‘Hinduism’ and hipkapi: an Imaginary entity –S.N. Balagangadhara

1. What did the theory of gravitation do? Apart from describing the fall of bodies on earth, it also tied the motion of planets and the ebb and tide in the sea to each other. This theory allowed us to predict the motion of the planets and helped us discover a new planet in the solar system. In other words, it provided a theory that unified phenomena. Until that stage, we did not know that these three phenomena were linked together, and we had independent explanations for each of them. This is one of the things that a theory does: it identifies the phenomena that belong together.

2. The issue before us is this: when the west (let us stick to the west for the time being) unified some phenomena into something they thought was a religion and called it ‘Hinduism’, were they guided here by a theory (i.e. a theology) as well? If yes, the first question is this: did this theory tie certain practices and beliefs together into a phenomenon (called ‘Hinduism’) that do not belong together, or did they merely describe a unitary phenomenon in a wrong way? That is to say, is the ‘Hinduism’ that we know through a standard text book story made into a something (a unified phenomenon) through the use of theology? Or, did the west merely describe ‘Hinduism’ wrongly, namely, as a religion?

Notice though that by suggesting that Hinduism does not exist, one is not saying that those beliefs and practices that went into constructing this unity do not exist. What one is denying is that these beliefs and practices (taken together) constitute a phenomenon called ‘Hinduism’.

3. Let me provide an imaginary example and draw an analogy. Imagine someone coming to earth and noticing the following phenomena: grass is green, milk turns sour, birds fly and some flowers put out a fragrant smell. He is convinced that these are organically related to each other and sees ‘hipkapi’ in them. The presence of hipkapi not only explains the above phenomena are but also how they are related to each other. To those who doubt the existence of hipkapi, he draws their attention to its visible manifestation: the tigers eating the gazelle, dogs chasing the cats, and the massive size of the elephants. Each of these is a fact, as everyone can see it. But, of course, neither severally nor individually do they tell us anything about hipkapi. When more like him come to earth and reiterate the presence of hipkapi, other conditions permitting, hipkapi not only becomes a synonym for these (which?) phenomena but also turns out to be their explanation. Thereafter, to ask what hipkapi is, or even how it explains, is an expression of one’s idiocy: does not everyone see hipkapi, this self-explanatory thing?

This is what the Europeans did. The puja in the temples, the sandhyavandanam of the Brahmins, the Sahasranamams, etc. became organic parts of the Indian religion. Purushasukta was the cosmogenic explanation of the caste system, and untouchability its outward manifestation. Dharma and adharma were the Sanskrit names for ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the Indian deities were much like their Greek counterparts. To the missionaries, we were the idolaters; to the emasculated liberal, we are mere polytheists. In the analogy I have used, the visitor ‘constructs’ the hipkapi. To him, it becomes an experiential entity. He talks about this experiential entity, as his fellow-beings do, in a systematic way. The facts exist; does the hipkapi exist? This is the issue. Puja in the temples, the sandhyavandanam of the Brahmins, the Sahasranamams, the Purushasukta, our notions of dharma and adharma, etc. all exist. Does their existence tell us that ‘Hinduism’ also exists? Are they organic parts of a phenomenon called ‘Hinduism’, even if that phenomenon is not a religion?

4. In other words, I am not suggesting that the west provided a false description of the social and cultural reality in India. But the unity they created by tying these things together is the problem: this unity is a unity for them. They had to create such a unified phenomenon because of their theology. They could not understand us otherwise. In discussions about ‘Hinduism’, this is the problem. Is ‘hipkapi’ a unified phenomenon or an imaginary entity? Is ‘Hinduism’ a unified phenomenon or an imaginary entity?

5. The majority opinion on this issue is clear. ‘Hinduism’ exists, but it has not been accurately described. One might want to call it ‘religion’, the other might say that it is more accurate to speak of ‘Hinduisms’ (and not in the singular)… and so on. The post-colonials are willing to concede the ‘construction’ of Hinduism, but suggest that this construction ‘exists’ now. In the strict minority of one, what I am saying is that this unity is not a unity within the Indian culture.

6. Am I suggesting then that these phenomena are unrelated to each other? Or am I merely suggesting that they have a different relationship to each other? Irrespective of my answers to these questions, the claim holds: Hinduism, the phenomenon constructed by the West, is an experiential entity only to the West and not to us. In this sense, Hinduism is not a part of the Indian culture. It has no existence outside of the western experience of India.

7. Now comes the really interesting issue. Could we provide a different description of the Indian culture? Would such a description tell us what exists in India, and which of the above are related to each other and explain how they are related to each other? Yes, I believe, we can. But the absolute presupposition for that the current framework (which we have imbibed through the western scholarship) is completely left behind. Not only do I believe that a different description is possible but also that it will be cognitively superior to the majority view.

8. My article ‘How to speak for the Indian traditions?’ begins to lay the groundwork for such an endeavor. See whether it is a more interesting attempt or not.

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