Harloe ’12 Hunts the Roots of Hinduism

Kate Harloe '12
Kate Harloe '12
Observed from the West, Hinduism appears as a complex, heterogeneous, polytheistic amalgamation of religious practices. But just below its multifaceted interior lies a concept that Westerners understand only too well: the control of colonization. Through an Emerson grant and the guidance of Associate Professor of History Lisa Trivedi, Kate Harloe ’12 will spend the summer investigating the roots of Hinduism as well as its contemporary incarnations in Indian society.

But Harloe found her way to India through an unlikely path: Mexico. “My interest in the topic of Hindu nationalism actually began with my work on the Mexican-American border,” she said. “I have studied issues of nationality and immigration in America for quite some time now, beginning in spring 2009 when I volunteered for No More Deaths through Hamilton.” She began thinking about border issues between India and Pakistan, then about Indian national identity and how it relates to religious identity. What is an Indian’s first form of identification, Harloe asks, Indian or Hindu/Muslim/Sikh etc.? We in the West often ignore the vast overlap between social, political, and religious spheres, which led Harloe to Hindu nationalism—“a movement that can't be categorized as singularly political, social, religious, or cultural and provides an interesting mix of identities,” she said.

In preparation for her upcoming semester in India, Harloe will work her way through the literature regarding the instatement of Hinduism. The only major world religion that lacks a central text or figure, Hinduism was first practiced by the Indo-Aryan people who had established themselves in Northern India by 600 B.C. They composed the Vedas, the oldest texts in the Hindu tradition, and dominated the native people as they became increasingly sedentary. “‘Hinduism’ is a construction –one that began with the colonial desire to understand, consolidate, and control Indians,” Harloe asserted. But the god(s), texts and practices varied between regions and villages, and only during the British rule in the 1800s that the term “Hindu” was applied to religious practice in India.

“The British needed to apply their Western understanding of religion and how it works (with hierarchies, churches, and specific commandments or beliefs) to India, so they depicted Hinduism in a way that made sense to them, with temples, rituals, and importantly the Brahman system,” Harloe said. “They set a hierarchy in place which actually bolstered their own power, forcing Indians or Hindus to compete for positions of power that they created.” But modern Indians adapted themselves to this categorization, adopting the British-imposed identity to create a stronger community that extended through the entire Indian subcontinent.

But as the community grew stronger, the British felt their power threatened. The British caused communal conflict between Muslims and Hindus by favoring Hindus, giving elite Hindus positions of power in the government and army while discriminating harshly against Muslims. “As Hindu nationalism grew throughout the late 1800s and expanded until the present day, this discrimination against Muslims continued in violent forms,” Harloe said.

In modern Indian society, ghosts of British colonization still haunt the subcontinent. “Today, the malleable idea of ‘Hinduism’ is used and exploited by nationalist groups like the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, political entities that manipulate ‘Hindu’ ideals and history to suit their own political, economic, and social interests,” Harloe said. But despite this apparent exploitation of Hindu identity, Indian citizens continue to buy into the propaganda, often agreeing with the nationalist push of an all-Hindu India.

Another facet of Harloe’s project will entail her comparison of contemporary and ancient Hinduism and her attempt to determine exactly who is defining what makes a modern Hindu. In such a huge and diverse country, she asks, how can there be only one Hinduism? By the end of the summer, Harloe will hopefully be a few steps closer to answering this complicated question.

In the fall, Harloe will continue her project when she spends the semester in India. She will interview Hindu nationalists as well as Hindus who are unaffiliated with the movement in India to complete an independent research project on this topic.

Harloe is a graduate of H.C. Williams Senior High School in Canton, N.Y.
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