Hinduism has changed in response to modernity. Several passages of the text mention reforms that Gandhi has made, and you find out that the role of caste, women, and even family has changed with time. How do you think modern Hindus negotiate their traditions with their modern lives? Hinduism remains a vital force in Indian culture today. Why do you think it remains so strong?
With the return to power following recent democratic elections of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s primary Hindu nationalist political organization, a question regarding the role of religion in the lives of India’s one billion Hindus is particularly relevant today. India is an ancient country with a ethnically and religiously diverse population of 1.2 billion people, 80 percent of whom are Hindu, with Islam being the next largest religion (13 percent of the population). As an ancient culture with a complex majority religion that has adapted over many centuries to social and political changes, there is no simple answer to the question. With one billion adherents, it is not surprising that many distinctions exist within the vast Hindu population of India, with levels of orthodoxy or religious observance varying greatly.
The fact that one of India’s two major political parties, the Congress Party being the other, is grounded in Hindu nationalist sentiments, however, is indicative of the importance of Hinduism to a great many Indians. While degrees of observance vary, the underlying religious tenets of Hinduism continue to hold a very important place in the thoughts of a great many people there. For example, one of the most widely-observed religious tradition in the world involves the annual swim in the Ganges River, considered to be a sacred body of water in Hinduism. Bathing in the Ganges (which is kind of oxymoronic given the high levels of dangerous bacteria in the river) is performed as a ritual of washing away one’s sins and rescuing practitioners from the otherwise endless cycle of reincarnation which is central to Hindu beliefs. Similarly, abstention from the consumption of beef is very widely practiced among India’s Hindus, as the cow is considered a sacred species and not to be consumed by humans.
Hinduism, as mentioned, is not a homogenous religion; it involves many variations and complicated concepts of divine presences.
While Hinduism is very important in the day-to-day lives of most of India’s Hindus, the country prides itself on its modern heritage as a secular democracy, meaning the role of religion in government is expected to be kept to an absolute minimum. As noted, however, the election of the BJP is a reminder of the continued importance of Hinduism to a large percentage of the country’s population. The opposition Congress Party, most closely identified with members of the Gandhi family, is considerably more secular in practice than the BJP, which is far more closely tied to the practice of Hinduism. The fundamental rituals of Hinduism, the samskara, are followed by almost all of India’s Hindus, from the pre-natal prayer to the cremation of the body following death. Hinduism has been a recognized system of beliefs for 4,000 years. It is inseparable from the Indian State, and lends that state its most prevalent form of identification. It is entirely ingrained in the culture and remains a vital part of most Hindus lives, just as Christianity and Islam remain vital components of the lives of those faiths’ adherents. Post-colonial India was founded as a Hindu state, just as Pakistan was founded as an Islamic state following the partition of the former British in 1947. That Hindu remains an important part of life in India, therefore, is not unexpected.
How do you think modern Hindus negotiate their traditions with their modern lives? Hinduism remains a vital force in Indian culture today. Why do you think it remains so strong?
All religions change with time. Sometimes these changes are slow, resulting from gradual shift in social and cultural practices. At other times these changes are brought about more quickly as a result of deliberate actions by religious and social reformers. These reform action can be targeted at either ridding the religion of deviation from original concepts that creep in over the time, or at introducing new changes as demanded by changes times.
The changes by reformist may result in formation of new sects within a religion - like Protestant sect in Christianity, or a new religion different from the prevalent one - like Christianity developing from Judaism.
Hindu religion has also undergone many changes over thousands of year. Some of the most recent deliberate reformist changes include the movements like reforms by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Brahmo Samaj Movement, and Arya Samaj Movement. Gandhi has also played an important part in reform of some undesirable social practices among Hindus. But It is important to note that Actions by Gandhi and Raja Ram Mohan Roy were more of social reforms rather than religious ones. The practices opposed by these were definitely practiced by Hindus, but they were never prescribed by authentic religious texts. Here I must clarify that some of these objectionable practices may be aberrations of the contents of texts. For example, the ancient Hindu Texts prescribe the Cast system, the neither base the cast system on birth alone, nor do they support excessive discrimination based on caste.
Another interesting thing about Hinduism is that its ancient text themselves mention about the need of reforms in religion. For example, the seventh and eighth verse of Fourth Chapter of Geeta - the most widely accepted text of Hinduism - talks about the formless, Super God, being incarnated from time to time to reform religion. I must warn here that these two verses have been interpreted differently by differently. In my interpretation the word "dharma' been translated as 'religion' and the word "sansthapana" has been translated as renovation or reform. Many authorities consider "san-sthapana" to be a synonym of "sthapana" and translate it as establishment. Problem with this alternate meaning is that "how does one establish something that already been establish and still exists.
This ever renovating feature of Hinduism, described by me in the paragraph above, indicates the answer to the second part of the question. That is:
"How modern Hindus negotiate their traditions with their modern lives? Hinduism remains a vital force in Indian culture today. Why do you think it remains so strong?"
Hindu religion emphasizes on the never-changing - called "sanatana" - aspects of religion. These are the basic objective of release from the worldly cycle of birthand death. This release is achieved by working for the common good of the society as a whole rather than for selfish personal gains only, unmindful of interest of the society as a whole. Once these sanatana values drive become part of life of a Hindu. Discarding tradition that have outgrown their utility becomes easy, and the right path becomes clearer.
The spirit Hindu approach is epitomized in this line of a Christian Hymn:
"Trust in God and do the right"