Folk Hinduism

Accounts  of  Hinduism  have  predominantly been approached via literary and textual avenues, through which its ancient, philosophical, abstract, and  transcendent  features are highlighted. Even ethnographic accounts of Hinduism have been dominated by attention to the Sanskritic  and  Brahmanic  elements  derived from such a scriptural, elitist grounding. Such foci are limited because of the neglect of oral traditions  and  attention  to  Hindu practices, particularly  at  the  local, regional levels and the role of specific household and cult deities, rituals, and festivals in  sustaining a religious worldview. Writing  in  1976, the  late Indian social anthropologist M. N. Srinivas noted the ‘‘downgrading of folk religion’’ (1976: 288–90) and the scholarly neglect of the ‘‘folk’’ elements in Hinduism both by western and Indian social scientists, arguing that this is a viable, independent,  and  legitimate realm for  social science theorizing.

By a ‘‘folk’’  variety of Hinduism  is meant these specific features: the privileging of mediums and trance sessions; the intimate, familiar, unmediated approach to the  deity (given the absence of a religious intermediary); the ability to sense, feel close to, and talk to deities; the importance of devotion, intuition, emotion, and religious experience; the offerings of non vegetarian items, alcohol, and cigars to the deity; the  absence of  text based,  ritual  procedures (arccanai,  abishegam, and   the   chanting   of mantras, slokas) for  approaching the  deity; a pragmatic,   day to day orientation,   valuing rituals of self mortification and equality of all before god. The eventual turn to ‘‘folk’’ dimension and ‘‘little community’’ (Redfield 1956) has been consequential for the simple reason that it rightly draws attention to an erstwhile neglected empirical domain of study. Much is now known about  the  ritual  universe of  folk Hinduism, the  mythology of specific village deities, the logic of ritual performances, the significance of festivals and other ritual events to manage the uncertainties of daily living. This description of ‘‘folk Hinduism’’ does not  exist in isolation.

This is only one half of a dichotomy that has identified, named, and ranked two types of religious styles – captured in the more universal metaphor of the ‘‘Great’’ and ‘‘Little’’ traditions (Singer 1972). In the Hindu context, the ‘‘Sanskritic’’–‘‘non Sanskritic’’ divide approximates this classification.

Despite the pervasive use of such descriptions as ‘‘folk religion’’ and ‘‘folk Hinduism,’’ the category ‘‘folk’’ has not been sufficiently problematized (Chatterji 2001). An etymology of the English word ‘‘folk’’ leads to such connotations  as ‘‘ordinary,’’ ‘‘common people,’’ and ‘‘masses.’’ The association of ‘‘folk’’ with peasants and rural populations – who are further typified as being illiterate, unsophisticated, and simple minded in contrast to the more urbane, cultured, and educated city dweller – has meant that the term is by no means neutral. Extending such logic, the  folk dimension already being ranked  lower,  members  who  participate  in ‘‘folk’’ practices are assigned specific sociological identities, and are further presumed to be carriers  of  specific values  and  mores.  This awareness prompts us to ask: What is meant by ‘‘folk’’ varieties of religion and Hinduism? So far, there has been little debate in the literature about what these descriptions signify and the value, if any, of continuing to use them as frames of analysis. Yet, they continue to be used in a taken for granted manner without  being adequately conceptualized. Given  the  history of ‘‘folk Hinduism’’  and the awareness that it does have a built in comparative dimension vis a vis ‘‘elite’’ notions of Hinduism, its unreflective use is highly problematic.

Although  some aspects of  the  folk/little/popular/non-Sanskritic Hindu (descriptions which have been used interchangeably) practice have been marginalized over time, this domain reveals a persistence (and in some places shows signs of being revived) within India, and especially amongst overseas Hindu communities in Fiji, Mauritius, South  Africa, Singapore, and Malaysia. The  overwhelming evidence for the preferred attachment to village based religious practices amongst fourth  and fifth Singapore and Malaysia born Hindus is sociologically fascinating. Despite specific substantive shifts in the constitution of Hinduism in this region over time,   the   ritual   complex surrounding   the veneration  of  local,  household,  and  village deities – a strong feature of folk Hinduism – is one stable element that continues. This is to be expected given the specific profile of Indian and Hindu  presence in British  Malaya since the nineteenth century. Large numbers of Indians were brought in from Tamilnadu to undertake infrastructure work in British Malaya. Much of this labor was drawn from the lowest rungs of the  Indian class and caste hierarchy, that  is, from the non Brahmin and Adi Dravida communities. The veneration of village deities and rituals associated with them were continued by these sectors of the migrant community in their new homes. The village deities – gramadevata – from Tamilnadu thereby came to Malaya and were firmly placed in the religious landscape of the Malayan Peninsula. Today, the observance of festivals such as timiti (fire walking) and tai pucam, the large numbers of temples dedicated to village deities, and the attraction to village rituals  tell  the  story of Hindu  migration to Malaya.

The  Hindu  communities in  Malaysia and Singapore have been in the region for close to two  centuries.  From  the outset,  they  have existed in a societal context that is not structured  according  to  principles  of  caste  and embedded in a largely non Hindu, multiracial, multireligious environment, where Hinduism is a minority religion. The Hindu community is clearly not homogeneous in this diasporic location: caste may not be an issue as before, but new class barriers have been erected, and are felt to be in force. Agamic temples (i.e., temples adhering  to  the Agamas, a  set  of texts  that outline rules and procedures for temple worship) are associated with the ‘‘well off ’’ crowd Hindu   elites,  temple  administrators,  Hindu authorities, and the  government, but  not the Brahmin priests, who are not seen as having any  real  power  or  autonomy.  This   is  the domain  of  ‘‘Official Hinduism,’’  framed  by Agamic, Saiva Siddhanta (literally, ‘‘the doctrine of Siva’’ and the name by which the body of literature of the Saivas – followers of Siva – is known) precepts. A preference for a different religious style sees the persistence of the ‘‘old’’ ways, encapsulated as the  realm of ‘‘Popular Hinduism’’ (Vertovec 1994). Often  the  two Hindu  spheres, which are quite different, are brought into uncomfortable proximity.

In Singapore and Malaysia, the field of ‘‘folk Hinduism’’ is defined by diversity. The  need for protection from, and control over, unfore seen forces in the management of concrete, day to day problems is cited for the continued reliance  on   kaaval   deivam  (guardian  deities), demonstrating the  prevalence of a pragmatic orientation – recognized as a typical feature of folk Hinduism. For the middle class and upper middle class Hindus the realm of trances, spirit mediums, and the phenomenon of animal sacrifices are intriguing, unfamiliar, and exotic, and often deemed a superficial form of religiosity. The  recognition and labeling of these as the ‘‘old’’ ways reveals a desire to connect with the  ‘‘past.’’ In  an adherence to  the  ways of the ancestors, connections with ‘‘tradition’’ are maintained and this is seen as continuity, ideas which are collectively carried in the notion of ‘‘persistence.’’  Yet it  is precisely also in  the name of tradition  that  new ground  is being broken and boundaries transgressed. This certainly challenges the  simplistic  equation  of modernity with change, and tradition with con servatism and backwardness. Strikingly, there is no accompanying effort to standardize the multiplicity  and  variation  that  reign  here.  One encounters instead a ‘‘live and let live’’ attitude with a desire to remain outside the purview of institutionalized religious boundaries, to practice a style of religiosity that does not need to rely on scarce and guarded resources – such as ritual procedures as dictated by religious texts, the  framework of  Agamic temples,  Brahmin priests, and other ritual specialists and ritual paraphernalia. But  their  religious universe is sustained through creating and legitimating an alternative set of norms and procedures as guiding principles, but with no accompanying desire for uniformity,  or  the  presence of a  central agency trying to regulate the ritual domain. It is not without significance that these very practices which are embraced positively by proponents of the ‘‘old ways’’ are devalued by critics (who are supporters of ‘‘Official Hinduism’’) as ‘‘extreme  rituals’’  and   ‘‘superstition,’’  and therefore rejected as ‘‘primitive and embarrass sing’’ – in fact deemed to be ‘‘un Hindu.’’ Substantively, the domain of activities and thinking defined by the phrase the ‘‘old ways’’ is a complex mixture of elements, drawn from diverse religious traditions. Its empirical boundaries could by no means be seen to be replicating fully the ritual style in Tamilnadu villages. In the Malaysian and Singaporean con text, the world of ‘‘folk Hinduism’’ is defined first and foremost by a strong sense of religious syncretism. This entails a free and liberal use of deities, symbols, and ritual practices associated with   ‘‘other’’ religious  traditions,   foremost amongst which is  a  variety of religious/folk Taoism.

Almost without  exception, religious structures in this domain reveal the strong presence of deities and other religious paraphernalia from the latter, together with such Taoist deities as Tua Peh Kong, Kuan Yin, and Tai Sing. Physical constructions of religious altars that would be typically recognized as part of a ‘‘Chinese temple,’’ ritual objects such as tall joss sticks, large and small Chinese style urns, floating oil candles, oranges, wooden pieces for seeking permission for 4 digits (a lottery popular in Singapore and Malaysia with a combination of 4 numbers), and so on, together with deities from the vast Hindu pantheon, are also present. Thus  one witnesses what the purists would  consider  ‘‘indiscriminate  borrowing’’ from all strands of Hinduism, without concern for recognizing boundaries, almost to the point of being irreverent. The truly syncretic nature of ‘‘Hinduism’’ is evident in the co presence under  one roof of deities of the  Vaisnavite, Saivite, and Sakti tradition (in the coexistence of Hanuman, Ram,  Mariamman,  Periyachee, Bhagvati, and Kali), the Brahmanic and non Brahmanic styles of worship (in the veneration of village deities such as Muneeswaran, Sang gali Karuppan,  Madurai  Veeran with Saivite deities like Murukan, Siva, and Ganesh) and in conducting ‘‘vegetarian’’ and ‘‘non vegetarian’’ prayers  for  respective  deities  on the  same grounds, but with appropriate procedures and deference. For  instance, if meat is offered to Muneeswaran, the   shrine   of   Murukan   or Ganesh is encased with a curtain or the door closed. Often the presence of a keramat (Malay, ‘‘grave of a Muslim saint’’) and ‘‘Datuk God’’ (literally, ‘‘Grandfather God,’’ the name of a localized deity popularly invoked in religious Taoism, as practiced in Malaysia and Singapore)  completes the  mixed up  but coherent and legitimate religious scene. The prominent presence of ethnic Chinese in these spaces, as devotees, is conspicuous, and  these numbers seem to be on the rise in Singapore, Penang, Ipoh, and Kuala Lumpur.

In the Indian context, the different levels of Hinduism carry a strong connotation of caste identity.  The  categories of ‘‘Sanskritic’’ and ‘‘folk’’ Hinduism   explicitly  associated  the ‘‘Great Tradition’’  with  rituals  and  ideas of the  higher castes (if not  the  Brahmins), and the various instances of ‘‘Little Tradition’’ emanated from the  ritual practices of the  lower caste groupings, if not those of the outcastes (the Harijans, untouchables). While the category ‘‘folk’’ carries some conceptual utility, its implicit judgmental tone and the assumed low ranking assigned to ‘‘folk’’ practices must  be questioned. The  sociopolitical, cultural, intellectual, and ideological conditions that  led to the emergence of these analytical categories for making sense of Hinduism in India clearly do not exist in the vastly different spaces where migrant Hindu  communities are now located. Research from  the  latter  speaks rather  of  a fusion, synthesis, and  reconfiguration of elements drawn from different strands of Hindu ism and outside, producing a hybrid, syncretic, and innovative style of religiosity even as tradition is invoked. The continued persistence of a style of Hindu  religiosity (including features that  would be drawn from ‘‘folk Hinduism’’ but also from other sources) amongst overseas Hindu communities, such as in Singapore and Malaysia, illustrates this point well.


  1. Bhatti, S. (2000) Folk Religion: Change and Continuity. Rawat, New Delhi.
  2. Chatterji, (2001) The Category of Folk. In: Das, V. (Ed.), The Oxford India Companion to Sociology and Anthropology. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
  3. Redfield, (1956) The Little Community. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. Singer, (Ed.) (1959) Traditional India: Structure and Change. American Folklore Society, Philadelphia.
  5. Singer, (1972) When a Great Tradition Modernizes. Praeger, New York.
  6. Sontheimer,  D.  (1995) The  Erosion  of  Folk Religion  in   Modern   India:   Some  Points  for Deliberation. In:   Dalmia, V. & Stietencron, H. von  (Eds.),  Representing   Hinduism. Sage,  New York, pp. 305 24.
  7. Srinivas,  N.  (1976) The  Remembered  Village. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
  8. Vertovec, (1994) ‘‘Official’’ and ‘‘Popular’’ Hinduism in Diaspora: Historical and Contemporary Trends in Surinam, Trinidad, and Guyana. Contributions to Indian Sociology 28(1): 123 47.

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