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Unifying HinduismReview - Unifying Hinduism
Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History
by Andrew J. Nicholson
Columbia University Press, 2010
Review by Vineeth Mathoor
Sep 27th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 39)

The present book is a courageous effort to recast the history of Hinduism which is subject to partial, hegemonic and one-track interpretations. However, Andrew J Nicholson shows that ideas of colonial Hinduism and its post-colonial debates are diverted attempts without seriously understanding the pre-colonial intellectual debates in India. According to this challenging book, Hinduism is neither the product of some eighteenth century missionary efforts nor an antique religion. Hinduisms, like many other tardyons of belief systems, has always been developing for centuries and this process is the comprehensible wall of proof to argue that serious negation of Hinduism in South Asia would not do justice to the histories of the region. Based on tremendous re-examination of historical sources, doxographies, Sanskrit materials and other ancient Hindu texts, the book is an eye-opener to many judgmental scholars who barely deny the role of religion in south Asian societies. It is an outcome of fluent, comprehensible and well-researched piece of academic endeavor to relinquish the mysterious theories and histories propounded in the name of various intellectual juxtapositions.

The book is comprehensible in style and argument. No doubt, one needs to be so aware of the whole debate on South Asian social institutions and particularly about Hinduism to really grasp the ten theoretically challenging chapters of the book. It would never be an enduring task provided the reader seriously reads the introduction which serves as the entry to the whole debates. The theoretical rigor of Nicholson's clarity about the entire history of Hinduism is evident in the introduction. For instance Nicholson argues:  

The backlash against traditional Orientalism since the late 1970s has also had the consequence of delaying further advances in the study of Vedanta, particularly in those part of the western world that have been most influenced by postcolonial and post-Orientalist thought. (p.17)

As well, the 'representative arguments' about Indian spiritual traditions are cross-examined in the light of new theoretical insights. We need to remember, sometimes even as overture that the whole attempt of Nicholson is not to provide legal validity for Hindutva claims. On the contrary, the book demonstrates that the fantasies created by post-colonial intellectuals about Hinduisms are generalizations and flumes of intellectual compromises. Thematically, Nicholson engages to argue in the light of cross-examining what one might call one-track theories on Hinduisms. It is done by placing the philosophy of Vijnanabhikshu, a renowned Sanskrit scholar and profounder of Bhedaabheda Vedanta philosophy. Vijnanabhikshu represent the historical epoch in Indian intellectual history, argues Nicholson, and this was the period when the various systems and sub–systems of Hinduisms searched for a common identity.   Nicholson criticizes the conventional methods of classifying Indian philosophy into six different schools of thought. He is especially focused on the problem of 'premodern philosophy in a post-colonial world' (p.14).

It is interesting to remember that Hinduism constituted nothing but certain pagan beliefs for many colonial intellectuals. However, it was exciting that India's most celebrated intellectuals too followed the same pattern, without recognizing the active elements of religious codes. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked that Hinduism, as a faith 'is vague, amorphous, many-sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say definitely whether it is a religion or not'. (The discovery of India, 1946). There is no categorical evidence to suggest that Nicholson's attempt is to prove that Hindu unity is a historical event occurred in the 14th century. Instead, the book only argues that what colonial and postcolonial intellectuals have created about Hinduisms colonial origin is confusing and have no theoretical grounds. The book also outlines the history of Hinduism's encounter with modernity and its post-colonial incarnations. The debates about the unity of Hinduism are discussed at length and theoretical formulas are suggested. The contexts of late medical Indian social history is debated with special focus on Hinduism's development as a religion with pluralist aspects. The central focus of the book is about the historical process that led to the development of present day Hinduism. To quote Nicholson, "From this historical perspective, both the Universalizing tendencies of Neo-Vedanta reformers and the demonizing tendencies of Hindu communalists have their roots in medieval discourses of self and other, of unity and difference" (204). 

In short, this book is the history of dialectical relation between Hinduism and the many streams within it. The dialectical relation of Hinduism provided what it today stands for: tolerance, pluralism and inclusivism. This path-breaking work is very helpful and a must read for scholars f Indian history, Hinduism and south Asian religious traditions. 


© 2011 Vineeth Mathoor


Vineeth Mathoor, Research Scholar, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.


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