When the question of “who is a Hindu?” is discussed today, we get a multitude of confused and contradictory answers from both laypersons and from Hindu leaders. That we have such a difficult time understanding the answer to even so fundamental a question as “who is a Hindu?” is a starkly sad indicator of the lack of folk wisdom today.
Some of the common answers generally given to this simple question include: Anyone born in India is automatically a Hindu (the ethnicity fallacy), if your parents are Hindu, then you are Hindu (the clan and ancestry argument), if you are born into a certain caste, then you are Hindu (the genetic-inheritance model), if you believe in reincarnation, then you are Hindu (forgetting that many non-Hindu religions share at least some of the beliefs of Hinduism), if you practice any religion originating from India, then you are a Hindu (the national origin fallacy).
The two primary factors that distinguish the individual uniqueness of the great world religious traditions are:-
- a) the scriptural authority upon which the tradition is based, and,
- b) the fundamental religious tenet(s) that it espouses.
If we ask the question, “who is a Jew?’’ – for example, the answer is: someone who accepts the Torah as their scriptural guide and believes in the monotheistic concept of God espoused in these scriptures. “Who is a Christian?” the answer could be: a person who accepts the Gospels as his scriptural guide and believes that Jesus is the incarnate God who died for their sins. “Who is a Muslim?” – someone who accepts the Qur’an as his scriptural guide, and believes that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet.
But can we really define Hinduism by using the parameters as mentioned above?
Shri Aurobindo in ‘India’s Rebirth’ writes;
“Hinduism … gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the God ward endeavor of the human spirit. An immense many-sided and many staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, Santana Dharma…”
Mahatma Gandhi talked many times in direct terms about why he is proud to be a Hindu. He explained his concept of Hinduism or ‘Sanatana Dharma’ – he wrote in an article on Hinduism that;
“I had practiced Hinduism from early childhood. Later on, I had come in contact with Christians, Muslims and others, and after making a fair study of other religions, had stuck to Hinduism. I am as firm in my faith today as in my early childhood. I believe God would make me an instrument of saving the religion that I love, cherish and practice. In any case, one has to have constant practice and acquaintance with the fundamentals of religion before being qualified for becoming God’s instrument. I do not need to live amidst Hindus to know the Hindu mind when every fiber of my being is Hindu. My Hinduism must be a very poor thing if it cannot flourish under influences of the most adverse. My Hinduism is not sectarian. My Hinduism demands no pacts. I am proud to belong to that Hinduism which is all inclusive”.
Hinduism is not an exclusive religion. It is not a missionary religion in the ordinary sense of the term. It has no doubt absorbed many tribes in its fold, but this absorption has been an evolutionary, imperceptible character. Hinduism tells everyone to worship God according to his own faith or dharma and so it lives at peace with all religions.
Generally, we believe that the words Religion and “Dharma” are synonymous and interchangeable. Religion literally means that which leads one to God. “Dharma” is derived from the root Sanskrit word “dhri” which means “to hold together”. It has a wider meaning than the word “religion” which mostly denotes the Semitic religions, each one with a fixed formula of one God- One avatar- one book and a fixed creed. There is no equivalent word for Dharma either in English or in any other language. In this sense, Hinduism is not a religion; it’s a “Dharma”. Those who profess the Hindu Dharma and seek to follow it, are guided by spiritual, social and moral rules, actions, knowledge and duties which are responsible for holding the human race together. At the individual or the communal levels it is what is given in the above quote from Sri Aurobindo’s writings, that is, “… a continuously enlarging tradition of the God-ward endeavor of the human spirit”, a journey of consciousness, a progression of the divine manifestation in oneself, an achieved sense of evolution within.
According to Swami Sivananda;
“Hinduism allows absolute freedom to the rational mind of man. It never demands any undue restraint upon the freedom of human reason, the freedom of thought, feeling and will of man. Hinduism is freedom, allowing the widest margin of freedom in matters of faith and worship. It allows absolute freedom of human reason and heart with regard to such questions as to the nature of God, soul, form of worship, creation, and the goal of life. It does not force anybody to accept particular dogmas or forms of worship. It allows everybody to reflect, investigate, enquire and cogitate”.
Hence all manner of religious faiths, various forms of worship or spiritual practices, diverse rituals and customs have found their place, side by side, within the Great Tradition of Hinduism, and are acculturated and developed in harmony with one another. Hinduism, unlike other religions, does not dogmatically assert that the final emancipation or liberation is possible only through its means and not through any other. It is only a means to an end, and all means that ultimately lead to the final goal are approved of. Hinduism is not bound up with a creed or a book, a prophet or a founder, but it believes in persistent search for truth on the basis of a continuously renewed experience. Hinduism is human thought about God in continuous evolution.
Hinduism is not a religion, but a commonwealth of religions. It is more a way of life than a form of thought…The theist and the atheist, the skeptic and the agnostic may all be Hindus if they accept the Hindu system of culture and life. Hinduism insists not on religious conformity but on a spiritual and ethical outlook of life…Hinduism is not a sect but a fellowship of all who accept the law of right and earnestly seek for the truth.
Religion may be the constitutional necessity of mankind, but Dharma is that which ultimately leads man to his real nature and the Supreme Goal. Believe in your Dharma, believe in truth… be a Hindu before being a follower of any religion. And you will not need religion ultimately, at that stage when you or I have realized our inner self, as the Gita says:
सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज ।
अहं त्वा सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः ॥
Abandoning all duties, come to Me alone for shelter. Be not grieved for I shall release thee from all evils. (Translation by Dr. Radhakrishnana, Bhagavad Gita Shloka 66 of Chapter 18)
On the eve of Vikram Nav Varsh Samvant 2072. (March 20, 2014)