NEO-HINDUISM (Religious Movement)

The term ‘Neo-Hinduism’ has been used to describe the worldviews of various Hindu thinkers associated with the Hindu or Indian Renaissance and the organizations they created. It thus refers to a distinct expression of Hinduism that co-exists with other forms of contemporary Hinduism.

The Hindu Renaissance conventionally is regarded as embracing developments within Hinduism from c. 1830 until Indian Independence in 1947, although historians have debated whether the achievements of this period did constitute a ‘renaissance’. Some commentators have placed it more narrowly between c. the 1870s and the end of the independence movement, distinguishing between the ‘revivalism’ of this later period and the ‘reformist’ concerns and lack of overt Indian nationalism said to characterize the period c. 1830-1870s. Hindu thinkers responsible for this Renaissance would include Raja Rammohun Roy (c. 1772-1833) who founded the Brahmo Samaj, if the earlier period is included, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) (1838-94), Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) (see Vivekananda, Swami) who organized the Ramakrishna Mission, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950) (see Aurobindo, Sri) in whose name Auroville was created, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975). Many of these figures have been revered for contributing to the revival of Hindu self-confidence that fed the nationalist movement or providing political as well as spiritual leadership for the Hindu wing of the nationalist movement. The identification of common elements in the experiences, ideas and strategies of these and other thinkers has prompted their categorization as proponents of ‘Neo-Hinduism’. ‘Renaissance Hinduism’, ‘reform Hinduism’, and ‘modern Hinduism’ have been used as overlapping terms. Similarly, some Neo-Hindu thinkers have been described as Neo-Vedantins because of their extensive re-working of ideas taken from the Advaita Vedanta philosophical tradition.

The term Neo-Hinduism has been increasingly used in scholarly writing since the 1950s. The label ‘Neo-Hindu’, however, was in circulation in India at least by the last decade of the nineteenth century and had pejorative overtones. For example, in 1893 critics of Swami Vivekananda questioned his fidelity to earlier Hindu tradition by placing him with ‘Neo-Hindus’, those attempting to reform Hinduism on the basis of criteria adopted from European and specifically Christian criticisms. In recent scholarly writing, the term Neo-Hinduism is generally used to describe Hindu thinkers who typically:

(a) have been concerned with the relationship between religion and nationalism;

(b) have been exposed to western ideas and education, and have confessed to having undergone a crisis of confidence in the value of Hinduism;

(c) have voiced a critical attitude to the worship of images;

(d) have placed a heightened reliance upon the Bhagavadgita, in spite of its traditional classification as a text of lesser importance than the Veda, the ultimate scriptural authority;

(e) have been willing to re-interpret concepts and traditional philosophies, particularly Advaita Vedanta, in the light of new circumstances and influences external to Hinduism;

(f) have been committed to organized, practical service to humanity.

Drawing selectively on earlier Hindu traditions and western learning, including Christianity, Neo-Hindu thinkers have extended existing understandings of concepts such as karma (action) and dharma (law, duty, general morality). In seeking more general and flexible interpretations of these principles, they have tended to enhance the role of personal conscience, rather than emphasizing traditional authorities and responsibilities. Their insistence upon the need for social activism frequently has been supported by a social ethic derived from Advaita Vedanta philosophy. The movements they developed, influenced by their encounter with European and American Christian groups, have been marked by modern organizational features and philanthropic activity. While working on behalf of women and low-caste groups, Neo-Hindu groups have tended to attract more members from higher castes and generally have been led by men. Both the Ramakrishna Mission and Sri Aurobindo have attracted western followers.

It is not uncommon to find scholars who use the term Neo-Hinduism, or synonymous labels, claiming that this style of Hinduism is peripheral or even inauthentic, when compared with ‘traditional’ Hinduism, and that its influence has been exaggerated. Although Neo-Hindu thinkers and the organizations they created have not attracted large numerical followings in India, and some have significantly diminished in influence since the nineteenth century, their indirect influence has been considerable. This was most apparent in the promotion of social activism and the shaping of new Hindu ideologies during the campaign for Indian Independence. It is evident today in many of the practices and beliefs popularized by more recent Hindu sectarian movements both in India and the Hindu diaspora.

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