The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns

Author:   Steven Vertovec
Publisher:   Routledge Publications
Reviewer:   Vinod Sartape
Designation:   PhD Student in Sociology, JNU


Vertovec, Steven (2000) The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns, London and New York, Routledge, pp. X + 190, Price- Unknown

Based on the historical and ethnographic analysis of construction of ‘Hinduism’ both within and outside the country, Vertovec’s “The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns” gives deeper socio-economic, cultural and political insights of Hindu diasporic situations. Vertovec discussed the comparative patterns of Hindu diaspora emerged from old Indian emigration to the present migration of Indians especially to the industrially developed countries like USA, UK, Canada. In other word, the comparison between ‘old diaspora’ and ‘new diaspora’ in relation to Hindu emigrants has been discussed in the book. The Hindu diaspora, as the author observed, estimated nine millions population flourished across the world with their unique way of sets of beliefs, identities and social formations. The author argues that ‘the forms and meanings of Hinduism continued to change in a ways that are curiously both distinct from, and continuous with, the still evolving forms and meanings in India itself’. The book is an attempt to discover how and why Hinduism and Hindu identities have developed the way they appear substantially in appears in the substantially different places. The book however provides the de- facto analysis of growing Hinduism within and outside India.

Citing Cohen (1997), Vertovec interrogates whether religion can or should be described as ‘diasporas’ alongside the dispersed ethnic groups which are quite dissimilar  in cultural practices to religious groups? Religions generally do not constitute diasporas in and of themselves. It is in fact a posing phenomena ‘cognate’ to diasporas. Since Hindu diaspora is not a monolithic whole and scattered on the different grounds (region, language, caste, etc), Vertovec submits his views parallel to Cohen that the Hindu diaspora is an ambiguous and marked by extensive intricacies. The term ‘Hindu’, author argues is a historically arrived fact. The homogenizing the notions of Hinduism and Hindu community gives rise to the ‘Hindu Nationalism’ which comprises of ideological, institutional and ritualistic structures into Indian sense of ‘patriotism’.   

The two major periods of migration have also been discussed in the book. First, migration under the imperial regime from India to other colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially under the contracts of ‘indenture labour’. The second phase of migration began in 1950s and in 1960s to Britain and to USA, Canada and Australia respectively. The Hinduism arrived in Indian Diaspora through indentured labour system which was result of abolishment of slavery system. The first Indians to arrive in the Caribbean were brought to British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1838 as a part of global transplantation of Indian indentured labour which seems to be a cause of ‘economic devastation’ and continual famine situation in India. The indenture sought to be a harsh alternative for slavery which lasted until 1917 with a heavy exodus of Indian labour.

Caste system, Vertovec observed, is one of the staggering aspects throughout the Hindu Diaspora, albeit it does not govern socio-economic structure directly. In the places like Trinidad and East Africa caste phenomenon among Hindus has similarly proceeded paradoxically. The implications of caste to develop Hindu society outside India, for instance, ‘in Trinidad’, Vertovec argues, ‘the almost total breakdown of caste relationships and identities allowed the creation of single Hindu religious tradition and facilitated commensality, congregational worship and other patterns of consociation through which a sense of general Hindu communalism was fostered’ (p. 26). In Britain too, on the other hand, author finds a fair amount of commensality, congregational worships and other forms of communal activity which exists in several places.

Vertovec differs with the anthropologists who had begun to discuss the notion of ‘little tradition’ and ‘great tradition’ in order to address the diversity within the group vis’-a-vis’ local and India-wide Hindu religious phenomenon. However, author argues that the ‘little’ and ‘great’ tradition is become very limited means to comprehend the wider structure of Hinduism scattered across the world. For, he suggests the notions- ‘official’ and ‘popular’ religion would be more elaborative and useful in describing different strands and levels of Hinduism. In addition, Vertovec observed that there is a preconceived and pre-determined notion that social scientists and researchers often pursues while studying Indian culture. There is a sense of considering Indian culture is an absolute and an ideal one as it appears by its very instant. Author differs with this method of researching Indian culture. He rather suggests, in his own words, “… we need to stop looking to India as the ideal culture, the fountainhead or yardstick. There is indeed a need for a shift in perspective and method”. Author also pointed out the several cults of Hinduism appeared through several Hindu organizations in the entire overseas and places like Britain, USA, etc. The Brahminisation of Hinduism seemed quite obvious since the monopoly of Brahmins over rituals and other socio-cultural aspects have a strong hold.

The book focused on the historical and contemporary trends in Surinam, Trinidad and Guyana vis’-a -vis’ Hinduism and other political factors. The religious interest of the Hindu organization such as ‘sanatan dharma maha sabha’, over the period, shifted into political interests. For instance, the political mobilization of organization under the banner of ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ and latter ‘Democratic Labour Party’ led the nation (Trinidad) into independence.

The growth of Hinduism in Britain through reproduction and representation has discussed in the book. The building of temples sought to be a significant means of reproduction of religious practices in Britain. The representation seem to be occur through several broad- based Hindu led organizations like VHP, ISKCON, etc.

The term ‘twice migrants’ has also been discussed by the author, particularly in relation to Indo-Caribbean Hindus who migrated to Britain. The origin of migrants was Gujarat and Punjab who came to Britain from East Africa during the late 1960s and 1970s. The ‘twice migrants’ often seemed as a scattered and disorganized with regard to the people who directly migrated to Britain. They barely have any linkages with homeland. Whereas, the networking and institutional mechanism, author argues, of direct Indian migrants is much more strong which leave no scope for ‘twice migrants’ to associate themselves, but to alienate from them, instead. Moreover, the identity of twice migrants as ‘indian-ness’ is often questioned. They are rather identified as an ‘Asians’ than Indians/Hindus or Hindu diaspora. Therefore, author argues that, in this regards, ‘Indo-Caribbean Hindus in Britain are conscious of indeed making a significant point of being a kind of diaspora of a diaspora’.

Finally, author discussed the three meanings of Diasporas; ‘diaspora as social form’, ‘diaspora as type of consciousness and ‘diaspora as mode of cultural production’. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew through transformation and difference. The Hindu diaspora, Vertovec argues, is a process of transnationalism fostering novel configurations of cosmopolitanism.


Vertovec’s analysis seems unclear about caste discrimination in Indian Diaspora which is result of Hindu diaspora. Caste, as argued by few, is a potential threat for the social progress and detrimental to inclusiveness. The Indian Diaspora is not an exception for this since Hindus have spread across the world with their prime identity, caste. However, the strength of the book is, it theoretically and pragmatically approaches the evolution and transformation of Hinduism throughout the process of Hindu diaspora.

Vinod Sartape

PhD Student, Centre for the Studies of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University,    Email:  [email protected]      

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