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Gavin Flood and Hinduism
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Gavin Dennis Flood (born 1954) is a distinguished British scholar of comparative religion. His research interests span South Asian traditions, and he has specialised in Shaivism and phenomenology. He has worked as a professor in Great Britain for many years, also at the University of Oxford from 2008 to 2015, until he became a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, from January 2016. Yale-NUS is a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore.

Dr Flood has written very well received academic books on Hinduism. In his Introduction to Hinduism he writes:

The origins of Hinduism lay in the ancient cultures of the Indus valley civilization and Aryan culture. . . . the Dravidian Indus valley culture and the Aryan vedic [both] contribute to the formation of Hindu traditions . . . Hindu civilization can be seen as a product of the complex interaction between the Dravidian and Aryan cultural spheres. (1996, 50)

Apart from the teachers of the Hindu Renaissance, the most important western movement responsible for the transmission of Hinduism to the West is Theosophy. The Theosophical Society had been founded in 1875 in New York by a Russian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, and Colonel Alcott (1832-1907), to promote and explore esoteric knowledge. In 1877 the society moved to India, where its headquarters remain at Madras . . . The Theosophical Society influenced western intellectuals such as the poet W. B. Yeats and the novelists Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, and many Hindu ideas entered the West via Theosophy. . . .

Among Hindu teachers to attract a wide western following is Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). As a young man Aurobindo was involved with the Indian independence movement and jailed for terrorist activities as a result. While in prison he had a religious experience, achieving a state of samadhi through yoga. Upon release, he went to Pondicherry where he started an ashram and lived a life of study and contemplation for forty years, developing a philosophical system inspired by Vedanta, but integrating elements from Yoga, Tantra and the theory of evolution . . . He called his system 'integral Yoga'. . . .

Of the same generation as Aurobindo, but with a much lower profile, was the Tamil mystic Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) . . . His teachings . . . are pure Advaita . . .

[A contemporary] of Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi to attract western interest [has] been Paramahamsa Yogananda (1890-1952) who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship. Yogananda . . . wrote a fascinating autobiography of his spiritual journey and the founding in California of the Self-Realization Fellowship. . . .

During the 1960s many Hindu - as well as Buddhist and Chinese - ideas and practices came to the West and had a large impact upon the counterculture then developing . . . pop stars such as the Beatles . . . promoted Hindu ideas and gurus. During this period, after the lifting of immigration restrictions in the USA in 1965, there was a flow of Indian gurus to the West, such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement; the then teenage guru Maharaji, who founded the Divine Light Mission (since renamed Elan Vital); Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, who brought the Hare Krsna movement to the West in 1965; . . . and Bhagavan Shree Rajneesh, who radically reinterpreted the traditional Hindu understanding of renunciation . . . and who fused eastern meditation with western psychotherapies. Other teachers who have had an influence on the West have remained in India, such as . . . Satya Sai Baba, who commands a large following in India and abroad . . . and Swami Sivananda [who settled in] Rishikesh, who taught the Neo-Vedanta formulated by Vivekananda. Some of Sivananda's disciples, such as Swami Chinmayananda, have started centres throughout the world and have taught further swamis to carry on their Neo-Vedanta teachings. This great influx of Hindu teachers and ideas to the West during the 1960s and 1970s has contributed to Global Hinduism. These teachings are not homogenous and there are great differences between the various teachers; for example, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada's teachings focusing on the theistic deity Krsna are very different from the monistic teachings of TM's Maharishi.

Many of these teachers who set up movements have since died and passed on their spiritual authority to others, very often Westerners. Upon the demise of Prabhupada, eleven western gurus were chosen to succeed as spiritual heads of the Hare Krsna movement, but many problems followed upon their appointment and the movement has since veered away from investing absolute authority in a few, fallible, human teachers. . . . Some western gurus derive their teachings from Hinduism, but proclaim themselves to be self-realized . . .

Hinduism as a global religion . . . has developed since the nineteenth century as a reaction to colonialism and Christianity. This kind of Hinduism has been inclusive and has firmly established itself on the world stage, reformulating 'Hinduism' and discovering its ancient origins. Through the work of [such as] Vivekananda and his followers, Hinduism has become a world religion which has had a deep impact both on India and on the West at all cultural levels . . . Yet in contrast to these universalizing tendencies, there has also developed a Hindu political nationalism which connects Hinduism, or Hindu Dharma, with the nation-state of India. . . . Hinduism also contains within it profound resources for peace and reconciliation - forces which . . . may contribute to finding solutions to the global problems which face the human community in the coming century. (1996, 269-73)


What Is Hinduism?

In his introduction to The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (2003), the editor Gavin Flood writes that "What is Hinduism?" is closely related to "Who speaks for Hinduism?" and "Who defines Hinduism?" (Flood 2003, 2)

Answer: It is a matter of identity and of social power among other things:

Towards the end of the eighteenth century "Hindu" or "Hindoo" was adopted by the British to refer to the people of "Hindustan," the area of northwest South Asia, who were not Muslim, Sikh, Christian, or Jain, and the "ism" was added to "Hindu" in the early nineteenth century. But many scholars have since argued that the ascription of "Hinduism" to the multiplicity of South Asian traditions was an exercise in power and . . . an expression of the West's desire for domination. Still others have argued on the foundation of Western, philological scholarship that the term "Hinduism" is a misnomer, an attempt to unify into a single religion what in fact is a number of distinct religions. Yet others argue that an inappropriate understanding of "religion" when it comes to the diversity of South Asian cultural forms entails assumptions that belief has primacy over practice. (Ibid. 3)

We can trace the history of the fairly recent term "Hindu" and "Hinduism" from its initial coinage by those outside of the Hindu fold to its appropriation as a term of self-description by "Hindus" themselves. (Ibid. 4)

The Unity of Root Ideas, Ritual, and Narrative

Discourse (váda), ritual (yajna, púja), and narrative (itihása) work together in a religion. The text of this section is rooted in Flood's introduction, with some changes. Aiming at clarity, I have contracted parts of his texts to get some messages through. Besides, his "discourse" in the following survey is replaced with "root ideas", which are basic, underlying or carrying ideas, and which should be fit enough.

1. Root Ideas

Discourse or reflection and philosophical commentary developed from an early date in Hinduism. The ancient texts of the Veda are regarded as revelation, and there is theological and ritual parts in the Brahmanas and Upanishads. Various traditions of textual exegesis and philosophy were developed from around the fifth century BCE, in that Sanskrit commentaries were added to sacred scripture and to aphorisms (sutras, condensed teaching extracts) of particular schools. Sciences such as astronomy and medicine were made. The six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy or "critical worldviews" were articulated in aphorisms and commentaries aimed at explaining their meaning. And in such ways and others, folks sought to get to grips with carrying ideas, or basic ideas.

The unity provided by textual exegesis in commentary is not a unity of content but a unity of genre, a common reference point in the Veda, and a unity of shared metaphysical concerns.

Other systems outside of the orthodox schools include Buddhist and Jain traditions.

2. Ritual, ceremonies

Ritual forms have originated, some have died out, and others have persisted with great tenacity and resistance to change over time. Vedic ritual still persists. Further, there has been erosion of tradition with modernity, and detraditionalization has been accompanied by a retraditionalization too. (Flood 2003, 6)

The temple as a home for a god developed around 700 CE.

High-caste deities and temples generally accept only vegetarian offerings.

A consciousness or sacred power can be transferred temporarily to a paraded festival icon and also be placed in human beings.

There is a close connection between ritual and myth. (Ibid. 7)

3. Savoury, engrossing stories

Dr James A. Kirk's hope:

In following the ways people naturally learn we may find an effective strategy for an introduction to Hinduism. . . . We can grow into Hinduism rather easily and delightfully if we start where children start. That is what this book is intended to make possible. . . . [T]here are samples of the variety, the humor, the pride and enthusiasm which is the heart of Indian literature and the fun of any story. The philosophy and more mature lessons are, in these stories too, as assumptions, implications, background, illustrations and underlying purposes. The commentary is designed to lift up part of this (1972, viii)

The most natural way to understand Hinduism would be to grow up in an appropriate family in India. Religion in India is a bewildering array of values, views, practices, traditions, associations, attitudes and loyalties, but for the most part the growing child is unaware of all that. (1972, xi)

The US psychologist Jerome Bruner says about the same as Kirk in The Culture of Education, and adds to it:

What is a narrative? . . . A narrative involves a sequence of events. The sequence carries the meaning . . . But not every sequence of events is worth recounting. Narrative is discourse, and the prime rule of discourse is that there be a reason for it that distinguishes it from silence. Narrative is justified or warranted by . . . it tells about something unexpected, or something that one's auditor has reason to doubt. The "point" of the narrative is to resolve the unexpected, to settle the auditor's doubt, or in some manner to redress or explicate the "imbalance" that prompted the telling of the story in the first place. A story, then, has two sides to it: a sequence of events, and an implied evaluation of the events recounted. (Bruner 1996, 121) - [More]

Flood-based once again

The vast collections of "ancient stories," the Puránas and the epics reflect the rise of the righteousness (dharma) theme (exemplifying some root ideas) and others.

Local versions and interpretations of the epic stories are recited in villages and enacted in rituals.

The fabulous myths of the Puránas can be seen as attempts to bring diversity under a single, overarching and controlling system between ca. 300700 CE.

Long before the influence of Sanskrit culture, Tamil culture was already rich in such as poetry on love and war and devotion and lots more.

Philology and textual studies

The terms "Hinduism" and "Hindu" are here to stay and can be meaningfully used. (Flood 2003, 8)

The general thrust of scholarship goes against a wish to make assertions about a unified Hinduism stretching into the ancient past. But [this book can] make implicit claims about the centrality and importance of textual traditions and their exegesis that have led to the modern religion.

Texts are also social documents and indices of the communities who produced them.

If we take philology to be the "study of civilization based on its texts", then clearly philology is indispensable in an inquiry into the past. . . . One of the central activities of philology is the establishing of the critical edition as the foundation upon which other kinds of investigation can take place. But the establishing of such a critical text raises questions about authenticity - is the oldest version necessarily the more "authentic"? (Ibid. 10-11)

Is the correction of grammatical forms legitimate? And so on.

That texts require commentary is an indication of their openness and nontransparent nature. Fit "contextualizing practice" can relate chosen texts to the practices and texts of a culture and a tradition, one or more of them. (Ibid. 11)

It is the general contention of the volume that anthropological study and critical reading of tradition in South Asia needs to understand the textual tradition established, however tentatively, through philology, and conversely that the living traditions accessed through anthropology can throw light on textual history. (Ibid. 12)

Gavin Flood and Hinduism, Literature  

Bruner, Jerome. 1996. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Flood, Gavin. 1996. Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Flood, Gavin, ed. 2003. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Flood, Gavin. 2004. The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Flood, Gavin. 2006. The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion. London: I.B. Tauris.

Kirk, James A. 1972. Stories of the Hindus: An Introduction throiugh Texts and Interpretation. London: Collier-Macmillan Ltd.

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