Are We Witnessing a Radical Change in Hinduism?

A Thousand Years of Foreign Invasions and Dominance seem to be triggering a Backlash!

Are We Witnessing a Radical Change in Hinduism?
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Hinduism as the traditional way of dharma based life has been followed in India religiously since as long as the human history is recorded. It survived several onslaughts from foreign invaders, new ideas like Buddhism and new religions like Islam and Christianity. Yet, in the 21st century, two great opposing changes seem to putting it on the verge of a radical transformation.

The greatest contribution of a civilization is that it preserves itself in the face of adversity and ensures survival of its people. Indian civilization is the oldest living civilization on this planet, which has sustained, survived and preserved its essence against all odds, including a thousand years of recurrent foreign invasions, political subjugation by some of them, and two centuries of colonization and severe economic exploitation.

However, today, even though the foreign domination has been shrugged off and Indian society is back on its way to regain its lost prosperity and momentum, we are witnessing rapid changes in society and orientation of people that can make one wonder as to whether we are witnessing a radical change in a traditional civilization.

Two Opposing Forces at Work

If one compares the religious and cultural commitments of the latest generation with the older ones, it is inevitable to see a significant degree of modernization creeping in a more globalized, cosmopolitan generation today. One can also easily witness a certain degree of dilution in their approach towards traditions, including religious practices as well the core social values, especially towards extramarital sex that has been characteristic of traditional Indian society. The family based culture is clearly giving way and in its place we see a more individualistic society that is more liberalized and less self restrained, far more ambitious and relatively impatient as well.

However, one can also see a certain degree of politicization of the term, with more and more people relating it to communal bonding and sometimes relating it with nationalism. The demands for pushing the state towards Hindu religious identity have come to acquire a certain degree of popularity in Indian political space now, making Hinduism less of a way of life, which was to be practiced and more like a communal identity similar to that projected by Western religions such as Islam and Christianity.

Thus, there are two, almost opposing forces that seem to be changing the very nature of Hinduism as it has traditionally been. One is trying to pull it towards its submergence towards a cosmopolitan culture that makes all identities merely superficial, while the other is pushing it towards an identity politics that is rigid, less a matter of practice and more of a jingoistic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ distinction of the sort common to Western religion and radical nationalism.

What is Hinduism?

Before we accept a similar judgment about Hinduism, we need to make sure we understand as to what we mean by the word 'Hinduism'.

Ancient Indians did not all themselves Hindu.

In fact, this word did not even originate in India. Hinduism refers to Hindu which itself is a term derived by the word Sindhu meaning river. The area of North India has several rivers around which the human civilization developed its first roots in that part of the world. This land was called land of seven rivers or Sapta Sindhu in Sanskrit and Prakrit languages practices during the last few thousand years in North India. Sapta Sindhu was called Sindhu in short.

The word Hindu was used by Western, primarily Arab traders, who used with territorial connotation. As part of accent distortion, the ‘S’ in Sindhu was replaced by ‘H’ which is more pronounced in Middle East languages, resulting in the term Hindu, which was used to refer to India and the people living here. It was also used to denote their religious and cultural practices. Gradually, with the advent of Muslim rulers and later, Europeans, religion as an identity became important and the word Hindu became the de-facto term to refer to the religious philosophies and practices of people of India.

A Religion or a Way of Life

The ancient India followed and practiced religious philosophies that centered on Sanatan Dharma, which literally means Eternal duty. Interestingly, Dharma is not the same as religion. Dharma means duty, and this duty is comprised of the various responsibilities that a person has undertaken in a society. So the duties of a soldier are not the same as the duties of a scholar. Similarly, the duties of a father are different from the duties of the son, though when the son becomes a father, he has to carry out the same duties that his father carried out. Depending upon his circumstances and commitments, dharma of a person can differ from another person. However, that does not mean that they belong to different faiths or social value systems.

Another manner in which Dharma is very different from the religions is that in ancient India, many schools of thought developed and prospered and are still followed. One may not agree with opposite views but they are all respected at the same time. This is very different from the Western religions, which are far more rigid, must find their answers within a given holy text or narration, find it difficult to tolerate opposing views, generally have only one answer to every religious question, and those not adhering to it strictly and faithfully are not taken very kindly.

At a broader level, if we take into account the civilizational context in which the traditional social value system centered on dharma evolved, one can see that Hinduism is not merely a belief and faith in the name of almighty god. It is much more. It is largely a way of life - a set of socially accepted rules aimed at social harmony and peaceful co-existence. Perhaps, it is the rigid commitment to these social norms that make them appear somewhat similar to religion.

In more recent times, as the family shrinks and people become more individualistic, many of these rules which have survived the scrutiny of time are no more a matter of religious faith for the young Hindus. So the duty of a father as well as that of the son may become somewhat diluted in a society of self centered individuals, and that is where Hinduism may seem to be losing some ground.

Effects of Globalization

Globalization has led to exposure to different societies, and thereby made people rethink about the way they go about living as a society. Many of the traditional practices in the Hindu society have outlived their relevance and are slowly disappearing. This change in such practices and traditions, combined with adoption of many aspects of Western culture, like dress, use of English, nuclear families, rising divorces and greater tolerance to extra marital sex may sometimes give the impression that new generation of Hindus are not so Hindu anymore.

If the term Hinduism in their context refers to ancient Indian culture, this would be largely true. However, if that reference pertains to the so called religion, it would be far from accurate. The essence of Hinduism is the concept of duty as well as the openness to different and opposing views of thought, which continues to thrive in a modernizing society, and does not look like being in any real danger.

It is this acceptance of liberty and reason as well as a tolerance of differing views while maintaining that every person needs to perform her duties religiously to obtain a harmonious and productive social order, which as the core of Hinduism, gives it the strength that has sustained it during last several thousand years. With time, superficialities and appearances will change, as they have done over the centuries, and yet the essence of Hinduism will survive.

Strengthening of Communal Identities

Communal identification is embedded in the Western civilizations and was primarily responsible for the evolution of both Western religions like Christianity and Islam, as well as the concept of nations and nation state. These are all imaginary communal identities, backed by a philosophy that demands absolute communal loyalties, again a practice derived from the tribes of the medieval times. Similar to the fears of persecution in a tribal world, they instill animosity against all except your own, reinforcing the stress between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

On the other hand, such rigid identities are relatively diluted in all liberal civilizations, like they were in India and China for centuries, assimilating streams of newcomers in the larger ocean of humanity. Today, however, both these civilizations seem to be witnessing a change, partly at least, as a result of their adverse experiences at the hands of more communalized foreign forces. China has already made big strides towards converting itself to a nation state with a single racial and national identity. India seems to be just beginning to witness this change, with a part of society, especially from among youths, indicating strong preferences towards rigid religious and national identities. That this change coincides with a tilt towards right in the electoral politics may not just be an accidental coincidence, but perhaps an indicator of more deep rooted changes in the Indian society.

We might be witnessing the adoption of a more rigid view of Hinduism in India than has ever been there in its several thousand years of history!

Significance of these Changes

Both the movement towards the cosmopolitan culture of a highly globalized world as well as the strengthening of the rigid communal identity of Hinduism, indicate in some way, a dilution of original and traditional Hinduism. The first of them, though it looks like a dilution superficially, may not actually be so simply because the liberal world view and openness based on reason has always been a core and essential value of Indian civilization. The changes of globalization are largely in conformity with it, except of course the dilution of family values and growth of individualism.

Ironically, the second change, which we seem to be witnessing in the form of strengthening of rigid communal identity, could be a far more radical change in traditional Hinduism. It actually amounts to diluting the liberal social values of Indian tradition and adopting the rigid and communal values of the Western civilizations that peaked in Europe between the seventeenth and twentieth century and seem to be losing force during the last hundred years or so.

If indeed these changes lead to a radical shift in Hinduism, it would mean that a thousand years of foreign invasions, exploitation and dominance has finally taken its toll on a liberal civilization that had succeeded in preserving its essence so far!

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