What is Hinduism?
Is it a philosophy, a way of life, a spiritual path, a religion, a worldview? Does it even exist?
Although rather less frequently than in the case of Buddhism, for example, there has been a recent tendency to refer to Hinduism as a ‘philosophy’. Certainly, Hinduism has a rich and vibrant intellectual heritage (see Hindu philosophies) but it cannot be reduced to this. Conversely, the more common reference to Hinduism as a ‘way of life’ favours the lived experience and perhaps also lessens the difficulties of definition in the face of extraordinary diversity. However, this emphasis upon Hinduism being a way of life is hardly unique. Hinduism can also be described as a ‘spirituality’ since this reflects its ascetic and mystic aspects. Yet the concentration on the personal and private at the cost of the social and public, despite the generally positive connotations of spirituality, poses the danger of perpetuating a distorted vision of Hinduism as other-worldly. Some contemporary Hindus use the phrase ‘spiritual humanism’ to counteract this and emphasise ethical action in the world. Of course, the most obvious answer to the question ‘what is Hinduism?’ is that it is a religion. Nevertheless, it is a controversial answer as both religion and Hinduism are now viewed in a more critical manner.
Many scholars argue that the concept of ‘religion’ has undergone a process of reification in the modern West whereby religion has come to be seen as an object or thing. If instead, religion is recognised as a concept, without an independent existence or essence, there is a basis for evaluating whether it is the appropriate category to classify what is labelled Hinduism. Arguably, the idea of a clearly defined, separate belief system does not fit the Hindu tradition.
Frits Staal goes as far as claiming that Eastern ‘religions’, as we understand them today, were actually invented by the colonial imposition of Western norms based on truth claims onto Asian traditions based on ritual. Even the declaration by many contemporary Hindus that it is the ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (‘eternal law’ or ‘eternal religion’) can be seen as having been influenced by the Western concept of ‘religion’, as it began to be used in colonial times first to indicate a traditional Hinduism as opposed to the innovations of reformers, then to describe a timeless, universal religion potentially relevant to all humanity. The Hindu tradition differs in many ways from the common understanding of ‘a religion’, modelled on what is seen in European Protestant Christianity or other Abrahamic traditions – a founder, a prophet, one God, one scripture etc. Some scholars suggest that it is best to see Hinduism not as one religion but many. After all, ‘Hinduism’ actually has many founders of specific groups and movements, many different lineages of teachers, many G/gods and G/goddesses worshipped, and many authoritative texts cherished by different groups. Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism can thus be treated as separate religions, rather than as branches of Hinduism. Nevertheless, even if it is argued that ‘Hinduism’ as a single ‘religion’ did not exist in the past, it can be argued that it does now, as both adherents and outsiders tend to regard Hinduism to all intents and purposes as one religion and may present it, in a somewhat misleading way, using the template of Christianity.
We might refer to the Hindu ‘worldview’, or possibly more accurately, ‘worldviews’ plural. In the most general sense, ‘worldview’ refers to an overall approach to life. But ‘worldview’, like ‘religion,’ is a term that means different things to different people. It can have a narrower meaning of the intellectual or cognitive ideas, teachings and beliefs of a tradition, put together in a systematic way by scholars – though as discussed above there are many of these, teaching somewhat different things. It can also mean something much wider, including emotions, experience, ethical and ritual practice, and sense of identity, which are, like teachings, plural and diverse in this tradition. It can be argued however that a more unified sense of a ‘Hindu’ identity has been created in modern and contemporary times (see below). It can mean an ‘institutional’ worldview, so would refer to the official versions of teachings, ethical expectations, approved practices, ideas about who belongs (or is eligible to belong) to this community, or views on contemporary issues put forward by accepted authorities within the tradition. There are various organisations that attempt to do this, but none that can really be said to speak for ‘all Hindus’, and in any case, individuals and smaller groups identifying with a particular institution do not always accept or live by the whole ‘package’. Our worldviews are also personal, so we might talk about the worldview of an individual, in which Hindu ideas, values, practices and identity might form a major or just a contributory part alongside other influences. ‘Worldview’ also can be used in a narrow sense to mean just views about the ‘world’ or cosmos, rather than other aspects of human experience, or to refer to the taken-for-granted assumptions of any particular society or historical period. Thus sometimes it might make more sense to talk of an ‘Indian’ rather than a ‘Hindu’ worldview when describing a picture of the universe which includes beings such as deities, demons, heavens and hells, many lives, karma, and an immense stretch of time, which would be shared by other traditions of Indian origin such as Buddhism or Sikhism.
In this essay we continue to use the term ‘Hinduism’, but only as a convenient shorthand and not implying the existence of a ‘thing’.