Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

8 Religion in context: Hinduism in Calcutta

8.1 Hinduism as a ‘religion’

India's population includes followers of many religions and many people who have rejected religion in any form. The modern Republic of India has a secular constitution (one which guarantees the religious freedom of all but does not give a privileged position to any one religion) but a population which overwhelmingly identifies itself as Hindu. More than eighty per cent of India's population are Hindus, practitioners of what is now widely referred to as the religion of Hinduism. Historically, Hinduism has taken many different forms but has not organised itself around centralised authorities as have, for example, many Christian churches in Britain. Consequently, defining Hinduism as a ‘religion’ – its characteristics and boundaries – poses particular problems.

The term ‘Hindu’ was derived from the name of the river, now known as the Indus, that flows through the north-west of the Indian subcontinent. It was applied first to people living in the region around the Indus, and then to the inhabitants of the subcontinent of India as a whole. The English term ‘Hinduism’ was coined by Europeans. They used it to refer to the religion of the mass of the people who were neither Muslims nor followers of some other identifiable faith such as Buddhism or Sikhism.

Exercise 14

Knowing what you do about the origins of the term ‘Hinduism’, jot down any considerations you feel should govern our use of this term. Remember what you have discovered about the use of the term ‘religion’ and labels like ‘Hinduism’ in Section 5, and put into practice the critical approach outlined in Section 7. Be cautious before accepting labels and think about Hinduism in context.


You may well have suggested that the term ‘Hinduism’ should be used with care precisely because it is a European term which has been invented to categorise, or even ‘re-package’, Indian assumptions and practices. Moreover, a label ending with an ‘ism’ can lead us to expect coherence and uniformity where there is none. Its use, especially when coupled with the term ‘religion’, may encourage the unthinking retention of European assumptions about what a religious system should look like. These are important considerations. They make us think more carefully about how we are to approach ‘Hinduism’, and about the adequacy of the concept of ‘religion’ as a tool for exploring different cultural contexts. It is indeed, therefore, a matter of looking at Indian Hinduism in its context. If you suggested that we should consult the opinion of Hindus before using these terms, this would seem to be a wise move. We shall do that now.

Many Hindus have adopted the conventional use of the terms ‘Hinduism’ and ‘religion’ while knowing that these do not translate underlying Hindu concepts. When you read John Bowker's brief account of Hinduism in Britain, you may have been surprised that one of the Hindus he interviewed declared that, ‘Hinduism is not a religion, in the same sense in which Christianity is a religion, Islam is a religion and even Buddhism is a religion’ (Bowker, 1983, p. 27).

In 1944 Jawaharlal Nehru, who would soon be India's first post-independence prime minister, was one of many Indian leaders imprisoned by the British because of his support for the nationalist cause. Trapped in gaol, he had time to reflect on his Indian heritage. He was personally inclined towards secularism and, at times, was an outspoken critic of religion, but this did not prevent him from trying to understand its place in Indian society. This is what he had to say about the nature of Hinduism:

Hinduism, as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say whether it is a religion or not, in the usual sense of the word.

(Nehru, 1960, p. 63)

Other Hindus have been well aware that the popular sense of the English term ‘religion’ (‘its usual sense’) conveys narrow and predominantly Christian overtones. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), the figurehead of the Hindu wing of the Indian independence movement who was given the title of ‘Mahatma’ (‘the great soul’), preferred to speak of religion in its broadest sense, ‘meaning thereby self-realization or knowledge of the self’ (Gandhi, 1982, p. 45). It is not enough, however, simply to adopt a definition of religion that is sufficiently broad to avoid being limited by the religious assumptions and norms of one culture. As we now know, a definition of religion must also be specific.

Some Hindus rely upon the concept of dharma, in preference to the debated concept of ‘religion’, when explaining the nature of Hinduism. Dharma is a term taken from the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit in which many of Hinduism's sacred books were written. A limited number of Sanskrit terms will be introduced in the course of our discussion. Each term will be explained in the text and also, for quick reference, in the glossary.

[Dharma can mean] ‘religion’, ‘righteousness’, ‘duty’, or ‘innate nature’. According to Hinduism, man's innate nature is determined by a yearning for a restoration to its state of perfection. Dharma is the process by which the awareness of the realizable nature of perfection is enkindled in the heart of man.

(Mukerji, 1988, p. 4)

Within the Hindu tradition, the obligations of dharma fall under two broad headings: universal obligations and obligations specific to groups defined by age, sex and caste – a caste is a distinct social grouping with a traditional range of occupations that normally insists upon its members marrying within it. Caste has been a characteristic feature of Hindu life and social organisation. Caste status is hereditary, and Hindu society has been organised historically around caste groups ranked in order of status according to traditional notions of ritual purity. Caste identity, therefore, indicates social status but also brings with it ritual responsibilities and social and economic implications. It also defines religious identity for, traditionally, only a person born to Hindu parents and thus into a caste has been counted as a Hindu. What we might wish to label as Hindu ‘religious’ activity, therefore, is inseparable from a complex socio-economic system in which family life and caste membership have their place.

One possibility open to us would be to identify as ‘Hindu religion’ or ‘Hinduism’ those beliefs and practices referred to by Hindus under the heading of dharma. But the central Hindu concept of dharma, although it can refer to social and ethical obligations and ‘sacred law’, embraces a view of life that does not distinguish between, for example, religion and politics, and religion and social custom in a manner commonly found in secular theories. If we begin with the Hindu concept of dharma and allow this to shape our understanding of the concept of ‘Hinduism’, we see that Hinduism refers to an entire way of life. Elements relating to ‘sacred law’ are all-pervasive and therefore not separable into a distinct compartment which we might label ‘religion’.

Other religions allow us to turn to an authoritative prophet or founder figure, or to a sacred book, to tell us exactly what that religion is about. Hinduism, however, brings together many different traditions and does not trace its beginnings back to one reputed founder or event. Hindu society is hierarchical, but Hinduism is not regulated by one centralised authority recognised by the majority of Hindus. Today it largely falls to India's secular courts to define the boundaries of Hinduism within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Harking back to ‘Religion and social policy’ (Section 4.4), the definition of Hinduism as a religion has not been simply a matter of academic interest but has had far-reaching social and political implications for the Republic of India.


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