McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

Why is it problematic to define Hinduism as a single religion?

Hinduism, the umbrella term for the many religious traditions of the majority of India, is one of the largest and certainly the oldest of established religious traditions existing today. It spans over four millennia and there over nine million followers worldwide, the majority of which reside in India and Nepal. However Hinduism is not exactly what everyone would call a religion in the western sense, in fact as we shall see, the term Hinduism is not even of Indian origin.

The term is actually Persian, based on the Sanskrit for the Indus River - Sindhu. Hindus were therefore originally defined as settlers of the Indus River area. Fuller, Smith, Hawley and Larson argue that the term was later used to define the religion(s) of India by the British administration occupying India. These people were determined to group and define the lands they entered and the multitudes of religions of India were placed under the umbrella term Hinduism. Writers such as Doniger, van der Veer and Lorenzen argue otherwise. According to Juluri's discussion of ancient sayings, the term is taken from the Indian words himsa (violence) and duramu (distant) - meaning he who is distant from violence (Juluri 2006: 2): another meaningful and sensible argument.

In a Supreme Court ruling Chief Justice Gajendragadkar stated that, "…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 of creed." Chief Justice P. B. Gajendragadkar (1995, paragraph 28). This quote really summarises the nature of Hinduism and the reason for difficulty in defining the Indian religious phenomenon.

From this discussion we can see the issues surrounding the term Hinduism and some of the problems faced when attempting to define social and religious systems different from what is familiar. That western understanding of religion is very different from what Hinduism or the religions of India are. Hinduism is a clumsy, all-incorporating attempt to define the religious beliefs, culture and practices of the majority of the Indian population but in order to understand it from a western perspective it has been defined in the terms of a western religion. Hinduism is not one religion, it is an umbrella term used to define existing religions and cultural practices within India and Nepal.

Related Links
To Top