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  • The Invisible Hand of the Indic
  • Rajbir Singh Judge (bio)

Scholars have thoroughly reexamined the nature of the secular, noting that the secular is, as Talal Asad writes, "neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded it (that is, it is not the latest phase of a sacred origin) nor a simple break from it (that is, it is not the opposite, an essence that excludes the sacred)" (2003, 25).1 Instead, Asad has asked us to consider how the secular functions as a "concept that brings together certain behaviors, knowledges, and sensibilities in modern life" even while remaining unstable in both form and origin (25). Though recognizing the constitutive nature of the secular in shaping our world, scholars of South Asia have also drawn our attention to different habitations of the secular in South Asia, which, some argue, provide a source for an ethical mode of being in the subcontinent (Bhargava 1998). Others, however, argue that the secular dismantles the possibility for, what Ashis Nandy terms "the religious basis of ethnic tolerance in India" (1995, 52). These contestations about the meaning and malleability of the "secular" and its grammar have created a conceptual muddle, which is further entrenched by what scholars term "a crisis of secularism" in South Asia. This crisis is most visible, scholars argue, in the Hindu majoritarianism of the Indian nation-state.

These contestations, however, though varied and fraught with ambiguity, often stipulate that history become the ground from which claims are adjudicated. Or, as Saba Mahmood poignantly argues, "secularity flattens religious incommensurability, forcing religious traditions to confront one another in the uniform space of history, all equally vulnerable to the questioning power of the secular" (207).2 In this uniform space of contextualization and recovery, there have emerged two distinct histories of South Asia, one, the communal, that emphasizes discrete communities and, the other, the secular, that emphasizes [End Page 75] fuzziness. In these histories, Neeladri Bhattacharya explains, "Where communal historians can only see the hard lines of the boundaries that separate communities, secular historians have emphasized the porosity and open-endedness of these boundaries (58). Where communal historians look at the communities as homogenous and unitary, secular historians point to the heterogeneity and fragmentation within them."

But scholars have drawn our attention to another central aspect of communal histories in the present. Communal histories do not simply disavow historical heterogeneity. Instead advocates for Hindutva, supporters of Hindu nationalism, also mobilize the emphasis on porosity, accommodation, and open-endedness to make claims about Hindu superiority. Therefore, though Bhattacharya is quite correct to note that "communal histories of India are premised on one fundamental assumption: that India is a society fractured into two overarching religious communities—Hindus and Muslims" that are "not only separate and distinct but also irreconcilably opposed," we also find communal histories foregrounding Hinduism's assimilative and accommodative capacities that are rejected by Islamic orthodoxy (58).3 In other words, Hindu nationalists also gesture toward tolerant plurality through historicity, rather than simply functioning in contradistinction to any singular secular or religious "essence."4

To rearticulate, Hinduism and Islam are presumed to be irreconcilably opposed not because they have different boundaries. Instead, as the argument goes, Islam refuses heterogeneity in its cultivation of authoritative coherence. This production of coherence in a unified tradition then is considered foreign to a decidedly fragmented and complex religious terrain—an Indic world to which Hinduism is autochthonous. The Indic is the Hindu home. In this sense, as Christophe Jaffrelot argues, Hinduism is constituted by a "strategic syncretism," which collapses and constructs distinctions not only theologically but through historical claims lauding Hinduism's tolerant capacity (2011, 58).5 Or, as Peter van der Veer notes, "both radical Hindus and their opponents claim that Indian culture is basically tolerant because it is pluralistic" and, in so doing, both create a total harmonious economy, a history of the Indic (1994c, 209). This mirroring points us to an essential aspect of the Indic—that even though this claim is deployed in different ways, it is premised on an initial plurality, the absence of [End Page 76] limits and boundaries, for which both sides then strive to account, either through Hinduism or Indian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1460-2458
Print ISSN
0882-4371
Pages
pp. 75-109
Launched on MUSE
2020-11-21
Open Access
No
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