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Hindu communities in Europe are very diverse and unevenly distributed. Western Europe accounts for the largest Hindu population (mainly consisting of people of South Asian origin and the so-called “twice-migrants” from East Africa), residing mostly in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France; in Eastern Europe the figures are smaller although there is a growing number of followers of new Hindu religious movements.
There is nonetheless an intrinsic difficulty about providing precise figures, first because the presence of some communities may be less organized and publicly assertive than others (and, therefore, more difficult to detect), and secondly because the very same concept of “Hinduism” resists a precise definition, being a problematic label aggregating a diverse range of realities.
The development of the Hindu religious traditions in the European continent is related to both colonial/postcolonial migration flows originating from South Asia and the growing number of converts and followers from non-Hindu background.
The flows have been determined by a different set of reasons, spanning from the peculiar colonial histories of the European countries to educational and economic factors such as the post-war boom for unskilled industrial labor force in Britain.
The Hindu community of migrants is often known by the term “diaspora,” a concept coupling both the idea of minority and the one of living in a place that is not one’s ancestral home, to which some connection is usually recognized, and which makes up the community’s identity to varying degrees. As a matter of fact, on the one hand, India’s civilizational heritage has played a significant part in the construction of this identity, Hinduism being a “locative tradition” assuming a strong association with a national territory. On the other hand, this “locative” rhetoric is softened by the fact that Hindu traditions in Europe have experienced processes of major adjustment in order to better adapt to the countries in which the communities settle: this is why religion has been identified as both a preferential device in the consolidation of the South Asian diasporic community and a means of transformation. Furthermore, the formation of Hindu sacred sites all over Europe emphasized instead the sacralization of sites and spaces wherever Hindus live, irrespective of their connection with the geography of India.
In addition to this, the emergence of second and third generations spurred diverse manifestations of identity (re)production, as a result of processes of adaptation to the context they live in. The plural identity of younger generations facilitates their switching from one cultural code to another depending upon the situation they find themselves in – a concept which has been defined by some scholar as “cultural navigation.” It is within this theoretical framework that young Hindus reshape, for example, their sense of connection with South Asia, carry out a reconceptualization of Hinduism following multiple interactions with non-Hindus, and question the relevance of caste membership in their lives. This reshaping tendency has arisen thanks to the growing number of interfaith marriages.
Regarding the issue of caste, the British Government commissioned a study in 2010 with the aim to identify whether caste discrimination and harassment existed in relation to the aspects covered by the Equality Act 2010. According to the research findings, caste discrimination occurred at workplace, schools and in the provision of services; therefore, since caste was not explicitly covered by British anti-discrimination legislation, the research group suggested extending the coverage of the Act so as to include caste-related harassment.
In 2010 the House of Lords voted to subsume caste under the Equality Act label “race,” pushing for the House of Commons to implement the legislation. After several years of debate and the amendment of Section 9 of the Act, mandating the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race, the government abruptly decided to change its policy in 2018. Much to the dismay of Dalit organizations and other campaigning groups, it did not recognize the peculiar discrimination related to caste, citing the “extremely low” number of cases of caste discrimination and calling caste “difficult to define.”
This situation brought to the forefront the thorny discourse of the presence in the European public space of the so-called “neo-Hindutva” organizations. The term “neo-Hindutva” identifies expressions of a diasporic Hindu nationalism operating outside of the institutional and ideological framework of the Sangh Parivar.
Departing from traditional Hindutva discourses, neo-Hindutva policies create a distinctive and hybrid form of Hindu nationalism and engage European institutions rearticulating political issues within the framework of multiculturalism and minority rights.
Some scholars categorized neo-Hindutva into “hard” and “soft,” the former not being reticent about its connection with Hindu nationalism but, at the same time, departing from the positioning and praxis of the Sangh, and the latter being more overt about its difference from the Hindu nationalist agenda.
The interfaith dialogue and the requirement to articulate the needs of the Hindu community in the public space have entailed the problem of appointing a “representative.” Several Hindu forums have been created in Europe over the past decades, also thanks to the coordinating and organizational effort of the Hindu Forum of Europe (HFE) which provided a platform where the European Hindu communities could engage with governments and advocate for their needs, as well as articulate the public image of Hinduism. Inaugurated in 2006, as of now, the HFE is the only pan-European organization providing this kind of platform for Hindu communities; this has been accompanied by much effort as it has proven challenging to gather such a diverse multitude of communities within the same overarching political subject.
Baumann, M. B. (1998). The Hindu Presence in Europe and Implications of Interfaith Dialogue., in Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, 11, 25-30
Eck, D. L. (2012). India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Harmony Books
Jacobsen, K. A., Sardella, F. (eds.) (2020). Handbook of Hinduism in Europe. Vol. 1 and 2. Leiden: Brill, 2020
Lourenço, I., Cachado R. (2012). Hindu Transnational Families: Transformation and Continuity in Diaspora Families, in Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 43(1), 53-70
Metcalf, H., Rolfe, H. (2010). Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain - Report. London: National Institute of Economic and Social Research
https://www.hinduforum.eu (website of the Hindu Forum of Europe)