Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

8.8 Hinduism as ‘a world religion’: a more recent understanding

Traditionally, as we have seen, a Hindu was someone born to Hindu parents and into a caste with its appropriate dharma. The link between religious practice and a whole way of life bound the individual into a community from birth. Regional factors, parentage and caste affiliation largely determined the particular style of religious belief and practice adopted by individual Hindus. It has proved difficult, because of this, for individuals to detach a religious dimension that could be changed without sacrificing membership of their community. The assumption that birth provides the entry point into a religious identity is by no means confined to Hinduism. Orthodox Jewish identity, for example, is generally established through the mother. Although Orthodox Jewish communities admit converts, Orthodox Jews historically have not set out to seek them, unlike, for example, Christianity and Islam.

During the last two centuries, some Hindu thinkers have developed a rather different understanding of the Hindu tradition. They have encouraged its redefinition not just as ‘a religion’ but as a ‘world religion’ and as something distinct from Hindu culture in its broadest sense. During the nineteenth century several prominent Hindu religious leaders and intellectuals travelled to the West, where they defended their religious heritage in response to criticisms by Christian missionaries. They were also able to talk about the nature of Hinduism with interested audiences. These Hindus, largely from Bengal and exposed to Western influence in Calcutta, found that ‘What is Hinduism?’ was a question that non-Hindu audiences wanted to have answered in a way that would be intelligible in terms of Western, and thus largely Christian, notions of ‘religion’.

It has been claimed that it was Swami Vivekananda, a nineteenth-century Bengali religious teacher, who presented ‘Hinduism for the first time to the world as a universal faith’ and so ‘raised Hinduism to the status of a world religion in the outside world’ (Weightman, 1984, p. 231). Vivekananda (svamin or ‘Swami’ is a religious title) was responsible for creating an organisation called the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Ramakrishna was Vivekananda's spiritual teacher and, you may remember, the temple at Dakshineswar is visited by worshippers today partly because Ramakrishna spent much of his life there (Section 8.5). The Ramakrishna Math and Mission is committed to the promotion of practical service to humanity and a philosophy of a universal religion. The Math is its monastic wing and the Mission is made up of lay supporters. The Movement today has more than 120 branches worldwide, including one in Britain, although the greatest number are to be found in India. Its headquarters, Belur Math, established in 1898, lies across the Ganges from the city of Calcutta. Vivekananda recognised the seeds of a universal religion in all religions but believed that the signs of this were most apparent in certain strands within Hinduism. The impact of presenting Hinduism in this way is evident today. It comes through in the way in which British Hindus interviewed by John Bowker speak of ‘all religions blending into one’ and of the same basic elements in all religions.

The architectural style and the symbolism from a number of religions have been incorporated into the design of the temple at Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, as a way of conveying the ‘universal faith’ in which the movement believes. This is a prime example of the importance of the material dimension of religion. The main entrance of the temple, which was dedicated in 1938, has a façade influenced by Buddhist architectural style. The structure which rises over the entrance is modelled on the Hindu temples of south India with their lofty towers. The windows and balconies inside the temple draw upon the Rajput (Hindu) and Mughal (Islamic) styles of north India. The central dome is derived from European architecture of the Renaissance period, while the ground plan of the interior gives the impression of a Christian cross. The differences between the design of Belur Math and the more typical Hindu temples at Kalighat and Dakshineswar and the symbols they use are deliberate and tell us a lot about what kind of Hinduism they represent.

Vivekananda spent four years in the United States and Western Europe touring and lecturing. By the time he created the Ramakrishna Math and Mission on his return to India in 1897, his message had already been widely heard. Most of those who heard him speak were not Hindus by birth, but many were dissatisfied with the Christianity of the churches. They still clung to the hope of finding a religion that would satisfy them. During two visits to the West before his death in 1902, Vivekananda founded a number of societies dedicated to the study of Hindu religious philosophy, and accepted Americans and Europeans into both the lay and monastic wings of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. From this time on, at least certain aspects of Hinduism would no longer be open only to those born as Hindus and into membership of a caste.

The growth in the number of Hindu groups that define their ‘membership’ very differently from earlier Hindu notions of a way of life resulting from birth into a caste has been a feature of the development of Hinduism during the last century. The Ramakrishna Math and Mission is one Hindu group with this wider ‘membership’. Another internationally known example is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON – popularly known as the ‘Hare Krishnas’), which has adopted a more active missionary strategy in the attempt to make converts from those not born into Hindu families. ISKCON has been active in Britain since the late 1960s. Its members, sometimes dressed in saffron robes, might have approached you on the streets. Whether the ‘converts’ gathered by such movements can really be counted as Hindus has been questioned both by other Hindus outside these organisations and by some scholars who continue to emphasise the earlier notion of Hindu identity being conferred through birth.

Having to explain the nature of their beliefs on a world stage has unquestionably affected the way in which many prominent Hindu teachers and scholars have defined their understanding of Hinduism. This relatively recent way of explaining Hinduism shows an awareness of what the English-speaking world understands by ‘religion’ and a tendency to explain Hinduism in these terms. This has become more pronounced in the writings of many twentieth-century Hindu thinkers and Indian philosophers, in the way in which practising Hindus talk about their beliefs, and in the novel acceptance of an expanded global ‘membership’ by certain Hindu groups. These tendencies should not overshadow the greater part of the vibrant, living Hindu tradition which lacks such clearly defined boundaries.

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