What is Hinduism?: An Inter Faith Dialogue

During my stay at Cornell, I was fortunate to know many Indians. In fact some of my best friends were Indians. Abhinav Pandya is one of my very close friends and has contributed for PTH before also. He is one batch junior and right now still at Cornell. Abhinav has also done  Masters in Philosophy from the prestigious St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. This article, published in the form of an interview tries to throw light on Hinduism. The purpose is to promote inter faith dialogue and remove some common misconceptions with respect to its essence and compatibility with other religions. PTH will also try to come up with a similar article about Islam. Regards Raza Habib Raja

 Raza Habib Raja:  Abhinav, Thank you for time. The purpose of this article is to promote inter faith dialogue and throw light on the nature and essence of Hinduism.  I wish to begin with a very fundamental and rather elusive question: What is Hinduism?

 Abhinav: I am not an expert on Hinduism but I will try to answer your questions from a common observer’s perspective. I would like to tell you what I have seen and observed as someone who has been born and brought up in an ordinary middle class Hindu family. Answering this question is a highly complicated task, especially if the investigative journey is to find set structures, institutions and logically coherent systems. But the answer could become more meaningful if one takes a post-modern approach and is comfortable with open-ended explanations. The answer can become comprehensible if one realizes the limits of language and provides a room for further inquiry through the so-called spiritual and mental processes.

The lack of right cognition, perception and right approach leads to the futile debates and absurd conclusions. So my approach in this interview is to end the quest for conclusion and set out on an investigative journey purely on empirical means and see what comes out.

Is it a religion or an ideology? Is it an organized religion on the pattern of judeo-christian faiths ? Is it a cult? Is it some kind of primitive animistic religion? Is it a philosophical-metaphysical system deserving a serious academic and philosophical investigation? Is it a social system enunciating codes of social conduct? Or casually speaking (in order to avoid the above complex categorizations) is it just a way of life?

 Raza:     So is it a religion or an ideology?

 Abhinav:  Raza, the word religion originates from the Greek word ‘religare’ which means to bind. Something either in the form of set rules of conduct or a source of faith like a church or a scripture, which binds a group of people or the members of society should be addressed as religion according to this definition. But in philosophy of religion the basic element which differentiates a religion from and ideology is the presence of faith in some form of supernatural or more appropriately transcendental being. For instance in Buddhism the notion of ‘Nirwana’ is transcendental, so in spite of their proclaimed denial of the existence of god or soul, Buddhism is a religion.

Hinduism, technically speaking is a religion because all its different schools there is faith in transcendental entity. For instance in Advait Vedanta, the ‘Brahman’ is transcendental, ‘Maya’ is transcendental. In ‘Sankhya’ school the notions of ‘Purush’ and Prakriti’ are transcendental. In ‘Mimamnsa’ the offerings are made to vedic heavenly deities through ‘Yajna’ sacrifices. In some more divergent strains like ‘Jainism’ there is faith in ‘ Kevalya’(ultimate knowledge) which is transcendental. In ‘Madhva Vedanta’ there is a belief in heavens and souls. Hence it can be seen that broadly in all the schools there some notion of liberation from this worldly joys and sorrows and that state of consciousness is transcendental in all these schools. But there is one exception i.e ‘Lokayatas’ or ‘Charvakas’. This school of thought does not believe in any supernatural entities like ‘Atma’, ‘Moksha’(liberation) or any heavenly god.

Hinduism does have some authoritative scriptures like four Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagvada Gita. In addition to these there is an array of different texts to please different deities like ‘Durga saptashati’( to worship Goddess Durga), several Puranas, Smritis. Many of them have common message and many of them have completely contradictory messages. Many of them talk about metaphysics and many of them talk about social laws, marriage laws (often giving them a religious and mythological coloring to strengthen their legitimacy) . Thus unlike Abrhamic religions, Hinduism does not have a single text or scripture which provides all directives about worship, rituals and social laws. In fact in Indian philosophical thought the development was always dialectical. There was a notion of ‘Shastrartha’ in which a thinker or a ‘Rishi’ tour the whole country and engage in philosophical debates with different individuals of wisdom. Despite this diversity of texts, the more important ones with a huge social base are ‘Ramayana’, Mahabharata’ and ‘Bhagawata Gita’

So the answer to the question is kind of ‘Yes’ or in totality ‘Yes’ with all the exceptions and deviations from the standard definitions intact.  It has an academic and ideological aspect but it is much more than that and at some stage it transcends the barriers of an ideology. It becomes more of a social system with which people have different types of connections ranging from rational, custom driven to faith based.

Raza: Is it an organized religion on the pattern of judeo-christian faiths ?

 Abhinav: Very interesting question, this reminds of my Professor Chand Mal Sharma who trained me in the basics of Philosophy, who would often say that I am a Hindu but I am away from religions. It was a classic piece of philosophical with which still amuses me in the woods of public policy.

The organized religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam have certain uniform features like a single book to guide them, an organized hierarchical church and a notion of conversion. By all these standards Hinduism is not an organized religion. Even the above mentioned so-called organized religions have lot of deviations from these standard features like Islam has the distinctions of Shia and Sunni. Even among Sunnis there are several schools like Wahabis, Deobandis and Barelvis.

In Christianity also there are several divisions like Protestants, Catholics, Syrian Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and Coptic Christians but still there is a general acceptance of Quran in Islam and Bible in Christianity.

In Hinduism there is no such uniform text from which one can derive single, coherent set of injunctions. Even the major scriptures like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagwata Gita have different versions. For instance Ramayana has several versions like kambana Ramayana, Valmiki Ramayana, Jain Ramayana and Buddhist Ramayana.

The differences prevail in the basic narrative, for example in Jain Ramayana, contrary to popular perception Sita has been depicted as the sister of Rama. The text was not compiled over a period of time, with the final version coming in 1200 A.D. Besides these, there are several texts for different schools of beliefs like Shaivites, Vaishnaivaites, Shaktas, Pashupatas etc. Some of these sects have fought against each other for centuries. Their belief systems, modes of worship and rituals have been very different.

Secondly, there is no formal notion of conversion. Although ‘Arya samajis’ did launch a‘Shuddhi’ movement, which aimed at bringing people back into the fold of Hinduism from Islam and Christianity but it was not a movement with mass popularity.

Lastly, there is no single church in Hinduism or single place of worship like ‘Kaaba’. There are several places of key importance for a religious Hindu like 12 jyotirlingams (Shiva temples) 52 shakti pithas( Durga temples). There are four main Mathas( monastic religious establishments) viz. Shringeri, Dwarka, Govardhana and Sharda math. Then there are Shri vaishnava mathas  and Dvaita mathas.

In addition to these there is another side of Hinduism which rebels against the traditional forms of worship. They include Nirgun movements which do not believe in idol worship. The movements like Radhaswami etc do not fancy any form of worshipping stones, trees, rivers.

There have been extremely hedonistic and nihilistic movements like tantric cults, Aghor panth (having their origins in religious movements of Buddha’s age like Makkhali ghosala, Purana kassapa etc. These cults practice group orgies, eat human dead bodies and human wastes etc.

These different cults and belief systems have evolved over a long period of history, with factors ranging from political, economic, social, and cultural to metaphysical contributing to their evolution and growth. Going into those historical aspects of   Hinduism with their mundane details will be too much for our reader’s precious time, I guess. All these different orders began with many differences but since they evolved in the same cultural setting so they had plethora of similarities. In course of time due to continuous interaction the differences became redundant and all these emerged as loosely connected networks with a common essence running underlying, but still elusive to capture in words.

All these diverse spiritual paths and their enlightened spiritual leaders, with their presence in society cultivated a collective spiritual psyche in an ordinary Hindu’s mindset which enabled him to perceive the essential unity of all the divergent paths to know ultimate reality. This enabled them to disregard superficial differences and worship the inner essentials. This could easily be seen in the popularity of Sufi saints in India. It’s very interesting to observe that an ordinary Hindu would bow his head in front of any place of worship, be it Islamic, Christian or Hindu. Hindus in India often visit dargahs and churches for the cure of supernatural ailments.

As far as being cult or primitive-animistic religion is concerned Hinduism has always assimilated into its fold various tribal and animistic modes of worship. For example the ‘Murugan’ god of south Indian tribal groups was accepted as the form of ‘kartikeya’( son of Shiva). Acharya Chatur Sen in his classic ‘Somnath’ refers to various cults which practiced human sacrifices. They have been mentioned as orders of Hinduism. Historically their origins are not in Aryan groups. They became part of Hinduism with the expansion of Brahmanical religious systems across the subcontinent.

 Raza: Is it a philosophical-metaphysical system deserving a serious academic and philosophical investigation?

Abhinav: The answer to this question is an unqualified ‘Yes’.  Right from the beginning the various schools of Hinduism have attempted to define and know reality. They developed the theory of reality and the epistemology (theory of knowledge). Jainas have their own metaphysics based on plurality of the cosmos. Buddhists have their own metaphysical theory based on the doctrine of impermanence, cycle of causation. Advaita has its theory of reality based on non-dualism of the ultimate reality viz. ‘Brahman’. Sankhya metaphysics is dualistic analyzing reality in terms of ‘Prakriti’ and ‘Purusha’.

In addition to this, all these schools of Hinduism have theory of knowledge debating on the sources of knowledge like perception, inference, postulation and transcendental perception or Yogic perception. The Nyaya epistemology is highly advanced in syllogism and logical reasoning.

Raza: Abhinav, tell us something about the caste system and its role and significance in Hindu social and religious system. Is it something which is deeply ingrained in the fundamentals of the religion?

Abhinav: One of my friends in Cornell, studying comparative religions asked me to explain the metaphysical origins of caste system for her thesis. I was not only shocked but amused too. The caste system in Hinduism has no metaphysical origins. It is a system to regulate social existence of individual members of the society. The description given in the 10th chapter of Rigveda that Brahmins originated from the mouth of Prjapati, kshtriyas from the hands of Prajapati, Vaishyas from the thighs and shudras from the feet to Prajapati, is only symbolic in significance. The caste system, to begin with, not at all based on birth. It was based on one’s occupation. Even in one family there could be people with different castes. The Purusha Sukta of Rigveda says, “Rig Veda 9.112.3

—I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother’s job is to grind the corn.

The later scriptures like Bhagvad Gita and Manusmriti say that four varnas were created by God. But then Gita also says that one’s caste is determined by one’s personal qualities and Karma not by one’s birth. There were various saints from lower varnas like Valmiki and Vedvyasa. Even in Bhakti movement various saints came from lower orders like Kabir, Dhanna, Namdev, Ravidas etc. Even now many Hindu saints and jaina saints are from lower orders like Raikas and Chamars.

The exploitative dimension of caste system has socio-cultural and political origins rather than religious.

The most amusing part is that in the sub continent people converted to other faiths but caste system percolated into those faiths. For instance in Islam there is a very strong caste system. In south India higher caste Christian converts prohibited the entry of lower caste converts to their churches. The Syrian Christians who converted from upper echelons of society still look for bride in the caste from which they converted.

Raza: Can Muslims and Hindus stay together? What does the Hindu system has to offer to religious minorities?

Abhinav: Raza, many of my friends often debate about the tenets of Hinduism and Islam. I want clarify that such comparisons are meaningless and irrational. Hinduism with its assimilative strength created such joint Hindu-Muslim faith and social systems which would be unimaginable in any other part of Islamic world. For example in Rajasthan(India) there is a community called Mev in Bharatpur district. They are, by faith Muslims but their profession is reciting the Bhajans of Shiva. Their main text is Ramayana. The names which they keep are even more interesting like Ram Khan, Lakshman Khan. They do not marry with their cousins. Similarly the notorious cult of thugi included members from both the faiths but they worshipped their patron goddess Kali with equal zeal and fervor.  So any comparison of the two religions would be an exercise in vain.

There is no single Muslim practice, performing which can make you a non-Hindu. For example the Kalma which says “ la Ilaha illaaha, Muhammad rasullah” ( there is no God but Allah and Muhammad was the last prophet) in no way violates any Hindu belief system.

There is a big difference between the notion of ‘Prophet’ and ‘Avtara’ or incarnation, The word ‘Prophet’ means messenger of God and avtara means a form or a manifestation of God. Essentially speaking there is no difference between the god and Avtara. Lord Rama was not the messenger of Vishnu but he was the incarnation of Vishnu, the birth of Vishnu in human form.

The only difference which I perceive is that in Hinduism, broadly speaking there is no distinction between the God and mankind (that too if we regard the advaita as the major and dominant force of Hinduism). The ‘jeev’ or the individual soul is capable of becoming ‘Shiva’ or god through a spiritual journey. This difference is also at a relative or superficial level. All the realized souls in Hinduism like Rama Krishna Paramhansa (who even converted to Islam), kabir, Gulvani Maharaj opine that in the final or ultimate state there is no difference. They opine that the paths are different but the destination is one.

Finally, the basic Hindu belief is ‘Vasudhev Kutumbkam’ which means that whole world is your family. The Hindu social system has a very catholic orientation with room for people belonging to various faiths.

I feel that Hinduism cannot be put into water tight compartments. In fact the study of Hinduism through categorizations will just complicate things and present a distorted picture of the reality. It is just a loosely united network of different philosophical, systems, faith systems, social systems and cultural systems. Its present form and structure is the result of long process of evolution shaped by the political, cultural, social forces of history.

However there is an abiding and unifying essence in these different schools and that is liberation or attainment of spiritually enlightened consciousness through meditation and penance.  All attempts to redefine Hinduism and present it as some kind of monolithic faith based on uniform communal identity are mere cultural and spiritual distortions. So it’s rational to adopt a post-modern approach in studying Hinduism and study or know it for its own sake without looking for ends or structures. One just needs to take a deep breath and feel the pure perception.

So my friend Raza, with a soothing smile on your face you can always say, ‘Oh Hinduism, haha, its just a way of life’ and chill.

Raza: Thanks a lot Abhinav. It was a very insight full journey with you into the realm of metaphysics, history and to top it all, the spirit of love for humanity and its essential oneness

Abhinav: Raza bhai, thanks to you for doing this great interview. If our little efforts, in this holy month of Ramdaan can contribute to the peace and prosperity of mankind then I should consider this the best holy act of Ramdaan.


  • timely

    Any attempt to organize religion will end up as state ideology and fascism and totalitarianism (=monotheism). This happened in West Asia very often. Hindus, due to the superiority of their religious wisdom, avoided this trap (esp. that of monotheism).

    Islam ended up becoming fascistic even at the times of Mohammad. He did not have the wisdom to realize that and never warned about it – especially due to the huge many privileges and honors and praises, which he himself got in the system in his lifetime.

    God and gods are best expressed as mythologies and reformable/editable stories. Hinduism does just that.

    —– In contrast to that:
    A book that claims to be a revelation – esp. THE FINAL revelation – is the very program for fascism.

  • timely

    QUOTE from abhinav:
    “If our little efforts, in this holy month of Ramdaan can contribute to the peace and prosperity of mankind then I should consider this the best holy act of Ramdaan.”

    Kuran tells muslims to start their violence and terrorizing campaigns against non-muslims after the “holiest” month of ramadan. In fact this “holy” month is there to give the muslims the strength to do this.

    What ignorance inhabits the minds of these debaters!