by: Siva Subramanian
The definition of who is a Hindu has undergone several versions over the millennia. In the Vedic times they would not have recognized the term Hindu at all!! Much later, as the Persians from the west came to the river Sindhu, it is said, that they pronounced that with ‘H’ as Hindu and the people who were living around that river and beyond as Hindus or river people. The name India came from the Greek word Indus derived from Persian Hindu, which of course refers to the River Sindhu2.
In Rig Veda the Bharath is also referred to as the country of Sapta Sindhu or seven rivers or Hafta Hindu in Persian.
Then the Arabs called it as alHind 3– the land of Hindoos. Another name used was Hindoostan or Hindustan for India especially the land beyond the river Sindhu.
There is also an interpretation that the Greeks used the word Hindu or Indos and referred to those who lived in the region of Indus (Sindhu) river as Hindoos.
That civilization then was referred to by the Westerners as Indus Valley Civilization and the people as Indians.
Earlier on when the westerners used the term Hindu, it also referred, in a secular way, to all the people living in India including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs (religions that came from India)!
Traditionally, in Classical Hinduism, the term refers to those who accept Vedas as the authority. Buddhism and Jainism did
not accept the Vedas as authority even though had many of the concepts are found in both.
Now some even say in modern times, anyone who accepts Bhagavad Gita and practices the precepts could be called as Hindus!
Indian Constitution does not give a definition of the term
Hindu but does define to whom the Hindu Law applies!
Article 23 (2)(b) includes Hindus, Buddhist, Sikhs and Jains
as those to whom the Hindu Law applies.
B.G. Tilak said “Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence;
recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation
are diverse; and the realization of the truth that the number of
Gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the
distinguishing feature of the Hindu Religion” 4 – this was
accepted by the Supreme Court of India on 7th July 1995.
Mahatma Gandhiji said, “ I call myself a Santana Hindu,
Because I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas
And all that goes in the name of Hindu Scriptures and
therefore in the avatars and rebirth. Thus he defines a Hindu.
Sir S. Radhakrishnan, past President of India, wrote
“There has been no such thing as a uniform, stationary,
unalterable Hinduism whether in point of belief or practice.
Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result;
a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation. It’s past history
encourages us to believe that it will be found equal to any
emergency that the future may throw up. Whether in the field
of thought or of history”.
Hinduism Today5 has given the following as What Hindus
Believe in. I do not necessarily think the Modern Hindu
practices all of the described items but still remains a Hindu!
1. Hindus believe in the divinity of the Vedas, the world's most ancient scripture, and venerate the Agamas as equally revealed.
2. Hindus believe in a one, all-pervasive Supreme Being who is both immanent and transcendent, both Creator and Unmanifest Reality.
3. Hindus believe that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution.
4. Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words and deeds.
5. Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all karmas have been resolved, and Moksha, spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained. Not a single soul will be eternally deprived of this destiny.
6. Hindus believe that divine beings exist in unseen worlds and that temple worship, rituals, sacraments as well as personal devotionals create a communion with these devas and Gods.
7. Hindus believe that a spiritually awakened master, or satguru, is essential to know the Transcendent Absolute, as are personal discipline, good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry and meditation.
8. Hindus believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice ahimsa, "non-injury."
9. Hindus believe that no particular religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all genuine religious paths are facets of God's Pure Love and Light, deserving tolerance and understanding.
So the word Hindu that was used as secular word referring to all who lived in Bharath has come to refer to those who profess the Faith of Hinduism. Hinduism does not aggressively convert anyone into its fold. But anyone who practices the major tenets of Hinduism can be called a HINDU. Even those who do not practice the tenets but incorporates the messages could still be called HINDU. Even an atheist or agnostic could also fall within the fold of Hinduism. Hinduism is holistic and all encompassing in that way. The different complex philosophies, each one of them could claim to be a religion by itself, come under the large umbrella of Hinduism.
Increasingly with the concepts of Hinduism spreading outside India from the time Swami Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893, thundering about the pluralistic and holistic aspects of Hinduism, the word Hindu and Hinduism is adapted by those who were born outside India in different religions. Many incorporated the messages into their spiritual growth in the 18th and 19th century in USA and Europe.
The word Sanatana Dharma would have been the correct terminology but the modern usage of “Hinduism” and “Hindu” is used in India as well as the rest of the world those words are commonly recognized!
2. Wikipedia – Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 2100, Oxford University Press
3. Thompson Platts, John. A dictionary of Urdū, classical Hindī, and English. W.H. Allen & Co., Oxford University 1884
4. Hinduwebsite.com, 2010
5. Hinduism Today, 2009