Defining Hinduism

Introduction: Towards a Working Definition

Trying to define Hinduism is not a modern day phenomena. The fact that there is no agreed definition of Hinduism is also hardly surprising. Since ancient times those who perceived the phenomena and named it ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’, have had a difficult task in trying to precisely define it. This can be seen in the writings of the scholar Albirinus (973-1048), who toiled with the same issues that today’s scholars still attempt to resolve. He also notes that few Hindus were of the same opinion about what it means to be Hindu (Sharma 2002:7-8). Most scholars embarking on defining Hinduism tend towards more general inclusive definitions, but some remain determined to be more specific.

   This essay will look at a definition provided by Brian Smith which attempts to respond to the timeless definitional debate by being specific and proposing it’s self as a ‘working definition’. By this Smith infers that the definition is not final, it can be refined, but more importantly it allows us ‘to work’ as opposed to being stumped or confined by the definitional process (1987:33). However, in his expediency to define Hinduism by criticising others reluctance to rush into explicit definitions, has he managed to define Hinduism or simply added another inadequate definition to the stack? Smith’s definition is as follows: ‘Hinduism is the religion of those humans who create, perpetuate and transform traditions with legitimising reference to the authority of the veda’(1987:40).


Sindhu, Hindu and Hinduism

Before discussing the validity of Smiths definition, it will be important to look briefly at the origins and historic complexities behind the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’.

  The general opinion of scholars is that the term Hindu was first used in referring to the people of the Indus valley region. It is the Persian derivative of Sindhu, the Indo-Aryan name for the river Indus (Fuller 2004:10). The term was used by the Persian and Turk invaders and its use gradually expanded to refer to the people of India including the Buddhist, Jains, Aryans and Dravidians (Knott 1998:112). It is clearly seen from the writings of Huen Tsang in the seventh century that the term Hindu was only used by outsiders and not by the natives (of India) themselves (Elst 2002:32-33). The term developed as a ‘religious designation’ with the expansion of Islam into the subcontinent of India. It was then used to differentiate Muslims from non-Muslims (Rodrigues 2006:4). Around the sixteenth century the term was used in Sanskrit and Bengali Vaisnava texts in referring to native non-Muslims (Flood 2003:3). The British were most likely the first to use the term ‘Hindooism’, as it appears in letters by Charles Grant in 1787 and 1792 (Oddie 2003:156-7). It was most likely used for the first time by an Indian in the writings of Rammohun Ray in 1816 (Sharma 2002:20). The British then made famous the term as in referring to everyone in India who did not belong to an identifiable religion such as Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity or Islam (Rodrigues 2006:4).  In the nineteenth century the term was widely adopted in the formation of a national identity to stand up to Christianity and oppose foreign rule (Flood 2003:3).

   As the term has now expanded beyond the geo-religious identity of the majority of natives of India, Gavin Flood suggests a ‘deceptively simple’ usage as ‘denoting the religion of the majority of people in India and Nepal and of some communities in other continents who refer to themselves as “Hindus” (2003:2). Comical as this may seem, it may not be far from the mark.

   In essence Hinduism is something that began as geographical referent, which then assumed religious connotations by referring to Indian non-Muslims. It became an identity for natives who differentiated themselves from Muslims. Then with British presence in India it sufficed as ‘a’ diverse religion with some centralised features. Today Hinduism is the world’s third largest and most difficult to define religion.




Defining the Indefinable

Considering the history and complexities of Hinduism, Smith’s attempt at a definition is expedient, problematic and inaccurate. It is expedient because although he accepts that Hinduism is not a ‘unitary entity’, that it is ‘without exaggeration’ an ‘illusion’; and that it has only became ‘a’ religion because of the British rulers need to ‘describe (and create and control) an enormous complex configuration of people and their traditions’, he still resolves to define Hinduism as a religion.

   Hinduism is not ‘a’ religion. It is clear from the most commonly accepted history of the phenomena (as stated earlier) that it was a geographical referent that developed a religious connotation in order to identify those religions and customs that were not Muslim. The term continues to serve in identifying an ‘enormous configuration of people’ in terms of who they are not. This does not infer that there was ever a unitary religion called Hinduism.  Heinrich Von Stietencoron proposes that the very difficulty in defining Hinduism stems from the fact that we want to see it as one religion: ‘Why is “Hinduism” so difficult to define? This is because we always try to see it as one “religion”. Our problems would vanish if we took “Hinduism” to denote a socio-cultural unit or civilization which contains a plurality of distinct religions’ (2005: 228). Accepting Hinduism as a religion in Smith’s case appears more like an academic convenience rather that scholastic integrity.

    The definition is also problematic because Smith has framed Hinduism as a religion and as such he imagines that it should conform to the western concept of religion. If Hinduism can successfully conform to these ideas then it will ‘cease to be utterly different from western religions’ wherein a ‘fixed canon’ is a prerequisite. Hinduism is ‘utterly different’, and to insist that it should become the same as western religions, is not to define Hinduism- but rather to change it. In the opinion of Fitzgerald and Staal,  it is wrong to use the category ‘religion’ in relation to the customs and cultures of the East because it has clear ‘Christian theological connotations’ . These may be found in the postulations ‘that belief has primacy over practice, that a person can only belong to one religion, that tradition stems from textual, written revelation, and that religion is necessarily coherent’ (Flood 2003:3-4). Thus, the problem seems to be that Smith is not actually defining Hinduism, rather he is endeavouring at a stretch to make it more compliant with the Christian prototype.

  Smith’s definition is also inaccurate for the simple reason that not all Hindus draw their authority from the Veda. There are many folk traditions and temples which take their authority from legends and customs as opposed to from the Veda. The Radhasoami movement of the Punjab don’t accept the Veda, but they are still considered to be Hindu (Flood 1996:7). The exclusive nature of this canonical stance would exclude Kabir and Ramanandi ( Michaels and Harshav 2004:18), the Vacana poets of the Virasaiva sect and the Kashmir Saivas; all of whom rejected the Veda (Holdrege 1996:10). No one will deny that the Veda does have a tremendous authoritarian role within many Hindu traditions, however to promote its acceptance as the sole criteria for being Hindu is too narrow and it excludes many Hindus from the fold.

   In the case where various traditions do accept the authority of the Veda, to conclude they are as a consequence one religion, is also not logical or acceptable. If such was the case then Christianity and Judaism would be the same religion because they recognise the same Hebrew bible. Perhaps all the Abrahamic traditions would then be merged into one because of their shared regard for Abraham.

Even though in comparison the differences in these religions are meagre in the face of the differences between Hindus, they are clearly and unquestionably distinct religions (Bowen 1998:2). Therefore not only does Smith’s canonical definition exclude many important Hindus from Hinduism, it is also no proof that those who accepted the authority of the Vedas belonged to the same religion.




Smith’s canonical definition is much in line with the colonial approach to Hinduism. Quoting from Hardy, Viswanathan  states: ‘Though Sanskritic Hinduism was far from representative of the worship of diverse peoples, it was made to define a whole range of heterogeneous practices that were then lumped together to constitute a single religious tradition termed “Hinduism” (Flood 2003:25). As it was expedient for the colonialist to define Hinduism on the basis of textual authority, it has been the same for Smith in his endeavour to construct a definition of Hinduism fit for the purpose or his ‘work’.

   Perhaps by the fact that Krishna exhorts Arjuna to rise above the Veda (BG: 2.45), establishing himself as the ultimate author of the Veda (BG:15.15) and as an authority worthy of Arjuna’s exclusive attention (BG: 18.66), he may well have excluded himself and his followers from Smith’s definition of Hinduism. It’s just as well that Smith does gives the allowance that a working definition can be further ‘refined’.

In dealing with such a vast subject as Hinduism, where either correctly or incorrectly striving to define it could tangibly tamper with the identity of over 800 million people, expediency alone will not suffice.The harshness with which Smith has ridiculed the Humanistic and Religious studies’ hesitation to define religions does not quite pay off in what may well be his return to the Orientalist’s approach, albeit slightly more developed. In the conclusion of her book A Very Short Introduction to Hinduism, Kim Knott sums up the nature of Hinduism far more appropriately:

‘Hinduism’ defies our desire to define and categorise it. It is both a dynamic phenomenon of the modern world, evolving from the combined imaginations of many individuals and groups, Hindu and non- Hindu, and the sum of its many parts- its traditions, myths. Institutions, rituals, and ideas- its many Hinduisms. It has the power and diversity to capture the imaginations of Hindus and non- Hindus alike, and the capacity to challenge all preconceived ideas about what a religion is (1998:117).











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