History of Hinduism : The Modern Period

British India

by Jayaram V

"If we Hindus dig out all the dirt from the bottom of the pacific ocean and throw it in your faces, it will be but a speck compared to what the missionaries have done to our religion and culture." -- (Swami Vivekananda , while addressing the Parliament of Religions, Chicago)

India was fortunate in the sense that the Spanish went to the Americas while the British came here. The history of India would have been different had the Spanish established their rule over the subcontinent. They would have perhaps ruthlessly destroyed the native culture, just as they destroyed the native American cultures and replaced the temples with catholic churches. When it came to the colonies, the British had a sense of justice and responsibility, while the Spanish had none. - Jayaram V

The Marathas who dominated the Indian political scene during the latter part of the Mughal period, were great patrons and followers of Hinduism. They contained the spread of Islam deep into the south by combining their powers against the Mughals in the north and the Deccan rulers in the south.

They adhered to orthodox Hindu traditions and helped the revival of the religion which had suffered tremendously in the hands of selfish Muslim rulers whose approach to religion was more a matter of political expedience rather than a spiritual exercise. The country also witnessed the birth of many great saints during this period who preached the path of devotion to their followers and their by brought the religion closer to the hearts and minds of common people.

Right from the middle of 17th century till the beginning of 20th century, when the British slowly and gradually replaced the local rulers and established their own political power, Hinduism faced a new danger from Christianity. Many Christian missionaries came to India with the specific goal of converting the so called "native heathens" to Christianity and supposedly saving them from certain damnation. Prisoners of their own times and education, biased in their very outlook and attitude, they failed to find any positive element in the native traditions or beliefs. They were not only blind to the deeper aspects of Hinduism, as the new religion demanded a different outlook and attitude, but were uncompromising in their ignorance of the native psychology and in their attitude towards the native people.

Brought up in the Christian traditions of post medieval Europe, self conceited and racially arrogant, they were in a way condescending about the religious salvation of the native people. Having concluded that the natives, on account of their religious beliefs and practices, were on the brink of spiritual disaster, they took upon themselves the onerous task of rescuing the people from falling into the fires of hell. In this regard they were no more intelligent and understanding than Lord Hastings who declared that the Hindus were limited to mere animal functions and that they had no higher intellect than a dog or an elephant or a monkey!

But while their concerns were understandable to some extent as sincere, which were naturally and expectantly based on their convictions and beliefs, their approach to the native religion was insulting and hurtful to the native pride.

The missionaries were unaware that thousands of years before they had even a semblance of a religion, when their ancestors were still uncivilized, God had blessed the ancient land of India with a unique and comprehensive spiritual awareness and a rich body of traditions that would continue to serve the people of India for millenniums to come. They were unaware that the native religion had a deeper as well as a wider aspect, unknown even to many Hindus, that would satisfy the spiritual yearnings of any and provide all the required answers. This was indeed the most unfortunate aspect of their missionary activity.

In this sordid drama, the relief came from the role played by the British rulers. They had the sagacity and political acumen to keep themselves overtly aloof from the activities of the biased and zealous missionaries in order to remain focused on their business activity and political ambitions. They knew in their hearts that if they wanted to continue on the Indian soil and build an empire as large as India, they should rather confine themselves purely and exclusively to temporal matters than aligning themselves officially or otherwise openly with any particular religious policy. Some of them did provide some help occasionally and covertly to their missionary friends, but never in a manner that would damage their own interests.

In their anxiety to achieve their goals, the Christian missionaries tried their best to castigate the local traditions and beliefs. They aimed their arguments where it would hurt Hinduism most. They picked up the weakest and the obvious black spots, so that they could easily and quickly convince the people about the primitive quality of the native traditions. The many weaknesses of Hinduism gave them ample opportunities to build their own arguments.

It appeared for some time that Hinduism would give in, since it had no church like institution that could withstand this new challenge and since the Hindu rulers were busy with their own survival in the changing political scenario. Besides Hinduism of those days had become weak, with many social practices such as widow burning called sati, child marriages, untouchability, and the division of society on the basis of castes. By exposing these weaknesses, in a way, Christianity challenged the educated Hindus to resolve these issues.

And the latter did respond positively and comprehensively. Many prominent persons like Rajaram Mohan Ray, Swami Dayananda Saraswathi, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Shri Ram Krishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekanand, Shri Aurobindo, Lokmanya Balagangadhar Tilak, Mahatama Gandhi, brought to the fore the positive and hidden aspects of Hinduism. They encouraged the people to work for the removal of social evils and revival of the religion.

They rightly appealed to the people to consider the dangers inherent in continuing the social evils and exhorted them to work for the removal of such evils. By their sincere and incessant efforts they laid foundation for the resurgence of Hinduism. They brought to light its positive qualities that would appeal to the intellectual minds. Because of their efforts, Hinduism caught the attention of many scholars not only in India but elsewhere in the world, whose works would later make the religion a true world religion.

Due credit must also be given to the many western scholars and British officers of this period who made Hinduism and Hindu philosophy popular in the west. Partly out of their academic interest and partly driven by their own curiosity about the oriental cultures, they unearthed the hitherto unknown history of ancient India and declared to the world its great antiquity and unique philosophy.

They were responsible for the translation of many rare and ancient Hindu manuscripts from Sanskrit into various European languages. In the process, they brought to light the deeper and hidden aspects of Hindu philosophy and religious thought. If today Hinduism is accepted as one of the greatest religions of the world, the credit must first go them.

When India became independent in 1947, the new government had decided correctly to make independent India a secular country. This decision is a great honor to Hinduism because it is very much in tune with the spirit of Hinduism. Hinduism accepts religious tolerance as an undisputed fact of human life and a divine truth that cannot be compromised. Hinduism recognizes the many paths that lead to God and embraces them all with an open heart. In this regard it is incomparable with any other religion.

Today Hinduism is growing from strength to strength. Many of its features and practices are appealing to the intellectual minds of the modern age who are in search of true answers to the problems of mental balance, peace and inner harmony amidst the increasing pressures of hectic modern life. Many in the western worlds are attracted to its concepts of karma and reincarnation, as well as its emphasis on inner purity, detachment, devotion and surrender to God as the means to attain inner peace.

That Hinduism has a long history and a much greater future, there is no doubt.

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