Hindu Pluralism

by Elaine M. Fisher | 2017 | 113,630 words

This thesis is called Hindu Pluralism: “Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India”.—Hinduism has historically exhibited a marked tendency toward pluralism—and plurality—a trend that did not reverse in the centuries before colonialism but, rather, accelerated through the development of precolonial Indic early modernity. Hindu plur...

Early Modern Sectarianism and Modern Pluralism

[Full title: The Banyan Tree: Early Modern Sectarianism and Modern Pluralism]

On September 11, 1893, Swami Vivekananda, disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and history’s best-known advocate of Hindu Universalism, defined Hinduism for the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a religion qualified primarily by “tolerance and universal acceptance.” Ironically, though obviously owing to no intention of his own, his speech prefigured by more than one hundred years a date that resonates for modern audiences with the specter not of tolerance but terrorism.

This coincidence was not lost on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed a crowd in New York City on precisely the same date in 2014 in New York City. Modi proclaimed,

“There are 2 images of 11th September: one of the trail of destruction in 2001 and the other the message of Swami Vivekananda in 1893. Had we followed Swami Ji’s message, history would never have witnessed such dastardly acts as we saw on 11th September 2001 in [the] USA.”[1]

Much can be made of the politics behind Modi’s invocation of this striking coincidence. For our own purposes, however, the message that Vivekananda delivered that day not only actively promotes a “neo-Hinduism” replete with European influence, as is well known, but also reflects back to the Western world a polemical critique of difference as dissent.

In Vivekananda’s own words:

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair.”[2]

Sectarianism, bigotry, fanaticism, violence: these synonyms, in the late-nineteenth-century Anglophone imaginaire, reveal just how much discursive space was shared between the Orientalist scholarship of Sir M. Monier-Williams just a decade earlier, in 1883, and the religious worldview of the high-caste Hindus at the height of the Bengali Renaissance. Sectarianism, as defined by Monier-Williams, the exclusive worship of Śiva or Viṣṇu, was an insidious and divisive form of religion that threatened the integrity of a primordial Brahmanical whole.

Such an impetus to erase difference comes across most clearly in Vivekananda’s speech through the key scriptural verses he cites in support of a Hindu Universalism that, in his view, transcended time and space:

“As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to thee.”

By no means a coincidence, Vivekananda did not attribute a source to this scriptural citation, which in his mind speaks to a Hinduism free from sectarian division. The passage in question, however, happens to be drawn from verse seven of the Śivamahimnaḥ Stotram, “Hymn to the Glory of Śiva,” recited for centuries by sectarian Śaivas, the quintessential text that strategically subordinates all other religious traditions to Śaiva orthodoxy.

In full, the verse reads:

The Vedas, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, the Pāśupata doctrine, and the Vaiṣṇava:
Where authorities are divided, one says, “This is highest,” another, “That is beneficial,”
Due to such variegation of the tastes of men, who enjoy straight or crooked paths.
You alone [Śiva] are the destination, as the ocean is the destination of the waters.[3]

Implicit in the rhetoric of this verse, as we observed in chapter 1, is an inclusivism that appears to welcome with one hand while excluding with the other. Vaiṣṇavas, followers of Sāṅkhya and Yoga, Pāśupatas—not to be conflated with the author’s own branch of Śaivism—and Vedic Brahmins, we learn, are all solidly established on the path to truth, a truth that happens to be known as “Śiva.” A remarkably similar strategy is omnipresent in the discourse of early modern Śaivism in south India, when Śaivas routinely moved to incorporate Vaiṣṇavism under their own umbrella through the rubric of the Trimūrti, the triple form of divinity. Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Rudra, in other words, the triad of deities governing creation, sustenance, and dissolution, are simply the manifestations of an overarching divine principle known as Paramaśiva. Vivekananda, essentially, in seeking out source material to promote a homogenized Hinduism, had the ambiguous fortune to invoke a verse that in its original discursive context conveys precisely the opposite message—namely, the supremacy of the Śaiva religion.

As Wilhelm Halbfass has written, encapsulating a well-worn argument advanced by Paul Hacker:

“‘Inclusivism’ is the practice of claiming for, and thus including in, one’s own religion or world-view what belongs in reality to another, foreign or competing system. It is the subordinating identification of the other, the foreign, with parts or preliminary stages of one’s own sphere.”[4]

Such inclusivism, succinctly, may not ultimately provide the ideal metaphor for the peaceable coexistence of multiple religious traditions.

And yet Hindu pluralism, in contrast to the endemic communalism of postindependence India, itself has genuine roots in the subcontinent’s precolonial heritage. In his 2007 monograph A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, Jeffrey Long articulates a vision for a Hindu religious pluralism founded on just this model of inclusivism. Long prefaces his remarks cautiously with the caveat that Western pluralists have levied harsh criticism against the idea of inclusivism on the grounds that its rhetoric generally reads as paternalistic, condescending to “include” the diversity of religious Others encountered by the religious mainstream. And yet, what Long successfully clarifies is the genuine theological work done by Vivekananda and his contemporaries in constructing a viable pluralistic worldview that holds meaning for practitioners past and present. Inclusivistic pluralism, for many, is a sincerely held theological commitment and can viably be promoted as a genuinely emic Hindu pluralism. Emic as this inclusivism may be, however, in the sense of originating within the Indian subcontinent, Vivekananda’s particular brand of pluralism is also historically contingent, inconceivable apart from the encounter between the British and Indian intelligentsia that precipitated the Bengali Renaissance. While it is by no means accurate to claim that Vivekananda’s theology was “invented” by the British, its historical origins lent themselves to participation in a particular political trajectory. The concept of tolerance, as C. S. Adcock (2014) has demonstrated, a well-known mainstay of Gandhian secularism, served a particular and timely political function, disaggregating questions of caste from the consolidation of an ethos of Hindu majoritarianism. It is no wonder, perhaps, that many observers associate this form of tolerant inclusivism with right-wing Hindu extremism: to be tolerant, succinctly, implies a claim to the authority to tolerate someone else. As a result, inclusivist pluralism, justly or unjustly, is often tarred with the same brush that condemns the sanctioning of communalist violence.

In contrast, etic models of secularist pluralism run afoul of a more pervasive problem—namely, the legacy of European imperialism, a parochialism that lives on in the adjudication of religious difference around the globe. In spite of the burgeoning literature on the multiplicity of global secularisms,[5] excavating the influence of non-Western models of religion as a human right or religion and governmentality,[6] Eurocentrism is alive and well in contemporary discourse on Indian pluralism. Across disciplines of scholarship, pluralism, succinctly, generally falls under the purview of a healthy civil society—a mode of sociality prescriptively modeled after the canons of liberal political theory, the heritage of the European Enlightenment. Where religion is viewed as anathema to public space, its very eruption into visibility is said to signal the dangers of incipient outbursts of violence. Such a scenario is perhaps best exemplified by the stringent standards of the French laïcité, in which even the public presence of a Muslim headscarf threatens the singularity of normative civil society—a uniformity literally inconceivable in the Indian subcontinent. Pluralism, in this light, is measured by the rubric of parliamentary democracy, quantified by participation in the political process and the frequency of civil unrest, or the lack thereof. One encounters this ethics of pluralism, for instance, in a compilation of essays edited by Wendy Doniger and Martha Nussbaum (2015) under the title Pluralism and Democracy in India—a pair which the authors cast as prescriptively intertwined in their vision for a pluralist Hinduism in the new millennium. In the introduction to the volume, the authors outline a program by which the Indian State can “foster a healthy democratic public culture” by “encouraging civil society institutions that provide a counterweight to the rabid but highly effective groups organized by the Hindu Right.”[7]

This book offers no prescriptions for the practice of Hinduism, or for how India can best address the changing needs of a multireligious population. Nevertheless, the past, though it may be a foreign country, is no mere object of curiosity to be studied for personal edification. Although I have approached the origins of Hindu sectarianism in this book on strictly historical grounds, its excavation bears significant potential to speak to the formative antecedents of a distinctively Hindu pluralism through what Foucault describes as a genealogy of the present. The religious inclusivism the Hindu Right has inherited from Vivekananda and his contemporaries, while Hindu in the sense of belonging to the lifeworlds of numerous Hindus today, bears little resemblance to the practice of Hinduism before colonial intervention. In fact, this inclusivism actively obfuscates our understanding of the precolonial diversity of Hinduism and its distinctive engagement with public space. Likewise, viewing history through the lens of a prescriptive Western-centric pluralism predisposes us to read the archive of the Indian past for its deviance from the standards of Euro-American secularism and from the canons of the Enlightenment to which it serves as invariable telos. Thus, in the words of Wendy Doniger, the Mughal emperor Akbar was a pluralist who aimed to “transcend all sectarian differences and unite his disparate subjects,”[8] one of the invariable wings of the good-Muslim, bad-Muslim binary of Akbar and Aurangzeb perpetuated by colonial historiography. And yet when read outside this entrenched metanarrative, Akbar’s patronage facilitated the institutional realization of a markedly different sort of pluralism: by endowing separate temples for the Vallabha and Gauḍīya Sampradāyas of Vaiṣṇava Hindus,[9] Akbar and his successors sponsored, though perhaps unwittingly, the efforts made by these communities to establish distinct public and institutional domains. From the gaze of early modern India, sectarianism and pluralism were not opposites: they were fundamentally intertwined.

If this book offers no religious prescriptions, still less does it propose a political agenda—in contrast, perhaps, to Doniger and Nussbaum’s vision for revitalizing Indian civil society. The task of advocating religious pluralism in a nation wrought with communalist violence and fundamentalism is far beyond the scope of the present work. Nevertheless, if we have learned anything from the past decades of banned books, crumbling mosques, and hurt feelings, we cannot help but reckon with the fact that the past is always political. Undoubtedly, the way in which we as scholars choose to represent the history of Hinduism has real-world consequences. As a result, it may not be unreasonable to reach for some measure of optimism in recovering a particular Hindu past—not the Hindu past, as no single voice can capture such an entity—that speaks to a genuinely emic religious pluralism, one that is at once neither founded upon universalism or exclusivism, nor modeled as a modular transplant of European civil society. Indeed, Hindu pluralism, in historical context, is genealogically independent of European magnanimity; it is not an Other forged in the crucible of colonial subjugation. It is a conceptual, and institutional, approach to internal diversity that cannot be reduced to a singular axis of hegemony.

We are at the point, then, when we can revisit the following questions: What is modern, and distinctively South Asian, about the pluralistic landscape that emerged in India, not in the aftermath, but before colonialism, at the dawn of modernity? How more generally can we understand this new relationship between religion and publicity, in which public space is polarized by the movement of individuals embodying their sectarian identities? To be sure, religious pluralism in south India, as in many contemporary societies, implied at the minimum a plurality of religious institutions, Hindu and otherwise: sectarian communities in south India were underwritten by a pluralistic economic and legal landscape, as distinct sectarian institutions competed as regionwide landlords and power brokers. This sheer plurality of religions, for many theorists, was sufficient to mark India as a highly pluralistic society: Ernst Troeltsch, bringing our exploration full circle, argues that Hinduism and Buddhism were the earliest advocates of religious pluralism, granting the individual the right to choose his own personal faith. And yet, in India, religion itself is rarely a matter of belief, a propositional assent to the existence of deities or the authority of a particular temple or saint.

Pluralism, in early modern south India, like religion itself, is an embodied, spatial practice; when religious identity is not the internal affair of a private, unmarked citizen, religious pluralism itself is performed in public space. The story of Hindu pluralism is no utopia; by no means is it free of inequities and injustices. And yet, attending to Hinduism’s emic legacy of religious pluralism allows us to heed the advice, proffered by Martha Nussbaum among others,[10] to refrain from labeling any one vision as India’s “real” or “authentic” image. When speaking of Hinduism—a religious unity that first emerged as inherently plural, a fusion of the myriad Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, Śākta, and other religious identities—it is simply impossible to speak of an authentic Hinduism in the singular. Pluralizing Hinduism, then, is not a strategic project, designed to render audible its numerous subaltern voices—although this is undoubtedly a legitimate concern—but rather a recognition that its composite history makes it impossible to select any doctrine, practice, or identity as a Hindu “ideal type.” Indeed, it is the spatial enactment of religious pluralism that formed the foundation of early modern south India’s multiple religious publics, making possible a multicentric negotiation of power, identity, and truth. In essence, the sectarian religious publics of early modern south India provide us with an opportunity to rethink the very criteria for a non-Western pluralism, founded not on the prescriptive model of a Western civil society but on a historically descriptive account of the role of religion in public space.

Footnotes and references:


“Follow Vivekananda’s Message to Avert Attacks Like 9/11: PM Narendra Modi,” Hindustan Times, September 11, 2014, www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/follow- vivekanandas-message-to-avoid-attacks-like-9–11-modi/article1–1262751.aspx.


Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 1970, 2.


Śivamahimnaḥ Stotram, v. 7: trayī sāṃkhyaṃ yogaḥ paśupatimataṃ vaiṣṇavam iti prabhinne prasthāne param idam adaḥ pathyam iti ca | rucīnāṃ vaicitryād ṛjukuṭilanānāpathajuṣāṃ nṛṇām eko gamyas tvam asi payasām arṇava iva ||


Halbfass (1988, 411), quoting Hacker (1978).


On the Indian case, see most notably Bilgrami (2014).


See for instance Thomas (2014) and Schonthal (2012).


Doniger and Nussbaum (2015, 16).


Doniger (2009, 533).


See for instance Hawley (2015);Richardson (2014); Horstmann (1999); Case (1996).


Nussbaum, The Clash Within, 2007, 8.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: