Many scholars, particularly Indian scholars, hate this picture of India. And with good reason. The British used the stereotype of the religious (and therefore quite irrational) Indian in order to justify colonial rule. The superstitious, God-obsessed natives clearly could not run an effective government, said the Brits; we’re doing them a service by running one for them. Of course, the British conveniently ignored or marginalized India’s rich scientific, philosophical and political traditions.
Nobel-Prize winning economist Amarya Sen argues that the modern-day Hindu right is embracing the same dubious stereotyping once employed by the British, again emphasizing the religion nature of the subcontinent. Sen fights back by bringing to light India’s long history of intellectual exchange and public debate. He is just one of many highly-respected thinkers to decry the stereotype of a Mystical India.
And yet for a casual traveler touring India, the stereotype is likely to be reinforced, and not just because tour companies have decided that “Mystical India” sells. Hindu temples (and, depending on the area, mosques or churches or synagogues) dot the landscape. Evening puja (worship), with the accompanying chanting and candle-lighting, is a common sight. Public buses have stickers of Hindu gods affixed over the windshield. India is surely not a one-dimensional country, and it does have vibrant argumentative traditions; but in the public space, religion is still omnipresent.
And now, with holiday season upon us once again, festival after festival brings religious celebration to the fore. I’m having a hard time keeping up with all the holidays. Just as I started writing my blog post about Krishna’s birthday (which will be up soon, I swear), I found myself joining in celebrations for Eid, the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan. And the first day of Eid also marked the beginning of Ganesh’s birthday festival. Although the Ganesh festivals aren’t as big in Delhi as they are in my old home base of Pune, I’ve already seen one huge Ganesh shrine erected in my neighborhood.
So, while, in my head, I know better, I continue to wander the streets and soak in India’s religious splendor.