This question was asked on Quora and the questioner had added:
“RSS and BJP say everyone living in India is a Hindu. Then who are actual Hindus? Is Hinduism really a religion?”
I have expanded my original answer:
Whether Hinduism is a religion depends on how religion is defined. Most people probably would say that religion is:
about believing in an invisible Supreme Being, which is the cause of our existence,
about methods and rituals to worship it,
about living according to its laws or will.
In this case, Hinduism is definitely a religion. In fact, it is the Mother of all religions, because the Indian Vedas had postulated already in very ancient times the existence of such a Supreme Being. They called it Brahman (from big, expanding) and declared it cannot be imagined by the human mind, but the best description is Sat-Chit-Ananda (= it is true, knows itself and is blissful). It is all-pervading and therefore the essence (Latin: esse = to be) of everything, including us.
So why does the question arise whether Hinduism is a religion?
To find out, we need to look at those religions where nobody has a doubt that these are religions. The term ‘religion’ was first used for the Catholic Church and later for Islam, too, and nobody has a doubt that these two are the main religions in today’s world.
These two religions also are about the 3 points mentioned above. Yet there are significant differences.
The Supreme Being (called God or Allah respectively) is not the essence in all, but is a separate entity with certain personal traits. One most important trait is that He is jealous of other gods and wants the whole of humanity to worship only Him. Both religions give out a dire warning: those who do not accept this truth will burn eternally in hell.
How do these religions know that this is the truth? Because they claim that the Supreme Being himself has revealed this truth to one person (in the case of Christianity to Jesus Christ some 2000 years ago and in the case of Islam to Prophet Mohammed some 1400 years ago).
Here is where another definition of religion comes in – a “belief-system”. It needs blind, unverifiable belief in what the ‘founder’ of the religion has said and which is written down in a book.
If we look at history, the Church for which the term religion (Latin: to bind) was first used, did not allow its followers to leave the Church. Christianity had blasphemy laws with terrible punishment enforced by state laws, before Christian countries became secular only a couple of centuries ago. Many Islamic countries even today have blasphemy laws and Muslims are not allowed to leave Islam.
Now if religion means to bind, it can be safely assumed it meant that the followers were bound to the doctrine of the respective belief system. The followers had to ‘religiously’ stick to the doctrine.
Here Hinduism is clearly not a religion, because Hindus are not bound to any doctrine. Hinduism does not have one historical person as founder and does not require blind belief in what this founder said about the Supreme and how to live one’s life.
But Hindus also worship the Supreme in many different ways and forms, maybe even more ardently than the followers of other religions. So does this not make Hindus followers of a religion?
It does not. To realise that there is a supreme power and intelligence at the base of this universe and our person, is simply common sense and philosophy (Greek: love for wisdom). Even atheists have to acknowledge a supreme power. They call it nature. Fact is, we are neither in charge of our bodies and minds nor in charge of the universe.
The next step is logical: can we find out what this great power and intelligence is? The ancient Indian rishis did just this. They conducted an enquiry and inner observation and exploration into the truth, especially into the truth of what they really are. They discovered the existence of blissful oneness as the essence in themselves and in all – Sat-chit-ananda.
However, Satchitananda is hidden below thoughts and emotions, and it is not easy to still the mind. Shri Krishna compared in the Bhagavad Gita stilling the mind as difficult as stilling the wind. The aspirant needs detachment from egotistical desires and a lot of practise. And above all, he must WANT to realise the truth and thereby become free of wrong perception. Yet if someone is sincere in his aspiration, the ancient, divinely inspired Indian texts, give plenty of valuable advice – from murti pooja (the misunderstood, much maligned ‘idol-worship’), via hatha, jnana, bhakti and karma yoga, right to mediation on the formless Brahman. Divine Grace, too, favours the sincere seeker because the all-pervading truth is alive, and not some dead, theoretical construct.
That means to know the truth, religion is not necessary. In fact, it may be a hindrance, because religions do not even attempt to go beyond the mind and therefore miss discovering the absolute truth. There were several Christian and Muslim mystics who accidentally discovered their oneness with the Supreme and were hounded and even killed by the authorities of their respective religion.
So is RSS and BJP correct if they say that all those living in India are Hindus?
Both terms have the same root and a geographical connotation. Hindus/ Indians were those who lived beyond the Sindhu. Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha claims there is a shloka in Barhaspatya Samhita which calls the land between the Himalaya and Indusarovara (which has meanwhile disappeared under the sea) as Hindusthan. Dr. Subramanian Swamy says that the Chinese call Indians ‘Hindi’. So RSS and BJP have a point.
So why do Indian Christians and Muslims have no objection to be called Indians but resent to be called Hindus? Why are they so allergic to a mere “H”? The reason may be that the missionaries called the Indian tradition Hindu-ism, not Indian-ism, and did their best to make it look as the worst of all religions, yet assured their own flock that their respective religion alone has the ‘full truth’. The missionaries were successful in creating a wrong impression about the Indian tradition, but truth can never be hidden for long. In our times, when blind belief is more and more questioned, many Indians again discover the value of their tradition, and westerners, who started doubting their own belief system, also turn to India in their quest for fulfilment in life.
They probably would not say that they have found a better ‘religion’. They simply have found clarity about truth which is such relief compared to the distortion of truth and the hypocrisy about a “God” who loves only certain people and sends the rest to hell.
By Maria Wirth