We have mentioned the Indus Valley Civilization, which seems to have existed over a vast period of time between 7000 BCE and 1700 BCE, and although the debate still rages over the nature of this great culture, whether it was Dravidian, Aryan or other, the Indus River has had a great effect on defining modern Hinduism. The Sanskrit name for this river is “Sindhu” and with the coming of Arabic speakers to India around 1000 CE the term “hindu” first appeared. Arabic speakers pronounced “sindhu” as “hindu” and used the word to refer to those living on the other side of the Indus River. Consequently, the term was originally a geographical reference that included many peoples. As late as the 16th century the term even referred to Muslims living within India because they too lived beyond the Indus. By the end of the 18th century, however, the British were using the term to refer to the people of India who were not Christian, Muslim, Sikh or Jain. The “ism” was added early in the 19th century. Later the word was appropriated by “Hindus” themselves as part of their national and religious identity; and so today the term has evolved as the name for the religion of the Vedas. The more correct Sanskrit term for this religion is, sanatana-dharma, “the eternal way,” but since the term “hinduism” has emerged, we will use this word.
Who is a Hindu?
As we have noted, there is a problem in defining Hinduism in the same way that we do Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. In this sense it is hard to call Hinduism a religion at all. Hinduism has no founder or even a fixed belief system. Hinduism has no corporate hierarchy. There is no church or governing institution that says all Hindus must believe a particular creed, or that all Hindus should act in a certain way. For this reason, Hinduism has tended to remain a religion of individual experience rather than institutional doctrine. It is true that most Hindus revere the Vedas, but not all do to the same extent. Many consider the Vedas as divine revelation, but others consider them as ancient human inspiration, and yet both groups are within the Hindu fold. Some Hindus are highly theistic, believing in a personal God, while others are not. It is true that most Hindus accept the ideas of reincarnation, karma and liberation, but others do not. At the same time most Jains and Buddhists also accept the ideas of karma and reincarnation. Are they Hindu? At a recent meeting, one educated Hindu gentlemen declared that even Christians are Hindus, only they just don’t know it! We could say that Hinduism is an ethnic religion of the people of India, but the largest Hindu temple in the world, a Vishnu temple, is not even within India. It is in Cambodia! And here in the West it is common to see Westerners coming to Hindu temples for puja and havan. These Westerners generally consider themselves Hindu. In fact, there are many Western groups building major Hindu temples throughout the world. So even this attempt at a definition does not work. Perhaps the first prime minister of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, best captured the essence of the problem when he said that Hinduism is “all things to all men.” Certainly I would not go this far in defining Hinduism, but the Prime Minister’s comment does express the difficultly in defining this ancient tradition.
Regardless of how we define Hinduism, there is one glaring truth that is emerging. Hinduism is now expanding into the world to an extent that it has never done before, and in so doing, it is changing in fundamental ways. Our next section about religion and language will explain the root cause of these changes, but for now, not only is Hinduism under the pressure of modernity as all religions are, even more importantly, it is under pressure from the monotheisms of the world to conform to a more standard religious model–that religion is something you believe. Consequently, Hinduism is becoming a religion of belief, similar to Christianity. But Hinduism has never been a religion of belief. Hindus are under increasing pressure to have a common set of beliefs and practices: acceptance of the Vedas as divine revelation, acceptance of reincarnation, karma, and the divine nature of Krishna and Rama, and even to have standard prayers, songs and dietary practices. We now even see prominent Hindu groups publishing Hindu “catechisms” and other publications outlining what Hindus believe. And such books are well-received by Hindu parents who are struggling to teach their children the beliefs of Hinduism before they go off to college and are confronted with aggressive Christian or even secular humanist’s attempts at conversion. In spite of these recent developments, I am still hesitant to provide a definition of Hinduism, other than to say that it is simply a union of multi-religious streams. And so, if you think of yourself as a Hindu, and you can accept the idea behind the Rig Veda verse, “Ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti,“ you are a Hindu.