Who Invented Hinduism?

David N. Lorenzen

Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, No. 4. (Oct., 1999), pp. 630-659.

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Who Invented Hinduism? DAVID N . LORENZEN

El Colegio de Mkxico

. . . moreover if people of Arabia or Persia would ask of the men of this country whether they are Moors or Gentoos, they ask in these words: ‘Art thou Mosalman or Indu?’

DKGarcia de Orta, 1563.’

Over the past decade, many scholars have put forward the claim that Hinduism was constructed, invented, or imagined by British scholars and colonial ad- ministrators in the nineteenth century and did not exist, in any meaningful sense, before this date.2 Prominent among scholars who have made this con- structionist argument, if I can call it that, are Vasudha Dalmia, Robert Fryken- berg, Christopher Fuller, John Hawley, Gerald Larson, Harjot Oberoi, Brian Smith, and Heinrich von Stietencron.’ W. C. Smith is sometimes identified, quite correctly, as a noteworthy precursor of these scholar^.^ Romila Thapar (1985; 1989, 1996) and Dermot Killingley (1993:61-64) have offered some- what similar arguments, but both display greater sensitivity to historical ambi- guities, distributing the construction of a distinctly modern Hinduism among British orientalists and missionaries and indigenous nationalists and commu- nalists. Carl Ernst (1992:22-29, n.b. 23) discusses early Muslim references to “Hindus” and their religion, but he joins the above scholars in claiming that the terms “do not correspond to any indigenous Indian concept, either of geogra- phy or religion.” J. Laine (1983) agrees with Smith and his modern epigones that Hinduism was invented in the nineteenth century, but credits the invention to the Indians rather than to the British.

On the other side of the argument are several scholars who have directly questioned this claim from various points of view. They include Lawrence A. Babb, Wendy Doniger, Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi, Alf Hiltebeitel, Cyn- thia Talbot, Thomas Trautmann, Peter van der Veer, and m y ~ e l f . ~ A recent re-

‘ As cited in Yule and Burnell 1968:415. Their bibliography lists the book as being published in Portuguese at Goa in 1563, but the English translation they give seems to be an old one.

I thank many scholars for their comments on this and earlier versions of this essay, particu- larly Saurabh Dube and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. ‘ See Dalmia 1995; Frykenberg 1989; Fuller 1992; Hawley 1991: Larson 1995; Oberoi

1994:16-17; B. Smith 1989; Stietencron 1989 and 1995. Smith 1991. First ed. 1962. See Babb 1986, Doniger 1991. Ferro-Luzzi 1989. Hiltebeitel 1991, Talbot 1995:694, Traut-

mann 1996:64-80, van der Veer 1994, and Lorenzen 1995: 11-13. Somewhat different but com- patible arguments can also be found in Bayly 1985, Pollock 1993. and Rogers 1994 (this last ref- erence on Sri Lanka).

0010-417519914293-2324 $7.50 + .10 O 1999 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History

view of the issue by Saurabh Dube (1998:4-7) makes a valiant attempt to mark out a compromise position, but ends up, I think, straddling the fence rather than finding a new synthesis. In addition, it should be noted that most scholars of In- dian religions who have not directly addressed this question-and even sever- al who claim that Hinduism is a modern construction-continue to write about Hinduism as if it in fact existed many centuries earlier.

This essay argues that the claim that Hinduism was invented or constructed by European colonizers, mostly British, sometime after 1800 is false. The evi- dence instead suggests that a Hindu religion theologically and devotionally grounded in texts such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Puranas, and philosophical commentaries on the six darianas gradually acquired a much sharper self-con- scious identity through the rivalry between Muslims and Hindus in the period between 1200 and 1500, and was firmly established long before 1800. The ob- vious danger of this thesis is that it can be modified to provide support to a Hin- du communalist argument that a self-conscious Hindu identity arose out of the violent persecution of Hindus by Muslims. In fact state-sponsored persecution was only sporadic and directed mostly at temple buildings, not people. Nonetheless, religious literature by Hindu poets such as Kabir, Ekanath, and Vidyapati (some of this quoted below) suggests that socioreligious conflict- occasionally violent conflict-did occur among people on a local level. In any case, only a recognition of the fact that much of modern Hindu identity is root- ed in the history of the rivalry between Hinduism and Islam will enable us to correctly gauge the strength of communalist forces and wage war against them.


If what one means by Hinduism is simply the English word itself, then the claim that it did not exist before the nineteenth century is correct. Several scholars cite the date 1829 for the first known occurrence in English, in the form “Hin- dooism”. W.C. Smith is sometimes given credit for this reference, but Smith cites the Oxford English Dictionup as his ~ o u r c e . ~ In a search through several early nineteenth-century journals, I managed to find one example of the word “Hinduism” (with a “u”) in a letter published in the 18 18 volume of The Asiat- ic Journal and Monthly Register (London) and no less than seven examples (also with a “u”) in an article by John Crawfurd on Hinduism in Bali, published in the 1820 volume ofAsiatick Researches ( C a l ~ u t t a ) . ~More significant are two appearances of the term in English language texts by Rammohan Roy published in 1816 and 1817, which have recently been noted and discussed recently by Dermot Ki l l ing le~ .~ In 18 16 Rammohan made this critical comment: “The chief part of the theory and practice of Hindooism, I am sorry to say, is made to con- sist in the adoption of a peculiar mode of diet.” In 1817, on the other hand, he claimed that “the doctrines of the unity of God are real Hinduism, as that reli-

W.C. Smith 1991:61, 253. ‘ Civis 1818:107; Crawfurd 1820:129, 135, 139. 147. 151. See Killingley (1993:62-63). This reference was brought to my attention by Patricio Nelson.

gion was practiced by our ancestors, and as it is well known at the present day to many learned Brahmin~.”~ This puts the proponents of the British construc- tion of Hinduism in the embarrassing situation of having to admit that an India- born Hindu seems to have coined the label for this supposedly British construct.

It is true, however, that the word “Hinduism” became common in English only in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and mostly in books by British authors. One important milestone was the publication of Alexander Duff’s popular book, India and India Missions: Sketches of the Gigantic Sys- tem of Hinduism Both in Theory and Practice, in 1839. M. Monier-Williams’ introductory text, Hinduism, first published in 1877, also did much to popular- ize the term.

What contemporary scholars generally mean by the construction or inven- tion of Hinduism, however, is not simply the coining of the name. What they claim is that the Europeans, and more specifically the British, imposed a single conceptual category on a heterogeneous collection of sects, doctrines, and cus- toms that the Hindus themselves did not recognize as having anything essen- tial in common. In this view, it was only after the concept of Hinduism was con- structed by these Europeans that the Hindus themselves adopted the idea that they all belonged to a single religious community.

Although this argument about the construction or invention of Hinduism has a strong postmodern flavor, it was first developed by W.C. Smith in his 1962 book, The Meaning and End of Religion. Smith insists that religion must be an- alyzed using specifically religious categories, rather than through the medium of disciplines such as sociology, psychology, literature, or even philosophy and history. For this reason he strongly opposes any attempt by outside observers to impose their own categories and explanations on religious phenomena. In the case of Hinduism, he argues that the naming of this religion by Europeans was a mistake: there is no Hinduism either in the minds of the Hindus or in empir- ical reality itself.1°

What exists cannot be defined. What obstructs a definition of Hinduism, for instance, is precisely the richness of what exists, in all its extravagant variety from century to cen- tury and from village to village. The empirical religious tradition of the Hindus devel- oping historically in the minds and hearts and institutions and literatures and societies of untold millions of actual people is not a form, but a growing congeries of living re- alities. It is not to be compressed within or eviscerated into or confused with any sys- tematic intellectual pattern.

As an ideal “Hinduism” might conceivably be defined (though only by a Hindu), but not as an historical reality. The sheer facts, in all their intractable toughness, stand in the way.

“Hinduism” refers not to an entity; it is a name that the West has given to a prodi- giously variegated series of facts. It is a notion in men’s minds-and a notion that can- not but be inadequate. To use this term at all is inescapably a gross oversimplification.

These two references (from Rammohan Roy 1978:73, 90.) are cited from Killingley. ‘ O Smith 1991:144-45.

To define Hinduism is to deny the Hindu his right to the freedom and integrity of his faith. What he may do tomorrow no man can say today.

Turning to more recent statements of similar positions, one of the wittiest is by John Hawley (1991: 20-21). Hawley also comes close to identifying the construction of Hinduism with the coining of the word itself.

Hinduism-the word and perhaps the reality too-was born in the 19th century, a no- toriously illegitimate child. The father was middle-class and British, and the mother, of course, was India. The circumstances of the conception are not altogether clear. One heard of the “goodly habits and observances of Hindooism” in a Bengali-English gram- mar written in 1829, and the Reverend William Tennant had spoken of “the Hindoo sys- tem” in a book on Indian manners and history written at the beginning of the century. Yet it was not until the inexpensive handbook Hinduism was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1877 that the term came into general English usage.

Brian Smith (19895-6) makes a similar argument in a more typically post- modern style. Here Hinduism is, to use two words much in vogue, simply “in- vented” or “imagined.”

Just who invented “Hinduism” first is a matter of scholarly debate. Almost everyone agrees that it was not the Hindus. . . . As a discrete Indic religion among others, howev- er, “Hinduism” was probably first imagined by the British in the early part of the nine- teenth century to describe (and create and control) an enormously complex configura- tion of people and their traditions found in the South Asian subcontinent. “Hinduism” made it possible for the British, and for us all (including Hindus), to speak of a religion when before there was none or, at best, many.

To give yet another example, Harjot Oberoi presents roughly the same argu- ment, albeit in a somewhat more nuanced form, in the introduction to his recent work on the construction of a modern Sikh identity.

It is most striking that people we now call Hindus never used this term to describe them- selves. The Vedas, the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, which today are seen by many as the religious texts of the Hindus, do not employ the word Hindu. That term was first used by the Achaemenid Persians to describe all those people who lived on or beyond the banks of the river Sindhu, or Indus. Therefore, at one stage the word Hindu as an ethno-geographic category came to englobe all those who lived in India, without ethnic distinction. It was only under the Muslim rulers of India that the term began to gain a religious connotation. But it was not until colonial times that the term ‘Hinduism’ was coined and acquired wide currency as referring collectively to a wide variety of religious communities, some of them with distinct traditions and opposed practices. Communi- ties like the Saivites, Vaishnavites, and Lingayats, each with their own history and specific view of the world, were tied together under the blanket category Hinduism.

Robert Frykenberg (1989:29) insists, with categorical bluntness, that even today “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are terms without any substantive content:

Unless by “Hindu” one means nothing more, nor less, than “Indian” (something native to, pertaining to, or found within the continent of India), there has never been any such a thing as a single “Hinduism” or any single “Hindu community” for all of India. Nor,

for that matter, can one find any such thing as a single “Hinduism” or “Hindu commu- nity” even for any one socio-cultural region of the continent. Furthermore, there has nev- er been any one religion-nor even one system of religions-to which the term “Hin- du” can accurately be applied. No one so-called religion, moreover, can lay exclusive claim to or be defined by the term “Hinduism.”

In order to present an alternative argument, we need to divide the topic into two separate questions. First, when did the British and other Europeans begin to conceptualize Hinduism as a single religious system? Second, when did the Hindus and other Indians begin to do the same? In both cases, the argument for a nineteenth century construction of the concept does not agree with the avail- able evidence. Before presenting this evidence, however, one other key issue has to be addressed: the meaning of the term “Hindu.”

It is well known that variants of the word “Hindu” were current in Persian and vernacular Indian languages long before the nineteenth century. If this word al- ways meant simply a follower of beliefs and practices drawn from the religion we now call Hinduism, then the constructionist argument would be refuted from the start. This would be the case even if no specific word or phrase equivalent to “Hinduism” could be identified. In point of fact, however, the religious sense of Hindu has long coexisted and overlapped with an ethnic and geographical sense. What the constructionists are obliged to argue is that this ethno- geographical sense of Hindu remained overwhelmingly dominant up until the nineteenth century, and that only then did the religious sense become wide- spread as a result of the British invention of Hinduism.

Etymology clearly supports an ethno-geographical meaning of Hindu. Early European scholars, it is true, did sometimes claim either a biblical derivation from Hind, a supposed son of Ham and grandson of Noah, or a Sanskrit de- rivation from indu meaning “moon.”11 Now, however, everyone agrees that the

I ‘ The derivation from indu was suggested by Alexander Dow in a text published in 1768 (Mar- shall 1970: 114): “The Hindoos are so called from Indoo or Hindoo, which, in the Shanscrita lan- guage, signifies the Moon; for from that luminary, and the sun, they deduce their fabulous origin.” In the same text Dow also offers the biblical derivation, but Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, in a text published in 1776, suggests that the derivation from sindhlr is probably the correct one. He also claims that the name Hindu was probably adopted by the H~ndus to distinguish themselves from the Muslims (Marshall 1970:149-50):

Hindostan is a Persian word. equally unknown to the old and modern Shanscrit, compounded of Stan, a region, and the word Hind or Hindoo: probably Colonel Dow’s elegant translation of Fer- ishteh’s History gives us the true derivation, in that author’s conjecture, that it is taken from Hind, a supposed son of Ham, the son of Noah; and, whatever antiquity the Indians may assert for them- selves (of which some notice will subsequently be taken) the Persians, we believe, will rest con- tented to allow, that the first intercourse between the two nations commenced in the third descent from the deluge. But. if this definition were rejected, the common opinion, that India was so named by foreigners after the river Indus, is by no means repugnant to probability. . . . Hindoo therefore is not the term by which the inhabitants originally stiled themselves . . . and it is only since the aera of the Tartar government that they have assumed the name of Hindoos, to distinguish themselves from their conquerors. the Mussulmen.

word derives from Sindhu, the native name for the river Indus. There is also a consensus that the name Sindhu became “Hind or “Hindu” in Persian lan- guages and then reentered Indian languages as “Hindu,” originally with the sense of an inhabitant of the lands near and to the east of the Indus. Most pro- ponents of the British construction of Hinduism not surprisingly begin by stressing this geographical etymology and then simply deny that use of the word “Hindu” in a religious sense was of any importance until the nineteenth centu- ry, without any close examination of the actual use in texts written before this date.

Take, for example, the comments of Heinrich von Stietencron: l 2

The term Hindu itself is a Persian term. Used in the plural it denotes the people of Hind, the Indians, and in this sense it occurs in the inscriptions of Darius I and other rulers of ancient Persia from the sixth century B.C. onwards. It certainly goes to the cred- it of Persian scholars like Al-Biruni, Abu-1 Qasim, al-Masudi, al-Idrisi and Shahrastani that they knew and distinguished different religions among the Hindus. Administrators were less exact or they saw no need for such differentiation between Hindus for taxa- tion purposes. The British adopted the term from administrators, not from the scholars.

Here von Stietencron here quite blithely jumps from the sixth century B.C. to the nineteenth century A.D. with virtually no discussion whatever of the inter- vening uses of the term “Hindu,” either by foreigners or by native Indians. He admits that several Persian scholars did discuss the religions of the Hindus, but implies that they never identified any one religion as the principal religion of this group. In the case of al-Biruni at least, this is simply not so, as we shall see. Finally, von Stietencron asserts that the British, in any case, took the term “Hin- du” not from these scholars but from administrators, who, he implies, were still using this term in the geographical sense found in the inscriptions of Darius I, written over 2400 years earlier.

If, however, the word “Hindu” had a purely geographical sense up until the nineteenth century, as von Stietencron claims, then why were the foreign Mus- lims who permanently settled in India, or at least their descendants born in In- dia, not called Hindus? He attempts to answer this objection by insisting that the Muslim rulers persistently maintained a foreign self-identity for genera- tions, while the Hindus, i.e. native Indians, just as persistently maintained a sep- arate, indigenous identity (Ibid., 78):

It was this feeling of superiority and the continuing linkage of social prestige to origins outside India which, even after centuries of settlement in the country, prevented upper class Muslims from considering themselves Hindus, i.e., indigenous Indians. The Hin- dus remained a separate population-natives the British would later call them-and, in spite of all differentiation according to caste and status, they continued to form a distinct entity characterized by their indigenous Indian origin. Whether caste Hindus, outcastes, or tribals, they were all designated as Hindus. It was a sad mistake of the British when they adopted this term from the Persian administrators, to believe that it was a religious term.

l 2 1995:77. See also Smith 1991:256. I have criticized C. Fuller’s similar resort to this etymol- ogy in Lorenzen 1995: 1 1-12.

What then of the vast majority of Muslims in India who were indigenous converts of low-caste Hindu origin? If “Hindu” remained a purely ethno- geographical term, except perhaps in the eyes of a few Muslim intellectuals, at least these converts should have been called “Hindus” or “Hindu Muslims.” There is in fact little or no evidence that this ever happened, but about this von Stietencron has nothing to say.”

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