Did Hinduism Exist Before the 19th Century?

There are many scholars who argue that “Hinduism” didn’t exist as a distinct religious identity before the 19th century. If you check out Wikipedia’s article on Hinduism, for example, you can see the following stated:

And also, from Wikipedia’s article on “Hindu”:

In other words, people who we would think of as Hindus today didn’t think of themselves as Hindus before the 19th century. They would identify with sect or caste instead. This is not, however, the position of all scholars, as seen in the “History of Hinduism” Wiki article:

Having read both Lorenzen and King (who is the source cited in the first quote), I think that Lorenzen’s position is much stronger. The popularity of the “Europeans Created Hinduism” position comes from its usefulness in challenging modern communal tensions in South Asia between Hindus and Muslims. It helps promote a myth of communal harmony that existed before the colonial era. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. I’m not saying that the extreme communalist views of history pushed by some Hindu nationalists are right, nor am I saying that colonialism did not have a huge effect on Hindu (and Muslim!) identities in South Asia. But the identities are not European creations, and they (and many of their disputes) existed before the 19th century.

I base this conclusion on the Hindu vernacular literature before colonialism (where Hindus would make fun arguments against Islam like, “Friend, don’t you see that labels like “Islam” and “Hindu” are just cultural divisions with no basis? Let us forget all that and draw closer to the true divine, as Hindus!”), on the actions of pre-colonial rulers like Khusro Khan and Shivaji (who was not, I believe, the Hindu partisan he is commonly portrayed as, but still), on the writings of pre-colonial European missionaries, and on the development of Sikhism (“There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” doesn’t make much sense without Hindu being a communal identity).

It’s an important question I think, not just for the sake of scholarship but also for the aforementioned implications on current-day communal conflicts in South Asia. Any thoughts?

Isn’t the argument not so much that pre-colonial Indians didn’t distinguish between Hindu and Muslim, so much as that what we think of today as “Hinduism” was, before being lumped together by 19th century English anthropologists, a bunch of diverse sect and cultic practices, so that a Telugu worship of Lakshmi in Madras wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be practicing the same religion as a worshiper of Shiva in Kashmir.

That is pretty much the argument, yes. But I don’t think that argument is right. Hinduism has never had firm boundaries, but nevertheless I think that there did exist a self-conscious Hindu identity before 1800 that was grounded in texts like the Puranas and the Bhagavad-gita. This identity owes itself, tremendously, to the rivalry between Hinduism and Islam, and the need to recognize what the different Hindu schools had in common as a contrast to the Islamic other.

Premodern Sanskritic literature does not address Hindu identity because they didn’t recognize this need, they did not see other religions as worthy of being an “other” and so they did not define Hinduism against them. However, vernacular Hindu literature is completely different. It mentions unified Hindu identity in contrast to Islamic identity repeatedly starting in the 15th century, with certain instances even before. These are Hindus expressing consciousness as Hindus, rather than as their specific sect, caste or school.

I disagree that it is that recent. There are certain traditions in the sub continent or originally from there which are recognized as distinct and have been for long even though the differences between them and one part of Hinduism are less than between different cults sects of Hinduism. Buddhism and Jainism for instance.

I think the British more or less adopted the Muslim definition of Hinduism which means the the religion of the various people east of the Punjab, which we are not bothered to differentiate unless we have to.

Good point. Consider that a Roman Catholic saying prayers to Mary while kneeling in front of a statue and an Amish person who won’t drive a car and burns anything remotely resembling a religious image would both claim to be following the same religion (Christianity), even though they disagree on a large number of points. Catholicism and most forms of Protestantism generally recognize each other as Christian (heretical maybe, but non-Christian? no way), but generally do not recognize Mormons as Christians. Several Christian traditions, including Roman Catholicism iirc, officially consider the CoJCoLDS as a completely separate religion with a different god and would require converts to “accept Jesus” and become a Christian in addition to accepting the teachings of the tradition. “Transferring” between sects generally does not require a full conversion experience - a Catholic who wants to become a Lutheran doesn’t necessarily have to “Accept Jesus as his savior” or “become a Christian” as part of the conversion process if he has already done so as part of his previous tradition. He could say “I am, and have been, a Christian, but today I declare that the Pope is a heretic and an antichrist and accept the teachings of Luther and other reformers.”

Unless and until they both heard a Muslim or a Christian preach. Then they’d give each other a meaningful look, the kind that says, "You and I might have our differences but at least neither of us is crazy!"