How the British Invented Hinduism: By "Reviving" the Hindu Religion, the Middle Classes of India Hope to Turn Their Country into a World Power. Yet before the 19th Century, No Such Religion Existed. (Essay)

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Swami Vivekananda, the great moderniser of Hinduism, picnicking in the hills behind the Vivekananda House, Pasadena, 1900

Earlier this year, I was in Rishikesh, the first town that the River Ganges meets as it leaves its Himalayan home and embarks upon its long journey through the north Indian plains. The town's place in Indian mythology is not as secure as that of Hardwar, which lies a few miles downstream and which periodically hosts the Kumbh Mela festival of Hinduism; nor is it as famous as Allahabad or Benares, even holier cities further down the Ganges. People seeking greater solitude and wisdom usually head deep into the Himalayas. With its saffron-robed sadhus and ashrams, its yoga and meditation centres, and its internet and dosa cafes, Rishikesh caters to a very modern kind of spiritual tourist: the Beatles came here in the Sixties to learn from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Their quick disillusionment seems not to have deterred the stylishly disaffected members of the western middle class who can be found wandering the town's alleys in tie-dye outfits, trying to raise their kundalini in between checking their Hotmail account s.

I was in Rishikesh to see my aunt, who has just retired to one of the riverside ashrams. She has known a hard life: widowed when she was in her thirties, she worked in small, badly paid teaching jobs to support her three children. In my memory, I can still see her standing at exposed country bus stops in the middle of white-hot summer days. She had come to know comfort, even luxury, of sorts in later life. Her children travel all over the world as members of India's new globalised corporate elite; there are bright grandchildren to engage her at home. But she was happiest in Rishikesh, she told me, living as frugally as she had for much of her life, and devoting her attention to the end of things.

True detachment, however, seemed as difficult to achieve for her as for the spiritual seekers with e-mail. I had only to mention the political situation--India was then threatening to attack Pakistan--for her to say, angrily: "These Muslims need to be taught a lesson. We Hindus have been too soft for too long."

In the past decade, such sentiments have become commonplace among the upper-caste Hindus, both in India and abroad, who form the most loyal constituency of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They were amplified most recently in Gujarat during the BJP-assisted massacre of more than a thousand Muslims; they go with a middle-class pride in the international prominence of Indian beauty queens, software professionals and Bollywood. Perhaps I wouldn't have found anything odd about my aunt's anti-Muslim passions had I not later gone up to her monastic cell and noticed the large garlanded poster of a well-known Sufi saint of western India.

Did she know that she revered someone born a Muslim? The folk religion to which the Sufi saint belongs, and which millions of Indians still practise, does not acknowledge such modern political categories as Hindu and Muslim. The discrepancy between the narrow nationalist prejudices my aunt had inherited from her class and caste and the affinities she generously formed in her inner world of devotion and prayer is not easily understood; but it is part of the extraordinary makeover undergone by Hinduism since the 19th century, when India first confronted the west and its universalist ideologies of nationalism and progress.

Although it contains the world's third-largest population of Muslims, India, for most people outside it, is a country of "Hindus"; even a "Hindu civilisation", in Samuel Huntington's millenarian world-view. Yet Hinduism was a 19th-century British invention. Even the word Hindu itself is of non-Hindu origin. It was first used by the ancient Persians to refer to the people living near the River Indus (Sindhu in Sanskrit). It then became a convenient shorthand for the rulers of India; it defined those who were not Muslims or Christians. …