Photo by Shubhro Jyoti Dey on Unsplash

What is Hinduism?

Defining the indefinable

Last month I was in conversation with a fellow atheist and one of the questions that came up was ‘What is Hinduism?’ In this post I’ll be trying out a few different ways to approach this controversial question.

1. Let The People Decide

A simple way to decide who is a Hindu (and who is not) is by self-declaration: you are a Hindu if you identify as one. Hinduism then becomes the religion followed by everyone who calls themselves a Hindu.

But this definition is a tautology. It may work for the purpose of defining who is a Hindu but it doesn’t really answer the question of what is Hinduism i.e. what is its defining feature.

More importantly, you may get biased responses when you ask people to self-declare their religion by choosing from a predefined list. As per the methodology of the 2011 Census, the six major religions of India (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) are assigned codes from 1 to 6. Respondents who don’t find their faith represented can pick an ‘Other’ option else they will end up being counted as Hindus. This has led to a demand by tribal communities for a separate, single religious code for all tribals of India which would encompass upto 83 different tribal religions.

More on this later, now let’s move on to the next approach.

2. Country of Origin: India

These days you can find many people saying that Hinduism should be defined as the set of all religious traditions which have their origin in the Indian subcontinent. This is in fact the definition preferred by Hindutva groups going back to VD Savarkar’s statement that a Hindu is someone whose pitrbhumi (fatherland, or land of ancestors) is the same as their punyabhumi (holy land). By this logic Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism would come under the umbrella of Hinduism whereas Islam and Christianity would be excluded as they are known to have originated outside the subcontinent.

The definition actually leans on the original meaning of the word ‘Hindu’ given by the Persians, who referred to the people living beyond the Indus river as Hindus, the inhabitants of Hindustan. Note that this is a geographical definition which makes no reference to a common religion. Even the region they were pointing to would correspond to the Northern and Western regions of present-day India but not the Southern and Eastern parts.

So where did the idea of a common religion called Hinduism come from? We shall come back to this question after taking a historical detour.

In 1772 the East India Company wanted to create a uniform legal system to govern their newly acquired territories and the task fell on Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of Bengal. The British administrators had little appreciation for the diversity of Indian society but they did notice that the Muslims (or Mohammedans) seemed to have distinct laws and customs. So the British created two categories: Muslims and Everyone Else, the latter being labeled Hindus. Later, in 1871 the British conducted a Census of India in which Indian society, till then organized according to caste (jati), came to be reorganized on the basis of religion. Thus India’s Hindu majority was created.

This video by India Ink has the full story:

But do the Dalits and Adivasis properly belong in the Hindu fold? And what about Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs? Is there a defining feature of Hinduism which these religions share?

3. Hinduism is the Vedic Religion

I now put forward yet another definition of Hinduism: it is the Vedic religion. That is, all religious beliefs and practices which can be traced back to the Vedas constitute Hinduism. We know that many (but not all) of the important Hindu deities worshiped today are mentioned in the Vedas. For example, Shiva is mentioned in the Rigveda as Rudra.

A core idea of Hinduism, atman¹ also has its origin in the Rigveda. In fact, if you do not subscribe to the concept of atman you would have to reject almost the entire philosophical content of the Bhagavad-Gita. So the question is, can Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism fit under the umbrella of Hinduism if they (1) do not accept the authority of the Vedas, and (2) do not subscribe to the notion of atman

Let’s take the case of Buddhism. Although Hindus believe the Vedas to be shruti (literally “heard” but implying divine revelation), the Buddha rejected the claim that the Vedas are of divine origin or that they are infallible. The Buddha also did not believe in the existence of atman as a permanent, unchanging self.³ So Buddhism does not check either of our boxes to qualify as a Vedic religion.

This, however, has not prevented some Hindus from counting Buddha as one of the avataras (incarnations) of Vishnu, a Vedic deity. How convenient!

Dashavatara of Vishnu: Buddha appears on bottom center [Image Credit]

What’s in the ‘Other’ Category?

What about Dalits and Adivasis? This passage from BR Ambedkar’s ‘The Untouchables — Who Were They?’ (1948) provides some historical background:

The Untouchables — Who Were They? Chapter VIII p.71

The “new classification” was discontinued soon after Independence.

We could also ask whether upper caste Hindus today consider Dalits to be Hindus. Clearly not, going by some recent incidents where, for instance, a Dalit family was fined Rs.25,000 when their 2-year old toddler ran into a temple in Koppal, Karnataka. The fine was sought to be imposed for conducting “purification rituals” but fortunately District officials intervened.

Next, there are believed to be several million followers of the Sarna faith among Adivasis in Jharkhand. The Sarna religion is essentially a form of Animism or “nature worship”. Vedic deities and rituals are absent from it and therefore, as per our definition, Sarnas are not Hindus.

We also have the Sanamahis of Manipur who follow a polytheistic religion with no Vedic connection. Until very recently I was not aware that such a religion existed but that should come as no surprise given how little people across India know about the Northeastern states’ culture.

This should make us pause and think: how many other religious and cultural traditions of India have been lumped together under the big tent of ‘Hinduism’?

Epilogue

I have been informed by an extremely competent authority that the definition of Hinduism as the Vedic religion is not defensible. The Vedas or Vedic philosophy are not central or essential to the practice of Hinduism. Several Hindu deities, such as Ganesha, who are very prominent today are not of Vedic origin but were retrospectively inserted into later scriptures like the Puranas. Oh well…

Notes

¹ The term atman roughly translates to ‘Self’ but is a subtle concept which requires a separate post

² These are the same two criteria used to distinguish Āstika and Nāstika schools of Indian philosophy. Nāstika means “one who does not believe in the existence of…” Existence of what? Of atman.

³ But Buddhists do believe in reincarnation, which leaves open the question of what is being reincarnated from one birth to the next 🤔

This post was inspired by a conversation with Katie Mae Lynn who goes by the name of Queer Indian Atheist on YouTube and Facebook

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