Perspectives of Religious Syncretism in India

Dr. N. K. Das

This paper intends to explore the multi dimensioned and many layered contexts of reciprocally shared cultural realms and syncretistic religious formations, which have been taking place since medieval period and which have great functional value in contemporary India. Syncretism, as implied in this paper, signifies a belief in multiple religious assumptions, dogmas and doctrinal systems as also intercommunion between multiple religious denominations, sects, culture-traits and religious practices. The empirical evidences are drawn from northern, southern, eastern, and northeastern India mainly and they pertain to major and minor religions as pursued by the Tribal and Dalit communities generally. The paper aims to show how religious ideas/practices, and cultural traits mediate between diverse communities, sects and cultural regions and give rise to a complex unity. It also attempts to ascertain the historical contexts and multiple level and extent of culture-contact, and the resultant patterns of inter-faith blending and harmony.


Interculturalism and blending of different religious traditions in vast parts of the world have given rise to trans-cultural syncretism. In the present era of increasing cultural condensation, syncretism is a prevailing event. Syncretism as an important constituent of multi-cultural mainstream offers an opportunity to reinforce greater cultural amalgam and multi-confessional harmony. The vast region of South Asia in general and India in particular symbolizes a remarkable confluence of cultural strands and cross-fertilization of religious ideas and ethnic/linguistic intermingling. Here cross-fertilization of sacred ideas and civil thoughts took place, in the midst of ethnic, linguistic and regional diversities, alongside growth of innumerable religious cults and sects, in various historical phases. Thus, this vast region provides an unique opportunity to discover the syncretistic processes inherent in multi-pronged exchanges of cultural/linguistic traits and religious beliefs.

The sociologists and social anthropologists have thrown much light on the variety of religious forms through their studies of belief systems, rituals, symbols and meaning all over the world but they have not paid adequate attention to the phenomenon of "syncretism", which represents a blending of multiple religious beliefs, in variegated degrees. In this regard Raymond Firth (1970:87) has pitiably observed that the anthropologists have made only passing references to syncretism. The concept of syncretism as this paper elucidates uncovers a remarkable dimension in the exploration of cultural reciprocation. It is unfortunate that this important dimension of contemporary culture has been dismissed as ephemeral and trivial.

Religions show enormous variety in terms of belief, ritual, spiritualism and symbolic imagery. Anthropologists agree that there is no society that is without some form of religion. In the nineteenth century scholars were greatly concerned with the origins of religion and they looked to the so-called primitive societies for ideas about development of religion (Hendry, 1999:119-120). In a vast range of societies studied by anthropologists, concepts and formulations of gods, deities, supreme creator, guardian spirits and culture heroes have been applied profusely (Firth, 1996), but the debate over the term religion in anthropology-sociology remains unresolved generally. The sociologists and social anthropologists have expressed uneasiness with word religion because of its vagueness (Smith 1962, Cox 1965, Evans - Pritchard 1965). S.F.Nadel comments that however the sphere of "things religious" is defined, there will always remain a border zone of uncertainty (Nadel, 1954:7-8). Edward Tylor had proposed a minimum definition of religion: "belief in spiritual beings" (1913:424). This definition was however gradually subjected to criticism (see critique in Hamilton 1995:12-13). A critical review of early debates and definitions shows that crucial problems centred on beliefs versus practices, character of religious entities or forces and the spiritual or supernatural realm. Even Durkheim's claim that religion has to do with the "sacred" came to be challenged by some scholars, as such terms coming from "Western context" are not applicable to non-western societies. Goody found that no distinction is made between sacred and profane in a West-African society (Goody, 1961). The terms sacred and profane were found to be meaningless in the Azande society also (Evans-Pritchard, 1937) Emile Durkheim indeed identified the notion of sacred as the fundamental religious phenomenon. He regarded religion as a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things (1965: 62). People everywhere in their myths and rituals have attributed misfortune and suffering to certain extra-human, extra - physical power and also related the same to divinity and sacred. The structural concerns of Levi-Strauss, which has been very broad, have also subsumed the study of the "sacred" under the forms of thought, modes of classification and mythologies. Even totemism is regarded as a mode of classification (1963, 1966). Weber studied the preliterate as well as the world religions to explore the relations between religious beliefs and practices and also their "secular domains". Weber described mysticism as the attitude of abandoning the worldly involvement. Anthropologists regard mysticism occurring in many religions as a form of an assumed personal relation with a divine power (Firth 1964, 1996:173). The essence of a mystical experience is the search for or attainment of a sense of nearness to or unity with a transcendent power, usually God. This means an enhancement of the self, a heightened state of awareness, which seems to the mystic to throw a new light upon the nature of reality (Firth 1996:173). A supernatural event or a miracle, according to Firth, is an unexpected performance resulting from supernatural power, exercised by direct divine intervention or through the agency of a divinely inspired person, such as a saint. The anthropologists and other social scientists have differently documented the status and role of the saint. Weber emphasized the social basis of varieties of theism, the role of prophets in society, different roads to salvation and "universal love." One of the central concerns of Weber's sociology of religion was nature of human existence. He saw no future for religion but only its replacement by progressive rationalization and the decline of mystery, magic and ritual.

Anthropologists eventually turned from origin issue to seeking explanations of religion within its social context (Hendry, 1999: 119-120). Thus religious rites were regarded as most crucial since they provided support to social structure. Religious faiths and moral systems provided order and they socialized the individuals. The anthropologists gradually came to employ various approaches in the study of religion. Those employing social approach saw religion as a "reflection of social organization" and those using cultural approach viewed religion as a "conceptual system". The anthropologists using several approaches however, undeniably projected the faith of a people by and large as a closed system and consequently the evolved anthropological definition of religion came to over-generalize the presumed "unvarying' character of religious allegiance of people concerned; ignoring the veiled side of synthesized and syncretistic religious domain. As a matter of fact the religious beliefs of the people; as developed through extensive contacts and adoptions, are hardly ever rigid or sealed. People in most cases, as I intend to show here often follow multiple religious traditions without necessarily drawing boundaries between them, even though they may affirm their overt allegiance to one religion at a given time. Here lies the analytic significance of the study of religious syncretism as an independent phenomenon.

In anthropological literature the Cargo cult has been described as a form of syncretism. Cargo cults are essentially syncretistic, blending the Christian doctrine with "aboriginal beliefs" (Worsley, 1990). Cult members preached that "Masters" would become slaves and slaves would become Masters, Cult participation gave Melanesians a basis for common interests and activities and thus helped pave the way to achieve nationhood. The anthropologists have also included the blend of African, Native American, and Roman Catholic saints and deities in Caribbean "voodoo" cults as instances of syncretism. Though the process of syncretism provides an independent field of study, it was nevertheless ignored by the anthropologists, and when discussed it was included within "the study of acculturation" (Kottak 1991:407). Acculturation has been generally defined as including, "those phenomena, which result when groups of individuals come into continuous firsthand contact, (with) subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups (Redfield, Linton and Herskovites 1936: 149). The points specified here are "contact" and "subsequent changes". Obviously, the concept of acculturation is least concerned with the survival question and continuation of pre-change religious and cultural beliefs and values, which ostensibly never die completely in any society. In different societies the pre-change culture traits and religious customs indeed survive in greater or lesser degree and therefore "acculturation" persists in such societies only as an incomplete and imperfect process. Consequently a course of syncretism automatically sets in which gets evolved in varied degrees depending on verve and impact of new beliefs and intensity of contact amidst such societies (Das 2003). Few religions are wholly immune from some degree of syncretism. Even Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other major religions, from their beginning, combined many different religious ideas and rituals. Syncretism, according to Brandon, is to be found in all places where there has been contact between religions. Plutarch originally used the term syncretism for "fusion of religious cults" which occurred in Graeco-Roman world, 300 BC - 200 CE. Indeed there exists definite difference between synthesis and syncretism. Recent discussions pertaining to syncretism, which are deplorably very few indeed, have argued that all religions have drawn on different traditions over centuries (Stewart and Shaw, 1995). Some scholars have also included the element of 'reinterpretation' as a determining factor of syncretistic phenomenon.

Anthropology is a multi-paradigmatic enterprise. Multiple paradigms help us to see reality differently. Anthropologists have always followed diversified events in human societies. In this respect the model of syncretism indeed deserves the paradigmatic treatment. Anthropologists are well suited to the task of exploring the facet of "religious syncretism" as it occurs at the level of everyday life in a wide diversity of settings. The anthropologists need to be equally concerned with the religiousness of people concerned while dealing with syncretism theme. There is indeed need for a concerted effort in this direction particularly because this issue assumes significance in the contemporary context of the challenge thrown up by the "deconstructionist strategy" (Das 2003a).


Robert Redfield and Milton Singer had launched the social anthropological "study of civilizations". These scholars saw civilization as a compound structure of Little and Great traditions. In his work in India, Singer, belonging to Chicago school, mainly concentrated on great tradition of civilization. Singer states that the Great Tradition of Indian civilization may be identified with what Srinivas calls "Sanskritic Hinduism" that has an all-India spread and what previous writers like Monier-Williams called "Brahmanism" (Singer 1972:68). Singer also used Srinivas's concepts of "All-India Hinduism", "Peninsular Hinduism", "Regional Hinduism" and "Local Hinduism". Srinivas calls the process of "spread" of Sanskritic Hinduism "Sanskritization", through which lower castes and tribal groups are brought into the Hindu fold with elements from the greater and Sanskritic tradition of Hinduism (Srinivas 1952, 1968, Sinha 1958, Singer 1972:46). Singer has clubbed this process of "sanskritization" together with N.K.Bose's model of "Hindu method of tribal absorption" (1953). This whole perspective indeed demands a thorough re-appraisal in the context of anthropological writings of last decades. Intermittent use of the term such as "popular Hinduism" by scholars like Singer has also necessitated the search for a format of analysis of popularly synthesized non-classical belief systems.

Singer has included within widespread "popular Hinduism" many beliefs and practices observed among tribal people, including the worship of numerous godlings, animal sacrifice, witchcraft and magic (Singer 1972: 45). Tribal religions indeed remained essential element of Hinduism in the writings of American and Indian anthropologists belonging to Chicago school. Singer as per his own admission is indeed not sure about the basis and persistence of "Lower Level" popular Hinduism. Hence he regards it "as a diluted form of Sanskritic Hinduism and an independent form existing prior to Sanskritic Hinduism and absorbed by it at different times and places"(Singer 1972: 45, Emphasis added). Singer also quotes S.C.Sinha's evolutionary interpretation based on Redfieldin thought. Sinha sees the "primitive" features of tribal cultures as a "relatively untransformed section of the original primitive culture, arrested in its development mainly as a result of ecological factors of isolation" (Sinha 1959, Singer 1972:46). In another complex formulation we are further told that "the culture of tribal India represents a "folk" dimension of the Little Tradition of Hinduism, while the culture of Hindu peasantry represents a mixture of folk elements with elements from the greater and Sanskritic tradition of Hinduism (Sinha 1959, Singer 1972:46, Emphasis added).

In fact branding variously pre-existing religions of tribal communities as "essential ingredients of Hinduism" and using terms such as culture and religion interchangeably will be a serious negation of empirical findings today. In these anthropological approaches there is hardly any scope to look at possible influence of lower level "little tradition" upon great tradition. Even though many scholars believed that the Hinduism itself has been fashioned out of pre-existing folk and regional cultures and religions in different historical phases but Hinduism could not erode completely the pre-existing tribal religious beliefs and practices completely. Several studies have revealed that tribes people in many parts of India closely resemble peasant societies; even through they exist outside Hindu social order. In fact important aspect of survival and autonomous existence of tribal religion, which is even revived often, was ignored to bluntly justify and legitimize the "acculturation" theory and concepts of Great/Little Traditions, which were imposed without realizing the unique dimensions of Indian culture and its syncretistic religiousness.

Indeed one scholar has given some importance to existence of little tradition and its impact upon great tradition. Using festivals and deities as "tracers" within one Indian village, Marriott (1955) has analyzed the process of "parochialization" (downward spread into the parochial village culture of elements from Sanskritic Hinduism) as well as the converse upward spread, or "universalization" (of elements of village culture into Sanskritic Hinduism). One may note in this formulation certain gaps. One may argue if this scheme is equally applicable to themes of religious and cultural phenomena irrespective of a Brahman dominant or a tribal dominant village producing identical results. Moreover we are not sure about the intensity and limits of these downward/upward spread and where are we to draw a broad dividing line. Certain fuzziness does prevail between two poles, and indeed the scheme is essentially tilted in favour of the Hinduism. Truly speaking, the Hindus themselves are subdivided into distinct religious sects, with distinct theology and philosophy, ritual practices, shrines and "Literate"/"Illiterate" priesthoods. They not only generally do not intermarry; they also often have antagonistic relations. Indian ethnographic landscape is replete with varying degrees of local and national cultural and religious traditions, both Hinduistic and non-Hinduistic, which are continually interacting with each other, often fusing religious elements variously. Where shall we put these phenomena empirically and critically?

On perusal of anthropological works on India one gets the feeling that Indian culture is being equated with Hindu religion and non-Hindu (including tribal) religious traditions are largely set aside in order to favour and project the model of "Great Tradition" in close relation with Sanskritic Hinduism in the overall civilizational context. Irawati Karve in a similar tone spoke of the principle of "accretion" to describe the Indian culture scene. Whether it is in these formulations or in acculturation theory we thus find some scope for refinement particularly in locales such as India where increasing interactive multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-ethnic situations demand more value-free and objective conceptualization. Seen from these perspectives then the models of great/little traditions; universalization/parochialization and even the theory of acculturation seem to serve limited purpose in our understanding of multi-religious Indian situation today. What indeed lies behind India's multitudinousness is a variously and continuously interactive process of discoverable interculturalism and a vibrant process of syncretism shaping our composite culture in different parts of India.

Hendry (1999; 12) has observed that in complex societies, people have come to live with apparently conflicting worldviews, and their cosmologies now include scientific, religious, and even magical elements. In Japan a sick person simultaneously consults a diviner as well as a doctor, and may also visit a shrine or temple to pray for recovery (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984). Religious movements and plethora of religious ideas, in varied historical phases, motivated the people and brought them closer towards numerous religious cults, sects, reform movements and diverse belief systems. The underlying assumption seems to be that people need solace and assurance about fulfillment of all their wishes ultimately; hence they solicit refuge and sanctification of their expectations through their trust on varied religious and sectarian dogmas. Mingling of numerous exogenous religious beliefs with pre-existing religious dogma of people may not be regarded as an aberration. It is also not a system within system but the survival and situationally determined growth of multifaceted religious beliefs systems existing as a rational order. Syncretism as this author has elucidated elsewhere (Das, 2003) is a matter of degree, some societies have blended prominent aspects of two religious dogmas, in others only certain aspects of the original or adopted religion/sect has been retained and internalized. It is shown that syncretism pertains to a commingled religious sequence whose ill-defined frontier shapes its fundamental collective character (Das 2003a).


This article is largely based on this author's 'introduction' to Culture, Religion and Philosophy: Critical Studies in Syncretism and Inter-Faith Harmony. Editor N.K.Das. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2003. A pre-revised version of this paper was presented in IAHR Regional Conference on "Religions in the Indic Civilisation" held at India International Centre, New Delhi from December 18 - December 21, 2003.The views expressed in the paper are those of author alone.

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