In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Popular and Folk Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General Terminology
  • Terminology Applied to Hinduism
  • Cult
  • Epics
  • Festivals
  • Orality
  • Performance
  • Pilgrimage
  • Popular Hinduism
  • Possession
  • Vernacular Literature
  • Village Religion
  • Vrats

Hinduism Popular and Folk Hinduism
Frank Korom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0041


As a number of scholars have noted, Hinduism is difficult to define because people tend to see it as one religion. It is better, however, to see it as a plurality of practices within a larger civilizational complex (see General Overviews). “Hindu” is a Persian variant of Sanskrit Sindhu, the Indus River, so by extension it applies to the people of India as well. For more than one thousand years, Hindu simply meant “Indian,” but after 712 CE it was used to distinguish Indians who were not Muslims, among whom many religions were recognized as being practiced. Europeans, however, used it for all Indians practicing a common faith, not simply to mean “Indian.” Thus, the Europeans (i.e., British) added the “ism” to Hindu to imagine a common religion that never existed as a single “religion” in the minds of the Indian people until relatively recently. In the medieval period, from 1548 CE onward, the Portuguese gentio, corrupted as gentoo in English, was used to refer to “heathens” (meaning Hindus)—that is, non-Christians. In other words, anyone who was not “Abrahamic” (that is, “people of the book”) was seen as a Gentoo of one form or another. Hindus were, therefore, an Indian “sect” of heathens. “Hindu” came to replace Gentoo by the 18th century, but the implication was the same: one heathen religion. Nineteenth-century scholars divided Hinduism and Brahmanism, where Brahmanism was associated with an “intellectual,” classical tradition, while Hinduism was associated with superstitious, “folk” traditions. The object here is to focus on the layers of Hinduism sometimes overlooked by Indologists, namely those that have been labeled “folk” and “popular.” These two terms are elaborated and problematized here, but they generally refer to those aspects of the Hindu tradition that exist in dynamic tension with the so-called Sanskritic traditions based on textual authority.

General Overviews

According to Stietencron 1989, “Hinduism is a civilization formed and enriched by a group of Hindu religions that developed a particularly liberal way of coexistence and interaction between themselves” (p. 16). Von Stietencron feels it is better to speak of Hinduism in the plural, allowing us to take into account polytheistic, monistic, and monotheistic variants of the tradition. Frykenberg 1989 and Thapar 1985 make similar arguments to that in Stietencron 1989. Smith 1987, on the other hand, argues that the authority of Veda is central to defining Hinduism.

  • Frykenberg, Robert E. “The Emergence of Modern ‘Hinduism’ as a Concept and as an Institution: A Reappraisal with Special Reference to South India.” In Hinduism Reconsidered. Edited by G. D. Sontheimer and H. Kulke, 29–49. New Delhi, India: Manohar, 1989.

    Focuses on the concept of “Hinduism” being a product of modernity, drawing specifically on data from southern India.

  • Smith, Brian K. “Exorcising the Transcendent: Strategies for Defining Hinduism and Religion.” History of Religions 27.1 (1987): 32–55.

    DOI: 10.1086/463098

    Attempts to argue that while scholars disagree on what Hinduism is, there is still a need to define the object of study. Hence, Smith focuses on the authority of the Vedas as a starting point for defining Hinduism.

  • Stietencron, Heinrich von. “Hinduism: On the Proper Use of a Deceptive Term.” In Hinduism Reconsidered. Edited by G. D. Sontheimer and H. Kulke, 11–28. New Delhi, India: Manohar, 1989.

    Emphasizes the plurality of traditions that make up what is often perceived to be a monolithic religion, mainly due to Western biases.

  • Thapar, Romila. “Syndicated Moksha.” Seminar 313 (1985): 14–22.

    Suggests that the colonial construction of Hinduism was created to allow for manipulation. This “new” Hinduism was Brahmanical in ideology and upper caste in ritual orientation, so as to allow for it to look more Christian in theory and practice.

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