The temple was not a Vedic institution: Manu V. Devadevan


Manu V. Devadevan
PHOTO/Sreejith R. Kumar

Religious identity was not a thing to be inherited — but that changed in the 11th century CE, says the historian

Kannada poet, historian and political theorist Manu V. Devadevan’s most recent work, The Prehistory of Hinduism, received much acclaim. Devadevan, who teaches history at Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, specialises in the political economy of precolonial South India. In this interview, Devadevan talks about the factors leading to the formation of modern Hinduism — the unprecedented proliferation of temple-building between 1000 and 1200 CE, giving rise to inherited religious identities among the laity; the rise of the ‘guru’ as a central authority figure resulting in older texts and practices going out of fashion; and the emergence of popular Indian ‘godmen’, catalysed by private television channels and the Constitutional provision that confers on them the right to acquire and manage property in the name of religion. I also asked Devadevan about the recent controversy over Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey holding up a ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ placard and he speaks of the hollowness of terms like ‘brahminism’ in today’s political climate. Excerpts:

In your book, you posit two approaches to studying Hinduism: the ‘primordialist’ and the ‘constructionist’. Can you elaborate?

Until very recently, it was believed that Hinduism was one of the oldest religions in the world. Its beginnings were placed in mid second millennium BCE which is the date generally assigned to the Rig Veda. At times, its antiquity was pushed back to early half of the third millennium BCE, when Harappan urbanism began to develop. This view, which lays emphasis on Hinduism’s putative antiquity, is what I have called the primordialist position. It has lost little of its popular appeal. There are also a number of historians and Indologists who continue to endorse this view. Opposed to this, an interesting body of writings produced in recent decades argues that Hinduism, as an idea and an identity, is not older than the 19th century. This is the constructionist approach. The constructionists show greater awareness about the political and economic processes that enable or assist the making of religious identities. In their understanding, religious identities — such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian — are consciously constructed under specific historical conditions. They hold that such identities do not exist in any essential or homogeneous form for several hundred years. Informed by this historical insight, it has been possible for constructionist research to show that the making of a Hindu religious identity does not antedate the early 19th century.

You have argued that inherited religious identities only existed for specialist ‘renouncer’ communities and were non-existent among the laity before 1000 CE…

Constructionist research has made us sceptical of the claim that Hinduism is more than 3,000 years old. Nevertheless, historians have shied away from extending its insights to explore the emergence of religious identities per se in the Indian subcontinent. Not surprisingly, we come across a number of historical studies that wax eloquent on religious groups in India from the earliest documented times, as if a religious identity is intrinsic to human life. We are told of the Vedic religion, of the heterodox Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas, and of Shaiva, Vaishnava and other groups that are of Puranic and tantric origins. A close examination of the sources shows that these identities were monastic in nature before 1000 CE. Until the close of the first millennium CE it was possible to become a Buddhist or Jaina or Shaiva or Vaishnava only by initiation as a monk or nun. Religious identity was the preserve of a renouncer, and did not extend to the laity. It was not inherited.

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