In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of Urban Religion and Hinduism
  • Theoretical Foundations: Urban Religiosity in a Hindu Mode
  • Recent Edited Volumes on Religion in Urban Contexts
  • Working Groups and Institutes on Urban Religion: Hinduism
  • Living Sacred Centers: Continuing Traditional Forms of Hinduism
  • New Sacred Cities: The International Seats of Contemporary Global Gurus

Hinduism Urban Hinduism
Joanne Punzo Waghorne
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0183


The study of urban Hinduism was long hampered by a persistent trope: the “real” India, and by extension “real” Hinduism, existed in ancient times with contemporary atavisms confined to the village. The admitted exceptions were the ancient extant sacred centers still functioning as both idyllic memories and powerful sacred sites. The British East India Company developed their urban centers for commerce, which became the three largest cities in India, Madras (now Chennai), Calcutta (Kolkata), and Bombay (Mumbai). With these purely commercial origins that covered over or surrounded older villages, many Hindus in the anticolonial movement equated cities with “colonialism” and “westernization” replete with materialism and secularism. These sensibilities continue to shade into a deep-seated distrust of urban life as stultifying to the spirit, as in Panikkar 1991 (cited under Theoretical Foundations: Urban Religiosity in a Hindu Mode). After 1947, American anthropology, sympathetic to the victorious anticolonial movement, duly concentrated on village life while religious studies plumbed the ancient texts. This model continued until the 1970s with the endless discussions of “Modernity” and “Tradition” within the village. The pioneering work of Milton Singer (Singer 1972, cited under Theoretical Foundations: Urban Religiosity in a Hindu Mode) finally brought attention to the dynamics of Hinduism in urban life. A decade later, Lawrence Babb (Babb 1986 cited under Theoretical Foundations: Urban Religiosity in a Hindu Mode) began work in New Delhi on emerging Hindu-based religious movements. Major work on the growth of a distinctively urban incarnation of Hinduism began in earnest within the last decade recognizing the growth of the middle class, the rise of commodity culture, and the changing dynamics of global communication—three contemporary factors which Hinduism shares with other major religious systems. Urban Hinduism, then, in the contemporary context is multilayered. Ancient sacred centers, the colonial presences, the concerns with tradition and modernity continue. Older caste communities still exert power in the urban environment, but now class configurations, the rising middles, and the vocal working classes affect established religious institutions and create new religious associations. The changing location of practice matters: from the very public new temples and street processions, to changing domestic rituals, to shifting dynamics within the self. Urban centers may be provincial, metropolitan, or global cities, with size affecting the religious terrain. Because religious studies as a field came late to the study of urban Hinduism, the major theoretical perspectives are set by urban geography, sociology, and urban anthropology usually within a comparative global context. This tendency now to view the Hindu experience within common global processes can be questioned: Does Hindu urbanism have its own trajectory? And most importantly, Hindu practices and institutions are now global, moving with the Hindu diaspora and multiethnic members of Hindu-based global religious movements.

Overviews of Urban Religion and Hinduism

Hanson 2013 gives a potent overview of the ongoing propensity to overlook the role of religion in urbanization while Kim Knott (Knott 2005, Knott 2008) focuses on emerging spatial theory as a means to see the sacred within urban space as both concrete sites as well as activities on the streets. Knott 2005 initially builds her theory out of Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, [1974] 1992) but her context is not the French city but India and the Hindu diaspora in the United Kingdom. She describes Lefebvre’s depiction of space as “both material and metaphorical, physical and imagined” as especially apropos for Hindu spatial sensibilities where the “material and metaphorical” work in conjunction (p. 13).

  • Hanson, Thomas Blom. “The Sacred and the City: How Religious Identity Shapes Urban Life.” Distinguished Lecture organized by the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities, Oxford University, 26 February 2013.

    An engaging interdisciplinary lecture by an authority on Hindu nationalism. Hanson unpacks the tendency to ignore religion in the context of the city; aimed at graduate students and scholars.

  • Knott, Kim. The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Knott’s longer work provides a thorough but complex analysis: important because her deep familiarity with Hinduism underlies much of her theory. The book is now more readily available in a new reissue in Kindle and in paperback. Useful at the graduate level.

  • Knott, Kim. “Spatial Theory and the Study of Religion.” Religion Compass 2.6 (2008): 1102–1116.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00112.x

    Especially important for religious studies as a field, Knott provides a useful review of the significance of “spatial turn” for religious studies in general and urges the field to include a “variety of scales, from body parts and things, streets and places of worship, cities and nations, to global flows and transnational connections” (p. 13). Her theory, however, flows out of a Hindu context.

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