Common section




Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground.
“What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So
they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time
the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own
house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here
than inside my own house.”

Idries Shah (1924-96), citing Mulla Nasrudin
(thirteenth century CE)

This Sufi parable could stand as a cautionary tale for anyone searching for the keys (let alone the one key) to the history of the Hindus. It suggests that we may look for our own keys, our own understandings, outside our own houses, our own cultures, beyond the light of the familiar sources. There’s a shortage of what photographers call available light to help us find what we are looking for, but in recent years historians have produced studies that provide good translations and intelligent interpretations of texts in Sanskrit and other Indian languages and pointers to both texts and material evidence that others had not noticed before. I have therefore concentrated on those moments that have been illuminated by the many good scholars whose thick descriptions form an archipelago of stepping-stones on which a historian can hope to cross the centuries.

This book tells the story of Hinduism chronologically and historically and emphasizes the history of marginalized rather than mainstream Hindus. My aims have been to demonstrate: (1) that Hindus throughout their long history have been enriched by the contributions of women, the lower castes, and other religions; (2) that although there are a number of things that have been characteristic of many Hindus over the ages (the worship of several gods, reincarnation, karma), none has been true of all Hindus, and the shared factors are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to one group or another; (3) that the greatness of Hinduism—its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness—lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that some Hindus today are ashamed of and would deny; and (4) that the history of tensions between the various Hinduisms, and between the different sorts of Hindus, undergirds the violence of the contemporary Indian political and religious scene.

History and diversity—let me lay them out one by one.


The first European scholars of India believed that Hindus believed that everything was timeless, eternal, and unchanging (“There always was a Veda”), and so they didn’t generally value or even notice the ways in which Hindus did in fact recognize change. We now call their attitude Orientalism (a term coined by Edward Said in 1978, in a book by that name), which we may define for the moment—we will return to it when we get to the British Raj—as the love-hate relationship that Europeans had with the Orient for both the right and the wrong reasons—it’s exotic, it’s erotic, it’s spiritual, and it never changes.n Like many of the Indian branch of Orientalists, Europeans picked up this assumption of timeless, unified Hinduism from some Hindus and then reinforced it in other Hindus,2 many of whom today regard Hinduism as timeless, though they differ on the actual dating of this timelessness, which (like Hindu scholars of earlier centuries) they tend to put at 10,000 BCE or earlier, while the British generally used to put it much later. The “eternal and unchanging” approach inspired Orientalist philologists to track back to their earliest lair some concepts that do in fact endure for millennia, but without taking into account the important ways in which those concepts changed or the many other aspects of Hinduism that bear little relationship to them.

The so-called central ideas of Hinduism—such as karma, dharma, samsara—arise at particular moments in Indian history, for particular reasons, and then continue to be alive, which is to say, to change. They remain central, but what precisely they are and, more important, what the people who believe in them are supposed to do about them differ in each era and, within each era, from gender to gender, caste to caste. And many new ideas arise either to replace or, more often, in Hinduism, to supplement or qualify earlier ideas. Some Hindus always knew this very well. Many Hindu records speak of things that happened suddenly, without precedent (a-purva, “never before”), right here, right now; they are aware of the existence of local dynasties, of regional gods, of political arrivistes. The Hindu sense of time is intense; the importance of time as an agency of change, the sense that things that happen in the past come to fruition at a particular moment—now—pervades the great history (itihasa) called the Mahabharata. That sense of history is different from ours, as different as Buddhist enlightenment is from the European Enlightenment (what a difference a capital E makes). But in India, as in Europe, human beings compose texts at some moment in history, which we strive with varying degrees of success to discover, and those texts continue to develop and to be transformed through commentary, interpretation, and translation.

Hinduism does not lend itself as easily to a strictly chronological account as do some other religions (particularly the so-called Abrahamic religions or religions of the Book, or monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, Islam), which refer more often to specific historical events. Many central texts of Hinduism cannot be reliably dated even within a century. Since early Buddhism and Hinduism grew up side by side in the same neighborhood, so to speak, historians of Hinduism have often ridden piggyback on historians of Buddhism, a religion that has for the most part kept more precise chronological records; the historians of Buddhism figure out when everything happened, and the historians of Hinduism say, “Our stuff must have happened around then too.” Historians of early India have also depended on the kindness of strangers, of foreign visitors to India who left reliably dated (but not always accurately observed) records of their visits.

The chronological framework is largely imperialistic—dates of inscriptions, battles, the endowment of great religious institutions—because those are the things that the people who had the clout to keep records thought was most important. And though we no longer think that kings are all that matter in history (siding more with D. D. Kosambi, who urged historians to ask not who was king but who among the people had a plow), kings (more precisely, rajas) do also still matter. They are, however, no longer all that we would like to know about. The crucial moments for cultural history are not necessarily the great imperial moments, as historians used to think they were, the moments when Alexander dipped his toe into India or the Guptas built their empire. For some of the richest and most original cultural developments take place when there isn’t an empire, in the cracks between the great dynastic periods. And although the historical records of inscriptions and coins tell us more about kings (the winners) than about the people (the losers), there are other texts that pay attention to the rest of the populace.

When we cannot date events precisely, we can often at least arrange things in a rough but ready chronological order, though this leads to a house of cards effect when we are forced to reconsider the date of any text in the series. The periodizations, moreover, may give an often false suggestion of causation.o We cannot assume, as philologists have often done, that the texts line up like elephants, each holding on to the tail of the elephant in front, that everything in the Upanishads was derived from the Brahmanas just because some Upanishads cite some Brahmanas. We must also ask how the new text was at least in part inspired by the circumstances of its own time. Why did the Upanishads develop out of the Brahmanas then? What about the stuff that isn’t in the Brahmanas? “Well (the speculation used to go), maybe they got it from the Greeks; it reminds me of Plato. Or perhaps the Axial Age, sixth century BCE and all that? Or how about this? How about the Indus Valley civilizations? Lots of new ideas must have come from there.” Since there is no conclusive evidence for, or against, any of these influences, before we look to Greece we must look to India in the time of the Upanishads to find other sorts of factors that might also have influenced their development—new forms of political organization, taxation, changes in the conditions of everyday life.

Even an imported idea takes root only if it also responds to something already present in the importing culture;3 even if the idea of reincarnation did come from Greece to India, or from Mesopotamia to both Greece and India (hypotheses that are unlikely but not impossible), we would have to explain why the Indians took up that idea when they did not take up, for instance, Greek ideas about love between men, and then we must note how different the Upanishadsare from Plato even in their discussion of ideas that they share, such as reincarnation.

Moreover, to the mix of philology and history we must add another factor, individuality. The question of originality is always a puzzle, in part because we can never account for individual genius; of course ideas don’t arise in a vacuum, nor are they nothing but the sum total of ideas that came before them. Individuals have ideas, and those ideas are often quite different from the ideas of other people living at the same time and place. This is particularly important to keep in mind when we search for the voices of marginalized people, who often achieve as individuals what they cannot achieve as a group. People are not merely the product of a zeitgeist; Shakespeare is not just an Elizabethan writer.

In Indian history, individuals have turned the tide of tolerance or violence even against the current of the zeitgeist. The emperors Ashoka and Akbar, for example, initiated highly original programs of religious tolerance, going in the teeth of the practices of their times. Someone with a peculiar, original, individual bent of mind wrote the “There Was Not” (nasadiya) hymn of the Rig Veda, and the story of Long-Tongue the Bitch in the Jaiminiya Brahmana, and the story of Raikva under the cart (one of the earliest homeless people noted in world literature) in the Upanishads. And these individual innovators in the ancient period did not merely compose in Sanskrit. They also lurked in the neglected byways of oral traditions, sometimes in the discourses of women and people of the lower classes, as well as in the broader-based Sanskrit traditions that those local traditions feed. For original ideas are rare both among people who have writing and among those that do not. Public individuals too—such as Ashoka, Akbar, and Gandhi, on the one hand, Aurangzeb, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, and M. S. Golwalkar, on the other, to take just a few at random—brought about profound transformations in Hinduism.

The question of flourishing is less puzzling than the question of innovation, and we can often ask how a particular king (or political movement, or climactic change) helped the horse sacrifice (or the worship of a goddess or anything else) to survive and thrive. Often history can explain why some ideas take hold and spread while others do not; ideas take root only when they become important to people at a particular time, when they hitch on to something that those people care about. An understanding of the social context of the Upanishads, reintroducing the world into the text, may go a long way to explain not who first thought of the story of Raikva but why the Brahmins were willing to include his story in their texts despite the ways in which it challenged their social order.


In addition to understanding the history of the texts, we need to understand the relationship between records of historical events and the construction of imaginary worlds as well as the symbolism that often joins them. To begin with the symbolism of physical objects, sometimes a linga is just a linga—or, more often, both a linga and a cigar. Numerous Sanskrit texts and ancient sculptures (such as the Gudimallam linga from the third century BCE) define this image unequivocally as an iconic representation of the male sexual organ in erection, in particular as the erect phallus of the god Shiva. So too a verse from the “Garland of Games” of Kshemendra, a Brahmin who lived in Kashmir in the eleventh century, refers to the human counterpart of the Shiva linga: “Having locked up the house on the pretext of venerating the linga, Randy scratches her itch with a linga of skin.”4 The first linga in this verse is certainly Shiva’s, and there is an implied parallelism, if not identity, between it and the second one, which could be either a leather dildo or its human prototype, attached to a man. And many Hindus have, like Freud, seen lingas in every naturally occurring elongated object, the so-called self-created (svayambhu) lingas, including objets trouvés such as stalagmites. The linga in this physical sense is well known throughout India, a signifier that is understood across barriers of caste and language, a linga franca, if you will.


The Gudimallam Linga.

But other texts treat the linga as an aniconic pillar of light or an abstract symbol of god (the word means simply a “sign,” as smoke is the sign of fire), with no sexual reference. To some, the stone lingas “convey an ascetic purity despite their obvious sexual symbolism.”5 There is nothing surprising about this range; some Christians see in the cross a vivid reminder of the agony on Calvary, while others see it as a symbol of their God in the abstract or of Christianity as a religion. But some Hindus who see the linga as an abstract symbol therefore object to the interpretations of those who view it anthropomorphically; their Christian counterparts would be people who refuse to acknowledge that the cross ever referred to the passion of Christ. Visitors to the Gudimallam linga in the early twenty-first century noted that while the large linga as a whole remains entirely naked, with all its anatomical detail, the small image of a naked man on the front of the linga was covered with a chaste cloth, wrapped around the whole linga as a kind of total loincloth (or fig leaf) simultaneously covering up the middle of the man in the middle of the linga and the middle of the linga itself. Here is a fine example of a tradition driving with one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator. We need to be aware of both the literal and symbolic levels simultaneously, as we see both the rabbit and the man in the moon.

Similarly, we have to be careful how we use history and myth to understand one another. In this context I would define a myth as a story that a group of people believe for a long time despite massive evidence that it is not actually true; the spirit of myth is the spirit of Oz: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. When we read a text that says that a Hindu king impaled eight thousand Jainas, we need to use history to understand myth—that is, we need to understand why such a text was composed and retold many times; that means knowing the reasons for the tensions between Hindus and Jainas at that time (such as the competition for royal patronage). But we cannot use the myth to reconstruct the actual history behind the text; we cannot say that the text is evidence that a Hindu king actually did impale Jainas. To take another example, when the Ramayana speaks of ogres (Rakshasas), it may be simultaneously constructing an imaginary world in which evil forces take forms that can destroy us and using ogres as a metaphor for particular types of human beings. But it does not record an actual event, a moment when people from Ayodhya overcame real people in India (tribals, or Dravidians, or anyone else), nor does the story of the building of the causeway to Lanka mean that Rama and a bunch of monkeys actually built a causeway to (Sri) Lanka. Such myths reveal to us the history of sentiments rather than events, motivations rather than movements.

The history of ideas, even if not a source of “hard” history, is still a very precious thing to have. For stories, and the ideas in stories, do influence history in the other direction, into the future. People who heard or read that story about the impaled Jainas may well have acted differently toward Jainas and/or Hindus (better or worse) as a result. More often than not, we do not know precisely what happened in history, but we often know the stories that people tell about it. As a character in a Garrison Keillor novel remarks, “There are no answers, only stories.”6 In some ways, the stories are not only all that we have access to but all that people at the time, and later, had access to and hence all that drove the events that followed. Real events and sentiments produce symbols, symbols produce real events and sentiments, and real and symbolic levels may be simultaneously present in a single text. Myth has been called “the smoke of history,”7 and my intention is to balance the smoke of myth with the fire of historical events, as well as to demonstrate how myths too become fires when they do not merely respond to historical events (as smoke arises from fire) but drive them (as fire gives rise to smoke). Ideas are facts too; the belief, whether true or false, that the British were greasing cartridges with animal fat started a revolution in India. For we are what we imagine, as much as what we do.


Is there a unique and distinct phenomenon worth naming that covers the religion(s) of the people from the Veda (c. 1200 BCE) to the Hare Krishnas in American airports and that tells us where Hinduism ends and Buddhism begins? It is useful to distinguish the objection that there is no such thing as Hinduism in the sense of a single unified religion, from the objection that the people we call Hindus lack a category, or word, for Hinduism and identify themselves not as Hindus but as Indians or as Bengali Vaishnavas (worshipers of Vishnu, living in Bengal). That is, we may ask: (1) Is there such a thing as Hinduism?; (2) is that the best thing to call it?; and (3) can we do so even if Hindus didn’t/don’t? These are related but separate questions. Let’s consider the phenomenon and the name one by one.


There are several objections to the use of any single term to denote what, for the sake of argument, we will call Hindus and Hinduism.p

Hindus did not develop a strong sense of themselves as members of a distinct religion until there were other religions against which they needed to define themselves, like the invisible man in the Hollywood film who could be seen only when he was wearing clothing that was not a part of him. Until as late as the seventeenth century, many Indian rulers used titles that identified them with a divinity or with their preeminence over other rulers or with their personal qualities or with all their subjects, but not merely with the Hindus. Cultures, traditions, and beliefs cut across religious communities in India, and few people defined themselves exclusively through their religious beliefs or practices; their identities were segmented on the basis of locality, language, caste, occupation, and sect.8 Only after the British began to define communities by their religion, and foreigners in India tended to put people of different religions into different ideological boxes,9 did many Indians follow suit, ignoring the diversity of their own thoughts and asking themselves which of the boxes they belonged in.10 Only after the seventeenth century did a ruler use the title Lord of the Hindus (Hindupati).11

Indeed most people in India would still define themselves by allegiances other than their religion.12 The Hindus have not usually viewed themselves as a group, for they are truly a rainbow people, with different colors (varnas in Sanskrit, the word that also designates “class”), drawing upon not only a wide range of texts, from the many unwritten traditions and vernacular religions of unknown origins to Sanskrit texts that begin well before 1000 BCE and are still being composed, but, more important, upon the many ways in which a single text has been read over the centuries, by people of different castes, genders, and individual needs and desires. And this intertextuality is balanced by an equally rainbow-hued range of practices, which we might call an interpracticality, on the model of intertextuality, practices that refer to other practices.

Another objection to regarding Hinduism as a monolithic entity is that it is hard to spell out what “they all” believe or do (even if we exclude from “all” people like Shirley MacLaine). There is no single founder or institution to enforce any single construction ofthe tradition, to rule on what is or is not a Hindu idea or to draw the line when someone finally goes too far and transgresses the unspoken boundaries of reinterpretation. Ideas about all the major issues—vegetarianism, nonviolence, even caste itself—are subjects of a debate, not a dogma. There is no Hindu canon. The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by “all Hindus,” certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them. Other books have been far more important to certain groups of Hindus but not to others.

One answer to this objection is that like other religions—Christianity, Buddhism, Islam—Hinduism encompasses numerous miscellaneous sects. Religions are messy. But intertextuality (as well as interpracticality) argues for the inclusion of this unruly miscellany under the rubric of Hinduism. The fact that later texts and practices often quote earlier ones, right back to the Rig Veda, allows us to call it a single tradition, even though there are many other Hindu texts and practices that have no connection with any Sanskrit text, let alone the Veda. What literary critics call the anxiety of influence13 works in the other direction in India. The individual artist composing a text or performing a ritual can make innovations, but she demonstrates first her knowledge of the traditions of the past and only then her ability to build upon them and even to reverse them. The assumption is that if she thinks she has an original idea, it means that she has forgotten its source.

Moreover, some of the people we now call Hindus did, when they wanted to, for more than two millennia, find ways to describe themselves as a group, in contrast with Buddhists or Muslims (or particular subsects of Buddhists or Muslims). They called themselves the people of the Veda, or the people who revere the Brahmins who are the custodians of the Veda, or the people who have four classes and four stages of life (varna-ashrama-dharma, in contrast with Buddhists). Or they called themselves the Aryas (“nobles”), in contrast with the Dasyus or Dasas (“aliens” or “slaves”) or barbarians (mlecchas). The texts called the Brahmanas, in the seventh century BCE, define mlecchas as people of unintelligible speech, as does a dharma text of the period, which adds that they also eat cow flesh,14 implying that the Aryas do not. The lawmaker Manu too, in the early centuries CE, treats mleccha as a linguistic term, contrasted with Arya (which he correctly regards as a linguistic term) rather than with Dasyu (an ethnic term); those outside the four classes (varnas) are aliens (Dasyus), whether they speak barbarian (mleccha) languages or Arya languages (10.45). A commentator on Manu, named Medhatithi, glosses mleccha with the Sanskrit word barbara, cognate with the Greek barbaroi(“barbarian,” someone who babbles, “barbarbar”). No one ever comments on the religious beliefs or practices of these people.

But religious belief and practice are aspects of Hindu identity that both we and they can and do recognize. Caste, the most important of the allegiances by which the people whom we call Hindus do identify themselves most often, is closely regulated by religion. Some people would define a Hindu through exclusion, as someone who doesn’t belong to another religion; 15q officials of the British Raj used the term “Hindu” to characterize all things in India (especially cultural and religious elements and features found in the cultures and religions of India) that were “not Muslim, not Christian, not Jewish, or, hence, not Western.”16 Taking the opposite tack, the inclusive tack, the Indian Supreme Court, in the Hindu Marriage Act (1955),17 ruled that any reference to Hindus shall be construed as including “any person who is a Buddhist, Jaina or Sikh by religion,” as well as “persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion,” a blatant appropriation that most Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists would resent bitterly. r It also defines a Hindu as someone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi, or Jew, but who is (in addition to a Sikh, Buddhist, or Jaina) one of a rather arbitrary selection of people whose marginality made the court nervous: “any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms or developments, including a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj.” Significantly, the definition was needed because different religions have different marriage laws; the horror of miscegenation, always lurking in the Brahmin heart of darkness, was exacerbated by the British legacy within the law code.

But in addition to the circularity, mutual contradictions, and blatant chauvinism of the “not a Muslim” definition, such paraphrases list only other religions available in India (they seldom specify “not a Navajo, not a Confucian”); otherwise the word “Hindu” might simply have replaced “gentoo” or “heathen.” The political problems that arise from this geographical assumption will resurface below when we consider the word, rather than the concept, “Hinduism.”

In what seems to me to be something like desperation, a number of people have defined Hinduism as the religion of people who cannot or will not define their religion. This view was only somewhat sharpened by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (president of India from 1962 to 1967), who defined Hinduism as the belief “that truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express,” which would, I think, make all Unitarians Hindus, or by the militant nationalist B. G. Tilak (1856-1920), who added helpfully that “recognition of the fact that the means to salvation are diverse; and realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.”18 The Supreme Court of India in 1966, and again in 1995, codified and reconfirmed these two nondefinitions of Hinduism.

In 1966 the Indian Supreme Court was called upon to define Hinduism because the Satsangis or followers of Swaminarayan (1780-1830) claimed that their temples did not fall under the jurisdiction of certain legislation affecting Hindu temples. They argued that they were not Hindus, in part because they did not worship any of the traditional Hindu gods; they worshiped Swaminarayan, who had declared that he was the Supreme God. The court ruled against them, citing various European definitions of Hinduism and others, including Radhakrishnan’s cited above.19 But the Satsangis had brought their case to the court in order to challenge the 1948 Bombay Harijan Temple Entry Act, which guaranteed Harijans (Pariahs, Untouchables) access to every Hindu temple; if the Satsangis were not Hindus, this law would not force them to open their doors to Harijans. Thus the legal ruling that defined Hinduism by its tolerance and inclusivism was actually inspired by the desire of certain Hindus to exclude other Hindus from their temples.


In answer to several of the objections to the word “Hinduism,” some scholars have tried to identify a cluster of qualities each of which is important but not essential to Hinduism; not every Hindu will believe in, or do, all of them, but each Hindu will adhere to some combination of them, as a non-Hindu would not. Scholars differ as to the number and nature of those forms,20 and we have seen the attempts of the Indian Supreme Court to come up with an inoffensive cluster, but perhaps we can be a little more specific. The elements from which the clusters are formed might include some combination of belief in the Vedas (which excludes Buddhism and Jainism), karma (which does not exclude Buddhism and Jainism), dharma (religion, law, and justice), a cosmology centered on Mount Meru, devotion (bhakti) to one or more members of an extensive pantheon, the ritual offering (puja) of fruit and flowers to a deity, vegetarianism as an ideal (though only between about 25 and 40 percent of Indians are actually vegetarian21), nonviolence, and blood sacrifice (which may or may not be mutually exclusive). This polythetic approach, which owes much to the concept of family resemblance laid out by the philosopher Wittgenstein,22 could be represented by a Venn diagram, a chart made of intersecting circles. It might be grouped into sectors of different colors, one for beliefs or practices that some Hindus shared with Buddhists and Jainas, another largely confined to Hindu texts in Sanskrit, a third more characteristic of popular worship and practice, and so forth. But since there is no single central quality that all Hindus must have, the emptiness in the center, like the still center of a storm, suggests that the figure might better be named a Zen diagram, which is not, as you might think, a Venn diagram with just one ring or one that has an empty ring in the center but one that has no central ring.23

There is therefore no central something to which the peripheral people were peripheral. One person’s center is another’s periphery;24 all South Asia was just a periphery, for instance, to those Delhi sultans and Mughal emperors who viewed everything from a Central Asian perspective. We may speak of marginalized people in the sense that they have been dispossessed and exploited, but Hinduism has porous margins and is polycentric. The Brahmins had their center, which we will refer to as the Brahmin imaginary, but there were other centers too, alternative centers.

The configuration of the clusters of Hinduism’s defining characteristics changes through time, through space, and through each individual.25 It is constantly in motion, because it is made of people, also constantly in motion. Among the many advantages of the cluster approach is the fact that it does not endorse any single authoritative or essentialist view of what Hinduism is; it allows them all. Any single version of this polythetic polytheism (which is also a monotheism, a monism, and a pantheism), including this one, is no better than a strobe photograph of a chameleon, a series of frozen images giving a falsely continuous impression of something that is in fact constantly changing. Like the man who proudly displayed a roomful of archery targets, each with an arrow in the bull’s-eye, but was forced to confess that he had shot the arrows first and then had drawn the targets around them, we can decide what aspects of Hinduism we want to talk about and find the cluster of qualities in which that aspect is embodied—and, if we wish, call it Hinduism. Or backing off ever so slightly, we can speak of beliefs and practices that many Hindus share, which is what I intend to do.

It is often convenient to speak of a Brahmin-oriented quasi-orthodoxy (or orthopraxy—see below), which we might call the Brahmin imaginary or the idealized system of class and life stage (varna-ashrama-dharma). But whatever we call this constructed center, it is, like the empty center in the Zen diagram of Hinduisms, simply an imaginary point around which we orient all the actual Hindus who accept or oppose it; it is what Indian logicians call the straw man (purva paksha), against whom one argues. The actual beliefs and practices of Hindus—renunciation, devotion, sacrifice, and so many more—are peripheries that the imaginary Brahmin center cannot hold.


If we can agree that there is something out there worth naming, what shall we call it? The main objections to calling it Hinduism or to calling the people in question Hindus are that those were not always the names that Hindus used for themselves or their religion and that they are geographical names. Let us consider these two objections.

Most of the people we call Hindus call themselves something else, like Golkonda Vyaparis,27 or, on the rarer occasions when they do regard themselves as a group, refer to themselves not as Hindus but as people with the sorts of definitions that we have just considered (Aryas, people who revere the Veda, who follow the system of class and stage of life, and so forth). Moreover, “Hindu” is not a native word but comes from a word for the “river” (sindhu) that Herodotus (in the fifth century BCE28), the Persians (in the fourth century BCE), and the Arabs (after the eighth century CE29) used to refer to everyone who lived beyond the great river of the northwest of the subcontinent, still known locally as the Sindhu and in Europe as the Indus. James Joyce, in his novel Finnegans Wake, in 1939, punned on the word “Hindoo” (as the British used to spell it), joking that it came from the names of two Irishmen, Hin-nessy and Doo-ley: “This is the hindoo Shimar Shin between the dooley boy and the hinnessy.”30 Even Joyce knew that the word was not native to India. It was an outsider’s name for the people who inhabited the territory around the Indus River, which the Persians called Hindustan,31 as did the Mughal emperor Babur in his memoirs in the sixteenth century CE: “Most of the people in Hindustan are infidels whom the people of India call Hindu. Most Hindus believe in reincarnation.”32 It is noteworthy both that Babur singles out reincarnation for the defining belief of Hinduism (one of the circles in our Zen diagram) and that he does not ascribe this belief to all Hindus (implicitly acknowledging their diversity). “Hindu” has, however, been an insider’s word too for centuries, and it is the word that most Hindus do use now to refer to themselves. And it is not uncommon for one culture to take from another a word to designate a concept for which the original culture had a concept but not a word.

That the word has a geographical basis is, as we have seen, absolutely true. But it is not just the word but the very concept of Hindus and Hinduism that is geographically rooted in history. The textbook of legal code (dharma) attributed to Manu (first century CE) does not use the word “Hindu” but does offer a geographical definition of the people to whom his dharma applies (a definition that, it is worth noting, uses animals to define humans):

From the eastern sea to the western sea [the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal], the area in between the two mountains [the Himalayas and the Vindhyas] is what wise men call the Land of the Aryas. Where the black antelope ranges by nature, that should be known as the country fit for sacrifices; and beyond it is the country of the barbarians. The twice-born [the upper classes and particularly Brahmins] should make every effort to settle in these countries [2.23-24].

Much has happened since the time when one could define India as the land where the (deer and the) antelope play from sea to shining sea (eastern to western). The belief that all Hindus (should) live in India may have been strong once, though more honored in the breach than in the observance. The Hindus are, after all, one of the great merchant civilizations of the world, and the diaspora is very old indeed. Even Manu merely expresses the pious hope that the upper classes “make every effort” to stay within the boundary lines. Granted, many Hindus did suffer loss of caste status when they headed west across the Indus (particularly under the British Raj). Nevertheless, Hindus spread first through Southeast Asia and later through the British Empire, and they now live all over the world; there are approximately one and a half million Hindus in the United States, some 0.5 percent of the population.

So it has been said for much of Indian history that ideally, all Hindus should live in India. But the corresponding implication, that everyone in India is (or should be) a Hindu, was never true, not true during the millennia of cultures before either the Indus Valley or the Vedas, not true of most of India even after those early settlements of North India, and certainly never true after the rise of Buddhism in the fifth century CE. Nowadays there are still enough Muslims in India—15 percent of the population, almost as many Muslims as in Pakistan33—to make India one of the most populous Muslim nations in the world, and Muslim input into Indian culture is far more extensive than the mere numbers would imply. Yet Hindu nationalists have used the geographical implications of the word to equate Hinduism with India and therefore to exclude from the right to thrive in India such people as Muslims and Christians; in 1922, V. D. Savarkar coined the term “Hindutva” to express this equation. But not everyone who uses the word “Hinduism” can be assumed to be in their camp, an assumption that would reduce an intellectual problem to a political problem and a move that we need not make. When we use the word, we can, like Humpty Dumpty, pay it extra, in this case to mean not “the people of India” but the intersecting clusters of Hinduisms outlined above.

What’s in a name? We might take a page from Prince and call it “the religion formerly known as Hinduism” or “Hinduism après la lettre.” Despite the many strikes against the word “Hinduism,” Hinduism by any other name would be just as impossible to categorize, and it is still useful to employ some word for it. We cannot insist that Hindus rethink the name they want to use for their tradition (as they have renamed not only streets in cities but whole cities, like Madras/Chennai, Bombay/Mumbai, and Calcutta/Kolkata), no matter how recent or troubled the name may be.34“Hinduism” is, in any case, the only poker game in town right now;s it is by far the most immediately recognizable word, or even phrase,35 currently used to describe the Zen diagram of, for want of a better word, Hinduism. In any case, whether or not there really is a Hinduism, there certainly are Hindus.


Different Hindus not only lived different Hinduisms but privileged different aspects of Hinduism, different qualities among the (non)-defining clusters. Scholars too see the Hindu elephant differently depending upon what part of it they grab (to cite the old Indian parable of the blind men: The one with his hands on the tail imagines that the animal is like a rope; on the side, a wall; on the trunk, a snake). Their politics inevitably colors their ideas of what Hinduism is.

In addition to including women’s as well as men’s voices and Other Ranks as well as Brahmins, Hinduism is composed of local as well as pan-Indian traditions, oral as well as written traditions, vernacular as well as Sanskrit traditions, and nontextual as well as textual sources. The first (often marginalized) elements of each of these pairs tend to reinforce one another, as do the second elements, the dominant elements, but there are important distinctions within each of the two groups. For these contrasting pairs did not translate into polarized groups of people; a single person would often have both halves (as well as non-Hindu traditions) in his or her head; a Brahmin would know the folk traditions, just as, in our world, many people study paleography and then go to church and read Genesis. It is not the case that a puritanical Brahmin studied Manu’s dharma texts and a libertine merchant read the Kama-sutra (the textbook of the science of erotics); the same man, of either class, might well read dharma with learned men (pandits) by day and the Kama-sutra with his mistress by night.

The elite tendencies of written traditions were exacerbated by the climate. The wet heat and the white ants destroyed any written text within a century or two, particularly since vellum was ruled out by the taboo against using animal substances and palm leaf was far more fragile than vellum. So these written texts by definition belonged to the privileged classes; the written texts that survived had to have been copied over and over again by a scribe patronized by someone with money to spare, and the scribe himself was invariably a male of high caste.

Yet oral and written traditions interact throughout Indian history, with oral recitations of written texts and written records of texts recited by people who may or may not have been illiterate. This interaction, which we will note throughout the book, is exemplified by the relationship between writing and reciting in two of the defining texts of Hinduism, the Veda and the Mahabharata .36 The Rig Veda was preserved orally, but it was frozen, every syllable preserved for centuries, through a process of rigorous memorization. There are no variant readings of the Rig Veda, no critical editions or textual apparatus. Just the Rig Veda. So much for the fluidity of orally transmitted texts. Correspondingly, the expected fixity of written texts dissolves when we look at the history of the reception and transmission of the Mahabharata, another enormous Sanskrit text, but one that was preserved both orally and in manuscript. In contrast with the Rig Veda, this text changed constantly; it is so extremely fluid that there is no single Mahabharata; there are hundreds of Mahabharatas, hundreds of different manuscripts and innumerable oral versions. So much for the fixity of written texts.

The relationship between Sanskrit and the other languages of India (the vernaculars) further complicates this picture. Sanskrit is the model for most North Indian languages (and the source of much of their grammar and some of their vocabulary), as Tamil is for the Dravidian languages of the south (such as Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam). The Sanskrit/Tamil distinction therefore overlaps with the North/South distinction, but we certainly cannot simply equate Sanskrit with North and Tamil with South. Many South Indian ideas—like devotion (bhakti), to take a case at random—entered Sanskrit literature, not just Tamil literature, through South Indian Brahmins who wrote in Sanskrit in South India. Not only did southern ideas go north, and vice versa, and not only did Tamil flow into Sanskrit and Sanskrit into Tamil, but Tamil went north, and Sanskrit south.

A similar mutual interpenetration characterizes textual and nontextual sources. The study of Hinduism in the scholarship of Euro-Americans has been overwhelmingly textual; that’s one of the characteristics of what we now call Orientalism, the cluster of attitudes that implicated the first European scholars of India in the European colonization of India. The British used texts as a way of disregarding actual Hindu practices and justifying their own imperial project with textual citations. And the Orientalist orientation to texts is the orientation toward Brahmins (and Sanskrit, and writing). More recently, scholars have begun to pay more attention to ritual, archaeology, art history, epigraphy, the records of foreign visitors, and, in the modern period, ethnography, revealing new aspects of a lived religion that is very differently represented in texts. Coins, for instance, tell a story, for money talks in that sense too.

The two sets of sources, textual and nontextual, reveal bits of history to us in different ways, like the lame man riding on the shoulders of the blind man. When it comes to history, you can’t trust anyone: The texts lie in one way, while images and archaeology mislead us in other ways. On the one hand, the gods did not fly around in big palaces, as the texts insist that they did, and we cannot know if women really did speak up as Gargi does in the Upanishads, or Draupadi in the Mahabharata. On the other hand, the Indus seal we all once interpreted as an ithyphallic Shiva Pashupati is probably just someone sitting cross-legged as South Asians are inclined to do, with a bulging loincloth knot; well, back to the drawing board. Nontextual sources can provide textualists with an occasional shot in the arm, alerting them to what to look for—in texts—once they get the idea that they might be there. Texts can do a great deal, with a little help from their nontextual friends.

Texts are still useful in a number of ways. First of all, some of those old Brahmin males knew a hell of a lot of great stories. Second, not all texts were written by Brahmins. Woven into the Brahmin texts, as well as standing alongside them, is another great strand of narratives by that extraordinarily prolific writer Anonymous, who was usually not a Brahmin and who should be credited with a great deal of the ancient literature of South Asia. (He—or, just as likely, she—often wrote under the nom de plume of the heavily mythologized authors whom we will soon encounter, people named Vyasa or Valmiki or simply Suta, “the Charioteer Bard.”) Third, even those texts that were written by Brahmins were not written (entirely) by Brahmins, nor were all the Brahmins highly literate or elitist; the texts were constantly infused with the contributions of the lower classes and women. Fourth, texts are events too: The Upanishads are part of history as well as imagination. And fifth, texts are also a major source of information about material culture: If we cannot always find the archaeological remains of a plow, we might at least find a text that mentions a plow, just as when we cannot find texts actually written by women, we can at least find references to women, and sympathetic views of their lives, in texts written by men. All these factors greatly expand the caste of characters in ancient Sanskrit texts.

I myself am by both temperament and training inclined to texts. I am neither an archaeologist nor an art historian; I am a Sanskritist, indeed a recovering Orientalist, of a generation that framed its study of Sanskrit with Latin and Greek rather than Urdu or Tamil. I’ve never dug anything up out of the ground or established the date of a sculpture. I’ve labored all my adult life in the paddy fields of Sanskrit, and since I know ancient India best, I’ve lingered in the past in this book longer than an anthropologist might have done, and even when dealing with the present, I have focused on elements that resonate with the past, so that the book is driven from the past, back-wheel-powered.37 I have also, for most of the same reasons, inclined more toward written, more precisely ancient Sanskrit traditions than oral and vernacular and contemporary ones. But this book is, when all is said and done, and despite my acknowledgment of the baleful influence of text-oriented scholarship, a defense of the richness of texts as the source of information about the sorts of things that some people nowadays assume you need nontextual sources for: women, the lower classes, the way people actually lived.


Women are sometimes said to have been excluded from the ancient Indian texts and therefore to have left no trace, history having been written by the winners, the men. But in fact women made significant contributions to the texts, both as the (usually unacknowledged) sources of many ancient as well as contemporary narratives and as the inspiration for many more. Some Hindu women did read and write, forging the crucial links between vernacular languages and Sanskrit. Women were forbidden to study the most ancient sacred text, the Veda, but the wives, whose presence was required at Vedic rituals, both heard and spoke Vedic verses,38 and they may well have had wider access to other Sanskrit texts. Later, in the second or third century CE, the Kama-sutra tells us not only that women had such access but even that they sometimes commissioned such texts to be written (1.3). Women in Sanskrit plays generally speak only dialects (Prakrits), while men speak only Sanskrit, but since the men and women converse together, generally without translators, the women must understand the men’s Sanskrit, and the men the women’s dialects. Moreover, some women in plays both speak and write Sanskrit, and some men speak in dialects,t trampling on what is left of the convention. It is a basic principle of one school of Indian logic that something can be prohibited only if its occurrence is possible.39 The fact that the texts keep shouting that women should not read Vedic texts suggests that women were quite capable of doing so and probably did so whenever the pandits weren’t looking. Women as a group have always been oppressed in India (as elsewhere), but individual women have always succeeded in making their mark despite the obstacles.

We can also look for the implied author40 and identify in men’s texts the sorts of things that a woman might have said.41 Within the Sanskrit texts, women express views of matters as basic as karma in terms quite different from those of men, and these views become even more prominent when women compose their own tales.42 There is an “ironic” presence of women in the Mahabharata, “perhaps beyond earshot, but definitely heard,” and their physical absence may lend a kind of invisible luster to the highly visible women in that text.43 The Kama-sutra, in its instructions to the would-be adulterer, presents a strong protofeminist view of what women have to put up with at the hands of inadequate husbands (5.1). Such texts at least keep women in the picture, however biased a picture that may be, until they do finally get to speak as named authors, much later.

Of course, excavating women’s voices in male texts must always be qualified by the realization that there may be ventriloquism, misreporting of women, and false consciousness; the male author of the Kama-sutra may have sympathy for women but not true empathy; his interest in their thoughts is exploitative, though no less accurate for all that. But ventriloquism is a two-way street; there is also a ventriloquism of women’s voices in male minds. For even when a male Brahmin hand actually held the pen, as was usually the case no matter what the subject matter was, women’s ideas may have gotten into his head. We can never know for sure when we are hearing the voices of women in men’s texts, but we can often ferret out (to use an animal metaphor) tracks, what the Hindus call “perfumes” (vasanas), that women have left in the literature. A hermeneutic of suspicion, questioning the expressed motivations of the author, is therefore required, but it is still worth reading between the lines, even making the texts talk about things they don’t want to talk about. Moreover, texts are not our only source of knowledge of this period; women also left marks, perfumes, that we can find in art and archaeology. We can try to resurrect the women actors in Hindu history through a combination of references to them, both unsympathetic (to see what they had to put up with from some men) and sympathetic (to show that other men did treat them humanely), and moments when we can hear women’s own voices getting into the texts and, more rarely, discover actual female authorship.


Brahmins may have had a monopoly on liturgical Sanskrit for the performance of certain public rites, but even then the sacrificer uttered some of the ritual words and performed the domestic rites. And the sacrificer need not have been a Brahmin, a member of the highest class; the other two twice-born social classes—warriors/rulers (Kshatriyas) and, below them, merchants, farmers and herders (Vaishyas)—were also initiated and therefore could be sacrificers. The three upper classes were called twice born because of the second birth through the ritual of initiation (the ancient Indian equivalent of becoming born again), in which a man was born (again) as a fully developed member of the community. u The lowest of the four classes, the servants (Shudras), were excluded from these and many other aspects of religious life, but the exclusion of Shudras doesn’t automatically make something “Brahminical.”

There have been countless terms coined to designate the lowest castes, the dispossessed or underprivileged or marginalized groups, including the tribal peoples. These are the people that Sanskrit texts named by specific castes (Chandala,Chamara, Pulkasa, etc.) or called Low and Excluded (Apasadas) or Born Last (or Worst, Antyajas) or Dog Cookers (Shva-Pakasv), because caste Hindus thought that these people ate dogs, who in turn ate anything and everything, and in Hinduism, you are what you eat. Much later the British called them Untouchables, the Criminal Castes, the Scheduled (they pronounced it SHED-YULED) Castes, Pariahs (a Tamil word that has found its way into English), the Depressed Classes, and Outcastes. Gandhi called them Harijans (“the People of God”). The members of these castes (beginning in the 1930s and 1940s and continuing now) called themselves Dalits (using the Marathi/Hindi word for “oppressed” or “broken” to translate the British “Depressed”). B. R. Ambedkar (in the 1950s), himself a Dalit, tried, with partial success, to convert some of them to Buddhism. Postcolonial scholars call them (and other low castes) Subalterns. Another important group of oppressed peoples is constituted by the Adivasis (“original inhabitants”), the so-called tribal peoples of India, on the margins both geographically and ideologically, sometimes constituting a low caste (such as the Nishadas), sometimes remaining outside the caste system altogether.

It is important to distinguish among Dalits and Adivasis and Shudras, all of whom have very different relationships with upper-caste Hindus, though many Sanskrit texts confuse them. So too, the Backward Castes, a sneering name that the British once gave to the excluded castes in general, are now regarded as castes separate from, and occasionally in conflict with, certain other Dalit castes; the Glossary of Human Rights Watch defines Backward Castes as “those whose ritual rank and occupational status are above ‘untouchables’ but who themselves remain socially and economically depressed. Also referred to as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or Shudras,” though in actual practice the OBCs often distinguish themselves from both Dalits and Shudras. All these groups are alike only in being treated very badly by the upper castes; precisely how they are treated, and what they do about it, differs greatly from group to group. All in all, when we refer to all the disenfranchised castes below the three upper classes known as twice born, it is convenient to designate them by the catchall term of Pariahs (a Tamil word—for the caste that beat leather-topped drums—that finds its way into English) up until the twentieth century and then to call them Dalits.

But whatever we choose to call them, the excluded castes play an important role in the history of the Hindus. Thanks to the Subaltern studies movement, there is a lot more available light for Dalits, particularly in the modern period (from the time of the British); this book aims to contribute to that movement by including more information about Dalits in the ancient period. There have been protests against the mistreatment of the lower castes from a very early age in India, though such protests generally took the form of renouncing caste society and forming an alternative society in which caste was ignored; no actual reforms took place until the nineteenth century and then with only limited success. Much of what I have said about women also applies to Pariahs, and vice versa; Brahmin ventriloquism functions similarly to male ventriloquism, and the lower castes, like women, leave their “perfumes” in upper-caste literature. The positive attitudes to Pariahs in such texts represent a beginning, a prelude to reform; they change the world, even if only by imagining a world in which people treated women or Pariahs better.

The Brahmins did produce a great literature, after all, but they did not compose it in a vacuum. They did not have complete authority or control the minds of everyone in India. They drew upon, on the one hand, the people who ran the country, political actors (generally Brahmins and kings, but also merchants) and, on the other hand, the nonliterate classes. Because of the presence of oral and folk traditions in Sanskrit texts, as well as non-Hindu traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism, Dog Cookers do speak,w not always in voices recorded on a page but in signs that we can read if we try.

For the ancient period, it’s often harder to find out who had a plow than to find out, from inscriptions, who endowed what temple. Some people today argue that the Brahmins erased much of the low-caste contribution to Indian culture—erased even their presence in it at all. Certainly the Sanskrit texts stated that the lower castes would pollute any sacred text that they spoke or read, as a bag made of the skin of a dog pollutes milk put into it.44 But this probably applied only to a limited corpus of texts, Vedic texts, rather than Sanskrit in general. The fact that a sage is punished for teaching the Vedas to the horse-headed gods called the Ashvins, who associate with the class of farmers and herdmen, should alert us to the possibility that teaching the Vedas to the wrong sorts of people might also be a rule honored at least sometimes in the breach as well as in the observance. And we can, as with women’s voices, ferret out voices of many castes in the ancient texts, and once we have access to the oral and folk traditions, we can begin to write the alternative narrative with more confidence.


Animals—primarily not only dogs, horses, and cows, but also monkeys, snakes, elephants, tigers, lions, cats, and herons—play important roles in the Hindu religious imaginary, both as actual living creatures and as the key to important shifts in attitudes to different social classes. Yogic postures (asanas) and sexual positions, as well as theological schools, are named after animals. Gods become incarnate as animals and have animal vehicles in the human world. The process works in opposite directions at once. On the one hand, the observation of the local fauna provides images with which people may think of their gods; whether or not people get the gods that they deserve, they tend to get the gods (and demons) that their animals deserve—gods inspired by the perceived qualities of the animals. On the other hand, the ideas that people have about the nature of the gods, and of the world, and of themselves will lead them to project onto animals certain anthropomorphic features that may seem entirely erroneous to someone from another culture observing the same animal. And knowing what animals, real live animals, actually appeared in the material culture at a particular time and place helps us place aspects of that culture geographically and sometimes chronologically. Thus animals appear both as objects, in texts about the control of violence against living creatures (killing, eating), and as subjects, in texts where they symbolize people of different classes. Clearly the two—the animals of the terrain and the animals of the mind—are intimately connected, and both are essential to our understanding of Hinduism. If the motto of Watergate was “Follow the money,” the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be “Follow the monkey.” Or, more often, “Follow the horse.”

Three animals—horses, dogs, and cows—are particularly charismatic players in the drama of Hinduism. The mythological texts use them to symbolize power, pollution, and purity, respectively, and link them to three classes of classical Hindu society: Kshatriyas or rulers, particularly foreign rulers (horses), the lower classes (dogs), and Brahmins (cows).x Horses and dogs function in our narrative as marginalized groups on both ends of the social spectrum (foreigners and Pariahs), y while cows are the focus of the ongoing debate about vegetarianism. These three animals pair up first with one and then with another in a complex symbolic dance. Horses and cows provide mirror images of each other’s genders. The cow (f.) is the defining gender for the bovine species and the symbol of the good human female (maternal, docile); the negative contrast is provided not by bulls and steers, who have a rather ambivalent status (Shiva’s bull, Nandi, is generally docile and benign), but by male buffalo, who have taken over this spot in the paradigm and symbolize evil in both myth and ritual, as well as being often associated with Pariahs. By contrast, the stallion (m.) is the defining gender for equines, mares generally being the symbol of the evil female (oversexed, violent, and Fatally Attractive).45 Cows and horses can also represent religious contrasts; the Hindu cow and the Muslim horse often appear together on chromolithographs.

Because horses are not native to India and do not thrive there, they must constantly be imported, generally from western and Central Asia.46 The reasons for this still prevail: climate and pasture.47 The violent contrast between the hot season and the monsoon makes the soil ricochet between swampy in one season and hard, parched, and cracked in another. The grazing season lasts only from September to May, and even then the grasses are spare and not good for fodder. Moreover, since the best soil is mostly reserved for the cultivation of grains and vegetables to feed a large and largely vegetarian population, there is relatively little room for horses even in those places where more nutritious fodder grasses are found (such as the eastern extensions of the arid zone in the north and northwest of India, particularly in Rajasthan, where horses have in fact been bred successfully for centuries). There is therefore no extensive pasturage, and horses are stabled as soon as they are weaned, unable to exercise or develop strength and fitness. Here, as elsewhere, wherever conditions are poor for breeding, “a regular injection of suitable horses is vital for the upkeep and improvement of the breed,” to keep it from degenerating.48

It is therefore part of the very structure of history that India has always had to import horses,49 which became prized animals, used only in elite royal or military circles. And so the horse is always the foreigner in India, the invader and conqueror, and the history of the horse in India is the history of those who came to India and took power. There is still a Hindi saying that might be translated, “Stay away from the fore of an officer and the aft of a horse” or “Don’t get in front of an officer or behind a horse.” It dates from a time when petty officials, especially police, revenue collectors, and record keepers, were mounted and everyone else was not. These horsemen were high-handed (“ . . . on your high horse”) and cruel, people whom it was as wise to avoid as it was to keep out of the range of those back hooves.

The horse stands as the symbol of the power and aristocracy of the Kshatriyas, the royal warrior class; the horse is the key to major disputes, from the wager about the color of a horse’s tail made by the mother of snakes and the mother of birds in the Mahabharata(1.17-23) (an early instance of gambling on horses), to heated arguments by contemporary historians about the seemingly trivial question of whether Aryan horses galloped or ambled into the Indus Valley or the Punjab, more than three thousand years ago. Horses continued to be idealized in religion and art, in stark contrast with the broken-down nags that one more often actually encounters in the streets of Indian cities. Under the influence of the Arab and Turkish preference for mares over stallions, the Hindu bias in favor of stallions and against mares gave way to an entire Hindu epic literature that idealized not stallions but mares. Finally, horses are also metaphors for the senses that must be harnessed, yoked through some sort of spiritual and physical discipline such as yoga (a word whose basic meaning is “to yoke,” as in “to yoke horses to a chariot”).

The cow’s purity is fiercely protected by Brahmins and is at the heart of often hotly contested attitudes to food in the history of Hinduism. In the Vedic period, people ate cattle (usually bulls or bullocks or castrated bulls), as they ate all other male sacrificial animals (with the exception of the horse, which was not eaten). But though the Vedic people also occasionally ate cows (the female of the species), cows soon became, for most Hindus, cultural symbols of non-violence and generosity, through the natural metaphor of milking; unlike most animals (but like other lactating female mammals—mares, female camels, buffalo cows, nanny goats), cows can feed you without dying. Cows therefore are, from the earliest texts to the present moment, the object of heated debates about vegetarianism.

At the other end of the animal spectrum are dogs. For caste-minded Hindus, dogs (not significantly gendered like horses and cows) are as unclean as pigs are to Orthodox Jews and Muslims, therefore symbols of the oppressed lowest castes, of the people at the very bottom of human society, indeed outside it, the sorts of people that we call underdogs and Sanskrit authors sometimes called dog cookers.z Dogs are also associated with the Adivasis, the so-called tribal peoples of India. Animal keepers, leatherworkers, people who touch human waste are often referred to as pigs and dogs.aa The ancient Indian textbook of political science, the Artha-shastra, even suspects dogs of espionage; the author warns the king not to discuss secrets when dogs or mynah birds are present (1.15.4). The mynah bird of course could talk, but the dog? Would he reveal secrets by wagging his tail? (He might recognize a secret agent and blow his cover by not barking in the night.)ab But texts covertly critical of the caste system reverse the symbolism and speak of breaking the rules for dogs, treating them as if they were not impure. The dog who doesn’t bark is about a silence that speaks; it is a good metaphor for the Pariah voice, the dog’s voice, that we can sometimes hear only when it does not speak.

The shifting tracks of these animals form a trail of continuity within the diversity of alternative Hinduisms.


The proliferation of polythetic polytheisms may pose problems for the definition of Hinduism, but they are its glory as a cultural phenomenon. Pluralism and diversity are deeply ingrained in polylithic Hinduism, the Ellis Island of religions; the lines between different beliefs and practices are permeable membranes. Not only can we see the Hindu traditions as divided among themselves on many central issues throughout history, but we can see what the arguments were on each point, often far more than two views on major questions. The texts wrestle with competing truths, rather than offer pat answers.

One sort of pluralism that has always prevailed in India is what I would call eclectic pluralism, or internal or individual pluralism, a kind of cognitive dissonance, 51 in which one person holds a toolbox of different beliefs more or less simultaneously, drawing upon one on one occasion, another on another.52 Multiple narratives coexist peacefully, sometimes in one open mind and sometimes in a group of people whose minds may be, individually, relatively A pivotal example of such individual pluralism can be found in the law text of Manu, which argues, within a single chapter, passionately against and then firmly for the eating of meat (5.26-56). Or as E. M. Forster once put it, “Every Indian hole has at least two exits.”53 When it comes to ritual too, an individual Hindu may worship several different gods on different occasions, to satisfy different needs, on different festival days, in fellowship with different members of the family (a bride will often bring into the home a religion different from that of her husband’s), or as a matter of choice as new gods are encountered.

The compound structure of Sanskrit and the fact that most words have several meanings (it used to be said that every Sanskrit word means itself, its opposite, a name of god, and a position in sexual intercoursead) enabled poets to construct long poems that told two entirely different stories at the same time and shorter poems that had multiple meanings, depending on how you divided up the compounds and chose among the various connotations of each word. This poetry, rich in metaphors, could itself stand as a metaphor for the Hindu approach to multivalence.

Eclectic pluralism between religions is more cautious, but it has allowed many an individual, such as a Hindu who worships at a Sufi shrine, to embrace one tradition in such a way as to make possible, if not full engagement with other faiths, at least full appreciation and even admiration of their wisdom and power.54 The sorts of permeable membranes that marked one sort of Hinduism from another also marked Hinduism from other religions; the dialogues were both intrareligious and interreligious. Hinduism interacted creatively with, first, Buddhism and Jainism, then Judaism and Christianity, then Islam and Sikhism, as well as with tribal religions and other imports (such as Zoroastrianism). The interactions were sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, sometimes appreciative borrowings and sometimes violent but productive antagonisms (as we will see, for instance, in the sometimes positive and sometimes negative attitudes toward the story of Vishnu’s incarnation as the Buddha). In Rohinton Mistry’s novelSuch a Long Journey, there is a wall in Bombay/Mumbai that the neighborhood men persist in peeing and defecating against, creating a stench and a nuisance of flies. The protagonist of the novel hires an artist to paint images of all the religions of the world on the wall, a multireligious polytheistic dialogue of gods and mosques (respecting the Muslim rule against representing figures), so that no one, of any religion, will foul the wall.55 (It works, for a while, until the city knocks down the wall to widen the road.) This seems to me to be a fine metaphor for both the hopes and the frailty of interreligious dialogue in India.

Hindus, Jainas, and Buddhists all told their own versions of some of the same stories. Hindus and Buddhists (and others) in the early period shared ideas so freely that it is impossible to say whether some of the central tenets of each tradition came from one or the other; often two Hindu versions of the same story, composed in different centuries, have less in common than do a Hindu and a Buddhist version of the same story. The stories change to fit different historical contexts, and often one can date one telling later than another (the language is different, it mentions a later king, and so forth), but where it comes from, and when, nobody knows. Many of the same religious images too were used by Buddhists and Jainas as well as Hindus.56 To this day Hindus and Christians, or Hindus and Muslims, often worship the same figure under different names; Satya Pir, for instance, is a Muslim holy man (pir) who had come, by the eighteenth century, to be identified with a form of the Hindu god Vishnu (Satya Narayana).57

The great Indian poet and saint Kabir, who self-consciously rejected both Hinduism and Islam, nevertheless built his own religious world out of what he would have regarded as the ruins of Hinduism and Islam, as did many of the great Sufi saints, at whose shrines many Hindus continue to worship. Building a shrine on the site where a shrine of another tradition used to stand is thus both a metaphor of appreciation and an act of appropriation in India, unhindered by any anxiety of influence.

This open-mindedness was supported by the tendency of Hindus to be more orthoprax than orthodox. That is, most Hindus have not cared about straight opinions (ortho-doxy) nearly so much as they care about straight behavior (ortho-praxy). Although there is a very wide variety of codes of action, each community has a pretty clear sense of what should and shouldn’t be done, and some things were Simply Not Done. People have been killed in India because they did or did not sacrifice animals, or had sex with the wrong women, or disregarded the Vedas, or even made use of the wrong sacred texts, but no one was impaled (the Hindu equivalent of burning at the stake) for saying that god was like this rather than like that. Each sect acknowledged the existence of gods other than their god(s), suitable for others to worship, though they might not care to worship them themselves.

Hindus might therefore best be called polydox.58 Yet renouncers, certain monists, and some of the bhakti sects tended to be more orthodox than orthoprax, and those movements that challenge Brahmins, the Veda, and the values of class and caste are generally called heterodox, or even heretical (pashanda or pakhanda).59 The Hindu concept of heresy was thus applied to some people within the Hindu fold, though more often to Buddhists and Jainas.


The “solitarist” approach to human identity sees human beings as members of exactly one group, in contrast with the multiple view that sees individuals as belonging to several different groups at once. Visualize our friend the intra-Hinduism Venn/Zen diagram, now in an interreligious guise. The multiple view is both more appropriate and more helpful for people caught up in the confrontation of communities, such as Hindu and Muslim in India.60

People sometimes make a further distinction between multiplicity and hybridity. Multiplicity implies a combination in which the contributing elements are theoretically unchanged even when mixed. Hinduism in this sense of multiplicity is perceived to have elements that a Muslim would recognize as Muslim, a Buddhist would recognize as Buddhist, and so forth. An example of religious multiplicity in an individual: On Sunday you go to church and attend a basic Catholic mass much as you would experience it in many (though certainly not all) churches in another city or another country, mutatis mutandis, and on Tuesday you go to a Hindu temple and assist at a ceremony of killing a goat, much as you would experience it in many (though certainly not all) Hindu temples in another city or another country, mutatis mutandis. Hybridity, by contrast, implies fusion. An example of religious hybridity in an individual: On Monday you attend the same sort of basic Catholic mass, but in place of the Eucharist you kill a goat, or you attend the same sort of basic Hindu puja but the goddess to whom you pray is Mary, the mother of Jesus, with all her epithets and physical characteristics. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “hybrid” as “anything derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of different or incongruous elements,” which, when applied to a community, leaves conveniently open the question of whether those elements remain unchanged. The OED definition applies to individuals rather than communities: “the offspring of two animals or plants of different species, or (less strictly) varieties.”

Both hybridity and multiplicity can be applied to both communities and individuals. The trouble with both multiplicity and hybridity (as well as syncretism) lies in the assumption that the combinatory elements are separate essences that exist in a pure form before the mix takes place and that the combination either does (for hybrids) or does not (for multiplicities) change them in some way. But there are seldom any pure categories in any human situation, certainly not by the moment when history first catches up with them. Long before 2000 BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization was already a mix of cultures, as was Vedic culture at that time, and eventually the two mixes mixed together, and mixed with other mixes. Hybridity defies binary oppositions and understands reality as a fluid rather than a series of solid, separate boxes.

Hyphens can be read as multiple or as hybrid. The hybrid, hyphenated word “Anglo-Indian” confusingly denotes two opposite sorts of people: The OED defines “Anglo-Indian” as “a person of British birth resident, or once resident, in India,” or “a Eurasian of India,”which is to say either a privileged Englishman ruling “Inja” or a hybrid, an underprivileged person whom the British regarded as the lowest of all castes, a mixed breed.

Hybridity, traditionally, has had the additional disadvantage of carrying a largely negative attitude to the mixing of categories, an attitude that we now regard as reactionary. Thus the hybrid has been despised as a hodgepodge, a mix in which both (or all) of the contributing elements are modified; the OED adds, gratuitously, to its definition the phrase, “a half-breed, cross-breed, or mongrel,” the racist overtones of its definition echoing the Hindu fear of the mixture of social classes (varna-samkara). But nowadays both postcolonial and postmodern thinkers prefer hybrids, define “hybrid” more positively, and indeed argue that we all are hybrids,61 all always mixed and mixing.62

The Parsis (“Persians”—i.e., Zoroastrians) in several communities in India tell a positive story about social hybridity. They say that when the Parsis landed in India, the local Hindu raja sent them a full glass of milk, suggesting that the town was full. The Parsi leader added sugar and returned the glass, indicating that his people could mix among the Arabs and Hindus like sugar in milk, sweetening it but not overrunning it.63 The metaphor of sugar in milkae suggests the extreme ideal of communal integration, in which individuals change the community by melting into it, flavoring it as a whole with their qualities (Zoroastrianism, or sweetness). The Parsis did not in fact dissolve into Islam and Hinduism; they remained Parsis and indeed were often caught in the crossfire during the riots that followed the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. This seems to me the more accurate way to view such cultural mixes: as a suspension of discrete particles rather than a melting pot.

Despite their shortcomings, the concepts of hybridity and multiplicity are useful, if used with care. The phenomenon is basically the same in either case; it’s just a matter of points of view, and it doesn’t really matter whether you call it multiple or hybrid (or even syncretic). What does matter is how you evaluate the fused mix. Whatever word you use for it, I think it applies to Hinduism, and I think it is a Good I once (in a very different context) characterized Hindu mythology as a pendulum of extremes that are never resolved and that are also constantly in motion: “By refusing to modify its component elements in order to force them into a synthesis, Indian mythology celebrates the idea that the universe is boundlessly various, that everything occurs simultaneously, that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other . . . [that] untrammeled variety and contradiction are ethically and metaphysically necessary.”64

Keeping both extreme swings of the pendulum in mind simultaneously means realizing that an individual actor in the drama of the history of the Hindus may regard herself as a fused hybrid of Muslim and Hindu or as a fused multiple, fully Muslim in some ways and fully Hindu in others, as many Indians have been, throughout history. In either case, there would be no perfectly pure category of Muslim or Hindu anywhere along the line of fusion. Such a person might worship at a Hindu temple on certain days and at a Sufi shrine on others, might read both the Upanishads and the Qu’ran for spiritual guidance, and would celebrate both the great Muslim holy days and the great Hindu festivals.

I would therefore argue for the recognition of the simultaneous presence of a number of pairs of opposites, throughout the history of the Hindus, the both/and view of community. The historiographic pendulum of reconciliation, never resting at the swing either to one side or the other, forces us to acknowledge the existence, perhaps even the authenticity, of the two extremes of various ideas, and also their falseness, as well as the fact that there is no pure moment at either end of the swing, and leave it at that. With apologies to Buddhism, there is no middle way here. Or rather, the middle way has got to take its place alongside all the other, more extreme ways in the Zen diagram.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!