Is Hinduism a Religion? (part 1)

While growing up in a Hindu family, I was not to follow the laws set out of a particular holy book or creed.  I was unfamiliar with the concept of one god who alone is worthy of worship, and the veneration of a founder or prophet.  Many of my European peers were puzzled by the thought, if not outright astonished.  When I misbehaved, my parents instructed me that my actions were against our ‘Hindu culture’, not ‘Hindu religion’.

Whether or not this entity called ‘Hinduism’ is actually a religion has no good answer.  The textbook ‘Religions in the Modern World’ (Woodhead, Kawanami and Partridge, 2009), describes Hinduism as if it were in fact a culture rather than a religion.  The section on Hinduism by David Smith reads somewhat like an ethnography, often describing practices which can also be attributed to India as a whole, citing the complex concept of caste and the advent of Hindu Nationalism as examples.  Lipner refers to phenomenon as: ‘the religio-culturally unified but teeming profusion perceived as ‘Hinduism” (Lipner, 2006).  He asserts the word ‘Hindu’ did not start of as a religious term, but in fact was originally a ‘cultural expression’.  To this day, no word for ‘Hinduism’ in any Indo-Aryan language exists, and is often referred to in Hindi as ‘hamare Sanskaar’ or ‘hamari Sanskriti’, though these are, respectively, just translations of ‘our values’ and ‘our heritage’.  Whether Hinduism can be categorised as a religion continues to be hotly debated, and saying whether or not Hindus themselves were conscious of their own religious identity is debatable.

Hinduism being or not being a religion is dependent on context: the variables include the time period of reference, geographic location, whom you’re asking and finally, perhaps the most prominent, how one comes to define ‘religion’ as a category in and of itself.

Lorenzen refers to a considerable amount of sources to assert that Hindus were in fact conscious of a separate religious identity, long before the colonial encounter in the 19th century, and in some cases even before the invasion of the Mughals in the 14th century, claiming even those scholars asserting Hinduism is a construction write as if it existed centuries ago.  Lorenzen argues that the concept of a Hindu religion, ‘theologically and devotionally grounded in texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Puranas, and the commentaries on the six Darshanas’ (Lorenzen, 2006), became gradually established during the contact between Hindus and Muslims between the 13th and 16th centuries, and a self-conscious identity existed long before 1800.  It should be noted that according to Lorenzen, ‘several scholars cite the date 1829 for the first known occurrence in English, as ‘Hindooism’.  Nevertheless, Lorenzen cites sources by various authors, who point to his conclusion that Hinduism was not a construction; the following being his summary of the writing of two employees of the East-India company in the 1760’s:
‘The accounts of Hinduism by [John Zepheniah] Holwell and [Alexander] Dow… contain the same basic elements found in any modern textbook variant of the standard model: the four Vedas; the social system of four varnas; the division of powers among the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; goddess worship; basic elements of the mythology of these gods, including several of the avatars of Vishnu; the theory of the four yugas; some idea of the various darshanas; and the theodicy of karma, transmigration and rebirth.’ (Lorenzen, 2006)
Descriptions of Hindus by early missionaries match that of Hollwell and Dow.  Lorenzen points to the use of the word ‘Gentoo’ by Europeans to refer to ‘Hindu’.  It is derived from gentios, a generic Latin term for one who follows indigenous religious traditions, i.e. a ‘pagan’.  Derivatives of the word have been used in Italian (gentile) and Spanish (gentil) to refer to Hindus.  Lorenzen gives the example of the Spanish language Itinerario of the Augustinian Missionary Sebastiao Manrique (1649) identifying ‘gentiles’ with Hindus, and claims that the passage gives the word a specifically religious and not geographic meaning.  The passage, a words of a Mughal official reprimanding a Muslim for killing a peacock, reads ‘Are you not… a Bengali and a Muslim…?  How did you dare, in a district of Hindus, kill a living thing?’ I will disagree, as there is nothing in the passage which refers to Hindus themselves recognising that they belong to a single denomination, as these are the words of a Muslim, thereby an outsider’s perspective on whether or not Hindus themselves actually considered ‘Hindu’ as a single denomination.

The Italian missionary Marco della Tomba of the Fransiscan Mission, in his ‘Diversi sistemi della religion dell ‘Indostano’’ (1776), refers to Hindus as ‘Gentili’ and contrasts their religion with that of both the Christians and Muslims.  Again, this is an outsider perspective, and, being a missionary, Marco would have applied his own definition of religion onto the peoples he was attempting to convert, and whether those peoples understood what a ‘religion’ was, Lorenzen does not address.  This argument ignores the indigenous perspective, and proves only that Hinduism was constructed before the 19th century.  These accounts do not prove that Hindus were conscious of a religious identity separate from their everyday life, and instead only proves Muslims and Christians were.

Lorenzen’s references to Hindu poetry are likewise insufficient to further his claim.  Kabir uses the word ‘dharm’ to refer to both ‘the religion of the Hindus’ and ‘the religion of the Muslims’, Lorenzen argues.  However Sanskrit dharm is just one aspect of the Hindu tradition, and can just as easily translate into English as ‘duty’.  Kabir may have only been comparing this aspect.  The word ‘Hindu’, as an identity, can have other senses entailed in its cognitive lexical entry, such as an ethno-geographic sense, which the English word ‘religion’ does not.  Therefore the congruity of their respective referents is arbitrary and circumstantial.

The only literal translation of the word ‘religion’, in Lorenzen’s entire essay ‘Who Invented Hinduism’, is the Arabic word ‘din’.  This is used in the Asiatic Society of Bengal’s version of the Prithviraj Raso, by Canda Baradai (1192).  Since the Arabic word is used rather than the closest Sanskrit term ‘dharm’, how can they guarantee the congruency of both words’ respective referents?  Could it not have been that Hindus were forced to borrow a foreign loanword was because they had none of their own for the concept that ‘din’ encapsulates, leading to the only logical conclusion that there was no such concept indigenous to India? In fact, each caste in India is said to have their own ‘dharm’, however all of these castes can be said to belong to the same ‘din’, attesting to the fact that ‘dharm’ and ‘din’ can be used to refer to different senses.

(continued in part 2)


Daniel, E. Valentine (2000) ‘The Arrogation of Being: Revisiting the Anthropology of Religion,’ Macalaster International: Vol. 8, Article 17.

Lipner, J. J. (n.d.). The Rise of ‘Hinduism’: Or, How to Invent a World Religion with Only Moderate Success. International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Apr, 2006), pp 91-104. Springer.

Lorenzen, D. N. (2006). Who invented Hinduism: Essays on religion in History. pp 630-655. New Delhi: Yoda Press.

Woodhead, L., Kawanami, H., Partridge, C., & Smith, D. (2009). Hinduism: Religions in the modern world: Traditions and transformations. pp 37-67. London: Routledge.

Banyan Tree image:



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