Gentrification of the Gods, On the New Hinduism

Meera Nanda in New Humanist (reprinted at Eurozine):

Today’s generation of Indian upper and middle classes are not content with the de-ritualised, slimmed-down, philosophised or secular-humanist version of Hinduism that appealed to the earlier generation of elites. They are instead looking for “jagrit” or awake gods who respond to their prayers and who fulfill their wishes – the kind of gods that sociologists Rodney Starke and Roger Finke, authors of Acts of Faith, describe as “personal, caring, loving, merciful, close, accessible […] all of which can be summed up in a belief that Œthere is someone up there who cares’.” The textual or philosophical aspects of Sanskritic Hinduism have by no means diminished in cultural prestige: they continue to serve as the backdrop of “Vedic sciences” (as Hindu metaphysics is sold these days), and continue to attract a loyal following of spiritual seekers from India and abroad. But what is changing is simply that it is becoming fashionable to be religious and to be seen as being religious. The new elites are shedding their earlier reticence about openly participating in religious rituals in temples and in public ceremonies like kathas and yagnas. If anything, the ritual dimension is becoming more public and more ostentatious.

Not only are rituals getting more elaborate but many village and working-class gods and goddesses are being adopted by the middle classes, business elites and non-resident Indians – a process of Sanskritisation that has been called a “gentrification of gods”. Worship of local gods and goddesses that until recently were associated with the poor, illiterate and lower castes is finding a new home in swank new suburbs with malls and multiplexes. The enormous growth in the popularity of the goddess called Mariamman or Amma in the south and Devi or Mata in the rest of the country is a case in point.

The natural question is why? What is fuelling this middle-class devotion to “lesser” gods, traditionally associated with the unlettered?