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…

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  • radhika yeddanpudi
    Posted at 17:51h, 17 October Reply

    My ideas are based on growing up Hindu and some reading of Romila Thapar (mind you, many Hindus dislike her interpretation that is supposedly “Marxist” because she calls a spade a spade!). I hope these will stimulate discussions on this blog:

    1. the characterization of Hinduism as a way that included rigid social hierarchy and loose religious formation is acceptable. I realize that the nexus between Islam and Hinduism is the primary area of interest but if we look at Hinduism’s relationship with another major world religion, Christianity, the tolerance aspect of Hinduism is less clear. Witness the events in Orissa and it seems that Hinduism has “solidified” with people being re-converted to Hinduism in order to retain their land holdings, properties, etc. This re-conversion is particularly mystifying because I am really unaware if historically there has been a prescribed process in our texts or even oral evidence of such a practice. Who decides what is the conversion process anyway?

    2.With Islam there also appear to be what I will loosely call bridges-generations of Sufi saints, poets, emperors and leaders who advocated and exemplified religious tolerance. These bridges represent attempts both by Muslims to understand and relate to Hinduism but also efforts by some Hindus to absorb ideas from Islam.

    3. The pantheistic universe of Hinduism has been generous say with including Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu in some accounts and Jesus in India takes on quite a Hindu air (being decorated often with bindis and garlands!). Buddhism is particularly interesting because for almost 600-1000 years, many parts of India (and Pakistan!) were Buddhist. Again, Buddhism gained its strength from enforcement by emperors-Ashoka, Satavahana dynasty in southeastern India. From my readings, it seems to me that Muslim invasions paradoxically gave greater strength to the Brahmanical bent of Hinduism that had been kept in check by Buddhism. Coopting the “gods” of other faiths and including them into Hinduism demonstrates both the adaptability of the “way” and the canniness of the leaders! Tolerance might be a side-affect than intention.

    I am sure I have given enough grist for some mills to start grinding, hopefully not against me! Many thanks again for starting this blog!

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 22:42h, 17 October Reply


    Thanks for your comments. On the recent conflict with Christianity in Orissa, that is where we wish to get to in the argument. How did Hinduism, that was such an inclusive set of beliefs and practices, lose that flexibility? What in the interaction with Muslims and the British (which hasn’t been described yet) lead to that outcome? This is obviously a speculative exercise but one that can be rewarding for those enjoy argumentation.

    One area where we would need help would be the Buddhist interlude. What makes you feel that Muslim invasions gave strength to the Brahmanical bent of Hinduism? How indeed did Hinduism manage to reclaim the space that was ceded to Buddhism?

    On the canniness of leaders, I am skeptical. Too many leaders would need to get together and think very far in advance to come up with a doctrine that would achieve that object. Hinduism was just open to variations in the practices of its many sub-castes – a great advantage to have in a ‘religion’.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 06:03h, 22 October Reply

    I think Hinduism is a kind of tribal religion. There are animal gods, freaks with multiple heads and hands are also gods. In essence the practiced religion is pretty much tribal but there are elements of high philosophy in ancient texts such as Sankhya (something akin to modern rationalism) and Shankar’s Advait and concept of Maya, but this has only academic significance, absolutely nothing with practiced religion.

    On the whole a Hindu confuses grandeur of his rituals with greatness of his religion. Rituals in general are indeed very colorful and elaborate giving a sense of participation therefore a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. But there is dark aspect of the same in the form of macabre practices of sacrifice and tantric rituals. On the whole, deity in form rules, creating myriad contradictions.

    • Bharat
      Posted at 06:53h, 14 July

      Anil Kala:

      Your post reminds me of a lovely Telugu song by the 14th century saint Annamacharya. The gist of the song is, “Lord, your manifestation fits the conception and capability of he that imagines you; for the Saivite you are Siva, for the Vaishnavite you are Vishnu and for the Devi worshipper you are Kali. And for the petty and shallow minded you are petty and shallow, while great minds can visualize your greatness.”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:20h, 23 October Reply


    This is an interesting perspective that gives us the opportunity to explore a new set of ideas.

    In the sense you describe, Hinduism has parallels with Greek and Roman belief systems with their pantheon of gods (some with wings on their feet) and complex rituals but also a sophisticated philosophy that (perhaps) did not much impact the practice. These gave way to monotheistic religions. In India too, there emerged religions initiated by well-identified founders (Buddha and Mahavira) that dominated for a while. However, unlike the Greek and Roman religions, Hinduism was able to re-establish its supremacy in its home territory.

    How did this happen? We need a scholar of religion to enlighten us on these questions.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:19h, 24 October Reply

    I think it is the powerful appeal of symbols and grand rituals that common people identify with. For the common folk it is enough to complete some chore and feel a sense of fulfillment. Taking three or seven rounds of a temple is easier than understanding nature of ‘soul’. Collective noise of drum beats, conch shell and ‘arti’ at a temple gives a high to the devotees. Look at Sikhs, a very recent religion; came into being essentially to fight irrationality of rituals of Hinduism and now the Sikhs are going crazy fighting court cases all over the world to avoid wearing helmets as if it is some kind of punishment. The simple fact that essence of Sikhism is in the teachings of Guru Nanak is subsidiary to the five symbols.

    Every where symbols rule.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:41h, 26 October Reply


    The hold of symbols and rituals is indeed very powerful. Amongst Catholics, the ritual of the blood and body of Christ is still repeated every Sunday but Christianity has moved beyond a ‘tribal’ religion.

    I can understand ‘common folk’ retaining an attachment to rituals that provide a sense of fulfillment. What I need to understand is why there was no equivalent of the intellectual ‘Encyclopedists’ in Hinduism who attempted and succeeded in moving beyond the symbols and rituals of a ‘tribal’ religion

    We do have the phase of Buddhism with its extreme reaction – no God, no sacred book, no after-life. Perhaps, it went too far in the other direction to have survived in India.

  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 06:37h, 29 October Reply

    Hindus use the word Hindu only when we set ourselves apart from others, so it is not the name we use for our faith.
    We normally introduce ourselves by our jati (sub-caste). In Gujarat, at a gathering, I will introduce myself as Patidar.
    There is an exception, and that is for Brahmins, who will introduce themselves as Brahmin, their caste.
    In the city, we introduce ourselves always by our language: I am Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and so on.
    Again, there is an exception and that is for Muslims, who will introduce themselves as Muslim.
    There is almost zero interest in the other’s caste in such settings, and close to zero knowledge.
    Our religion is called Sanatan Dharma and that is the phrase used by both of the faith’s last two reformers, Vivekanand and Gandhi.
    A copy of Gandhi’s declaration of faith (I think from 1923) is pasted in his handwriting outside his room at Sabarmati Ashram.
    HuN Sanata Dharma ma maanuN chhuN: I believe in Sanatan Dharma.
    Sanatan means eternal. What we understand as Sanatan Dharma is dogmatic Hinduism, derived from the Manusmriti text.
    It means a social hierarchy whose maintenance keeps the cosmic balance.
    The Valmikan Ramayan tells us why, after his conquest of Lanka, Lord Ram kills the Shudra, Sambuka. He is reading Vedic texts forbidden to him. Lord Ram kills Sambuka restoring a dead Brahmin’s child to life.
    Hinduism is a set of rituals and actions that keep the cosmic balance.

  • amiahindu
    Posted at 00:01h, 10 November Reply

    Hinduism is a CULTURE and it stands for RELENTLESS SEARCH AFTER TRUTH and that is the reason why I believe any one who searches after truth is automatically a Hindu.

  • Rohit
    Posted at 07:41h, 03 December Reply

    Someone very beautifully described Hinduism as a religion that exists at many levels. If you chose to engage with it in terms of high philosophy, you can turn to the Upanishads, or if you want to see it as terms of a god who will protect you, you can worship a tree.

    This isn’t very different from other religions in practice. The veneration of saints, the intervention more miracles, visits to Sufi mazhars, wearing of amulets and talismans all go over.

    There is plenty of intellecutal thought in Hinduism,

    Its also an assimilative religion. If I remember my Thapar and Kosambi correctly, Vedic religion absorbed tribal practices. Tribal goddesses were “wedded” to vedic gods and a uniform cosmology was created. Buddhism which broke away from Hindu orthodoxy was reincorporated into the Hindu fold and Buddha was added to the pantheon of Hindu gods.

    There is an arguement that Hinduism as a religion was in some ways defined from outside, in order to make sense of several ways of life in the subcontinent. Indeed there is little that stands as Hindu dogma, even eating of beef or atheism is permitted. That there is no Hindu pope, that no one can claim to speak for all Hindu’s is seen as a weakness by the Hindu right who are trying to push a monolithic idea of Hinduism. This move is not new and goes back to the late 19th century.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:25h, 06 December Reply


    You have anticipated where this series of posts is headed. In many ways Hinduism has allowed itself to be defined from the outside. We hope to show in more detail how this process unfolded in the course of the interactions with Muslims and Britons.

    We also hope to show, how this detracted from the strengths of Hinduism that began to be viewed as weaknesses. And what are the consequences of this redefinition for Hinduism and for South Asia.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:51h, 21 March Reply

    Can a contrast be drawn with the ‘Chinese’ identity ? There are quite a number of variations among the Chinese people (Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese) but they are not as sharp as the variations between say the Punjabi, Bengali and Tamil people in India. Why that is the case is another intriguing question in itself.

    In some sense both India and China developed civilizations relatively early, and in many ways have maintained the continuity of their ancient civilizations. This was because of the large size of their populations which could absorb shocks from the outside where others could not. A prominent example is Iran, which in many ways was not able to absorb the ‘shock’ of the entry of Islam and the Mongol invasions.

    The key difference was that the Chinese very quickly developed a political identity revolving around the emperor, whereas India, in some sense only achieved this after the adoption of the Constitution and after the separation of some areas which were historically part of its identity. The Chinese identity was in many ways better equipped to incorporate the nation state. Whereas the Indian/Hindu identity, seems to be very problematic when it comes to morphing into a national one.

    I think this insecurity of the difference within Hindus is one of the principal reasons for the growth of the intolerant Hindu nationalism.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 04:51h, 22 March Reply

    Vikram, May I recommend the chapter “How China became Chinese” in the book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:40h, 24 March Reply

    Vikram/Vinod: Thanks for mentioning the contrast with China. I have been thinking about this ever since I read Mark Lilla’s book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.

    It struck me immediately that Lilla limited himself to the monotheistic religions and had nothing to say about religion in India and China. The issue of how religious fundamentalism is related to the conception of God is a critical one. I have invested considerable time in this (without reaching any firm conclusions) but let me write my thoughts in a separate post rather than trying to summarize them here.

    Of course, there are many related issues (puzzles) you have mentioned that need to be addressed.

    Vinod: Thanks for the lead to the chapter in the Diamond book. I have been meaning to read it and this provides a good reason. It would be good to get your feedback since you live in close proximity to a large Chinese population.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:29h, 11 September Reply

    This is a very useful review of Wendy Doniger’s new book The Hindus: An Alternative History that addresses the issue of the nature of Hinduism. This is how the reviewer sees it:

    Doniger’s title, The Hindus, is a politic choice, pointing to an old, diverse and historically complex people (numbering over three quarters of a billion worldwide), rather than to “Hinduism”, a colonial construct, or to “Hindutva”, a political identity invented in the 20th century. In pre-colonial India, all manner of folks who might have practised what we understand loosely to be “religion” did not see themselves as part of any umbrella category corresponding to the English word “Hinduism”. There was no single “-ism” at play until India’s encounter with European missionaries and colonists in the 17th century. As Doniger writes, tongue in cheek, today we could just as well call it “the religion formerly known as Hinduism”.

    The review is also useful because it lays out the task for the new generation of South Asian scholars.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:31h, 11 September Reply

    SA, I’ve been reading the book by SN Balangangadhara titled ‘The Heathen in His Blindness’. I got the link to his book from your ‘From Elsewhere’ selection. He gets into exquisite detail to explain how the colonial construct of Hinduism came about. It has been a very enlightening read for me.

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 15:50h, 16 September Reply


    As a Muslim or a Christian you obviously are bitter Hinduism somehow survives.


    You’ll just have to get used to it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:32h, 16 September

      Ganpat: I could be a Sikh or a Hindu. I could be a non-believer. Why is it important to know my religious orientation in order converse with me? Are you interested in the messenger or the argument? Suppose I found out today that I was adopted and raised in a tradition different to what I had been born in; would all my arguments change? I would find that very distressing. I hope the arguments rest on robust logic and are not a function of an accident of birth. This is not a blog that subscribes to any one relgion, nationality, or country; it exists to challenge the logic of arguments with evidence and with respect to each other. No one here is afraid of being proved wrong because no one is perfect and no one knows everything. So your challenges are very welcome and we will address then to the best of our ability quite independent of our religious and national affiliations.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:51h, 02 April Reply

    Has anyone read the 2005 book Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion by Brian K. Pennington? If so, some thoughts on the issue would be useful. Here is a link to a review to start a discussion.

  • Arun Gupta
    Posted at 04:27h, 15 July Reply

    You should look up the work of Prof. Balagangadhara, Univ. of Ghent, Belgium, who argues that “Hinduism” no more exists than “unicorns”.

    If I can find this thread again, I’ll find a link and post it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:54h, 15 July

      Arun: I am familiar with Prof. Balagangadhara’s work and found his The Heathen in his Blindness a very stimulating read. It has been referred to a number of times on this blog. Some other articles by him have been archived in The Best From Elsewhere section of the blog.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 04:36h, 17 October Reply

    I have not read the later posts in this series and this post occurred a while ago but it has always bothered me. The problem is that the post asks what ‘Hinduism’ is but it does not lay out the many different ways such a question can be answered. The interest in the post is a sociological one but the sociology offered seems to be too sweeping and overly simple. It is as if the intellectual content of a thought system (or, indeed, systems) has no bearing upon the sociology. And, indeed, one of the comments goes so far as to say that this is so.

    I am no expert on Hinduism but I do know enough to know that Hindu religious practices are not merely polytheistic, as all ancient cultures were. India and Greece and, to a lesser extent, China were the three ancient civilizations where philosophy was first born and it is arguable that India influenced Greece in this though the influences later went in both directions (after Alexandrian times).

    I am copying here the famous Nasadiya creation hymn from the Rig Veda, the oldest text in any Indo-European language dating back to about 1000 BCE to illustrate the complexity of the ideas that informs it at even in its early stages.

    Nasadiya (10.129)

    There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
    There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
    What stirred?
    In whose protection?
    Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

    There was neither death nor immortality then.
    There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
    That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
    Other than that there was nothing beyond.

    Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
    with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
    The life force that was covered with emptiness,
    that One arose through the power of heat.

    Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
    that was the first seed of mind.
    Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
    found the bond of existence and non-existence.

    Their cord was extended across.
    Was there below?
    Was there above?
    There were seed-placers, there were powers.
    There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

    Who really knows?
    Who will here proclaim it?
    Whence was it produced?
    Whence is this creation?
    The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
    Who then knows whence it has arisen?

    Whence this creation has arisen
    – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –
    the One who looks down on it,
    in the highest heaven, only He knows
    or perhaps even He does not know.

    Translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. From the Book “The Rig Veda”

    As Doniger says, there are hundreds of commentaries on its meaning. My own view is that it already shows an awareness of metaphysics (as opposed to the pre-philosophical stage of myth and mythology) and expresses the question of origins in abstract terms that go beyond any set of gods. It is an amazingly modern view – a kind of monism (variants of which were held by thinkers like Bertrand Russell and many other philosophers) – which comes quite close in very broad terms with contemporary physics (e.g. string theory). This monism later influenced the Upanishads and the Pre-Socratics who took it new heights. Incidentally, it may be safe to say that in most cultures polytheism came first; after this different cultures diverged between monism of various kinds and monotheism. In India as in Greece, there were many other systems besides monism although monism occupied a central place. Monism is just the view that all existence is reducible to some one substance, as I said, a highly abstract view of the nature of the world.

    Why is all this relevant for the sociology and the everyday practice of Hinduism? It is relevant because almost all Hindus, even those who are not well educated, know that there are multiple levels of thought in the systems and practices that include many different viewpoints including atheism and agnosticism. (Many commentaries view the hymn above as expressing a kind of agnosticism.) All the stuff about how outsiders viewed it is no doubt interesting in order to understand history, but we should not make the same mistakes many outsiders did. It is in my view simple-minded to conclude that just because outsiders named it, it had no internal existence. To give two analogies: we all use the word “game” to refer to various games which are very different from each other; yet there is a common term that captures them all. Likewise, we all use the term “modern philosophy” to capture a variety of thought systems that are very different from each other. This does not mean that games and philosophy and other such concepts do not occupy a certain common space. It is the same with Hinduism by which I mean to include all the heterodox systems that existed in classical India, not just Buddhism and Jainism. It is perhaps better to say “classical Indian thought” which better describes this complex of ideas. These ideas were actively debated by thinkers literally over millennia just as we engage in debates today. It is in this sense that they share a common ground which provides the unity that allows us to give it a name.

    I should mention that I myself do not share many of the views of Hinduism and am highly critical of the Hindu right and the caste system and all of that but that is neither here nor there. The point is to understand what an object is in a scientific way, the object here being ‘Hinduism’.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:04h, 17 October

      Keluvardhanam: I am surprised at the conclusion you have drawn: that just because the name is of recent coinage what ever it was intended to represent had no internal existence. That would be beyond simpleminded; it would be an absurd point to make.

      That aside, the focus of the series is different and perhaps that did not come out clearly in the first post. Your are elaborating Hinduism as a system of thought and you are quite right that it is a complex and sophisticated one. The series was intended to explore Hinduism as a social and political category and the reification of that category. The point the series wanted to raise pertains to the nature of the imagined Hinduism that emerged as a reaction to colonial domination, how that imagined Hinduism fed back into the creation of an imagined past, and the implications of this shadow cast by the future on the past for the present.

      I guess you can see the two-way interaction of the future and the past. How do we see the events of a millennium ago? Do we see invaders who were Muslims acting in a way that was the norm at that time? Or do we see Muslim invaders who were driven by the religious motivation to conquer a Hindu India? On this turns the perception of whether any non-Hindu structure in India today is a part of Indian heritage or whether it is an irritant to be erased from history.

      The focus of your interest (system of thought) would correctly have the Hindu Right as a minor footnote. The focus of the series (political relations) would correctly place it at the very center.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 17:08h, 17 October Reply

    South Asian,

    Here are some quotes from the above:

    1. “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 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.”

    2. “I believe in Sanatan Dharma.
    Sanatan means eternal. What we understand as Sanatan Dharma is dogmatic Hinduism, derived from the Manusmriti text.
    It means a social hierarchy whose maintenance keeps the cosmic balance.
    The Valmikan Ramayan tells us why, after his conquest of Lanka, Lord Ram kills the Shudra, Sambuka. He is reading Vedic texts forbidden to him. Lord Ram kills Sambuka restoring a dead Brahmin’s child to life.
    Hinduism is a set of rituals and actions that keep the cosmic balance.”

    3. “Hindus use the word Hindu only when we set ourselves apart from others, so it is not the name we use for our faith.
    We normally introduce ourselves by our jati (sub-caste). In Gujarat, at a gathering, I will introduce myself as Patidar.”

    4. “I think Hinduism is a kind of tribal religion. There are animal gods, freaks with multiple heads and hands are also gods. In essence the practiced religion is pretty much tribal but there are elements of high philosophy in ancient texts such as Sankhya (something akin to modern rationalism) and Shankar’s Advait and concept of Maya, but this has only academic significance, absolutely nothing with practiced religion.

    On the whole a Hindu confuses grandeur of his rituals with greatness of his religion. Rituals in general are indeed very colorful and elaborate giving a sense of participation therefore a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. But there is dark aspect of the same in the form of macabre practices of sacrifice and tantric rituals. On the whole, deity in form rules, creating myriad contradictions.”

    All of the above are based on extreme ignorance if not prejudice. For a variety of both internal and external reasons, the thought content of classical and medieval Hinduism is poorly known even to Indians. It is unfortunate that many people feel they have only two choices available to them, either to side with the Hindu right or to be anti-Hinduism. That does not leave any space for scientific and intellectual conversation.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:00h, 18 October

      Keluvardhanam: I don’t have a problem with extreme ignorance nor am I embarrassed by it. On this blog, we don’t have access to experts. We often start from positions of extreme ignorance and hopefully help each other progressively reduce the degree of ignorance. This is explicitly stated in the description of the blog:

      Note: The South Asian Idea is a resource for learning, not a source of expert opinion. The posts on the blog are intended as starting points for classroom discussions and the position at the end of the discussion could be completely at odds with the starting point. Thus the blog simulates a learning process and does not offer a final product. The reader is invited to join the process to help improve our understanding of important contemporary issues.

      We would appreciate any help you can provide to improve our understanding of the topic under discussion. I am not sure of the basic level of understanding one should assume. In your earlier comment you had said “almost all Hindus, even those who are not well educated, know that there are multiple levels of thought in the systems and practices that include many different viewpoints including atheism and agnosticism.” In your most recent one you seem to say the opposite: “For a variety of both internal and external reasons, the thought content of classical and medieval Hinduism is poorly known even to Indians.”

      This is a complex topic and one has to be patient in the discussion. There may be a lot of ignorance but there is no prejudice. We can make progress if we retain faith in our good intentions.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 20:16h, 18 October Reply

    South Asian,

    There is no problem as such with ignorance but thoughtful people qualify their statements in such situations with phrases like “I think” or “My view is that” etc. Otherwise people will think that this person does not know that he does not know, shun him.

    To take a simple case, Aakar Patel says he has to introduce himself as a patidar in Gujarat. But, even in modern times, people introduce themselves as bankers or teachers or candlestick makers. This has very little to do with the issue of caste as such but the implication is that caste is all-important. Also, if he wishes, I would be happy to introduce him to people in Gujarat where he would be able to introduce himself as a journalist. But some introduction is required in any social setting. Further, if you are at a bankers’ convention, why would you introduce yourself as a banker? In the same way, if you are among Hindus, why would you introduce yourself as a Hindu?

    Aakar Patel does not seem to know that a distinction needs to be made between social customs and a religion or philosophical system as such. Of course Hindus think of themselves as Hindus just as other groups identify themselves by their group identity.

    Caste has many oppressive dimensions but it also serves practical functions (to use a modern word, it provides a person’s social “coordinates”) and to conflate the two knowingly is a kind of prejudice. The fact that a person is a patidar is not wrong by itself; what is wrong is the hierarchies associated with caste and the attendant lack of mobility in modern times.

    (In early Vedic times, a Shudra could become a Brahmin simply by emulating the life of a Brahmin and acquiring his learning. Later, by the seventh and sixth centuries BCE – around the times of Mahavir and Buddha – things began to solidify and mobility became increasingly difficult – which was roundly criticized by these and other sages. Things became even worse during the period of the so-called Middle Kingdoms after the Mauryas until modern times when caste was abolished by the Indian Constitution.)

    Regarding my apparently contradictory statements, what I meant was this:

    Even uneducated people know that there are levels and complexities in Hinduism without knowing what these complexities are. They do not actually know the thought content themselves but they know it is there. That is why I found the statements I quoted above not just ignorant but somewhat prejudiced. But I am willing to ignore my own attributions in this regard.

    Hindus do not simply worship physical objects (e.g. idols) as such but early Hinduism – like many ancient cultures including Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt – was and therefore still is pantheistic i.e. they believed everything was sacred and that god inhabited everything with some things being more sacred than others. So when one says that someone worships a tree, it has to be understood to mean that the person believes the tree is part of what is sacred. For those who know these things, god is both immanent and transcendent (e.g. iti iti and neti neti) i.e. internal and external, unlike monotheistic religions where he is only transcendent. That is why many Hindus will say that god is in everyone or that everyone is god and this leads to an ethics of being good to everyone in theory, even the lower castes. But there is a bewildering variety of beliefs when one looks at the details even though there are many common elements among them that give them a basic coherence and unity.

    There are also good reasons why the different idols have the kinds of forms they do: one simple one is to differentiate them from humans while still giving them human form. It has to be kept in mind that many myths arose in ancient cultures from their interest in astronomy and music e.g. scholars argue that the sexagesimal system (base 60) arose from astronomical and musical interests. For example, the Rig Veda mentions various numbers that are multiples of 60 that are connected both with musical ratios and with the precession of the equinoxes. Indeed, most people would not be able to duplicate their calculations and observations today.

    My main point is not that anyone needs to believe in god or be a believing Hindu. I am an atheist, for example, and do not believe many of the things in Hinduism. The attitude that one has to adopt is a scientific and intellectual one and then things become very interesting: one has to ask questions like why did caste emerge or why did idol worship emerge or why did idols have unusual forms and in general why why why? There are many many scholars not just of Hinduism but of all religions and it is fascinating to understand how a community of people came up with their solutions to the problems of existence.

    Of course, in terms of the present, some of these solutions can lead to oppressive outcomes and then they have to be challenged and abolished but that does not mean one has to merely condemn without understanding. Curiosity and understanding are the key. I find these elements absent in many of the statements above.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:22h, 19 October

      Keluvardhanam: I see the point you are making but one has to make allowance for the context. This harks back to the note I had quoted from the blog description. If the writer/speaker is an expert then most of the statements are expected to be authoritative and the expert should certainly point out wherever he is speculating. On the other hand, in a conversation among lay persons, the default state is one of incomplete knowledge. If every statement is qualified it would make for a very cumbersome discourse. In such a context a meta-qualifier that all statements are subject to correction ought to suffice. Only claims of certainty would need to be highlighted.

      The note was part of the blog description for this very reason. A TED-like forum would belong to the first category, a coffee-house chat between Freshmen to the second. If we expect participants to apologize for every false claim or assertion we would have a situation in which no one would like to say much. As it is, there are very few commentators as a proportion of readers which I consider to be the major failing of the blog.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 18:07h, 19 October Reply

    South Asian,

    I didn’t mean to suggest that people keep qualifying their statements with “I think” etc. In fact, Anil Kala starts his comment above with that phrase. My annoyance is not so much at the display of extreme ignorance; it is that there is a kind of pseudo-liberalism in the way the comments have been worded. I suppose Aakar Patel and Anil Kala think they are being rather hip in their implied self-criticism: look at how free thinking I am etc. And Aakar Patel writes with a certainty in his sentences as if to indicate that everyone in India behaves exactly as he says they do. It would give a very wrong impression to readers, especially those who know little about India and those who are impressionable. It would increase their prejudices.

    I’m not against criticism of religion. I think modern-day practices that are uncritical and/or oppressive should be criticized but it is very different when one is describing something as broad as Hinduism. The first thing your article should have done is to give some time frame for the concept you wished to discuss. The title of the piece asks “What is Hinduism?” and then proceeds with an extremely narrow view of the subject that has almost nothing to do with what the majority of people identify as Hinduism. And the various comments exacerbate this by picking up on this narrow outlook and commenting on highly isolated aspects of it.

    For the benefit of Aakar Patel and Anil Kala, I would say that it is wise not to criticize what one does not understand. The critic’s first duty is to acquire some basic understanding, he does not need to be an expert. Even if one is describing the food habits of people, one should be careful to use words accurately – one should not say “Why Indians are Stressed and Unhealthy” or whatever it is Aakar Patel wrote. A more accurate title could have been “Why Some Indians …” or “Why Indians belonging to such and such group …” etc. A large number of Indians are, sadly, malnourished so there is no question of their being unhealthy from overeating fried food etc. Of course, the context of the article conveys the group of Indians he is implicitly referring to but there is an element of sensationalism in the way he writes. And even among that group he offers no understanding of why they eat as they do. They certainly do not wish to be unhealthy or stressed. Then why do they eat this way? Could it be because the lives of many middle class urbanites, say, residents of Mumbai, make it structurally difficult to eat healthier food, etc.? Does he know how difficult life is for the average city dweller? And he publishes such articles in Pakistan which would only increase the incomprehension between two countries that are both already fed a lot of nonsense about each other.

    If the purpose of the blog is to increase understanding of social issues, then this kind of writing is the last thing it should be promoting even if it is just the expression of ignorant people. Aakar Patel is a journalist and by definition a semi-expert on the things he writes about. Readers take the printed word seriously especially when that kind of thing is their only source of information about the topic.

    So what I am urging is that people write responsibly, that is all. They may be ignorant, that is fine, but that does not absolve them of responsibility.

    After having said this, I would go on to say that I am for free speech above all of this. So my intention is not to curb anyone’s expression – they are free to criticize, make fun of, be irresponsible, or do whatever else they choose to in speech. That is fine. But then they will have to accept whether they like it or not the kinds of criticisms of their speech that people like me will make.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 13:38h, 22 October

      What part of my statement you dispute?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:44h, 20 October Reply

    Keluvardhanam: Your comment raises a number of issues that we should discuss. The key issue pertains to the imperative to write ‘responsibly.’ I have no control over what people write elsewhere but about the blog I have repeated time and again that it is not a source of information, let alone the only source of information. It is a forum for discussion where people identify logical and factual errors in arguments and build on them. That precisely is the vehicle for learning in this initiative. So, I don’t see problematic writing as dangerous, only as a source of learning. People are free to write what they want and others are equally free to critique the writing. I do have to exercise some judgment and do not post things that I feel are intentional attempts to hurt, incite or mislead.

    I can’t speak for the others but I did go back and read the post in response to your comment about it. I found the entire opening to be one long qualifier requesting the help of readers to understand something in which I claimed no expertise. The post is filed under history and not religion and I feel I made the limited objective clear – to understand the interactions of outsiders with the native population of India and the implications thereof.

    This was motivated by my belief that we need to dispel the misunderstanding that there was some head-to-head conflict between unified political entities that existed as Islamic or Hindu or Christian. For this purpose I felt I needed to deconstruct ‘Hinduism,’ which prompted the title of the post, because it does not fall into the same category as the semitic religions that are much discussed in these days of religious conflict. I do realize that I could have made my intention even more transparent to prevent any possible misreading of what I was trying to achieve.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 21:52h, 20 October Reply

    South Asian,

    I agree with you that none of the posts involved any negative intentions. I’m sorry this matter has riled me as much as it has. I usually do let such things go and, in fact, did let it go for a long while.

    It is possible that Anil Kala did not have the benefit of hearing tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana when he was growing up as a large number of Indian children do. Almost no Indian would, after hearing these tales, think that Hinduism was primarily a tribal religion because there were many kingdoms back then. And perhaps Aakar Patel has not had the benefit of knowing more modern people so that he has had to introduce himself by his caste wherever he goes.

    Regarding your own post, I agree that there was a major disclaimer at the start of the piece. However, the title of the piece could have more modest perhaps: something like “Some Sociological Aspects of Hinduism” possibly. The title leads one to think that the post is about what Hinduism is despite all the disclaimers.

    I am all for learning and I hope everyone learns something from this post as well as the many other posts on this blog.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:56h, 20 October

      Keluvardhanam: I didn’t really have sociological aspects in mind as the subject of the post. I will read the post again and mull over what I was trying to achieve and then change the title. The reason I got into the structural aspects of Hinduism was to make the point that it was very decentralized and non-rigid. There was no monolithic religiously united political entity in India As a consequence, it could both culturally and socially absorb a lot of foreign influences into itself, making them Indian, and also be politically run over easily. It was not as if the whole of Hindu India turned up in defense when some non-Hindu invader arrived in Delhi. These were not seen in terms of religious confrontations.

      If you read the rest of the posts in the (incomplete) series you will perhaps get a better idea of what I was attempting and you could enrich the discussion. The bottom line of what I was trying to argue is that the invaders who were Muslims were absorbed and became Indian perhaps because they had or made no claim to a superior culture. The post-Enlightenment British did with their mission to bring light to a benighted land – some genuine belief and some a rationalization for colonial rule. The British attempts (often unsympathetic) to interpret Hinduism in the Semitic template of religions (often as inferior to Christianity) led to a reaction in which a ‘new’ Hinduism evolved along with a new history. That was the rough outline of the argument whereby I wanted to explain the emergence of Hindutva and to distinguish it from Hinduism but much needs to be filled in and much would be wrong that would need correction. Only by engaging with these complex issues would we get beyond the gross oversimplifications with which we start the journey.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 00:29h, 21 October Reply

    South Asian,

    I have not read the later posts in the series so I have no idea of the goals. However, just this paragraph:

    “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 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.”

    suggests that at least this post is about the sociology of the religion. Maybe the later posts have more to do with what might be called a historical sociology. In any case, it is not about the content of Hinduism.

    For example, in the old Testament, there is a passage about how women who do not bleed on their wedding night should be stoned. If one then turned around and said Judaism is about the practice of stoning women who do not bleed on their wedding night, it would be a gross misrepresentation as a response to the question “what is Judaism?”.

    Another analogy might help: if someone asked “what is physics” and I responded by saying that physicists tend to cluster in physics departments at universities and they also tend to have a hierarchical structure, I have not answered the original question. I have merely described the sociology of the physics profession and that, too, in an extremely simplified way as there are perhaps more important things about their sociology that have been left out.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:37h, 21 October

      Keluvardhanam: I am unable to accept for the moment your analogies with the characterization of Judaism or physics. However, if other readers share your perception I will change my mind. I do accept that the title of the post was too broad given that I did not intend to write a treatise on Hinduism. I focused on two characteristics that were relevant to the argument I wished to develop acknowledging my ignorance and requesting readers to help if my understanding was flawed. Whatever one writes, there are always other things, often more important, that have to be left out.

      I feel we still are far apart on the objective of the blog. It is not to present treatises in which every base is covered and every aspect researched. It is to dissect arguments and approaches that may be flawed and to improve them together. When one chances on a discussion that is not up to one’s standards one can either dismiss it as ignorant and prejudiced babble or help improve its level. That is an obvious choice to be made.

      In that spirit, what I was looking for was an input into the correctness or otherwise of my understanding of the two characteristics I had picked as a starting point for the discussion. Let me support them with reference to The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani. He writes on page 186: “The definition of Hinduism is an elusive academic quest, but one feature all agree on is its intrinsically decentralized structure. Ritual practices have always been differentiated by caste, by region and by sect, and there has never been a fundamental scripture that all must accept.”

      And on page 19 he writes: “Yet India was not simply an archipelago of villages imprisoned by the local ties of caste. The prevalence of common aesthetic and architectural styles, as well as myths and ritual motifs, attests to the presence of a larger, more cohesive power… These rested on a monopoly of literacy vested in one social group, the Brahmins… It cultivated a high tolerance for diverse beliefs and religious observances… and directed its energies towards the regulation of social relationships… This society was easy to rule but difficult to change: a new ruler had merely to capture the symbolic seat of power and go on ruling as those before him had done. India could be defeated easily, but the society itself remained unconquered and unchained.”

      Both these aspects are important to a discussion of the interaction of Indian society with external influences. One can discuss these arguments to advantage and argue about the extent to which they are credible or not. What would not help, in my view, would be to shift the focus to Sunil Khilnani instead criticizing him for lack of knowledge or for leaving out other more important aspects of the topic.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 13:59h, 21 October Reply

    I did have the ‘benefit’ of hearing tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata when I was growing up. In my opinion, both of these promote a hierarchical, patriarchal society, although they are very engaging (esp. Mahabharata) stories with many good lessons.

    The reflex reference to these two specific components of Indian and Hindu literature is a very typical upper caste trait, perhaps we upper caste Hindus should expose ourselves more to the literature and folklore of other Hindus and Indians.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 15:34h, 21 October Reply

    South Asian,

    Here is how you pose the questions you answer:

    “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?”

    It would help if you framed the questions with some more elaboration saying that your interest is in answering the ultimate question of how Hindutva emerged in modern times. As you said above, “That was the rough outline of the argument whereby I wanted to explain the emergence of Hindutva and to distinguish it from Hinduism.” If your interest is stated thus, then it gives an appropriate context to why you have centered on certain social practices within Hinduism and certain aspects of the social organization.

    Khilnani gives both dimensions, both the decentralized aspect as well as the centralized coherence. “Yet India was not simply an archipelago of villages imprisoned by the local ties of caste. The prevalence of common aesthetic and architectural styles, as well as myths and ritual motifs, attests to the presence of a larger, more cohesive power… ” His interest is again of a social kind as he goes on to talk about how the society was easy to rule but not easy to change. In his case, the broader context of his book supplies the requisite background so the reader knows fully what dimensions of Hinduism to expect. In the case of the blog, it is harder to tell and the title of the piece throws one off.

    Finally, I don’t see why the analogies did not make sense to you. You did not give any reasons. I think they both help to distinguish the content of the subject (Judaism, physics) from certain social practices associated with them.

    Since there has been a focus on music in some of other posts, an analogy with music would perhaps also help. In the posts on music, the focus is fully on the content of music and not on the social organization of its practitioners e.g. the various gharanas and the relationship between teacher and student etc.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:18h, 23 October

      Keluvardhanam: It is good that you are comfortable with Khilnani’s presentation of the two aspects. These are the same aspects I wanted to raise for discussion but failed to do sufficiently clearly. Of course, the confusion was exacerbated by a title that was too broad. I hope we can now move on to talking about the subject itself.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 16:54h, 21 October Reply


    I am a little surprised at your knee-jerk response and selective comments.

    Hierarchy and patriarchy have been present in all older societies. True, caste is a somewhat unique institution and is perhaps more rigidly hierarchical since the hierarchy, especially in post-Vedic times, is based exclusively on birth. Regarding patriarchy, I find your comment almost absurd because women got the vote only in the twentieth century and perhaps all societies even today are patriarchal.

    My reference to the Mahabharata and Ramayana was not a “reflex reference.” What made you think it was? I am not upper caste as you may be. I don’t even know if the South Indian sounding name “Keluvardhanam” that I have chosen is a real name. I just like the unusually long names South Indians have and so cooked one up to use on this blog. I am a person who is of a relatively low caste.

    The reason why I referred to the Mahabharata and Ramayana is that Anil Kala sounded rather ignorant about Hinduism for someone with a Hindu sounding name. I thought that it unlikely he would have read any of the Vedas or Upanishads or Puranas or the literally thousands of treatises that make up the body of thought that is called Hinduism. For example, the Rig Veda is itself made up of ten books. Etc. Besides, the Mahabharata and Ramayana make it clear that Hinduism is not primarily a tribal religion, and that is the specific point I was trying to make, that someone even with basic exposure to Hinduism should have known this fact.

    So I thought a reference to the Mahabharata and Ramayana may trigger a response because it may be familiar to him. Instead, it has triggered a reflex and highly selective response from you about upper caste Hindus. I call this knee-jerk liberalism.

    If you have been following the exchange and if you had noted the various things I have said above, why would you think my response was a reflex response by an upper caste Hindu? Is it highly selective perception, looking only at what suits your preconceived ideas and biases?

    It is really unfortunate that many young Indians/Hindus who begin to think about social things adopt a simple binary approach: if you are not against Hinduism, you are for Hindutva. This is not a scientific or intellectual approach because such an approach is not about being for or against things. It is first about understanding them and only then deciding which parts are good for humanity and which parts are not. This makes life more complicated of course because it does not allow knee-jerk reactions of any kind.

    As South Asian has pointed out, the purpose of the blog – which I admire – is open and free argument about issues. This requires keeping an open mind and a willingness to change one’s mind based on the persuasiveness of the argument.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 03:57h, 22 October

      Mr. Keluvardhanam, I apologize if I came across as rude or knee jerk. I realized the risks while saying what I did and I tried to write my statement in a way to minimize the chances of it being interpreted the way you did, although obviously I failed. I wrote the comment independently and not as a reply.

      I was trying to point out a very common trait I observe in my friends and my family (one triggered by your mention of the two but not as a response to what you said). My main thrust was that we should include folklore beyond the Mahabharata and Ramayana if we are to understand the sociology of Hinduism.

      As for your comments to me, voting rights are not the sole metric of gender equality. Women in the West have enjoyed more and more freedoms than their counterparts in India for most of history. And clearly at this particular juncture, with young women being murdered by their parents for wanting to marry a boy not from their caste, women are far more suppressed in India.

      Would you disagree that such behaviour by otherwise highly educated people owes something to the peculiar nature of Hindu religion and how it is interpreted by these people ? And doesnt this interpretation have something to do with the epics you mentioned ?

      As for your point about Hindutva, I am certainly not against Hinduism, I am only against the highly sanitized, selective practice and interpretation by the Hindu middle class (which is overwhelmingly upper caste) and I desire for them to broaden their views by including lower caste narratives as well.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 13:47h, 22 October Reply


    First, there is no need for honorifics like “Mr.” We are all equals, especially in matters of discussion and debate.

    I agree with all the points you have made. In my view, the views of extremist Hindus have spread beyond their own ranks into the middle class and perhaps other classes as well. The most shocking thing is how educated and reasonably well-off people hold some of the views they do. And, yes, it has to do with various aspects of Hinduism, especially those related to caste and patriarchy and so on. And the epics I mentioned – as well as other texts – do have many absurd things, like Draupadi being married to five brothers or Krishna being unethical during the war (the ends justify the means etc.).

    Hinduism is far from perfect and for those who wish to be believers, there is also need for reform and modernizing it as with all our customs and beliefs. I am not religious but if I had to choose a religion it would probably be Buddhism. I find its metaphysics interesting (though probably incorrect) and find its other aspects interesting as well.

    Of course, these are easy criticisms to make from the point of view of modernity. Any sensible person would make them. What I find more interesting is to learn what the deeper philosophical ideas were and how they emerged. These give a more accurate picture of what ancient times were like and what the intellectuals of those times believed. Those deeper ideas are enormously interesting and, sometimes, surprisingly modern. For example, the views of the Sanskrit grammarian Panini influenced Saussure and Bloomfield and Chomsky and people like Saussure have influenced all of modern continental philosophy. Or the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya, Uddalaka, etc.) influenced the Pre-Socratic Greeks in major ways who influenced Plato and Aristotle who influenced the Renaissance which influenced modern humanism. And so on. Of course, at each stage there were many new things added so it is not as if one can simply say the early Indians had thought of it all. That would be very wrong. But I find it interesting to trace the interconnections among ideas both logically and historically.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 00:29h, 23 October Reply

    South Asian,

    Well, I am comfortable with Khilnani’s presentation because he also mentions the centralized coherence of Hinduism which you do not and in his case his statements occur in the context of his book which is patently about the social aspects of India. Instead, your piece asks “What is Hinduism?” which is a misleading title as I tried to point out with three analogies: Judaism, physics, and music. You have rejected the analogies without giving any reason for the rejection. It should be clear to you that in the case of music you have dealt with its content but not its sociology. You have, in effect, said something about the question “What is Indian classical music?” But exactly the opposite is true with the piece on Hinduism. Similarly things apply to my analogies with Judaism and physics.

    So I have to say that I am not satisfied. You cannot say that your piece is like Khilnani’s because they are very different from each other. The contexts are utterly different and even the statements are different. I am sorry.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:40h, 23 October

      Keluvardhanam: I also mentioned the centralized social organization but perhaps it did not come across as clearly. And I have already accepted that the title was misleading but if you read the text it does try and indicate the objective of the series. Perhaps, it might have become clearer if it had been a continuous text instead of being broken up in a series of posts.

      I didn’t wish to be distracted by your analogies because I did not find them convincing. However, if I get confirmation that your perception is shared by others, I will go back to them.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 00:49h, 23 October Reply

    Anil Kala,

    You may not realize that when you criticize the way of being of an entire people, that criticism has to be carried out with a certain measure of wisdom. It does not mean you have to endorse the object of criticism but it means that you have to establish a proper context for your remarks and only then state preferably with evidence what your negative comments are. Fortunately, Hinduism is by and large an extremely open and tolerant religion so it is open to all kinds of criticism by both insiders and outsiders. It does not have any rigid criteria for being an adherent. It’s strength lies in its being philosophical as well as religious. It is when these things are first recognized, when the scope of thought you are criticizing is recognized, that you can then point out the things you find wrong. If you do this, your criticisms will be accepted by all thinking Hindus. But if you make statements that are half-baked and immature, all you will be doing is feeding the minds of those who are already prejudiced about it.

    I do not wish to point out particular things you have said. Please reflect on your statements yourself.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:00h, 23 October

      Keluvardhanam: Before this gets too far I am going to repeat a request to all participants. By all means correct what is wrong but please refrain from using terms like half-baked and immature. That will defeat the purpose of this blog. We have tried very hard to have rigorous but friendly discourse and I would like to keep it that way.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 00:57h, 23 October Reply

    South Asian,

    Please tell me where you pointed out the centralized aspect of Hinduism. I am not referring to caste. I am referring to Khilnani’s statement about the centralized nature of Hinduism that also existed in decentralized ways.

    I am making a distinction between content and sociology. This occurs in practically every human endeavor and I have pointed out three of them – Judaism, physics, and music. If you don’t like the analogies, tell me what is wrong with the distinction. By “content” I mean the thought content of a subject or system or body of knowledge and practices. By “sociology” I mean the social organization of the people who practice or believe that content. The question “What is X?” is about the content of X not about its sociology.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:19h, 23 October

      Keluvardhanam: I feel we should move on. I have accepted that the title “What is X?” was incorrect. I was not wanting or trying to write about the content of X. I was wanting to write about the sociology of X and I mentioned two aspects of that sociology. If there were errors in my understanding of the two aspects I would welcome being educated. But berating me for something I did not intend and suggested in error is not helpful especially after I have accepted the error. As for the two aspects, I feel a writer has the choice of focusing on a limited number of aspects that are relevant to the argument he wishes to develop. That is not to say that the subject does not have other aspects that may be much more important in a global context. If you take music, the physics of music is of virtually no interest to South Asian practitioners or listeners but if it is to the writer, he should be free to write about it. And if he wants to write solely about gharanas that too is a valid topic. In all cases, he should make sure that the title describes clearly what he is trying to do.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 01:35h, 23 October Reply

    South Asian and Anil Kala,

    I am happy not to use words like “half-baked” and “immature” though I personally feel the statements below were so:

    “I think Hinduism is a kind of tribal religion. There are animal gods, freaks with multiple heads and hands are also gods. In essence the practiced religion is pretty much tribal …”

    I am all for free speech so I would not censure the statements. However, the first statement is factually false, the second is false unless viewed from a narrow anthropomorphic perspective which is often inappropriate when dealing with mythological themes, and the third is also factually false.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 13:36h, 23 October

      Some 15 years back something bizarre happened. In a matter of hours from Japan to USA, Hindus began feeding milk to idols. The irrationality of the act did not bother them. If you are in Delhi around July (in the month of Saavan), you will see swarms of crazy men occupying highway walking all the way to Hardwar and back, to fetch a jarful of holy water from Ganga to bathe some Shivlinga in the vicinity. They are oblivious to chaos they create on the highway, indulge in vandalism at the slightest pretext. We saw the tribal hysteria when Babri mosque was demolished, what does it points to?

      If I say Hinduism is some kind of tribal religion it does not mean other religions are not tribal. The bastion of rationality America is a disgrace. Roughly forty percent of Americans reject Evolution theory.

      I only talk about practiced religion because it is the only thing that affects individuals. You are as speculative in assumption as you accuse me of. I was brought up in a very religious family. Reading Mahabharata and Ramayana was essential element of my upbringing.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 01:51h, 23 October Reply

    South Asian,

    You say: “As for the two aspects, I feel a writer has the choice of focusing on a limited number of aspects that are relevant to the argument he wishes to develop. That is not to say that the subject does not have other aspects that may be much more important in a global context.”

    The trouble is – like in a court case – it is not giving the whole truth. If you say Hinduism is decentralized but do not also say that it has a centralized core, then it misleads people into thinking that it is just a bunch of heterogeneous practices – AND NOTHING MORE. That was also my point earlier that just because it was named by outsiders does not mean that it is not really a single coherent entity. A person ignorant about Hinduism who reads your piece would be led to think – by implied meaning – that HInduism does not have any centralized body of thought which is a falsehood of colossal proportions.

    The reason why the law asks for the whole truth is that in some situations a partial truth can be misleading. It implies that something is not the case which may be false.

    This is a matter of logic and context.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:31h, 23 October

      Keluvardhanam: Logic and context are important but so is proportion. This is a blog for South Asian students so no one who is ignorant about Hinduism would be reading it. There are many other online sources of authoritative information for those who wish to learn about the religions of South Asia – these are typically websites and not blogs. And anyone reading the post would know from its introduction which clearly acknowledges the ignorance of the author that he is not pronouncing the last word on Hinduism but inviting a discussion and requesting to be educated. This is a setting very different from a court of law in which truth is to be presented by experts.

      I was quite prepared for readers to say that I had presented an incomplete picture and that such and such needed to be added to provide a fuller understanding. That in my view would be a learning process. What you are asking for in terms of wisdom, responsibility, maturity, correctness, and completeness at the outset would set the bar too high for a forum that is trying to simulate a classroom discussion. To start from an incomplete understanding (what you would call false) is not problematic in my view. If we don’t end up closer to the truth, then the blog would have failed in its objective. But such a process of convergence is entirely dependent on those who know more helping those who might know less.

      If you had read the second post in the series you would have come across the following which charted the writer’s attempt to understand Hinduism better. This too could be wrong but as I have said before it is not a crime to be wrong on a blog that is devoted to mutual learning.

      It’s time to remove the quotation marks around ‘Hinduism’.

      It just adds to the confusion when one argues in this day that Hinduism is not a religion in the sense religion is understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is better to explain that ‘religion’ has a wider scope.

      See how religion is defined in the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:

      Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.

      If one starts with that definition it would be very hard to fit Hinduism into the mould.

      However, one can take a modern perspective and understand religion as a “system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.” In this perspective, Hinduism is a religion but with characteristics very different from those of a Judeo-Christian religion.

      One can immediately see the big difference between Islam and Hinduism in this context. The former placed a lot of emphasis on the ‘true’ word of God, quarreling even amongst fellow Muslims on correct interpretations of the true word. The latter placed much more emphasis on the practices of everyday life with a lot more room for variations from any externally prescribed way.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 14:51h, 23 October Reply

    South Asian,

    I have now read the entire series on Hinduism in seven parts. I think you erred in the way you framed it. Rather than framing it in terms of Hinduism or Hindus which immediately brings to mind elements of the content of Hinduism, it could have been framed in terms of (medieval) Indians even though there was no entity like India at the time. Just as we refer to Arabs or Persians or Europeans, it might have been better to use the term “Indians” to avoid the reference to the content of Hinduism. That would have allowed you to bring in the religion as a social practice of Indians and how it changed after contact with the Mughals and the British. In effect, this is also the frame of reference of Khilnani – his concern is not with Hindus and Hinduism but with India. That is why he can then bring in one or more sociological dimensions of the religion without any unease on the part of the reader.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:33h, 23 October

      Keluvardhanam: I agree there was an error in framing. The series was started two years ago and I had myself forgotten what was behind some of the formulations. On re-reading part 2 after this discussion, I have a better sense of how the error emerged. In my mind, the first census in India that tabulated people according to religion was a major turning point and it had a particular perspective on Hinduism as a religion. I have quoted this in part 2: “Primarily and historically, it is the antithesis of Islam. Religion, in the etymological sense of the word, it is not, and never was.” So, the title “What is ‘Hinduism’?” (with Hinduism in quotes) was intended to get at whether it was a religion or not; a question I tried to answer in part 2. It was not intended to ask what was the content of Hinduism. But the confusion that resulted is obvious, especially for someone who only read the first post.

      Also, given that I wanted to get at the root of the hostility between the religions as it emerged, it was important for me to define the forces that are assumed to be in conflict. That was another reason I wanted to clarify the terms in which we saw Hinduism as a religion. In retrospect, the first post should have outlined the objectives of the series which would have put subsequent questions in context. I suppose, part of the problem was that the series was not written out in its totality and then serialized. Rather, each post was written on the fly as the ideas occurred to me. I had the blog format in mind where errors would be corrected as we went along.

      The series remains incomplete with the most important interaction, with the British, still to be written. I had started the research but then got distracted by other things. It is the British period that, in my view, is responsible for most of the revisionist perspectives on Hinduism that we encounter today.

  • Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 15:08h, 23 October Reply


    My precise words were:

    “It is possible that Anil Kala did not have the benefit of hearing tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana when he was growing up as a large number of Indian children do. Almost no Indian would, after hearing these tales, think that Hinduism was primarily a tribal religion because there were many kingdoms back then.”

    I have just made a factual statement above – that it is possible that …

    You seem to be using the word “tribal” in nonstandard and metaphorical ways which can be highly confusing. Also, South Asian set the wrong tone for the piece because he did not say what time frame he had in mind when he discussed Hinduism, whether the present or the past.

    While I am myself not much in favor of rituals, one has to keep in mind that rituals have certain meanings for the insider. To the outsider, they seem absurd. But to the believer, they can hold deep meanings. Sometimes, just by doing a ritual, a believer may feel good or feel at peace or whatever. So there is a scientific reason for doing a seemingly irrational thing. Of course, a more scientifically inclined person would question the efficacy of the actions in external terms as well, but then, not everyone is scientific.

    As long as people do not harm others in pursuing their rituals, they should be free to pursue them. It is better to have compassion for people because life for most people is quite hard and these are, sadly, the only ways they can find relief.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 03:50h, 22 September

      Keluvardhanam and SA, I have been reading this very enjoyable and interesting book on the sacred geography of India. It can definitely help us gain a better understanding of Hinduism.


      “The Earth, bearing upon her many different peoples, speaking many languages, following different dharmas as suit their particular regions. Pour upon us a thousand-fold streams of bountiful treasures to enrich us, like a constant cow that never faileth.” – Atharva Veda XII.I.45

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:24h, 22 September

      Vikram: I was talking the other day to someone whose parents and grandparents were part of the events leading up to 1947. He said something which left me thinking. He said that looking back it seems all the Indian leaders had studied a lot of history at school but no geography – with profound consequences. Given that, you have pointed us to what should be a good book to read.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 07:50h, 03 January Reply

    This discussion on ‘What is Hinduism?’ can be enriched by a very useful hour-long video discussion with the eminent historian of ancient India, Romila Thapar. The other issues raised are of equal interest:


  • Anonymous
    Posted at 00:51h, 06 January Reply

    Romila Thapar video on Hinduism? Thanks, it’s in my play list right after Osama Bin Laden’s video on world peace.

    Funny you call her an eminent historian. She is eminent alright, as prominently featured in a book on Eminent Historians:


    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:04h, 06 January

      Anonymous: I have no standing to label anyone eminent or otherwise and neither does Arun Shourie. These are honors granted by a community of peers and does not depend on the holding of views contrary to those of others. For evidence, you can read the following on the Wikipedia entry on Romila Thapar after which you can make up your own mind.

      “Thapar has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College de France in Paris. She was elected General President of the Indian History Congress in 1983 and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1999.

      Thapar is an Honorary Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago, the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh (2004) the University of Calcutta (2002) and recently (in 2009) from the University of Hyderabad. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.

      In 2004 the U.S. Library of Congress appointed her as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South. She is co-winner with Peter Brown of the prestigious Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity for 2008 which comes with a US$1 million prize.”

      “In January 2005, she declined the Padma Bhushan awarded by the Indian Government. In a letter to President A P J Abdul Kalam, she said she was “astonished to see her name in the list of awardees because three months ago when I was contacted by the HRD ministry and asked if I would accept an award, I made my position very clear and explained my reason for declining it”. Thapar had declined the Padma Bhushan on an earlier occasion, in 1992. To the President, she explained the reason for turning down the award thus: “I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards”.”


  • anonymous
    Posted at 00:08h, 07 January Reply

    Sure, academia is full of leftist toadies that have been feted by each other in a mutual admiration network. Doesn’t change the fact that she, along with her fellow Marxists have consistently peddled their sham history all over the world. No wonder it has found willing takers among their fellow comrades in the West as well.

    Unike the leftists, however, Arun Shourie does not merely label those he disagrees with. He, instead, wrote a whole book on marshaling facts and evidence to hold their work in scrutiny. The end result is an intellectual masterpiece that any rational person can easily access, and see what a fraud Thapar and her ilk have committed.

    I could also trot out Arun Shourie’s PhD from a “phoren” university or his impeccable track record as an outstanding journalist or his exemplary personal and intellectual integrity. But I’d rather let his work speak for itself.

    If you really want to understand Hindusm and/or Hindutva, you cannot do it by reading the leftard claptrap. Unless, of course, all you want to show your students is theories from an echo chamber. You must have the intellectual integrity to expose them (and your readers) to the opinions of the other side. Then let them judge who is worth listening to.

    Civilized debates across different view points is long-standing tradition called “Poorva paksha” and “Uttar paksha” in Hindu system of logical thought (“Tarka shastra” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarka_sastra). As a Hindu, this is is the stuff I am proud of. Unlike the rigid believer-nonbeliever Manichean dichotomy in Islam or Christianity, Shankaracharya and Mandana Misra, for example, settled subtle philosophical issues by public debates in the ninth century. I am certain that you, your readers and your students can benefit from a little bit of “poorva paksha” and “uttara paksha” with non-Marxist Indian historians.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:11h, 07 January

      anonymous: That is quite a view. Anyone you don’t agree with is a leftist toady and part of an international conspiracy; everyone you agree with is a brilliant intellectual. I presume you consider the label ‘leftist toady’ a part of the civilized debate of which you are proud. Your comment with its link has been posted. Readers can examine both sides of the debate and reach their own conclusions.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 03:47h, 09 January

      SA, I haven’t gone through the whole video only 23 minutes and I find the video is not about Hinduism at all, at least till 23 minutes? It is about nitty-gritty of history writing.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:49h, 09 January

      Anil: It is an interview covering many topics. It includes some interesting observations on Hinduism that readers can factor into their own perspectives to find points of agreement or disagreement as they think over the topic.

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 16:14h, 07 January Reply

    This has nothing to do with agreeing with me or Shourie or you or anyone else.All I am suggesting is that perhaps asking your readers to learn about Hinduism from a well-known Marxist, and calling her eminent and thereby selling her biased view as the normative reference does not help you achieve your goal of learning about Hinduism.

    In fact, a backlash against historians of Thapar’s ideological bent provided significant impetus to the rise of the pro-Hindu intellectual movement that included people like Shourie. Shourie is not even a historian himself, but his remarkable ability to find evidence and marshal arguments based on facts and logic is what I find admirable. That’s why I personally found his book exposing the likes of Romila Thapar to be brilliant.

    But again, this has nothing to do with me or my opinions. Just read his book and decide for yourself. I found Shourie’s book brilliant. You may find it crap. It doesn’t matter who I consider leftist toadies or intellectuals, nor does it matter what labels you may want to give to whom. What matters is that we do consider all viewpoints and decide for ourselves rather than become propagandized victims of history told from a particularly discredited one.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 01:04h, 09 January Reply

    Both South Asian and Anonymous are offering arguments based on authority not on reason. This is unacceptable.

    If one watches the Thapar video, it becomes clear that she, too, does not offer any reasons for her sociological view of Hinduism. Then why include such a posting?

    Even more troubling, there seem to be double standards being followed by many contributors to this blog and also by Anonymous.

    One side wants to claim that Hinduism should be viewed purely sociologically rather than philosophically as well, but does not want to discuss other religions (e.g. the Abrahamic religions) in this way. This leads to frequent criticism of caste and similar Hindu structures – which I myself endorse. But when it comes to other religions, they are supposed to be pure and only their interpretations are flawed because some followers are mistaken. If one looks at the overt history of the Abrahamic religions, they are full of violence from ancient to modern times. Should it be concluded that they are intrinsically prone to violence just as Hinduism is supposed to be intrinsically hierarchical and oppressive? No, it is said, only flawed interpretations are responsible in the former but not the latter.

    The other side – Anonymous – does much the same thing in reverse by citing Hindu ideologues like Shourie.

    In my view, both Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths have philosophical and sociological sides. For the former, this is couched in a range of philosophical ideas and for the latter in a range of theological ideas. When asking a question like “What is X?” one has to do justice to the full range of this question and consistently apply the same standards to every such inquiry.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:46h, 09 January

      Arun: I disagree. I am not offering any arguments of my own based either on authority or reason. The link to the video was posted with the comment that it could enrich the earlier discussion (by providing another input). If readers feel it does not, that is fine too and they can articulate that view. The video is very obviously a general interest interview with Romila Thapar that covers many issues. It is not a forum where she is presenting a fully fleshed theory that covers every aspect of the subject. To expect otherwise is to miss the point of such formats and the value of participating in them.

      My reference to credentials was in response to her cavalier dismissal as a leftist toady not worth considering. If someone believes that all the honors conferred on her do not lend her any credibility, that is his/her prerogative. In my view they entitle her to a considered hearing. We may still disagree with any particular positions proffered by her but that has to be an intellectual argument.

      A post on this blog is intended to initiate a discussion that builds, often haphazardly, over time. It is not meant to be a PhD thesis that at the outset does justice to the full range of every question and extends it to every related dimension. This is a design choice that is a function of the audience the blog wishes to invite as participants.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:40h, 15 January

      Arun & SA: History too is about interpretation of artifacts and material evidence. There is a lot more material evidence available relating to religion (in particular Islam) than events of history therefore one can assume a methodical study can put to rest, at least in academic circles, what is the correct interpretation of religion.

      Somebody should put and end to this excuse of violence.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:04h, 16 January

      Anil: I take you to be talking of two things – history and religion. Old-fashioned history was a narration of dates and events. Modern historiography goes beyond this to reflect the forces that caused the events. That leads to the interpretive aspects you mention. For example, historical accounts of 1857 vary depending on whether the interpretation is of the British or the Indians.

      The “correct” interpretation of religion is another matter. The texts are so ambiguous and internally contradictory that to this date there are violent internicene conflicts over interpretation. I doubt if these differences would ever be resolved.

      There is, of course, a history of religious practice but, more often than not, practice has little to do with faithfulness to doctrine. We live in a world of politics in which religion gets used for very material ends. This too shall continue till such time as people realize that they are being manipulated for earthly gains.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 06:23h, 22 February Reply

    How would readers answer the question: What is ‘Islam’ ? Faisal Devji recently mentioned that the term ‘Islam’ is only mentioned in the Koran a couple of times, and only came into use fairly recently.

    “For Islam is a term that appears a couple of times in the Koran, and for most of Muslim history does not seem to have named any kind of singular or unified entity like a religious system but instead a set of attitudes or practices.”

    • Keluvardhanam
      Posted at 14:00h, 22 February

      People continue to confuse language and reality. The fact that a term may be used only rarely says very little about the existence of the corresponding reality.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:27h, 12 December Reply

    This is a nice interview with Ganeri about Hinduism, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/what-would-krishna-do-or-shiva-or-vishnu/?_r=0

    What has no center, has no periphery.

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