Neo-Vedanta

Neo-Vedanta, also called Hindu modernism, neo-Hinduism, Global Hinduism and Hindu Universalism,are terms to characterize interpretations of Hinduism that developed in the 19th century. The term “Neo-Vedanta” was coined by Paul Hacker, in a pejorative way, to distinguish modern developments from “traditional” Advaita Vedanta.

Scholars have repeatedly argued that these modern interpretations incorporate western ideas into traditional Indian religions, especially Advaita Vedanta, which is asserted as central or fundamental to Hindu culture. Other scholars have described a Greater Advaita Vedānta, which developed since the medieval period. Drawing on this broad pool of sources, after Muslim rule in India was replaced by British rule, Hindu religious and political leaders and thinkers responded to western colonialism and orientalism, contributing to the Indian freedom struggle and the modern national and religious identity of Hindus in the Republic of India. This societal aspect is covered under the term of Hindu reform movements.

Among the main proponents of such modern interpretations of Hinduism were Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan, who to some extent also contributed to the emergence of Neo-Hindu movements in the West.

Neo-Vedanta has been influential in the perception of Hinduism, both in the west and in the higher educated classes in India. It has received appraisal for its “solution of synthesis”, but has also been criticised for its Universalism. The terms “Neo-Hindu” or “Neo-Vedanta” themselves have also been criticised for its polemical usage, the prefix “Neo-” then intended to imply that these modern interpretations of Hinduism are “inauthentic” or in other ways problematic.

Hindu God Religion Indian Hinduism Culture Faith

Hindu Universalism,

Definition and etymology

According to Halbfass, the terms “Neo-Vedanta” and “Neo-Hinduism” refer to “the adoption of Western concepts and standards and the readiness to reinterpret traditional ideas in light of these new, imported and imposed modes of thought”. Prominent in Neo-Vedanta is Vivekananda, who’s theology, according to Madaio, is often characterised in earlier scholarship as “a rupture from ‘traditional’ or ‘classical’ Hindusim, particularly the ‘orthodox’ Advaita Vedanta of the eight century Shankara.”

The term “Neo-Vedanta” appears to have arisen in Bengal in the 19th century, where it was used by both Indians and Europeans. According to Halbfass the term was invented by a Bengali, Brajendra Nath Seal (1864–1938), who used the term to characterise the literary work of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–1894).

The term “neo-Vedanta” was used by Christian missionaries as well as Hindu traditionalists to criticize the emerging ideas of the Brahmo Samaj, a critical usage whose “polemical undertone […] is obvious”.

The term “Neo-Vedanta”, according to Ayon Maharaj, “is misleading and unhelpful for three main reasons”:

First, a vague umbrella term such as “Neo-Vedanta” fails to capture the nuances of the specific Vedantic views of different modern figures…. Second, the term “Neo-Vedanta” misleadingly implies novelty…. Third, and most problematically, the term “Neo-Vedanta” is indelibly colored by German indologist Paul Hacker’s polemical use of the term.

The term “neo-Hinduism” was used by a Jesuit scholar resident in India, Robert Antoine (1914–1981), from whom it was borrowed by Paul Hacker, who used it to demarcate these modernist ideas from “surviving traditional Hinduism,” and treating the Neo-Advaitins as “dialogue partners with a broken identity who cannot truly and authentically speak for themselves and for the Indian tradition”. Hacker made a distinction between “Neo-Vedanta” and “neo-Hinduism”, seeing nationalism as a prime concern of “neo-Hinduism”.

History

Although neo-Vedanta proper developed in the 19th century in response to western colonialism, it has got deeper origins in the Muslim period of India. Michael s. Allen and Anand Venkatkrishnan note that Shankara is very well-studies, but “scholars have yet to provide even a rudimentary, let alone comprehensive account of the history of Advaita Vedanta in the centuries leading up to the colonial period.”

“Greater Advaita Vedanta”

Unification of Hinduism

Main article: Unifying Hinduism

Well before the advent of British influence, with beginnings that some scholars have argued significantly predate Islamic influence, hierarchical classifications of the various orthodox schools were developed. According to Nicholson, already between the twelfth and the sixteenth century,

… certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the “six systems” (saddarsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy.

The tendency of “a blurring of philosophical distinctions” has also been noted by Burley. Lorenzen locates the origins of a distinct Hindu identity in the interaction between Muslims and Hindus, and a process of “mutual self-definition with a contrasting Muslim other”, which started well before 1800. Both the Indian and the European thinkers who developed the term “Hinduism” in the 19th century were influenced by these philosophers.

Within these so-called doxologies Advaita Vedanta was given the highest position, since it was regarded to be most inclusive system. Vijnanabhiksu, a 16th-century philosopher and writer, is still an influential proponent of these doxologies. He’s been a prime influence on 19th century Hindu modernists like Vivekananda, who also tried to integrate various strands of Hindu thought, taking Advaita Vedanta as its most representative specimen.

Influence of yogic tradition

While Indologists like Paul Hacker and Wilhelm Halbfass took Shankara’s system as the measure for an “orthodox” Advaita Vedanta, the living Advaita Vedanta tradition in medieval times was influenced by, and incorporated elements from, the yogic tradition and texts like the Yoga Vasistha and the Bhagavata Purana. The Yoga Vasistha became an authoritative source text in the Advaita vedanta tradition in the 14th century, while Vidyāraņya’s Jivanmuktiviveka (14th century) was influenced by the (Laghu-)Yoga-Vasistha, which in turn was influenced by Kashmir Shaivism. Vivekananda’s 19th century emphasis on nirvikalpa samadhi was preceded by medieval yogic influences on Advaita Vedanta. In the 16th and 17th centuries, some Nath and hatha yoga texts also came within the scope of the developing Advaita Vedanta tradition.

Western colonialism and Hindu reform movements

See also: Orientalism and Hindu reform movements

Western colonialism

With the colonisation of India by the British, a darker era in the history of India began. Prior to this, Muslim rule over North India had had a drastic effect on Hinduism (and Buddhism) through systematic persecution. While the Indian society was greatly impacted, its economy however continued to remain one of the largest in the World. Muslim rule over Southern India was also relatively short-lived before the 17th century. In contrast to the Muslim rulers, the British actively engaged in destroying the Indian economy as well. The economic destruction wrought by restrictive British policies and Industrial revolution in Europe, led to the dismantling of the prevailing decentralized education systems in India in the 18th century. The British state-supported education system, after the English Education Act of 1835, emphasized western religions and thoughts at the cost of indigenous ones.

The British also nurtured and were involved, post 1813, in the aggressive propagation of Protestant Christianity. This was concomitant with the British propaganda machine’s involvement in the spreading anti-Hindu sentiments.

Hindu reform movements

In response to the British rule and cultural dominance, Hindu reform movements developed, propagating societal and religious reforms, exemplifying what Percival Spear has called

… the ‘solution of synthesis’—the effort to adapt to the newcomers, in the process of which innovation and assimilation gradually occur, alongside an ongoing agenda to preserve the unique values of the many traditions of Hinduism (and other religious traditions as well).

Neo-Vedanta, also called “neo-Hinduism” is a central theme in these reform-movements. The earliest of these reform-movements was Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj, who strived toward a purified and monotheistic Hinduism.

Major proponents

Neo-vedanta’s main proponents are the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, especially Ram Mohan Roy, while Vivekananda, Gandhi, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan are the main proponents of neo-Hinduism.

Ram Mohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj

Main articles: Ram Mohan RoyBrahmo Samaj, and Brahmoism

The Brahmo Samaj was the first of the 19th century reform movements. Its founder, Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), strived toward an universalistic interpretation of Hinduism. He rejected Hindu mythology, but also the Christian trinity. He found that Unitarianism came closest to true Christianity, and had a strong sympathy for the Unitarians. He founded a missionary committee in Calcutta, and in 1828 asked for support for missionary activities from the American Unitarians. By 1829, Roy had abandoned the Unitarian Committee, but after Roy’s death, the Brahmo Samaj kept close ties to the Unitarian Church, who strived towards a rational faith, social reform, and the joining of these two in a renewed religion. The Unitarians were closely connected to the Transcendentalists, who were interested in and influenced by Indian religions early on.

Rammohan Roy’s ideas were “altered … considerably” by Debendranath Tagore, who had a Romantic approach to the development of these new doctrines, and questioned central Hindu beliefs like reincarnation and karma, and rejected the authority of the Vedas. Tagore also brought this “neo-Hinduism” closer in line with western esotericism, a development which was furthered by Keshubchandra Sen. Sen was influenced by Transcendentalism, an American philosophical-religious movement strongly connected with Unitarianism, which emphasized personal religious experience over mere reasoning and theology. Sen strived to “an accessible, non-renunciatory, everyman type of spirituality”, introducing “lay systems of spiritual practice” which can be regarded as prototypes of the kind of Yoga-exercises which Vivekananda populurized in the west.

The theology of the Brahmo Samaj was called “neo-Vedanta” by Christian commentators, who “partly admired [the Brahmos] for their courage in abandoning traditions of polytheism and image worship, but whom they also scorned for having proffered to other Hindus a viable alternative to conversion”. Critics accused classical Vedanta of being “cosmic self-infatuation” and “ethical nihilism”. Brahmo Samaj leaders responded to such attacks by redefining the Hindu path to liberation, making the Hindu path available to both genders and all castes, incorporating “notions of democracy and worldly improvement”.

Vivekananda (1863–1902)

Main articles: Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Mission

According to Gavin Flood, Vivekananda (1863–1902) (Narendranath Dutta) “is a figure of great importance in the development of a modern Hindu self-understanding and in formulating the West’s view of Hinduism”. He played a major role in the revival of Hinduism, and the spread of Advaita Vedanta to the west via the Ramakrishna Mission.

In 1880 Vivekananda joined Keshub Chandra Sen’s Nava Vidhan, which was established by Sen after meeting Ramakrishna and reconverting from Christianity to Hinduism. Narendranath (a.k.a. Narendra) became a member of a Freemasonry lodge “at some point before 1884” and of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in his twenties, a breakaway faction of the Brahmo Samaj led by Keshub Chandra Sen and Debendranath Tagore. From 1881 to 1884 he was also active in Sen’s Band of Hope, which tried to discourage the youth from smoking and drinking. It was in this cultic milieu that Narendra became acquainted with western esotericism. His initial beliefs were shaped by Brahmo concepts, which included belief in a formless God and the deprecation of idolatry, and a “streamlined, rationalized, monotheistic theology strongly coloured by a selective and modernistic reading of the Upanisads and of the Vedanta”. He propagated the idea that “the divine, the absolute, exists within all human beings regardless of social status”, and that “seeing the divine as the essence of others will promote love and social harmony”.

During this period, he came in contact with Ramakrishna, who eventually became his guru, and fitted into his broadening views on spirituality and liberation.

Vivekananda’s acquaintance with western esotericism made him very successful in western esoteric circles, beginning with his speech in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda adapted traditional Hindu ideas and religiosity to suit the needs and understandings of his western audiences, who were especially attracted by and familiar with western esoteric traditions and movements like Transcendentalism and New thought. An important element in his adaptation of Hindu religiosity was the introduction of his four yoga’s model, which includes Raja yoga, his interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, which offered a practical means to realize the divine force within which is central to modern western esotericism. In 1896 his book Raja Yoga was published, which became an instant success and was highly influential in the western understanding of Yoga.

In line with Advaita vedanta texts like Dŗg-Dŗśya-Viveka (14th century) and Vedantasara (of Sadananda) (15th century), Vivekananda saw samadhi as a means to attain liberation.

Gandhi

Main article: Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi never called himself a Hindu nationalist, but preached Hindu Dharma.

Mahatma Gandhi never called himself a Hindu nationalist, but preached Hindu Dharma.

Gandhi (1869–1948) has become a worldwide hero of tolerance and striving toward freedom. In his own time, he objected to the growing forces of Indian nationalism, communalism and the subaltern response. Gandhi saw religion as an uniting force, confessing the equality of all religions. He synthesized the AstikaNastika and Semitic religions, promoting an inclusive culture for peaceful living. Gandhi pled for a new hermeneutics of Indian scriptures and philosophy, observing that “there are ample religious literature both in Astika and Nastika religions supporting for a pluralistic approach to religious and cultural diversity”.

The orthodox Advaita Vedanta, and the heterodox Jain concept Anekantavada provided him concepts for an “integral approach to religious pluralism”. He regarded Advaita as a universal religion (“dharma”) which could unite both the orthodox and nationalistic religious interpretations, as the subaltern alternatives. Hereby Gandhi offers an interpretation of Hindutva which is basically different from the Sangh Parivar-interpretation. The concept of anekantavada offered Gandhi an axiom that “truth is many-sided and relative”. It is “a methodology to counter exclusivism or absolutism propounded by many religious interpretations”. It has the capability of synthesizing different percpetions of reality. In Gandhi’s view,

…the spirit of ‘Synthesis’ essentially dominated Indian civilization. This spirit is absorption, assimilation, co-existence and synthesis.

Anekantavada also gives room to an organic understanding of “spatio-temporal process”, that is, the daily world and its continued change. The doctrine of anekantavada is a plea for samvada, “dialogue”, and an objection against proselytizing activities.

Sarvepalli Radhakrisnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a major force in the further popularization of Neo-Vedanta. As a schoolboy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was inspired by Vivekananda’s lectures, in which he found “an ennobling vision of truth and harmony as well as a message of Indian pride”. He was educated by Christian missionaries, and wrote a master thesis on Vedanta and ethics. In later life, he became vice-president and president of India. According to Rinehart, he presented his view of Hinduism as the view of Hinduism. Central in his presentation was the claim that religion is fundamentally a kind of experience, anubhava, reducing religion “to the core experience of reality in its fundamental unity”. For Radhakrishnan, Vedanta was the essence and bedrock of religion.

Philosophy

See also: Sanskritization

Politics

Nationalism

Main article: Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism

Vivekananda “occupies a very important place” in the development of Indian nationalism as well as Hindu nationalism, and has been called “the prophet of nationalism”, pleading for a “Hindu regeneration”. According to S.N. Sen, his motto “Arise, Awake and do not stop until the goal is reached” had a strong appeal for millions of Indians. According to Bijoy Misra, a private blogger,

In the colonial India, “salvation” could be the freedom from foreign rule. Indians credit Swami Vivekananda to have sown the early seeds of nationalism culminating in India’s freedom.

Social activism

According to Bijoy Misra, a private blogger,

Spiritual culmination needed awakening of human will and he helped create a band of volunteers to work among the poor, the distressed and the “left outs” in the economic power struggle. This path of pursuing spirituality through service is a part of original concepts of SriKrishna.

Religion

Unity of Hinduism

Neo-Vedanta aims to present Hinduism as a “homogenized ideal of Hinduism” with Advaita Vedanta as its central doctrine. It presents

… an imagined “integral unity” that was probably little more than an “imagined” view of the religious life that pertained only to a cultural elite and that empirically speaking had very little reality “on the ground,” as it were, throughout the centuries of cultural development in the South Asian region.

Neo-Vedanta was influenced by Oriental scholarship, which portrayed Hinduism as a “single world religion”, and denigrated the heterogeneity of Hindu beliefs and practices as ‘distortions’ of the basic teachings of Vedanta.

Universalism

Main article: Universalism

Following Ramakrishna, neo-Vedanta regards all religions to be equal paths to liberation, but also gives a special place to Hinduism, as the ultimate universal religion. The various religious faiths of the world are regarded to help people to attain God-realization, the experience of God or the Ultimate. According to some authors, this is expressed in the Rig Veda, “Truth is one; only It is called by different names,” The Ramakrishna/Vivekananda movement has these concepts to popular awareness in India and the West. An example is Aldous Huxley’s book, The Perennial Philosophy, in which are gathered quotes from the religions of the world that express, for him, the universality of religion by showing the same fundamental Truths are found in each of the world’s religions.

Vedanta and nondualism

Main article: Nondualism

According to Benavides, neo-Vedanta is closer to Ramanuja’s qualified non-dualism than it is to Shankara Advaita Vedanta. Nicholas F. Gier notes that neo-Vedanta does not regard the world to be illusionary, in contrast to Shankara’s Advaita.

According to Michael Taft, Ramakrishna reconciled the dualism of formless and form. Ramakrishna regarded the Supreme Being to be both Personal and Impersonal, active and inactive. According to Anil Sooklal, Vivekananda’s neo-Advaita “reconciles Dvaita or dualism and Advaita or non-dualism”.

Radhakrishnan acknowledged the reality and diversity of the world of experience, which he saw as grounded in and supported by the absolute or Brahman. Radhakrishnan also reinterpreted Shankara’s notion of maya. According to Radhakrishnan, maya is not a strict absolute idealism, but “a subjective misperception of the world as ultimately real”.

Gandhi endorsed the Jain concept of Anekantavada, the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth. This concept embraces the perspectives of both Vedānta which, according to Jainism, “recognizes substances but not process”, and Buddhism, which “recognizes process but not substance”. Jainism, on the other hand, pays equal attention to both substance (dravya) and process (paryaya).

According to Sarma, who stands in the tradition of Nisargadatta Maharaj, Advaitavāda means “spiritual non-dualism or absolutism”, in which opposites are manifestations of the Absolute, which itself is immanent and transcendent.

Sruti versus “experience”

See also: AnubhavaSvādhyāya and anubhavaReligious experience, and Mystical experience

A central concern in Neo-Vedanta is the role of sruti, sacred texts, versus (personal) experience. Classical Advaita Vedanta is centered on the correct understanding of sruti, the sacred texts. Correct understanding of the sruti is a pramana, a means of knowledge to attain liberation. It takes years of preparation and study to accomplish this task, and includes the mastery of Sanskrit, the memorisation of texts, and the meditation over the interpretation of those texts. Understanding is called anubhava, knowledge or understanding derived from (personal) experience. Anubhava removes Avidya, ignorance, regarding Brahman and Atman, and leads to moksha, liberation. In neo-Vedanta, the status of sruti becomes secondary, and “personal experience” itself becomes the primary means to liberation.

Smarta Tradition

Main article: Smarta Tradition

According to Ninian Smart, Neo-Vedanta is “largely a smarta account.” In modern times Smarta-views have been highly influential in both the Indian and western understanding of Hinduism. According to iskcon.org,

Many Hindus may not strictly identify themselves as Smartas but, by adhering to Advaita Vedanta as a foundation for non-sectarianism, are indirect followers.

Vaitheespara notes adherence of Smartha Brahmans to “the pan-Indian Sanskrit-Brahmanical tradition”:

The emerging pan-Indian nationalism was clearly founded upon a number of cultural movements that, for the most part, reimagined an ‘Aryo-centric’, neo-Brahmanical vision of India, which provided the ‘ideology’ for this hegemonic project. In the Tamil region, such a vision and ideology was closely associated with the Tamil Brahmans and, especially, the Smartha Brahmans who were considered the strongest adherents of the pan-Indian Sanskrit-Brahmanical tradition.

The majority of members of Smarta community follow the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Shankara. Smarta and Advaita have become almost synonymous, though not all Advaitins are Smartas. Shankara was a Smarta, just like Radhakrishnan. Smartas believe in the essential oneness of five (panchadeva) or six (Shanmata) deities as personifications of the Supreme. According to Smartism, supreme reality, Brahman, transcends all of the various forms of personal deity. God is both Saguna and Nirguna:

As Saguna, God exhibits qualities such as an infinite nature and a number of characteristics such as compassion, love, and justice. As Nirguna, God is understood as pure consciousness that is not connected with matter as experienced by humanity. Because of the holistic nature of God, these are simply two forms or names that are expressions of Nirguna Brahman, or the Ultimate Reality.

Lola Williamson further notes that “what is called Vedic in the smarta tradition, and in much of Hinduism, is essentially Tantric in its range of deities and liturgical forms.”

Influence

Neo-Vedanta was popularised in the 20th century in both India and the west by Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and western orientalists who regarded Vedanta to be the “central theology of Hinduism”.

Vedanticization

Neo-Vedanta has become a broad current in Indian culture, extending far beyond the Dashanami Sampradaya, the Advaita Vedanta Sampradaya founded by Adi Shankara. The influence of Neo-Vedanta on Indian culture has been called “Vedanticization” by Richard King.

An example of this “Vedanticization” is Ramana Maharshi, who is regarded as one of the greatest Hindu-saints of modern times, of whom Sharma notes that “among all the major figures of modern Hinduism [he] is the one person who is widely regarded as a jivanmukti“. Although Sharma admits that Ramana was not acquainted with Advaita Vedanta before his personal experience of liberation, and Ramana never received initiation into the Dashanami Sampradaya or any other sampradaya, Sharma nevertheless sees Ramana’s answers to questions by devotees as being within an Advaita Vedanta framework.

Diversity and pluralism

In response to the British dominance and the British critique of Hinduism, various visions on Indian diversity and unity have been developed within the nationalistic and reform movements.

The Brahmo Samaj strived towards monotheism, while no longer regarding the Vedas as sole religious authority. The Brahmo Samaj had a strong influence on the Neo-Vedanta of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Radhakrishnan and Gandhi, who strived toward a modernized, humanistic Hinduism with an open eye for societal problems and needs. Other groups, like the Arya Samaj, strived toward a revival of Vedic authority. In this context, various responses toward India’s diversity developed.

Hindu inclusivism – Hindutva and “Dharmic religions”

In modern times, the orthodox measure of the primacy of the Vedas has been joined with the ‘grand narrative’ of the Vedic origins of Hinduism. The exclusion of Jainism and Buddhism excludes a substantial part of India’s cultural and religious history from the assertion of a strong and positive Hindu identity. Hindutva-ideology solves this problem by taking recourse to the notion of Hindutva, “Hinduness”, which includes Jainism and Buddhism. A recent strategy, exemplified by Rajiv Malhotra, is the use of the term dharma as a common denominator, which also includes Jainism and Buddhism.

According to Larson, Malhotra’s notion of “the so-called “Dharma” traditions” and their “integral unity” is another example of “neo-Hindu discourse”. Malhotra, in his Being Different, uses the term “Dharmic tradition” or “dharmic systems”, “referring to all the Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and Sikh traditions”. He proposes that those traditions, despite their differences, share common features, the most important being “Dharma”. They are also characterised by the notion of “Integral Unity”, which means that “ultimately only the whole exists; the parts that make up the whole have but a relative existence. The whole is independent and indivisible”, as opposed to “Synthetic Unity”, which “starts with parts that exist separately from one another”. Malhotra has received strong criticism of his ideas, for ‘glossing over the differences between and even within the various traditions of India.

In response, Malhotra explains that some of his critics confused “integral unity” with “homogeneity”, thinking that Malhotra said all those traditions are essentially the same, when he actually wrote that Dharmic traditions share a sense of an “integral unity” despite differences.

Inclusivism and communalism

According to Rinehart, neo-Vedanta is “a theological scheme for subsuming religious difference under the aegis of Vedantic truth”. According to Rinehart, the consequence of this line of reasoning is Communalism, the idea that “all people belonging to one religion have common economic, social and political interests and these interests are contrary to the interests of those belonging to another religion.” Communalism has become a growing force in Indian politics, presenting several threats to India, hindring its nation-building and threatening “the secular, democratic character of the Indian state”.

Rinehart notes that Hindu religiosity plays an important role in the nationalist movement, and that “the neo-Hindu discource is the unintended consequence of the initial moves made by thinkers like Rammohan Roy and Vivekananda.” But Rinehart also points out that it is

…clear that there isn’t a neat line of causation that leads from the philosophies of Rammohan Roy, Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan to the agenda of […] militant Hindus.

Influence on western spirituality

Main articles: Hinduism in the West

Neo-Vedanta has been influenced by western ideas, but has also had a reverse influence on western spirituality. Due to the colonisation of Asia by the western world, since the late 18th century an exchange of ideas has been taking place between the western world and Asia, which also influenced western religiosity. In 1785 appeared the first western translation of a Sanskrit-text.  It marked the growing interest in the Indian culture and languages. The first translation of Upanishads appeared in two parts in 1801 and 1802, which influenced Arthur Schopenhauer, who called them “the consolation of my life”. Early translations also appeared in other European languages.

A major force in the mutual influence of eastern and western ideas and religiosity was the Theosophical Society. It searched for ancient wisdom in the east, spreading eastern religious ideas in the west. One of its salient features was the belief in “Masters of Wisdom”, “beings, human or once human, who have transcended the normal frontiers of knowledge, and who make their wisdom available to others”. The Theosophical Society also spread western ideas in the east, aiding a modernisation of eastern traditions, and contributing to a growing nationalism in the Asian colonies. Another major influence was Vivekananda, who popularised his modernised interpretation of Advaita Vedanta in the 19th and early 20th century in both India and the west, emphasising anubhava (“personal experience”) over scriptural authority.

Appraisal and criticism

Appraisal

According to Larson, the “solution of synthesis” prevailed in the work of Rammohun Roy, Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, M.K. Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Muhammad Iqbal, V.D. Savarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, “and many others”. Spear voices appraisal of this “solution of synthesis”, while G.R. Sharma emphasises the humanism of neo-Vedanta.

Criticism

Vivekenanda’s presentation of Advaita Vedanta has been criticised for its misinterpretation of this tradition:

Without calling into question the right of any philosopher to interpret Advaita according to his own understanding of it, […] the process of Westernization has obscured the core of this school of thought. The basic correlation of renunciation and Bliss has been lost sight of in the attempts to underscore the cognitive structure and the realistic structure which according to Samkaracarya should both belong to, and indeed constitute the realm of māyā.

According to Anantanand Rambachan, Vivekananda emphasised anubhava (“personal experience”) over scriptural authority, but in his interpretation of Shankara, deviated from Shankara, who saw knowledge and understanding of the scriptures as the primary means to moksha. According to Comans, the emphasis on samadhi also is not to be found in the Upanishads nor with Shankara. For Shankara, meditation and Nirvikalpa Samadhi are means to gain knowledge of the already existing unity of Brahman and Atman.

In the 21st century, Neo-Vedanta has been criticized by Hindu traditionalists for the influence of “Radical Universalism”, arguing that it leads to a “self-defeating philosophical relativism,” and has weakened the status and strength of Hinduism. 

Criticism of neo-Hinduism label

Criticism of Paul Hacker

In the 20th century the German Indologist Paul Hacker used the terms “Neo-Vedanta” and “Neo-Hinduism” polemically, to criticize modern Hindu thinkers. Halbfass regards the terms “Neo-Vedanta” and “Neo-Hinduism” as “useful and legitimate as convenient labels”, but has criticized Hacker for use that was “simplistic”. Furthermore, he asks,

What is the significance and legitimacy of the “Neo” in expressions like “Neo-Hinduism and “Neo-Vedanta”? Could we speak of “Neo-Christianity” as well? In fact, I have used this term […] and not all my Christian readers and reviewers were happy about the term.

Halbfass wrote that the adoption of the terms

“Neo-Hinduism” and “Neo-Vedanta” […] by Western scholars reflects Christian and European claims and perspectives which continue to be an irritant to Indians today. For Hacker, the “Neo” in “Neo-Hinduism” implies a lack of authenticity, an apologetic accommodation to Western ideas, and a hybridization of the tradition.

Bagchee and Adluri argue that German Indology, including Hacker, was merely “a barely disguised form of religious evangelism”.

According to Malhotra, an Indian-American Hindu writer, it was Paul Hacker who popularized the term ‘neo-Hinduism’ in the 1950s, “to refer to the modernization of Hinduism brought about by many Indian thinkers, the most prominent being Swami Vivekananda.” In Malhotra’s view, “Hacker charged that ‘neo-Hindus’, most notably Vivekananda, have disingenuously adopted Western ideas and expressed them using Sanskrit.” Malhotra also notes that Hacker was a biased Christian apologist:

What is less known about Hacker is that he was also an unabashed Christian apologist who freely used his academic standing to further the cause of his Christian agenda. He led a parallel life, passionately advocating Christianity while presenting the academic face of being neutral and objective.

According to David Smith, Hacker’s belief was that the ethical values of ‘neo-Hinduism” came from Western philosophy and Christianity, just in Hindu terms. Hacker also believed that Hinduism began in the 1870s. He saw Bankin Chattopadhyaya, Aurobindo, Gandhi, and Radhakishnan as its most famous proponents.

Neglect of inherent development of religions

Brian K. Smith notes that “The Neo-Hindu indigenous authorities are often dismissed as ‘inauthentic,’ their claims to legitimacy compromised by their encounters with modernity”, which influenced their worldview and religious positions, but points out that

All religions, at various points in recent history and under varying circumstances, have adopted to the modern world and the accompanying intellectual trends of modernity. ‘Hinduism’ (or ‘Neo-Hinduism’) is not unique in this regard either; the Neo-Hindu movement shares many commonalities with developments in other religious traditions around the world over the past several hundred years. The study of religion is the study of traditions in constant change.

According to Madaio, the notion that Vivekananda and other Hindu modernists deviate from orthodox, classical Advaita Vedanta, neglects the fact that considerable developments took place in Indian religious thinking, including Advaita Vedanta.

The “myth of Neo-Hinduism”

Rajiv Malhotra, in his book Indra’s Net, has stated that there is a “myth of Neo-Hinduism”. According to him, there are “eight myths” of Neo-Hinduism such as “colonial Indology’s biases were turned into Hinduism” (Myth 2) and “Hinduism was manufactured and did not grow organically” (Myth 3). Malhotra denies that “Vivekananda manufactured Hinduism”, or that `neo-Vedanta’ suppressed “the traditions of the Indian masses.” According to Malhotra, there is “an integrated, unified spiritual substratum in ancient India,” and argues that

the branding of contemporary Hinduism as a faux ‘neo-Hinduism’ is a gross mischaracterization of both traditional and contemporary Hinduism […] [C]ontemporary Hinduism is a continuation of a dynamic tradition. It is not in any way less authentic or less ‘Hindu’ than what may be dubbed traditional Hinduism. There are negative connotations to the term ‘neo’ which imply something artificial, untrue, or unfaithful to the original. Other world religions have undergone similar adaptations in modern times, though there are no such references to ‘neo-Christianity’ […] I resist the wide currency being gained for the term ‘neo-Hinduism’, because this fictional divide between ‘neo’ and ‘original’ Hinduism subverts Hinduism.

According to Malhotra, the ‘myth of neo-Hinduism’ “is used to fragment Hindu society by pitting its spiritual giants against one another and distorting their subtle and deeply intricate viewpoints.” Also according to him, “the definition of neo-Hinduism has been contrived and […] gained authenticity, in part because it suits certain academic and political agendas, and in part because it has been reiterated extensively without adequate critical response.”

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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