Even if you do not know much about Hinduism, you are bound to have some preconceptions. It is worth stopping to think what these are and from where they have come. Various images may be conjured up: hippies in the 1960s when the Beatles travelled to India to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) devotees wearing saffron and dancing in the streets, chanting ‘Hare Krishna’; the Indian nationalist M.K. Gandhi, known as the Mahatma (‘great self/soul’), in his round glasses, wearing a dhoti and striding out with a walking stick for support; the exotic colour and warmth of numerous books and films inspired by India and the British experience of the subcontinent. The presence of a diverse Hindu community in this country and greater opportunities to visit India may have already challenged some of these stereotypes even if the engagement with Hinduism may be selective in favouring a particular region or tradition or superficial as pre-packaged for tourists.
In previous generations, Christian attacks on idolatry, denouncing the numerous statues of deities swathed in incense and bedecked in garlands by their worshippers, and the Romantic notion of the ‘Spiritual East’, evoking renouncers seated cross-legged in meditation achieving a higher state of consciousness, may have been more influential in shaping attitudes towards Hinduism though neither has disappeared. Even quality newspapers can be found referring to Hindu ‘idols’ and the idea that somehow ‘Eastern’ religions are more ‘spiritual’ is still quite common.
One of the complicating factors is the difficulty of distinguishing between Hinduism and more general features of Indian, South Asian, or even Oriental, life and culture. To some degree, this can be attributed to the nature of Hinduism as a catch-all category or umbrella term, but also to the dissemination of the Indian worldview throughout Asia where it is not always possible, for example, to make a clear distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism on the ground.
Another factor is the history of colonialism whereby Britain’s role as the imperial power has been a distorting lens through which to view India leading, among other things, to the self-interested over-simplified claim that Hindus and Muslims constituted two mutually antagonistic groups or ‘nations’.
An additional factor is the legacy of earlier Western scholarship that often subscribed to a Sanskritic textual model of Hinduism, idealising the distant past of the ancient texts at the expense of a supposedly corrupt present. In marginalising contemporary, vernacular, popular and ritual traditions, this approach has been criticised for rendering Hinduism unrecognisable to many Hindus though, of course, this is a far from uncommon experience among members of religious communities encountering an academic version of their religions. However, some Hindus have also put forward accounts of Hinduism that favour particular ways of understanding the tradition which ignore the voice and experience of other Hindus such as women and members of lower castes.