Hindus and Others in South Asia and Overseas
Coordinators: Mathieu Claveyrolas and Pierre-Yves Trouillet
The ambition of this team is to gather together scholars coming from different fields (particularly ethnology, geography and history) and working on a variety of areas and texts, in order to work on the relationships between religions in South Asia and in the countries of the South Asian diasporas, taking Hinduism as our central object of study. The idea is to consider Hinduism as a point of contact and to study how this religion and Hindus define others and spaces perceived as external, how they interact with them, and what these interactions reveal in terms of religious, social, political and territorial dynamics, which we will consider both in the past and in the present. We will also ask the question of the importance of these multiple realities of contact, whether they are recognized or denied, in the definition of Hinduism articulated by Hindus, historians or anthropologists.
This team proposes an enquiry that will both base itself on a critical conception of Hinduism and aim to nuance this conception and investigate it in greater detail. It is indeed useful to remind ourselves of the great heterogeneity in the practices and representations of Hinduism, and of how recent the appearance (driven by colonialization) of the idea of Hinduism is, as well as of how it has been instrumentalized (by the nationalist elites of the 19th century). This critical perception of Hinduism is all the more necessary because the very word, as well as the category, was invented during the process of colonialization, a contact point if ever there was one, and both the category and the word are largely to be understood as the result of said contact.
This relatively recent notion of Hinduism does more than just posit a misleading unity. It is also grounded in an elitist conception that presents the other as highly impure and Hinduism as particularly susceptible when it comes to impurity. According to this conception, which goes against obvious historical evidence, “Hinduism” is supposed to be a monolithic religion that is closed in upon itself, incapable of being open, of welcoming in, coming to terms with or incorporating other traditions. We note that this vision is not just rhetorical. Although it is driven by the elites, it is still shared to some extent at all levels of Hindu society, and is often performative, because many less “scholarly” practices and representations align themselves with the dominant contemporary ideology, in accordance to processes that deserve attention.
The barriers constructed around “Hinduism” and “Hindus” take on a spatial dimension that goes beyond the social one, as the other is often seen as located in other places. Other places in the same settlement (let us recall the untouchable or Muslim neighborhoods, for example) or other spaces in the world. On the continental or even global scale, the space located beyond the “black waters” of the Indian Ocean and the Indus (with the majority of its course located in present-day Pakistan) is presented as impure by Brahmin orthodoxy. Among the questions this research group will strive to answer is the following: how does this conception of Hindu territory come to terms with the history of population movements beyond the boundaries of the sub-continent, and ultimately with the constitution of what more and more observers call the “Hindu diaspora” (Rukmani 2001; Vertovec 2000).
Several different lines of inquiry, structured around different scales of analysis, may be considered as part of this project.
1/ Hinduism does not merely construct itself through occasional encounters with the other and other spaces; it must also be considered as a contact point in and of itself. As we recall, the very structures of Hindu society and ideology are based on articulating together the various traditions of Hinduism. Thus, Hinduism, a continuum of diverse traditions, remains structurally dependent on the conjoining of self and other. Within Hinduism itself, what religious interactions are characteristic of cohabitation within social spaces that, differentiated and hierarchized as they may be, remain shared in part by high and low castes? What does Hinduism tell us about a Brahmin calling upon untouchable exorcists or astrologists, for example? What about certain holy places that, being more universal than concerned with distinctions between the devotees, are visited by vast numbers? What happens to popular practices when they come under the influential spell of contemporary orthodoxy? The relationships between the different Hindu sects are also an issue, especially in terms of how they define or disagree on their differences.
2/ In India, the history of Hinduism is not that of a closed off religion. The encounters with Islam and Christianity, the challenges brought by Buddhism and Jainism, the relationships with Sikhism, or the contacts with tribal religions, far from being innocuous or unusual incidents, have all significantly shaped Hinduism over the centuries. Contact, whether or not it features conflict, has left its mark on practices, representations, architecture, both on the side of Hinduism and on that of the other religions involved. We might focus on the points these religions have in common (such as holy sites, for example), areas of influence (between Christian monotheism and reformed Hinduism, for example) or of syncretism.
3/ The significant Indian diaspora, with the multi-denominational dimension it presents in and of itself, also bears witness to the open-ended modalities of the encounter. Far from being contrary to Hinduism, contact, in other places, with the “other” has made a huge contribution to the renewal, the “restauration,” the modernization, the changes of this religion. Diaspora Hinduism, in its various different versions, will be studied as a “place” of double contact: first between Hindus, the host country and the other religions of this other territory, then between Indian Hinduism and diaspora Hinduism. We will raise the question of the history and configurations of the trans-nationalization of Hinduism and its consequences in terms of ritual and religious geography, as well as that of the pertinence of the categorizing expression “Hindu diaspora.”
4/ Finally, the question of “creole Hinduisms” (Benoist 1998): those born in the peculiar context of the indentured labour system, which transplanted Indians into plantation societies (Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific isles) during the 19th century. Such Hinduisms are both perfect examples of the first three points, often combining cohabitation between castes, non-Indian religions and foreign cultures, as well as “limit” cases because they were so strongly influenced by a highly constraining historical and cultural context: plantation society and its processes of creolization. This encounter between Hinduism and creole society leads us to question, not only the conditions of existence and evolution of Hinduism outside of India, but also the interactions between ethnicity (“Hindu-ness”/Indian-ness) and hybridity (creole-ness) that are characteristic of these Hindu populations abroad, and which will be studied through the prism of religion.
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