Post-modernism, colonial discourse analysis and culture studies have focused attention on the question of religious and cultural identities in Indian history. Post-colonial theory questions such identities and argues that they are ‘constructed’ by colonialism, nationalism and other motivated forces.

The validity of religious identities, especially Hinduism, has been doubted by the post-colonial deconstructionists. Poststructuralist literary criticism, deriving from such intellectuals as Jacques Derrida and Edward Said, has been a key factor in such deconstructionism.

The deconstructionists contend that the British Orient lists constructed Hinduism out of diverse religious practices, and that even Islam in British India was too diverse to be the basis of one Muslim community across the subcontinent. As an instance of Orientals and the fictitious identities it created, the post- colonial critics point to such works as Sir Monier Monier-Williams’s Hinduism (1877).

He spoke of Hinduism as one religion despite its many sects because of the fact that there was ‘only one sacred language and only one sacred literature, accepted and revered by all adherents of Hinduism alike.’ Indian nationalists, too, as for instance K.M. Sen, who wrote the standard work Hinduism (Penguin, 1961), are thought to have followed in the footsteps of the Orient lists in relating the history of a non-existent single religion.


A solid body of research in religious and cultural history has emphasized that identities and loyalties in Indian society must not be seen as hostile and monolithic blocs. Richard Eaton’s work on the Sufis of Bijapur and Asim Roy’s work on the Islamic syncretistic tradition in medieval Bengal referred to earlier, have brought out the very large extent to which Islam in the subcontinent was shaped by syncretism interaction with the Hindu religion.

The Bhakti movement, which also made an extremely significant contribution to the syncretic tradition, has been studied, among other works, in Karine Schoemer and W.H. McLeod The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India and Friedhelm Hardy, Viraha- Bhakti: the Early History of Krishna Devotion in South India (Delhi, 1983). Apart from the spiritual Sufi and Bhakti movements, there was a persistent Lokayata tradition, with a materialistic and popular orientation, which worked against the hardening of religious identities into antagonistic blocs.

This significant tradition is explored in D.P. Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: a Study in Ancient Indian Materialism (New Delhi, 1959). The continuation of this materialistic tradition among the Bauls of Bengal, who set aside the Hindu-Muslim divide as false spiritualism, has been traced to recent times by Jeanne Openshaw in Seeking Bauls of Bengal. Such movements were more radical in nature than the Sufi and Bhakti movements and they undermined gender, religious, caste and class distinctions even more thoroughly.

Miranda Shaw, in her Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism (Princeton, 1994), has dwelt on this radical strand, too. The atheistic strand in the Indian religious tradition, it has been demonstrated, has tended to subvert the existing distinctions in Indian society.


Notwithstanding all this, modern India has experienced a distinct tendency towards religious polarization. Peter van deer Veer has dwelt on this theme in Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley, 1994). The public life of the emerging nation(s) has been influenced to a large extent by religious controversy.