This volume is about the religions of India as well as about world religions given that India is the repository of the world’s greatest religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. A distinctive feature of this volume is that a scholar who is a specialist in a particular religion describes each of the great religions. Every chapter is an academic study of a particular religion that not only explains the religion but also connects its history to its unique development in India by showing how it got there.
Four great religions originated in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. These have been well elucidated in the relevant chapters and their development assessed for causal and dynamic influences. The socio-historical framework illustrates how, though only four of the Indian religions have originated in India, the other religions like Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, have, over time, been Indianized or taken on Indian cultural characteristics.
The volume, an introductory text, is a timely and unique collaboration introducing readers to world religions while simultaneously building an overall picture of how these religions became, over time, ‘The Religions of India’.
Born Mumbai, Mennaz Kassam was Associate Professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and American University at Sharjah, UAE. Her areas of specialty are Religion, Volunteering Philanthropy, Non-profit Women’s Empwerment and International Development. Her books on India include, From Seva to Cyberface: The Many Faces of Volunteering in India (co-authored, 2011) and Philanthropy in India (co-authored, 2016).
Writing about the Religions of India is tantamount to un-covering the world's religions, given that India is a repository of the world's great religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism. This book distinguishes itself from others in the field in that a known specialist of a particular religion writes each chapter connecting the history of that religion to its unique development in India to its current state by demonstrating how it got there. Thus, the focus is the Indian context for all these religions, thereby showing how all world religions have their connections to India.
Religions exist in a social context and are shaped by that context in as much as they influence the social context. In other words, religions are influenced by the society in which they exist and, in turn, religions affect that society. Sociologists analyse this dynamic relationship in order to understand the larger society by examining religions and their influence. It is this dynamic that led to the title of the book, The Religions of India, though only four of the religions Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism originated in India.
The other religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, have over time acculturated and Indianized to the extent that they are indeed the 'religions of India'. Hence the focus of the book is showing the development of world religions in the Indian context and their current manifestation in India.
Acculturation happens when people take on cultural characteristics patterns, symbols, and rituals—that human beings give meaning to that are not part of their native culture through contact with other cultures (Berry et al. 2006). Religion is positioned as a part of culture: a system of symbols which act to enlist powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men' that are then used to organize the world into a 'general order of existence' (Geertz 1966, 1973: 91, 94, 98). Katz (2000: 3) goes one step further in clarifying the distinction between assimilation and acculturation of religion in India: `A crucial distinction between India and the rest of the diaspora - is that in India acculturation is paid for in the currency of assimilation. By 'acculturation' I mean fitting comfortably into a society while retaining one's own identity, whereas by 'assimilation' I mean that the loss of identity is a perceived condition for acceptance.' We shall try to illustrate this process of acculturation whenever possible and reiterate that the religions that came to India from outside birthplaces did over time get Indianized so that they are the 'religions of India.' We also examine how religions affect society in India over time and in turn are influenced by the Indian social context.
Hinduismus and Buddhismus, written by Max Weber and published in 1916, is one of the earliest sociological analyses of the impact of religion on society in India. Weber suggests that the orthodox doctrines of Hinduism influenced the structure of Indian society through the concept of varna, which led to the segregation of society into static status groups. In chapter 1, Wagle gives us a glimpse of the samskaras or life-cycle rituals that are woven over a Hindu's span of life to satisfy the Hindu notion of purity and refinement. In general, these samskaras are drawn from the appendices to the Vedas (Hindu texts that are regarded as the epitome of Hindu religious authority) that contain detailed instructions for performing major rituals to purify the self and appease the deities. The upper caste Brahmins' command over the complicated Vedic rituals allowed them power over society and through the millennia they kept the Hindu rituals, ethics, and philosophies intact. Hindu social organization, according to the Brahmans, begins with the division of society into four classes (varnas): Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra, and the Brahmans asserted that purity and intellect were distributed accordingly. However accommodative models that feature both peasant and Brahman are also an integral part of Hinduism. For example, all Hindus, regardless of caste, can achieve an intimate contact with God through puja or worship of a deity; whereas the doctrine of bhakti allows for a connection with God that any devotee can achieve by constant repetition and concentration on the name of God. And the paticast courts that mete out justice are representative of all occupational groups. Moreover, Brahmans are fast losing their privileged position in Hindu society as print media, radio, television, and the Internet disseminate the knowledge of quintessential Hindu rituals and practices, yet the Hindu caste system continues to endorse the vestiges of a hierarchical society based on the concept of pure and impure despite the Indian Constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of caste, race, or religion. Though people today are marrying outside their caste and religion in urban areas and diluting religions, this was considered anathema in the early days of Hinduism.
The emergence of Buddhism has been linked to the incompatibility of orthodox Hinduism with the surging economy in northern India.
As the economy grew more buoyant in the newly emerged states in north-eastern India from the fifth century BCE onwards, the Hindu form of social segregation was increasingly seen as detrimental to economic development. Wagle's chapter on Buddhism attests to the existence of settled urban communities with powerful banking, agricultural, and commercial interests as the background of early Buddhism. The Vedic religions, with the foci on nature and seasonal rituals, seemed outdated in contrast to Buddhism, which was increasingly aligned with urban civilization and divergent classes and customs. By contrast, Buddhism was seen as more inclusive in its appeal to diverse groups at that early stage of India's development. More important, Buddhism resonated with the nouveau riche merchants who no longer suffered discrimination because of Buddhist stress on equality and who embraced the ethic of thrift and diligence that Buddhism espoused (Carrithers 1983; Chakravarti 1982). Bailey and Mabett (2003) take issue with the notion that Buddhism thrived because it reflected the values of the new rising dominant class, claiming that 'austere ascetic impulse' that typifies Buddhism hardly fits the needs of an expanding lifestyle. They assert that it is better to see Buddhism as a dynamic process shaping, and being shaped by the societies in which it develops. Thus, we see many Buddhums representing different images to different strata of people: both the austere, otherworldly teachings and the system of religious life embracing society. Buddhism is seen as a rich religio-cultural tradition operating successfully at different levels because it succeeded in adjusting itself to all these levels, being simultaneously influenced by them and influencing them (Bailey and Mabett 2003: 257). In his chapter on Buddhism Wagle gives us an insightful glimpse into another group, the dalits, who benefited immensely by espousing Buddhism and its key concepts of morality, ethics, and principles of equality. Led by Ambedkar, who concurred with Buddha's unrelenting criticisms of the Brahmans, over 10 million people, many from dalit communities from all over India, followed Ambedkar's newly formed Navayana Buddhism and became Nava Bauddhas or New Buddhists. Thus, they shrugged off the yoke of untouchability that had made them economically vulnerable to exploitation by dominant castes in Hindu society and took on an egalitarian agenda that emphasized human dignity.
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