Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious and National Identity. (Reviews of Books)

Article excerpt

Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious and National Identity. Edited by VASUDHA DALMIA and HEINRICH VON STIETENCRON. New Delhi: SAGE PUBLICATIONS, 1995. Pp. 467. $24.95 (paper).

Even if scholarship sometimes may happen in ivory towers, the walls are quite permeable to real-life events. Contemporary politics unavoidably influences scholarly exchanges, even if the setting is a place as remote from India's heat and dust as a hilltop castle in Tubingen, Germany. The castle was the unlikely site of an interdisciplinary conference on modern Hindu self-perception in October 1990, during the build-up of political tension in India. Between the time of the conference and the publication of the volume, the tension had led to the destruction of the so-called Babri Masjid, the mosque in Ayodhya, by self-proclaimed "liberators of the birthplace of Lord Rama" in December 1992. The ensuing communal rioting shocked many, including the editors, who envisage this volume as an answer to the violence. They hope it will contribute to "digging up the ground beneath the feet of the stereotypes being projected currently" (p. 32). The destruction of an edifice called for the deconstruction of a hegemonic disc ourse.

This is not to discredit the volume as tainted by political motivation. The articles, though of uneven quality, are scholarly and well supported. Even those who do not agree with the political perspective of the editors (shared by at least some of the authors) will have to admit that the volume is a major contribution to understanding Hinduism and other South Asian religions in all their diversity. Taken together, the articles show how the current perception of many urban Hindus of their religion has come about historically through the interaction of many factors. In the past two centuries, the Christian critique, Orientalist perceptions, and the nationalist movement have led to privileging in Hinduism's self-definition the devotional (bhakti) and monistic (advaita) strands, and to stressing the issue of foreign origin in its demarcation against other religions.

At the very least, this rich volume will be thought-provoking. The very topic alluded to in the title, the representation of Hinduism, is one of considerable interest to contemporary academics, as witnessed by the recent special section devoted to it in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (68.4 [2000]: 705-835). It should be pointed out, however, that the volume under review does not directly address the issue of who should represent Hinduism, but rather aims at undermining the authority of a (politically empowered) discourse that claims to represent Hinduism.

It is impossible to do justice to all the arguments within the scope of this review. The volume is conceived as a collection of perspectives from different disciplines. What the articles have in common is that they set Out to challenge current stereotypes regarding Hinduism in its many aspects.

Two articles concentrate on legal issues. Dieter Conrad unmasks legal reforms in personal law, in particular with regard to the scheduled caste issue, as "legal Hindutva" (p. 335). Sudhir Chandra counters the notion that British legislation in India was progressive, especially on the issue of women's rights. He presents as a case study a late-nineteenth-century, much-publicized legal case known as Dadaji Bhakaji vs. Rukhmabai, which revolved around a husband's seeking legal resort to force his child-bride to be restored to him.

Two other articles tackle historical truisms. Partha Chatterjee shows that the notion that Indian nationalism is synonymous with Hindu nationalism is a modern, rationalist, and historicist idea. He does so by comparing the view of history as expressed in early and later colonial Bengali historical textbooks. More directly bearing on the Babri Masjid issue is Gyanendra Pandey's insightful analysis of Hindu histories of Ayodhya. …