by Jayaram V
When religion becomes organized, man ceases
to be free. If we think that it is a question of life or
death what concept of God we accept, then our hearts are
filled with fury. It is not God that is worshipped but the
group or the authority that claims to speak in his name.
Hinduism is not a religion
but a set of beliefs and traditions which have evolved over
a period of time. It is a way of life derived from diverse religious
movements evolved in the Indian subcontinent that share certain
common beliefs, practices and principles which constitute its
core philosophy. It is not based upon a single scripture or
the teachings of a single prophet. Hinduism does not have a
central organization like the Church of
Christianity or the Order of
Buddhism to control
its movements or canon.
It is not proper to categorize Hinduism as a mere religion.
It is a religious tradition which consists of several
sects, sub-sects, teacher traditions and ascetic
movements, some of which may be considered religions in
In short, Hinduism is a set of religious traditions and
belief systems that originated in India. To be more
specific, we may say that all religious traditions that
originated in the Indian subcontinent, since prehistoric
times, not forming part
of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism forms part of present day Hinduism.
that definition Hinduism encompasses not only major theistic
and atheistic traditions of Indian origin, but also numerous folk traditions,
tribal practices and religious customs dating back to
prehistoric times. Most of these traditions have been finely
integrated into the fabric of Hinduism, so much so that it
is difficult to identify them and distinguish them without
The word Hinduism was used by foreigners such as
Persians, Greeks and others in the past to distinguish
the native religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent from
Islam and Christianity. For the people
of India it has always been Santana Dharma, the eternal religion.
Hinduism is not an organized religion, nor does it fit into
any definite system of thought. It reflects the free inquiring
spirit of the human mind and unravels itself to
people according to their beliefs, aspirations and inclinations. There
are many dimensions to Hinduism, some crude and even vulgar
and some representing the highest thought and vision man can
Many people perhaps do not know that Hinduism consists of many
independent traditions within its fold such as
Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism,
Smarthism and many ascetic traditions, which qualify to be called
religions by themselves. They do share some common features
that are central to Hinduism.
the diversity of thought they provided and strengthened
itself over these centuries absorbing
the complexity and richness they have imparted to it through
Essential Features of Hinduism
Following are some of the distinguishing features of Hinduism,
which set it apart from other religions of the world.
- Hinduism has the largest pantheon
of living gods and
goddesses who are worshipped by
their many devotees. The supreme deity of one Hindu tradition
may be a secondary god in another tradition. But individual
followers do not suffer from mutual animosity. Each devotee
is allowed to worship his or her personal god as a supreme
deity, acknowledging the fact that Hindus have the freedom
to choose their own personal god or goddess.
- Hinduism is the largest among the most ancient religions
of the world and also the oldest living religion. Hinduism
and Buddhism are perhaps the only two religions that spread
to various parts of the world through peaceful means. At
one time they accounted for nearly half of the world population.
It is true that between 600 AD - 700 AD, Hinduism spread
to the far eastern countries through conquests and marine
expeditions led by rulers from southern India. Other than
this Hinduism remained mostly confined to the subcontinent,
while Buddhism spread far and wide. In modern times Hinduism
spread to various parts of the world through the peaceful
migration of Hindus and teachings of various religious
gurus and sects.
- Hinduism is perhaps the only religion that shares many
common features with other world religions such as
Sikhism. In modern
times, Hinduism has also been the source of inspiration
for many new age religious movements based in the USA and
- In the entire world Hinduism is perhaps the only religion,
other than Judaism, that survived contact with Islam
and Christianity despite their proselytizing and missionary
- In Hinduism there are
many contradictions. One person's religious scripture
may not necessarily be the same as another's. One sect may
believe in the reincarnation of God. while another may not.
One person may not recognize caste system, while others
may adhere to it strictly. One may follow all the religious
injunctions as prescribed in the scriptures and perform
all the necessary sacrifices, rituals and ceremonies, while
some may show complete disregard for them. Yet no one would
consider the latter as a non-Hindu. They may call him irreligious
or deserter of dharma (dharmabhrasht), but not a non-Hindu.
Every one who is born in a Hindu family is considered a
Hindu. One may be an atheist, or a rationalist, may follow
a sect that would not consider the
Vedas as revelations.
Yet so long as one does not claim oneself to be a Christian,
a Muslim, a Buddhist or a non-Hindu, one is considered
a Hindu and remain so for the rest of one's life. This is
not a recent phenomena. It has been so for a long time.
In ancient India even the kings used to patronize many religions
simultaneously. Members within the same family in ancient
times as in present times often belonged to different religious
traditions, but lived in harmony. If the Romans excelled
in political democracy, ancient Hindus excelled in religious
freedom, a practice which continues even today. It makes
Hindus very tolerant of other religions, more so today than
in the past when conservative Hindus maintained strict caste
rules and abhorred the notion of possible contact with foreigners,
unless they were purified and admitted into Hindu society
through rituals and ceremonies.
Who founded Hinduism?
Hinduism is not founded by any prophet or seer. It is not
controlled by any central organization. Hence it is not
dogmatic. The tradition grew in the Indian subcontinent over
a period of 6000-7000 years accumulating knowledge from various
sources. It also underwent numerous changes, with the
changing demography, social and political factors of ancient
India. The roots of Hinduism date back to Vedic, pre Vedic
and post Vedic traditions. Numerous scholars, saints, seers,
divine entities, godmen, ascetics and teacher traditions
contributed to the knowledge and philosophy of Hinduism.
Divine knowledge, intuition, inspiration, intelligence,
wisdom, empirical knowledge, enquiry and such other
factors led to the emergence of what we know today as
Hinduism. Hinduism was thus an organic tradition that grew
in the Indian soil, like an ancient Banyan tree and spread
its roots, branches and aerial roots in all directions.
Hinduism is perhaps the only religion in the world that
survived the continuous onslaught of propaganda by Christian
missionaries and religious wars by a multitude of Islamic
rulers who came to India with a determination to convert the
A review of available definitions of Hinduism
Hinduism is based on eternal principles and not centered
around the teachings of any prophet or founder. It is a religion
in which the fundamental principles remained the same over the
centuries, but the practices and our interpretations of them
kept changing, thereby making it very adaptable to changing
and challenging circumstances, without compromising its core
beliefs and losing its timeless appeal. Because of its evolutionary
nature, hidden symbolism and complex schools of thought that
often contradicted each other and contained ideas that were
totally alien to those not born into it, it presented many challenges
to modern scholars who wanted to interpret it from a western
point of view and fit it into a paradigm of classical religion
with which they were familiar. Being a confluence of diverse
traditions, it eludes a definition even today. In the following
statements and definitions of Hinduism, we can discern the difficulties
experienced by various scholars to define and interpret Hinduism
in meaningful ways. Some of them also reflect the ignorance
and personal prejudices of the scholars who made them and of
the times in which they were made.
The Voice of God
"Something has been shown to you in this year of seclusion,
something about which you had your doubts and it is the truth
of the Hindu religion. It is this religion that I am raising
up before the world, it is this that I have perfected and developed
through rsis, saitns and avatars, and now it is going forth
to do my work among the nations. I am raising up this nation
to send forth my word...When you go forth, speak to your nation
always this word, that is for the Sanatana Dharma that they
arise, it is for the world and not for themselves that they
arise. I am giving them freedom for the service of the world...It
is for the Dharma that India exists." (The voice of God
as spoken to Sri Aurobindo when he was detained in Alipur jail
during the freedom struggle.)
"I preached this imperishable yoga to Vivasvata (Sun)
who taught it to Manu and who in turn imparted it to king Ikshvaku.
The saintly kings who received it by family tradition knew it,
but in the course of time it was lost. The same yoga of antiquity
I shall teach you today. Since you are not only my devotee but
also a dear friend of mine, I shall reveal to you this great
mystery." (Lord Krishna as told to Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita,
"Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of
the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and
the realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped
is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of the Hindu
religion" (This definition of Hinduism was accepted
by the Supreme Court of India on 7th July 1995.)
Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami
"There are no heretics in Hinduism, for God is everywhere
and in all things. In such an open laboratory, Hindu spirituality
has grown over the millennia so diverse and rich that it defies
definition. Even knowledgeable Hindus, after a lifetime of study
will hesitate to say that Hinduism is one thing and not another.
Hindusm, more than any other religion, has encompassed the full
spectrum of philosophic positions, and to this day it venerates
living exponents of each...Hinduism is our planet's original
and oldest living religion, with no single founder. For as long
as man has lived and roamed across Earth's land and water masses,
breathed its air and worshipped in awe its fire, the Sanantana
Dharma has been a guide of righteous life for evolving souls.
Shortly into the twenty-first century, Hindu adherents will
number over a billion. All of them are Hindus, yes but they
represent a broad range of beliefs, sadhanas and mystic goals."
"In a banquet speech in Cambodia the King, the father
of Prince Sihanouk said: 'We are your spiritual descendents.
A man called Kaundinya came from south India years ago, defeated
the Cambodian princess, married her, settled down, established
his dynasty, and we are the spiritual descendents of that dynasty.
The name Khmer civilization which you give to that comes from
the world Khmeru of which Kaundinya was a citizen here.' The
civilization is called Khmer civilization.
"They had a temple of Krishna about 500 B.C. in Egypt.
Asoka sent his emissaries to different countries and some went
West, some East. You find, wherever you go, a kind of cultural
atmosphere which makes you feel at home. I have traveled in
different parts of the world - in Africa, in America, South
and North, in Asia, but there has not been a place in which
I did not find myself absolutely at home." (From Our Heritage.)
"There has been no such thing as a uniform, stationary,
unalterable Hinduism whether in point of belief or practice.
Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result;
a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation. Its past history
encourages us to believe that it will be found equal to any
emergency that the future may throw up, whether in the field
of thought or of history."
"There are these principles, which stand upon their own
foundations without depending on any reasoning, even much less
upon the authority of sages however great, of incarnations however
brilliant they may have been. We may remark that this the unique
position in India. Our claim is that the Vedanta only can be
the universal religion, that is already the existing universal
religion in the world, because it teaches principles, not persons."
"To the Hindus, then, the whole world of religions is
only a travelling, a coming up, of different men and women,
through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal.
Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material man,
and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why then are
there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, says the
Hindu. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting
itself to the varying circumstances of different natures."
"Hinduism, as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many-sided,
all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or
indeed to say definitely whether it is a religion or not, in
the usual sense of the word. In its present form, and even in
the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest
to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other."
"I call myself a Sanatan Hindu, because I believe in the
Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes in the
name of Hindu scriptures and therefore in the avatars and rebirth;
I believe in the Varnashrama Dharma in a sense, in my opinion,
strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense;
I believe in the protection of cow in its much larger sense
than the popular; I do not disbelieve in idol worship."
"My Hinduism is not sectarian. It includes all that I
know to be the best in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism...Truth
is my religion and nonviolence is the only way of its realization"
"If I were asked to define the Hindu creed I should simply
say, search after Truth through nonviolent means."
"Hinduism does not rest on the authority of one book or
one prophet, nor does it possess a common creed - like the Kalma
of Islam - acceptable to all. That renders a common definition
of Hinduism a bit difficult."
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
"Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors. The sanctity
and infallibility of the Vedas, Smritis and Shastras, the iron
law of caste, the heartless law of karma and the senseless law
of status by birth are to the Untouchables veritable instruments
of torture which Hinduism has forged against untouchables. These
very instruments which have mutilated blasted and blighted the
lives of the Untouchables are to be found intact and untarnished
in the bosom of Gandhism."
"The term "Hinduism" has recently been problematized in
western scholarly literature. "Hindutva." the Indian-languages
equivalent, identified with a cultural political program promoted
by right-wing Hindu political parties and extremist Hindu organizatins,
is viewed with suspicion and apprehension by many non-Hindus.
Some question the appropriateness of the very word "Hinduism,"
which, they say, is an "orientalist construct" invented by western
colonial interest. All agree that the term "Hindu" was imposed
on the Indians by outsiders. However, the designation "Hindu"
has meanwhile been adopted by Indians themselves, who identify
their religion as "Hinduism" over against Islam or Christianity.
Others deny the historic validity to the very notion of "Hinduism"
prior nineteenth century "Neo Hinduism," which arose as a reaction
to Christianity, the religion of the foreign colonizers."
(From Hinduism, A Short History.)
In Indian law, the term "Hindu" may even include those
who belong to traditions usually thought of as theologically
distinct from Hinduism. It is generally applied to anyone who
lives in India and accepts the Hindu tradition - which is not
defined - in any of its forms or developments. This therefore
embraces Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. The term also applies to
anyone else who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi (Zoroastrian)
"On the other hand, "Hinduism" has been a problematic
label even for some traditions that many people would generally
consider to be a Hindu. At different times several Indian sects
and movements have gone to court to argue against their official
"Hindu" status". (From the Eastern Religions, Oxford
University Press, General Editor Michael D. Coogan)
"Hinduism is not a religion established by a single person.
It is growth of ideas, rituals and beliefs, so comprehensive
as to include anything between atheism and pantheism."
"The more Hinduism is considered, the more difficult it
becomes to define it in a single phrase...A Hindu may have any
religious belief or none; he may be an atheist or an agnostic
and still an acceptable Hindu. It is public opinion working
through the caste system which determines whether someone shall
or shall not be regarded as a Hindu."
Manilai. N. D'vivedi
"Hinduism is a wide term, but at the same time a vague
term. The word Hindu is invented by the Mohammedan conquerors
of Aryavarta, the historical name of India, and it denotes all
who reside beyond the Indus. Hinduism, therefore, correctly
speaking, is no religion at all. It embraces within its wide
intention all shades of thought, from the atheistic Jainas and
Bauddhas to the theistic Sampradayas and the rationalistic Advaitins.
But we may agree to use the term in the sense of that body of
philosophical and religious principles which are professed in
part or whole by the inhabitants of India." (From a speech
made at the The World's Parliament of Religions.)
"The religion of the Hindu has no definition. His God
has a thousand names. He does not call Him simply “God.” He
clothes his God in all the rainbow beauty of his ‘infinite nature.
The Persians say that Jemal, the grace of God, is greater than
Jelal, the glory of God. So the infinite sweetness and beauty
of the Love of God that knows no barriers and no limitations,
is what the Hindu loves to dwell upon. His God comes to him
‘in a thousand ways." (From Hinduism: The World Ideal).
"Starting from the Veda, Hinduism has ended in embracing
something from all religions, and in pre-, senting phases suited
to all minds. It is all-tolerant, all-compliant, all-comprehensive,
all-absorbing. It has its spiritual and its material aspect,
its esoteric and exoteric, its subjective and objective, its
rational and irrational, its pure and its impure. It may be
compared to a huge polygon, or irregular multilateral figure.
It has one side for the practical, another for the severely
moral, another for the devotional and imaginative, another for
the sensuous and sensual, and another for the philosophical
"Hinduism, is therefore, is not a religion for the egoist
or the killjoy. Its first appeal to everyman is that he should
discover his station in society and perform the duties that
belong to it. Then the higher realms of spirituality would open
of their own accord. Three things, it is said, are essential
for spiritual realization - birth as a human being, aspirations
for attaining release, and association with sagely persons."
John Murray Mitchell
"A very strong argument against Hinduism is, that it is
a religion limited to Hindus. Hinduism is limited to India.
It throws obstacles in the way of proselytes. It cannot extend
to foreign countries."
Hy Rev. Robert P. Wilder, M.A., Calcutta, India
"What is Hinduism? A Brahman attempted to give me a definition,
but before he completed his statement another Brahman contradicted
him. It is easier to state what Hinduism is not than what it
is. It is the residuum left after eliminating Sikhism, Jainism,
Islam, and all the other religions of India. Its main characteristics
are the recognition of caste and the authority of the Brahman
priesthood. It includes a quasi monotheism, pantheism, polytheism,
polydemonism, and atheism. An authority on India, Sir Alfred
Lyall, has said, "The Hindu religion is a religion of chaos.
It is like a troubled sea, without chore or visible horizon,
driven to and fro by the winds of boundless credulity and grotesque
invention. " (From the Missionary Review of the World).
"The Hindu of our day may be a follower of the Vedanta,
the highest development of Hindu philosophy ; or he may be an
Agnostic, the product of Western thought acting on his traditional
beliefs; he may be a hill-man, as ignorant of theology as the
stone he worships in time of trouble, and ready to eat without
scruple any food he can procure, provided he belongs to a definite
caste, and duly follows the laws of social life which his caste
prescribes. And this has been the case from the earliest times.
It is doubtful, for instance, if Buddhism ever differed from
the orthodox Hinduism of its day more than does at present the
creed of the Vaishnavas of Bengal, or of the Lingayats of Southern
India. The Jains, again, though their beliefs conflict with
orthodox Hinduism in the most vital points, do not discard the
title of Hindu, and still employ Brahman priests. The revolt
of the Sikhs from Hinduism was the result of political and social
causes rather than differences of doctrine. Sikhism and Jainism
are commonly regarded as religions distinct from Hinduism, because
they became the State religions of ruling princes. Others who
hold equally divergent views, but have not been pushed to the
front by political influence, remain members of sects still
included within the Hindu fold."
Sir Alfred Lyall
"Hinduism may be described roughly as the religion of
all the people who accept the Brahmanic scriptures, the sacred
books and traditions, as orthodox and inspired; who adore the
Brahmanic gods, their principal incarnations and their symbolic
manifestations; who venerate the cow, observe certain rules
of caste in regard to marriage and the sharing of food, follow
a ritual prescribed by the Brahmans, and go to that priesthood
for all the essential forms and ceremonies connected with birth,
matrimony, or death. This is the general agreement; these are
the binding rules which unite the vast population which is called
Hindu ; but we must nevertheless be cautious about taking the
word Hindu to mean, like the word Mahommedan, a formal creed
or a uniform faith. For the Hindus are divided and marked off
into manifold interior diversities of worship and popular superstitions,
belonging to different ages and different grades of their society
; they have a great Pantheon of deities; they have an extensive
mythology ; their ritual varies incessantly with the places
at which it is practiced and the gods to which it is addressed."
"Hinduism is a tangled jungle of disorderly superstitions,
ghosts, and demons, demi-gods and deified saints, local gods,
universal gods, with their countless shrines and temples, and
the din of their discordant rites ; deities who abhor a fly's
death, those who delight in human sacrifices, and those who
would not either sacrifice or make offering— a religious chaos
throughout a vast region never subdued or levelled, like all
Western Asia, by Mahomedan or Christian monotheism."
"But when a man tells me that he is a Hindu, I know that
he means all three things together—Religion, Parentage, and
Country. I can be almost sure that he is an inhabitant of India,
I know that he is an Indian by birth and descent; and as to
his religion, the word Hindu, though it is rather indefinite,
undoubtedly places him within one of the many groups or castes
that follow the ordinances and worship the gods who are recognized
by the Brahmans."
"Hinduism may be said to represent high religious ground
that has been for ages a dividing line between the great religious
systems that have overspread the countries on either side of
it. Its characteristic is the entire absence of system; it has
never been under the political control or regulation of a State;
it has never been organized ecclesiastically."
Hinduism is an ocean, free from the fetters of social and
political institutions and from the narrow minded chauvinism
of religious zealots. It is under no man, but only God. A continuously
evolving religious tradition with inputs from many traditions
and cultures from the length and breadth of India, in many ways,
Hinduism is like an open directory project or an open source
software, with contributions from many selfless individuals
and owned by no particular individual, authority or religious
figure. Hinduism is a kind of world heritage which any one can
follow or leave according to his or her free will.
No definition of Hinduism truly justifies its true meaning
and significance. The difficulties in defining it are true and
genuine. It has many layers, and layers within layers.
It reveals itself to the extent a person is evolved and interested.
Ordinary individuals see the waves and the noise of rituals,
or the stench of casteism or empty ritualism, take it for granted
that this is what Hinduism is all about and live with the belief,
while those who are more intelligent and inquisitive, who have
a spiritual bent of mind, who are not satisfied with the mere
concept of heaven and hell, see the ocean beyond and using devotion
as the boat go on a voyage to discover the mysteries that elude
the ordinary vision of man.