In This Article Comparative Study of Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Hinduisms in the Visions of Indigenized Christianities
  • Hinduism in Comparative Religion
  • Hinduism in Comparative Theology
  • Hinduism in Comparative Philosophy
  • Hinduism in Debates over “Encounters between Science and Religion”
  • Hinduism and Buddhism
  • Hinduism and Indian Islam
  • Hinduism and Judaism
  • Comparative Studies of Hinduism in a Critical Key

Hinduism Comparative Study of Hinduism
by
Ankur Barua
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0179

Introduction

The comparative study of Hinduism encompasses three broad forms of conceptual enquiry, cultural imagination, and political engagement. First, there are occasional attempts in premodern South Asia to outline correspondences or analogies between Islamic doctrines and Vedic worldviews, such as al-Biruni’s descriptions in the 11th century of scriptural texts, cosmology, astronomy, and so on, and Dara Shikoh’s attempt in the 7th century to highlight certain parallels between Sufi and Vedantic thought. However, the comparative enterprise of painstakingly detailing correspondences between European and Indic conceptual systems begins only with the gradual installation of the administrative-legal apparatus of the East India Company in Bengal. Starting from the late 18th century onward, various British scholars and administrators, and occasionally continental European figures, began to sketch immense comparative vistas on which they placed Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin cultures at varying points on an evolutionary continuum, which was said to have culminated in the ideals and the institutions of modernity. The orientalist projections of a Vedic Hindu antiquity of uncorrupted humanity and the currently degraded popular Hinduisms were sometimes adopted by British Christian missionaries who reconfigured these temporal contrasts into their own comparative spectra of fragmented Hindu truths culminating in the saving truth of Christ. Second, these orientalist-colonial imaginations of a pure Vedic Hindu antiquity were creatively appropriated by influential Hindu figures such as Swami Vivekananda, S. Radhakrishnan, and others who constructed distinctive patterns of comparative scales for positioning the essential spirit of the European and the Hindu civilizations. Third, the “comparative study of Hinduism” that we have outlined in this introduction has come under fierce criticism in various academic circles in the early 21st century such as postcolonial theory, subaltern studies, feminist theory, and so on. Roughly, these scholarly perspectives claim that the attempt to “compare” across cultural and religious boundaries involves the postulation of transhistorical universals that are said to inflict epistemic violence on distinct conceptual systems by encapsulating them under monolithic descriptions. The comparative study of Hinduism seems to presuppose some kind of common ground between a Hindu category and a non-Hindu category, and it is precisely this notion of commonality that is often charged as being politically suspect and culturally reductive. The comparative study of Hinduism in academic circles, then, is yet another essentially contested topic. As this introduction suggests, the bibliography on the “comparative study of Hinduism” can be placed in three categories. First, the perceptions of Hinduism recorded by “outsiders” such as Muslim travelers, Christian missionaries, and British colonial administrators. Second, the various forms of “critical insider” responses developed by Hindu figures who delineated comparative scales on which reconstructed forms of traditional Hinduism are placed vis-à-vis aspects of European modernity and Christian doctrine. Third, the current academic interrogations of the coherence of the “comparative” project, which charge that the very idea of the “comparative study of Hinduism” is deeply implicated in the nexus between the classifications of indigenous knowledges and the entrenchment of colonial asymmetries of power.

General Overviews

A comprehensive survey of the “comparative study of Hinduism,” from diverse historical, philosophical, and sociological perspectives, would turn out to be an encyclopedic affair, running into several volumes. In lieu of such an inventory, Halbfass 1988 remains one of the best overviews of the historical, philosophical, and theological material in Europe-India encounters. McEvilley 2002 addresses the question of mutual influences between Indians and Greeks in Antiquity. Majumdar 1960 is a collection of accounts of ancient India by Greek writers. Inden 1990 develops Said’s critique of orientalism in the contexts of British constructions of aspects of Hinduism. Marshall 1970 contains valuable British writings on Hinduism in the 18th century. Clarke 1997 outlines European perceptions of Hinduism from the 19th century onward in streams such as orientalism and Romanticism. Sharpe 1977 is a good historical and conceptual overview of the shifting Christian perceptions of Hinduism. Hooker 1989 provides a comparative discussion of aspects of Hindu and Christian thought and experience. The Oxford Bibliographies articles on “European Constructions” and “German Indology” contain more detailed bibliographies.

  • Clarke, J. J. Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought. London: Routledge, 1997.

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    A good overview of the various East-West circulations of Hindu ideas from the post-Renaissance period to the late 20th century. Provides useful discussions of whether comparative fields such as “comparative religion” and “comparative philosophy” are contemporary projections of European ethnocentrisms disguised as universalisms.

  • Halbfass, W. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

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    Halbfass outlines various intellectual encounters between Indian and European figures from classical Antiquity to the late 20th century, and highlights both the receptions of European thought in modern Hinduism and the images of India in European thinkers.

  • Hooker, R. H. Themes in Hinduism and Christianity: A Comparative Study. Frankfurt: Lang, 1989.

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    Analyzes textual materials from Hindu and Christian sources and discusses themes such as time, evil, and renunciation in a comparative key.

  • Inden, R. Imagining India. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

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    Extends Edward Said’s critique of the Western imaginations of the Orient as essentially spiritual, irrational, and despotic to the social and religious contexts of Hinduism. This is a good introduction to some contemporary debates over “representations” of Hinduism in Western academia.

  • Majumdar, R. C. The Classical Accounts of India. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1960.

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    A compilation of accounts by figures such as Herodotus, Megasthenes, and Plutarch of the geography; political history; and socioeconomic conditions of ancient India.

  • Marshall, P. J., ed. The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

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    Contains extracts from the writings of important figures such as Nathaniel Halhed, Warren Hastings, and William Jones. These texts are a decisive moment in the emergence of the distinction between “popular Hinduism” and “philosophical Hinduism,” which is later appropriated by various modern Hindu thinkers.

  • McEvilley, T. The Shape of Ancient Thought. New York: Allworth, 2002.

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    An encyclopedic survey of certain parallels between ancient Greek and Indian philosophical thought, such as the “monism” of Plato and the Upaniṣads, skeptical strands in Greek and Indian traditions, Plotinus’s Enneads and the Brahma-Sūtra, and so on.

  • Sharpe, E. J. Faith Meets Faith: Some Christian Attitudes to Hinduism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: SCM, 1977.

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    Summarizes various key Christian attitudes toward Hinduism over the last two centuries, such as the “exclusion” of Hinduism as devilish perversions or as the “inclusion” of Hindu wisdom as pointers toward Christian truth.

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