What is Hinduism and what is Neo-Hinduism? Let the debate be taken to Main-Stream-Media!

 By: Rajiv Malhotra

The existence and wide infiltration of the neo-Hinduism thesis is the elephant in the room. Anyone representing Hinduism publicly should become familiar with this thesis and its consequences. Indra’s Net’s purpose is served when Hindus become well aware of what neo-Hinduism is, who started it and why, and what its serious implications are. Then a debate will get triggered in mainstream forums with many voices participating. This controversy is about the very nature of Hinduism, and it must come out of the academic closet.

Shri Rambachan’s defensiveness does not foster such opening of the discourse, because he takes criticism too personally. He must first deal with neo-Hinduism as a body of knowledge without making it autobiographical.

The neo-Hinduism thesis is not the work of any one individual scholar acting alone. It is a whole school of thought. The consequences of Shri Rambachan’s work are not to be seen in isolation. One has to study his work in the context of the doctrine of neo-Hinduism overall – how some scholars have fed building blocks to this doctrine. Therefore, the entire neo-Hinduism thesis and its set of key thinkers must be dealt with in totality.

Indra’s Net has separate chapters on each of the main scholars, and how their ideas flow into each other and reinforce each other. Among those who supplied the main building blocks of the neo-Hinduism doctrine, the two living persons are Shri Rambachan and his mentor, Ursula King. Therefore, it becomes important to shine some of the spotlight upon them. There is no personal attack intended.

The doctrine of neo-Hinduism is what is called such a ‘hegemonic discourse’ and it calls for a response. A hegemonic discourse is a body of ideas produced by an influential coterie of writers. The core ideas get restated over and over again, until they are seen as common knowledge. The group relies on a circle of mutually supportive reviews, and on one another’s institutional contacts and sources of patronage to gain leverage for their views. Under the guise of ‘peer reviews’, this process gives them the semblance of objectivity. As the process unfolds, there is less and less need to defend their positions, and anyone who tries to oppose faces a very heavy burden of proof. Their core thesis is increasingly taken for granted. This mode of thinking then gets implanted in other disciplines and into the mainstream. Even when fresh evidence or arguments come along to challenge it, it continues to live because it is embedded and has momentum.

Shri Rambachan cannot wash his hands off of the responsibility for the work of the academic cabal where he enjoys the status of a thought leader. He has supplied them some key intellectual building blocks for the neo-Hinduism doctrine, which has made it pervasive.

Why has Shri Rambachan not seen this elephant in the room, staring at him throughout his career? How could it be, that after so many decades of working on this specific topic, he has never come out and criticized any of his academic peers? He should have written a book similar to Indra’s Net in which he would directly address his peers’ views on this subject. But he has been silent on them. My intention is to provoke him to talk specifically about his academic cohorts on this topic. I hope he will clarify his position one way or the other. The result will be either distancing himself from his academic friends, or letting Hindus know that he considers Hinduism as an artificial construct that is filled with contradictions.

What is neo-Hinduism?

My book spends considerable space to describe what neo-Hinduism is, and the large number of scholars involved in developing and propagating its prejudices. Rather than restating my analysis in the limited space here, I shall give a sample of quotes by the major scholars involved. These will provide the reader a sense of what the doctrine of neo-Hinduism claims.

Following are some statements made by the scholars I criticize. After each quote I name the scholar. The exact references to each can be found in Indra’s Net. I want to set aside Shri Rambachan at first, so we depersonalize this debate. Later on I will address the issues pertaining specifically to him:

“We can even state it as a rule that up till now the essential impulse and influential elements of Neo-Hindu thought have always come from the West or from Christianity, in such a way that an idea coming from those sources appears so powerful in a particular situation that its adoption is inevitable; that these impulses and elements are then hastily attached to inherited ideas or identified with them at the price of logical incongruity and even a kind of dissimulation; and that on the other hand—in typical Neo-Hinduism, as opposed to surviving traditional Hinduism—ideas inherited from the Hindu tradition hardly ever become significant or effective as such. We can see this also in the realm of language. Literary Hindi nearly always uses Western concepts, and yet uses hardly any loanwords; instead, it uses Sanskrit words as shells in which the Western concepts are inserted. In the realm of political ethics, we should remember that the duty of non-violence, which Tilak, and Aurobindo in his political period, did not recognize, but which has now become a universally binding ideal, was first discovered by Gandhi in Leo Tolstoy’s writings before he attached it to the traditional Indian idea of ahimsa. The Neo-Hindu dogma of the equality of all religions, however much it can be supported by certain Hindu traditions, emerged originally at the beginning of the nineteenth century, probably from the ideology of the European Enlightenment. The Neo-Hindu concept of dharma was clearly prompted by the philosophy of Augustus Comte and John Stuart Mill, but was then expressed in completely Indian terms. In Haribhadra’s ethic of love, and in Vivekananda’s amalgamation of Western and Indian forms of ethical relativism, there is an attempt to fuse inherited Hindu ideas with concepts taken from Christianity or from Western philosophy, which provide the impulse for this attempt, and to fuse them in such a way that the result appears to be genuinely Hindu.” (Paul Hacker)

“Hinduism—the word, and perhaps the reality too—was born in the nineteenth century, a notoriously illegitimate child. The father was middle-class and British, and the mother, of course, was India. The circumstances of the conception are not altogether clear.” (Jack Hawley)

“Hinduism does not merely fail to be a religion; it is not even a meaningful unit of discourse. There is no way to abstract a meaningful unitary notion of Hinduism from the Indian phenomena.” (Frits Staal)

“There has never been any such thing as a single “Hinduism” or any single “Hindu community” for all of India … The very notion of the existence of any single religious community by this name has been falsely conceived.” (Robert Frykenberg)

“Modern Indian notions of religion derive from a mixture of Christian (and mainly Protestant) models, Orientalist and largely Western reconstructions of India’s religious past, and nineteenth-century indigenous reform movements most of which were defensive reactions against the onslaught of Westernization and Christian missionizing.” (Gerald Larson)

“Unlike the Semitic religions which began with a structure at a point in time and evolved largely in relation to and within that structure, Hinduism (and I use the word here in its contemporary meaning) has been largely a reaction to historical situations. The attempt to delineate a structure relates to each such situation. […] What has survived over the centuries is not a single, monolithic religion but a diversity of religious sects which we today have put together under a uniform name.” (Romila Thapar)

“‘Hinduism’ [can] be used (at least in the humanities) only to refer to Hindu culture and not to a single unified faith.” (Julius Lipner)

“The work of integrating a vast collection of myths, beliefs, rituals, and laws into a coherent religion, and of shaping an amorphous heritage into a rational faith known now as ‘Hinduism’ were endeavors initiated by Orientalists.” (David Kopf)

“To appeal to the Indian concept of dharma as unifying the diversity of Hindu religious traditions is moot, since dharma is not a principle that is amenable to a single, universal interpretation, being in fact appropriated in diverse ways by a variety of Indian traditions (all of which tended to define the concept in terms of their own group-dynamic and identity).


Before the unification begun under imperial rule and consolidated by the Independence of 1947, it makes no sense to talk of an Indian ‘nation’, nor of a religion called ‘Hinduism’ which might be taken to represent the belief system of the Hindu people.


In Vivekananda’s hands, Orientalist notions of India as ‘other worldly’ and ‘mystical’ were embraced and praised as India’s special gift to humankind. Thus the very discourse that succeeded in alienating, subordinating and controlling India was used by Vivekananda as a religious clarion call for the Indian people to unite under the banner of a universalistic and all-embracing Hinduism. […] The prize on offer is to be able to define the ‘soul’ or ‘essence’ of Hinduism.” (Richard King)

“Its [Samacar Chandrika newspaper’s] ‘construction of Hinduism’ was an undertaking far closer to the literal meaning of the phrase, a manipulative as well as an imaginative construction. The Candrika sought not just to craft a public image of Indian religion but also to promote openly Hindu unity and identity by patterning religious activity for Hindus while decentering potentially divisive issues of belief and Hindu sectarianism. It targeted the actual morphology of ritual, caste, and gender relations to foster a unified and normative Hindu practice. […] In the twentieth century, Hindu nationalists, it has been regularly observed, awoke to the political fruits that the concept of a nationally and historically cohesive tradition could yield. Nationalist groups have pieced together a ‘syndicated Hinduism’ in recent historical memory to suggest a monolithic, ancient religion and have thereby sought to manufacture a certain historical integrity and communal unity for all of India” (Brian Penington)

“Vivekananda’s work has also inspired Hindu nationalists with a somewhat different gloss on Hindu spirituality. One of the most important of them is Swami Chinmayananda, a religious leader who is the founder of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organisation that attempts to ‘reclaim’ India for the ‘Hindu majority’. The VHP is at the forefront of an anti-Muslim movement in Indian politics in the 1980s that assails the secularism of the Indian state and attempts to make India into a Hindu nation-state. … The construction of a unified Hindu identity is of utmost importance for Hindus who live outside India. They need a Hinduism that can be explained to outsiders as a respectable religion, that can be taught to their children in religious education, and that can form the basis for collective action … In an ironic twist of history, orientalism is now brought by Indians to Indians living in the West.” (Peter van der Veer)

“The doctrines and practices presented as ‘Hinduism’ by colonial-era Hindu intellectuals and their postcolonial heirs did not exist prior to the British colonization of South Asia. Instead, a vast array of Sanskrit texts, supplemented by variegated vernacular and oral traditions, were the norm.” (Reza Pirbhai)

“Unlike the Abrahamic religions which are wary of epistemological relativism out of the fear of relativizing the Word of God revealed in the Bible or the Koran, Brahminical Hinduism (and Hindu nationalism) thrives on a hierarchical relativism to evade all challenges to its idealistic metaphysics and mystical ways of knowing.” (Meera Nanda)

Now I shall give a sample quote from the pro-Hinduism camp. Indra’s Net cites many such scholars as well. Brian Smith’s quote below makes clear that this neo-Hinduism thesis is biased:

“All religions, at various points in recent history and under varying circumstances, have adapted to the modern world and the accompanying intellectual trends of modernity. ‘Hinduism’ (or ‘Neo-Hinduism’) is not unique in this regard either; the Neo-Hindu movement shares many commonalties with developments in other religious traditions around the world over the past several hundred years. The study of religion is the study of traditions in constant change. […] This kind of indifference to indigenous conceptualizations of self-identity is one unfortunate end result of the argument that Indology and Orientalist concerns singlehandedly ‘constructed,’ ‘invented,’ or ‘imagined’ a unified religion called Hinduism. This position is especially problematic in an age where Western scholars often claim to be concerned to allow the ‘natives to speak’ and ‘assume agency’ over representational discourse. [ … ] Denying the legitimacy of any and all ‘Hindu’ representations of Hinduism can easily crossover into a Neo-Orientalism, whereby indigenous discourse is once again silenced or ignored as the product of a false consciousness delivered to it by outside forces or as simply irrelevant to the authoritative deliberations of Western Indologists. While there are many reasons for scholars to feel uncomfortable with the claims some Indians have and are making regarding ‘Hinduism,’ it is perhaps equally dangerous to deny them the legitimacy to declare what, for them, is ‘Hinduism’.” (Brian Smith)

The issue is not whether Hinduism has evolved over time. Of course it has, and will continue to do so. This is a good quality. The issue is whether what we practice as Hinduism today is roots in the past or whether it was a modern fabrication led by Swami Vivekananda.

Rambachan is a big player in this discourse. He is the best trained Vedanta scholar in the neo-Hinduism camp. If he were to take a stand against neo-Hinduism that would indicate his priority as a Hindu over his career ambitions.

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