Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity by Romila Thapar — A Summary

Title: Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity
Author: Romila Thapar
Publication: Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1989)

My choice of subject for this lecture arose from . . . (the realisation) that the interplay between the past and the contemporary times requires a continuing dialogue between historians working on these periods. . . (T)he colonial experience changed the framework of the comprehension of the past from what had existed earlier . . . And where political ideologies appropriate this comprehension and seek justification from the pre-colonial past, there, the historian’s comment on the process is called for.


The growth of communal ideologies, or communalisms, is a marked feature of contemporary Indian politics.  These ideologies use imagined religious identities  as a basis for political mobilisation. The forced alliance of religion and ideology leads to a ‘redefinition’ of religion through the imposition of conformity and rejection of diversity. This redefining is necessary to attract people into the fold because numbers is all that matters in a ‘mechanical’ view of democracy.

Many such ideologies are current in India but the most dominant and most prevalent, by far, is obviously that of Hindu communalism. This communalism has sought legitimacy by claiming that “there has always (emphasis mine) been a well-defined and historically evolved religion which we now call Hinduism and an equally well-defined Hindu community”. How far is that claim true?


The modern description of Hinduism as a ‘brahmana-dominated’ religion somehow weaves the variety of different sects, the plurality of doctrines and the multiplicity of deities into a single religious fabric.

However, historical sources of the early period paint a rather different picture. That there were organisational, ritual and theological differences between Brahmanism and Sramanism is indisputable. Any historical view of ancient Indian religion would confirm this dichotomy.

The history of Hindu religion is necessarily complex.

The evolution of Hinduism is not a linear progression through an organizational system, with sects branching the mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas juxtaposing or distancing of these to existing drawing not only on belief and ideas but also on reality.


Religious practice and belief were circumscribed by caste, sect or geographical boundaries. Despite that, assimilation of various Hindu sects having distinct and independent origins have happened via the appropriation of ‘civilizational’ symbols as religious symbols. How religious were these symbols? The svastika, for example is not a specifically Hindu symbol as it is used by a variety of religious groups. The epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have their origins as civilizational symbols. Even concepts of the after-life were and remain contested.

The suggestion of structural similarity in rituals, despite its truth, falls short of having a shared theology, creed and ecclesiastical organisation which is so crucial for any organised religion.

[Why has the recent definition of Hinduism failed to take account for these variant and deviant premises of Indian religion?]

This definition was the result of various factors: of Christian missionaries who saw this as the lacunae of religions in India and which they regarded as primitive; of some Orientalist scholarship anxious to fit the 'Hindu' process into a comprehensible whole based on a known model; the efforts also of Indian reform movements attempting to cleanse Indian religion of what they regarded as negative encrustations and trying to find parallels with the Semitic model.

The normative value of ahimsa or non-violence has been claimed as a special feature of Hinduism. However, non-violence is a characteristic of Sramanism and not so of Brahmanism. The Bhagvad-Gita, for example, has no aversion to violence. In addition, the persistent belief that ‘Hindus’ never indulged in persecution is mistaken. The Saivite persecution of Sramanic sects — of Buddhists in Kashmir, of Jainas in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — has been established.

The notion of a Hindu community as having a long ancestry is hollow. In fact, there were a variety of communities determined by location, occupation and caste and without any sense of religious oneness. Also, identities were segmented. And there was the absence of any unified notion of a “uniform, religious community readily identified as Hindu”.

The word ‘Hindu’ itself was an inclusive geographical term used to refer to the people living across the Indus river. The awareness that the incoming Muslims during the medieval ages and the Indian population had of each other was not in terms of a monolithic religion but as distinct and separate castes and sects.

The 19th-century definition of Hindu community relied on James Mill’s erroneous assumption of the existence of such a community going back to ancient history. It was buttressed by theory of the Aryan race who were said to have conquered the subcontinent. Upper caste supremacy was then justified by appealing to Aryan descent. This theory however has been discarded as there is no evidence of any invasion or conquest of north-western India.


The creation of a Hindu community by claiming historicity for the incarnations of its deities and monotheism, by encouraging the idea of a sacred holy book, by acknowledging the authority of ecclesiastical organisation and by supporting conversion is only a recent event impelled by the need for political mobilisation in the 19th-century as religion became a key to power. This was mobilisation directed towards hegemony over the ‘other’.

The result is often that the majority communities, who get to define national aspirations thanks to the strength of numbers, tend to sideline the minorities as disruptive and alien. The minorities are often forced to preserve ‘archaic’ features of their communities simply in order to assert a different identity.

If the history of religions in India is seen as the articulation not only of ideas and rituals but also the perceptions and motivations of social groups, the perspectives which would follow might be different from those with which we are familiar. The discourse and the play between and among religious sects of various kinds, has been a central fact of Indian religion and would reflect a more realistic portrayal of the role of religion in society.


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