This series of postings will focus on understanding the entity known as "Neo-Hinduism," and highlight its distinctions from Traditional Hinduism. Scholars in academia have come to appreciate and recognize the differences between the two, and the differences are no less important to the faithful. Although neither is a homogeneous entity, one can offer working definitions of each to facilitate understanding. Most Hindus can probably accept that "traditional Hinduism" refers to those doctrines, schools, and traditions whose ideas or practices are at least theoretically based on the veda-s, purANa-s, itihAsa-s (mahAbhArata & rAmAyaNa), and/or other smRiti texts, and having origins prior to colonial period in India. In this case, "Neo-Hinduism" refers to a newer version of Hinduism inaugurated by thinkers within and following the colonial period, who have mixed traditional ideas and practices with newer ideas borrowed from Western belief systems. While a traditional Hindu scholar will try to establish his school's interpretations as representing the intended meaning of the scripture using logic and polemics, a Neo-Hindu thinker accepts the subjectivity of his interpretation, and indeed of all other interpretations, placing a greater premium on the subjective impressions of the interpreter than on the objective intentions (if any) on the scripture.
Forums like this are often a stopping point for spiritual seekers as well as Hindus looking to explore their own culture. Unfortunately, much of what is taught to them in the name of "Hinduism" is in fact "Neo-Hinduism," and the differences between the two are like day and night. It may be that for many seekers, what they were seeking in the name of "Hinduism" is only to be found in Neo-Hinduism. Then again, it might be possible for them to appreciate the beauty of traditional Hinduism on its own merits, independent of the Westernized accoutrements added by Neo-Hindu thinkers for mass appeal. What are some of these adulterations? Here is a brief list:
- Hinduism supposedly accepts the validity of all religions. This of course is formulated in many different ways, from brazenly stating that all religions are the same, to saying that all religions are valid approaches to the same goal, to saying that all religions are stepping stones or rungs on the ladder to the same goal. In this worldview, it is often asserted that prophets from other religions (like Jesus, Mohammed, Moses) are really avatars of a Hindu deity, or "pure devotees" of said deities acting on that deity's instructions.
- "Idol-worship" is meant only for spiritually undeveloped minds. More "advanced" spiritualists dispense with "idol-worship" in favor of other meditative practices. Note how this view is rarely if ever articulated by Hindu thinkers prior to the onslaught of Christian missionary activity in India.
- All interpretations of scripture are valid. This of course, obviates the need to participate in inter-sampradAya polemics or even be concerned with their conclusions. The conclusion of this view is that those who hold any objective validity in one set of interpretations, even when arrived at by careful analysis and diligent study of the scripture, are by the very fact of their convictions, "exclusivist," "fundamentalist," etc.
- Hinduism has no rules or regulations. Everyone can decide for himself/herself what rules or regulations to follow. According to this point of view, it does not matter whether you are a vegetarian or not, whether you go to temple or not, whether you read scriptures or not, etc (though Neos will frequently argue that the former practices are still "better," they will never argue that they are "right," and that the failure to carry them out is "wrong," since they don't want to offend anyone).
- Hinduism considers all deities to be different forms of the same God, and disavows any hierarchy amongst them. Hinduism is therefore paraded as a "progressive" belief system since it can theoretically be reconciled even with non-Vedic god concepts.
- In Hinduism, men and women were always equal. Also, there were no birth-based differences between Hindus. One could aspire to whatever caste he or she wanted, just like choosing a profession.
These and many other ideas have been consciously or unconsciously added in to the Neo-Hindu formula to make its version of "Hinduism" more palatable to a Western-educated audience. It is in keeping with the Neo-Hindu view which, like Western Humanism, places greater emphasis on individual beliefs than on acquiescence to an objective reality delivered from an authority or authorities.