The Academic Delegitimization of Hinduism: Some Influential Narratives

The Academic Delegitimization of Hinduism: Some Influential Narratives

Hinduism, an ‘Invention’

Dear reader, might you, by any chance, remember Prof. Divya Dwivedi? A faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, she appeared about a year ago on this ‘cerebral’, very left-liberal, English-language news channel and declared that Hinduism is a twentieth-century invention. Hindus, thus, she further insinuated, are a ‘false majority’. Prof. Dwivedi’s remarks triggered a range of emotions on social media, from raw outrage to derision to hilarity. This was completely unsurprising. After all, to put it in plain language, she was saying that the faith, rather, dharma, of a billion human beings is some sort of a con act or a forgery. Prof. Dwivedi was delegitimizing Hinduism.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that Prof. Dwivedi’s views come from some remote, extreme fringe of our academia. They are, to tell you the truth, quite mainstream in disciplines that are collectively termed the ‘Social Sciences’, ‘Humanities’, or ‘Liberal Arts’. I looked up Prof. Dwivedi on the IIT, Delhi website and discovered that she is employed in its department of ‘Humanities and Social Sciences’ and teaches philosophy and literature. Learned ladies and gents in her line, in our top public institutions of ‘higher learning’, quite regularly go about saying that Hinduism has no real antiquity, that it is a recent invention by some vested interests. Some even go to the extent of claiming that Hinduism is a colonial fabrication, that is, it was created by the British. Incredible and infuriating, but true, nevertheless. Such delegitimization of Hinduism is particularly common in the community of historians. To give you an idea of some ways in which it is done, I shall take up below the writings of three historians, two Indians and one American. I choose them since they, and their narratives, are extremely influential. You often stumble upon the traces of their views in the academic assessments of Hinduism. It is highly likely that Prof. Dwivedi and her colleagues at the department of ‘Humanities and Social Sciences’ in IIT, Delhi are familiar with them.

D.N. Jha, Romila Thapar and Robert Eric Frykenberg on Hinduism

D.N. Jha is a Marxist historian of ancient India who has taught at the prestigious University of Delhi. His book Ancient India: In Historical Outline is considered standard reading for the undergraduate students of history. This makes him widely (if not willingly) read. In keeping with Prof. Jha’s ideological bent, his Ancient India is a very ‘materialist’ interpretation of our ancient past. I am, however, going to discuss another of his works here, a long essay titled ‘Looking for a Hindu Identity’. It is developed from the text of an address he delivered in the sixty-sixth session of the Indian History Congress as its General President. The arguments and conclusions offered by Prof. Jha in ‘Looking for a Hindu Identity’ have come to enjoy great purchase – as a post-graduate student and, later, a research scholar at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), I heard them often from my peers.

In ‘Looking for a Hindu Identity’, Prof. Jha asserts that Hinduism has but an “imagined ‘oldness’”.[1] In simple language, this means that, in his eyes, Hinduism is not old at all. Why? Strangely, one of the reasons why Prof. Jha rubbishes the antiquity of Hinduism is because chronicles and sources of Muslim authorship do not demonstrate a grasp of it. He, for example, writes that “classical Muslim writers” used the word ‘Hindu’ in a “geographic, linguistic, or ethnic” sense and not a religious one.[2] Muslims, as he finds, also suffered from conceptual confusion when they did use the nomenclature ‘Hindu’ in a religious sense. Thus, he points out that Ziaudddin Barani, the author of Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi,[3] employed the term “either as a religious category or as a political one and sometimes as both.”[4] Similar confusion is demonstrated by the “anonymous author” of Dabisan-i-Mazhahib who“failed to provide a clear understanding of what was intended by the use of the term ‘Hindu’” while describing the Indian religious sects.[5] This is indeed some clever casuistry by Prof. Jha. In so many words, he is saying that since several people in the past failed to perceive, or understand, a thing, namely, Hinduism, it did not exist in the past. Funny, is not it? It is like someone claiming that America (the landmass) did not exist before 1492 – after all, most of humanity began perceiving that place only after Christopher Columbus quite fortuitously chanced upon it.

Moving on, Prof. Jha uses more specious logic. Hinduism is not old, he argues, since the word ‘Hindu’ did not originate in India. Indians came to use it relatively late in History, he tries to show, and that too sparingly. Prof. Jha argues that the word ‘Hindu’ “is rarely seen in the medieval vernacular bhakti literature”[6], and there is a “general absence” of it “in the precolonial Sanskrit texts….”[7] Hence, the learned Prof. Jha concludes that Hinduism is actually a creation of the British. In his opinion, “Western, especially British, scholars” “appropriated” the word ‘Hindu’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and their writings “helped the imperial administration to formulate and create the notion of Hinduism in the sense in which we understand it today.”[8] Prof. Jha’s clincher is the incredible statement that “Hinduism…[is] a creation of the colonial period and cannot lay claim to any great antiquity.”[9] ‘Looking for a Hindu Identity’, thus, implicitly pushes the conclusion that a Hindu identity has no real legitimacy since it has no historical basis and is the outcome of the machinations of the British.

Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus at JNU and absolutely the most ‘eminent’ among the historians of ancient India, too believes that Hinduism is a nineteenth century creation. As she puts it, some purely cynical self-seeking was the reason why the fiction of Hinduism was concocted when the British ruled our country. “The need for postulating a Hindu community”, she writes, “became a requirement for political mobilization in the nineteenth century when representation by religious community became a key to power and where such representation gave access to economic resources.”[10] What does this mean? Well, to say it in simple language, Prof. Thapar seems to think that some people in colonial India needed to create a ‘community’ behind them so that they could pose as its representatives, mobilize it, and basically use the weight of numbers to demand a share of power and jobs from the British. So, they imagined and conjured this religion called ‘Hinduism’ and contrived a Hindu ‘community’; neither, according to Prof. Thapar, historically existed. You see, being a Marxist like Prof. Jha, Prof. Thapar apparently thinks that ‘Hinduism’ is merely the name of a nineteenth-century subterfuge for the most world-wearily ‘materialist’ of motives – acquiring and consuming the loaves and fishes that the British could hand down to us brown Indians.

Elsewhere, in another essay, Prof. Thapar makes an even more remarkable claim. She suggests that Hinduism is an imitation of, and response to, Christianity that emerged in India in the nineteenth century. As the British came to power, she writes, they encouraged missionary activities in our country. This combination of “missionary activity and Christian colonial power”, according to Prof. Thapar, caused much “soul searching” among Indians who experienced it. Thus, she says, emerged several movements such as the Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj, etc.[11] Many who were attracted to them had “at some point in their lives experienced Christian education” in missionary institutions.[12] The result was that Prof. Thapar claims, these people created Hinduism taking Christianity as their model[13] with a “monotheistic God”, sought in the “abstract notion of the Brahman”, and making either the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas the definitive Book.[14] “Syndicated Hinduism” is the name that Prof. Thapar prefers to give to this religion since, being Brahminical and upper caste in content, it “represented some vocal and powerful segments” of what came to be the Hindu community.[15] In other words, one could say that according to Prof. Thapar, self-seeking by a group, or ‘syndicate’, of powerful vested interests created Hinduism on the Semitic model in the nineteenth century. In her Marxist eyes too neither Hinduism nor a Hindu identity seems to have any legitimacy.

Why does Prof. Thapar dismiss the historicity of Hinduism? For two main reasons, as it seems. First, she claims that the notion of a “uniform” religious community was absent in ancient India. Identities were, instead “segmented” on the lines of “locality, language, caste, occupation and sect.”[16] Secondly, in her estimate, Hindu sects have had a “distinct and independent origin….” To term them all ‘Hinduism’, according to her, is only a “convenient general label”, they are not “comparable to the sects of Christianity or Islam as they do not relate to a single sacred text and its interpretation.”[17] Moreover, Prof. Thapar thinks that these sects have been “oriented towards the clan, the caste and the profession….”[18] That is, they have been, in her eyes, too particularistic and specific to be termed the aspects or components of one single religion. So, one the one hand we have Prof. Thapar censuring Hinduism as a religion contrived on the Semitic (Christian) model in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, she refuses to accept the historicity of Hinduism since it has not evolved like the Semitic religions (Islam and Christianity) with reference to a “single sacred text”.

Robert Eric Frykenberg, considered an authority on the history of Christianity in India, is Professor Emeritus at the Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Reading his essay, ‘Constructions of Hinduism’, is, to say the least, a remarkable experience. He, one gathers, regards Hinduism not quite a religion, and certainly not an ancient one. Prof. Frykenberg, for example, like Prof. Thapar, brings up the varieties of worship prevalent in India to make his point. He argues that “there is no single or proper sense of the term Hindu” since, in India, modes of worship were specific to communities, even families.[19]

Prof. Frykenberg’s position is that three successive ‘constructions’, the last belonging to the colonial period, are what one can identify as ‘Hinduism’ in Indian history. The first and the earliest of these, he says, was the varna order devised by Brahmins which they enforced by “insinuating their influence among important communities….”[20] Thus, Prof. Frykenberg appears to suggest that what is taken to be ‘Hinduism’ in the context of early India was just a social organization determined by the elite, it was not a religion. The second ‘construction’, according to Prof. Frykenberg, took place when the Mughals ruled India. He writes that the Mughal rulers co-opted the “leaders of each important Hindu…elite community”[21] and created a “system” which was “Hindu in the political structuring of the bond of loyalty”[22], notwithstanding the Islamic nature of the (Mughal) throne. In this situation (brace yourself for shock), as understood by Prof. Frykenberg, to “be Hindu, Hindavi or Hindutva…was to be part of an eclectic, syncretistic, and tolerant regime” which the Mughals created. Shorn of all verbiage, Prof. Frykenberg, is saying that to be Hindu in medieval India meant to be a part of this sweet and lovely political order created by the Mughals. He, thus, is making the incredible claim that, in its second ‘construction’, ‘Hinduism’ was in fact the membership of a Muslim ruled political order.

Like his Indian colleagues, Prof. Frykenberg too believes that Hinduism, the religion, emerged when the British came to rule India. This was the third and final ‘construction’ of Hinduism, Prof. Frykenberg terms it “colonial orientalist”.[23] From his point of view, it was the outcome of two concurrent processes. First was the takeover of “all religious property” for their “supervision and fiscal management” by the British colonial state.[24] As a result was created “a huge informational, institutional, and intellectual infrastructure” which made a “modern and organized Hinduism” the part of the (British) “imperial establishment.”[25] The second process was the accumulation of ‘orientalist’ knowledge involving “Hosts of Native and European scholars.”[26] Together, they “reconstructed an enormous structure of knowledge” out of which emerged the notion of “Hinduism as a single religion….”[27] Simply put, Prof. Frykenberg thinks that the British created Hinduism as a unified, systematic religion by controlling the temples and building a body of knowledge on India’s ancient past.

Thus, dear reader, you must understand that Prof. Dwivedi in fact did not say anything radically new. She just, so to speak, ‘updated’ some old ‘scholarship’ by claiming that Hinduism originated in the twentieth century.

In Conclusion

What do I have to say in response to the opinions I have summarized and paraphrased above? Just that they are both absurd and offensive. I am a Hindu and it is obvious to me that the concepts and metaphysics that constitute my approach to the Sacred and the symbols through which they are expressed are of great antiquity. Whichever ancient text I pick, be it the Upanishads or the two itihasas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, I find them replete with the former. Whichever ancient temple I visit, I find the latter carved on its spires as so many Devatas. It is apparent to me that I inhabit the same habitus of sacred experience, meanings, and cultural practices as my ancestors. I spontaneously feel that I belong to this habitus. Were to be fabricated by the British, as Prof. Jha and Prof. Frykenberg allege, or by some Indian self-seekers, as Prof. Thapar claims, it would not have been so. It is anyway impossible to fabricate such a complex, infinitely layered, habitus in a matter of decades. The many ‘sects’ that Prof. Thapar refers to are but different articulations of it. No, they do not have a ‘distinct and independent origin’. They used broadly the same conceptual resources to express themselves, as did the historical religiosity of the many Indian jatis, linguistic groups, and countless other manifestations of ‘community’. The same holds for the many nineteenth-century movements that Prof. Thapar brings up. To allege that they represented, or created, some sort of upper caste ‘syndicate’, which in turn ‘invented’ Hinduism on the model of Christianity, is also completely untenable. They vastly differed in terms of the social strata they addressed or emerged from – the Brahmo Samaj was a movement of the Bengali elite, while the Arya Samaj mainly drew its followers from the Punjabi lower middle class. The latter also actively campaigned to bring into its fold large numbers of Punjabi Dalits.[28] Further, Prof. Thapar furnishes zero biographical evidence to support her contention that these movements (only or largely) comprised individuals who had been educated in Christian institutions. Very likely because she does not have any. She also does not seem to be aware that ‘Brahman’ as an idea is in no manner the same as the Semitic ‘monotheistic God’. To allege that these movements sought a ‘definitive book’ after the Semitic fashion does not seem right either. They only adopted what I would term a primary ‘guide text’ – the Bhagavad Gita, or the Vedas – for inspiration.

It could be that ‘Hindu’ is an exonym (a name of foreign provenance) and was adopted relatively late by my forebears. But all that this word, and its derivative ‘Hinduism’, denotes is very old indeed – it represents, as I say above, a habitus of Sacred experience, meanings, and cultural practices. Hinduism is, thus, indeed very old, immeasurably old. Why then this eagerness on the part of some to refute its antiquity and delegitimize it? Perhaps, they want me, a Hindu, to be shame-faced about my identity. Maybe, these people want to keep me from asserting my identity.

The first part of this article can be read here.


[1] ‘Looking for a Hindu Identity’ (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 2017), p.10.

[2] Ibid., p.11.

[3] A history of the Delhi Sultanate from the reign of Balban till the first six years of the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq.

[4] ‘Looking for a Hindu Identity’, p.12.

[5] Ibid., p.13. The Dabistan-i-Mazhahib is a seventeenth century Persian language text.

[6] Ibid., p.15.

[7] Ibid., p.16.

[8] Ibid., p.17.

[9] Ibid., pp.17-18.

[10] ‘Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Community’ in Cultural Pasts. Essays in Early Indian History (New Delhi: OUP, 2000), pp.984-985.

[11] ‘Syndicated Hinduism’, Ibid., p.1037.

[12] Ibid., pp.1036-1037.

[13] Ibid., p.1037.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p.1046.

[16] ‘Imagined Religious Communities’, Ibid., p.978.

[17] Ibid., p.1027.

[18] Ibid., p.1032.

[19] ‘Constructions of Hinduism at the Nexus of History and Religion’ (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2009), p.11.

[20] Ibid., p.7.

[21] Ibid., p.8.

[22] Ibid, p.9.

[23] Ibid., p.14.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p.15.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p.16.

[28] See Kenneth W. Jones, Arya Dharam (New Delhi: Manohar, 1976).

Featured Image: Swarajya

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Saumya Dey

Saumya Dey is an associate professor of history at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. His primary research interests are intellectual and cultural history. He has, till date, authored one monograph and a collection of essays - Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2015) and The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and other Essays. Historical Legitimacy of an Idea (Shubhi Publications, 2019). He earned his PhD at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.