Hinduism in India: The Early Period


Greg Bailey & Geoffrey A. Oddie

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    For Nola

    Introduction: Hinduism in India

    This book and Hinduism in India: Modern and Contemporary Movements by SAGE Publications are examples of exploratory studies of major religions in the Asian region. They consist of original chapters contributed by a deliberate complement of elite and emerging scholars (i.e., the next generation of elite scholars). These are also international in their scholarly representation and interdisciplinary in scope, including, for example, chapters by historians, linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, religionists, and others.

    The chapters contain a great deal of material that offers a fresh and original contribution to knowledge and understanding and which, in that sense, will supplement and update entries in existing encyclopedias. Clearly, it is impossible to deal with all the issues and topics that might be thought of as relating to Hinduism, especially as the term Hinduism is an ill-defined, somewhat amorphous concept about which there is no agreement and which relates to a very broad range of different topics. Continuous research in archeology, anthropology, mythology, vernacular literatures, and history and the development of new movements have greatly increased an ever-expanding field of inquiry into the subject; and what we hope to do in these books is not to offer any kind of overall survey, but to highlight some of the issues and debates, to point to new research and interpretations, and to open up the field still more widely for further inquiries. For the latter purpose, we have included bibliographies, which should be useful not only for those wanting to develop a basic knowledge of Hinduism, but also for researchers doing original research and wanting to know the latest publications in their particular field of inquiry. Furthermore, some of the topics included, such as Birtchnell's chapter on Hinduism and economics, Rao's on the modern media and Lahiri-Roy's discussion of urban Hindu arranged marriage, are topics seldom considered among entries on Hinduism. At the same time, some of the other chapters explore newly emerging and challenging methods of interpretation. Clear examples of this are Bailey's chapter on “mythology” in Hinduism in India: The Early Period (referred to as The Early Period hereafter in this section) in which he discusses “four modes of approach to the study of Hindu mythology” and Spurr's analysis of the different interpretations of the modern guru phenomenon in Hinduism in India: Modern and Contemporary Movements (referred to as Modern and Contemporary Movements hereafter). Also important in the latter volume is Malik's emphasis on folk tradition and his challenge to simplistic ideas of “the little tradition” in discussions of the concept of “the great and little tradition.”

    The chapters here and in Modern and Contemporary Movements are intended primarily for those wishing to pursue further reading and, especially, research—for those already familiar with much in Hinduism, but who want to identify significant issues to become familiar with more recent publications and to extend and develop their own work. At the same time, it is expected that many of the chapters will also prove accessible and useful for others, such as students, workers in aid organizations, people in business and diplomats, wanting to gain further knowledge and a deeper understanding of major aspects of India's religious and cultural heritage. It is especially for their benefit that Bailey, in The Early Period, has included a commentary on some of the major and most influential concepts that emerged in the history of early Hinduism. It is also for the sake of those who are not well versed in Asian history that Sweetman, in Modern and Contemporary Movements, outlines some of the major changes, including the advent of colonialism and the increased influence of overseas communities, in shaping Hindu ideas and practice in India during the modern era.

    Given that the topic of Hinduism is such an extensive and ever-expanding field of inquiry, it was decided that these studies should be restricted to developments in India itself. There might, for example, have been studies of Hinduism in Nepal or in different countries in Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia or Indonesia, or still further afield of Hinduism and the diaspora in places such as Britain, South Africa, Canada, Australia, or the USA. Furthermore, linked with the obvious need to restrict the number of chapters in the current publication was an important methodological consideration. This is the fact that in all studies of Hinduism, the actual context of developments is all important. Detailed studies of Hinduism outside of India, while instructive, would have necessitated further discussion of the varied contexts in which Hindu ideas and practices were established, and perhaps changed, and have come to influence the lives of millions outside of India itself; and this discussion would have added greatly to the overall size of our project. Sweetman's overview of the growth of Hindu communities overseas (mostly during the period of the British Raj) is a relevant and timely contribution. Some additional references to Hindus overseas are for comparative purposes, for example, to illustrate differences in Hindu temple architecture in India and in Southeast Asia or to compare Hindu gurus, some of whom live and flourish in the USA. While these comparisons provide us with further insights into the nature of Hinduism in India, another important issue that is raised, for example, in Rao's chapter, is the part played by overseas Hindu communities in furthering particular views of Hinduism and in the development of Hindu nationalist organizations and ideology in India itself.

    Our sense of the importance of the context not only influenced our decision to focus primarily on Hinduism in India alone, but also the decision to arrange chapters in two books—an arrangement that allows for the influence of a changing historical context including the sequence of events and developments over time. Hence, while The Early Period focuses primarily on Hinduism in early India, chapters in Modern and Contemporary Movements grapple with issues and changes that have taken place since about the end of the eighteenth century (a) during the period of increasing European contact and colonization and (b) in the postcolonial situation.

    Another major consideration, apart from the context and clearly apparent in many of the contributions, is a concern with the process of continuity and change. The importance of continuities in the history of Hinduism, in Hindu philosophy and mythology, in teachings and rituals, and even in the social system, emerges in discussion in a number of chapters that follow. For example, Malinar, who discusses “the evolution” of three religious pathways, argues that they have always been there from very early times. Lott also focuses on continuity as well as change in his chapter on “theology” or God within the wide-ranging metaphysical world of Hindu tradition, while Michaels, in his discussion, mentions aspects of Vedic sacrifice that have persisted in spite of many changes and developments in ritual practice. Furthermore, while pointing to enormous changes in modern methods of communication Rao reminds her readers that these have enabled Hindus to communicate “more of the same”. Also significant is Srivastava's reference to continuities in connection with caste, for example, the ongoing influence of ancient Hindu texts, including the idea of varṇa (caste [lit. color]), which continues to reinforce the status of the brahmans in India today.

    But while there has been, and there is, continuity, there is also modification and change—developments that took place in early India, as well as in subsequent centuries and up to the present time. Indeed, one of the more difficult challenges for scholars is to discover or identify what changes were evolving or taking place. Why did some traditions persist, while others were modified or disappeared? How do we explain the emergence of new ideas and practices including the particular conglomeration and complexities in what is called Hinduism today? In his chapter on the Mahabharata and Dharma in The Early Period, Bowles investigates changing ideas of dharma and sees these as reflecting the rise and influence of the Buddhism, Jainism, and other religious movements in early India. Spurr, in Hinduism in India: Modern and Contemporary Movements, also takes up the challenge of continuity and degrees of change in his analysis of Hindu gurus, while Lubin discusses the same process with respect to Hindu law in early India, under colonial rule, and in India since independence in 1947.

    The issue regarding the influence of non-Hindu religious traditions on Hinduism receives further attention in chapters by Oddie and Frykenberg. The former suggests that contact with Islam heightened a greater awareness among Hindus of their own religious traditions and also explores the part Evangelicals played in coining and popularizing the term Hinduism. Frykenberg examines the effect of the latter's activities on Hindu teachings and forms of organization also in the nineteenth century. These themes, including the ways in which Hindu traditions were created, modified, or changed as a result of religious movements emanating from outside as well as within the subcontinent, might have been explored still further, had it not been for the constraints of space in the present publication. Indeed, there might well have been further studies of the influence of other non-Hindu religious movements (including Islam) on changes in Hinduism—if space permitted.

    However, it also needs to be kept in mind that the influence of non-Hindu religious ideas and movements was not the only reason for changes in Hindu religious thought and practice. Changes in Hindu ideas, teaching, and practice have been influenced not only by specific religious movements, but also by more general and broader developments that affected Indians. The internal migration of different people, invasions from outside as well as within the subcontinent, the emergence of different types of social structure and economic activity, changing tribal and organized political systems (including colonialism), and new types of transport and communication have all been important elements affecting religious practice and teaching.

    To take the last in the list of these external factors affecting Hinduism, one might consider the impact of changes in transport and communication since the 1840s when the British pioneered the introduction of the Indian railway system. The idea of pilgrimage took on a new meaning, as pilgrims could travel more easily to holy sites throughout the subcontinent. Improvements in literacy, the advent of the newspaper, and, in still more recent years, the introduction of electronic media have all had effects in creating a greater awareness of the diversity of Hindu teachings and of Hinduism as an all-India system. Films and television and the advent of the global communications’ revolution are not only affecting people in the cities, but also in villages and in the more remote parts of the country. Here, one might note Bailey's comment on the rise of “the mythological” in Bollywood cinema, and especially Rao's detailed analysis of recent developments in what she describes as “Media Hinduism.” This includes the introduction and development of the mobile phone.

    Another major issue that emerges in these books is the relationship between what the anthropologist Robert Redfield once called “the great and little traditions” or between Brahmanic and folk Hinduism. Are these separate traditions or are they in some way interrelated and enveloped in an overarching whole? To what extent were Hindu villagers in early or premodern India, as well as later, participating in a wider world of Hindu mythology, rituals, and practice? Was there such a thing as an all-embracing India-wide entity (equivalent to what we now call Hinduism) during the premodern period?

    The answer to these questions seems to depend partly on which aspect of Hinduism one is exploring. Hence Bailey, in his chapter on oral mythology in The Early Period, writes:

    [T]he themes found in such myths are pan-Indian to the extent they occur beyond vernacular sources in a variety of geographical areas. There is another pan-Indian mythology found in the Purāṇas which is not localized yet shares common themes and motifs with localized mythology. Both are necessarily interrelated and establish India as a common mythological zone.

    Furthermore, Branfoot, writing in the same book, notes the spread of common forms of iconographic representation and remarks that one of the striking features of early Hindu iconography is “the degree to which the deities are depicted in a similar manner across great geographical distances” before modern communications. On the contrary, Michaels, also in The Early Period, is at pains to emphasize the enormous diversity of rituals and, at one point in his argument, notes that “regional theological tendencies are incorporated into traditional myths to create a mixed genre.”

    Oddie, in the first chapter of Modern and Contemporary Movements, notes some of the common assumptions among Hindu scholars, as well as commonalities in Hindu practices well before the term Hinduism was introduced and became current in the nineteenth century and in subsequent debate. And yet what becomes clearly apparent among reformers and others involved in subsequent discussion is the lack of agreement as to what Hinduism was all about. Ferrari, who writes on Hinduism and healing, also underlines diversity and lack of agreement among Hindus themselves. He remarks that even now “the deities, religious practices, customs and laws transmitted from Vedic times through textual and oral traditions as well as social conventions are understood in rather different ways across Hindus living in the Subcontinent.” Hinduism is, in his opinion, “a fractured tradition emerging from many and diverse cultural stratifications.” Furthermore, traditions that may seem to unite Hindus in a common pool of beliefs and practices are, in some cases, a reflection of an even wider world of beliefs and practices among people outside as well as within the subcontinent. For example, and as Schömbucher makes it very clear, spirit possession has had a long history in Europe as well as in India. Thus, while there may have been signs of increasing commonality across India during the precolonial period, there were also commonalties (including beliefs and practices) outside the boundaries of what we now call India.

    These are considerations that need to be taken into account when dealing with the question of the emergence of the idea of Hinduism in the late eighteenth century. How far was there already an actual consciousness or sense of a shared ethos, as well as religious commonality among Hindus prior to the introduction and use of the term by British commentators in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? What effect did the notion of Hinduism have on religious, political, and other developments thereafter? Why is the term now used so widely in the postcolonial situation? Oddie explores these issues in the first chapter in Modern and Contemporary Movements that focuses on continuities as well as developments of Hinduism in India in the modern and contemporary periods.

    Last, but not the least, are issues of women's status and role in Hinduism. Bowles, Bailey, and Lubin, all have something to say (even if briefly) about the subject, while Lahiri-Roy, in her chapter dedicated explicitly to women's issues, explores the complexities and changing character and stresses of urban Hindu arranged marriages in the contemporary society. She argues that “certain traditional patterns are now being rearranged with the onset of urbanization, the influence of Westernisation and increasing levels of female education.” But, she concludes, “on certain levels change [in the women's position] has not really occurred so much as the same pattern has merely refashioned itself along different lines.”

    These chapters illustrate the extraordinary richness of what is now called Hinduism, its religious and cultural diversity, including rituals, asceticism, and forms of devotion that have survived and been readapted to meet new challenges that have emerged throughout a very long history of over two millennia.

    To extend even further the readers’ sense of the complexity of Hinduism, we have a final chapter in Modern and Contemporary Movements by Srivastava on the relationship between Hinduism and caste—one of the basic issues in studies such as these.

    Note: While some of the authors have continued the practice of using diacritics, others have chosen to dispense with the practice, especially when referring to more modern developments.


    These books are the result of a long-term and complex process involving close and constructive collaboration between me and all three editors (Greg, Will, and Aditya). Indeed, without the editors’ enthusiasm, hard work, and flexibility, these books would never have seen the light of day. I also wish to thank all the contributors from different parts of the world. Many of them are not only researchers but are also busy teachers and administrators. Thanks are also due to Michael Allen for his encouragement and advice during the early stages of this endeavor, and to all those at SAGE Publications in New Delhi who have collaborated with us with suggestions and in the production process. They include Ashok Chandran, Rekha Natarajan, Sutapa Ghosh, and N. Unni Nair. For technical assistance, thanks to Robin Ford. Last but not the least, very special thanks are due to my wife, Nola, for her encouragement, love, and support, for hosting a special weekend meeting between me and all the three editors at Killcare on the central coast in New South Wales during the early stages of this project. I also wish to thank her for her suggestions and proofreading of my own material.

    Geoffrey A. Oddie
  • About the Editors and Contributors

    Series Editor

    Geoffrey A. Oddie is Honorary Senior Lecturer in Department of History, University of Sydney. He is a graduate of the Universities of Melbourne and London where he received his PhD in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He has lectured in the History department since 1964 and has been a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University (1982); Visiting Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (2007); and Visiting Professor at the United Theological College, Bengaluru. Two of his more recent books are Popular Religion, Elites and Reform: Hook-Swinging and Its Prohibition in Colonial India, 1800–1894 (1995) and Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793–1900 (SAGE 2006).


    Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in the Program in Asian Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He has published translations and studies of Gaṇeśa Purāṇa and Bhartṛhari's Śatakatraya and books on god Brahmā, early Buddhism, contemporary Australia, and many articles on Sanskrit literature. At present, he is working on the relationship between early Buddhism and the Mahābhārata.


    Adam Bowles is Senior Lecturer in Asian Religions, Studies in Religion Discipline Convenor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, the University of Queensland, Australia.

    Crispin Branfoot is Senior Lecturer in South Asian Art and Archaeology, Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts, SOAS, University of London.

    Eric John Lott is a religious scholar who taught in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. He retired in 1988 from the United Theological College, Bengaluru.

    Angelika Malinar is Professor of Indian Studies and Director, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich, Germany.

    Axel Michaels is Director of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University, Germany. He is also the Director of the Department of Classical Indology, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University.

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