Thursday, April 21, 2011

When was Hinduism born?

The building of a "Hindu" identity is a complex, but fascinating process.

I often struggle whenever I have to label non-Buddhist Classical Indian Philosophy. I do not like the label "brahmanical", since it might work from a sociological point of view, but –being not a marxist myself;-)– I doubt that there is something like a common ideology in systems whose concern with the Veda, to name just an example, is quite different. Why should Sāṅkhya, with its violent attacks against sacrifice, be said to be "brahmanical"? The label only works if it is almost deprived of any meaning at all, apart from the sociological one. But at that point it might become dangerous, insofar as it suggests to readers a commonness which was perhaps not there.
Of course, many scholars might reply that Brahmans had a common agenda and that this agenda influences works written in all systems of Indian thought. This might well be, but:
  1. 1. I doubt the possible homogeneity of such an agenda (one should then rather talk of "brahmanical, bengali, 1st c. CE" philosophy, etc.).
  2. 2. I doubt that this agenda was everywhere and under all respects radically different than the "Jaina" or "Buddhist" ones.
"Buddhism and Hinduism"
By contrast, if one looks at the Buddhist field, one notices that there might be something common in whatever Buddhists react against. Buddhist thinkers tried to create an own system of knowledge, with an own grammar (Candravyākaraṇa…), an own epistemology, Buddhist "universities", etc. Since they explicitly tried to distinguish themselves from something, I cannot resist asking whether they could see a single "thing" they want to part company with. Alternatively, they might have contributed to the building of the identity of "Hindus" insofar as they could at least identify themselves as non-Buddhists.
What do you think? Did Buddhists happen to build some sort of proto-Hinduism? Or is Indian Buddhism (especially until the end of the first half of the first Millennium CE) hardly more than a "special case" within a non-connoted mass of religious beliefs?

If you are interested in this topic, you might want to have a look at this interview with A. Nicholson about his book Unifying Hinduism.


Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

Whenever one defines a category by "X is not Y" one will always have to refer to Y when discussing it. Especially if the only thing non-Buddhist groups have in common, apart from being Indian, is that they are not Buddhist.

It would be like talking about the way most of Europe is not British. 'Non-British' is not a category that conveys much, nor would it be one used by Europeans themselves. Though one might use it when in Britain; or the British themselves might use it [do use it!]. At the moment we have this phrase in the news non-EU immigration (which is a bad thing apparently!).

To be a properly formed category there should be some feature or quality held in common by members of the category, though of course there can be degrees of membership (closer or more distant relationship to the prototypical member) - following George Lakoff.

Surely 'Brahmin' is a word for a endogamous group of people who live/d a variety of lifestyles and practise/d a number of different religions (over time anyway). One is not a Brahmin by virtue of a set of beliefs or practices (as they themselves will tell you!); one is a Brahmin by birth. The definition is inherently social.

A feature of the Indian religious landscape was competition between groups. This manifested as polemic and chauvinist discourses. But it also resulted in assimilation of social groups, concepts, symbols, and practices. All of them doing it, all of the time. This is so very different from Christian Europe. Have we Western scholars really come to grips with this different paradigm? I'd say that many practising Buddhists and Buddhologists have not.

Isn't there a tension between needing to impose categories and structures for the purposes of study, and the self identifications of the people whose ideas we study? For instance how did Sāṅkhya identify himself? How did he identify his opponents? What were his categories?

Lastly I don't think it's a matter of homogeneity or the lack of it. It's the scale of the map you are using. At 1:1 there is lot's of detail; at 1:25k houses are visible, but not people; at 1:250k towns but not houses; etc. It's not that at 1:250k there are no houses! And with a microscope or a telescope one can change the level of detail one sees by changing the scale. It's useful to be able to generalise at different scales. If you are clear about what scale you are using, then you can make generalisations appropriate to that scale, and not be open to criticism from pedants who like nothing more than to point out that "P is not monolithic".

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,
thanks for the smart comment.
If I am following you, Buddhists:"Hindus" = British="non-British"
In other words, it is not necessarily the case that all non-British Europeans agree in considering themselves members of a single category, but certainly the fact that British do helps in making external observers think that there is something common to Spanish and Polnish people. Of course, the more influential the British/Buddhist paradigma is, the more effective the identification.

I am afraid I am a member (;-)) of the group you blame with:

"A feature of the Indian religious landscape was competition between groups. This manifested as polemic and chauvinist discourses. But it also resulted in assimilation of social groups, concepts, symbols, and practices. All of them doing it, all of the time. This is so very different from Christian Europe. Have we Western scholars really come to grips with this different paradigm? I'd say that many practising Buddhists and Buddhologists have not."

Could you elaborate further about it?

I completely agree with your last point, in fact I agree so much that I think I'll dedicate a post to it.

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

Yes. You've caught my drift.

The thing about the Indian religious landscape I know best from the Buddhist end (as usual). It's obvious that at every point in the development of Buddhism in India (and to some extent beyond) there have been at least two responses to other groups.

1. polemics which show that the other group have got everything wrong. Other religious leaders are at best idiots, at worst charlatans deliberately misleading people. Their views are distorted and misrepresented in Buddhist texts: Brahmins are greedy fools, whose words are empty, vain, and useless for instance (e.g. Tevijjā Sutta). These texts often seem to exhibit what we might call an inferiority complex - they protest too much, as though composed by people lacking confidence. (This continues to the present day - as I discovered when I read the Vedas and Upaniṣads for myself!)

2. Obvious assimilations. Early Buddhists borrowed from Jaina and other śramaṇa groups - for example in the promotion of ahiṃsa. The early Buddhist version of karma is an adaptation of Jaina ideas (far more so than Brahmanical ideas, though recent scholarship suggests that the Brahmins also got the idea of karma from Jains). I know Mahāyāna less well but Tathāgatagarbha shows every sign of borrowing from ātman doctrines. The Golden Light Sūtra features Sārasvati and Śrī (aka Lakṣmi). Later, in Buddhist Tantra they are clearly drawing on popular religion in many forms - purification with cow dung features prominently for instance! There are several texts where Śiva is converted to Buddhism - yes, Lord Śiva is actually a Buddhist these days! Later Tantric texts are obviously drawing on Śaiva ritual forms. Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Avalokita Īśvara) especially draws on Śiva's iconography, and his name.

I gather that Hinduism is not much different. Everyone in India knows that the Buddha is the 9th avatar of Viṣṇu for instance. But scholars also see the influence from, or the reaction to, the Buddhists and to other nastika groups. I understand that in assimilating groups to Hinduism that local hereditary priests could be made honorary Brahmins. Presumably this is what happened in South Indian amou

So this is the norm. There is no single hegemonic group, though influence waxes and wanes. Unlike the Roman church, Indians deal with heterodoxy by writing petulant polemics -- which you study :-) -- and assimilating their enemy's deities and religious practices and claiming they made them up in the first place.

Most Westerners still think of religion in terms of orthodoxy. A Buddhist form assimiliated from a Hindu milieu is seen as a foreign element, a degeneration or corruption (all terms I have seen used in scholarly works!). D. T. Suzuki talks about mantra use by Buddhists as an example of the abnormal religious practices of India! Western scholars are often obsessed with ur-texts and forms as you know. We seek the pristine uncorrupted form. Any kind of development is likely to be interpreted as adherents failing to understand their own doctrines.

I would argue this is because we think in terms of the Christian myth of "before the fall". Heterodoxy is problem to be solved for us, and preferably stamped out; certainly not a thing to be embraced. Though of course in the area of caste purity the Indians make us look like amateurs!

I haven't done much to systematise these thoughts. A couple of blogs from a few years ago:

Buddhism and Hinduism
Religion in India and the West

elisa freschi said...

Thanks Jayarava,
I replied with a comment on "Buddhism and Hinduism".
I really appreciate your point about *our* problem with "Being the first". It seems to me so stupidely parallel to the pre-1968 habit of men to only want to be a girl's "first love" (personally, I would rather prefer to be someone's *last* one;-))

balaji said...

i feel Hinduism is really a bad choice of a word. i prefer equating Hindu with India. like in "Hindu religions" (indian religions) which includes Brahmanism, Vaishnavism, Saivism, Shaktaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, kabir panth, apathani religion and the scores of other religions. majority of Hindus tend to be multi-religious (both theist and atheist) or non-denominational believers. few are secular (irreligious) atheists.

as for Brahmanism, i think its a good word, as in discussing or worshiping the aspects of Brahman. my meaning of the word Brahman is the cosmos. its a spiritual but atheist view. incidentally i was raised in a family who are followers of the advaita philosophy of Sankara. none of my relatives in many generations have been priests, so not sure if the word brahmin can apply to us. but the phrase "lay brahman" (worshipers of the sun and the brahman-cosmos and personal performers of the vedic rituals) can perhaps be used.

Brahmanism is an ancient religion just like Judaism and Zoroastrianism. reducing Brahmanism to be the religion of its priests will be like calling the other two Rabbism and Maggism respectively.

the disaster you refer to (i guess) in the attitude of Brahmanism towards the fourth varna (sudras) and the historical outcasts (pariah) and the varna system itself may become irrelevant as literacy and prosperity spreads in India.

and btw caste (jati) is different. i think its unrelated to religion, as we find caste differences among most hindu communities (including muslims and christians).

elisa freschi said...

Dear Balaji,
thanks for your comment and for sharing your views.
"Indian religions" is a geographic label. It is, hence, not false, but not particularly valuable as soon as one wants to zoom closer (see the end of Jayarava's first comment to this post).
Your feeling about "Brahmanism" is interesting also because it shows how *not* to use it. "Brahmanism" is in fact used in (Western?) Sanskrit studies to refer to "Hinduism" and not just to Advaita Vedānta. I guess it parallels the shift from "Buddhism" to "Lamaism" to describe Tibet's religion. If used in this way, "Brahmanism" is based on the sociology of this "religion" and it is interesting to read your criticism of this point.
You seem to imply, though, that "Brahmanism" might be used as a synonym of "believer/practitioner of a Vedic or late-Vedic cult". Is this correct? What shall we do, then, to identify Pañcarātra authors, Advaita Vedāntins and Śaivsiddhāntins? Or does it just not make sense to group them together?

Balaji Chitra Ganesan said...

thanks for taking time to respond to my comment.

oh, sorry, i didn't mean to equate brahmanism with advaita. just that i happen to be a follower of advaita philosophy.

i feel brahmanism is the study and worship of brahman. its a successor to the ancient vedic religion of the aryas. not sure if other branches of the aryas like Zoroastrians or other central asians venerated the concept of brahman. (excuse me if my use of the terms here is wrong or if my knowledge is shallow.) i'm trying to separate the people from the philosophy here.

as for the question of hinduism being the successor of brahmanism, i'm not sure. i think the priests class of brahmanism (some castes of current day brahmins) took up priestly duties in other religions like saivism, shaktaism and rural cults and hence leading to the view that hinduism is the combined religion. this is fair enough for laymen. but i think philosophers ought to keep the distinction of what constitutes brahmanism.

>> You seem to imply, though, that "Brahmanism" might be used as a synonym of "believer/practitioner of a Vedic or late-Vedic cult". Is this correct? <<

yes, thats my view. but the cult has later advanced in philosophy.

>> What shall we do, then, to identify Pañcarātra authors, Advaita Vedāntins and Śaivsiddhāntins <<

Pancaratra authors and advaita vedantins are definitely part of brahmanism. so are the followers of dvaita philosophers madhvacharya and raghavendra.

i personally don't think saivasiddhantins are part of brahmanism. though saiva worship was (and is) prevalent among the followers of brahmanism. my own family worships 6 gods as recommended by Adi sankara. shiva, shakti, visnu, ganesha, sun and skanda. skanda was clearly a borrowed non-brahmanical deity (muruga) in the tamil country.

>> Or does it just not make sense to group them together? <<

i wish its not grouped. atleast personally it helps me to concentrate just on advaita while being fully aware that its just one school of vedanta which in-turn is part of brahmanism. and while studying advaita, i study the works of three institutes, the sankara mutts, chinmaya mission and ramakrishna mutt.


vidyaranya, one of the later heads of the sringeri sankara mutt, as you'll know, listed 16 philosophies prevalent in his time. 16th was advaita vedanta. but the list included carvakas, buddhism, jainism. now the temptation will be to group all sixteen under hinduism. but thats not what we'll do now.


interestingly i have read posts by Jayarava on the role played by the former followers of brahmanism in the early development of buddhism. just like we won't group buddhism under "hinduism" merely becos of this association, its probably not a good idea to group brahmanism, saivism, shaktaism under "hinduism".


i think an attempt was made to distinguish brahmanism (or vedi-brahmanism as they called it) in the Arya Samaj movement of late 18th to early 19th century in the Punjab province of india. but this movement had unforeseen or even say undesirable consequences (linguistic chauvinism).

elisa freschi said...

Dear Balaji,

I just come back from a workshop on "Open Pages in South Asian Studies", in Moscow. The (fascinating) talk of Manuela Ciotti focused on deconstructing the concept of "Dalit". During the intriguing discussion that followed, needless to say, during the coffee-break, Manuela, Dominik Wujastik, William Vanderbok and myself discussed about such categories. Dominik's suggestion was that it all depends on how wide is the perspective. If you are drawing a 1:10 map, you are expected to embed in it tons of details. If, on the other hand, you are drawing a 1:1.000.000 one, you SHOULD not embed to many details, or your map would end up being confused. To sum up: maybe "Hinduism" is not too bad, if one is looking at it from a very wide angle. But as soon as one gets closer, it just falls apart.

balaji said...

true, i see your point.

and thanks for pointing to asiatica. will follow the happenings there.

elisa freschi said...

Great. Look forward to "meet" you there, too.

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

The difference between Hindus and Buddhists originally was the difference between the Brahmanical (settled) model of life and the Sramanical (mendicant) model of life.

Buddhism just made the sramanical model more 'sexy'.

The common people by default fell into the brahmanical model unless they chose to relinquish their posessions and adopt the sramanical model.

Since sramanas could not beget children, Sramanism could never overtake Brahmanism by numbers, nor did it intend to do so, as Sramanas had to beg for a living from householders. The brahmanical model did attempt to absorb buddhism (and sramanism as a whole) by inventing 'saMnyAsa'.

elisa freschi said...

Well, but there were ascetics also before the Buddha… Thus, I would not say that Sramanic=Buddhist. Would not it be more suitable to say that Buddhism adopted sramanic attitudes? And that also Brahmanism tried to embed them?

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

Hi Elisa,

Hindu(= Indian) - Geographical Identity
Brahmin - Ethnic Identity
Buddhist - Religious Identity
Sramana - Lifestyle Identity

Therefore the following combinations are possible (not just in theory; there have been historical people who would fit into one of these combinations):

Hindu Brahmin
Hindu Sramana
Buddhist Hindu
Buddhist Brahmin
Brahmin Sramana
Buddhist Sramana

(1) The word 'Hindu' is meaningless except in a geographical context, otherwise it can only be a 'catch-all' term.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for the reply, Brāhmaṇaspati. Why do you think that "Brahmin" denotes an "Ethnic identity"? There have been Tamil Brahmins as well as Northern Indian ones…
As for the meaning of Hindu, I see your point, which is historically well-grounded, given that Hindū just meant that. But don't you think one needs a term other than Brahmanical to identify the attempts to create a syncretic Indian Weltanschauung? (Maybe the answer is not, and a single word is just misleading…I would be happy to read your opinion about it).

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

The Brahmins (wherever they may live and whatever languages they may speak now) all trace their ancestry (through their gotra) to the RSis who first composed the Vedas, isn't it?

For example a Brahmin of the bhAradvAja gotra might offer his salutations (abhivAdanam) identifying his gotra and his pravAra RSis thus:


AGgirasa bArhaspatya bhAradvAja trayARSeya pravarAnvita

bhAradvAja gotraH

drAhyAyana sUtraH

yajuS zAkha adhyAyet

srInivAsa zarmA nAma

aham asmi bhoH

Commonly the pravAra RSis identified are three but some gotras identify five.

elisa freschi said...

Well, would you take these series of ancestors as "ethnic"? Are not they rather an ideal genealogy?

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

Do you mean to say that the list of pravAra RSis may be made up, or that the concept of gotra itself is not grounded on actual genealogy.

If that were so why have they ever since refused to marry sagotra (within the same gotra) on the pretext that it would amount to incest?

The concept of Gotra and the pravAra RSs is almost as old as the vedas themselves and the list of pravAra RSis was frozen before the end of the Vedic period. The gotra is usually named after a rishi who lived long enough to see 7 generations of his family (3 up and 3 down besides his own).

elisa freschi said...

I am not in the position to be able to say whether the actual Brahmins are all descendants from ṛṣis or not. Probably they are, but the issue does not particularly interest me.
What I meant to say is, rather, that in the ṛṣi-based genealogies there is much *more* than a loose genetic connection. One is connected to what a certain ṛṣi represents, not just to a trace of his DNA. For instance, would you say that the Roman emperor Ottavianus Augustus was not the son of Caesar because he was his adoptive (and not biological) son? Was not he all the more his son because he had chosen to be it?

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

As far as I understand it, the RSi based genealogy is strictly biological currently. It has nothing to do with what any RSi represented. In the Vedic period when gotras were still small families and when people stayed close to one another, it may have had more significance than mere biology. Today each gotra has millions of individuals so it is no more possible to keep old associations intact.

Phillip said...

[Why do you think that "Brahmin" denotes an "Ethnic identity"? There have been Tamil Brahmins as well as Northern Indian ones…]

Do traditional brahmins believe in a Tamil ethnicity? Perhaps we are dealing with different concepts of ethnicity here. In Marathi at least, and I suppose also in modern Sanskrit, race is translated as वंश, interestingly.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for the comments, Aśvamitra and Brāhmaṇaspati. I think Aśvamitra might be right, and the concept of "ethnos" might be in need of further specification. As for biology, I am not competent enough to say whether or not the members of a same gotras are descendants of the same ancestor (and, as it is probably apparent, I cannot understand why this should matter so much).

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

Probably I used the wrong word. I should have used the word 'ancestry' rather than ethnicity for I meant to say that to call oneself a Brahmin (or indeed a Kshatriya or Vaishya), one had to know one's biological ancestry.

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Brāhmaṇaspati, for getting back to the point. "Ancestry" makes better sense, in fact. Still, I wonder: why adding "biological"? Does not ancestry go beyond one's genes, to include, instead, one's feeling of belonging to one's family, of sharing something with one's forefathers, etc.? In this connection: what about adopted children?

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

Yes, cultural ancestry is a necessary determinant of varṇa. If someone did not accept their varṇa or its social and cultural heritage, or acted in a way which evidenced this, they were either excommunicated or could leave the varṇa of their own accord. The test of cultural ancestry however, though necessary, was not sufficient by itself to determine varṇa. One also had to be born into the varṇa that one claimed to belong to, and though the tradition documents exceptions to this rule (usually where the results of the cultural ancestry test were strong enough to make the biological test meaningless), right from the earliest days as in the case of viśwāmitra, it also proves the existence of the rule.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Brāhmaṇaspati, for taking the pain to answer again. I guess that part of our slight disagreement lies in the fact that there might have been different rules for different historical times (perhaps one's "vocation" was initially more important than one's "blood"). Plus, I am probably biased against genes (which to me signify little) and in favour of cultural belonging.

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

Yes indeed, we are apparently speaking about two different things.

I was speaking about the historical acceptance of biological ancestry as the determinant of varṇa in India.

You are apparently speaking of an ideal definition for ancestry.

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