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Hindu Pluralism: Religion And The Public Sphere In Early Modern South India (2017)


After reviewing Jakob De Roover’s Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism, in which he encourages Indians to rediscover their native forms of pluralism as alternatives to liberal secularism, I was excited to read the book Hindu Pluralism: Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India (2017), by professor Elaine Fisher. This book seemed to be the ideal follow up to De Roover’s book, which would give us insight into how the different native traditions coexisted and flourished.

Unfortunately, Hindu Pluralism turned out to be a huge disappointment. There is nothing of substance being said in this verbose and jargon filled text.  Professor Elaine Fisher’s object of study is the development of and coexistence of Saiva and Vaisnava sects in early modern South India (fourteenth to sixteenth century), with a focus on Smarta Saivism. Despite knowing the object of Fisher’s research, it is unclear to the reader what the author is trying to show in this book. Even though Elaine Fisher raises a number of interesting questions through the course of the book, she fails to explore any of them in a systematic and structured manner. The end result is a book akin to a rudderless ship going all over the place with no direction.

Structure of the Book

This book is divided into six chapters. The introduction elaborates on the topic of the book and the goals of the author. The first chapter of the book is about the crystallization of Saiva sects within late medieval South India, that serve as the predecessors of Smartha Saivism. Chapter two is about the emergence of Smartha Saivism within early modern South India. This chapter focuses on the case of the Śaṅkarācārya networks of Tamil Nadu, which, in the process of establishing themselves in the vicinity of Kanchipuram, forged an alliance with the intellectual elite of Sanskritic Saiva circles. The result was a socioreligious network that has proved foundational to the present-day constitution of South Indian Smarta Saivism. The third chapter concerns itself with seventeenth century Indian philology and its role in understanding and defending each sect’s practices through their so called theological tracts. Chapter four traces how the Tiruvilayadal Puranam, a text that was initially limited to the literati circles of Madurai, seeped deep into the general public consciousness, and became an integral part of the local traditions of the city. The concluding chapter provides a summary of the book.

Empty Jargons

In a section of the introduction of Hindu Pluralism titled ‘Pluralism and Public Space’, Professor Fisher recounts a question she posed to one of her undergraduate classes in California: ‘’How would you feel if you walked out of this building and dis-covered a crowd venerating a shrine of the Virgin Mary on the first street corner, a group engaged in Islamic prayer across the street, and several individuals sitting in meditation in front of a śivaliga on the next block?’’[1] She recalls the perplexity on her students’ faces to a sight that is quite common in India, but hardly found anywhere else in the world.  Although violent clashes between different groups are not unknown in Indian history, it pales in comparison to the carnage and bloodshed that took place within the history of the Christian and Islamic religions. Europe was torn apart by wars of religion, while bloody and brutal conflicts between different Shia and Sunni groups have been going on for centuries in different parts of the world.

How did so many different mathas, sampradayas, and ‘sects’ not only coexist, but also flourish side by side in India for centuries, without any major wars or ethnic cleansing campaigns? What is it about the nature of the Saiva and Vaisnava sects in South India that allowed them to flourish side by side peacefully despite the fact that were vigorous debates and scathing verbal attacks made by members of those sampradayas towards each other? These are interesting questions that deserve to be explored and explained in depth, which we don’t get. After recounting the perplexed reaction of her students to the question she poses, Elaine Fisher goes to on to provide the example of Madurai’s Saiva Cittarai festival, where ‘’the marriage of Śiva and Mīnākṣī was rescheduled to coincide with the Vaiṣṇava Cittirai Festival, essentially fusing Madurai’s best-loved Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava holidays into a single citywide celebration’’[2]. The Vaisnava Cittarai takes place near the banks of the river Vaikai, while the Saiva Cittarai festival takes place near the city center of Madurai. The Vaisnava Cittarai commemorates Visnu’s journey to the Vaikai to grant moksha to the sage Manduka. The famous Tamil epic Thiruvilayaadal Puranam provides a story based foundation for the fusion of both these festivals. According to the story, Visnu was supposed to officiate the wedding between Siva and Meenakshi. Upon reaching the banks of Vaikai, Visnu finds that the wedding has started without him and angrily turns back to his home in the Vaisnavite Alakar temple in Madurai. This is a fascinating anecdote provided by Elaine Fisher that raises important questions. One of those questions is how do puranas and itihasas facilitate Indian pluralism? In Western culture, stories are either used to teach a moral principle or as entertainment. In the above anecdote, stories not only provide a basis for a particular tradition or festival, but also serve to bring the most important festivals of two rival sampradayas in Madurai together as one event. Instead of raising and delving into important questions that arise from the interaction of Vaisnava and Saivain Tamil Nadu, Fisher merely redescribes the phenomenon as the ‘’mapping of spatial geographies of religiosity’’ in which the ’’twin proces-sions of the sacred couple and Viṣṇu map onto the religious networks of Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Hindus…without necessitating communal conflict’’. This is a prime example of using fancy words to say nothing. Professor Fisher is merely saying that Vaisnava and Saiva practices overlapped with one another in the same space and time without creating conflict. But we as Indians are aware of this phenomenon already. We don’t need it to be redescribed to us using sophisticated jargon. What twenty first century Indians need is to figure out the underlying mechanism that allowed various Indian sampradayas to coexist and flourish together. This knowledge can then be used to restructure our polity.

Fisher ends the section of her introduction ‘Pluralism and Public Space’ by stating that Pluralism can be described as not the absence of conflict, but the resolution of conflict through ‘’the shared performance of plural religiosities’’.  This phrase is another example of an incoherent word salad that explains nothing. In fact, this section titled ‘Pluralism and Public Space’ is a microcosm of the entire book, with regurgitated factoids and empty, jargon filled descriptions taking the place of lucid analysis and explanation[3].

What is Hinduism? What is Sectarianism?

Elaine Fisher states that one of her primary aims in writing this book was to challenge the idea that a shared religion called Hinduism was present among the inhabitants of early modern South India, and to understand Hindu sectarianism on its own terms, rather than through the lens of colonialism.

She points out that European scholars and Sanskritists such as Monier-Williams have looked at so called Hindu sectarianism from within a Christian framework. Within this framework, a sect is a breakaway fragment of a parent religion. The classification of different sampradayas such as Saivism, Vaisnavism, and Buddhism as sects assumes a central or core Hindu dogma, from which these traditions are deviations. In the words of Monier-Williams himself:

‘’What then is the present idea implied by Hindu Sectarianism? It is clear from what has been already stated that every Hindu creed ought to be regarded as un-orthodox which exalts favorite personal deities to the position of the one eternal, self-existing Spirit (Ātman or Brahma)…implies more or less direct opposition to the orthodox philosophy of Brahmanism’’

Thus, Monier-Williams presupposes without evidence that the different mathas he encountered were variants of Christian sects, and Brahmins as the Hindu equivalent of the Catholic priesthood. ‘Brahmanism’ becomes the equivalent of the doctrines of the Catholic Church; the official, institutional dogma of Hinduism established by the Brahmin priesthood. Within this framework, Saivism and Vaisnavism become heretical offshoots, whose doctrines are corruptions of the original Brahamanical dogma. Elaine Fisher writes that many of the orientalists and missionaries of the nineteenth century were trying to recover an unadulterated Brahmanism from the past. It is worth noting that the missionary and orientalist quest to recover an unadulterated Brahmanism was part of the larger quest to recover what they believed the primordial religion of humanity, inscribed into the soul of human beings by the Biblical God, of which Brahmanism itself was thought to be a corruption. Elaine Fisher problematizes the missionary and orientalist descriptions of the Indian mathasas, a product of Christian anthropology that doesn’t reflect the reality of these traditions. But does her description fare any better?

In both the introduction and the first chapter, Fisher stresses that the diverse religious communities of India that we collectively call Hinduism have each preserved a fundamental independence, but at the same time she doesn’t want to invalidate the usage of the term Hinduism to describe commonalities in doctrines and practice. One can find commonalities between any two traditions/religions e.g. Saivism and Christianity. A commonality between two traditions is relevant or irrelevant depending on the theoretical framework one is working under. Fisher also adds at one point that ‘’Not all of Saivism was equally sectarian, nor was all of Saivism’s history equally Hindu’’. Such sentences create more confusion than clarity as to what the author is referring to when she talks about Hinduism and Saivism.

In the first chapter of her book, Elaine Fisher provides a definition of Hinduism according to the received view: Hinduism is those collections of traditions who are subsumed under the doctrinal authority of the Veda. Fisher here is referring to the intellectual traditions that are generally classified as Astika. These are traditions that build upon the knowledge provided by the Veda. The Vedas are recognized as providing the fundamental intellectual framework and axioms for these traditions, the same way modern physics was in large part built upon the foundation provided by Einstein’s theory of relativity. However, this doesn’t mean that the Vedas were religious doctrines akin to the Bible or Quran. These texts are considered religious scriptures or doctrines because Christians and Muslims regard them as the revelation of God’s will and law, which they are obligated to obey.

Fisher considers Saivism and Vaisnavism as preceding the birth of Hinduism (she considers a unified Hindu religion to have taken shape in the early modern period of India). According to Elaine Fisher, Saivism cannot be considered a Hindu sect prior to the early modern period, because it rejects the Vedas as the ultimate doctrinal authority. She uses a passage from one of the earliest Saiva Dharmasastras, the Sivadharmaas evidence for her claims. That passage explicitly says that linga puja was superior to any of the Vedic rituals. It was in the time period between the fourteenth and sixteenth century, according to Fisher, that both Saivism and Vaisnavism began to acknowledge the Vedas as their common scriptural canon. However, many of the traditions in both the India of yesterday and today, that are classified as Hindu, do not give textual authority to the Veda, and contain practices and rituals that have nothing to do with the Vedas.

In the second chapter, Professor Fisher defines Hindu sects as ‘’meaning-constituting systems, an operationally closed set of social institutions that maintains—and in fact reconstitutes—its own boundaries internally through the structures of meaning it generates’’ with sectarian theologians defending the truth of one Hindu community above all others. In the process, Elaine Fisher transforms these sampradayas into variants of Christian denominations, with their own doctrines and theologies, seeing each other as rivals over exclusive religious truth claims.

In conclusion, while Elaine Fisher is right in problematizing the missionary and orientalist descriptions of Indian mathas and sampradayas, she merely ends up reproducing these descriptions using more obfuscating language[4].


In 1999, the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont published their now infamous book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, in which they unleash a devastating criticism of the pseudo-intellectual writings of postcolonial scholars, whom they accuse of using impenetrable lingo in order to disguise an absence of substantive or honest thought. Twenty three years in the year 2022, it looks like things haven’t changed much in American academia. Elaine Fisher is an ideal exemplar of the kind of intellectual that Sokal and Bricmont criticize in their book. Whether they define themselves by the label of postcolonialism or poststructuralism, these academics don’t seem to give importance to building theories and hypotheses, which should be the goal of all knowledge. They also don’t seem to give importance to precise logical and linguistic analysis, expressed in clear and unambiguous language. The result is a book like Hindu Pluralism, which disguises its poverty in content with fancy lingo and verbosity[5].

While the post colonials criticize the orientalists of reducing non-western cultures into the inferior other of the West, the post colonials do the same thing, except with complicated, meaningless terminology. If producing barren empty claims are bad, then producing barren empty claims in obfuscating and un-understandable language is even worse. While the nineteenth century orientalists may have produced wrong descriptions of India, at least they did so using clear and precise language. The language used was clear enough, that a discerning reader could engage with their writings and uncover the basic background theory and assumptions used by the orientalists. In the case of the postcolonials, the language of their writings is so unintelligible, it is impossible for the reader to engage with them.

By the end of the book, the reader is left with a headache and a sense of frustration, having been bombarded by unintelligible language and having gained little insight into Hindu pluralism.


FISHER, Elaine M. Hindu pluralism: religion and the public sphere in early modern South India. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017. South Asia across the disciplines.

SOKAL, Alan D., Jean BRICMONT and Alan D. SOKAL. Fashionable nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science. 1st. paperback ed. volume. New York: St. Martins Press, 1999.

Two kinds of research in social sciences

[1]FISHER, Elaine M. Hindu pluralism: religion and the public sphere in early modern South India. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017, p. 25.

[2]Ibid., p. 26.

[3]Ibid., p. 27.

[4]Ibid., pp. 5–8, 97.

[5]SOKAL, Alan D., Jean BRICMONT and Alan D. SOKAL. Fashionable nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science. New York: St. Martins Press, 1999.

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