Event ReportsPublished on Oct 16, 2019

Debating the most important and vibrant, yet confused and polarised, theme in India

What constitutes Hinduism?

Since last couple of centuries, Hinduism has been reimagined in a form of what constitutes religion in the western world. In theory, the discussions of religious actions often tend to take a few approaches, such as ritualistic, mythical, philosophical, cultural, and nationalist and so on. Recent anthropological researches have shown how ritual or a cultural activity can have a compelling impact on the audience and confer power on the practitioners or the non-practicing sympathisers/followers by an apparent invariability and formalism. Religious fundamentalism and intolerance has been a widely discussed theme in the past few decades in India, and it is about time that the government should take initiative in coming up with a well-designed policy to tackle these internal problems in civil society of India.

Given this backdrop, on ORF organised a panel discussion of eminent scholars of Hinduism to discuss Ashok Mishra’s newly published book ‘Hinduism: Ritual, Reason and Beyond’, a substantive and intriguing explanation of the idea of Hinduism to explain the dynamism and meanings of rituals and philosophical systems of Hinduism.

Prof. G.U Thite, former HoD Department of Sanskrit and Prakrit languages, who currently works at Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, explained the evolution of the term ‘Hindu’ from its early geographical paradigms to what is commonly regarded as a monolithic religion in modern sense. While discussing various paradigms of Hinduism, he stated that a man despite his religious or areligious/atheist inclination can also identify himself as a Hindu in a cultural sense. He also discussed the mechanism of the Vedic ritualism and entwined it with the socio-political aspects of ritualism which have today manifested in a form of religious politics in a widely misunderstood, narrow sense. He showed how the popular imagination about Hinduism has been nurtured by Bollywood films, while depicting the multifaceted growth of the conglomeration of various indigenous practices which are now brought under an umbrella term called Hinduism.

Shri. Ashok Mishra, the author of ‘Hinduism: Ritual, Reason and Beyond’ presented his motives behind writing such book. “In postmodern age today, the modern generation of urban and semi-urban Hindus have become more and more vague in their understanding of the real essence of the world’s oldest dharma and the histories, traditions and networks of various forms of its religiosity,” he said. He proposed that the government should take initiative to undertake a project of translating the important texts composed in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali texts into all Indian languages so that common people can access these texts easily.

Prof. Dr. Vibha Tripathi, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology at the Benaras Hindu University discussed the significance of the material culture, which, she said, can be defined as an earlier manifestation of ‘Proto-Hinduism’. “Recent evidences from the excavations in the Indus-Sarasvati basin have revealed some important features of the ancient culture that prevailed in the basins of these rivers. They show the imageries of mother goddesses and small female figurines of the deities from the Baluchistan to the central India, which is evident of the widespread geographic of the culture,” she observed.

Prof. Dr. Madhavi Narsalay, former head of the Sanskrit department at the University of Mumbai, spoke on the heterogenious multifaceted nature of Hinduism. She exhibited her concerns about how the individual identities of various multifaceted sects are being wiped out, which will make society a faceless entity and India – and eventually Hinduism – will lose its vibrant kaleidoscopic nature. During her speech, she handled many themes such as the socio-economic significance of temples, pilgrimage and other religious elements such as Kumbhmela.

Dr. Amruta Natu, Assistant Curator at the prestigious manuscript library of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, spoke on the evolution of the discipline of Indology and its implication on the process of reformulation modern Hinduism. While discussing the importance and problems with the perspective of western academia towards Hinduism and South Asian culture, she threw light on the gigantic efforts of some veteran scholars such as George Buehler, Oldenberg and other German Indologists in the field of Indian epigraphy and manuscriptology.

In the Q&A session, the panelists engaged in a conversation with Hemant Rajopadhye, Senior Fellow, ORF. The themes such as the history of socio-cultural intolerance, problem with the identification of material evidence, socio-economic aspects of rituals and faith and Indian perception about the western Indology were discussed.

This report has been compiled by Hemant Rajopadhye, Senior Fellow, ORF Mumbai

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