A Prehistory of Hinduism

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Manu V. Devadevan
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    De Gruyter
    , October
     250 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Bracketing this well-conceived and deeply stimulating study is the notion of how scholars (and others as well) have defined and continue to define “Hinduism.” In introducing his work, Manu Devadevan describes two prevalent positions: the “constructionists,” who understand Hinduism as a nineteenth-century British invention, albeit one readily adopted by Indian intellectuals as they sought self-definition within the milieu of British colonialization (3), and the “primordialists,” who derive their notion of Hinduism from their conception of an enduring body of “beliefs, practices, and texts” in South Asia (7). These texts and beliefs range from the oft-cited, such as the Vedas, Brahman, dharma, and mokṣa (identified in 1962 in Robert Charles Zaehner’s text, Hinduism), to the “gods and goddesses, women and ogresses, violence and sacrifice, devotion and sex” discussed by contemporary scholar Wendy Doniger (6). Both positions engage Hinduism as an essentialist and reified something (differing only in their understanding of the time and circumstances of this reification).

Rather than shrink from this revelation, Devadevan highlights its importance in the production of knowledge—after all, knowledge must be knowledge of something—and so, too, in our approach to Hinduism. This may seem a small point, and Devadevan does not dwell overlong on it, but its importance in allowing scholars to engage Hinduism as a something while still maintaining a sense of its constructedness, or, as contemporary scholars often express it, its “invention,” should not be underestimated. Of his own study, Devadevan notes that “it is a prehistory and not the prehistory of Hinduism” and that “many such prehistories are possible” (9). The prehistory Devadevan elucidates here is to be found in the political, social, and religious history of the Deccan (highlighting the area now known as Karnataka), beginning at the end of the eleventh century and extending through the nineteenth century.

A Prehistory of India consists of five related, but chronologically distinct, topics of inquiry. The first (chapter 2) begins with a brief discussion of an otherwise “average” eleventh-century narrative, but which, upon careful analysis, reveals a sudden flowering of lay religious identification (as Devadevan unironically notes: “Things cease to be as plain and simple once the historian’s gaze falls upon it” [17]). This narrative leads Devadevan to an in-depth analysis of the extensive temple-building program that began in the Deccan around 1000 CE, as both a reflection of and a cause for the emergence of divergent Indian religious identities. Although such identities had been long associated with specialist “renouncer” communities, the temples, as indicated by their patrons and their partisans, established a locus for lay religious identification, as “the emergent elites forged newer forms of loyalty, association, and ties of dependence and reciprocation” (42).

Devadevan follows his analysis of identity assertion through temple building by looking to the emergence in this period of certain religio-philosophical schools (emphasizing the Madhvas) and the teacher lineages they engendered (chapter 3). Devadevan lightens his grasp here on seeking emergent religious identity, yet it remains presumed in the assertion of distinct religio-philosophical schools. This gains further definition through the author’s fine analyses of the schools’ philosophies, highlighting the distinctions which garnered for them unique identities. In chapter 4, Devadevan broadens this investigation by examining the growth of monasteries during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, attending in particular to elements of trade and monetization as underlying factors. These monasteries promoted the figure of the guru as “the source of authority” with a resultant diminution in long-established texts and practices (100). In chapters 5 and 6, Devadevan continues to move his analysis forward chronologically, focusing on the sixteenth century emergence of the divergent groups he broadly distinguishes as dāsa and siddha (chapter 5), and the rise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the miracle-working saint (chapter 6). Here, Devadevan attends to the growth of Mughal and British Christian authority, noting that “the praxis of sainthood was not insulated from these developments.” Devadevan identifies a particular response to these challenges in the decline of the monasteries in favor of “a new class of stand-alone saints” (162). This final element of dispossession in the face of religious, political, and social challenge (along with widespread famine and cholera epidemics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) finalizes for Devadevan the birth of Hinduism. In a brief epilogue, Devadevan returns to the theme of Hindu religious identity, presenting a nuanced view of his contribution to the discussion. This is a particularly rich chapter as Devadevan moves from the deeply detailed historical portrait found in the body of the text to a finely tuned account of Hinduism’s emergence under specific political, religious, and social conditions.

Devadevan’s A Prehistory of Hinduism is a work of admirable scholarship. The author’s grasp of the source material (much of which is not to be found in any accessible secondary work) is nothing short of remarkable. Also to be noted is the author’s crystal-clear prose and ability to create an accessible narrative from a mass of historical material. In addition to this, the text includes a number of superbly lucid discussions of Indic religio-philosophical concepts of the sort that are rarely found outside any but the most abstruse works. It should be noted that the book presupposes significant knowledge of India’s history through the last millennia. This is not too say that more casual South Asianists will not benefit from this work; in particular, its theoretical underpinnings and its broad consideration of evidence (social, economic, philosophical, and so on) establishes this as a model study for those who seek to engage Hinduism. For specialists, however, Devadevan’s work will take its place as a standard work of reference and an inspiration for further study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Herman Tull is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Lafayette College.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Manu V. Devadevan is professor at the Indian Institute of Technology at Mandi, India.


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