Many scholars have argued Hinduism was constructed or invented by British scholars during British rule of India, that it had not previously existed in any meaningful sense. They include Christopher Fuller, John Hawley and Vasudha Dalmia.
On the opposing side a number of scholars have questioned this claim, including Lawrence Babb, Cynthia Talbot and David Lorenzen.
In this article I will consider these claims to understand whether Hinduism was invented by the British.
After reviewing much of the scholarly literature on the question, I would argue the British influenced Hinduism in three key ways:
(1) they defined Hinduism as a distinct and universal world religion
(2) they abolished and edited Hindu beliefs and practices and
(3) they changed the way Hindu religious and caste identity were viewed by Indian society. However, neither the religious nor communal identity of Hinduism were invented by the British
Hinduism as a distinct religion
'Hinduism' conceived as a popular, distinct and universal world religion is the result of 19th century Indian and British social interactions that sought to define what Hinduism actually was. The main forces involved in attempting to do this were traditional Hindus, reformist Hindus, British Evangelical Christians and a British Utilitarian government.
Starting in the late 1700s British scholars and missionaries, through the Christian 'Missionary Papers' newspaper and the scientific Asiatick Societies' journal, sought to describe, categorise and characterise the beliefs and practices of Hindus. In doing so, for the first time, they conceived of Hinduism as a universalist world religion (like Christianity), with scripturally established, scientifically defined and uniform texts and practices. Many Reformist Hindus adopted this model in an attempt to define Hinduism. The effect of this is seen to this day: Hinduism is still widely seen through this category framework by Indians and others.
However, this framework posed a challenge to the on-the-ground reality of Hinduism - which was incredibly eclectic and variegated.
Traditionalist Hindus argued against this framework for fear of what it might exclude; they argued through civic newspapers that syncretic Hinduism was bound together by certain ritual practices. The effect of this was to unite the multifarious expressions under the modern term 'Hinduism' – and to create the modern, popular institution of Hinduism which we see today in modern India.
Changing Hindu beliefs and practices
The colonial administration had usurped the power to legitimate, abolish, edit and redefine Hindu practices and beliefs: this is seen in the 1829 abolition of 'Sahamarana' or 'widow burning' and the subsequent re-organisation of the caste system through the 1872 All-India Census. The British justified both of these actions using Hindu religious texts and their new approaches to these practices were enforced in society. At least in these two specific ways the British did change Hinduism.
The abolition of 'Sahamarana' in more detail:
The British decision in 1829 to abolish the practice of Sahamarana or 'Widow-Burning' can be seen as a clear attempt by the British to decide which Hindu practices were religiously legitimate and which were not. As the Pennington notes:
'Without clear textual mandate, preferably from the oldest and therefore most authoritative texts, a practice was subject to regulation or abolition by British rulers who could thus circumvent their pledge to noninterference in the religion of their colonial subjects. This equation of antiquity with authority provided a means for the colonial government to control the variety that they actually encountered.' (p.128)
Whilst the decision was taken as a result of pressure from evangelical groups, reformist Hindu groups and British officials, the decision was also a stance on the religious legitimacy of Hindu practice itself, with the British deciding that the practice lacked an unambiguous and authoritative textual basis. As noted in Napier, this decision eventually led to the non-practice of Sahamarana across the British administered Indian states:
'(After the enactment of criminal penalties in Sindh…) No Suttee took place then or afterwards.' (p.35)
Here the British can be seen to have decided that Sahamarana was not in fact an authentic Hindu practice, and to have altered the practice of Hinduism in India by legislating against it which lead to it being abandoned by Hindus.
Thus, the British changed both the religious understanding of and religious practice of Hinduism, at least in this particular instance.
Changing what Hindu religious and caste identity meant in society
The British made religious identity and caste identity the two focal determinants which defined one's position in society: this was done through the introduction of the 1872 All-India census. For the first time the census defined Indians in exclusive, rigid religious and caste terms – a radical departure from the census practices of earlier rulers. As Gottschalk notes:
'[…] (The) Mughal enumeration of Jodhpur city (c. 1670) created a list of castes and occupations, again without specific regard to religion. […] These numbers served taxation interests since different communities negotiated different taxation levels. During emperor Aurangzeb's short-lived imposition of the jizya, or poll tax, on non-Muslims his court made use of this enumeration but otherwise there was no connection to religious identity. Nor was there evidence of an attempt to count every individual nor aggregate these numbers with those of other regions. Moreover, the fact that the category "various castes" (punjat) had twice as many members as all the other categories combined evidenced a disinterest in identifying and counting all discrete caste categories.' (p.185-185)
'In contrast with the classification schemes used by Abul Fazl, the Mughals in Jodhpur, and Nainsi, Boileau's categorical effort demonstrates […] presumptions about statistics that differentiated British enumerations from earlier Indian ones.[…] (And that these amounted to) significant divergences from the models existing in states preceding theirs. […] And (that) an increasingly caste- and religion-based national politics all compounded the long-term effects of these qualities in British enumerations.' (p.186)
'[…] Despite some continuities of identity categories and information-gathering strategies from what existed in pre-British India, the overall matrix of interrelated epistemologies that provided both the context of knowing and the categories that shaped the content of knowing represent a major departure from previous traditions in South Asia.' (p.232)
This eventually sparked anxieties in Indian civil society leading to communities mobilising civically around the very terms the British had insidiously created to divide them.
'[…] In each decade of the census, official correspondence and publications included reports of indigenous apprehensions and possible panic, usually followed by testimony to a general calm during the census's execution. These dual themes evidence both the awareness and mocking dismissal of Indian fears regarding the enumeration.' (p.222)
Pre-existing Hindu religious and communal identity
However, the core deities, scriptures, beliefs and practices of Hinduism pre-existed the colonial presence by centuries. This is attested to in both pre-colonial Muslim, European and Indic sources which delineated the core deities and beliefs in a detailed manner, particularly Al-Biruni's two Arabic works on Hinduism. As Lorenzen notes:
'Al-Biruni's text includes-roughly in order, discussions of the Hindu concepts of God, the soul, hell, morality and law, the three different paths to gods, idol worship, the four social classes (varnas), the major Puranas, the law books (smrti), the Maha cosmographic theories and myths, theories of time cycles, the mythology of Vishnu and his more important astronomical rites, linga worship and its mythology, (asramas), the rites and customs of various castes, pilgrim customs and fasting, and calendrical festivals.' (p.653)
The notion of a common Hindu religious identity also pre-existed the colonial presence by centuries. This too is attested to by both Muslim and European sources and also non-Sanskrit Indic sources. This can also be demonstrated by inferential and logical reading of certain source texts. Lorenzen again notes that:
'[…] (some) evidence relating to the Hindus' religious identity in the period before 1800 comes from the historical romance called Kirtilata, a text written in a dialect of Apabhramsa by the poet Vidyapati sometime early in (the) fifteenth century: [Poetry] 'The Hindus and the Turks live close together. Each makes fun of the other's religion (dhamrme). One calls the faithful to prayer. The other recites the Vedas. One butchers animals by bleeding, The other cuts (off their heads). Some are called ovjas, others khavjas. Some (read) astrological signs, others fast in Ramadan. Some eat from copper plates, others from pottery. Some practice namaz, others do puja.' (p.651)
The British sought to define Hinduism through a certain thought-framework. Whilst successful in some respects, the counter movement it sparked among traditional Hindus was more successful as it advocated that the diverse Hindu expressions be seen as part of a legitimate Hinduism. Thus, both the British and the Indians invented Hinduisms (pl.). The British also influenced how Hindu texts were interpreted and how Hinduism was practised in Indian society. So, at least in these specific ways: 'colonial modernity decisively altered the character and evolutionary course of Hindu religion.' (Pennington p.170) However, the British did not invent the religion or communal identity of Hinduism.
Gottschalk, P. (2013). Religion, science, and empire. Oxford: OUP.
Lorenzen, D. (1999). Who Invented Hinduism?. Comparative Studies In Society And History, 41(4), 630-659. doi: 10.1017/s0010417599003084
Napier, W., & Napier, C. (1851). History of Charles Napier's administration of Scinde, and campaign in the Cutchee hills. London.
Pennington, B. (2005). Was Hinduism invented. New York: Oxford University Press.
Suthren Hirst, J., & Zavos, J. (2011). Religious traditions in modern South Asia. Oxford: Routledge.