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RELIGION AND SOCIETY - In Hinduism, the principle of hierarchy clashes with that of tolerance

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  • Published 13.02.03

The author is chairman, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta

Just over 50 years ago, M.N. Srinivas, who was to emerge as India’s leading sociologist, published his book Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India. The book introduced a new approach to the understanding of Hinduism, and it established its author’s reputation as a sociologist of the first rank. In it he used the distinction between the book-view and the field-view of society and the contrast between the Indological and the sociological approaches to religion. It may appear in retrospect that the contrast was overdrawn; but it expressed an insight of great significance.

Srinivas became the leading advocate of the field-view and the sociological approach, by which he meant an approach based on a careful and methodical examination of observed or observable facts. It does not treat religion as being either completely autonomous or as invariant, eternal and unchanging. Religious beliefs and practices vary and change, and this has to be examined in relation to variation and change in the structure of society. No religion operates independently of specific social arrangements, and Srinivas set out to show the two-way relationship between religion and social structure. This approach does not always find favour with religious believers who are inclined to re- gard religion as pure and society as corrupt.

The believer seeks out what he sees as the invariant and unchanging core of religion, and when he does not find it, he tends to put the blame on external material and historical forces for it. The Hindus in particular have lived with the idea of Kaliyuga since time immemorial, and that has helped them to explain many things away. The sociologist, on the other hand, recognizes that religious beliefs and practices are embedded in the social order, and tries to see how they are refracted by it. For him, Hinduism is not single and indivisible. Thus, Srinivas spoke of local Hinduism, regional Hinduism, peninsular Hinduism and all-India Hinduism. He also showed how religious beliefs and practices were refracted by the structures of joint family, caste and village.

Srinivas drew pointed attention to the limitations of the book-view of Hinduism which was the view accepted by most educated Hindus at the time. By the book-view of Hinduism he meant that view of it which was based on an understanding of ancient and medieval texts. He believed that those texts were remote from the current reality and that they gave a false sense of unity and harmony whereas the actual beliefs and practices of the Hindus were full of ambiguity and inconsistency. This was true not only of religion but also of major social institutions such as caste and joint family. The field-view would bring the reality closer to the understanding of educated Indians.

Historically speaking, the sociological approach to religion advocated by Srinivas is an offspring of religious scepticism rather than religious faith. Moreover, it is of relatively recent origin. Even in the West, it is scarcely a hundred years old. Today the sociology of religion is a well-established discipline in the West, but, despite the lead given by Srinivas more than 50 years ago, it is not so in India.

In the Western countries the sociology of religion faced stiff opposition at first from the practitioners of established disciplines such as theology and the philosophy of religion. The theologians mistrusted the moral detachment with which the sociologists sought to approach their subject. When they examined Christianity on the same plane of observation and analysis as other religions such as Hinduism or even Animism, they were denounced for denigrating the true faith. The sociology of religion, on the other hand, is concerned with neither the denigration nor the adulation of any particular religion but with examining the varieties of religious beliefs and practices in their specific social contexts.

For the believer, religion is the most important part of social life. For the sociologist, there are also other important features of it, such as kinship, economics and politics, and he tries to show how religion is related to them. Not only is the sociologist reluctant to assign a privileged place to religion among the various institutions of society, he is also reluctant to assign a privileged place to any one religion as against the rest.

When Srinivas published his study of the Coorgs shortly after independence, he did not have to face the kind of opposition from established religious positions that his predecessors in the West had had to face 50 years or so before him. The climate of opinion in Nehru’s India was more tolerant of religious scepticism and even religious dissent. At the same time, the lead given by Srinivas in the objective and empirical study of Hinduism was not followed by many sociologists in India. Where it comes to religion, the approach of the moralist prevails over that of the sociologist, at least among Indians, including Indian sociologists. The moralist tends either to extol religion — true religion as he perceives it — as the cure for every ill, or to condemn it as false consciousness or the opium of the masses.

It is a difficult thing for believing and practising Hindus to examine their own religion objectively and dispassionately. But unless this is done we will not be able to see clearly the inner contradictions of Hinduism that a changing social and political order is bringing to the surface. Hindu intellectuals responded better to the challenge that their religion faced in the early phase of colonial rule than their counterparts are doing today.

A distinction is now being increasingly made between Hindutva and Hinduism. Hindutva has adopted an aggressive posture and its proponents wish to create a Hindu state, presumably along lines similar to the Islamic republic of Pakistan. Liberal Hindus are appalled by the aggressiveness, but their intellectual response can hardly be regarded as adequate. They reject Hindutva, but they cannot turn their backs on Hinduism. They invoke a tolerant and benevolent form of Hinduism which is presumed to have prevailed before it was appropriated by evil and vengeful persons for their own nefarious ends.

It is true that, on a certain plane, Hinduism has a remarkable tradition of tolerance. It is no less true that it has a remarkable tradition of hierarchy. The tradition of tolerance included the tolerance of untouchability and the perpetual tutelage of women. It is easy enough, while talking about Hinduism, to move on to the lofty plane of pluralistic values and to ignore the social consequences of the hierarchical structure of those values.

The hierarchy operated, and to some extent continues to operate, through the most elaborate and comprehensive forms of social exclusion known to human history. Social exclusion was maintained through the rules of purity and pollution which have deep roots in Hindu religion. It is to Srinivas’s credit that he explained the operation of these mechanisms and their central place in the religious life of the Hindus. He always described himself as a Hindu, and it was far from his intention to denigrate his own religion. But as a sociologist, he sought to present a balanced account of it. A balanced account of Hinduism cannot sweep under the carpet the contradiction inherent in it between the principle of accommodation and the principle of hierarchy.