Is Hinduism a Religion? (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

In order to comprehend ‘Hinduism’ fully, we must unveil its origins. This brings us to our next variable, geographic location.  The famous words of the Anglo-Welsh philologist Sir William Jones, have given scholars clues as to the primeval origins of Hinduism’s sacred language, Sanskrit:
‘The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source… (Jones, 1824)

The aforementioned Spanish and Italian missionaries’ use of derivatives of the Latin gentios attests to the common ancient roots of the indigenous European traditions and that of the Indians.  Parallels between the two, such as the cognate names for the Vedic deity Dyaus, and Ancient Greek Zeus, both of whom are described as kings of the gods, point to the common Proto Indo-European source Jones refers to.  The ancient Europeans were, like the Hindus, unable to separate their religious life from their culture, remnants of which are the ‘Christian’ holidays of Easter and Christmas, which actually have ‘Pagan’ origins.  The arrival of the people who called themselves Aryans (from Sanskrit arya, ‘noble’), people of Indo-European descent who spoke the Sanskrit language, assimilated the local culture of Punjab and the Indus Valley and composed the Vedic literature, reflects Lipner’s hypothesis:
‘A religious culture of such antiquity cannot but have exercised through the ages a widespread influence, by action or reaction, by migration and absorption of peoples, on the civilisations of our world right up to the present day.’ (Lipner, 2006)

Smith opens the chapter on Hinduism in this textbook by describing Hinduism as ‘the primary indigenous religion of South Asia’ (Smith, 2009) and even Lorenzen agrees that ‘the religious sense of Hindu has long coexisted and overlapped with an ethnic and geographical sense.’ (Smith, 2009)  Smith also points out a non-Vedic origin for common Hindu practices and concepts such as Yoga, Tantra and rebirth, supporting the notion that Hinduism is not a religion but instead an indigenous tradition, which was able to incorporate new practices into its fold.  There is a strong resemblance to the Hittites of central Anatolia in present day Turkey, also of Indo-European origin, who were referred to as ‘the people of a thousand gods’ because they assimilated the deities as well as the rituals and practices of the lands they conquered into their own pantheon.  Harjot Oberoi argues that the people called Hindus never used the term to refer to themselves, and was first used by the Achaemenids to describe all those who lived beyond the River Indus.  However Lorenzen and Lipner both point out the word ‘Hindu’ was used by those who lived on the other side of the Indus in the form ‘Sindhu’.  The change from the sound /s/ to /h/ from Proto Indo-Iranian to the Iranian language Avestan took place before the Vedic period – while Avestan, a close relative of Old Persian, saw all /s/ sounds change to /h/, Vedic Sanskrit retained the original /s/.  Hence we have the original ‘Sindhu’ becoming ‘Hindu’ (this is also why we have Ved. Asura becoming Av. Ahura, from Ahura Mazda).  The Iranian word ‘Hindu’ was later borrowed into the Indian languages.

The indigineity of Hinduism can be seen even today. In his ethnography of Hindu weddings, Daniel observes that in a 1974 Tamil wedding, the participants treat the ceremony as if it were an indigenous tradition in the sense I have described above, whereas those in a 1999 Punjabi wedding in New Jersey treated the wedding as a religious affair.
‘in 1974 either no one thought to mention such a fact or else it was not a wedding in the Hindu religious tradition after all. In fact, the fifty-odd weddings I had attended between 1974 and 1976 in South India were identified by Tamils and Brahman, Vellalah, Gaunda, Paryar, or by numerous other jati (or ‘caste’) names, and also as either Christian or Muslim as if these two were jatis. But never was a wedding I attended identified as Hindu.’ (Daniel, 2000)
My own observations from having lived in Delhi and Bangalore attest to Daniel’s point, as, in both cities when asking someone ‘What is your caste?’, responses such as ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’ are considered just as acceptable as ‘Vaishya’ or ‘Kshatriya’.

Furthermore the Brahman in 1999 paused in between to explain to the participants the meaning of the ritual symbols, whereas if the Brahman at the Tamil wedding had done so, he would have been considered ‘slightly deranged’ (Daniel, 2000).  The participants in the Tamil wedding did not need meaning – they considered themselves symbols and were themselves a part of the ritual process:
‘It was not that representations were not involved in the total context of the 1974 Tamil wedding, but that the individual was not a mere observer, one who looked at and, if adequately educated, looked through representations – be they icons, indexes, or symbols – as if they were mirrors that would reflect a further reality. For every participant himself or herself was a representation, a sign…’ (Daniel, 2000)
The participants in the Tamil wedding were immersed in a ‘semiotic ontology’, which the notion of ‘religion’ cannot fully accommodate.

Our next variable deals with the diverse plethora of practices and sects which lie within the fold of Hinduism.  Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism has no centralised body or single creed.  Different sects have their own customs, and in a sense Hinduism can be seen as being a collection of different religious traditions rather than a single one.  All revolve around a central point, the Vedic literature, like the planets around the sun.  Lipner metaphorically illustrates this using the model of a Banyan Tree.590555-banyan-tree-cypress

Ancient Banyan trees have the tendency to extend aerial roots from their higher branches down to the ground, which may develop to look like fully fledged trunks.  Over time, this creates the effect of a grove of many trunks, constituting a single tree.  This is an appropriate metaphor for the ‘unity in diversity’ of Hinduism, as according to Lipner:
‘Original’ Vedic authority and salvific efficacy flows dialectically between the centres under scrutiny, this relationship endorsing the original source of soteriological power.’ (Lipner, 2006)

This can be illustrated by a common feature throughout many sects of Hinduism, in which a single god-head is worshipped often in the form of their Avatars, in the case of Vishnu, the Avatars of Krshna or Narsimha.  Lipner describes this form of worship as polycentrism rather than polytheism, but which differs from the monotheism of Christianity, as ‘they seek inherently to polarise, to prioritise the centripetal forces of authority and belief over the centrifugal, rather than to maintain the two in a form of life that is expressed in the tensive equilibrium…’ (Lipner, 2006)

Our final context is that of how one comes to define the term ‘religion’. Daniel describes the term to be a ‘foreign implant’ from Europe (and earlier from the Middle East), and that the universality of the term is a misconception.  He writes ‘How could I possibly define something as universal without defining what that something is? …defining religion is your problem, not mine.’ (Daniel, 2000)  The concept of ‘religion’ is itself, by and large, a Christian affair, and to a lesser extent a Muslim and Jewish affair.  Christianity is the prototype of the definition of ‘religion’ – a single dogmatic creed, with a list of clearly defined rules and a universally venerated sacred text, which can be imposed upon a conquered people from above or among an indigenous population by proselytisers from below, separate from culture and everyday life, and is perceived as such.

Holistically, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it is possible to consider Hinduism as a fully fledged world religion akin to Christianity and Islam. Organisations such as ISKCON are freely proselytising and performing conversions outside India, while at the same time maintaining a prominent presence within India.  Hindus in the Indian diaspora often clearly separate their religion from their everyday life, much like Christians, and unlike Hindus of the past.  In the words of Daniel, ‘HinduISM is on the brink of arriving at the global moment, ‘the Christian moment’’ (Daniel, 2000).  Despite its presence on the world stage as the world’s ‘third largest religion’, where converts and descendants of Hindus have extended their branches to the ground and have become trunks in their own right, many Indians at home continue to adhere to its indigenous roots, all constituting the Banyan tree that is Hinduism.



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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