Dr Sitesh Alok
WHAT is Hinduism? This question piques not only the inquisitive non-Hindus but also torments many Hindus themselves. Perhaps, this is because Hinduism is a concept much too subtle to put into a framework of words, especially when viewed in the context of the existing religions of the world.
At the very outset what needs to be understood is that the word ‘Hindu’ was unwittingly coined around the seventh century by the Arabs who pronounced Sindhu, i.e. the river flowing near the western border of erstwhile India, as ‘Hindu’, because of their own enunciation, which caused ‘Sa’ to be pronounced as ‘Ha’. It was they who started calling all people settled beyond the eastern side of the river Sindhu, as Hindus.
Gradually, especially after the advent of Islam and the invasion of Mohammad Bin Qasim in 712 A.D. to make in-roads into this hitherto sequestered and unexplored territory, the term ‘Hindu’ got wider acceptance, unwittingly though, even by the populace here, who lived scattered over this sub-continent. Though politically independent to follow their respective regional customs and rituals, and invocation of local deities, they had a common bond of culture and a code of conduct, they called Dharma.
Hinduism is, thus, a collective nomenclature for umpteen uncoded religions practiced in the Indian sub–continent, referred to as a commonwealth of religions by some. Maybe, in a stricter sense, these belief systems are not religions because there is no interdiction with regard to worshipping any deity other than their own – nor any obligation to follow a particular set of rituals or worship their specified deity.
Dharma and the Religions
How strange! Inconceivable! Isn’t it? This is something radically different and inconceivable when viewed through the eyes of most people residing in other parts of the world and who have come to accept one of the codified religions – willingly or under compulsion – particularly Christianity and Islam, which together have nearly three-fourths of the world population under their fold. Definitions apart, broadly speaking, while the modern religions, referred to as semitic religions, lay emphasis on the name of their Almighty, the method of praying Him and their rites and rituals, Hinduism is liberal in all these aspects, and lays sole emphasis on people’s moral and ethical conduct for universal well¬-being, by following the path of Dharma.
And that is what makes Hinduism so unique – and different from the religions. While Hindus, too, believe in one Almighty, who exists everywhere and in everything, people are free to call Him by any name and worship Him in any form and manner they like. In most accepted Hindu scriptures, the Almighty has been perceived in three major roles, viz. as the Creator, as the Saviour during lifetime and the Controller and Master of life after physical death (often, mistakenly, referred to as the destroyer).
This shows that Hinduism is not a narrow religion. It is a concept much too sublime and humane. This is something basic or most fundamental to understand that Hinduism is not something akin to, or comparable with, the semitic religions practiced in most parts of the world. The grave misunderstanding emerged when, in an attempt to translate Dharma into English, or to find some synonymous expression for it in the non–Indic languages, modern politicians and scholars ended up with the word ‘religion’ they knew. They, in fact, failed to comprehend the unique concept of Dharma which the ancient habitants of this sub¬continent had evolved.
While religions are systems of faith and worship, Dharma is an enlightened way of life. Cutting across all religions, Dharma lays emphasis on people’s moral and ethical conduct for a happy universal co-existence. With no compulsions whatsoever, Dharma elucidates and imparts the basic noble attributes like patience, forgiveness, non-stealing, purity of thought, speech and action, intellect, education, truth and control over one’s, temper and senses. Dharma beckons us to imbibe such noble attributes – as many of them and in the measure and extent possible. The only requirement is just that one should be a good human being. These human values are, generally speaking, eternal, i.e. valid for all times. That is why Hinduism is often referred to as Sanatan (i.e. eternal) Dharma.
This is why one can be a Hindu whether one worships Shiva, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, Mahavir, Buddha, Durga, even Christ or Mohammad, or none at all. One is free to worship Him in the form of some idol, a mountain, a stone or some other object, or in an abstract formless thought. One is free to wear a dhoti or a Kafni or a Kimono or a gown or nothing at all. One is free to apply sandal-paste on the forehead or a tilak or nothing at all. One is free to wear one’s hair in the style one wants, and to sport a beard of one’s choice, or to stay clean–shaven.
Proselytization & Never Thought of
This is the reason why Hinduism was never preached or canvassed, let alone forced upon anyone. This also shows that there was no provision to proselytize others to Hinduism. It was believed that one is fine, wherever and in whichever family Almighty placed one in. One should strive to be a good human being and free to follow the system of faith and worship of one’s roots. Theoretically, according to the concept of Hinduism, a good human being is fine whether he follows Islamic system of faith and worship, or the Christian tradition or any other belief system. Why incite or induce anyone to follow the Hindu tradition? If one is a good human being, one is arguably already a Hindu, irrespective of the customs and rituals he or she follows. If not, his taking up of the Hindu garb will not benefit anyone.
Broadly speaking, all religions were ‘formed’ at, or around, some point of time, by someone or some group of people. By and large, all religions have codified rules and rituals and any change in them is simply forbidden, even if changing times call for it. Any change in them is verboten and is considered blasphemy. Hinduism, by contrast, emphasises human edification and advocates control and mastery over natural human weaknesses – such as lust, anger, greed, laziness and impatience – and is open to changes, in human interest, if changed time so warrants. For instance, in the very early times, when cereals were not known, people depended on animal meat for food, and non¬-vegetarian diet was totally accepted in Hinduism. But, with the growth of civilization and the cultivation of grains, the norm gradually shifted to vegetarianism and the associated concept of Ahinsa, no killing, and the idea that no animal should be killed even for food, gained acceptance as part of Dharma.
This is the reason why, Hinduism has no problem with the religions of the world, whether semitic or Indic. Hinduism, broadly speaking, looks upon all human beings as Dharmi or Adharmi, those who follow the accepted moral and ethical tenets and those who do not adhere to them. The society would respect the people who follow the path of Dharma, in accordance with the degree they are true to Dharma, and would frown upon, or condemn, those who act in contravention of the path of Dharma. Broadly, that would indicate how good, or not so good, or not good they are. For example, Ravan and Kansa of the ancient times, though born as Hindus, even though the term Hindu was not known in those times, were condemned as Adharmi on account of their unethical and immoral conduct. Similarly, Jaichand of the medieval era and some present–day villains like food adulterators or traitors, even though Hindus by birth, ritual and behaviour, would be called Adharmi and recommended for suitable punishment by the authority. Hinduism is, thus, for constant introspection and scrutiny aimed at improvement in ethical and moral values with a view to guiding human behaviour for social harmony.
True, the conduct of most Hindus, today, does not conform to the lofty ideals advocated by Dharma. Most critics of Hinduism dwell upon this disparity. No doubt there is a marked divergence between the accepted principles of Hinduism and the social conduct of even some of its ardent followers. The reason precisely lies in the fact that most Hindus themselves do not know what Hinduism stands for. What does it signify? How are Hindus different from others and how they would remain different from others?
This is unfortunate. This is because, over a long time, especially during the centuries of slavery, Hindus were not allowed to know who and what they are. Not only was their age–old system of knowledge, of the basic dos and don’ts, ruthlessly erased, they were also deprived of their heritage, their self-respect and self-confidence at one go. They were led to a state of utter confusion, ignorance and abasement. Yes, this is the result of slavery. This is precisely what foreign rule strives to create and thrive upon.
(To be concluded)