Religions Of India

Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies

    Modern Transformations

    << Back to India Religion Table of Contents

    The process of modernization in India, well under way during the British colonial period (1757-1947), has brought with it major changes in the organizational forms of all religions. The missionary societies that came with the British in the early nineteenth century imported, along with modern concepts of print media and propaganda, an ideology of intellectual competition and religious conversion. Instead of the customary interpretation of rituals and texts along received sectarian lines, Indian religious leaders began devising intellectual syntheses that could encompass the varied beliefs and practices of their traditions within a framework that could withstand Christian arguments.

    One of the most important reactions was the Arya Samaj (Arya Society), founded in 1875 by Swami Dayananda (1824-83), which went back to the Vedas as the ultimate revealed source of truth and attempted to purge Hinduism of more recent accretions that had no basis in the scriptures. Originally active in Punjab, this small society still works to purify Hindu rituals, converts tribal people, and runs centers throughout India. Other responses include the Ramakrishna order of renunciants established by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), which set forth a unifying philosophy that followed the Vedanta teacher Shankara and other teachers by accepting all paths as ultimately leading toward union with the undifferentiated brahman (see The Tradition of the Enlightened Master, this ch.). One of the primary goals of the Ramakrishna movement has been to educate Hindus about their own scriptures; the movement also runs book stores and study centers in all major cities. Both of these paths are directly modeled on the institutional and intellectual forms used by European missionaries and religious leaders.

    During the 1930s and 1940s, again responding to institutional models from Europe, the more activist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS--National Volunteer Organisation) emerged to protect Hinduism. The RSS had been founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (1889-1944), a native of Maharashtra who was concerned that Hinduism was in danger of extinction from its external foes and needed a strong, militant force of devotees to protect it. Members believe that the Indian nation is the divine mother to whom the citizen devotes mind and body through karma-yoga , or disciplined service. Training consists of daily early morning meetings at which the saffron, white, and green Indian flag and the swallow-tailed, red-ocher RSS banner are raised as rows of members salute silently. There are then group drills in gymnastic exercises, sports, discussions of patriotic themes from a primarily Hindu viewpoint, group singing of nationalist songs, and a final assembly with saluting. Throughout India in the early 1990s, there were cells (shakha ) of fifty to 100 members from all walks of life (the RSS rejects class differences) who were devoted to the nation. Although it has attracted hundreds of thousands of members from all over India, the RSS has never projected itself as a political party, always remaining a national club that is ready to send its members to trouble spots for the defense of the nation and the national culture, embodied in Hinduism. The Jana Sangh, established in 1951, was the RSS's political arm until it joined the Janata Party in 1977 and its membership split away in 1980 to form the BJP.

    Another activist organization is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP--World Hindu Council), founded in 1964. The VHP runs schools, medical centers, hostels, orphanages, and mass movements to support Hinduism wherever it is perceived as threatened. This ultraconservative organization played a role in the extensive agitation for the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya, leading to the destruction of the structure during a huge demonstration in 1992. As a result of the VHP's complicity in the affair, the Ministry of Home Affairs imposed a two-year ban on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad under the Unlawful Activities Act. When the ban expired in December 1994, the government reimposed it for two additional years.

    The spread of Hindu "communal" (that is, religious) sentiment parallels a similar rise in religious chauvinism and "fundamentalist" ideologies among religious minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs. Against this background of agitation, the periodic outbreak of communal riots in urban areas throughout India contributes to an atmosphere of religious tension that has been a hallmark of the national political scene during the twentieth century. Hindu-Muslim riots, especially in North India, reached a peak during the partition of India in 1947 and periodically escalated in urban areas in the early 1990s (see Political Impasse and Independence, ch. 1). This strife typically involves low-income groups from both communities in struggles over land, jobs, or local resources that coalesced around a religious focus after seemingly trivial incidents polarized the two communities. In practice, although members of other religious communities are the victims of violence, rioters are rarely motivated by religious instructors, although fundamentalist agitators are often implicated. The situation in North India became complicated during the 1980s by Sikh terrorism connected with the crisis in Punjab, the widespread anti-Sikh riots after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination in November 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, and a series of terrorist or counterterrorist actions lasting into the 1990s. In all of these cases, many observers believe that religion has appeared as a cover for political and economic struggles.

    The perception that one's religion is in danger receives periodic reinforcement from the phenomenon of public mass religious conversion that receives coverage from the news media. Many of these events feature groups of Scheduled Caste members who attempt to escape social disabilities through conversion to alternative religions, usually Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. These occasions attract the attention of fundamentalist organizations from all sides and heighten public consciousness of religious divisions. The most conspicuous movement of this sort occurred during the 1950s during the mass conversions of Mahars to Buddhism (see Buddhism, this ch.). In the early 1980s, the primary example was the conversion of Dalits to Islam in Meenakshipuram, Tamil Nadu, an event that resulted in considerable discussion in the media and an escalation of agitation in South India. Meanwhile, conversions to Christianity among tribal groups continue, with growing opposition from Hindu revivalist organizations.

    Alongside the more publicized violent outbreaks, there have been major nonviolent changes, as new sectarian movements continue to grow and as established movements change. For example, the Radhasoami Satsang movement of North India, which includes adherents in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, encompasses yogic ideas on the relationship between humans and the universe, the bhakti saint tradition including select Sikh influences, and the veneration of the enlightened guru. The dominant tendency of these new religions, following the example of the great teachers of the past that was reiterated by Mahatma Gandhi and most modern gurus, remains nonviolence to all living beings and acceptance of the remarkable diversity of Indian religion.

    *          *          *

    Introductory sources on Hinduism include David R. Kinsley's Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective and David M. Knipe's Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred . For a deeper immersion into the classical textual tradition, a number of books by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, including Hindu Myths: A Source Book Translated from the Sanskrit , provide excellent translations and straightforward commentary. David Shulman has prepared a number of up-to-date translations of Tamil literature, including Songs of the Harsh Devotee . Lawrence A. Babb has written several introductions to modern Hinduism, such as The Divine Hierarchy , which deals with rural life, and Redemptive Encounters , which discusses recent innovations, mostly among urbanites. A good study of pilgrimage and modern devotion, in this case in Maharashtra, is Palkhi: An Indian Pilgrimage by D.B. Mokashi. A short study of temples as architectural and social institutions is George Michell's The Hindu Temple .

    For Jainism, a good survey is Padmanabh S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification . Historical introductions to Buddhism include Edward J. Thomas's The Life of Buddha as Legend and History , Richard H. Robinson and Willard J. Johnson's The Buddhist Religion , and Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhism .

    For Islam, The Muslims of India: Beliefs and Practices edited by Paul Jackson provides a good overview. More detailed studies include Shias and Shia Islam in India , by Nadeem Nasnain and Abrar Husain, and Muslim Shrines in India , edited by Christian W. Troll. An excellent short study of modern Sufi shrines is Peter Van der Veer's article, "Playing or Praying: A Sufi Saint's Day in Surat" in the Journal of Asian Studies .

    A good starting point for Sikhism is the Sri Guru Granth Sahib: An Anthology translated and introduced by Gopal Singh. Another helpful book is W.H. McLeod's The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society . More recent studies of the situation in Punjab include Tragedy of Punjab by Kuldip Nayar and Kushwant Singh and Agony of Punjab by V.D. Chopra, R.K. Mishra, and Nirmal Singh.

    Tribal belief and practice are described in R.S. Mann and Vijoy S. Sahay's Nature-Man-Spirit Complex in Tribal India , J. Troisi's Tribal Religion , Abdesh Prasad Sinha's Religious Life in Tribal India, and Christoph von F�rer-Haimendorf's Tribal Populations and Cultures of the Indian Subcontinent . The Catholic Bishop's Conference of India's Catholic Directory of India describes the modern organization of Christianity in detail, Lionel Caplan presents a case study of Christianity in Class and Culture in Urban India , and Frederick S. Downs, in Christianity in North East India , describes proselytization among tribal groups. Introductions to Zoroastrianism in India are Eckehard Kulke's The Parsees in India and Cyrus R. Pangborn's Zoroastrianism: A Beleaguered Faith . For Judaism, see Thomas A. Timberg's Jews in India .

    An exhaustive survey of writings on Indian religion until the 1980s can be found in Maureen L.P. Patterson's Bibliography of South Asia and more recent updates in the annual Bibliography of Asian Studies published by the Association for Asian Studies. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

    << Back to India Religion Table of Contents

    NOTE: The information regarding India Religions on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress country studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Indian religions information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about religions in India should be addressed to The Library of Congress.

Please ADD this page to your FAVORITES - - - - -

Revised 8-Aug-03
Copyright © 2003 Photius Coutsoukis (all rights reserved)