Modern Hinduism in Text and Context

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Lavanya Vemsani
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , July
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Modern Hinduism in Text and Context does an excellent job of conveying the internal diversity not only of its main subject matter–modern Hinduism–but also of the field of Hindu studies itself. The authors of the individual chapters take up a fascinating array of topics, each of which could conceivably have an entire book dedicated to it. The essays cover Vīraśaivism; the concept and practice of praveśa, or “entry,” in Hindu textual and ritual contexts; demonic beings in Hindu literature; sacred trees; the use of Hindu religious imagery in contemporary Indian politics; a novel by Rabindranath Tagore; early visits by Hindu women to America in the 19th and 20th centuries; the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; a contemporary diasporic movement; Odissi dance as a healing medium; and the creative reimagining of a Hindu renouncer community in Rajasthan by its female members. Methods employed by the authors include traditional historical and textual analysis, literary criticism, and anthropological participant-observation. Theoretical lenses ranging from structuralism to new historicism and feminism to Derridean deconstruction are employed in order to interpret the diverse phenomena under consideration.

The wide range of topics and methods taken in this book form both its strength, but also, in one sense, its weakness. In terms of conveying the variety within Hindu traditions–beliefs, practices, applications, historical processes, and so on–it does an outstanding job. It similarly does a great job of conveying the individual theoretical perspectives taken by the individual authors. Each one of the essays is of excellent quality. The authors range from well-established veterans in the field to up-and-coming scholars who are quickly distinguishing themselves with the depth and insightful quality of their work.

One might well question, though, who the intended audience might be for the volume as a whole. The thesis of the volume seems to be precisely that Hinduism constitutes a highly diversified set of phenomena which can be approached with a similarly diverse variety of methodologies; and indeed, this requires such diverse methodologies in order be examined in anything like an adequate fashion. One suspects, though, that the primary use for this volume will be as a source for scholars pursuing work on a specific topic to which a particular chapter is relevant. The parts, in other words, may end up being greater than the whole. With that being said, one could also see a volume of this kind being employed in a course for scholars who are learning to navigate the complex range of material that being a Hinduism specialist entails. In the classroom, whatever one’s particular theoretical orientation or primary area of scholarship may be, one ends up needing to be somewhat of an expert on everything. A volume of this kind can be helpful in that regard. And of course, the question, “What makes the whole thing hang together?” can be asked of Hinduism itself, no less than it can be asked of this volume. If it leads readers to this insight, then it has certainly done its job.

None of this is to say that the book lacks cohesion. Just as with the subject matter itself, there are points of contact, overlap, and resonance amongst the various essays and the topics they cover. The volume is divided into two portions which very broadly cover, as indicated in the title, text and context. This division is not adhered to in any dogmatic fashion. Although the essays in the first half do tend to make greater reference to text than those in the second half, in some cases (e.g. Elaine Fisher’s excellent essay on Vīraśaivism) the textual emphasis is central to the point that the author is making, whereas in others (e.g. Amy-Ruth Holt’s equally fine essay on the use of Hindu religious symbolism in contemporary politics in Tamil Nadu), the text is invoked primarily to give grounding to some practice that is really the main focus of the discussion. What really seems to hold together the essays in the first part is the fact that each is grounded in South Asia. The second part gets into issues of trans-national and diasporic Hinduism, as well as postcolonial issues and women’s issues.

Each of the essays making up this volume is, again, excellent. It is difficult to single out particular essays for special mention, and each reader will likely have certain favorites, depending upon one’s own interests and orientations. Stand-out essays, in the judgment of this reviewer, include Elaine Fisher’s aforementioned piece, which strongly challenges the popular notion of Vīraśaivism as a regional tradition, confined to a particular community and a particular part of India. The jointly authored article on sacred groves by Deepak Shimkhada and Jason Mitchell is a fine contribution to the growing literature on Hinduism and ecology. Lavanya Vemsani’s analysis of Tagore’s Gora is a strong piece of literary critique, connecting the characters of this work with India’s struggle for independence. Patrick Beldio’s piece on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, and the idea of a type of consciousness that goes beyond the mental, is probably the most philosophically profound of the essays. The collection ends very strongly with Antoinette DeNapoli’s in-depth treatment of the women sadhus of Rajasthan and their efforts to challenge patriarchal paradigms in a renouncer tradition that claims to see beyond issues of gender, but that nevertheless upholds patriarchy in its institutional practices.

Lavanya Vemsani, the editor, is to be commended for bringing together such a strong collection of essays, that will certainly serve as a useful reference work for many years to come.


About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lavanya Vemsani is Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Shawnee State University.


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