Hindu Pluralism

Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India

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Elaine M. Fisher
South Asia Across the Disciplines
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , March
     262 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Elaine Fisher’s Hindu Pluralism constitutes not only an excellent historical analysis of the development of south Indian “sectarianism” through the lens of Smārta religious life in the early modern period, but it is also a contribution to the study of religious pluralism that is interesting in its own right. Fisher’s historical analysis is noteworthy insofar as it illuminates and problematizes the idea—often propagated by the Hindu Right, but by others as well—that Hinduism is, and has always essentially been, a unified whole. Likewise, 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 politicalperformative, and public (rather than many exclusively secular models of Western pluralism that are apolitical, ideological, and private). 

In the introduction, Fisher states as her goal to “complicate just what it means for us to speak of the unity of Hinduism” (4). Her thesis, boiled down, is that—pace the British colonial account of Śaivite and Vaiṣṇava “sectarianism”—sectarianism in the early modern period did not signify the fragmentation of an originary Hindu unity, but indeed was the very means by which Hinduism came eventually to be thinkable as a unity. In other words,the “Sectarian Age” (98) initiated religious-cultural processes of aggregation that would later come to a head, for instance, in 19th century unification movements such as Brahmo Samāj, Ārya Samāj, and Neo-Vedānta. She outlines this thesis in the introduction and chapter 1.

Fisher therefore joins those—most notably, Andrew Nicholson in his 2011 Unifying Hinduism (Columbia University Press)—who have complicated the historically reductive argument that the very idea of “Hinduism” is but a colonial construction (for a classic example, see W.C. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, Macmillan, 1962, 65). This is not to say that Fisher’s work naively operates from an ahistorical and essentialist reification of Hinduism; quite the opposite. Her work is meticulously well-researched, and her archival and textual work in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu is nothing short of impressive. 

Nor is this to say that Fisher is in complete agreement with Nicholson (see 5; 47-48). While Fisher broadly concurs that the process of Hinduism’s unification is internal to the development of the religion itself, she emphasizes that there was, and is, no such thing as “Hinduism in the singular” (194). In this sense, Fisher contends that Hindu sectarianism and Hindu pluralism cannot, finally, be disentangled from each other, because precisely what makes Hinduism pluralistic is its ability to tolerate genuine cultural-religious differences within itself without reducing them to some model of homogenous universalism. 

Drawing on the social theory of Niklas Luhmann, Fisher imagines Hinduism as a kind of religious “ecosystem” (5) made up of discrete sects—such as Smārta-Śaivism—each of which itself constitutes a kind of autopoetic system of meaning-making (see 13; 97-98). For Fisher, each of these discrete systems are irreducible to the ecosystem as a whole, meaning that there was not, critically, just a single religious public in south modern India, but indeed a plurality of “religious publics” (22: emphasis original) made up by religious groups competing with each other. One of Fisher’s critical arguments, then, is that Indic modernity, as opposed to Western modernity, was marked not by the secularization of the public sphere but quite the opposite: the theologization of the public sphere was what created modern India in and through theological debates between religious sects. 

In order to catch this process of sectarianization coming into being, Fisher focuses on Nīlkaṇṭha Dīkṣita (he is the central figure in her narration) as an example of the emerging figure of the public theologian in 17thcentury Tamil country. In chapter 2, Fisher traces the emergence and origins of the Smārta-Śaiva community through a careful analysis of various esoteric poems, devotional hymns, and Tantric manuals written by Nīlkaṇṭha in relation to their Śrīvidyā and Śaṅkarācārya context. And in chapter 3 she outlines the role of public philology—textual criticism that functions as a form of public theology—as a kind of sectarian performance, which was instrumental in the rise of sectarianism, also with special reference here to Nīlkaṇṭha. 

In chapter 4, which is perhaps the finest section of the book, Fisher offers a fascinating account of the process by which the Tiruvilaiyātal Purānam (the “Games of Śiva”) “entextualized” (138; emphasis original) the city of Madurai—and how this process of entextualization operated performatively and materially, thereby explicating the fundamentally sacred nature of public space in early Indic modernity. Said differently, Fisher demonstrates here how the public performance of the “Games of Siva,” as interpreted and performed by different sectarian communities, reveals how Hindu pluralism was a primarily spatial phenomena, which came about through intersecting discursive and material networks of religious sects in competition and disagreement with each other. Hindu pluralism arose, then, from the “spatial experience of religion” and social contestation of the interpretation of sacred space (25).

Fisher closes by reiterating her argument that early modern India produced a “genuinely emic religious pluralism” (193) irreducible to any Western form thereof. We might say therefore that Fisher here troubles the operative assumption of liberalism that group-collective pluralism is only able to be maintained by neutralizing religious differences between parties. By contrast, Fisher shows here that the public performance of differences between religious publics was precisely the means by which a kind of pluralism was made possible in India, thus signifying that religious pluralism and “the political” are essentially connected. In short, conflict and civility are anything but antithetical to each other (cf. Hugh Nicholson, Comparative Theology and the Problem of Religious Rivalry, Oxford, 2011).

While Hindu Pluralism is an adaptation of Fisher’s dissertation thesis (which I note not to scare off non-specialists to the field of Indic studies, but rather to caution such persons that that some familiarity with the field is a recommended before digging into chapters 2-4), it is a clearly written and outstanding study of early modern India. Fisher’s exploration of the relationship between the political and the religious is informative and stimulating.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Matthew Allison is an Independent Scholar residing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elaine M. Fisher is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.


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