣṭhira is waiting to be reviewed here.
Brahminic Synthesis: Classical Hindu and Buddhist Textual Traditions Emerge
The textual tradition of the epics arose in conjunction with ongoing critiques to the normative way of life they prescribed: ritual specialists such as brahmins who married and performed the Vedic sacrifices, and renunciants who abandoned social life to practice meditation and austerities (tapas), and to seek freedom and enlightenment. While characters such as Yudhishthira might have attempted to do both, the tradition could not authorize people to attempt both paths simultaneously. Furthermore, with the historical ascendency of the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka (268-232 BCE), the subcontinent was politically united in ways that brought religious groups together under the umbrella of a non-sectarian set of principles Ashoka would call his “dharma.” As some scholars have argued, the character of Yudhishthira was adapted by Brahminic authors in the final, fixed written of the Mahābhārata to argue indirectly for why Ashoka’s broadly inclusivist policies ultimately failed. In its place, they offered a series of texts, both secular and religious, that would constitute the normative paradigm for “Hinduism” from that time forward, presenting a textual front against traditions that rejected the authority of the Vedas and their caretakers, the Brahmin priests.
Patrick Olivelle, one of the great Sanskritists and historical scholars of the Brahmanic period, has recently brought out a new translation and set of collected readings titled King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra. It is the first new translation of this “scientific treatise on governance” in fifty years. Olivelle discusses recently discovered archaeological, art historical, and inscriptional findings to contextualize this period of kingship and the intrigue of kings supported by Brahmin counselors. If you’re interested in political science in ancient times, volunteer to review this new work here.
And as part of the Columbia University series, Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought, Olivelle also offers A Dharma Reader: Classical Indian Law. This edited and translated volume offers a succinct history of the term dharma in legal thought from the earliest extant Sanskrit texts to the medieval period as it is first marginally used in ritual manuals, becoming more popular after Ashoka’s reign, and gradually becoming a polyvalent term for the tradition, seen in phrases that describe it after the 2nd century CE Manu-smriti as “the duties of the classes (varnas) and stages of life (āshrāmas).” It is this formulation of varnāshrama-dharma that would remain throughout the medieval period as the normative paradigm for Vedic ritualists and theorists, adapting every school of thought to this lifestyle. Amy Yu Fu has graciously reviewed Olivelle’s Dharma Reader for us.
Not every religious practitioner subscribed equally to this system. While ostensibly operating like other wanderers (shramanas), followers of the Buddha—also known as Shākyamuni, or the sage of the Shākya clan—became lay disciples or joined his family as monks and nuns to seek enlightenment or follow a lifestyle other than the normative practices for South Asian men and women. Divine Stories: Divyāvadāna, Part 2, translated by Andy Rotman, offers up an evocative series of tales from the Buddha’s past lives. This new translation in the series is waiting to be reviewed here. Edited by Steven Collins, Readings of the Vessantara Jataka narrows the focus of these past life narratives down to the penultimate lifetime of the Buddha as Prince Vessantara, the embodiment of generosity (dāna). At times tragic, comic, melodramatic, and utopian, this story in particular still resonates today and is also available for review. Once a Peacock, Once an Actress: Twenty-Four Lives of the Bodhisattva from Haribaṭṭa’s “Jātakamālā” explores Kashmiri author Haribhaṭṭa’s 5th century Sanskrit work, newly rediscovered and available for the first time in English translation by Peter Khoroche. This volume has been reviewed by Grace Ramswick. Stories of the Buddha’s past lives merged oral traditions of edifying tales involving animals (such as the Pañcatantra), on the one hand, and with the elite Sanskrit tradition of poetry (kāvya) on the other, and are one source for Reiko Ohnuma’s Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination. Ohnuma’s book has been reviewed in JAAR by Paul Fuller, and is available for review for Reading Religion here.
The life stories of individuals from this period help us understand religious practitioners in South Asia. Brides of the Buddha: Nun’s Stories from the Avadānaśataka, by Karen Muldoon-Hules, offers a new translation of stories of ten Buddhist women in early India from 100-400 CE and their experiences forgoing normative social roles as mothers and wives. Renunciation for these women meant freedom from restrictive movements, obligations, and sometimes abuse from male relatives, as well as the practice of meditation. We’ll have a review for you soon from Pascale Engelmajer.
If you’re interested in gender and sexuality among Buddhist thinkers and practitioners, José Ignacio Cabezón’s Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism offers a magisterial overview of South Asian Buddhist approaches to the subject from scripture, monastic legal texts, medicine, and philosophy, including many previously untranslated sources. Amy Paris Langenberg is reviewing Cabezón’s book for us. One fascinating example Cabezón brings to light is the recognition of non-binary theories of gender and sexuality by monastic authors. Nevertheless, anyone who did not fall “neatly” into the category of male or female was prevented from joining the monastic community (sangha).
The textual development of Buddhism flourished in the first millennium CE in both philosophical treatises and scriptures. Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics. Volume 1: The Physical World, introduced by the XIV Dalai Lama, edited by Thupten Jinpa, and translated by Ian Coghlan, presents a systematic collection of Buddhist thinkers writing about the nature of the material world. Major philosophers in the tradition range from the early Madhyamika systematizer Nāgārjuna in the 2nd-3rd century CE, Yogācārya philosophers Asanga (4th century CE) and Vasubandhu (4th-5th century CE), the 5th-6th century logician Dignāga, and the 7th century atomist Dharmakīrti. Philosophically inclined reviewers can sign up to explore the piece here.
As part of The Lives of Great Religious Books series, Donald S. Lopez, Jr.’s The “Lotus Sūtra”: A Biography tells the history of the massively popular Indian Mahāyāna text that is known throughout the Buddhist world, especially in Chinese translation, and was the first text from the canon to be translated from Sanskrit into a Western language by Eugène Burnouf in 1852. It has been reviewed for Reading Religion by James A. Benn.
Lastly, Kristin Scheible’s Reading the Mahāvaṃsa: The Literary Aims of a Theravāda Buddhist History explores the narrative of the founding of Sri Lanka and the Buddha’s miraculous visitation to the island (which was read by early Western scholars as a literal history much as the Mahābhārata was at first). Scheible attempts to dissuade scholars from reading this Buddhist epic as a literal history of the island’s founding. Instead, as reviewer Justin Fifield explains, the text is meant for a monastic audience and attempts to elicit “an ethical transformation of the reader brought about through emotional engagement with rhetoric, metaphor, and character.”
Medieval Period: Flourishing Traditions and Innovations
While the period of classical emergence of religious paths went from c. 200 BCE–c. 200 CE, it continued apace until around 1000 CE with a gradual sharpening of differences between traditions. Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu thinkers developed separate but competing lines of philosophy, as well as a common language of argumentation to foster debate. Major centers of trade—like Kashmir along the Silk Road—played a part in transmitting religious texts, practices, and objects of worship, magic, and healing across the subcontinent to other parts of Asia and toward the Middle East and Europe. With the establishment of kings and merchants as major patrons in the medieval period, these traditions began building major structures. (Permanent monuments with inscriptional dedications had already appeared in the classical period, but in the medieval period, architecture truly began to flourish.) One major site of learning for Buddhists and others was the first major university setting in South Asia at Nālandā. Built as a monastery (vihāra) around the 5th century CE in what is today the eastern Indian state of Bihar, Nālandā mirrored the Vedic systems of learning and eventually developed to house over a hundred thousand students, instructors, and religious practitioners. A prominent figure from this center of learning was the 8th century Mahāyāna systematizer and educator Shāntideva. A new translation by Charles Goodman, The Training Anthology of Śāntideva: A Translation of the Śikṣa-samuccaya, offers a digest of the most provocative, insightful, and beautiful excerpts from Mahāyāna texts. While known for his guide to the bodhisattva path (Bodhicāryāvatāra) written for students, Śāntideva’s role at the Buddhist university of Nālandā included an early teaching anthology like our own textbooks. You can offer your own brief instruction to the tradition here by reviewing Goodman’s translation. And speaking of Nālandā, Buddhist Learning in South Asia; : Education, Religion, and Culture at the Ancient Śrī Nālandā Mahāvihāra, by Pintu Kumar, explores the educational site as a monastic center and institute of Buddhist religion as an educational site of religious learning. This study is waiting to be reviewed here.
Alongside this flourishing trade was also an exchange of ritual knowledge and practices. Early Tantric Medicine: Snakebite, Mantras, and Healing in the Gāruḍa Tantras by Michael Slouber examines surviving Nepalese manuscripts for rituals practiced today to ward off and cure snakebites, a common enough occurrence in India that a day of snake worship, Nāgapañchamī (“5th Day for the Serpents”) begins every monsoon season when snakes’ underground dens become flooded. Tantra as a set of practices also seems to have been involved in the exchange of goods and ideas along the Silk Road, where it also spread minor deities and demonological knowledge to East Asia and beyond. David White will be reviewing Slouber’s book for us. In a more general vein, André Padoux’s The Hindu Tantric World: An Overview offers newly-interested readers and Tantra aficionados an overview of the tradition within Hinduism and beyond. (This volume has also been reviewed in JAAR by Loriliai Biernacki.) Our reviewer, Anjeanette LeBoeuf, writes, “Padoux’s impetus to write this tome was his belief that Hinduism and Tantra are intricately linked; that one cannot talk about one without the other. The fundamental religious elements now denominated as Tantra were one of the ways the Indian continent functioned for fifteen hundred years and a crucial example of religious praxis.”
Alongside this focus on newly-emerging and shareable rituals was the emergence of new sectarian groups, centers, and texts. The major deities of Hinduism—Vishnu, Shiva, and the goddess Devi—were elaborated in the classical period, but in the medieval period textual production blossomed with the writing of the purānas, which function today as the core of narrative traditions, rituals, and philosophies that merged with regional practices into the authoritative language of Sanskrit. Traditions of devotion (bhakti) emphasized the purānas as a supplement to the Vedas with more explicit discussion of the gods and goddesses’ roles. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa: Selected Readings, translated by Ravi M. Gupta and Kenneth R. Valpey, is a new annotated translation with commentaries on the 9th century text. This text most likely emerged from South Indian Vaishnavas (those who see the supreme deity as Vishnu or one of his forms, Rāma or Krishna). It combined Sanskrit traditions of philosophy with the emotional engagement of Tamil-speaking devotee-poets called the Ālvārs who started writing from the 5th-9th centuries CE. Gupta and Valpey’s translation is waiting to be reviewed here. McComas Taylor’s Seven Days of Nectar: Contemporary Oral Performance of the Bhāgavatapurāṇa examines this same text, but in terms of its seven-day oral recitations. As our reviewer Krishni Metivier notes, Taylor “reasons that Sanskritists have previously focused on texts rather than lived religion while scholars of religious practice, particularly anthropologists, have rarely attended to the centrality of Sanskrit texts in these rituals.” Metivier showcases the ongoing performative nature of the Bhāgavata, which styles itself as a new Veda and regards its oral existence as both a salvific narrative and a sound-based ritual means (mantra) toward union with the divine. While Taylor’s focus on the modern performances of the Bhāgavata contextualize its use today, the text’s own directions to the reader to recite its narratives suggests a longer history of performances.
Turn of New Millennium to Early Modern Period: Vernacular Transformation and Islamic Influence
The period starting from the turn of the new millennium began a series of major transformations in South Asia. Sanskrit, the language of religious experts and political elites found throughout not only the subcontinent but as far as Thailand and Java became—as Sheldon Pollock terms it—“a cosmopolitan discourse of kingship.” Around 1000 CE, however, regional languages which had long oral and literary histories, including Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, and Bengali among others, all began to be used as new languages of political discourse, religious thought, and poetic creation. This in turn coincided with a gradual spread of Islam in the south among merchant groups in the same period, followed by the northwestern conquest of India by the Delhi Sultanate starting in the 13th century CE. Certain religious traditions, such as Buddhism at Nālandā, found their support diminishing as Vaishnava and Shaiva groups drove out courtly patronage in the South. Indian Buddhist teachers and Tantric practitioners found themselves invited to new regional courts, including in Tibet as well as the Kathmandu valley in what is now Nepal and Bhutan.
This era also saw the emergence of newly invigorated bhakti movements in regional languages, first in Kannada among the Vīrashaivas, then in Maharashtra among the Varkaris, in Brajbhāsha dialects of Hindi-Urdu around the area of Vrindāvana in what is now Uttar Pradesh, outside Delhi, and in Bengali among the Gaudīya Vaishnavas. Other groups, such as the Pushtimārgas, wrote exclusively in Sanskrit while developing their own styles of ritual worship toward Krishna. While these devotional communities developed around specific deities and their images, other traditions such as that of Kabir, as well as Guru Nānak, whose example would inspire the new lineage of the Sikhs, incorporated a more aniconic following focusing on the internal experience of the divine over and against external rituals and identifications. The presence of Islamic traditions of Sufis, yogic and Tantric imagery among figures such as the Nātha yogis founded by Goraknāth, and other monistic traditions among Shaivas and Shāktas most likely influenced these newly emerging devotional cultures as well as invigorated the new language communities that would gradually become the dominant regional identities of present-day South Asia.
Christian Lee Novetzke’s The Quotidian Revolution: Vernacularization, Religion, and the Premodern Public Sphere in India interrogates a good example of this trend. A newly emerging public sphere in Marathi became key to understanding religion in intellectual discourse around the idea of the mundane as Varkari thinkers and ritual practitioners of high caste groups valorized the everyday over and against the elite culture exemplified by Sanskrit. Commentaries written in Marathi on the Bhagavad-Gītā, for instance, by the Varkari bhakta intellectual Jnanadev, introduced the Sanskrit classic, the Mahābhārata, to a vernacular audience while continuing the tradition of commentarial addition to the canon in a new language. In Kannada from sometime in the 16th-17th centuries CE, epic themes from Sanskrit were reworked into new narrative traditions. Jon Keune’s review of Novetzke’s arguments will be coming shortly.
The Jaminīya Mairā Mahābhārata vaṇacaritam & Sahasramukharāvaṇacaritam: A Critical Edition with English Translation, translated and edited by Pradip Bhattacharya and Shekhar Kumar Sen, offers an intriguing take on both epics much in the style of Paula Richman’s “many Rāmāyanas”: as the Sanskrit epic was adapted into local languages, contextual developments in characters or plotlines occurred while background elements of characters receive renewed focus. In a reversal of the protypical plotline of the Mahābhārata, Jaimini places tales of Hanuman rescuing the exiled Rāma in the Mairāvanacaritam, rather than the heroic prince slaughtering his foe, the “Thousand-Headed Rāvana,” Sītā saves the day and defeats the demon. This Kannada telling should be fascinating for anyone interested in the development of bhakti in the region as well as depictions of women in regional languages as protagonists in the guise of warrior goddesses like Durgā. This exciting new translation can be reviewed for Reading Religion here.
Similarly, Hindu Pluralism: Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India, by Elaine M. Fisher, argues for the way religion, rather than being removed from the public sphere, was instrumental in shaping public discourse. Rather than beginning with a unified “Hindu” tradition, Fisher shows how debates among sectarian groups in the sphere of Tamil discourses helped reveal common ground among Shaivas and Vaishnavas that would lead to an idea of a singular tradition that could call itself “Hinduism.” Multiple publics existed then, even in a single region and language. As our reviewer John Matthew Allison states, “Fisher’s reconstruction of the shape of precolonial religious diversity is valuable in that it offers a concrete example of religious pluralism that is genuinely political, performative, and public (rather than many exclusively secular models of Western pluralism that are apolitical, ideological, and private).”
Elite actors in the south also developed traditions that mixed elite religious and political motivations. Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory: Vyasatirtha, Hindu Sectarianism, and the Sixteenth-Century Vijayanagara Court, by Valerie Stoker, examines the polemical writing of a monk and court official to the South Indian Vijayanagara emperor to show the network of religious and political patronage at play. While this region was one of the few Hindu kingdoms that was not conquered by Islamic rulers, the Vijayanagaran rulers did not patronize all religious groups equally. The example of Vyasatirtha, a monastic leader and court official, showcases the way secular and religious authorities were instrumental in creating the space for different sectarian groups to flourish. A review is forthcoming from Cezary Galewicz.
Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King offers an example of the complex relationship between political rulers and their religious traditions in her biography of the much-maligned 17th century Mughal ruler. This book, soon to be reviewed by Francesca Chubb-Confer, offers a clear-eyed perspective on the infamous emperor—who, some scholars have argued, created the communitarian divide between Muslims and Hindus which would eventually result in the partition of India and Pakistan by 1947—and suggests a more complex assessment of his legacy in South Asia,.
In the late modern era, religious figures often found themselves at odds with temporal rulers. One such figure, Vishvambara, was born in the 15th ccentury Bengali village of Navadvipa, and later went on to take vows of renunciation and be given the name Krishna-Caitanya. This founder of the Gaudīya Vaishnava school is examined at length in Śrī Chaitanya’s Life and Teachings: The Golden Avatāra of Divine Love by Steven Rosen. In his review, Neal Delmonico argues that Rosen’s book is an informative but “apologetic” take on the tradition and its early modern founder. Among the many schools that take the Bhāgavata-Purāna as their primary scripture, Chaitanya’s is perhaps the most recognizable in the West, as its legacy led directly to the development of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), commonly known in the United States and Europe as the Hare Krishnas after their mantra, which they recite with song and dance on a daily basis.
The focus on long-neglected voices in bhakti circles comes across in Longing and Letting Go: Christian and Hindu Practices of Non-Attachment. Written by Holly Hillgardner, this explores the work of the 16th century bhakti poet-saint Mirabai and the medieval European Beguine Hadewijch. Our reviewer Paul Hedges states that the book “provides service to the field by extending both feminist reflection and coverage of female figures, rather than the standard repertoire of “distinguished men” who are often the subject of such studies.”
The Sikh tradition, begun by the 16th century bhakti poet and saint Guru Nanak, emerged in western South Asia in the area of Rajasthan in this time period and would also go on to have followers worldwide. Nanak rejected the worship of images of the divine, stressing the name of God and the personal experience of the divine within to his followers. The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies, edited by Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech, offers a compilation of approaches to the tradition by established scholars and practitioners, as it treats the fluid, multivocal nature of the Sikh past and the present and sheds light on the overall impact it has had in South Asia. Sign up to review it here.
Linda Hess’s new ethnography, Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Tradition and Performative Worlds in North India, turns to the performers of the works of the 15th century iconoclastic, anti-traditionalist poet-saint Kabir. Kabir was born into the low caste group of weavers, and went to great lengths to stress his disdain for both normative Hindu and Muslim practices. Yet paradoxically—as seen in the rural troupe from Madhya Pradesh which toured with Hess sharing Kabir’s work—Kabir’s message still resonates with Hindus, Muslims, and non-caste individuals who accept Kabir’s vision as a unique tradition today. Patton Burchett has reviewed Hess’s book for JAAR, but you can learn more about this oral tradition by reviewing it for Reading Religion here.
South Asia has a long history of dealing with religious imagery, tropes, and figures, as well as adapting to new genres and media when they have been introduced to the subcontinent. From this time period, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh poet-saints and newly emerging figures all contributed to an emerging literary corpus in new languages as well as in Sanskrit. The Flight of Love: A Messenger Poem of Medieval South India by Veṅkaṭanātha, edited and translated by Stephen P. Hopkins, offers the example of a 13th century Shri-Vaishnava theologian whose works greatly influenced the school while developing Sanskrit literature. Reviewer Anjeanette LeBoeuf writes, “this new translation and commentary is extremely important to the growing scholarship of Sanskrit literature, poetry, and sacred landscapes. The piece, which is heavily rooted in South Indian tradition and the legacy of the epic Ramayana, is a delightful imaginative piece that inspires love, devotion, and theology.”
Aditya Behl’s Love’s Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379-1545, edited by Wendy Doniger, also touches on a Hindayi Sufi tradition of literature that crossed religious identities. Behl argues that the use of a deshi language by these elite Muslim writers showed an innate style of comparison, finding complex theological parallels in ideas of surrender to the divine and self-annihilation in love common to the traditions of poetic imagery in both. Reviewer Ali Altaf Mian writes that “the particular modes of relating to the self and others modeled in the Hindavi Sufi romances not only differ from, but also provide a powerful alternative to, the conflict-ridden Hindu-Muslim politics of the two-nation notion.”
Two recent books about early modern South Asian religion are waiting to be reviewed. In the Shade of the Golden Palace: Ālāol and the Middle Bengali Poetics in Arakan by Tibaut d’Hubert examines multilingual literature in the kingdom of Arakan, located between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the mid-17th century. When Sun Meets Moon: Gender, Eros, and Ecstasy in Urdu Poetry by Scott Kugle compares two 18th century South Indian Urdu poets, respectively called Sun (Shah Siraj Awrangabadi) and Moon (Mah Laqa Bai Chanda), who wrote in the ghazal, or love lyric style. Sun’s early male love affair and Moon’s experience as a Shi’a courtesan dancer offers fascinating insights into divine love as each turned their attention from worldly lovers to the divine. When Sun Meets Moon is waiting to be reviewed for Reading Religion in our South Asian section.
Colonial Period: South Asia Under the East India Company and the British Rāj
With the expansion of Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British explorers and merchants into the subcontinent, along with a gradual overextension of the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb’s reign, South Asia became slowly transformed by colonial powers. Starting after 1690, when the British East India Company gained three villages in the eastern Bengali-speaking region that would become their capital at Calcutta (now called Kolkata), a civic and military presence began to encroach inland. British imperial ambitions were linked to expanding trade networks and markets for manufactured goods further into the subcontinent, as well as extending Indian labor throughout their empire to their Pacific, Caribbean, and African holdings. A major rebellion in 1857 lead by sepoys—South Asian soldiers trained in British military tactics—led to the British taking direct control over the territory. The British “Rāj” would go on to become the major sponsor of the earlier missionary projects of translating “classical” Sanskrit and Arabic texts into European languages (what we now call Orientalism). Alongside the discussions of shared grammatical features between Indian and European languages were corresponding attempts to justify British rule by constructing narratives of ongoing “invasions,” starting with the Sanskrit-speaking nomads recognized in the Vedas. However, this theory has recently been questioned, and more nuanced treatments of the migration of these peoples into South Asia are offered alongside evidence for the indigenous spread of common Indo-European languages from the subcontinent to elsewhere.
Colonial knowledge-gathering took on the manner of Michel Foucault’s “ biopolitical control”—census taking, statistical analysis of populations, medicalization of certain lifestyles or practices as “healthy” or “diseased.” These policies directly affected populations as pilgrimage centers were viewed by colonial officials as breeding grounds for communicable diseases like cholera. Similarly, attempts to “map” South Asia required reifying identities in new ways. Fixing nomadic and fluid categories of identity onto populations required straightforward data on a census, which oftentimes left only one option for people to identify their religion when in practice the reality was much harder to locate. The same was true for castes (jāti) identities as situated communities oftentimes negotiated hierarchy as groups rather than based on individual persons. This project was ill-suited to recognizing the diversity, and integration, of practices that made up South Asian religious rituals. For instance, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims might all participate in worship at the funerary shrine of a holy figure, some claiming them as sants (Hindu, Sikh) who had gone into an enlightened state of samādhi; some as fakirs who worshiped a singular deity (Sikh, Muslim) at a dargah; or as an embodied descent (avatāra) of a religious figure from the past (Hindu, Jain) that took on a historical form. Furthermore, the categories used to identify the majority of people were taken from elite textual traditions and interpreted by mainly rural male Brahmins to British interlocutors. These men thereby gained a tacit acceptance of their own worldview and religious agendas over those of political religious actors—merchants, women, non-caste groups, and nomadic peoples, among others. Alongside this attempt by Europeans to “rediscover” the “Hindu” past were a group of European-educated scholars and religious “revivalists” who cultivated particular definitions of “religion” and applied them to South Asian traditions. Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Hinduism on the mainland, both Sunni and Shi’a understandings of Islam, and a more militant form of Sikhism that developed under its 10th leader, Guru Gobind Singh, led to a rigid set of identities and a “golden age” form of each tradition that existed long in the past. European scholars sometimes had deeply syncretic religious traditions of their own, including Orientalists who saw South Asia as the home of all religious belief in the pre-Indo-European past, Theosophists like Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant, the latter who worked as a women’s rights activist and sponsor for the National Indian Congress, participated in one of the early “self-rule” movements (svarāj). But part of the process of this search for “original” forms of these religions was a devaluing of current practices, especially in devotional circles, as well as of Tantric ritual forms which defied easy categorization.
This led many traditions to grapple with their own histories. Varuni Bhatia’s Unforgetting Chaitanya: Vaishnavism and Cultures of Devotion in Colonial Bengal examines the role of the Vaishnava bhakti figurehead as he was “rediscovered” by middle class, British educated Bengalis as they attempted to fashion a sense of self after colonialism took hold in the 18th century. As reviewer Aleksander Uskokov claims, Bhatia links the notion of a lost indigenous subjectivity to religious themes in Vaishnava literature and performance, going back to the 9th century Bhāgavata-Purāna’s stories of loss and separation from Krishna, the embodiment of the divine who appeared in historical time as Chaitanya himself. In this way, practices that Chaitanya accomplished, such as identifying Krishna’s birthplace and various eternal pastimes (līlās) in the Vrindavana area based on episodes from the Bhāgavata, were used by colonial Vaishnavas as they attempted to search for Chaitanya’s birthplace in Bengal.
By the end of this period, the idea of authority itself as a religious category also influenced colonized people’s personal sense of judgment and decision-making. J. Barton Scott’s Spiritual Despots: Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule tracks a fascinating history from the colonial period, as our reviewer Kirtan Patel describes, when in the “context of nineteenth-century colonial India, Hindu reformers like Rammohan Roy, Keshub Chunder Sen, and Dayananda Saraswati challenged popular liturgical practices as well as social evils, such as sati, and altered the perception of Hinduism, at least on an elite level.” These “revivalists” had absorbed the Protestant European phobia of religious leadership (over against the authority of the Catholic popes) and argued for an internal source of “self-rule” to guide decision-making as religious “subjects.” Keshab: Bengal’s Forgotten Prophet by John A. Stevens explores one of these colonial Bengal religious figures who took a universalist approach to both his own tradition and Christianity. Keshab Chandra Sen died almost unknown after being both adored and excoriated in South Asia and England. Shandip Saha will be reviewing this book soon.
In the process of creating these forms of “subjectivity,” however, not everyone was equally regarded as a subject by Orientalist discourse and colonial regimes of power. Illyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst argues that the pivotal historical event referenced in the title of her book—Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad—has gone on to shape current views of Islam even today. As Sarah Griswold explains in her review, “while anti-Muslim sentiment was certainly present before the rebellion, popular discourse about Muslims after the rebellion explicitly labeled all Muslims as jihadis.” (Reading Religion assistant editor Troy Mikanovich’s interview with the author can be found here.) Scholarly attempts to showcase subaltern points of view during the colonial period have been appearing more frequently as well. Hindu Pasts: Women, Religion, Histories by Vasudha Dalmia investigates the nature of colonial constructions of Hinduism through the lens of women’s histories as well as approaching traditions such as the Vallabhācāryas whose leaders were condemned as taking advantage of women in British-educated circles in the 19th century after an infamous libel scandal. Arpita Mitra argues in her review of this work that the legacy of Orientalism removed the context of religious knowledge and created “Hinduism” as a textual legacy in the form of “raw material” supplied from this period.
Throughout the colonial period, the Orientalist project of decontextualizing religious knowledge was challenged, in a surprising way, by the engagement of missionaries and local populations. While some more aggressive forms of missionizing demonized Hindu deities and eroticized the bodies of South Asians, others attempted to engage with living communities in dialogue. This can be seen in Arun W. Jones’s Missionary Christianity and Local Religion: American Evangelicalism in North India, 1836-1870, Indian Christians in the state of Uttar Pradesh interacted in “third spaces” in which bhakti groups had developed egalitarian communal identities under a charismatic leader such as under Kabir or Ravidas. As reviewer H.L. Richard quotes from Jones’s text, these were “places where reigning orthodoxies and orthopraxis could be subjected to rigorous critique, and new ideas for human community could be imagined and developed, discussed and debated, and put into practice.”
If missionary accounts of dialogue interest you, you can join the conversation by volunteering to review E. Stanley Jones and Sharing the Good News in a Pluralistic Society, edited by Jack Jackson and F. Douglas Powe Jr. This book offers a Weslyean evangelical approach to discussing Christian messages in a pluralistic setting, including South Asia, Comparative theological engagements also progressed during the colonial period. A. J. Appasamy and his Reading of Rāmanuja: A Comparative Study in Divine Embodiment, by Brian Philip Dunn, offers the colonial Christian theologian Ayadurai Jesudason Appasamy’s (1891–1975) take on South Indian bhakti traditions and Anglican embodiment theology. Drawing on Anglican theologians, including Charles Gore and William Temple, Appasamy attempts to find comparative ground between Protestant Christian theology and the Shrīvaishnava tradition in the idea of divine embodiment. The book is waiting to be reviewed here.
Finally, no account of this period in South Asian history can ignore the transition from British control to the self-rule movement, whose most visible figurehead was the Gujarati, British-trained lawyer and activist Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi’s “struggle for truth” (satyagraha) became a nonviolent set of practices inflected by religious values while operating in the political sphere. reviewed for Reading Religion by Ted Grismud, Gandhi’s An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth: A Critical Edition was translated by Mahadev Desai during the author’s lifetime, and is newly edited here by Tridip Suhrud. As Grismud explains, “Gandhi’s story of his ‘experiments with truth’ became a spiritual classic, published in various editions in the years since. This new ‘critical edition’ is the first effort to update the English version.”
Gandhi’s legacy is also showcased in Ajay Skaria’s Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance. Skaria argues that the nationalist icon’s approach to religion assumed an absolute equality between humans and other living creatures without an anthropocentric emphasis on human sovereignty—a position scholars have argued he found from the many Jain practitioners in his native Gujarat who emphasized a radical form of nonviolence (ahimsā) . In this sense, Gandhi’s philosophy was an “insistence” (agraha) on the “truth” (satya) of this religious duty (or dharma) as it was lived in one’s life socially, ritually, and politically. This focus on living creatures denied subjectivity included not only animals but also colonized peoples, and the religious values of self-surrender framed Gandhi’s system as a denial of the attempt to impose a Western form of self-subjugation on subaltern peoples.
Nationalist Period: Sovereignty, Separation, and Transnational Networking
Gandhi was not the only major political thinker active as British rule in India came to an end. The self-rule movement was originally a coalition of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh leaders, artists, poets, and activists, many of whom mixed freely between political and religious realms from the late nineteenth century until around 1920. For instance, Annie Besant, the American leader of the Theosophical Society located in Madras, groomed two young individuals as religious incarnations (avatāras) of “World Teachers” to spread the religious message of South Asian teachings reflected in their thought. One, Jiddu Krishnamurti, would renounce the organization and become a humanist proponent of psychology and universalism worldwide. His female counterpart, Rukmini Devi— who was married to George Arundale, a major figure in the movement—became focused on dance under the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. She became instrumental in forming one of the established traditions of classical Indian dance, bhāratanātyam, based on the traditions of the South Indian sadir style which had become unpopular. Her transformation of the dance from a practice decried as eroticized and performed by a marginal community of female practitioners (devadāsīs) to an accepted practice of middle-class and Brahmin young women as a nationalist art form would lead bhāratanātyam to become one of the major cultural forms of preserving South Asian identity among Indians in the diaspora.
Some thinkers split off from Gandhi’s satyagraha program when ostensibly “Hindu” virtues began to dominate the movement. Muhammad Iqbal, from the province of Punjab, was one of the most prominent figures in South Asia. He helped promote the All-India Muslim League before WWI. He became disillusioned with the National Party Congress and worked closely with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would become the first leader of Pakistan, in order to protect the rights of Muslims when self-rule from the British was achieved. Like his counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, Jinnah negotiated for independence alongside non-Muslims, but was afraid that the majority rule of Hindus would ultimately disenfranchise Muslims. The British during the interwar period most likely used this fear to stoke tensions between religious groups, leading to what political thinkers call “communitarian” violence and strife in areas of dense Muslim populations.
When South Asian independence became feasible after World War II, Nehru and Jinnah were unable to agree to a power sharing deal, and this led to the partition of India from East Pakistan (what is today Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (what is today simply Pakistan) in 1947. In the Punjab and Rajasthan regions especially, Muslim families living in India and Hindus in the newly-formed West Pakistan were forced to move, along with many Sikhs. Poor planning, cramped conditions in temporary settlements and train cars, and tens of millions of displaced persons caused a five year humanitarian crisis that left families split and over a million refugees living in the Indian capital of Delhi alone. The communitarian violence enacted on the Sikhs, who were neither Hindu nor Muslim, fostered the development of radical positions in the community advocating for a separate nation for the Sikhs. Though this proposed nation, Khalistan, never came to be, efforts to achieve it led to further bloodshed.
Scholars attempting to grapple with this history of modern violence in the wake of nationalism and the lingering effects of colonialism and Orientalist discourse have done so through recourse to close studies of groups in the modern period. Hinduism in the Modern World, edited by Brian A. Hatcher, updates readers who have some familiarity with Hinduism and reformulates the reader’s point of view with input from Hindu believers today. Our reviewer Swami Narasimhananda describes how Hatcher’s goal as offering new perspectives on Hinduism for those already familiar with the tradition succeeds admirably without diluting the complex struggles of understanding a multifarious set of traditions from throughout the subcontinent under a single name like “Hinduism.” Likewise, Religion and Modernity in India, edited by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Aloka Parasher Sen, questions the duality between its eponymous terms. Including studies of gay, tribal, and female communities within their sociological studies, the researchers attempt to nuance understandings of South Asian identities during modernity. As our reviewer Irfan Ahmad explains, “the religious traditions of the subcontinent can no longer be compartmentalized and…should therefore be analyzed as networks, ‘each dynamically interacting with the other.’”
Last in our broad volumes on modernity in the region is Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya, edited by Megan Adamson Sijapati and Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz. This text focuses on the study of feminism, music, pilgrimage practices, environmental practices, worship of regional goddesses, and the role of education in the mountainous regions of South Asia among Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus. Reviewer Daniel Capper explains that “on the whole, these essays are both well-formed and instructive, offering essential resources for anyone studying the interfaces between religion and contemporary processes of modernization in South Asia generally, or the Himalaya in particular.”
The tensions between different groups, exacerbated by partition and ongoing militant rhetoric between nations in South Asia, have led scholars to approach interreligious encounters and dialogue in different ways. Interreligious Encounters: Opportunities and Challenges by Michael Amaladoss (edited by Jonathan Y. Tan), is a collection of Amaladoss’s ongoing work as an Indian Christian. He starts off with the critical gesture of questioning one’s own faith before dialoguing with others. This nuanced approach recognizes the sometimes “doubled identity” that converts bring to their religious traditions as they move from one to another without completely distancing themselves in the new tradition from the lived meaning of the first. An opposing view is adopted in Muthuraj Swamy’s The Problem with Interreligious Dialogue: Plurality, Conflict and Elitism in Hindu-Christian-Muslim Relations. Swamy critiques interreligious dialogue by emphasizing the voices of grassroots practitioners over elite and textual sources and missionary constructions of religion. These voices emphasize that oftentimes religion isn’t the core of violence or disagreement, but instead advocates for social, political, linguistic, economic, and other factors since they perform rituals for specific needs rather than as an expression of their religious identity. This centering on subaltern needs and voices helps alleviate the elite remnants of Orientalist assumptions of fixed, homogenous faith traditions by observing practice.
Turning specifically to Hindu and Christian dialogue, three recent works exemplify scholarly approaches to this encounter. Christina Mangala Frost’s work, The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs, discusses the author’s engagement with Orthodox and Hindu views through common themes, practices, and ideas, with attention to the context of each in South Asia. Reviewer Madhavi Venkatesan claims Frost found “that it was her ‘earnest pursuit of Hindu spiritual ideals’ that led her to Christ.” Next, Christian Ashrams, Hindu Caves and Sacred Rivers: Christian-Hindu Monastic Dialogue in India, 1950-1993 by Mario I. Aguilar explores another five key figures—Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux, Bede Griffiths, Francis Mahieu, and Raimon Panikkar—who were instrumental in fostering interreligious dialogue in India and abroad. Our reviewer Fanny Geux describes how the first three figures worked to establish a Catholic āshrām in Tamilnadu called Shantivanam, while Mahieu found the Syro-Malabar order in Kerala. Panikkar, a self-confessed Roman Catholic monk and practicing Hindu acts as an academic outlier outside South Asia, since he taught Hinduism and Christianity in the US. Finally, Reid B. Locklin’s edited volume Vernacular Catholicism, Vernacular Saints: Selva J. Raj on “Being Catholic the Tamil Way” examines the approach of ethnographer and Indian Christian Selva J. Raj. Raj’s work exemplified the focus on subaltern lived religions in terms of the practices and rituals performed by his Christian Tamil informants, and how their lives as South Asian converts did not fit into a paradigm of assimilation or difference. Our reviewer, Muthuraj Swamy, writes, “Raj, through intensive fieldwork, focused on the spontaneous steps taken by the laity in their ritual lives that challenge institutional efforts to interpret their lived religion.”
This turn toward practice is especially important to understanding the ongoing spread of transnational networks of South Asian religions. This oftentimes occurs alongside popular forms of culture such as music. Carola Erika Lorea’s Folklore, Religion and the Songs of a Bengali Madman: A Journey Between Performance and the Politics of Cultural Representation examines the understudied Baul group’s reaction to modern performance circuits by the 20th century poet and performer Bhabā Pāglā. (The Bauls, or “madmen,” are found mostly in eastern India and Bangladesh, taking elements of Buddhist Tantra, Sufi Islam, and Vaishnava bhakti as models for worshipping an interior form of the divine.) Our reviewer, Shandip Saha, notes that while middle class Bengalis say Bhabā is a “poseur” to Baul religiosity, fellow Bauls see performance as a form of religious practice which matches the spiritual content of a song to the knowledge of the audience. Saha writes, “Thus Lorea again emphasizes the constantly evolving and fluid nature of the Bāul tradition and how that tradition has become increasingly globalized by Bāul performers who travel abroad or take advantage of modern technology to transmit Bāul teachings.”
The Afterlife of Sai Baba: Competing Visions of a Global Saint, by Karline McLain, explores the expanding popularity of the non-affiliated Maharashtrian saint Shirdi Sai Baba, whose death in 1918 only seemed to spur Hindu devotion. The volume focuses on Sai Baba’s followers as they transform the movement into an international form of modern Hinduism. As Anya P. Foxen elaborates in her review, McLain’s “findings reveal the following pattern which serves as the implicit organizing principle of the book’s chapters: her Hindu interlocutors turn to Sai Baba for spiritual succor; they do so specifically in a quest to free themselves from the limitations of ‘traditional Hinduism’; and in doing so they nevertheless utilize religious frameworks that reaffirm and even create a Hindu identity.”
Along similar lines, Swaminarayan Hinduism: Tradition, Adaptation, and Identity, edited by Raymond Brady Williams and Yogi Trivedi, explores how a modern colonial movement has treated their central figure as they adapt to postcolonial issues and changes. While Swaminarayan, of eighteenth century Uttar Pradesh, is seen as a manifestation of God to his followers, the collection focuses on how followers of the movement have adapted to changes from the colonial period to modern times. You can review the volume here.
And for anyone interested in the racy exploits of a figure known as the “sex guru” and the “Rolls Royce guru,” Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement by Hugh B. Urban is also waiting to be reviewed. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later known as Osho, developed his movement after Indian independence, immigrated to the United States with his followers in the 1980s, then came back to South Asia before the neoliberal opening of the Indian economy. In this way, Osho’s popularity and techniques for success mirrored the development of multinational forms of religious practice that embraced capitalism. Volunteer to review this major figure in the globalization of South Asian religions here.
Contemporary South Asia since the 1990s: Secularism, Neoliberalism, and Globalization
Three major developments after the nationalist period shifted the main contours of politics, religion, and economics in unexpected ways in South Asia. The first was a period of burgeoning neoliberal policies adopted by coalition governments in India after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the early 1990s, the protectionist policies of the Indian state shifted to embracing more neoliberal policies of economic development, spurring the growth of private sector investment and expanding the production of South Asian cultural goods, such as Bollywood movies which were based in the former city of Bombay (now Mumbai) in the western state of Maharashtra. (Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1995; Madras in the southern state of Tamilnadu changed to Chennai in 1996; and Calcutta in West Bengal, the former British capital, was renamed Kolkata in 2001.) This economic shift fostered the growth of major cities, such as Mumbai, the capital Delhi in Uttar Pradesh in the north, and Bengaluru (Bangalore) in the southern state of Karnataka to become major hubs for industries such as newly-minted electronics companies Microsoft, IBM, and others. The “service industry” of call centers in these areas became ubiquitous due to the need of these companies find cheap resources, which India’s expanding economy required. This shifted many people who used to live in rural areas to cities, and frequently created tension in different social situations when people needed to travel home for ritual occasions, holidays, and major life events. This initial emergence of globalization began with transnational networks of religious actors such as the Theosophists entering Indian politics in the colonial period, but it also developed through networks of migrant laborers from South Asia working throughout the British Empire. Elite actors such as Swami Vivekananda also played a role. He presented the essential core of Hinduism as Vedānta, a monistic philosophy, to the Parliament of World’s Religions in 1893(which some scholars argue is the pivotal moment for the emergence of the academic paradigm of religious studies). However, in this new period, the internet, quick transportation of information, the 24 hour news cycle of cable television that was first introduced into South Asia at this time, and eventually social media, arriving in the early 2010s, allowed for the rapid dissemination of information. This, in turn, would feed back into ongoing political developments and exacerbate religious tensions.
As the changing names of these major cities indicates, a burgeoning sense of exploitation and historical awareness of colonialism encouraged the development of what would be called Hindutva movements in politics, spear-headed by regional parties such as the Shiva Senā in Maharashtra, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BHJ, “Indian People’s Party”) the Vishva Hindu Parishad (“World Hindu Organization”), and the Rahstriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS, “National Volunteer Organization”). The BHJ, for instance, adopted the term “Bhārata” for Indian as the epic name derived from the Mahābhārata, rather than the more neutral “Hindustan” used by speakers of Hindi and Urdu prior to independence. The RSS, in particular, started a major movement to protect what they claimed was the original site of Rāma’s birth, the god-king and avatāra of Vishnu from the Sanskrit Rāmāyana. The site, however, was located at the current location of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhyā. In December of 1992, the organizational forces of the RSS and others led Hindu nationalists to destroy the mosque, and inspired widespread attacks against Muslims throughout India with thousands dead by the end.
With violence erupting across nationalist boundaries and resonating with religious identity, it’s not hard to see why advocates for specific religions in South Asia feel they must grapple with this history. Being Hindu: Understanding a Peaceful Path in a Violent World by Hindol Sengupta, offers a civilizational “middle approach,” based on the experience of real practitioners. Reviewer Jeffrey D. Long describes how the author portrays the values undergirding the worldview of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, and how they matched the nonviolent activist’s own views. “Without drawing any moral equivalence between these two figures, or falling into a lazy relativism, he shows where, as fellow Hindus, they held certain ideals in common. On Sengupta’s account, Godse’s accusation against Gandhi was not that he wanted Hindus and Muslims to live in harmony, but that, in Godse’s view, Gandhi had allowed the partition of India, a partition premised on the idea that such harmonious co-existence was impossible—which of course also led to untold violence between the two communities.” This dichotomy of perspectives shows how complex South Asian religious values were accommodated to different political ends, as well as regimes of power and violence.
Everyday Hinduism by Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger extends this attention to the Hindu worldviews of those living outside South Asia. Treating diasporic voices as integral to understanding the tradition as a whole through lived practices, Flueckiger incorporates both South Asian social concerns foreign to American Hindus, such as caste discrimination, alongside shared concerns. Reviewer Jeffrey D. Long writes that Flueckiger “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.”
Secularism seems to be the elephant in the room in several of these discussions of modernity, as diasporic Hindus in America accommodate Western ideas of secularism differently than the Indian version of political secularism. Mark Elmore’s Becoming Religious in a Secular Age examines this process in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in India. As reviewer Rohit Singh writes, Elmore’s “biography of the idea of Himachali religion” presents cogent arguments explaining how the secular state engenders new ways of identifying as a Himachali and being religious: “Elmore calls on scholars to approach religion not as a static category, but instead as an active verb: religion indicates a process of being and becoming within the parameters of a secular age.”
Similarly, Religion, Secularism, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Sondra L. Hausner, and Chiara Letizia, examines the complex negotiation of religion and secularism in Nepal. Emily McKendry-Smith points out in reviewing the piece how the negotiation of what “secular” can mean has worked in terms of state-sponsored animal sacrifices, for instance, that were contested practices but might be banned for non-religious reasons such as hygiene.
Turning toward the south, in the island nation of Sri Lanka secularism has also been contested as the Buddhist majority responded to violence from Tamil-speaking Hindu separatists in the late 20th century. Benjamin Schonthal’s Buddhism, Politics, and the Limits of Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka examines the role of the Sri Lankan constitution’s stance on religion and how it deepens political divides today. Schonthal’s argument presents constitutionalism as offering only a pyrrhic victory for religious tolerance. This book is waiting to be reviewed. Next, Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka, edited by John Clifford Holt, explores post-civil war tensions among the Buddhist majority and with Muslim minorities in the form of an aggressive Buddhist nationalism. These forms of anti-Muslim violence have been greatly exacerbated by rumors spread through social media, as attested in this story from an April New York Times piece. Holt’s volume is waiting to be reviewed here. Lastly, Yuki Sirimane offers a shift toward more ethnographic approaches in a Theravāda engagement with modern Sri Lankan monks in Entering the Stream of Enlightenment: Experiences of the Stages of the Buddhist Path in Contemporary Sri Lanka. Sirimane bridges textual study and ethnographic interviews with practicing monks to understand their experiences working toward the goal of enlightenment, rather than drawing exclusively on programmatic texts describing stages of the experience. Dip your foot in and offer to review this book here.
Christianity continues to be have a lasting presence in contemporary South Asia as well, since Hindutva groups naturally see Christians as having adopted a “foreign” religion, just as, they say, Muslims have. Pentecostals, Proselytization, and Anti-Christian Violence in Contemporary India by Chad M. Bauman shows how Pentecostal Indians find it difficult to manage their identities among other Indian Christians and with Hindu practitioners. More than three-quarters of the violence directed at Indian Christians is specifically targeted at Pentecostals. Our reviewer Nadya Pohran states that Bauman demonstrates in this book that “Pentecostals are comprised largely of marginalized groups (namely, women and low-caste individuals) and the fact that Pentecostals tend to adopt strong countercultural postures, resulting in the sort of societal ‘rupture’ that Joel Robbins has elsewhere associated with global Pentecostal groups” makes them more easily targeted by Hindu groups. Meanwhile, they are often ignored by other Indian Christian apologists who claim Pentecostals have abandoned their sense of “Indianness.”
Nathaniel Roberts’s To Be Cared For: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum offers a way around this methodological hurdle in a theologically-engaged ethnography of a Chennai neighborhood in the southern state of Tamilnadu. Roberts redirects scholarly attention from upper-caste people to disenfranchised groups among Indian Christians and offers an answer to informants’ queries of what he would do with his research into their lives. Nadya Pohran mentions in reviewing the piece that Robert’s work is not only critically engaged, he also thoroughly situates his ethnographic studies in the context of the religion and conversion of slum dwellers, and also suggests ways of developing empathy in our research.
Other marginalized groups in South Asia tend to adopt approaches that might fall outside the standard ideas of official justice. Tales of Justice and Rituals of Divine Embodiment: Oral Narratives from the Central Himalayas, by Aditya Malik, explores the regional deity Goludev, a deified king who possesses his officiants in rituals of a divine court in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in North India. These rituals of petition (jāgars, literally “dances”) create avenues especially for lower-caste petition seekers to redress grievances against neighbors or find solace in the face of illness or death of a loved one. In this sense, the presence of the god is not abstracted into a belief or otherworldly power but presents itself face-to-face with petitioners in the flesh. This book has been reviewed by Cora Gaebel.
Further west, Hinglaj Devi: Identity, Change, and Solidification at a Hindu Temple in Pakistan, by Jürgen Schlaflechner, is centered on the most popular goddess among Hindus in Pakistan—Hinglaj—and how her worship has increased exponentially in recent years. Located in Baluchistan, in the western desert, this major pilgrimage site is considered one of the “thrones of the Goddess’ (shakti-pīthas) that cover the subcontinent and manifests various forms of the Great Goddess (Mahādevī). Hinglaj herself is not only worshipped by the minority Hindus in Pakistan but also by nomadic Muslim groups, some of whom are descended from nomadic bard communities whose female members were apotheosized into clan goddesses for Rajput kings.
Angela Rudert offers a view of a more human figure outside South Asia in Shakti’s New Voice: Guru Devotion in a Woman-Led Spirituality Movement. Focusing on the Indian guru Anandmurti Gurumaa (“Mother-Teacher whose Form is Bliss”), Rudert goes against the fashionable hermeneutics of suspicion when researching this devotional movement. Since this community’s leader did not claim a particular religious identity, this puts the movement into a category of syncretic, globalized religion in which, as our reviewer Antoinette E. DeNapoli states, “fluidity of boundaries constitutes the norm and cultural hybridity provides a means to evoke within receptive audiences potent spiritual experiences without having claim the authority of any single religion or religious identity.”
Ritual and play are frequently concomitant resources for South Asians as they negotiate with the exigencies of life in increasingly globalized contexts. Ritual Innovation: Strategic Interventions in South Asian Religion, edited by Brian K. Pennington and Amy L. Alloco, brings to light how rituals develop and adapt to changing social, political, and geographic circumstances rather than acting as timeless recreations of a golden age or staunchly supporting conservative valuations of a traditional community. We’ll soon have a review from Ute Hüsken. Reviewed both in JAAR by Marko Geslani and in Reading Religion by Adam Newman, Axel Michaels’s Homo Ritualis: Hindu Ritual and its Significance for Ritual Theory offers a theory of ritual based on textual, ethnographic, and performative models in South Asian contexts. Michaels develops this framework of ritual from both textual sources and ethnographic data from living practitioners; this prevents him from getting stuck in thick descriptions without drawing out theoretical assumptions from his ethnographic material or reverting to the context-free, Orientalist assumptions of some textual studies. As Newman states, “The ethno-Indological approach taken by Michaels is…an innovative and rewarding method for the study of Hindu ritual, particularly as these two fields—ethnography and Indology—have sometimes been seen as at odds with each other.”
This tightrope walk between methodologies characterizes much of the tension in studying South Asian religions today, but it becomes especially problematic in fields similar to ritual. Attention to these performance-based modalities has been mentioned in regards to orality (with the Vedas, the Bhāgatava-Purāna, and Kabir traditions), but these all have textual bases to inform their performance traditions. Music, on the other hand, is especially prone to ahistorical generalizations, which Virinder S. Kalra’s new study in the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music series manages to avoid. Reviewed by Bryan Rennie, Sacred and Secular Musics: A Postcolonial Approach deconstructs the colonial formation of European and South Asian music in relation to religion, with various ethnographic and historical examples from the Punjab region to show how this occurred. The post-partition area of Punjab is particular interesting, since “Clessicul” music as Kalra writes, is both an authoritative tradition (from shāstra, textual sources) but is also in a different register than European “Classical” music in both expression and relation to religion. “Classical music,” says Kalra, “relies on the expulsion of God in Europe…Clessicul music is created through the arrival of God in colonial India” (47).
In a similar vein, and centered around the embodied notions of performance and tradition, Refiguring the Body: Embodiment in South Asian Religions, edited by Barbara A. Holdrege and Karen Pechilis, attempts to bring South Asian epistemologies of the body into focus to establish theory parity alongside accepted academic models. Essays in this collection range from discussions of performers self identities in possession and Indian styles of dance, to bhakti models of embodiment and performance, to a renegotiation of the Buddha’s ultimate body (dharma-kāya) as something more than metaphor. Refiguring the Body is available for review here.
There are also two collections that range across time periods in South Asia, both edited by Fabrizio M. Ferrari and Thomas Dänhardt. Roots of Wisdom, Branches of Devotion: Plant Life in South Asian Traditions explores floral imagery and hymns to plants from the Vedas up to current worship of certain plants as the living forms of deities. Those interested in the religious uses and worship of flora in South Asia, as well as ecological notions related to religious practitioners today, can offer review the collection here. Meanwhile, Soulless Matter, Seats of Energy: Metals, Gems and Minerals in South Asian Traditions explores approaches to the inorganic matter and geology that are included in South Asian worship. The material turn to religion finds a rich mine of sources in South Asia where metallurgic rituals are still practiced today, as well as healing traditions that ascribe vital energy and even godhood to certain stones such as Shiva-lingas. This book is also available for review.
Just as some lingas can be found among the assorted crystals and rocks at New Age bookstores, South Asian religious artifacts and icons (mūrtis) have diasporic histories outside the subcontinent. Recent works in art history have difficulty situating these religious figures into secular spaces like museums while still attending to the growing interest in them by groups with religious sensibilities, such as new yoga communities in the West. New media and settings for art have also shaped how religious objects, performances, and identities are negotiated. Edited by Pratapaditya Pal, Puja and Piety: Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist Art from the Indian Subcontinent explores the role that curators, scholars, and museum specialists have in exhibiting religious artwork outside its original ritual, devotional, or geographic setting. Reviewer Anjeanette LeBoeuf writes, “Puja and Piety hits home, demonstrating the power of images and that images, statues, and paintings can be just as powerful for the devotees as they are for one participating in pilgrimages or during onsite temple worship. Even when the images and statues are ‘retired’ and no longer function in their intended role, they still carry the essence of the divine.”
Another hard-hitting volume, Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation, by the trio of scholars William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke, and Andy Rotman, approaches religion and nationalism through the lens of a critically-maligned but very popular hit movie from the 1970s about three Indian brothers separated at a young age who are raised as Hindu, Muslim, and Christian respectively. This comedy of errors is elaborated in the book by each scholar picking a different brother, while all three jointly describe the mother’s character as reflecting interlocking sets of religious identities in the Indian nation-state and embodying a more folk-practice level of religion associated with the goddess. Reviewer Anne Vallely declares that “Amar Akbar, Anthony’s irony, mimicry, and its lack of a single governing theme make it a pioneer of postmodern Indian film. Elison, Novetzke, and Rotman’s analysis adopts a similar epistemological stance in that they too, refuse to produce a single “truth,” or to identify a single hero.
Lastly, no discussion of art, technology, and diasporic identity would be complete if it didn’t touch on the use of the internet in our increasingly globalized age. Digital Hinduism: Dharma and Discourse in the Age of New Media, edited by Murali Balaji, discusses the use of the internet and explores how newly emergent relationships form online in contrast to the strict paradigms of who is identified as Hindu among people living and practicing in South Asia proper. Essays in this collection discuss diasporic negotiations of identity among Caribbean and Fijian Hindus, how popular Hindu websites have shaped the tradition due to the popularity of google searches, how Youtube allows new affective personalities of famous bhakti poets like Mirabai to emerge in performances, as well as the increasing prevalence of Hinduphobic rhetoric online. Sarah Griswold will be reviewing Digital Hinduism for us soon, and you can read an interview with Balaji, the volume’s editor, here.
South Asian religions have developed with traditions of performance and identity passed down for thousands of years while simultaneously being adapted to newly emergent technologies and developments such as social media and dating sites. While hashtags can allow South Asian religionists and diasporic peoples to feel connected at common holidays and celebrations around the world, seeing each other’s pictures at Divali or Eid, new technologies of reproductive selection and boxes to select by caste on dating sites reinforce traditional identities and preferences—for male children among many, and for intracaste marriage. Research and scholarly trends in the field of South Asian religions have managed to take Edward Said’s critiques in his 1978 Orientalism to heart, arguing for lived depictions and voices of subaltern groups be taken seriously over the representations and colonial caricatures of previous scholarship. The focus on non-elite groups, regional language texts, and emerging networks of actors, even before globalism took full force of economics and politics, shows ideas, cultures, and religious practices were being shared across ethnic and national boundaries from an early period. And while certain academics still argue there are no single unifying traditions that we can label an “-ism” or a “world religion,” variations and themes shared among groups in South Asia have been acknowledged alongside emic perspectives that recognize different identities, assuming these identities not to be as static or fixed as previously assumed. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the subcontinent have played across religious boundaries at times even while certain elites have decried this mutuality of lived activity and shared lifeworld. Ongoing practices in South Asia and among diasporic communities, and negotiations with neoliberal policies, globalization, and persistent issues from the postcolonial context suggest this process will continue as new challenges emerge and are brought into the sphere of South Asian religions.