Hinduism Religion: Is it Really?

Is Hinduism a religion? First of all, what is religion? Many people find it surprising to learn that the word religion is a Western construct of relatively recent origin. Like the concept of Hinduism, scholars have questioned its appropriateness and value.

The word religion derives from the Latin religio, a term that Romans and later Christians initially used with infrequency and imprecision. Interestingly, Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the Bible, do not have words that accurately translate into the English word religion.

The meaning of the word has changed significantly. Early in European history the word was used to name piety or faith in God. A Christian, for example, might be said to have true or false religion. Sometimes the word was used to designate rituals ceremony, specially the practices whose believes where different from one’s own.

A stable meaning for the idea of religion didn’t appear until around the 17th century, when it came to mean “a system of believes or doctrines”. Even in the 21th century, the word religion lacks precision of usage. Scholars of religion now universally agree that there is not universal agreement of what constitutes religion.

Maybe we think of religion as belief in God or gods. Well, there are traditions ordinarily considered religions that do not prescribe belief in God or gods. There are traditions ordinarily considered religious that consider belief in God or any kind of belief at all as an obstruction to the higher human good.

Maybe we think of religion as something involving ceremony and ritual. Again, there are traditions considered religious where ceremony is seeing as something to be transcended. The point is that we should be cautious of how we make use of the concept of religion. We need clear awareness of its limitations.

Let me mention what I think some of those limitations are. First, if we regard religion merely as a department of life or human culture, we are apt to misinterpret key aspects of Hinduism. In the West, we frequently think of religion as something having to do with the explicitly religious institutions like churches or synagogues. It places religion on a level akin to theater, medicine, sports and other departments of life.

Hinduism doesn’t comprise a part of life for Hindus. It is not something practiced only in a particular place or at a particular time. Hinduism is far more pervasive and foundational than that. It certainly has rituals and other activities identifiably religious but it encompasses much more than this.

It structures and influences every aspect of Hindu life, including theater, music, medicine and occupation. This is maybe why Hindus don’t feel compelled to have a specific name to indicate Hinduism. As I said earlier, it might be better to think of Hinduism not as a single religion, but as a family of beliefs.

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