Undergraduate students who are fortunate enough to travel and study in South Asia are almost invariably transformed by their experiences. Typical of most of them, if perhaps more articulate, one such student wrote this testimony following a junior-year study tour.
In my travels in South Asia I was exposed to things emphatically different from what I had known in the West. Some of the differences were obvious--skin color, language, climate--and some subtle--metaphysical beliefs, perceptions, worldviews. In Asia I saw the most abject poverty imaginable, and became friends with begging lepers; I saw beautiful tropical forests, and shared my lunch with Sherpa children in the Himalayas; I drank tea with Buddhist monks, and discussed the caste system with wandering ascetics. My experiences in Asia unsettled me, and changed the way I see myself, my culture, my society. And of course, these experiences immeasurably altered my view of South Asia.
Oddly, in many ways I feel I know even less about South Asia than I did before I left, for with each new experience emerged layer upon layer of meaning, layer upon layer of understanding. I don't find this at all daunting, for although I know that there are an infinite number of things about South Asian culture I do not know, I also know that there are an infinite number of things I can know. The journal entry for the day I left South Asia consists of a single sentence: "My head is a jumble of possibilities."
We might well employ this enthusiastic undergrad's final phrase as a subtitle for an introductory chapter, for Hinduism does seem to present itself as "a jumble of possibilities," including also the probabilitythat no definition of "Hinduism" will prove satisfactory to all insiders and outsiders. So elusive is this ancient and cumulative religious tradition that some scholars have despaired of definition and suggested that Hindus are identified simply as the religious remainder after one subtracts all Muslims, Jainas, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Parsis, and tribals from the religious landscape of South Asia. That observation is challenged in this introduction and in the following chapters with a portrayal of the character, extent, and significance of experiences and expressions that have been the dominant feature of South Asian religion for most of the past thirty centuries.
Let us begin with the territory, South Asia. According to those who study plate tectonics and the geological history of our planet, South Asia includes the triangular area that detached itself from southern Africa and sailed off until it crunched into the belly of Asia, forming the Himalayan massif with the impact and becoming what is known as the Indian subcontinent. Historically speaking, South Asia is the equivalent of India, that is, the land the ancient Greeks and Persians declared to be east of the river known in Sanskrit as the Sindhu. Politically speaking, modern South Asia is the large nation of India, that occupies most of that subcontinent, and the several smaller nations immediately adjacent, including Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the island country off the southeast tip of India, Sri Lanka. One additional modern nation not adjacent but historically and culturally linked to India is Afghanistan. With reference to South Asia today this region is distinguished from West Asia (theMediterranean coast to Iran), Central or Inner Asia, East Asia (China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan), and Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia). From prehistory to the present the region of South Asia has had significant historical and cultural exchanges with all of these other areas--West, Central, East, and Southeast Asia.
Where religions are concerned, South Asia harbors three dominant faiths, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, and a number of minority religions, including Christianity, Jainism, Parsism (Zoroastrianism), and Judaism. Hindus are to be found in all the nations of South Asia, comprising the dominant tradition of India and Nepal (more than 80% in each), roughly one-fifth of the population of Sri Lanka, and only tiny minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where Islam is the state religion. There are also thriving Hindu communities outside of South Asia. In Southeast Asia there were large populations of Hindus in the medieval period, but after the advent of Islam only certain enclaves of traditional Hinduism remained, the Indonesian island of Bali being one prominent example. The modern era has witnessed the growth of Hindu populations in many cosmopolitan urban centers in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on the Malay peninsula, as well as Hong Kong on the south coast of China. Substantial communities of Hindus live in eastern and southern Africa, in the thriving Persian Gulf states, on the island of Fiji in the South Pacific, on the northeast coast of South America, on islands such as Trinidad in the Caribbean and, as the active temples in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, London, and elsewhere may suggest,in many major cities of North America and Europe.
However far-flung these medieval and modern migrations might have been, it remains true that Hinduism is not a multicultural religion to the same extent as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. India, the source, remains India, the heartland. In fact, so deep is this identity of a people and a faith that the modern nation of India often finds its credibility tested when declaring itself a religiously plural secular state.
Important for an understanding of a people is a recognition of the land they inhabit and in many respects revere. The great variety of natural regions of the subcontinent explain in part the tremendous cultural and linguistic diversity within the South Asian area. A brief survey of the terrain from north to south is in order.
Separating the subcontinent from Central or Inner Asia is the world's greatest system of mountain peaks and glaciers, the Himalayas, extending west-east for 1,500 miles. In the inhabited plateaus, valleys, and foothills of these mountains are many regions, including the whole of Nepal, where Hinduism, Buddhism, and indigenous folk religions have interacted for many centuries. South of the Himalayas, between the Indus river system in the west and the jungles of Assam in the east, stretch the North Indian or Gangetic plains.
David M. Knipe has written many books and articles on Hinduism. He is chair of both the Depratment of South Asian Studies and the Religious Studies Program and director of the South Asian Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.