This research examines the origins of Hinduism. It emphasises constructionist and anti-constructionist positions in the colonial debate, tracing complicated viewpoints of imperialists, non-imperialists, as well as Asian scholars. The discussion they continue to engage in is not of binary nature; therefore, the essay demonstrates the need for avoiding the lure of providing a simple resolution.

Additionally, the essay questions the legitimacy of terminology by evaluating its historical development and accuracy. It argues that the classification of ‘Hinduism’ as a ‘religion’ is problematic and ambiguous. The concluding sections present inevitable influences on modern global scholarship.

Multiple names and meanings

Since ancient times until independence, India (or Bhārata) did not refer to itself in definite terms. Instead, various outsiders superimposed an array of identifiers. The border river Indus inspired early geographical catch-all phrases for the ‘other’ with no internal differentiation (Sugirtharajah 2003: ix). In the Common Era, missionaries strengthened the ‘othering’ in their evangelisation mission. These Christians initiated assessments of the population, emphasising its deficiencies in comparison, and identified ‘Hindoo Heathens’, ‘Hindoo Muslims’, ‘Hindoo Jews’ and ‘Hindoo Christians’ (Frykenberg 2000: 10). In the following centuries, Western Orientalists turned ‘Heathenism’ into ‘Hinduism’, a prominent religion and another umbrella term. This group of traditions were a ‘religion’ they ‘discovered’, which helped cement their homogeneity notion, despite diverse languages and social identities (Sugirtharajah 2003: x). Frykenberg states, there has never been any one religion that could, in essence, employ the term (Frykenberg 2000: 3). Thus, this unifying label for all Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, non-Muslims, non-Christians and non-Jews caused inevitable distortions (Lorenzen 1999: 631; King 1999: 100). ‘Hindu’ developed into a multivalent term designating a region, culture, and religion at different historical points. Consequently, in several contemporary languages1, it signifies citizens of India, implying both their single origin and faith, curiously, including Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Limitations and possibilities of the category

The term ‘religion’ is invented, too. This category was conceptualised in Europe within a Christian framework, while the Eurocentric standpoint rendered it global in principle (Carrette and King 2005: 3). Religion conceived on such terms relied on an essentialised, ahistorical and scriptural monotheism (King 1999: 69). Therefore, it has been an unversatile model since its inception, unapt to accommodate non-Christian assumptions. On the grounds that it applied its context to understand phenomena outside of it, it promoted familiarity and simplification—or worse, miscomprehension—of the ‘exotic’. Thus, it assumed the presence of religion in India and misconstrued its heterogeneous traditions by grouping them into ‘Hinduism’.

Additionally, the model’s history is marked by Enlightenment which rejected religion as obsolete on the one hand but necessitated it as a counterposition on the other. Its byproduct was nostalgia and romanticisation of cultural richness. Colonisers who lived immersed in these knowledge arrangements were perspective-lacking and applied them to Asian belief systems unwittingly. Notwithstanding, this well-intentioned but instrumental model was a critical tool in destabilising India and securing the Western position. Designating India ‘religious’, or not rational, and civilising it implied inferiority and replicated Enlightenment in a new context. Besides, a single systematic religion allowed better exertion of power.

However, religiosity cannot exist in isolation from other life dimensions unless for analytical purposes (Carrette and King 2005: 4). The act of squeezing all-pervading and nonreligious practices, philosophies, and ways of life into a religious category was, for some scholars, an ‘epistemic violence’ (King 1999: 4, 213). India adopted new imperial structures and Christian categories as universal instead of pronouncing its own. This act is a considerable argument in the colonial construction of ‘Hinduism’ as India arrived at perceiving itself on the imposed terms to adopt a new pathway to civilised modernity. The foreign categories gradually overwhelmed indigenous knowledge systems for representing local affairs (Halbfass in Pennington 2005: 10). This led to misidentifications and rendered India compliant with the British regime.

Heterogeneous complexity

The damage of colonialism came to be recognised. The pitfall of the British ‘liberating arrival’ driven by the Eurocentric bias of superiority turned into the subject of academic scrutiny (King 1999: 29). The emerging academic field of post-colonial studies identified the distorted views: systemising and studying the Orient through a limited Western lens meant inevitable reduction, appropriation and ‘colonisation’, as well as the misrepresentation of both parties.

Nonetheless, religion continues to be “notoriously difficult to define” (Silk 2002: 388). First, Enlightenment’s compartmentalisation in long-established thinking and living, and the consequent dichotomy of religious and nonreligious, failed adequate inclusions and exclusions. Second, scholars seeking to provide rational and discursive models rely on material attempting to formulate ancient sages’ insights (Samuel 2008: 140). Third, the Christian prototype assumes that faith is concerned with only one set of statements about the nature of reality. Therefore, being involved in two religions simultaneously equates to an irreconcilable commitment. Nevertheless, the dispute in Indian Jainism on whether it constitutes a separate religion or belongs to Hinduism, while not agreeing on reality’s precise nature (King 1999: 184), is not entirely resolved (Samuel 2008: 17-18). Meanwhile, some scholars suggest that Buddhism is not a religion but ‘philosophies’ (Silk 2002: 389).

Similarly to Buddhism, there is no single ‘Hinduism’. For supporting the label Doniger, ‘Hinduism’ is best imagined as a Venn diagram, as hardly any fundamental teaching appears valid for all members of the category (Pennington 2005: 168-169). Table 1 shows a polythetic representation in comparison to monothetism, such as Christianity.


Table 1: The Polythetic Class (1-4) contrasted with the Monothetic Class (5-6) (Silk 2002: 387).


There is no evidence for corresponding native words for both ‘religion’ and ‘Hinduism’. This further complicates the notion of cross-cultural applicability of the ‘religion’ category. Perhaps, what the British attempted to term was only an Indian way of life deeply ingrained in the culture. Nonetheless, we shall lest forget that interest in India as a subject of study for the colonising regime was merely secondary. The native beliefs indeed conflicted with secularised Western views on human experiences, while the application of the homogenising and backward category ‘Hinduism’ readily fit the interests of the colonising mission.

In the post-colonial era, however, behind the processes of mediating the traditions and conceiving the label, lies a diverse array of academic positions. Constructionists consider the unitary notion of ‘Hinduism’ meaningless and false, whereas their opponents admit its elusive but meaningful and adequate quality (Pennington 2005: 168-169). The following two sections further distinguish both sides of the dispute.

Position of constructionists

The phenomenon of amalgamation of polythetic ‘Hinduism’ is a source of concern for those who sensitise to its construction. For them, the excessive homogenisation of cultural diversity was a “gross oversimplification” and “ideological subterfuge” with enduring effects (W.C. Smith in Lorenzen 1999: 632; Pennington 2005: 168). Following King (1999), the act irreversibly distorted and altered Indian ‘religiosity’ and identity and infused it with a Western character (100).

Explicitly, Indian scholar Niranjana (1990) underlines that the Orientalist perspective permeated British communication in its colonial institutions. The future Indian intelligentsia, “Indian in blood (...) but English in taste” elite (Macaulay in Niranjana 1990: 778), studied its history and culture through biased translations of the ‘religious’. The process—led by Westerners who misconceived the meanings and Brahmins who depicted the tradition to their advantage—was equal to indoctrination. At the forefront of this effort was modernism, which tailored the new middle class for international interactions while infusing it with Orientalist essentialism promoting a pan-Indian mindset, India’s alleged essence (Inden in King 1999: 93). Native reformers such as Rammohun, Vivekananda, Gandhi and Radhakrishnan expedited modernism from within. These historical figures laid the foundation of a new universal ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ entity and perpetuated the view that “Hindu thought is Vedanta and little else”, rendering it central to the contemporary notion of Hinduism (King 1999: 69, 135). It was dubbed ‘neo-Vedanta’, the term likely invented by Seal—a Bengali “champion of comparative philosophy” (Halbfass 2007: 307). Nevertheless, ‘neo-Advaita’ would be more accurate despite underrepresenting the multivocality of advaitic theology (King 1999: 135; Madaio 2017: 2). The West recognised it as a world religion, while the East adopted it despite external conditioning (King 1999: 69, 98, 100, 135). Since that point in history, Hinduism indeed became a meaningful reference to the religion of millions of Hindus.

The most significant concern for constructionists is the abrupt change in Hindu thought between pre-colonial and post-colonial India. Notwithstanding whether natives consciously observed early beliefs and practices, their unification generated a new kind of Indian self-awareness that changed history. Although ingrained with subordinating Orientalist objectives, India’s response was positive. The newfound unified selfhood enabled the opposition to British rule. The other-worldly quietism and virtue of truthfulness combined with modernity turned into a mass movement and soon into anti-colonial Hindu nationalism (King 1999: 86, 134). This new common identity of all-embracing Hinduism appears absent from the pre-colonial material and, therefore, was constructed by the dominating power.

Criticism of constructionism

At the other end of the debate are voices that the notion of Hinduism as a colonial construction is manufactured. From this standpoint, India did not need the British influence to assert its religion because the essence of Hinduism and its collective awareness pre-dated the colonial enterprise. Anti-constructionists, such as Pennington and Lorenzen, admit that the category ‘Hinduism’ is multivalent and first found in British sources. However, it is convenient (Doniger and Ferro-Luzzi in Samuel 2008: 169-170) and corresponds with an observed unified religion recorded in historical sources2 (Pennington 2005: 169). It does not stand for “fragmented, disparate, localised, particularistic, and ever-changing mini traditions” which the colonial power allegedly amalgamated (Pennington 2005: 6; Lorenzen 1999: 632). Indian population complied with its application instead of displaying signs of protest, which suggests the category could be familiar beforehand (Pennington 2005: 169-173). Therefore, to label the modern school of thought ‘neo-Hinduism’ is adequate, too, as it rightly implies the existence of an earlier unified entity.

Furthermore, British influence could not be absolute. To assume that colonisers invented Hinduism is to endow them with excessive power. If the colonising project triggered a new sense of Hindu self-awareness at the very least, its potential has been maximised. The native population addressed the new colonial reality and proactively protected both its ancient and contemporary uniform cultural identity, which supported the society in a difficult transition. However, Hindu collaboration goes beyond compliance and adoption. The colonial enterprise’s civil services employed 1000-to-1 Indians-to-Europeans, including scholars, priests, and intellectuals (Pennington 2005: 171). They assisted Europeans as teachers and informants in “the construction of European knowledge about India”, albeit their input was inadequately acknowledged (Lorenzen 1999: 639). Although they infused this knowledge with their agenda and further overpowered other castes and their opinions, both countries’ discursive interactions were thorough, dialogic and culturally diverse (Pennington 2005: 4, 171). Such a degree of collaboration eliminates the possibility of imposition of Hinduism. At most, the colonial power functioned as a catalyst for the Hindu consciousness already in development.

The debate

Thus far, the essay provided an overview of (i) the ambiguity of terminology in the colonial construction debate arising from the simplicity of the approach and complexity of the concepts it attempted to delineate and (ii) two stands for the impact of that process on Indian national identity. The focal terms included ‘religion’ and ‘Hinduism’; however, the list could be further expanded to ‘West’, ‘East’ and ‘colonisation’ as essentialised and ahistorical nominalisations (King 1999: 3). The scholarly debate over the degree to which the foreign influence transformed Hinduism to the format it exists in today is still ongoing. As Pennington observed, the “question of continuity vs. rupture in the evolution of Hindu thought is quite complex” (2005: 11). None of the sides of the debate proposes satisfactory evidence on the events and their outcomes. Nonetheless, together they help provide a holistic, big picture approximating reality.

In brief, pre-colonial Hinduism was not identical with post-colonial. Western academia’s operations and colonial rule blended with the process of formation of the Hindu identity in an inseparable manner, which would otherwise indicate whether the formation was of an independent or imposed nature. While some scholars follow the ideal of ‘absolute neutrality’ of the Western influence, Gadamer argues that “one simply cannot avoid having an agenda or a perspective upon things by virtue of one’s cultural and historical particularity” (King 1999: 95). This would imply that no discourse is exempt from ‘ideological conditioning’ and some form of appropriation and colonisation. However, as King expounds, world-views are neither fixed nor closed but allow receptivity in interaction and dialogue. Devoid of it, Western ‘religion’ was a meaningless category applied by colonisers unaware of their own cultural and historical bias to what they believed was an operational religion. This act of devised secularisation eased administration and forged a productive space for a colonial enterprise. Additionally—as B. K. Smith states—it ignited Hindu nationalism (King 1999: 213). For Halbfass, terms such as ‘neo-Vedanta’ or ‘neo-Hinduism’ alone imply “the adoption of Western concepts and standards and the readiness to reinterpret traditional ideas in light of these new, imported and imposed modes of thought” (Halbfass 2007: 307). This stand implies a significant influence of the coloniser’s presence, which potentially inspired Westernised forms of activism.

However, for anti-constructionists, such a view equates with attributing “immeasurable power and creativity to colonialism” (Pennington 2005: 170). Kopf and Bearce consider colonialism “the effect of collective attitudes, intentions, and policies” (Pennington 2005: 10). Therefore, modern Hinduism is both the British ‘offspring’ and the effect of creative agency and religious innovation of the native population, too (Pennington 2005: 4, 170). The colonising mission did impose new conditions, but the society not only mould itself according to the new model, it also actively collaborated on it. In particular, indigenous Brahmins played a leading role in the formulation of Hindu religiosity. Therefore, to reconcile both viewpoints, “Western influence was a necessary but not a sufficient causal factor” in the formulation of Hinduism (King 1999: 98).

Nevertheless, it is worth inquiring to what extent Brahmins constructed ‘Hinduism’ while exercising their power. Similarly to Westerners’ early Asian scholarship, they presented the contemporary population as inferior to textually derived ‘religion’. Samuel (2008) questions the quality of such an approach from the anthropological standpoint. First, contemporary practice is where tradition is best maintained. Second, texts may be unrepresentative of (i) a village religion and non-religion while reflecting exclusively religious practices of urban elites, (ii) period of its production due to combination of early oral tradition with late textualisation and (iii) content its compilers aimed to reconstruct but unintentionally distorted (20-21). But Jones believed that even natives were “unreliable interpreters” (King 1999: 88-89). Therefore, he further divorced the process of interpretation from the practice. Moreover, he arrived at the desire of ‘purifying’ and ‘improving’ the natives encouraging foreign influences, which modern Hindu nationalists wish to eradicate from their history (Niranjana 1990; Pennington 2005: 5). Records of such ambitions weaken the oppositionists’ position in the debate.

Influence on modern scholarship

Considering the above, examining what areas of modern scholarship the debate can inform seems more meaningful instead of finding answers to seemingly impossible questions of if, when and how ‘Hinduism’ was constructed.

First, ‘Orientalism’ became permanently infused with pejorative connotations with Said’s publication in the late 1970s (King 1999: 83). The critique goes beyond acknowledging the exclusions of Indians from the debate and legitimisation of colonial aggression based on inferiority for not possessing Western qualities. The modern Western scholarship is encouraged to include other scholars and perspectives as legitimate, pursue constructive debates and critically understand its own position (King 1999: 183; Samuel 2008: 13). As King suggests, such a balanced stance ought to be concerned with self-reflexivity over prejudices, stereotypes, dichotomies, essentialism and nationalism, and should aim to apply the discourse of sameness (218). Otherwise, redefining homogeneous knowledge systems through foreign lenses characterised by imperceptibility of nuance results in incompatibility with indigenous understandings, however valid they seem from the examining perspective. Nonetheless, the West and the East's power relations continue, despite the end of the colonial era (155, 185).

Second, the notion of ‘religion’ is not transferable from the ahistorical ‘West’ to ‘East’ without an intercultural dialogue. It instrumentalises and creates prejudice and errors in understanding and classification. Alternatively, it could (i) critically assess its own history and agenda, (ii) find a dimension of human experience not conditioned by cultural factors (King 1999: 184), and (iii) expand the existing category to allow religions to be heterogeneous. Globalisation continues, and versatile categories are in demand. Under the scholarly scrutiny, they have to become free of adjusting real phenomena to fit them. Lastly, it is worth emphasising that language is limited, too, as it only represents a map of reality, not reality itself. Analytical categories and labels are convenient and useful but only when applied with mindful awareness of their limitations.

Scholarship, after all, carries a great responsibility. Constructions and misrepresentations affect research and interpretation. Despite the odds, colonial Hinduism came to have tremendous meaning for people. It deepened social divisions beyond the period of colonisation and impacted real lives. Nationalists “awoke to the political fruits” and “have a legitimate concern with how their religions are portrayed” (Pennington 2005: 169; Samuel 2008: 10). Meanwhile, the notion of foreign influence nurtures ‘neo-nostalgia’ for the pure pre-colonial heterogenous Orient (Pennington 2005: 171; King 1999: 214). It is lost, it never existed, or continues to be alive within modernity.

In conclusion

The essay argued that Hinduism is a ‘corpus of concepts’ and, therefore, not a well-informed word choice. Other belief systems exist within it, also in the era of neo-Advaita. I suggest revising the definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘Hinduism’ and examining whether ‘Hinduisms’ or ‘religions of India’, with more attention given to each of them, such as neo-Advaita, is adequate.

The debate showed that the Indian population had to review itself and transform under the pressure of a new reality. In my opinion, it is an exaggeration to say that Hindu self-identity did not emerge in that period, with the colonial power serving only as its catalyst. Colonisation imposed conditions that changed Hinduism, despite the active, albeit selective, cooperation of the locals. Therefore, until more pre-colonial sources are discovered, it can be assumed that ‘partial constructivism’ took place. If earlier common identity existed, it was certainly not ‘religious’ in the Christian sense of the word. Although, to decide with confidence, whether something is religious or not without engaging in a dialogue is of a similar arrogance. I suggest starting an equal discussion by democratising knowledge and easing access to it. Such an act would be adequate compensation to former colonies. At the same time, the coloniser's historical curriculum calls for an update to reckon with its colonial past.


1. For instance, Spain, Poland and Croatia continue to use terms that designate both the residents of the Indian Peninsula and members of the Hindu faith – ‘hindúes’, ‘hindusi’ and ‘hindusi’, respectively. Better informed speakers recognise the ‘subtle’ difference between the two meanings and employ a different term. However, the latter two do not offer a synonym – the difference can only be reflected in writing which results in considerable misunderstandings in speech

2. See pages 648-652 in Lorenzen 1999 for persuasive arguments on a pre-existing Hindu identity formed in contrast to Islam


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