What is Neo-Hinduism?

Hinduism itself is an incredibly ancient religion, but like all existing religions, it has also undergone recent change. In this light, Neo-Hinduism is a recent phenomenon to have developed in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (1).

Neo-Hinduism developed primarily through the interactions between Indian people and the British colonialists and the Christian religion. Indian contact with the colonialists and Christianity led Hindu reformers to concentrate on the unifying elements of their tradition that could be universalized and applied to people all over in India, as well as outside of it (2).

Emphasis on Texts and Monotheism

One significant change was in Neo-Hinduism’s emphasis on texts (3). Historically, ancient Hinduism consisted of teachings that were transmitted orally from teachers to disciples rather than through written texts. The reformers’ encounter with Christianity, however, resulted in a greater emphasis on the scriptural basis of Hinduism in the nineteenth century. Additional changes also favoured a greater emphasis on Hinduism’s monotheistic nature. Many people view Hinduism, mostly in light of its many gods and goddesses, as a polytheistic religion, but this is often rejected by Hindu leaders. These leaders ensure that their religion is monotheistic because Hindus believe in one all-pervasive supreme God who can be worshipped in different forms using different names. This would make Hinduism both monotheistic (belief in a single God) and henotheistic (belief in many gods one and that these gods can be worshipped without denying the existence of other gods).

New Questions About Ancient Doctrines

Various other changes occurred in the last two centuries. Although the doctrines of karma and rebirth are still very much prominent in Hindu thought, new challenges have arisen. Historian of religion Ninian Smart highlights how questions emerged when viewing reincarnation alongside modern biology and genetics: “If I owe my characteristics to my two parents, how is there a place for a third force (the effects of previous actions)? The most canvased response was: my soul homes in on my parents in order to have the proper effect of previous lives. A good soul will home in on holy and prosperous parents, a bad one on disaster-prone parents. So it turns out in Indian that, though there is little problem about belief in God, there may be growing doubts about rebirth” (4).

Response to Materialism in the West

In Neo-Hinduism’s narrative dimension, the stories of gods, in particular those relating to the incarnations of Vishnu, remain important, and many developments occurred in response to the Western world’s materialism (5). Materialism motivated some Hindus to share their spiritual ideas and practices with the West, as exemplified in Swami Vivekananda (d. 1902) and Mahatma Gandhi (d. 1948). Vivekananda highlighted the importance of inner spiritual experience in realizing one’s true identity and Ghandi promoted the ethic of ahimsa (non-violence) and passive resistance. Yoga also penetrated the West as something that Indian culture could offer; according to Smart, “This sometimes reinforced an often expressed opinion among modern Hindus that India has an essentially spiritual culture, while the West has slipped into a crass materialism” (6).

There also arose national sentiments in pro-Hindu organizations that interpreted the Hindu tradition in a far less peaceful manner than did Vivekananda and Ghandi. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in 1925, revived Hinduism with military exercises. A new puritanism also spread among the educated Neo-Hindu elite that placed stricter controls on sex. This was in response to factors such as higher education extending beyond youth and into early manhood and womanhood, as well as to marriages that were dictated by families within the framework of the caste system. Many Neo-Hindus will defend the caste system and its form of marriage as being better and more fulfilling than marriages within the West. The caste system remains a force in Indian life, although it has diminished somewhat in light of modernization.

The Diminished Role of Brahmins

Another fascinating development has been in the less prominent role of the Brahmins, or priests, in religious life (7). Historically, the Brahmins were the most crucial role players in religious life because they oversaw rituals and were responsible for making sacrifices to the gods. This gave them much prestige and they were highly sought after by prominent Indians, including rulers. This is far less so today. This is largely because it more common today to translate Hindu scriptures into books that people can read. The result is that Hindus need not rely on trained Brahmins in the religious life. Additionally, new information was coming in from alternative, unprecedented sources that Hindus traditionally used for sacred knowledge, and there also grew revivalist movements that were anti-Brahminic in perspective.

There has been a decline in the building of temples and statues since ancient times, although temples still remain very popular as devotees continue to worship in them.

References

  1. Gap Min, Pyong. 2010. “Religions in India and South Korea.” In Preserving Ethnicity through Religion in America: Korean Protestants and Indian Hindus across Generations, edited by Pyong Gap Min, 29-46. NYU Press. p. 32.
  2. Gap Min, Pyong. 2010. Ibid. p. 32.
  3. Gap Min, Pyong. 2010. Ibid. p. 32.
  4. Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 413.
  5. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 413.
  6. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 414.
  7. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 414.

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