Religions in South Asia were generally flexible enough to allow people to worship in each other’s sacred places when there was a wish to do so and if they were allowed to. My first experience of religion was when I was visiting my grandmother at the age of four. She was a devout worshipper of Vishnu, yet she took me one morning to the grave of a locally venerated Muslim holy man, a pir, and taught me how to offer flowers and seek blessings in my own way. The imprint has remained. The essence of religion concerns the worshipper, her relationship with the world around her from which her belief may come and her personal relationship with the supernatural. Today in South Asia, we unnecessarily insist on impermeable boundaries.
It is perhaps as well to remember that what came to be called ‘Hindu’ was the label for all that was placed together beneath an umbrella, and that which came to be called Hinduism in colonial times. The religion of Hinduism, or these many Hindu religions, as some would say, can be better described as a mosaic of sectarian belief and worship rather than a single system with a linear history. Ashoka when he speaks of what we would call religion refers to the brahmanas and the shramans (Buddhists and Jainas), as does that famed Greek visitor of the time, Megasthenes. The same is suggested by Al-Biruni as late as the eleventh century AD. Apparently it would seem that people identified themselves by their sects. ...
As we know ‘Hindu’ was first used in Arabic, but initially as a geographical term and referred to the people living across the Indus river in al-Hind. It was taken from the Old Iranian and Indo-Aryan, Sindhu, and the Indos of the Greeks’ name for the Indus river. ... It was only from about the fourteenth century or so that ‘Hindu’ took on a religious connotation to refer to those that were not Muslim. This brought the mosaic of sects under one awning. But the term Hinduism as suggestive of a uniform system of belief became current in colonial times.
Strictly speaking, the single identity also seems inappropriate for Muslims who by now had fragmented into many sects and communities, differentiated by the imprint of local culture and a degree of concession to it. Similarly, Buddhism too became variegated over time, ranging from Theravada to the complexities of Ge-lugs-pa in Tibet. ...
In the case of Muslims, Buddhists, Jainas, the fact that they were religions founded by historical persons gave them a different pattern of evolution. This pattern has some parallels not with the entirety of Hinduism but with some of its sects that had their beginnings with historical founders. The history of religion in South Asia was not the same as that of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
... The nineteenth-century perception of religion in India moved it from its earlier relative fluidity at the popular level into a defined pattern with indelible boundaries. This facilitated its mobilization on a large scale as and when required, as has been apparent in recent times. Having projected two monolithic religions as the major religious contribution of the Indian past, the census data was added in. There followed the theory of the majority religion of Hinduism creating a majority community and the minority religion of Islam creating a minority community—the largest and most prominent among a number of minority communities, and each was given a specific religious identity. It was then erroneously argued that the separation of the two communities Hindu and Muslim was rooted in history. Mobilizing majority and minority communities by religion led inevitably to the politics of communalism. Counting numbers and giving them religious labels was unheard of prior to the nineteenth century.
With permission from Aleph Book Company.