As a devout Nikal Seyni faqir, I feel it my duty to point out, right at the outset of my review of 'Unifying Hinduism', that Prof. Andrew J Nicholson is not the current avatar of Brigadier John Nicholson, avenger of the Mutiny, and so though this young Professor chastises the Subaltern or Sepoy or plain Silly Scholars who claimed that the Brits invented Hinduism a couple of Centuries ago, he does not do it by strapping those beggarly rebels against sweet Reason to the mouths of canons and blowing them to pieces- surely the kindest way of dealing with them- instead, he puts forward the equally ludicrous notion that actually some medieval Pandit accidentally unified Hinduism while compiling a doxology or practising dialectics or ticking off his dhobi or some other such routine activity, and this happened a couple of centuries before British rule got off the ground. Why does Nicholson have to make this absurd claim? Well, if he admitted that the Gita already shows Samkhya and Yoga darshanas as being viewed as close to or complementary with Advaita then he pretty much admits the Hindutva 'Sanaatan Dharma' case. Indeed, since Buddhism and Jainism aren't really nastika in that both, from the earliest times, affirmed a relationship with the Rg Veda and moreover attracted a large number of Brahmin converts right from the outset, Nicholson's entire argument falls apart. Indeed, the material he presents supports only the common sense Hindutva view- viz. intellect applied to sectarian polemics is using one's brain as a bedpan- insanitary but not obligatory,
Nicholson's hero, Vijnanabhikshu, maintains a demarcation between Hinduism as against Buddhism and Jainism- but this could be because, under Muslim rule, Buddhism had disappeared and popular Jain religion was scarcely flourishing in his part of India. Prior to Muslim rule there had been many occasions, as is attested by Sanskrit and Tamil and Kannada literature, when Hindutva type Hinduism was the rule- i.e. it was a big tent affair- and sectarian polemics was a sort of hilarious joke or onerous chore Society imposed upon Soteriology so as to enliven its Saturnalia.
Nicholson tells us that prior to the 12th Century, many 'Hindu' savants devoted themselves to controverting the doctrines of rival sects. He does not tell us that this was considered very very funny and that in so far as the thing had a political dimension, or actual Sociological impact, the real question was which shrine or Saint had greater magical power or which dynasty was on the rise and which entering decline.
If it were really true that, prior to the 12th Century, there was no understanding that 'Hindu' thinkers shared a common orthodoxy, or at least had commonalities sufficient to differentiate themselves from non Hindus, then -clearly- it is only the Muslim invasion which is being remarked on (but only by implication coz otherwise one might be labelled a vulgar Islamophobe) because Jainism and Buddhism and Ajivika religion permitted dual loyalty- one could be an orthodox Brahmin or whatever and also a Jain shravak or a Buddhist lay disciple or whatever. In other words, we can have confidence in advance that Nicholson is going to have to stack the deck in order to get the result he wants- viz. that something happened in 'intellectual history' which had nothing to do with Muslims but which 'unified Hinduism' anyway. Furthermore, we can predict how Nicholson will stack the deck based on our knowledge of the academic availability cascades of the last twenty or thirty years. To start off with, some pretty flakey whackjobs- like Paul Hacker, whom I personally drove out of Bonn in 1963 by reason of my ultra Hindu 'inclusivist' zeal to shit and piss on every resident of that small town- will get air-time simply so as to erect a straw-man purvapaksha- then, aberrant scholastics like Kumarila are going to have their importance totally overstated. For sure, foolish memes about Mimamsa and Nyaya- especially navya nyaya- are going to be repeated, as if that shite meant anything even to its own practitioners; the mainstream Jaina tradition will be ignored in favour of one or two tendentious Sanskrit belles lettrists; Sheldon Pollock's bollocks will be genuflected to- tatte utana we say in Hindi- and some perhaps sound enough PhD research is going to be stretched out into a real sketchy appearance of paradigm busting by means of a sort of self-willed cultural blindness that mimics but can't compete with that of asli head-up-one's-own arse tradition of authentic Indian scholarship.
Thus Nicholson, naively, will tell us that that he has discovered that at some point in time every sect has reckoned members of every other sect will burn in hell fire unless they convert immediately according to some complicated ritual. This is supposed to prove Hinduism wasn't unified. The trouble is the Indians already had the notion that everybody spends at least a few eternities in various Hells and Heavens not to mention countless births as bigoted upholders of the rival creed etc, etc. But karma working over infinite Time means that apparently conflicting ontologies- such as that of Umasvati, Nagarjuna and Sankara- cash out as the same thing because it turns out that all the eternities in Hell, Heaven and so on last less than a blink of an eye compared to the truly eternal eternity of kevalya/nirvana/mukti.
Nicholson, bless his cotton socks, plays the ingenue biting the finger of amazement that his hero found commonalities between totally distinct systems. But these systems were only distinct to scholars- i.e. people Indians have always recognized as utter imbeciles. This is not to say Vijnanabhikshu isn't interesting or rewarding to read. He is, but as a means of enriching our reading of contemporary riti poets and vice versa coz that kinda thing sure feeds bhakti and bhakti verily is bliss- well at least the kind of bliss that don't fast track you to type 2 diabetes.
One thing that always puzzled me was the claimed rediscovery of a living Samkhya tradition in Bengal back in the 1920's (if I recall correctly). I've got a Hindi book purporting to be from that Ashram on my shelf and always wondered whether maybe this Samkhya school is actually descended- or fabricated- from Vijnanbhikshu, some of whose works were published in the Nineteenth Century.
Anyroad, nothing greatly wrong with the content of Nicholson's book that I could see. My feeling is that its faux naive problematization is just the two drink, intellectual dishonesty, minimum for getting into Academic Publishing's Comedy Club these days. This is Nicholson's first book- so there's hope yet is what I'm saying. Or perhaps that's just my own naive faith in the Nikal Seyni eschaton in which young Andrew is transfigured into the avenging Angel who finally puts the smackdown on, if not Michael Witzel or Sheldon Pollock, then at least Jeffry Kripal or Purushottam Billimoria. Wendy O'Doniger, however, is off limits. But for her warning that the South Indian Brahmin female bites off the penis of her consort before beheading him, I might have had an arranged marriage myself. Not that Iyer parents are too niggardly to hire a nice electron microscope for my bride to detect my penis on the honeymoon night- it's just I don't believe in dowry system- that's all.