The Caravan

INTERSECTING SECTS

Excerpted from Romila Thapar’s Voices of Dissent: An Essay, published by Seagull Books, 2020.

I WOULD LIKE TO ARGUE that it is because of the absence of emphasising the monolithic and the uniform in religion that dissent took the form that it did and, to some extent, continues to do. Confrontations did occur and some were violent, as they still are. This is not surprising given the sharpness of social distinctions in Indian society. Nevertheless, it is because there is the possibility of juxtaposing the undercurrents of dissent and allowing them space that there is also flexibility in contention. This would require us to view Hinduism—the religion of the largest number—not as a single, continuous, unchanging institution but, rather, as a series of reformulated institutions, of which some get amalgamated with what was there before and many that have a lively continuity as sects are juxtaposed among a plurality of other such. The interface therefore of these sects with various communities and with each other would have patterns that differ from those projected as monolithic religions. Viewing religion in India only from the perspective of monolithic religions, coexisting or in conflict from time to time, as is more frequently done, could be misleading.

The term “sect” refers to those that follow a particular way of thought and whose membership is by choice. The terms generally used in early sources are pashanda and sampradaya. The first seems to have referred to any group that formalised itself as a sect. Ashoka Maurya’s references to them are neutral in terms of disapproval or approval. But in later texts such as the Puranas, the word is used specifically for those regarded as heretics, teaching false doctrines, and on occasion for the Shramana sects too. It ceases to be a neutral term. Sampradaya has a relatively stable meaning and refers to those who join a group that claims an earlier tradition for its teaching—as many sects do—and assumes a continuity into the future.

It is not my intention to suggest that the only forms of dissent are those that arise in relation to religion. I have taken my examples from perceptions relating broadly to religion because these forms of dissent often had the more wide-ranging impact in the past and are more obviously noticeable. They are also the ones that are more frequently written about in past times. They are not confined to changes in religious orientation since they also intervene in the institutions of society. The context of the examples I have discussed is familiar. The demonstration of dissent in such examples perhaps has greater clarity.

I would like to pause for a moment and recapitulate briefly my view of the different phases of the dominant religion in India, by way of a background to what I shall be discussing in the final part of this essay. I would also like to reiterate the point that forms of dissent can and often do shape the reformulations of ideas pertaining to religious and social forms. My contention is that Hinduism underwent various reformulations in reacting and adjusting to significant historical changes, some segments of society being sensitive to the requirements of an altering historical context. Recognising this makes it a more flexible religion and of greater verve than the rather confined form in which it is often projected. This view

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