Who are Hindus?

In one sense a Hindu is anyone who identifies as such. However, it is somewhat more complicated than that, as they may also need to be accepted as Hindu by others, and in any case the meaning of the word Hindu has changed over time and continues to be fluid. While now the terms Hindu and Indian are most often used to mean something quite different, they both owe their origins to the Sanskrit Sindhu or River Indus. When pronounced by the Persians, Sindhu became Hindu which was subsequently appropriated by the Greeks for whom it became Indos. In both instances, the terms referred to the land beyond the river, the people and their way of life. Hence in the past Hindu and Indian meant much the same and were used as synonyms. Later Hindu came to have a distinctly religious meaning as an adherent of Hinduism, displacing the earlier geographic, ethnic and cultural meaning that was broad enough to encompass members of other religions, such as those now called Jains and Buddhists. The legacy of the older usage persisted into the modern period in Western sources which retained the sense of Hindus as participants in the indigenous civilisation of the subcontinent even if the narrow religious sense was acquiring dominance. Opinions differ as to when and why this change occurred (see When did Hinduism begin?).

It is clear that what began as a term used by outsiders in due course was adopted by insiders. It is less clear whether Muslim or Hindu commentators in pre-modern India conceived of Muslims and Hindus as religious communities rather than ethnic or cultural groups. Possibly, as William Oddie suggests, regional factors may go some way towards explaining apparently contradictory evidence on Muslim-Hindu relations and the development of Hindu self-identity as membership of a religious community. While this self-identity may predate the modern period, undoubtedly it developed further in British India where, for a variety of reasons, Hindus increasingly prioritised their affiliation with ‘Hinduism’ over the multitude of traditions and movements with which they were associated. Even so, ethnographic studies query the notion that Hindus and Muslims belonged to exclusive communities and qualify the extent to which Hindus recognised the label Hindu as designating their religious identity.

Certainly today those who describe themselves as Hindu in all likelihood will do so to indicate their adherence to Hinduism as a religion, albeit that ambiguity and ambivalence have not been eliminated entirely. Some contemporary Hindu nationalists are reviving the idea that Hindu and Indian are interchangeable (as did Hindu nationalists in the first half of the twentieth century), so counting adherents of Indian-origin traditions such as Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs as Hindu, while rejecting Muslims and Christians as Indians. Some religious groups cross the boundaries between communities for example some Punjabi groups (such as the Valmikis) that challenge the division of Hindus from Sikhs. ISKCON devotees have been divided on how the Society should be positioned, as separate from or part of Hinduism, though many would accept the label Hindu while also emphasising their Vaishnava allegiance. The position of some minority ‘tribal’ groups in India can also be ambiguous.

In most cases, self-identified Hindus are born and brought up in Hindu families, in India or of Indian descent in diaspora, settled in other countries. Many would maintain that to be a Hindu you have to be born into a Hindu family but there are exceptions or at least qualifications, with Westerners (and others) joining Hindu and Hindu-related movements in addition to participating more generally in Hindu religious life whether or not the label Hindu is applied to or adopted by individuals.

Nevertheless, an antipathy towards conversion as neither karmically appropriate nor ethically acceptable together with the absence of definitive criteria for establishing what is and what is not Hinduism make it more difficult to establish a Hindu religious identity independent of an ethnic basis.

Download the entire essay here

Hindu Worldview Traditions


649.4 KB

Download resource