Hinduism is one of the major world religions with a following of over a billion people spread across all over the globe but largely concentrated in India. Some people don’t consider Hinduism a religion but rather a way of life or a sanatana dharma (loosely translated as ‘eternal system’). It doesn’t have a single founder nor does it have a standalone scripture; further, it has been constantly developing and evolving over six millennia. The spiritual and cultural heritage of India represents an unbroken tradition starting from the Rigveda Samhita, which is estimated by some accounts to be around 6,000 years old.1
The word ‘hindu’ itself is a foreign word. There is no such word in the earliest works of Hinduism. It seems to have been a corruption of the word ‘sindhu,’ which is the name of the prominent river that flows in Northwestern India. At any rate, the use of words like ‘hindu’ and ‘hinduism’ by adherents of the ancient tradition for self-appellation is rather recent.2
While it might not mean much to call Hinduism a ‘way of life’ instead of a religion, it is also problematic to look at the Indian spiritual tradition through the lens of a Western idea like ‘religion.’ Religion presupposes a fixed set of beliefs, often dogmatic in nature. When we consider the Semitic tradition, these beliefs include the existence of a single god, who is male, and omnipotent (this includes omniscience and omnipresence). Further, this god reveals the absolute truth to a chosen one, the prophet, who is again male, and endowed with special powers. Then this prophet records the words of god in a single text, which is holds good till the end of time. There is no possibility to change anything since it is the word of god. Modern findings in science that oppose the texts don’t find a place in the lives of the serious adherents of the faith. Further, given the almost extremely dualistic nature of the monotheistic faiths, a deep belief in the faith ends up stifling art, poetry, satire, sculpture, painting, etc.
Hinduism on the other hand, comes from observing nature. In the Rigveda Samhita, the oldest treatise known to humankind, we find a deep empathy with nature and an expression of fine human sentiments. The Vedas, which are considered as revealed wisdom, represent the collective consciousness of the men and women of that time. Even in the earliest treatise, there is an explicit statement embracing diversity and holding valid various systems of beliefs:
इन्द्रं मित्रं वरुणमग्निमाहु-
रथो दिव्यः स सुपर्णो गरुत्मान् |
एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति
अग्निं यमं मातरिश्वानमाहुः ||
They call him (the Sun) Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and Agni.
He is also the divine Garutman with fine wings.
The one Supreme is hailed by the wise by many names,
including Agni, Yama, and Matarishvan.
Rigveda Samhita 1.164.46
In the very DNA of Hinduism we find openness to new ideas and a willingness to go beyond the apparent differences:
आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वतः
अदब्धासो अपरीतास उद्भिदः |
देवा नो यथा सदमिद्वृधे असन्
अप्रायुवो रक्षितारो दिवे-दिवे ||
May noble thoughts come to us from every side,
unchanged, unhindered, undefeated in every way;
May the gods always be with us for our gain and
our protectors caring for us, ceaseless, every day.
Rigveda Samhita 1.89.1
One can only imagine the kind of magnanimity and wisdom of the seers of the Vedas when we cogitate on the history of Abrahamic religions and observe the pettiness embedded in their canonical texts.
Just as there is no single founder of Hinduism, there is no single scripture that adherents can latch on to. The Vedas are revered as shruti (‘that which is heard’ – a reference to revealed wisdom) and the rest of the works are regarded as smrti (‘that which is remembered’ – a reference to authored texts; these are pertinent only in a particular spatio-temporal framework). Even so, different people regard different works as important.
As for the divine, Hinduism has both gods and goddesses. In addition, it accepts the formless divine. It offers utmost flexibility to adherents to worship the divine presence in the universe in whatsoever manner that appeals to them. One could bow down to a sculpture of a god or goddess, or even a painting. One could worship the elements of nature or visit a temple. It is also possible for an adherent of the faith to meditate on the formless divine. While there are several gods and goddesses, there is only one brahman (supreme spirit that pervades the universe). Since the entire universe is seen as a manifestation of brahman, there is no concept of a false god. There are no outsiders, no infidels. There is no opportunity for apostasy because everything is brahman. It will be worthwhile to contrast this with the primitive and self-destructive concepts in the Semitic faiths, especially Islam, which openly gives license to kill unbelievers. According to Islam, not only are the non-Muslims considered as kafirs (infidels) but so are the Muslims who don’t consider the non-Muslims as kafirs. For example, see Qur’an 3.118-20 for the prophet’s attitude towards infidels. Due to the inherent openness in Hinduism, it is never opposed to science or the arts. In fact, it considers every path of work or study as a sadhana, a means towards attaining the highest.
In the modern context, when we say Hinduism, it has become separate from the other native faiths of India like Buddhism and Jainism, which are offshoots of the Vedic tradition in a broad sense. While Jainism and Buddhism have temperamental differences with the Vedas, they are aligned to sanatana dharma in spirit. Indeed there are differences in form and worldview but in substance, there isn’t much of a difference between the teachings of the Buddha or the Tirthankaras and what has been said in the Vedas (even though both these systems of faith don’t consider the Vedas as the ultimate authority). When one studies the darshanas (schools of Indian philosophy), they study the six classical schools of philosophy – Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta as well as the three unorthodox schools of philosophy – Jaina, Bauddha, and Lokayata. It is therefore unfortunate that today, for various reasons, we are forced to see these faiths as separate entities, instead of seeing them as branches of the great tree of sanatana dharma.
In the Semitic faiths, the belief is that human beings have a single shot at life. This is the only life we have and we must make the most of it. And after we die, we face judgment day, which decides if we go to eternal hell or eternal heaven. In the Eastern faiths, however, the belief is that the atma (loosely translates to ‘soul’) is immortal but it takes on different bodies. We are born, then we die, then we are born again. Our actions in one life affect the next, and this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth goes on until we attain moksha (‘release’ or ‘salvation’).
When we look at how Hinduism treats other religions and contrast that with the attitude of the Abrahamic religions towards other religions, we find yet another point of difference. From the earliest times, Hinduism has embraced all faiths and protected the integrity of people of other faiths (instead of trying to convert them or persecute them). Swami Vivekananda famously said in his speech at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 –
I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.
On the other hand, the Abrahamic religions, which saw its horrifying nadir in Islam, were opposed to all other faiths including their parent faiths. Islam is opposed to both Christianity and Judaism. Christianity is opposed to Judaism. The rise of the Abrahamic religions naturally meant a suppression and destruction of the indigenous faiths, shamanistic practices, and naturalistic religions (which were termed as ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’ systems of beliefs). Will Durant writes in the very first volume of his magnum-opus, The Story of Civilization –
The Mohammedan conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. The Islamic historians and scholars have recorded with great glee and pride the slaughters of Hindus, forced conversions, abduction of Hindu women and children to slave markets and the destruction of temples carried out by the warriors of Islam during 800 AD to 1700 AD. Millions of Hindus were converted to Islam by sword during this period.
(The Story of Civilization. Part 1. Our Oriental Heritage. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954. p. 459)
The Vedas call humans ‘the children of immortal bliss’ (Rigveda Samhita 10.13.1). It is such a cheerful and hopeful name. It suggests that we are born pure but over time we accumulate the dust of pettiness. Our quest is to return to our true nature as a child of bliss. A well-known invocatory prayer describes this spiritual journey –
असतो मा सद्गमय
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय
Lead me from falsehood to truth
Lead me from darkness to light
Lead me from death to immortality.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28
Contrast this with the Christian idea of the original sin, a dark and pessimistic belief that suggests humans are somehow born defective and they need the church and the clergy to attain release from it.
At a fundamental level, the Abrahamic religions describe man’s fight against nature. If man has to survive, he has to conquer nature. And it is for this reason, he has been made superior to everything else in nature; for example, see Genesis 1:28-31. This dictate of having to ‘conquer’ nature has wreaked havoc on the natural environment. And it would not be too much of a stretch to connect the dots all the way back to the Semitic texts.
The so-called pagan faiths, shamanistic belief systems, animism, as well as the Eastern faiths like Hinduism are deeply inspired by nature. Their contention is that humans are children of the earth. The earth is seen as a mother, as a nurturer, and someone to nurture (see Atharvaveda Shaunaka Samhita 12.1). The earth is the foundation for everything. Therefore, the idea is that all living beings and the natural environment are inter-connected so there is no reason one should exploit or suppress the other.
We have a record of close to forty rishikas (female seers) who contributed to the earliest treatises of Hinduism. Similarly, we see from the worship of goddesses and the various injunctions from the texts of the dharmasutras that women were given an exalted position. In the Hindu tradition, women were rulers, spies, bodyguards, traders, among others. Some of the pronouncements of the medieval lawmakers of India might seem bordering on misogyny, it is nowhere the norm. It is also possible that due to the Islamic invasions, certain measures were essential to protect the Hindu society. On the other hand, in the teachings of the Abrahamic religions, clearly men are superior to women; see for instance Genesis 7:2, Exodus 21:7-8, Matthew 5:32, Qur’an 2:282, and Qur’an 4:176.
Hinduism is perhaps the oldest, most diverse, and most sophisticated system of religious thought and practice, covering nearly everything that comes under the umbrella of religion and philosophy. Given its unbroken lineage and its history of inclusivity, tolerance, magnanimity, and universal harmony, it stands apart from its Western counterparts, primarily the Semitic religions, which are – at least by definition – exclusivist, often intolerant, petty, and seeking to conquer the world rather than live in harmony.
Thanks to Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh for his review of my essay.
1A host of brilliant scholars have discussed the chronology of the Rigveda; for example, see:
Frawley, David. Gods, Sages and Kings: Vedic Secrets of Ancient Civilization. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993
Frawley, David. The Rig Veda and the History of India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2001
Rajaram, N. S. Sarasvati River and the Vedic Civilization. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2006
Talageri, Shrikant G. The Rigveda and the Avesta: The Final Evidence. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2009
2Sita Ram Goel wrote an excellent piece in the appendix of his book Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them. Vol. 2. The Islamic Evidence. (New Delhi: Voice of India, 1993) – Appendix 3 (Meaning of the Word “Hindu”)