Hinduism in the 21st century – Murali Murti

Bhajan Singer

Prof Murali Murti“Although there is nothing equivalent to an encyclical that has been issued by any reputed Hindu thinkers or religious leaders, there are nevertheless the outlines of a 21st century Hinduism that can be discerned through what appears in the India media, films, books and magazines, and from the writings and speeches of influential Hindu intellectuals and political leaders.” – Prof  Murali Murti

Narendra Modi greets Ganga DeviThe ascent to power of Narendra Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), means that Hinduism has now become an integral part of politics and identity in India. 

The suddenness of this development has startled many in the West who had viewed Hinduism, from a distance, as essentially amorphous, complex, largely confined to within India, above all exotic, and therefore far removed from the swords and the ploughshares of today’s world. 

That contemporary Hinduism might prove to be a manifestation of popular sociocultural trends in a country of over a billion people has prompted serious reflection on a number of questions: What will Hinduism in the future look like? How will the new Hinduism impact politics, business and culture in 21st century India? These are questions that are now relevant not only to academicians but also to foreign policy strategists, the media and business people across the world. 

Although there is nothing equivalent to an encyclical that has been issued by any reputed Hindu thinkers or religious leaders, there are nevertheless the outlines of a 21st century Hinduism that can be discerned through what appears in the India media, films, books and magazines, and from the writings and speeches of influential Hindu intellectuals and political leaders. 

Analysed through the lens of contemporary modernism as applied to the popular Indian culture of today, these outlines form something like an emerging ten commandments or ten guidelines of future Hinduism: 

  1. 21st century Hinduism will be increasingly monolithic, i.e. a single broad thread of Hinduism will dominate across the different regions and communities of India rather than the multiplicity of practices in the past. In this post-colonial process, many of the subsects and parallel strands of Hinduism, such as Tantra, will be substantively discarded.
  2. Hinduism in the future will increasingly seek to become a component of national and political identity, similar to the association that Christianity and Islam have established in other parts of the world. Thus, Hinduism will identify itself with a particular geographic entity—the South Asian subcontinent—and incorporate the notions of “us” and the “other.” 
  3. The understanding of Hindu scriptures will move rapidly to a symbolic interpretation rather than a literal one. To give just one example, Draupadi’s five husbands will be viewed as the five aspects of the perfect man rather than proof of historical polyandry. 21st century Hinduism will be receptive enough of modern science and technology to acknowledge that myths are overwhelmingly just inventions by creative minds, stories useful as guidelines for life but not at all indicators of past fact.
  4. In this process, the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses will assume only symbolic significance in worship, a development already much evident in contemporary India.
  5. Of the pantheon, Ram and Sita will take front stage as the ideal for men and women respectively. Krishna will continue to be the overarching source of inspiration for Hindus through the Bhagavad Gita, but will recede somewhat as the role model for the average Hindu, reflecting the pronounced puritanism that can be observed in urban India today.
  6. Ganesha will continue to rise in prominence as the symbol of the globally successful, outward looking, materialistic and self-confident 21st century Hindu, as against the conventional image of the Hindu in the past as provincially oriented, inward looking, spiritually inclined and humble.
  7. Hinduism in the future will seek to become the major basis for the conduct of daily life by Hindus. The gap between religion as practiced in private and life as led in public will diminish. The role of religion will be seen as one that provides guidelines rather than requiring conformity to practices. But 21st century Hinduism will explicitly assert that morality cannot be legislated, and instead requires cultural awareness.
  8. Exactly following this approach, the Hindu woman will need to continue to take primary responsibility for family and relationships, customs and culture, and public morality in general. To this extent, the Manusmriti will continue to be seen as broadly the source of guidance, but not in any sense binding or prescriptive.
  9. The relationship of Hinduism to other religious minorities will be based on a majoritarian foundation, just as Christianity forms the framework in the United States. Thus, Wendy Doniger and other similar writers and artists can expect increasingly aggressive opposition to their views.
  10. Sanskrit will be universally taught to all Hindus and become the language for worship by all sections of society. 21st century Hinduism will recognise that the exclusivist view of Sanskrit as the property of Brahmins has badly damaged Hindu society over the millennia. With the blurring of its association to Brahmins and upper castes, Sanskrit will become the crucial and critical key to the blurring of caste boundaries and the eventual elimination of caste.

SanskritMuch of this will be immediately denounced as extremist Hindutva. But in this process, it should also be recognised that these “ten commandments” are not entirely without merit. The perspective that morality cannot be entirely legislated, but needs cultural renewal, probably makes instinctive sense to Indians, many of whom have been repulsed by recent public discussions of the lurid details of the high-profile sexual harassment cases, for example. Similarly, the idea that Sanskrit might hold the key to mitigating the worst excesses of caste has the potential to radically transform the discourse on that historical evil. 

These ten commandments, so-called, might be viewed as robbing Hinduism of precisely its tolerant core, its universal appeal and its manifold sources of beauty, and substituting in its place a dry, colourless list of prescriptions. But they also might indicate that the 21st century Hindu has decided that it is finally time to shake off the past and embrace the future. To the modern Hindu, only some of the innumerable trappings of traditional Hinduism may be relevant or necessary. 

If, in the process of this refashioning, some controversies arise, those are only to be expected, would be his response. The new politics, the new culture, the new aggressiveness, may not be everybody’s cup of tea. But in the perspective of the emergent 21st century Hinduism and to its followers, the pluses far outweigh the minuses. – Quartz, 21 January 2015

» Prof Murali Murti has worked in the technology industry and academics, and is now a doctoral scholar with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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