What is Hinduism? Hinduism is characterized as the dominant religion of India. You might think this is a simple and uncontroversial statement. About 85% of the over one billion persons living in India are known to the world as Hindus. This apparently simple factual statement is far more complex and problematic that it might seem on first glance.
A Word Coined by Outsiders
The difficulties arise when we carefully examine the meaning of the words "Hinduism" and "Hindu". Before we begin our exploration of Hinduism proper, it is wise to reflect on what exactly these terms mean.
We must observe that these are not words from indigenous languages of India. These concepts are linguistic constructions that emerged from the vocabulary of people outside of that land. Often these outsiders sought to conquer and subdue the land and its inhabitants. The fact that these concepts arise from national powers with colonial interest may make them downright suspicious.
What makes these concepts problematic is that each of them suggests a uniformity and consistency that is not applied to the reality they name. Consequently, these words may lead us to assume homogeneity and unity where there is not.
When we begin to study Hinduism and religion in India, we must accustom ourselves to diversity. Applying these words assuming that they mean the same thing to Indians may prevent us from seeing something essential.
What we call in the Western world Hinduism has not been called by this name for most of its history. It was only recently that Indians themselves began to use this word. The words Hindu and Hinduism are of Persian origin from around the 12th century of the current era. It was originally alien to India. The word Hindu originally meant Indian, it was not intended specifically to designate Indian religion.
Its meaning has changed profoundly over time as not all Indian are Hindu today. As strange as it may sound, most Hindus don’t think of themselves as practicing something called Hinduism. The phrase that most closely applies to what Westerners call Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma, which might be translated as “eternal religion”. Even this translation isn't completely satisfying because the world religion is not an equivalent to the word Dharma.
Really a Unified Religion?
Indigenous languages of India lack a word for what Westerners call religion. Rather that viewing themselves of participants of a religion called Hinduism, most Hindus see themselves as devotees of a particular god or goddess. They also see themselves as members of a particular community dedicated to the devotion of a specific deity.
Devotion to a specific god is symbolized by the forehead markings called Tilaks. They are one of the first things Westerners think of when they hear the name Hindu. For instance, persons who worship the god Shiva might indicate their allegiance with white horizontal stripes across the forehand. Devotees of Vishnu might make thin vertical markings to designate the object of their faith.
It might be better to think of Hinduism not as a single religion, but as a family of religions. Then, why use the word Hindu or Hinduism at all?
An Upsurge of “Hinduism”
In the last several years, some scholars have argued that there is absolutely not such thing as Hinduism. Because of the great complexity of religious practices in India many have wondered if there is anything as sufficient commonality for one to use the word Hinduism.
Scholars have suggested that the term Hinduism is a Western construction reflecting colonial interest of imperialist nations and for that reason should be discarded. I think that the idea of Hinduism is a useful one. It should be kept for no other reason than that many Hindus have now adopted the term and use it with increasing frequency.
This often happens in the history of religions. Christians, for instance, did not coin that term to describe themselves. Eventually, as others outside the Christian movement increasingly used that name, those in the movement started to use it also.
Today it would not be uncommon to enter a temple in India and see a sing proclaiming “For Hindus Only”. Not long ago, though, such a sign would have been unnecessary. In the last several decades even there has been an increase on the use of the word Hindutva, a word translated as “Hinduness”.
We may call this a rise in Hindu consciousness. It has been accompanied by an upsurge of participation in Hindu festivals, rituals and pilgrimages.