Folk Hinduism and Philosophical Hinduism

One of the things I have had to grapple with in my ministry is the difference between folk Hinduism and philosophical Hinduism.

In trans-local situations the sort of Hinduism I come across is invariably the more philosophical and pantheistic sort (in this I am including the various streams of Yoda, Vedanta, and derivative stuff like chakra energy healing). In local situations however the sort of Hinduism I come across is more frequently the folk and polytheistic sort. The distinction was brought home to me a few years ago, hosting a home group for a diverse bunch of people who did not fit the normal ‘bible study’ model.

One of the core members was, like me, from a more occult background. Another member was a young migrant with Hindu parents. Well, one day the Bhagavad Gita came up in conversation and, what do you know, we had read it and she hadn’t. The most popular Hindu text there is! So here we were informing a folk Hindu girl about what it said. She knew all about the festivals and doing puja but none of the philosophy. None. For us it was visa versa.

At that point I realized that everything I knew about Hinduism from my New Age days was useless here. Given that more non-Christians in my area are Hindus than Atheists, the ramifications of that for local witness and inter-religious communication is still sinking home. And do you know what? Having many Indian and Sri Lankan Christians in our church helps not one bit with the inter-religious communication, for they generally don’t know any more about folk Hinduism than I do. Sometimes they know even less. All of which goes to show that grass roots realities are sometimes very different from what one encounters on the world wide web, in bookstores and amongst the university educated.

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10 thoughts on “Folk Hinduism and Philosophical Hinduism

  1. I can see what might look like a “folk Christianity” and “theological Christianity” dichotomy in the US, related to but not necessarily determined by education level. What do you think? Anything similar in Oz?


  2. I don’t want to draw too strict a dichotomy between formal and folk religion because, firstly, there are some very folky elements to New Age spirituality despite the philosophical leanings of many adherants, and secondly, anthropologists have noted that many people participate in both formal and folk religion depending on the circumstances. In answer to your question though, Pentecostalism strikes me as a lot more folky than, say, Calvanism.


  3. I’ve always found folk Hinduism far more interesting and attractive than philosophical Hinduism, and I think the West’s interest in the latter rather than the former springs from Western modernity and the Gutenberg galaxy – rite words in rote order.
    Had the same problem with my boss in the Missiology Department at Unisa, David Bosch. In his magnum opus Transforming mission he got it all wrong about Orthodoxy because he thought he could learn all about it by reading books. He needed to wake up and smell the incense.


  4. LOL, yes, and I am keenly aware I need to get along to some Orthodox services myself! Its a little daunting though given the anticipated language barriers 🙂


  5. Man, I could bang on about this from my experience of living in India. I read quite a few books before going there and when I arrived that were, well not totally useless, but in many ways not that helpful for understanding what people there were doing with their faith. The religion on the ground, in people’s day to day lives and in it’s wild regional diversity is seldom captured in print.


  6. Yes and I suppose I should really be speaking of folk Hinduisms in the plural too. I understand that most of the Hindus in my area are Shivites and that there are important differences between them and Vaishnavaites, not least who they worship as their principle deity (it should be noted that Vaishnavites do not generally accept the Trimurti concept).
    I realized now that picking up a generic book on Hinduism and looking at Vaishnavaites through that lens is not unlike picking up a generic book on Christianity (which seem to inevitably focus on Catholicism or American Fundamentalism) and looking at Orthodoxy or African Pentecostalism through that lens. Chances are it will misinform me more than inform me. The particular matters when it comes to talking about real people. Generic religion is not real religion, its an academic construct.


  7. dear matt,
    i agree with u when u say that there is a vast difference between folk/ritualistic hinduism practiced today and philosophical hinduism contained in bhagawad gita/veda/other hindu sacred texts.
    perhaps it is the ignorance of vast majority of hindus to follow folk hinduism without understanding philosophy first.
    its like managing company without its memorandum/articles of association.
    first philosophy then rituals, is how it should be.


  8. Yes, well, though I wouldn’t place philosophy above practice as such, I expect I would have similar criticisms about any sort of folk Christianity that becomes “disengaged” from the teaching of the apostles. Though I am sure there are plenty of people who would disagree with both of us.


  9. DaniCat, it has to with the last words of Jesus to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all [unreached people groups], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
    I live in a western city which has (a) a large population of folk Hindu migrants, many of whom are profoundly ignorant of Christianity and (b) a small population of committed Christians, many of whom are profoundly ignorant of folk Hinduism. In discipling people from a folk Hindu background such gaps in understanding can make teaching and learning difficult. It is important that, if they’re seeking to know about Jesus and his way of life, we understand where they are coming from.
    For instance, many western Christian 101 courses presume a basic understanding of monotheism and fail to even touch on what it means to shift from polytheistic practice to monotheistic practice. In short, they are not 101 enough. We need to understand that.


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