Current Trends in Contemporary Hinduism

Isvara, the Supreme Self

by Jayaram V

From The Editor's Desk

(Hinduwebsite Editorial - Exploring Truth Amidst Illusions and Distortions)

For the purposes of this discussion, Hinduism means popular Hinduism as practiced by common people in temples and households across India and elsewhere. It includes but not limited to the ritual and domestic worship of popular deities, observance of popular rites, rituals, sacraments, penances and festivals, veneration of sacred texts such as the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads, Ramayana, etc., most common beliefs such as the belief in karma, reincarnation, liberation, creation, creator God, etc. We are not including the sectarian beliefs and practices since it is difficult to estimate their trends unless you are a practitioner of them or intimately associated with them for a long time.

At the outset, we need to acknowledge that Hinduism is not a religion in the ordinary sense. It is a system of diverse beliefs and practices which developed over three or four millenniums in the Indian subcontinent as the collective effort of numerous scholars, saints, seers, patrons, teachers, teacher traditions, ascetic groups, reformers, popular movements, and so on. It has diverse aspects and caters to the religious aspirations of a wide range of people from the illiterate to the most scholarly. It has rural, pastoral and tribal traditions which have been practiced for centuries and esoteric and complex philosophical systems and doctrines which are difficult to understand even for the erudite minds.

It is well known that what we consider Hinduism today has been exceptionally a religion of the humans and for the humans, in which numerous divinities under the supreme control of a universal deity ensure control and order through a system of universal laws (Dharma) and revelatory knowledge as enshrined in its sacred texts such as the Vedas. Since, it is a complex religious system, it is extremely difficult to draw any generalizations about its history, progress or its contemporary trends. Therefore, readers are requested to consider the foregoing discussion with an open mind and with the understanding that there can be exceptions and variations to the conclusions we may present.

No religion is static. Every religion goes through numerous phases of development in each generation, age and epoch before it develops a semblance of mature and organized system of beliefs and practice. Each religion has permanent parts and movable parts. The permanent parts constitute its core aspect. They include its sacred teachings and institutions, core beliefs and practices, which are considered inviolable and indispensable for its continuity, preservation and propagation. The movable parts are those which keep changing according to the current trends and circumstances. It is difficult to distinguish them since these two exist in almost every aspect. For example, while our core beliefs about Brahman, the Supreme Reality and Prakriti (Nature) may not undergo any change, our current knowledge of the universe and the laws that govern it may radically alter our conception of Brahman and creation.

Just as any other religion, Hinduism has a divine aspect, ritual aspect, scriptural aspect, spiritual aspect, philosophical aspect, social aspect, cultural aspect and political aspect. In any age, change many happen in one or more or all of them. We have ample evidence to suggest that from its earliest times what we understand as Hinduism underwent numerous changes so much so that the components of its current format are almost incomparable to their ancient counterparts. Similarly, the people who practice Hinduism today have very little in common with the people who practiced them a few centuries ago. We may also say the same with regard to the beliefs and practices of not only mainstream Hinduism but also its sectarian traditions and philosophical systems. How we envision and worship the various divinities such as Lord Shiva or Vishnu or Krishna is also much different from how our ancestors envisioned them and worshipped them.

People may take pride that Hinduism has been the oldest living religion. However, the truth is that a thousand or a few hundred years ago people in the subcontinent never heard of the name, nor did they have any national sentiment which the people in India experience and express today. Politically, Hinduism was hardly the dominant faith in the subcontinent, since most of the dynasties which ruled India, except for a few, practiced different faiths. Because of lack of proper historical evidence it is also difficult to estimate the faith of the common people and how far they worshipped the gods of Hindu pantheon or were conversant with the tenets of Hindu faith. In was only in the last few hundred years, Hinduism was rediscovered and reorganized into a coherent world religion, having its own identity, belief system, pantheon, popular deities, sacred literature, ritual body, philosophy, social and political institutions and festivals that are distinctly unique.

The renaissance of Hinduism is one of the major developments in the social and political history of modern India. Another major trend which has become more pronounced in the last few decades has been the growing influence of political and social factors upon its basic tenets, beliefs and practices. One may also see a tendency on the part of a few influential groups to impart national identity to the faith, which is supposed to be universal and based upon the belief that the whole humankind is one large family. One may also discern the growing influence of materialism, rituals, popular beliefs, temples and celebrity gurus upon the common people at the expense of its rich philosophy and spirituality. We do not know the long-term ramifications of these developments, and whether they will hurt and harm the progress of Hinduism or contribute further to its rich diversity or alienate many people from practicing it.

Hinduism also has to cope with the developments in science and technology and the growing, international influence of atheism, rationalism and progressive ideologies which challenge the traditional institutions of family, marriage, gender roles and distinctions, social and economic inequalities, caste system, etc. Some of these problems and developments are not peculiar to Hinduism only. Just as other religions, Hinduism has to face headwinds from globalism, advances in science and technology, growing inequalities, the influence and reach of materialistic ideologies and the changes that are happening in the social and economic fields.

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