Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Religioscope: India: does Hinduism exist? Interview with Martin Fárek

Religioscope - But when people speak about Hinduism, what is problematic?

Fárek - It also depends on the position of the person speaking about Hinduism. When a Westerner speaks about Hinduism, I see several problems. One of them is the notion that it is a unified religion. There have been so many different attempts to define Hinduism itself; I myself have written an article about these discussions and definitions. Some people say that the term "Hinduism" makes no sense. In academia, you have radically diverse opinions on the very basic understanding of what Hinduism is.

Behind this, there are more serious questions. When we speak about Hinduism in Europe, in our classrooms or in the media, we are conveying to people the idea that a religion such as Hinduism exists and that this is what Indians are. By doing this, we are explaining what the people of India are, what they do, why they do it, etc. We make sense of Indian cultures and traditions according to this definition of Hinduism, very much connecting it to the caste system and a range of other issues that have arisen at the conference.The question is: Does all this really help us to understand people in India?

Religioscope - Do you expect such an undertaking to have any impact outside of academic research? Do you see it as something more than an intellectual exercise - something that could initiate changes in Indian society?

Fárek - I think it can. But there is a question of several layers or groups when one is speaking about Indian society. At the conference in question, during several sessions and discussions, one could observe that there are people whom we call "Hindus" who rarely use the word, and if they did, it was because they had to complete forms for the government or respond to census questions such as : Are you Christian, Hindu, etc., i.e. What is your religion? It was on these occasions that many Indians first heard about "Hinduism"! Many of them decided: "OK, I am Hindu!" But this obviously did not mean much to them. So we must think first of all about how many people in India still live in villages - I think possibly 70 per cent of the population. These people are not touched by these emerging notions of "Hinduism" so much and whatever other terms are used. Of course, then you have the educated strata of society, not only intellectuals: I think they are the real targets of the conference - the educated so-called "Hindus". Many of them experience difficuty in understanding who they are and what their tradition is. Some of them feel that they are anglicized or modernized, but what are the alternatives? There is a lot of heated discussion around such questions. This is a sign that this conference can achieve a more general outcome.

The paper about untouchability was wonderful in many ways, and in one way it showed that you cannot solve untouchability in India as a problem without dealing with the broader issues that arose at the conference. The researcher presenting the paper, who himself had occasionally had very painful experiences with regard to untouchability, told us: "You see, untouchability has nothing to do with religion, with Hinduism. There is something else behind it. And what I say after doing a great deal of research" - i.e. these were not statements just based on his personal experience, even though he had actually thought originally that untouchability had something to do with religion - "is that at least in Karnataka, religion does not fit into the picture." He said that, at the moment, the government of India is more or less approaching the problem of untouchability as a religious problem, and since India is a secular state, the government will never interfere with it. There are laws demanding equality for all citizens, but this is not the solution to the problem of oppression. He said that, in some areas, because of this secular approach, the problem of oppression of some groups by other groups is getting worse. We do need to rethink the whole idea of the caste system, but this problem is very much connected to the notion of "Hinduism" and how the structures of Hinduism are perceived. We have first to deal with this issue, because it is blocking our search for possible solutions to the problem.
Religioscope: India: does Hinduism exist? Interview with Martin Fárek
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