Tel: +32 (0) 9 264 93 70
Fax: +32 (0) 9 264 94 83
>> Esther's publications
>> Esther's presentations
[European experience of India; Caste system; Hinduism; Degeneration of religion; Religious rivalry; Brahmins as priests]
My research addresses a central idea of Indology: Indian history has gone through a religious evolution during which the Vedic religion developed into Brahmanism, which in its turn gave rise to what is now considered to be India’s main religion, Hinduism. Closely linked to this is another supposedly central aspect of the Indian culture, namely the social structure of the caste system. Looking at the juncture between the descriptions of a degenerated religion and the conceptualization of the caste system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, my research indicates that these descriptions are descriptions of the western cultural experience of India rather than of the Indian culture itself.
The consensus in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took the following form: the Indian religion went through a movement of degeneration from Vedism over Brahmanism into Hinduism. The Brahmin priests are supposed to have corrupted the Vedic religion. Traditions such as Buddhism, Jainism, the Bhakti movement, etc., are regarded as catalysts in this development, because they are thought to have threatened the survival of Brahmanical religion. Furthermore, it is presumed that, because of the degeneration, Hinduism is characterised by the absence of a church authority and a common creed. Therefore, it also seems to lack any source of excommunication and means of conversion. This leads to a fundamental puzzle about the existence of the Hindu religion: Can a religion (any religion) exist and be transmitted, if these characteristics are lacking? The literature notices the difficulty, but translates the puzzle into the following question: ‘if the absence of these characteristics jeopardizes the existence, survival and propagation of the Hindu religion, what else made its stubborn persistence possible?’ The textbook answer to this question revolves around the Brahman priests and their caste system: it is said that the Brahmans recognized this challenge to their priestly hegemony and to the survival of their religion and cunningly developed the caste system as a means to sustain their religious authority.
In order to understand why the puzzle is not taken seriously and dissolves into another question, we need to understand the background of the culture that has produced these accounts. My research traces this puzzle to the central ideas in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts about idolatry and false religion, about different traditions as rival and competing religions, about the corrupting influence of the priesthood and its oppression of the masses. It will try to demonstrate that these ideas had their roots in the Christian theological debates of Europe and that these theological views have spread in a de-Christianized form.