chapter  6
24 Pages

Teachers and their traditions

In Chapters 2-5 we have focused on four key aspects of ‘religion’: notions of the divine, sacred texts, myths and devotion. We have seen how each of these becomes shaped and produced in modern South Asian contexts. One of the obvious missing ‘elements’ from this list is the category of ‘founder’. For some religious traditions it is easy (although quite often misleading) to identify an ‘original’ historical teacher from whose life and/or teachings the rest of the tradition flows: Jesus for Christianity, Gautama Buddha for Buddhism, Mahavira for Jainism, Mohammad for Islam. This then yields a model for a religion of a single, central tradition from which offshoots develop. This is all rather problematic when it comes to ‘Hinduism’. Hindu traditions do not have a central tradition or single founder. Some scholars argue that rather than Hinduism, we should speak about Shaivism, Vaishnavism and sometimes also Shaktism as separate, discrete religions, based around the worship of Shiva, Vishnu and the Goddess respectively (see von Stietencron 1995: 51). As the historian Will Sweetman has argued, this approach has many problems. Not least it presupposes a model of religion based on that of Christianity, which requires a religion to have a ‘set of revealed scriptures’ and assumes that it ‘worships the same god as the highest deity’ and ‘knows its own . . . founders of sects’ (von Stietencron, cited in Sweetman 2003b: 334, our emphasis).