12 Oct Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’?
Is it a Religion?
(The subtitle has been added following an intensive discussion that is recorded in the comments section. The point at issue was that the title of the post was misleading giving the impression that the subject pertained to the content of Hinduism whereas the intended perspective was quite different. The series was intended to explore the interactions of three religions (which is how we perceive history in retrospect, incorrectly as this series intends to argue) for which reason it was important to define at the outset the ways in which the three religions were alike and different. This anticipated the point raised in Part 2 of the series which referred to the first census in British India which institutionalized religious identities for non-religious purposes. In this census, the census-takers made the claim that in the etymological sense of the word, Hinduism is not, and never was a religion. The first two posts in the series were an attempt to deal with this definitional dilemma which is why the term Hinduism was used in quotes.)
I need some help from readers.
I am not a historian, nor do I have the luxury to devote time to intensive research. And yet, I have some hypotheses about ‘Hinduism’ turning over in my mind that I need to work through.
The only way I can do so is to take advantage of the blog format. I will set out the hypotheses as markers of my present state of ignorance and hope that readers will help chip away the false from the true and lead to a more accurate understanding.
This exercise will benefit me but I am sure it will be useful to all those in South Asia who are now growing up without adequate knowledge and information about their neighbors.
The principal questions in my mind are the following: What is ‘Hinduism’? What were the major characteristics of Muslim and Christian interaction with ‘Hinduism’? And how is today’s ‘Hinduism’ impacted by those interactions?
Here is how I see the questions at this time:
What is ‘Hinduism’?
There is a reason I have put the term ‘Hinduism’ in quotes. The very word makes me wary because it is an obvious Anglicism. The term ‘Hinduism’ could not have existed before the arrival of the British in India. It’s like referring to Islam as Mohammedanism, which is not quite the same thing. It is one of the isms like socialism or communism that derives its meaning from what precedes it.
So is it the ism, the ideology, of the Hindus? But the term ‘Hindu’ itself is of Persian origin and could not have existed before the arrival of the Persian speakers from Afghanistan. The river Indus marked the boundary of the domain of the Afghans and anyone who lived beyond the Indus was a ‘Hindu’. This was quite analogous to their use of ‘Hindi’ or ‘Hindavi’ as the generic term for the language of the people living beyond the Indus. This generic characterization made no concessions to the differences that no doubt existed between old Punjabi, khari boli, braj bhasa, Oudhi, etc.
People belonging to monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity could not have helped speculating about the ‘religion’ of the ‘Hindus’. But was what they termed ‘Hinduism’ really a religion in the terms in which they understood it?
‘Hinduism’ has no one founder, no one sacred text, no one place of pilgrimage, no one time of worship. If we feel the need to pigeonhole it in the category of a ‘religion’ we must make the effort to understand what kind of religion it might be.
One can infer that before the terms ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ came into vogue there were dharms or ways that characterized the behaviors of the people who lived in the lands of the Indus.
There were two principal characteristics of these dharms that are relevant to our discussion. First, the practices that made up these dharms were extremely localized. Different communities could worship the deity of their choice, participate in the rituals of their preference, and do it in ways that were convenient for them. Second, there was a uniform social organization that was very hierarchical with extremes of segregation amongst caste groups determined by birth.
Note that this societal arrangement of a centralized and common social organization with localized and differentiated ‘religious’ practices was quite contrary to what we are familiar with in pre-Enlightenment Europe with its centralized religious practices and localized social organizations.
I don’t know enough to go into how and why these arrangements emerged but from a modern day perspective I can hazard two observations about this ‘way’ or dharm.
First, from a modern-day perspective, the fuzziness (or lack of rigidity) of ‘Hinduism’ was its great strength. It made ‘Hinduism’ extremely tolerant, if not indifferent, to variations in ‘religious’ practices. There was no such thing as ‘deviation,’ no ‘heresy,’ and therefore no ‘inquisition.’ ‘Hindus’ did not feel the need to convert anyone to their own superior way or ‘religion’ and could coexist easily with outsiders. ‘Hinduism’ had the kind of philosophy and attributes one would want in all religions today.
Second, again from a modern-day perspective, the hierarchical social organization and discrimination in ‘Hinduism’ was its major weakness. Today, a worldview that looks upon others as ‘inferior,’ whose very shadow can be polluting, is not acceptable in the framework of human rights. This was acknowledged by the government of India that made caste discrimination illegal in the Constitution of 1949.
To conclude: ‘Hinduism’ before its interaction with Afghans and Europeans was better characterized not as a religion (in the Judeo-Christian framework) but as a ‘way’ with two dominating attributes; localized and flexible worship practices and centralized and rigid social organization. From a modern-day perspective, the first constituted a major strength, the second a major weakness.
To be continued…