Who Invented Hinduism?

by David Lorenzen
Who Invented Hinduism?
David Lorenzen
Comparative Studies in Society and History
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Who Invented Hinduism?
El Colegio de Mexico
... moreoveirf peopleo f Arabiao rP ersiaw oulda sko f them eno f thisc ountryw hether
theya reM oorso r Gentoost, heya ski n thesew ords:' Artt houM osalmano r Indu?'
Dr. Garcia de Orta, 1563.1
Over the past decade, many scholars have put forward the claim that Hinduism
was constructed, invented, or imagined by British scholars and colonial administrators
in the nineteenth century and did not exist, in any meaningful
sense, before this date.2 Prominent among scholars who have made this constructionist
argument, if I can call it that, are Vasudha Dalmia, Robert Frykenberg,
Christopher Fuller, John Hawley, Gerald Larson, Harjot Oberoi, Brian
Smith, and Heinrich von Stietencron.3 W. C. Smith is sometimes identified,
quite correctly, as a noteworthy precursor of these scholars.4 Romila Thapar
(1985; 1989, 1996) and Dermot Killingley (1993:61-64) have offered somewhat
similar arguments, but both display greater sensitivity to historical ambiguities,
distributing the construction of a distinctly modern Hinduism among
British orientalists and missionaries and indigenous nationalists and communalists.
Carl Ernst (1992:22-29, n.b. 23) discusses early Muslim references to
"Hindus" and their religion, but he joins the above scholars in claiming that the
terms "do not correspond to any indigenous Indian concept, either of geography
or religion." J. Laine (1983) agrees with Smith and his modern epigones
that Hinduism was invented in the nineteenth century, but credits the invention
to the Indians rather than to the British.
On the other side of the argument are several scholars who have directly
questioned this claim from various points of view. They include Lawrence A.
Babb, Wendy Doniger, Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi, Alf Hiltebeitel, Cynthia
Talbot,T homas TrautmannP, eter van der Veer, and myself.5 A recent re-
'As cited in Yule and Burnell 1968:415. Their bibliography lists the book as being published in
Portuguese at Goa in 1563, but the English translation they give seems to be an old one.
2 I thank many scholars for their comments on this and earlier versions of this essay, particularly
Saurabh Dube and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya.
3 See Dalmia 1995; Frykenberg 1989; Fuller 1992; Hawley 1991; Larson 1995; Oberoi
1994:16-17; B. Smith 1989; Stietencron 1989 and 1995.
4 Smith 1991. First ed. 1962.
5 See Babb 1986, Doniger 1991, Ferro-Luzzi 1989, Hiltebeitel 1991, Talbot 1995:694, Trautmann
1996:64-80, van der Veer 1994, and Lorenzen 1995:11-13. Somewhat different but compatible
arguments can also be found in Bayly 1985, Pollock 1993, and Rogers 1994 (this last reference
on Sri Lanka).
0010-4175/99/4293-2324$ 7.50 + .10 ? 1999 Societyf or ComparativSe tudyo f Societya ndH istory
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view of the issue by Saurabh Dube (1998:4-7) makes a valiant attempt to mark
out a compromise position, but ends up, I think, straddling the fence rather than
finding a new synthesis. In addition, it should be noted that most scholars of Indian
religions who have not directly addressed this question-and even several
who claim that Hinduism is a modern construction-continue to write about
Hinduism as if it in fact existed many centuries earlier.
This essay argues that the claim that Hinduism was invented or constructed
by European colonizers, mostly British, sometime after 1800 is false. The evidence
instead suggests that a Hindu religion theologically and devotionally
grounded in texts such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Puranas, and philosophical
commentaries on the six darsanas gradually acquired a much sharper self-conscious
identity through the rivalry between Muslims and Hindus in the period
between 1200 and 1500, and was firmly established long before 1800. The obvious
danger of this thesis is that it can be modified to provide support to a Hindu
communalist argument that a self-conscious Hindu identity arose out of the
violent persecutiono f Hindus by Muslims. In fact state-sponsoredp ersecution
was only sporadic and directed mostly at temple buildings, not people.
Nonetheless, religious literature by Hindu poets such as Kabir, Ekanath, and
Vidyapati (some of this quoted below) suggests that socioreligious conflictoccasionally
violent conflict-did occur among people on a local level. In any
case, only a recognition of the fact that much of modern Hindu identity is rooted
in the history of the rivalry between Hinduism and Islam will enable us to
correctly gauge the strength of communalist forces and wage war against them.
If what one means by Hinduism is simply the English word itself, then the claim
that it did not exist before the nineteenth century is correct. Several scholars
cite the date 1829 for the first known occurrence in English, in the form "Hindooism".
W.C. Smith is sometimes given credit for this reference, but Smith
cites the Oxford English Dictionary as his source.6 In a search through several
early nineteenth-centuryjo urnals, I managedt o find one example of the word
"Hinduism" (with a "u") in a letter published in the 1818 volume of The Asiatic
Journal and Monthly Register (London) and no less than seven examples
(also with a "u") in an article by John Crawfurd on Hinduism in Bali, published
in the 1820 volume ofAsiatick Researches( Calcutta).7M ore significanta ret wo
appearanceso f the termi n English languaget exts by RammohanR oy published
in 1816 and 1817, which have recently been noted and discussed recently by
Dermot Killingley.8 In 1816 Rammohan made this critical comment: "The chief
part of the theory and practice of Hindooism, I am sorry to say, is made to consist
in the adoption of a peculiar mode of diet." In 1817, on the other hand, he
claimed that "the doctrines of the unity of God are real Hinduism, as that reli-
6 W.C. Smith 1991:61, 253. 7 Civis 1818:107; Crawfurd 1820:129, 135, 139, 147, 151.
8 See Killingley (1993:62-63). This reference was brought to my attention by Patricio Nelson.
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gion was practiced by our ancestors, and as it is well known at the present day
to many learnedB rahmins."9T his puts the proponentso f the British construction
of Hinduismi n the embarrassings ituationo f having to admitt hat an Indiaborn
Hindu seems to have coined the label for this supposedly British construct.
It is true, however, that the word "Hinduism" became common in English
only in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and mostly in books by
British authors. One important milestone was the publication of Alexander
Duff's popular book, India and India Missions: Sketches of the Gigantic System
of Hinduism Both in Theory and Practice, in 1839. M. Monier-Williams'
introductoryt ext, Hinduism,f irst publishedi n 1877, also did much to popularize
the term.
What contemporary scholars generally mean by the construction or invention
of Hinduism, however, is not simply the coining of the name. What they
claim is that the Europeans, and more specifically the British, imposed a single
conceptual category on a heterogeneous collection of sects, doctrines, and customs
that the Hindus themselves did not recognize as having anything essential
in common. In this view, it was only after the concept of Hinduism was constructed
by these Europeans that the Hindus themselves adopted the idea that
they all belonged to a single religious community.
Although this argument about the construction or invention of Hinduism has
a strong postmodern flavor, it was first developed by W.C. Smith in his 1962
book, The Meaning and End of Religion. Smith insists that religion must be analyzed
using specifically religious categories, rather than through the medium
of disciplines such as sociology, psychology, literatureo, r even philosophya nd
history. For this reason he strongly opposes any attempt by outside observers
to impose their own categories and explanations on religious phenomena. In the
case of Hinduism, he argues that the naming of this religion by Europeans was
a mistake: there is no Hinduism either in the minds of the Hindus or in empirical
reality itself. 1
Whate xistsc annotb e definedW. hato bstructas definitiono f Hinduismf,o ri nstancei,s
preciselyt her ichnesso f whate xists,i n all its extravaganvta rietyf romc enturyto centurya
ndf romv illaget o village.T hee mpiricarl eligioust raditionof theH indusd evelopingh
istoricallyin the mindsa ndh eartsa ndi nstitutionasn dl iteratureasn ds ocieties
of untoldm illionso f actualp eoplei s not a form,b uta growingc ongerieso f livingr ealities.
I t is not to be compressedw ithino r evisceratedin too r confusedw itha ny systematic
intellectual pattern.
As an ideal "Hinduism"m ight conceivably be defined (thougho nly by a Hindu),b ut
not as an historicalr eality.T he sheer facts, in all theiri ntractablet oughness,s tandi n the
"Hinduism" refers not to an entity; it is a name that the West has given to a prodigiously
variegated series of facts. It is a notion in men's minds-and a notion that cannot
but be inadequate. To use this term at all is inescapably a gross oversimplification.
9 These two references (from Rammohan Roy 1978:73, 90.) are cited from Killingley.
10 Smith 1991:144-45.
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To define Hinduism is to deny the Hindu his right to the freedom and integrity of his
faith. What he may do tomorrow no man can say today.
Turning to more recent statements of similar positions, one of the wittiest is
by John Hawley (1991: 20-21). Hawley also comes close to identifying the
construction of Hinduism with the coining of the word itself.
Hinduism-the word and perhaps the reality too-was born in the 19th century, a notoriously
illegitimate child. The father was middle-class and British, and the mother, of
course, was India. The circumstances of the conception are not altogether clear. One
heard of the "goodly habits and observances of Hindooism" in a Bengali-English grammar
written in 1829, and the Reverend William Tennant had spoken of "the Hindoo system"
in a book on Indian manners and history written at the beginning of the century.
Yet it was not until the inexpensive handbook Hinduism was published by the Society
for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1877 that the term came into general English
Brian Smith (1989:5-6) makes a similar argument in a more typically postmodern
style. Here Hinduism is, to use two words much in vogue, simply "invented"
or "imagined."
Just who invented "Hinduism" first is a matter of scholarly debate. Almost everyone
agrees that it was not the Hindus. .... As a discrete Indic religion among others, however,
"Hinduism" was probably first imagined by the British in the early part of the nineteenth
century to describe (and create and control) an enormously complex configuration
of people and their traditions found in the South Asian subcontinent. "Hinduism"
made it possible for the British, and for us all (including Hindus), to speak of a religion
when before there was none or, at best, many.
To give yet another example, Harjot Oberoi presents roughly the same argument,
albeit in a somewhat more nuanced form, in the introduction to his recent
work on the construction of a modern Sikh identity.
It is most striking that people we now call Hindus never used this term to describe themselves.
The Vedas, the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, which today are seen by many
as the religious texts of the Hindus, do not employ the word Hindu. That term was first
used by the Achaemenid Persians to describe all those people who lived on or beyond
the banks of the river Sindhu, or Indus. Therefore, at one stage the word Hindu as an
ethno-geographic category came to englobe all those who lived in India, without ethnic
distinction. It was only under the Muslim rulers of India that the term began to gain a
religious connotation. But it was not until colonial times that the term 'Hinduism' was
coined and acquired wide currency as referring collectively to a wide variety of religious
communities, some of them with distinct traditions and opposed practices. Communities
like the Saivites, Vaishnavites, and Lingayats, each with their own history and
specific view of the world, were tied together under the blanket category Hinduism.
Robert Frykenberg (1989:29) insists, with categorical bluntness, that even
today "Hindu" and "Hinduism" are terms without any substantive content:
Unless by "Hindu"o ne means nothing more, nor less, than "Indian"( something native
to, pertaining to, or found within the continent of India), there has never been any such
a thing as a single "Hinduism" or any single "Hindu community" for all of India. Nor,
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fort hatm atterc, ano ne finda nys ucht hinga s a single" Hinduismo"r "Hinduc ommunity"
e venf ora nyo nes ocio-culturarel giono f thec ontinentF. urthermorteh,e reh asn ever
been any one religion-nor even one system of religions-to which the term "Hindu"
c an accuratelby e appliedN. o one so-calledr eligion,m oreoverc,a n lay exclusive
claimt o or be definedb y thet erm" Hinduism."
In order to present an alternative argument, we need to divide the topic into
two separate questions. First, when did the British and other Europeans begin
to conceptualize Hinduism as a single religious system? Second, when did the
Hindus and other Indians begin to do the same? In both cases, the argument for
a nineteenth century construction of the concept does not agree with the available
evidence. Before presenting this evidence, however, one other key issue
has to be addressed: the meaning of the term "Hindu."
It is well known that variants of the word "Hindu" were current in Persian and
vernacular Indian languages long before the nineteenth century. If this word always
meant simply a follower of beliefs and practices drawn from the religion
we now call Hinduism,t hen the constructionista rgumentw ould be refutedf rom
the start. This would be the case even if no specific word or phrase equivalent
to "Hinduism"c ould be identified.I n point of fact, however,t he religious sense
of Hindu has long coexisted and overlapped with an ethnic and geographical
sense. What the constructionists are obliged to argue is that this ethnogeographical
sense of Hindu remained overwhelmingly dominant up until the
nineteenth century, and that only then did the religious sense become widespread
as a result of the British invention of Hinduism.
Etymology clearly supportsa n ethno-geographicaml eaningo f Hindu. Early
European scholars, it is true, did sometimes claim either a biblical derivation
from Hind, a supposed son of Ham and grandson of Noah, or a Sanskrit derivationf
rom indum eaning" moon."1l Now, however,e veryone agrees thatt he
I The derivation from indu was suggested by Alexander Dow in a text published in 1768 (Marshall
1970:114): "The Hindoos are so called from Indoo or Hindoo, which, in the Shanscrita language,
signifies the Moon; for from that luminary, and the sun, they deduce their fabulous origin."
In the same text Dow also offers the biblical derivation, but Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, in a text
published in 1776, suggests that the derivation from sindhu is probably the correct one. He also
claims that the name Hindu was probably adopted by the Hindus to distinguish themselves from
the Muslims (Marshall 1970:149-50):
Hindostan is a Persian word, equally unknown to the old and modern Shanscrit, compounded of
Stan, a region, and the word Hind or Hindoo: probably Colonel Dow's elegant translation of Ferishteh's
History gives us the true derivation, in that author's conjecture, that it is taken from Hind,
a supposed son of Ham, the son of Noah; and, whatever antiquity the Indians may assert for themselves
(of which some notice will subsequently be taken) the Persians, we believe, will rest contented
to allow, that the first intercourse between the two nations commenced in the third descent
from the deluge. But, if this definition were rejected, the common opinion, that India was so named
by foreigners after the river Indus, is by no means repugnant to probability .... Hindoo therefore
is not the termb y which the inhabitantso riginallys tiled themselves . .. and it is only since the aera
of the Tartar government that they have assumed the name of Hindoos, to distinguish themselves
from their conquerors, the Mussulmen.
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word derives from Sindhu, the native name for the river Indus. There is also a
consensus that the name Sindhu became "Hind" or "Hindu" in Persian languages
and then reentered Indian languages as "Hindu," originally with the
sense of an inhabitant of the lands near and to the east of the Indus. Most proponents
of the British construction of Hinduism not surprisingly begin by
stressing this geographical etymology and then simply deny that use of the word
"Hindu" in a religious sense was of any importance until the nineteenth century,
without any close examination of the actual use in texts written before this
Take, for example, the comments of Heinrich von Stietencron:12
The term Hindu itself is a Persian term. Used in the plural it denotes the people of
Hind, the Indians, and in this sense it occurs in the inscriptions of Darius I and other
rulers of ancient Persia from the sixth century B.C. onwards. It certainly goes to the credit
of Persian scholars like Al-Biruni, Abu-l Qasim, al-Masudi, al-Idrisi and Shahrastani
that they knew and distinguished different religions among the Hindus. Administrators
were less exact or they saw no need for such differentiation between Hindus for taxation
purposes.T he British adoptedt he term from administratorsn, ot from the scholars.
Here von Stietencron here quite blithely jumps from the sixth century B.C. to
the nineteenth century A.D. with virtually no discussion whatever of the intervening
uses of the term "Hindu," either by foreigners or by native Indians. He
admits that several Persian scholars did discuss the religions of the Hindus, but
implies that they never identified any one religion as the principal religion of
this group. In the case of al-Biruni at least, this is simply not so, as we shall see.
Finally, von Stietencron asserts that the British, in any case, took the term "Hindu"
not from these scholars but from administrators, who, he implies, were still
using this term in the geographical sense found in the inscriptions of Darius I,
written over 2400 years earlier.
If, however, the word "Hindu" had a purely geographical sense up until the
nineteenth century, as von Stietencron claims, then why were the foreign Muslims
who permanently settled in India, or at least their descendants born in India,
not called Hindus? He attempts to answer this objection by insisting that
the Muslim rulers persistently maintained a foreign self-identity for generations,
while the Hindus, i.e. native Indians, just as persistently maintained a separate,
indigenous identity (Ibid., 78):
It was this feeling of superiority and the continuing linkage of social prestige to origins
outside India which, even after centuries of settlement in the country, prevented upper
class Muslims from considering themselves Hindus, i.e., indigenous Indians. The Hindus
remained a separate population-natives the British would later call them-and, in
spite of all differentiationa ccordingt o caste and status,t hey continuedt o form a distinct
entity characterizedb y theiri ndigenousI ndiano rigin. Whetherc aste Hindus,o utcastes,
or tribals, they were all designated as Hindus. It was a sad mistake of the British when
they adoptedt his term from the Persiana dministratorst,o believe thati t was a religious
12 1995:77. See also Smith 1991:256. I have criticized C. Fuller's similar resort to this etymology
in Lorenzen 1995:11-12.
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What then of the vast majority of Muslims in India who were indigenous
converts of low-caste Hindu origin? If "Hindu" remained a purely ethnogeographical
term, except perhaps in the eyes of a few Muslim intellectuals, at
least these converts should have been called "Hindus" or "Hindu Muslims."
There is in fact little or no evidence that this ever happened, but about this von
Stietencron has nothing to say.13
Introductoryb ooks aboutH induismw rittenb y moderns cholarst end to follow
three different models or formats. Some books are organized primarily in terms
of major metaphysical and theological concepts (karma, samsara, dharma, God,
bhakti); some in terms of the textual history of gods, schools of thought, and
rituals; and some in terms of a catalog of sects, beliefs and practices.l4 Speaking
more abstractly,t hese three models representt hree differentm astern arratives:
one metaphysical, one historical, and one classificatory. Books in each of
these three modes have been written both from the inside, by practicing Hindus,
and from the outside, by followers of other religions and nonbelievers. A
modem academic or textbook style-and an insistence on at least a minimum
of historical plausibility and contextualization-does separate these books
from traditional texts such as the Puranas and the Bhagavad-gita, but their authors
have not invented or constructed anything radically new. Indeed, their
main purpose is to represent observed Hinduism, both textual and contextual,
as accurately as possible within the limits imposed by their varied ideological
Since each of these three models or formats is obviously an ideal type, there
is almost no text on Hinduism that follows any one model exclusively. Nonetheless,
the dominant model is undoubtedly the historical one, and one of the first
fully-developed examples of this model is presented in Monier Monier-
Williams' influential book Hinduism, first published in 1877 and later reprinted
in several revised editions. The importance of this text justifies, I think, taking
its account of Hinduisma s a "standardm odel" of the religion.
Monier-Williamsb egins with an analysis of what allows us to speak of Hinduism
as one religion, rather than simply a motley collection of sects, beliefs,
13 It may be possible, as W.C. Smith (1991:256) suggests, that examples of the term "Hindu
Muslim" can be found in European languages. Even if such examples could be found, and Smith
does not cite any, I doubt that the authors would have had any significant contact with or knowledge
of India. Similarly,D ermot Killingley reports( 1993:61) that the term "HinduC hristian"h as
sometimes been used, again without citing examples. In Spanish the word hindu is still used in popular
speech to mean "Indian,"b ut news reportsa nd educateds peech now generallyu se indio or de
la India for "Indian"a ndr eserveh induo r hinduistaf or "Hindu."I n LatinA merica,t he originalm otive
for preferring hindu was probably to distinguish the South Asian Indians from the large population
of Amerindians, normally called indios.
14 Good examples of the metaphysical approach include the texts of Zaehner (1969), Radhakrishnan
(1957), and, in a somewhat different vein, Biardeau (1991). The historical and catalog
approaches are discussed further below.
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and practices. He claims to find the basis of unity in two historical factors: first,
an origin in a "simple, pantheistic doctrine, but branching out into an endless
variety of polytheistic superstitions";a nd, second, the fact that there is "only
one sacredl anguage and only one sacredl iterature,a ccepteda nd reveredb y all
adherents of Hinduism alike," namely Sanskrit. He identifies the founding principle
as "Ekam eva advitiyam, 'There is but one Being, without a second"' and
makes this principle the basis of the first and highest of three ways of salvation
in "popular Hinduism." These three are the well-known paths of knowledge,
works and devotion (jniina-mdrga, karma-mdrga, and bhakti-mdrga) described
in the Bhagavad-gita.15 Monier-Williams here is undoubtedly influenced by
the rising importance given to the Bhagavad-gita and to Advaita by Hindu
reformers of the nineteenth century, but this is simply a process of selective
emphasis, not invention.
Monier-Williamst hen runst hougha step-by-steph istoricals urvey of the development
of Brahmanism-the name he gives to the religion before the writing
of the epics and Puranas-through Hinduism, properly so called, starting
from these texts down to the present day. A list of the chapter titles will give a
sufficient idea of how the author organizes the material: "The Vedic hymns; The
Brahmanas and the sacrificial system; The Upanishads and Brahmanical philosophy;
Brahmanical law, domestic usages, and caste; The Buddhistic movement,
andi ts influence on Brahmanism;D evelopmento f Hinduisma ndt he doctrineo
f triplem anifestation( tri-murti);D evelopmento f Saivism, Vaishnavism,
and the doctrineo f incarnation;T he doctrineo f devotion (bhakti)a s developed
in the Puranas and Tantras; Medieval and modern sects; Modern castes; Modern
idol-worship, sacred objects, holy places, and times"; and all this is followed
by an appendix on the six schools of philosophy (darsanas), the Bhagavad-
gita, Jainism, and the Carvakas.
The key chapters on Hinduism proper include discussions of the mythology
of Siva and Vishnu, including the latter's ten chief avatars, a brief summary of
the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics; a list of the thirty-six major and minor
Puranas and a summary of the five major topics ideally found in each; a discussion
of the doctrine of the four yugas; and a summary of the major ideas of
the Tantras including the importance of the female power of sakti and its embodiments
in various goddesses, the infamous five makaras, and the importance
of mantras, yantras, and siddhis. The chapter on Hindu sects includes a
discussion of the different ideal types of devotion and of several orthodox
Vaishnava sects, with brief mentions of Kabir and Nanak. About the division
between Saivism and Vaishnavism, Monier-Williams insists (1993:97) that
they "are not opposite or incompatible creeds. They represent different lines of
religious thought ... quite allowable within the limits of one and the same sys-
15 The quotes are from Monier-Williams 1993:11, 13. This photo-reprint edition is probably
based on the edition of 1919.
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tem." The chapter on idol worship discusses Hindu devotion to stone idols,
cows, other animals and plants; pilgrimages to various sacred places (tTrthas)
and rivers; the twenty-seven astrological naksatras; and various festivals. The
earlier chapters on Brahmanism include, besides the topics mentioned above,
summarieso f the four Vedas, transmigrationt, he three qualities (gunas), the
four stages of life (dsramas), the four social classes (varnas) and the twelve
basic life-cycle rites (samskaras).
This outline of what Monier-Williamsr egardeda s the key characteristicso f
Hinduism can easily be read forward as the model, direct or indirect, for a host
of later historical summaries of Hinduism, including those of A. L. Basham
(1975), K. M. Sen (1961),Thomas J. Hopkins (1971), Klaus K. Klostermaier
(1994), and even that of Benjamin Preciado Solis and myself (1996). The fact
that many such books have been written by Europeans and Americans does not,
I think, have anything to do with a European predilection for inventing things.
Rather it reflects the need for textbooks in European and American universities,
where basic Hinduism is more likely to be taught as an academic subject
than in universities in India itself.
More interestingt han a forwardr eadingo f Monier-Williams't ext is a backward
reading that compares his treatment of Hinduism with earlier European
(Christian),H indu,a ndM uslim attemptst o summarizei ts morei mportantc haracteristics.
In what follows I will attempt to show how such earlier accounts,
althoughg enerallym ore fragmentaryc, onsistentlye mbody substantialp artso f
Monier-Williams' standard model.
When, then, did British and other European observers first identify Hinduismwhether
called Hinduism, Hindu religion or religion of the Hindus-as a single
set of religious beliefs and practices? I have already mentioned the 1820 article
by John Crawfurd as one of the earliest sources to use the word "Hinduism."
What is also interesting is the fact that Crawfurd uses the terms
"Hinduism,"" Hindur eligion," and "Hindus"i n the context of Bali, where the
Hindus are clearly not Indiansi n any racial or ethno-geographicals ense. What
I want to show here, however, is that virtually all of the more scholarly observers
among the European visitors and residents in India before 1800 had
identified Hinduism as a diverse but identifiable set of beliefs and practices
clearly distinguished from Islam and, less clearly, from the Sikh and Parsi religions
as well.
Between 1775 and 1800, as the British commercial beachhead in Bengal
transformedit self into an Indiane mpire,E nglish languages tudieso f Hinduism
becamem oren umerousa nda ccurate,p articularlya ftert he foundingo f the Bengal
Asiatic Society by William Jones and his friends in 1784. Noteworthy in
this period are Nathaniel Brassey Halhed's A Code of Gentoo Laws (1776),
Charles Wilkins' translation of the Bhagavad-gita (1785), several articles on
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Hinduism by William Jones and Henry Colebrooke in Asiatick Researches, and
Charles Grant's Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects
of Great Britain. 16 Wilkins, Jones and Colebrooke all read and translated
texts from Sanskrit, while Halhed worked with Persian texts.
Even scholars who acquired the linguistic competence to work directly with
sources in Indian languages, however, regularly employed native intellectuals
as teachers and informants. In most cases, the contributions of these native
scholarst o the constructiono f Europeank nowledge aboutI ndiaa ndo therA sian
regions were never adequately acknowledged. Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi
(1996) has called this "orientalism's genesis amnesia," a criticism that is applicable
not only to the original orientalists themselves but also to Edward Said
and other modern opponents of traditional European orientalist scholarship. If
Hinduism was invented, it was invented by European and Indian scholars working
in tandem.
Of more interest here than the professional scholars such as Jones, Wilkins
and Colebrooke, however, are two rather dilettantish writers, John Zephaniah
Holwell and Alexander Dow, who wrote about Hinduism in the 1760s, before
the East India Company regime was well-established and before its authorities
had begun to sponsor more serious research.17T he accounts of Hinduism by
Holwell and Dow display large gaps in their knowledge, mangle most Sanskrit
words, andb etrays everalm utuald isagreements,b ut overallb oth theira ccounts
contain the same basic elements found in any modem textbook variant of the
standard model: the four Vedas; the social system of four varqs; the division of
powers among the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Siva; goddess worship; basic
elements of the mythology of these gods, including several of the avatars of
Vishnu; the theory of the four yugas; some idea of the various darsanas; and
the theodicy of karma,t ransmigrationa nd rebirth.
One curious word used to refer to Hindus in many eighteenth century (and
even earlier) English texts, including those of Holwell and Halhed (but not
Dow), is "Gentoo." 8 This term is not a corruption of "Hindu." "Gentoo" is derived
from the Portuguese word gentio, meaning "gentile," "pagan," or "native."
From the sixteenth century on, Portuguese texts regularly distinguish
gentios, meaning Hindus, from both Muslims (moros) and native Christians.19
The word gentio is in turn derived from gentil, which in Portuguese normally
means "of noble descent" or "of good family." The collective noun gentilidade
is sometimes used for Hindus in Portuguese texts. In early Italian texts about
16 Representativet exts by Halhed,W ilkins, and Jones are all convenientlyc ollected in P.J.M arshall's
The British Discover, of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century (1970). See also Grant 1970.
17 Their accounts of Hinduism are also available in P. J. Marshall's book (1970).
18 See the references in Yule and Burnell 1968:367.
19 See, for example, the texts in Wicki 1948-1972, vol. I, pp. 45 ("moros, gentivos e maos
christdos"), 87 ("mouros ejemtios"), 629 ("gentilidade"). In early nineteenth century English usage
in South India, "Gentoo"s ignified "Telugu"( language or person) as opposed to "Malabar"o r
"Tamil" (language or person) (Trautmann 1998).
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India, the word gentile (literally "gentile" or "pagan") is regularly used for
"Hindu." Similarly, in early Spanish texts the word gentil has this same sense.20
The Spanish language Itinerario of the Augustinian Sebastiao Manrique,
published in 1649, identifies the gentiles with the Hindus (written as indus) in
a passage thati s one of the earliestu ses of the word "Hindu"in a Europeanl anguage,
21 and one which gives the word a specifically religious, not a geographical,
meaning. Here Manrique quotes, with his own gloss in parentheses,
the harsh words of a Mughal official in Bengal against a Muslim member of
Manrique's party who had offended the Hindu population by killing a peacock:
" 'Are you not, in appearance, a Bengali and a Muslim (which means "Moor"
and follower of the true law)? How did you dare, in a district of Hindus (which
means Gentiles), kill a living thing?' "22
Early European missionaries who wrote on Hindu religion before 1800,
mostly in languageso ther thanE nglish, are of particularin terestt o our discussion
since their observations were often recorded in territories outside the direct
influence of colonial rule23 and since the post-1800 British Orientalists
who supposedly invented Hinduism were almost entirely unaware of what these
missionaries had written about Hindu beliefs and practices. If we can show that
the view of Hinduism presented by these pre-1800 Europeans closely resembles
that of later British colonial scholars, then we have moved much closer to
being able to say that Hinduism is not a colonial construct or invention, nor even
a European one, but rather that European observers were attempting, with native
help, to describe something that had a practical and conceptual coherence
both for outside observers and the Hindus themselves.
The lives and writings of the European missionaries who worked in India in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have still not been adequately studied.
The best-known of these missionaries is the Italian Jesuit Roberto de Nobili
(1577-1656), who lived for many years in south India. Some of his works have
been published and the modern Jesuit scholar S. Rajamanickam has written
20 For Italian texts, see below. For Spanish, see the Itinerario of Sebastian Manrique (1946),
written in 1649. N. B. Halhed, however, preferred a fanciful derivation of "Gentoo" from the Sanskritjantu,
meaning "animal"a nd also, he claims, "mankind"(M arshall1 970:150).
21 See also the quote from Dr. Garcia de Orta, dated 1563, used as the epigraph to this essay.
22 Manrique 1649:319: "Tu no eres, en lo que muestras, Bengala, y Mussulamane? (que quiere
dezir, Moro, y sequaz de la verdadera ley) pues como tuuiste atreuimiento para empragana de indus,
(que quiere dezir Gentiles) matar cosa viviente?" A translation of this passage, minus Manrique's
gloss, is quoted at greater length in Eaton 1996:181. Eaton's note (p. 182) on the use of the
word indus in this passage is not completely convincing. In the passage Eaton quotes, the original
has indus not once but twice. The incident referred to took place in 1640.
23 One quite mundane reason why European states supported missionary endeavors in such remote
and exotic locations was undoubtedly the usefulness of the monks' reports as military, political
and economic intelligence. The monks themselves, on the other hand, were certainly more intent
on saving souls than on gathering intelligence for European rulers. The essential point for
present purposes is that the monks were observing Hinduism in societies in which the influence of
European imperial expansion was still negligible.
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about him.24 The writings of four other early missionary intellectuals have also
been at least partially published: the Portuguese Jesuit Gongalo Fernandes
Trancoso (1541-1621), the British Jesuit Thomas Stephens (1549-1619), the
Lutheran Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg (1683-1719), and the Italian Franciscan
monk Marco della Tomba (1726-1803).25 One important unpublished text is a
long dialogue between a Christian and a Hindu written in Hindi and Italian by
another Italian Fransciscan, Giuseppe Maria da Gargnano, who was in North
India from 1749 to 1761.26
The descriptions of Hinduism by these early missionaries, like those of Holwell
and Dow, generally feature the same set of beliefs, gods, and practices found
in the writings of later scholars associated with the British colonial project and
the standardm odel. Since the missionariesh adr eligioust raininga ndo ften knew
the local languages, however, the scope and detail of their accounts rival those
of the later colonial scholars. A few examples will have to suffice to illustrate
this point. Although some of the concerns of both the precolonial and colonial
writers are related to an implicit, or sometimes explicit, comparison with Christianity,
on the whole they describe a Hinduism whose main features correspond
to those found in the Puranas, supplemented by visual observations of temples,
ascetics, pilgrimages, and daily or occasional rituals. Whether all of the early
missionaries had any direct knowledge of the Sanskrit Puranas is uncertain-although
at least de Nobili, Zeigenbalg and Marco della Tomba probably didbut
most of them knew the local vernaculars well enough to get information
about the Hindu beliefs, practices and myths directly from local informants.
24 See especially Rajamanickam 1972a and 1972b. See also Halbfass 1988:38-43 and Neill
1984:279-300. Halbfass and Neill give references to several other texts by and about de Nobili in
their notes.
25 See Fernandes Trancoso 1973, Stephens 1945, Ziegenbalg 1867 and 1926, and Marco della
Tomba 1878. On Ziegenbalg and Stephens, see also Halbfass 1988 and Neill 1984. Other general
works useful for a study of these and other early missionaries include Lach 1965, Murr 1983, Petech
1952-1956; and Wicki 1948-1972. None of these works have much to say about Fernandes
Trancoso or Marco della Tomba.
Marco della Tomba was part of a large Italian Franciscan mission to Tibet, Nepal and North India
that was active throughout the eighteenth century. An important seven volume collection of
some of the writings of those of these Italian Franciscans-and one important Jesuit, Ippolito
Desideri-who worked in Nepal and Tibet has been published by Luciano Petech (1952-56). Unfortunately,
no comparable collection of writings by the Franciscans of this mission who worked
in North India has been published apart from the single volume of selected texts by Marco della
26 The Hindi dialogue by Giuseppe Maria da Gargnano (1709-61) is entitled "Jababasvala aik
Kristian aur aik Hindu ke bic mo iman ke upar" (A dialogue about religion between a Christian and
a Hindu).A notherw ork by this same title has been attributedt o Costanzo da Borgo San Sepolcro
(in India and Tibet from about 1775 to 1787), but this is in fact a slightly modified version of
Giuseppe Maria's text together with Costanzo's line-by-line Italian translation. A few facsimile
pages of the manuscripts of both versions have been published in an article by Umberto Nardella
(1989:57-63, 67-68). Both manuscriptsa re now in the VaticanL ibraryI. am currentlyw orkingo n
a study of the texts by Giuseppe Maria, Costanzo, Marco della Tomba and other Franciscans of this
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The FranciscanM arcod ella Tombal ived in variousp artso f northeasternI ndia,
especially the princely state of Bettiah just south of Nepal, from 1757 until
1773, and again from 1786 until his death in 1803. His writings include several
essays on Indian religion and translations of various religious texts from
Hindi to Italian. Among these translations is at least one chapter of Tulasidas's
Ram-carit-manas. This is by far the earliest translation of this key Hindu text
into any European language, but Marco has never been credited with the feat,
since the few scholarsw ho have commentedo n this translationi,n cludingC harlotte
Vaudeville, all mistakenly took it to be based on an original text associated
with the Kabir Panth.27
In an essay on the "Diversis istemi della religione dell'Indostano,"w ritteni n
1766, Marco refers to the Hindus as "Gentili" and contrasts their religion with
that of both the Christians and Muslims (1878:69-98). He divides up the "diverse
tribes of men" that, he says, are believed to originate from the body of
Brahma, and hence that are all in some sense Brahmins, into eight religious
sects: the tribe of Brahmins and cows, the Vaishnavas (Bisnuas), the Ramanandis,
t he Saivas, the Smartas( Asmaetr)o f Sankaracaryat,h e Nastikas or
atheists, the Pasandas or hedonists (according to Marco), and the Saktas. He
further subdivides the religious practitioners of these groups or sects, according
to their style of observance, into Yogis, VanaprasthasS, annyasis, Nagas,
Vairagis, and Avadhutas. Marco ends his essay with discussion of the Kabir
Panthis (Cabiristi) and the Sikhs (Nanekpanti), two groups that he regards as
somewhat separate from the other eight. In his discussion of the Sikhs (1878:
98), he quotes the Hindi phrase "Nanak fakir, hindu ka guru, musalaman ka pir"
in order to show that the Sikhs had staked out a religious position combining
elements of the religions of the Hindus and Muslims.
At first glance Marco'se ssay seems to confirm the constructionistv iew that
there was no Hinduism, in the sense of a coherent set of beliefs and practices,
before 1800, for what we have here is a heterogeneous collection of sects and
ascetics, each with its own set of beliefs and practices. Against this I would argue
that what is more significant is the clear distinction that he draws among
the gentili, the Muslims, and Christians, and also the correctly ambiguous distinction
that he draws between the gentili and the Sikhs and Kabir Panthis. In
addition, another of Marco's essays, Libri indiani (1878:99-127), contains a
discussion of the four Vedas, eighteen Puranas, and different philosophical
darsanas more in line with the standard model of Hinduism.
There is, however, an alternative way of looking at this question. A strong
case can, I think, be made that Marco's conceptualization of Hinduism in Diversi
sistemi represents a more specifically Christian construct than the stan-
27 I discussed Marco's translation of this text and its misidentification by several scholars in a
paper presented at a June 1999 Heidelberg conference held to celebrate 600 years of Kabir. A
revised version of the paper will appear in a book being edited for Manohar by Monika Boehm-
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dard model of Monier-Williams and his precursors. What could be more convenient
from a Christian point of view than the idea that Hinduism was not really
a single coherent religion at all, that it was not viewed as such by its followers,
and that it was instead a heterogeneous collection of miscellaneous
sects, beliefs, and idolatrous practices?
Since many later colonial scholars were also committed Christians and, even
if not, had little good to say about Hindu beliefs and practices, it is not surprising
that they sometimes adopted similar views. The locus classicus of arguments
for the diffuse and incoherent nature of Hinduism is the famous study by
H. H. Wilson, Religious Sects of the Hindus, first published in 1828 and 1832
in Asiatic Researches. Wilson begins his study with these words (1972:1): "The
Hindu religion is a term, that has been hitherto employed in a collective sense,
to designate a faith and worship of an almost endlessly diversified description:
to trace some of its varieties is the object of the present enquiry." Here Wilson
does accept some sort of overall Hindu unity, but the emphasis is clearly on internal
divisions and differences. This sort of catalog approach to the conceptualization
of Hinduism can be traced forward to imperialistic works such as John
Campbell Oman's The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India (1903) and the
many semi-official studies of the "tribes and castes" of various regions, and also
to more nuanced academic studies such as Sir R. G. Bhandarkar's Vaisnavism
Saivism and Minor Religious Systems (1965), first published in 1913, Jan Gonda's
Derjiingere Hinduismus (1963), and Sudhakar Chattopadhyaya's Evolution
of Hindu Sects (1970).
We cannot, however, correctly claim that even this catalog approach to
Hinduism is wholly a Christian or colonial construct. H. H. Wilson (1972:6)
himself refers back to two earlier Sanskrit works-Madhavacarya's Sarvadarsana-
samgraha and Ananda-giri's Sankara-digvijaya-as native precedents
and sources for his own study. Other such early works can easily be cited.
It is an empirical fact that the beliefs, practices and human organization of
Hinduism are less standardized and centralized than, say, those of Roman
Catholicism or Sunni Islam. For this reason a description of Hinduism in terms
of its various sects, gods, ascetics, and metaphysical doctrines is often appropriate
and useful.
Half a century earlier than Marco della Tomba's essay, on July 29, 1717,
Giuseppe Felice da Morro, another Italian member of the Franciscan mission,
wrote a letter from Kathmandu, Nepal, that sets out a short account of Hindu
religion closer to the standard model.28 Like Marco, he calls the Hindus "Gentill,"
and like most European writers, and many Sanskrit Puranas, he begins
with the story of the creation of the world. He correctly notes that Hindus refuse
to believe that God created the universe out of nothing, as Christian doctrine
28 Published in Petech 1952-56:part 1, pp. 96-106. Giuseppe Felice da Morro was in Katmandu
from the beginning of 1715 to about 1719, then in Dvags-po, returning to Katmandu in 1721.
He died there the following year, at about forty years of age.
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asserts. Instead, he claims, they insist that the souls of every person, the souls
of every thing, and God himself are all one and the same. According to the
somewhat curious account told to Giuseppe Felice by his Nepalese informant,
God first created a woman named Manasa,29 who soon began to long for offspring.
God then created the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesa (Siva). Manasa
invited Brahma to mate with her, but he refused. Next she asked Vishnu and
he too refused. Mahesa, however, accepted, provided Manasa would change her
form to that of Parvati. Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesa each assumed different
functions: Brahma would concern himself with spiritual matters and scripture,
Vishnu with conserving and governing, Mahesa with punishment and death.
Giuseppe Felice then notes the Hindus regarda ll the thirty-threec rore male
gods to be transformationso f these three gods while the many goddesses are
transformationos f Manasa.H e gives a list of the names of nine goddesses that
corresponds roughly to the list of emanations of Devi found in the well-known
Puranat ext, the Devi-mahatmyaN. ext, he turnst o a discussiono f the ten avatars
of Vishnu, a standard topic of most Puranas. After this he gives a descriptive
list of the gods associated with the various planets, the north star (Dhruva),
eclipses (Rahu), followed by a list of some of minor gods such as Yama, Kubera,
Indra,V arunaA, gni, Vayu,K umara,G anesa,a nd the eight Bhairavas.T he
discussion then turns briefly to the Brahmins' veneration of the sacred cow, followed
by the story of the origin of the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas,
and the Shudras from God's mouth, shoulders, thighs, and feet respectively.
Giuseppe Felice concludes his account with a description of the four yugas and
the Hindus' belief in enormously long time periods.
One-hundred years earlier, in the first part of the seventeenth century, the
abovementioned Jesuits de Nobili, Stephens, and Fernandes Trancoso were
working and writing in south India, while the Augustinian Manrique worked in
Bengal and elsewhere. Rather than review the works of these authors, however,
I want to use the example of a less well-informed tract from about the same
period, A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians, published by the Anglican chaplain
Henry Lord, in 1630. Lord describes, with mixed success, the beliefs and
practices of some Banias he encountered during a stay at the East India Company
factory at Surat in Gujarat in the early seventeenth century. He claims to
have gone throught heir Bible, the so-called "Shaster,"w ith the help of interpreters.
29 As the editor, Petech, notes, this goddess apparently has nothing to do with the serpent goddess
Manasa of Nepal. Rather she seems to be equivalent to God's power or sakti. There does not
seem to be any identifiable textual source for this story.
30 Lord 1630:[A] 13. Lord arrived in Surat in 1624. It is curious that John Zephaniah Holwell
claims that during the capture of Calcutta in 1756, he "lost many curious Gentoo manuscripts, and
among them two very correct and valuable copies of the Gentoo Shastah" as well as "a translation
I made of a considerable part of the Shastah, which had cost me eighteen months hard labour."
(Marshall 1970:46). Shaster and Shastah are of course equivalent to sastra, a general type of text
and not a specific title. I suspect that Holwell may have Lord's Shaster in mind.
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I that thought my observance would bee well tooke, if I could present my Countreymen
with any thing new from these forraigne parts, begun my worke, and essayed to fetch
materials for the same out of their Manuscripts, and by renewed accesse, with the helpe
of Interpretersm, ade my collections out of a booke of theirs called the Shasterw hich is
to them as their Bible, containing the grounds of their Religion in a written word.
Lord then presents those scattered bits of information that managed to pass
through the filter of his interpreters. He begins with a confused account of God's
creation of the world and of Pourous (Purusa) and Parcoutee (Prakrti) that reads
like a twisted version of the creation in Genesis.
For this cause that Almighty consulted with himselfe, about the making of this great
worke which men call the world or Universe, and as the Ancient (say they) have delivered;
the Lord made foure Elements as the ground-worke of this mighty frame; to wit,
Earth,Aire, Fire, and Water, which foure Elements were at first all mingled together in
a confusion, but the Almighty separated them in manner following.
First, it is delivered, that by some great Cane or like instrument, hee blew upon the
Waters, which arose into a bubble, of a round form like an egge, which spreading it selfe
furthera nd further,m ade the Firmaments o cleare and transparentw, hich now compasseth
the world about.
[God then created Earth, Sun, Moon, the points of the compass, and finally Man.] That
this creature might not bee alone, who was made by nature socieable; God seconded him
with a Companion, which was Woman; to whom not so much the outward shape, as the
likenesse of the minde and disposition seemed agreeing: and the first mans name was
Pourous, and the womans name was Parcoutee, and they lived conioyned together as
Man and Wife, feeding on the fruites of the earth, without the destruction of any living
Next Lord claims that the "Banians" have a social system based on descent
from the four sons of Pourous and Parcoutee named Brammon, Cuttery, Shuddery,
and Wyse (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Shudra, and Vaishya). This account, however
confused, seems to be indirectly based on the sacrifice of the primeval Purusa
in the Rg-veda hymn x. 90. Although Lord inverts the names of Vaishya
and Shudra, his description of the division of labor among these four varnas is
otherwise more or less accurate. He also manages a rather confused but recognizable
account of the cycle of transmigration and its connection to vegetarian
ahimsa; of the trio of gods Bremaw (Brahma), Vystney (Vishnu), and Ruddery
(Rudra-Siva); and of the four yugas. In his discussion of the Parsis, he also manages
to recognize the basic differences of religion among the Banians (i.e. the
Hindus), the Muslims, and the Parsis (Lord 1630: [D]1):
Having declared the Religion, Rites, Customes & Ceremonies, of a people living in the
East Indies called the Banians, a Sect not throughly publisht by any heretofore, whilst
my observation was bestowed in such Inquiry, I observed in the towne of Surratt the
place where I resided, another Sect called the Persees, who because I did discerne them
to differ both fro the Moore & Banian in the course of their living, & in the forme of
their Religion.
Even in Lord's rather garbled account, which was based on his visual observations
and conversations with native interpreters (whose grasp of English was
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evidently limited), the basic outline of the set of beliefs and practices that came
to be known as Hinduism is clearly visible. Since this is one of the earliest
known extended European descriptions of Hinduism, it seems fair to claim that
Hinduism, if it was in fact constructed by the Europeans, can be traced back to
the very earliest European accounts. The fact that virtually all European accounts-
whatever the language or period in which they were written, and
whether or not they are likely to have mutually influenced each other-follow
this same general outline suggests that the European writers were in fact "constructing"
Hinduism directly on the basis of what they observed and what they
were told by theirn ativei nformantsT. hese informantsw ere in turns imply summarizing
a construction of Hinduism that already existed in their own collective
consciousness. This does not mean that Hinduism was unchanged during
this period, nor that the European and colonial presence did not foster important
changes in the way Hinduism was conceptualized by the Hindus themselves,
but it does clearly show that the idea that Hinduism was constructed or
invented by nineteenth century Europeans is mistaken.
A large part of the claim that Hinduism did not exist before it was invented by
the British in the early 1800s depends on the belief that before this date the Hindus
themselves lacked a self-conscious religious identity, as opposed to a diffuse
ethno-geographicali dentity.T he textual evidence against this claim is so
overwhelming that I am frankly at a loss to explain why so many worthy scholars
apparently accept it. I have only two tentative ideas to offer as at least partial
First, many liberal and left scholars have been reluctant to accept the idea
that the often antagonistic modem Hindu and Muslim identities, both individual
and communitariana, rose out of political and religious conflicts duringt he
historical periods of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal Empire, and the regional
Sultanates.T hese scholarst end to attributet he invention,c onstruction,o r imagining
of the modern form of all major Indian institutions to the influence of the
colonial state in particulara, nd the nineteenth-centuryim aginaryi n general.A s
the political scientist Paul Brass once said to me, only half joking: "Everything
was invented in the nineteenth century." When it comes to communalism per
se, as opposed to the wider concept of Hindu identity, most liberal and left
scholars-from Bipan Chandra (1984) to Gyanendra Pandey (1990) to Veena
Das (1990) and beyond-insist that it was originally a product of the colonial
period.T he argumentso f scholarsl ike ChristopherB ayly and SheldonP ollock
that the roots of communalism lie deeper in the past have often met with open
31 See Pandey's (1990:15) hostile reaction to Bayly's 1985 article about the "pre-history"o f
communalisma nd B. Chattopadhyaya's(1 998:98-115) extended criticism of Pollock's 1993 article.
"Ramayanaa nd Political Imaginationi n India."C hattopadhyaya'ms ost palpableh it is thatP ol-
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The second possible reason why many scholars have not acknowledged the
existence of a conscious Hindu religious identity before 1800 is perhaps more
interesting. My argument here starts from the fact that Sanskrit literature written
before this date systematically ignores the Muslim presence. Muslims,
when they appear,a re mostly describeds imply as "foreigners."I n his fascinating
new book on references to Muslims in Sanskrit sources, mostly inscriptions,
B. Chattopadhyaya( 1998:92-97) lists about seventy-five Sanskritr eferences
to Muslims. Among the terms used are tdjika, turuska, mleccha, parasfka, yavana,
hammira, and sdka. The term musalamdna is listed only once, from an
inscription of 1264 C.E. Although some of these terms are ethnic in origin, most
had acquiredt he broadg eneric meaning of "foreigner"o r "west Asian"b y the
time they were applied to Muslims.
In both Sanskrit and vernacular literature, Muslims were often portrayed in
the implicit, coded form of demons, as evidently happened in several medieval
renderings of the Ramayana. Most important in North India was, of course, Tulasi-
das's late sixteenth century Hindi Ram-carit-manas, which soon achieved
the status of a foundational text for the Hinduism of a broad range of castes,
with the notable exception of the mostly low-caste followers of the Kabir Panth
and related nirgunl sects. Kampan's Tamil Iramavataram plays a somewhat
analogous role in the South. Early Europeans and Christians were sometimes
similarly coded as demons.
As far as I know, no premodern Sanskrit text includes anything approaching
a systematic discussion of Muslim beliefs and practices. Similarly, the terms
"Hindu" and "Hindu dharma" were never admitted to the premodern Sanskrit
lexicon. The roughly equivalent term "sanatana-dharmac"a n, it is true, be
traced back to the Bhagavad-gita and the Puranas, but, as Wilhelm Halbfass
and other scholars have argued, its precise meaning has always been ambiguous.
Why exactly Hindu Sanskrit literature written before 1800 treated foreigners
and foreign religions, even indigenous Buddhism, in this Olympian fashion
is not easy to understanda, nd would make an excellent topic for a separatee ssay,
but here it is sufficient to note that this systematic ignoring of non-Hindu
cultural traditions, whatever its cause, was a deeply embedded trait of premodern
Hinduism. Halbfass's (1988:187) rather harsh judgment in this regard is,
I think, inescapable:
lock has made a very selective reading of the evidence when he associates the reaction by Hindus
against Islam and Turko-Afghan or Mughal conquest exclusively with the rise of the devotional
cult to Rama. The Hindus undoubtedly conceptualized and mythologically represented the conflict
between Hindu kings and Turko-Afghans or Mughals with figures other than just Rama and Ravana,
but this, I think, only puts an interesting qualification to Pollock's basic argument.
32 See the discussion and references in Halbfass 1988:310-48. I suspect that the use of the term
"eternal dharma" may have been used in part to distinguish Brahmanical and Hindu religion from
the more historical religions of Buddhism and Jainism, but Buddhist scholars have told me that
Buddhism itself is sometimes called the "eternal dharma."
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TheI ndocentrismde velopedin "orthodoxH"i ndut houghttr anscendbsy farw hati s ordinarilyc
alled" ethnocentrismIt." is nots implya nu nquestionepde rspectivoer b ias,b ut
a sophisticatedth eoreticasl tructureo f self-universalizatioann d self-isolationS. een
fromw ithint hisc omplexh, ighlyd ifferentiatesdtr uctureth, em lecchasa ren othingb ut
a fainta ndd istantp henomenoant theh orizono f thei ndigenoutsr aditionT. heyd o not
possess an "otherness"a gainstw hich one's own identity could be asserted,o r in which
it couldb e reflectedT. hey are neithert argetso f possiblec onversionn, or sourceso f
potentiailn spiration.
What I am suggesting here is that many modern scholars, especially those
who work principally with Sanskrit sources, may have unconsciously absorbed
some of the self-imposedc ulturali solation of premodernS anskritl iteraturea nd
then concluded that there was no Hindu awareness of the Muslim Other. As a
consequence, they may also have assumed that the Hindus had no clear contrastive
awareness of their own religious identity.
Whatever the reason for the scholarly acceptance of the idea that there was
no religious Hindu self-identity before 1800, the evidence against this view in
vernacular Hindu literature is clear and abundant. The bulk of this evidence
takes the form of texts composed by the popular religious poet-singers of North
India, most of them members of non-Brahmin castes. This literature does precisely
what Sanskrit literature refuses to do: it establishes a Hindu religious
identity through a process of mutual self-definition with a contrasting Muslim
Other. In practice, there can be no Hindu identity unless this is defined by contrast
against such an Other. Without the Muslim (or some other non-Hindu),
Hindus can only be Vaishnavas, Saivas, Smartas or the like. The presence of the
Other is a necessary prerequisite for an active recognition of what the different
Hindu sects and schools hold in common.
To illustrate this process of mutual self definition, I will use passages from
the nirgun- poet Kabir,t he RamanandiA nantadas,t he VarakarEi kanath,a nd
the Krishna devotee Vidyapati. Many more such passages can easily be cited,
especially from the poets of the nirguni sant tradition such as Raidas, Nanak,
Dadu, Rajjab, and Palatu Das, to name just a few. More orthodox vernacular
poets such as Tulasi Das generally follow the evasive Sanskritic strategies of
representing Muslims as ill-defined mlecchas or coded demons, but even in
these writings such coded Muslims are often a palpable, and even necessary,
Ekanath was a Brahmin, a scholar and author, who spent most of his life at
Paithani n MaharashtraH. e was born there in 1533 and died there in 1599. Although
he knew Sanskrit well, most of his numerous compositions were written
in Marathi. Among them is a humorous poetic dialogue between a Hindu
Brahmin and a Muslim, the Hindu-turka-samvada.33 The term "Turk" (turka),
like "Hindu," can be used in a ethno-geographical sense, but here-as in the
33 The text has been translated and commented on in English by Eleanor Zelliot (1982). The
passages cited are from this translation.
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texts of Anantadas, Kabir, and Vidyapati cited below, as well as in those of many
other medieval poets-its primary meaning is clearly "Muslim."
In Ekanath's dialogue, cited here from Eleanor Zelliot's translation (1982),
the Hindu and the Muslim mock the absurdities manifest in the popular rituals
and myths of each other's faiths. Among the aspects of Hinduism attacked by
the Muslim are the anthropomorphifco rms of the Hindug ods ("Godh as hands
and feet, you say / This is really impossible!"), the Hindus' ritual bathing ("You
leap in the water like water ducks."), various improprieties committed by the
gods in the myths of Hindu scripture ("It says God goes out to beg." "Your
Brahmal aid his daughter."" Thievest ook away God's wife / So monkeys came
to help him!" "Fool! Your God [Krishna] was imprisoned." "You call God a
keeper of cows."), the general falsity of Hindu scripture ("The Vedas he preaches
are all false. / Your Sastras, your Vedas, your 'OM' / Are all evil tricks."),
the Hindu practice of idolatry ("A stone statue rules over you. / You give it the
name of God. / ... You bow and scrape in front of it."), the Hindu practices of
ritual purity in cooking and eating ("If so much as a grain of his food falls on
yours, / You catch him by the throat!"), and the Hindu male's hypocrisy in applying
impurity rules to women ("That girl you have taken as mistress / You
don't eat in the house of her people.").
The Hindu's main attack and defense is that the Muslim refuses to admit that
God is everywhere, rather than just at Mecca. If God is everywhere, why not in
idols or the avatars of Hindu mythology? ("God is present in every place / Why
not in prison?" "God is in water, in places, in wood, in stone."). The Brahmin
also attacks the Muslim's animal sacrifices ("When one creature gives pain to
another, / How can he go to heaven?") and his efforts to convert Hindus to Islam
("He is supposed to catch a Hindu and make him a Muslim! / Did God
make a mistake in making the Hindu?").
The dialogue concludes, in somewhat unlikely fashion, with a reconciliation
between the two, on the basis that, for God, all are equal.
The Brahman says, O yes, swami.
As a matter of fact, you and I are one.
This controversy grew over caste and dharma.
When we go to God, there are no such things.
The Turk says, that is the truth.
For God there is no caste.
There is no separation between devotee and God
Even though the Prophet has said God is hidden.
The Ramanandi author Anantadas is the author of several verse biographies,
or paracaTs, of Hindu saints and poets such as Namadev, Pipa, Kabir and
Raidas. He wrote his Namadev paracai in 1588 A.D. and is associated with the
Raivasa ashram at Sikar in Rajasthan (Lorenzen 1991:9-13, 75). A key passage
that illustrates his view of the contents of Hindu is found in his Kabir paracai.
According to Anantadas, when the Lodi sultan, Sikandar, came to Banaras, a
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delegation of both Hindus and Muslims went to Sikandar to complain about
Kabir's activities. When Sikandar asks what crime Kabir has committed, they
reply that he has "done an unconventional thing."34
He has abandoned the customs of the Muslims (musalamamna) and has broken the
touchabilityr ules of the Hindus.H e has scornedt he sacredb athingp laces (tTratha)a nd
the Vedas. He has scorned the nine planets, the sun and the moon. He has scorned
Sankara and the Mother. He has scorned the Sarada and Ganapati. He has scorned the
rites of the eleventh day of the fortnight, the offerings to the sacred fire and the ceremonies
for the dead. He has scorned the Brahmans, whom the whole world worships.
He has scorned service to one's mother and father, sisters, nieces, and all the gods.
He has scorned the hope of all religion [dharama], the six systems of metaphysics
[darasana] and the rites of the twelve months.
He has scorned the [Hindu] rosary, forehead mark, sacred thread, the Salagram stone
and the ten avatars. Kabir tells all these lies. He respects neither the Hindus nor the Turks.
In this way he has corrupted everyone. He has put both the Hindus and the Turks in the
same situation. As long as this low-caste weaver [julaha] stays in Banaras, no one will
respect us.
Here Anantadas is staking out a position for Kabir as separate from both the
Muslims and Hindus. Almost all the objects of Kabir's scorn that Anantadas
specifies, however, come directly from Hindu beliefs and practices, not Muslim
ones. Including as they do the major gods, avatars and goddesses, the life
cycle rites, the six darsanas, the sacred bathing places, the Vedas, the touchability
rules of caste, the sacred fire, and various seasonal observances, they
comprise a substantial part of the standard model of Hinduism.
The songs and verses of Kabir himself display a similar rejection of the beliefs
and practices of both Hinduism and Islam. Kabir lived in Banaras between
about 1450 and 1520 A.D., and is said to have been raised in a Muslim family
before becoming a follower of the Vaishnava guru Ramananda. The following
song from the Kabir-bijak illustrates his often reiterated assertion that both Hinduism
and Islam, as commonly practiced, had lost their grasp on spiritual
Tell me, brother. How can there be
Not one Lord of the world but two?
Who has led you so astray?
God has taken many names:
34 The precedingp hrasea nd the first paragrapho f the quote are from my publishedt ranslation
of the Niranjanir ecension.T he second paragraphis from the text in the oldest manuscripto f 1636
(Lorenzen 1991:107, 230).
35 Kabir-bijak (Kabir 1982), sabda 30. The Bijak, associated with the Kabir Panth, is one of
three old collections of his compositions. The others are the Dadu Panthi Kabir-granthavali and
the Sikh Adi-grantha.N ot all the compositions attributedt o Kabiri n these collections are necessarily
his, but all date from the sixteenth century. Many other songs with a similar message can be
quotedf rom all collections. See, for instance,K abir-bijaks, abdas 4 (anti-idolatry)8, (anti-avatars),
10 (anti-sacrifice), 61 (cremation/burial), 75 (Hindu/Turk bodies the same); Adi-grantha, dsa 5
(anti-yoga, anti-sastras), bhairo 20 (God is above Puranicg ods), vibhasa-prabhdtr2 (anti-ritual).
Translationsc an be found in Hess and Singh 1983, and Dass 1991, respectively.
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Names like Allah, Ram, Karim,
Kesav, Hari, and Hajarat.
Gold may be shaped into rings and bangles.
Isn't it gold all the same?
Distinctions are only words we invent.
One does namdz, one does pujd.
One has Siva, one Mohammed,
One has Adam, one Brahma.
Who is a Hindu, who a Turk?
Both must share a single world.
Koran or Vedas, both read their books.
One is a panda, one a mullah.
Each of them bears a separate name,
But every pot is made from clay.
Kabir says they are both mistaken.
Neither has found the only Ram.
One kills goats, the other cows.
They waste their lives in disputation.
The most interesting evidence relating to the Hindus' religious identity in the
period before 1800 comes from the historical romance called Kirtilata, a text
written in a dialect of Apabhramsa by the poet Vidyapati sometime early in fifteenth
century, roughly a hundred years before Kabir's songs.36 The hero of the
romance, Prince Kirtisimha, at one point passes through the city of Jonapur,
identified with modernJ aunpurV. idyapati'sd escriptiono f the Muslim quarter
of this city is imbued with a sharp anti-Muslim bias. In it he sets out a series of
contrasts between the religious customs of the Hindus and Muslims:37
The Hindus and the Turks live close together.
Each makes fun of the other's religion (dhamrme).
One calls the faithful to prayer. The other recites the Vedas.
One butchers animals by bleeding,
The other cuts (off their heads).
Some are called ojhds, others khvdjds.
Some (read) astrological signs, others fast in Ramadan.
Some eat from copper plates, others from pottery.
Some practice namdz, others do pujd.
The Turks coerce passers by into doing forced labor.
Grabbing hold of a Brahmin boy, they put a cow's vagina on his head.
They rub out his tilak and break his sacred thread.
They want to ride on horses. They use rice to make liquor.
They destroy temples and construct mosques.
One noteworthy aspect of this passage is the use of the word dharma (here
dhamme)-coupled with the words hindu and turake-to apparently mean
36 This difficult text has been well edited, analyzed and translated into modern Hindi by
Sivaprasad Simha (1988). The passages discussed here are also discussed by Gaeffke 1977 and Lutgendorf
1997:31-35. I thank Lutgendorf for bringing this text to my attention.
37 Simha 1988:269-70. I have followed Simha's interpretationth roughout.O jhdsa re a type of
Hindu healer and khvdjas a type of Muslim ascetic.
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something quite close to "religion of the Hindus" and "religion of the Muslims."
This clearly shows that this sense of dharma as "religion" (at the least "a set of
religious customs") is not simply a modern usage for a borrowed European concept
as Halbfass (1988:310) and others have suggested.
One other point that can be made here is that the above cited passages and
others of this type generally emphasize the differences in religious customs and
rituals rather than in philosophy or theology, between Hindus and Muslims,
although differences in religious texts and ideas are also noted. Customs and
rituals are, after all, the primary practical means that ordinary people use to
establish and mark off separate religious identities. In addition, we should remember
that poets such as Kabir, Dadu, Palatu, and Nanak repeatedly insist on
the one religious message that God and spiritual reality are the same no matter
what names we give them, nor what ideas we have about them. In their view,
the separate religious identities of Hindus and Muslims are based on mostly
worthless customs and ultimately false ideas. Only by seeing beyond such customs
and ideas can one establish a true religious identity: an identity that their
followers paradoxically define once again in sectarian terms.
Evidence of Hindus directly expressing consciousness of their identity as
Hindus is more difficult to encounter in the period before 1400, at leastin North
Indian Hindu sources. One interesting earlier reference comes from Andhra
Pradesh. Cynthia Talbot has analyzed how the military expansion of Muslim
dynasties into the Andhra region in 1323 A.D: led to a sharper sense of regional,
political and religious identity among the Hindu population of the region.
She notes (1995:700) that the title "Sultan among Hindu kings (hindu-rayasuratrana),"
p erhapst he earliestu se of the term" Hindu"in an Indianl anguage,
"begins to figure in Andhra inscriptions from 1352 C.E. onward." Talbot suggests
that these references to Hindu kings likely implied more a geographical
than a religious identity. Arguing against this, however, is the fact that Muslim
dynasties had already been in control of most of the Ganges valley since the
end of the twelfth century, i.e., for about 150 years before the first appearance
of the phrase "Sultan among Hindu kings" in the Andhra inscriptions. In the circumstances,
how could the Andhra kings consider their Muslim opponents to
be non-Hindu in a merely geographical sense, i.e., non-Indians?
There is one other early Hindu source that should be mentioned here. This is
the Prthvirajr aso, a historicalr omancea ttributedt o CandaB aradai.T his text
exists in several versions of quite different lengths, and its date has long been
disputed.T raditionallyit is said to have been composed not long afterM uhammad
Ghuri's 1192 A.D. defeat of the hero of the story, King Prthviraj. Most
scholars have argued that all, or all but one, of the versions of the text are more
recent, but they have not reached any consensus about which was written when.
All versions are full of referencest o "Hindus"a nd "Turks"( sometimes "mlecchas"),
but these references do not permit a clear distinction between the ethnic
and religious senses of the words, with one interesting exception. In the Asi-
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atic Society of Bengal's version, the text at one point states that "both religions
have drawn their curved swords" (dou dina dinam kadhT bamki assim).38 The
Hindi word dmn is of Arabic rather than Sanskrit origin, but its meaning as
"faith" or "religion" is not in doubt.
References to the Hindus and their religion in Muslim sources, mostly written
in Persian, are of less direct relevance here since they be cannot be used to directly
prove or disprove the existence of the self-identity of Hindus as Hindus.
These references also take the discussion into areas beyond my own linguistic
competence. Nonetheless, these texts, like the early sources in European languages,
are important for the evidence they offer about the existence of Hinduism
from the point of view of outside observers. According to Richard Eaton,
one of the earliesto ccurrenceso f the word "Hindu"in Islamic literaturea ppears
in 'Abd al-Malik 'Isami's Persian work, Futuhu s-salatin, composed in the Deccan
in 1350. In this text cIsamiu ses the word hindi to mean "Indian"in the ethno-
geographical sense, and the word hindu to mean "Hindu" in the sense of a
follower of the Hindu religion.39
According to Carl Ernst (1992), "the beginnings of the concept of 'Hindu'
religion are to be sought in the Persian literature of the Ghaznavid period, beginning
about 990," and its "more precise formulation" in the famous Arabic
work of al-Biruni (d. 1048). While Ernst curiously ignores the ample evidence
for the Hindus' own conceptualization of their religion, his identification of al-
Biruni as the first outside observer to formulate a clear and detailed representation
of Hinduism is undoubtedly correct. Al-Biruni was attempting to write a
general account of Indian religion, philosophy, literature, history, geography,
manners and customs, and festivals, and especially of Indian cosmography, astrology,
and astronomy. Although his emphases are different than those of the
other authors we have been discussing, his account of Hinduism covers most
of the topics of Monier-Williams' standard model.
Al-Biruni's text includes-roughly in order, and omitting secular topicsdiscussions
of the Hinduc oncepts of God, the soul, transmigrationh, eaven and
hell, morality and law, the three different paths to salvation, the pantheon of
gods, idol worship, the four social classes (varnas), the four Vedas, the eighteen
major Puranas, the law books (smrti), the Mahabharata, cosmogonic and
cosmographic theories and myths, theories of time cycles including the four yugas,
the mythology of Vishnu and his more important avatars, calendrical and
astronomical rites, linga worship and its mythology, the four life stages (daramas),
the rites and customs of various castes, pilgrimages, life cycle rites, dietary
customs and fasting, and calendrical festivals. Al-Biruni knew Sanskrit
38 Canda Baradai 1992:59.
39 Personalc ommunicationf rom RichardE atonc iting the edition and translationo f Agha Mahdi
Husain (London: Asia Publishing House, 1967): texts 405 and 606, trans. 2:613 and 3:902.
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and used various Sanskrit texts in his research, including the Bhagavad-gita,
Patanjali's Yoga-sutra, a text on Samkhya, the Visnu-purana, several other
Puranas, and many texts on astronomy, astrology, geography, and chronology.
Although the English translator liberally uses the word "Hindu," the original
Arabic text appears to only use phrases literally equivalent to "[of] the people
of India [hind]."40N onetheless, al-Birunic learly understoodt he differenceb etween
the people of India as a geographical or ethnic entity and as a religious
The main purpose of this essay has been to show that the claim of many scholars-
that Hinduism was invented by the British in the early nineteenth century-
is false. A larger issue, however, is also implicitly involved. This is the tendency
of many historians of modern India-especially those associated with
the subaltern school-to adopt a postcolonialist perspective that privileges the
British colonial period as the period in which almost all the major institutions
of Indian society and politics were invented or constructed. As Richard Eaton
(1998) notes in a recent critique of these historians: "The notion of 'postcoloniality'
situated all Indian time in reference to the British imperial period: time
was either precolonial, colonial, or postcolonial."
One postcolonialist historian, Nicholas Dirks (1989:43), has claimed that
even caste, that uniquely Indian institution, was in some sense invented by the
British: "Colonialism seems to have created much of what is now accepted as
Indian 'tradition,' including an autonomous caste structure with the Brahman
clearly and unambiguously at the head." Although Dirks is using hyperbole to
makeh is point, andh e does include some importantb ut easily overlookedq ualifications,
the arguments eems to me to be grossly overstated.41A s the Hindi
critic PurushottomA grawalr ecentlyq uipped:" We Indiansm ay well have been
denied the capacity to solve our own problems, but are we so incapable that we
could not even create them on our own?" Caste, like Hinduism, undoubtedly
responded to the British conquest with significant changes, but neither institution
was so radically transformed during the colonial period that it makes any
sense, even in terms of a transformationo f preexistingi nstitutionso r concepts,
to claim that the British invented them. Whatever cultural garments the British
stitched together, caste and Hinduism weren't among them. At least in these respects,
the Empire has no clothes.
If Hinduism is a construct or invention, then, it is not a colonial one, nor a
European one, nor even an exclusively Indian one. It is a construct or invention
40 This at least is the preliminary conclusion of Richard Eaton, who kindly looked through the
Arabic text for the original equivalents at my request.
41 To this statement, from Dirks' essay "The Invention of Caste: Civil Society in Colonial India"
(1989) can be added another ambitious claim he makes in a more recent text (1992:3): "Even
as much of what we now recognize as culture was produced by the colonial encounter, the concept
itself was in part invented because of it." Both these passages are cited in Eaton 1998.
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only in the vague and commonsensical way that any large institution is, be it
Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, communism, or parliamentary democracy.
In other words, it is an institution created out of a long historical interaction
between a set of basic ideas and the infinitely complex and variegated socioreligious
beliefs and practices that structure the everyday life of individuals and
small, local groups.
In this interaction, both the basic ideas and the everyday beliefs and practices
are constantly changing-sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. Major historical
changes in the economic and political institutions of India during the Turco-
Afghan conquest, the Mughal invasion, the consolidation of the Mughal
polity, and the establishment of the British colonial regime undoubtedly effected
important changes in the religious traditions of India, but the rapid
changes of early colonial times never had such an overwhelming impact that
they could have led to the invention of Hinduism. Hinduism wasn't invented
sometime after 1800, or even around the time of the establishment of the
Delhi Sultanate. What did happen during the centuries of rule by dynasties of
Muslim sultans and emperors was that Hindus developed a consciousness of a
shared religious identity based on the loose family resemblance among the variegated
beliefs and practices of Hindus, whatever their sect, caste, chosen deity,
or theological school.
From the point of view of a modern observer, one can see the family resemblance
taking a recognizably Hindu shape in the early Puranas, roughly around
the period 300-600 C.E. Although the religion of these Puranas displays many
continuities with the earlier Vedic religion, its principal features and emphases-
particularly its greatly expanded mythology of the gods Vishnu, Siva
and Devi-do, I think, justify marking this religion off as something new, as
the beginning of medieval and modern Hinduism. This Hinduism wasn't invented
by anyone, European or Indian. Like Topsy, it just grow'd.
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