Ontological and epistemological commitments of ‘Hinduism’—S.N.Balagangadhara

1. The English word ‘Hinduism’ not only carries multiple meanings it also appears to refer to many different things. If the context of the discussion were to help us disambiguate the reference of this word, it might not pose many problems for a serious discussion. Unfortunately, the context itself gets muddled. Each understands the question ‘Does Hinduism Exist?’ in a different fashion. As though this is not enough, this confusion enters into other areas as well: witness the challenge for people to prove that Sikhism does not exist. The prima facie evidence seems to be the following: the word ‘Hinduism’ seems to carry many different kinds of (ontological) commitments (i.e. when we use the word, we seem to make assumptions about the kind of entities that exist in the world), many different epistemological positions (i.e. how can either know or not know what that word refers to).

2. One of the interesting strategies used in scientific discussions to circumvent this problem, especially when a rival theory enters the fray, is to undertake a linguistic reform. The word ‘Oxygen’ replaced ‘phlogiston’ because the latter word carried too much of baggage. There many ways to undertake a linguistic reform. For instance, the members of this board could restrict the meaning and reference of the word ‘Hinduism’: “that which exists in India”. If we use the word thus, of course, no one denies that Hinduism exists. Or again, we could say “that which is common to many different groups in India and to Indians elsewhere”. Ascertaining the scope of this word might be difficult, but we could get along.

3. However, the problem is that when we enter the intellectual arena, our definition of the word is not the only one floating around. So, either we have such discussions (such a discussion appears interminable) each time, or we go for some other term which does not create confusions and muddles because it carries unidentified ontological and epistemological commitments.

4. When I say that “Hinduism is an imaginary entity“, I mean the following (as I have repeatedly said in ‘The Heathen…’): If the word ‘Hinduism’ is said to refer to a religion, and the claim is that such a religion exists (say, in India), then such a claim is false. In order to defend my position, I do not depend on my pet definition of the word ‘Hinduism’ but on a hypothesis about what religion is, how to study it scientifically and so on. On the basis of this hypothesis, I enumerate the sociological conditions that are absolutely essential for the propagation of religion and show that they are systematically absent in India. I also show that a closer (and more detailed) study would also allow us to argue that it is metaphysically impossible that religion could exist in India.

5. In the same book, I address myself to the intuition that religion is somehow responsible for either the emergence of a culture or for its identity. My hypothesis suggests that this intuition is true for the western culture but that human history is not European history writ large. Even here, the way I make this intuition come out ‘true’ is to show that societies and cultures do not come into being because some groups have a religion (the empirical history of religions shows that religions divide people more often than it unites them) or because some people practice some or another set of rituals. I speak in terms of configurations of learning and what brings them into existence.

6. The usefulness of a linguistic reform should be ascertained by looking at the advantages it brings. (In my book, I do not indulge in linguistic reform concerning the word ‘Hinduism’ but in formulating a set of hypothesis about religion, culture and configurations of learning. These hypotheses can be tested, rejected, improved upon, etc. on theoretical and empirical grounds.) I suggest that we better look at the Indian culture in terms of a configuration of learning that brings forth practical knowledge. (I need to correct you here: the ritualization of daily life in Asia is an evidence for the claim that Ritual plays the role in Asia that Religion plays regarding the West. I do not substitute ‘ritualized culture’ for ‘Hinduism’.)

7. In the context of my theory, one cannot formulate the question ‘If Hinduism is not a religion, what else is it?’ (That is because, I have avoided defining the word ‘Hinduism’ and my hypothesis works at a very different level. I speak of ‘Religion’ that develops a configuration of learning. So, if we write a history of the Western Culture, only then do we need to look at Christianity as a religion.) You could, of course, raise it as an issue in order to understand the import of my theory. (Or you could raise it to ask the question, ‘How do we write a history of India, or Asia?’)

8. Let me repeat. I am not replacing the word ‘Hinduism’ with the word ‘culture’ (Indian, Asian, ritualized or whatever else). I formulate a hypothesis, which differentiates the Indian (or Asian) culture from the Western culture. Zillions of new questions come into being because of this hypothesis. I do not have answers to all, or even to most of them. For instance, since writing ‘The heathen…’, I have taken the first step in beginning to theorize about the nature of Indian traditions; about how we could start making sense of the ‘Indianness’ (I do not like to use this word, but I cannot think of better one) of the Indian traditions. I have some understanding of the nature of Indian ethics and how it is different from the structure of Western ethics. I have some idea too why we have such great difficulties in either understanding or testing the kind of hypothesis I formulate, etc. But these are all mere steps in the direction of a goal, which no one individual or even one generation can reach.

9. One says: “if one abandons the notion of a something (not religion) called Hinduism, I think it is difficult to understand connections between say, a Vedicist and a Sikh or a Jain or a Buddhist monk.” The proof of the pudding is in the eating, they say. May be you are right; then again, maybe you are not. So far I have been able to make better sense of what unites the kind of people you mention without using the word ‘Hinduism’ or any of its dominant meanings. Not only that. My hypothesis is cognitively superior to every other ‘theory’ in the market place that does use some or another meaning of the word ‘Hinduism’. So far, I have dispensed with the word ‘Hinduism’ itself: I am using words like ‘experiential knowledge’, ‘practical or performative knowledge’ (no doubt, I will need to coin more new words) to build a testable hypothesis about the Indian culture. All I do observe is that those millions of writers who do use the word ‘Hinduism’ are not able to generate any kind of a hypothesis that can be tested. These writers stretch over three centuries and embrace intellectuals from both the West and the East. Of course, observing their failure does not mean that they will also continue to fail. But this possibility does not bother me. I have multiple criteria of scientificity and rationality to guide me in my endeavor. Let us see where my search takes me. I know where their search has so far taken them.

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