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.
- Bhatti, S. (2000) Folk Religion: Change and Continuity. Rawat, New Delhi.
- Chatterji, (2001) The Category of Folk. In: Das, V. (Ed.), The Oxford India Companion to Sociology and Anthropology. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
- Redfield, (1956) The Little Community. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Singer, (Ed.) (1959) Traditional India: Structure and Change. American Folklore Society, Philadelphia.
- Singer, (1972) When a Great Tradition Modernizes. Praeger, New York.
- 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.
- Srinivas, N. (1976) The Remembered Village. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
- 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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