The word ‘Hinduism’ encompasses numerous independent religions of Indian origin. Hinduism is derived  from the word Hindu, which is a Persian name for those people who live near and beyond the river Indus or Sindhu, who didn’t practice Islam or Christianity or Judaism and meant as such irreligious.  The alternate word used for Hindu by Muslims was “kafir or non-believer.”   The European word for Hindu is Indu or Indi or Indian, which ultimately gained popularity because of the British colonization. Even though the origin is same for both words Hindu and Indian, the former refers to religion and the later refers to citizenship.

The Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines Hinduism as the common religion of India, based upon the original Aryan settlers as expounded and evolved in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, etc having an extremely diversified character with many schools of philosophy and theology, many popular cults, and a large pantheon symbolizing the many attributes of a single god.  But this definition is not completely correct, because it gives an idea that there was a Hinduism in the beginning which diversified to the present Hinduism just like the Christianity diversified and evolved to the present state of many sects.  The fact is that Hinduism includes religions like Brahminism, Sikhism, Jainism, Budhism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Veerashaivism, Shaktism, Tantrism etc., which are vastly different from each other.  The Brahminism is still independent from the local religions.  A Brahmin is a twice-born worshipper of the Sun God (Savitar) and not all Hindus are twice born.

There is a vast literature developed by Brahmins to interrelate various religions by marrying different Gods and Goddesses in mythology.  This was possible because the king was considered the incarnation of God and his conquests and marriages were given religious color and included in mythology to reduce the tensions between various religions that had to live together.  Even a cursory reading of Puranas (mythology) explains how various religions fought with each other and reconciled to each other.  For example, in Ramayana (Raamaayana), Lord Rama (Raama) is a North Indian Aryan king of Ayodhya and was the incarnation of Vishnu.  He invades and fights a bitter war and kills Ravana (Raavana), the mighty king of Sri Lanka, who is a worshipper of Lord Shiva.  In Vaishnavite mythology (Srimad-Bhaagavata), Lord Vishnu reincarnates several times to protect good and destroys the evil and demons who defy the supremacy of Lord Vishnu and the Dharma.  Rama, Krishna, Narasimha etc. are
popular Shri Vishnu incarnations.

The reconciliation is achieved by 1) the conversion of the demons to Vaishnavism, e.g., Prahlada accepts Vaishnavism and helps Narasimha (Lord Vishnu) in killing his own Shaivite father, the king of demons and establishes rule of Dharma (law and order), and 2) by incorporating local dominant tribe/caste into the pantheon, e.g., dark skinned Krishna belongs to north Indian Yadava caste/tribe, who fights the hegemony of Indra, the God of Aryans.  Thus Brahmins were very flexible in terms of names and forms of Gods since they beleived the ultimate God is the same and praised the God with million names and forms, while maintaining their caste/tribe purity.

One can see the hatred toward Brahmins in South India even today.  The caste conflicts in India include the religious/tribal/cultural differences.  Bitter rivalry (tribal) between various castes still exists, but the religious part of the conflict is overshadowed by the conflict with an alien religion Islam for over thousand years, which helped various Indian religions to consolidate under the banner of the Hinduism in an unprecedented way.

Though there is no conflict anymore between major Indian religions (Hinduisms), every state has a dominant God different from the rest, e.g., Andhra Pradesh-Lord Venkateswara/Sreenivaasa, Tamilnadu-Murugan, Kerala-Ayyappa, Maharashtra-Ganapathi, West Bengal-Kali/Durga and so on.

In an attempt to define Hinduism that exists in India today, the Constitution Bench in Sastri Yajnapurushadasji and Others Vs. Muldas Bhudardas Vaishya and Another, 1996 (3) SCR 242 held: "Then we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God: it does not subscribe to any one dogma: it does not believe in any one philosophic concept: it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more."  The Supreme Court further opined "Hinduism had originally a territorial and not a cradle significance. It implied residence in a well-defined geographical area. Aboriginal tribes, savage and half-civilized people, the cultured Dravidians and the Vedic Aryans were all Hindus as they were the sons of the same mother. The Hindu thinkers reckoned with the striking fact that the men and women dwelling in India belonged to different communities, worshipped different gods, and practised different rites."  Thus Hinduism is a group of religions. Whatever may be the origins and definitions of Hinduism, it is one of the most democratic and liberal religions in the world today, since it is simply a way of life and includes every possible spritual way. 

For more on Hinduism or Indian Religions see: S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1923; Jonathan Z. Smith (ed.), The Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1995. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Hinduism- A Religion To Live By, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996; Hermann Kulke and Dietmer Rothermund, A History of India, Routledge, New York, 1996, pp. 138-161.

Sreenivasarao Vepachedu, December 1997. (updated 2003)

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