‘What is Hinduism?’ by Jawaharlal Nehru

‘The foreigners (Muslims, Turks),’ says Vincent Smith, ‘like their forerunners the Sakas and the Yueh-chi, universally yielded to the wonderful assimilative power of Hinduism, and rapidly became Hinduised.’

What is Hinduism?

In this quotation Vincent Smith has used the words ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hinduised’. I do not think it is correct to use them in this way unless they are used in the widest sense of Indian culture. They are apt to mislead to-day when they are associated with a much narrower, and specifically religious, concept. The word ‘Hindu’ does not occur at all in our ancient literature. The first reference to it in Indian book is, I am told, in a Tantrik work of the eighth century A.C., where ‘Hindu’ means a people and not the followers of a particular religion. But it is clear that the word is a very old one, as it occurs in the Avesta and in old Persian. It was used then and for a thousand years or more later by the peoples of western and central Asia for India, or rather for the people living on the other side of the Indus river. The word is clearly derived from Sindhu, the old, as well as the present, Indian name for the Indus. From this Sindhu came the words Hindu and Hindustan, as well as Indus and India.
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The famous Chinese pilgrim I-tsing, who came to India in the seventh century A.C., writes in his record of travels that the ‘northern tribes’, that is the people of Central Asia, called India ‘Hindu’ (Hsin-tu) but, he adds, ‘this is not at all a common name … and the most suitable name for India is the Noble Land (Aryadesha).’ The use of the word ‘Hindu’ in connection with a particular religion is of very late occurrence.
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The old inclusive term for religion in India was Arya dharma. Dharma really means something more than religion. It is from a root word which means to hold together; it is the inmost constitution of a thing, the law of its inner being. It is an ethical concept which includes the moral code, righteousness, and the whole range of man’s duties and responsibilities. Arya dharma would include all the faiths (Vedic and non-Vedic) that orignated in India; it was used by Buddhists and Jains as well as by those who accepted the Vedas. Bhudda always called his way to salvation the ‘Aryan Path’.
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The expression Vedic dharma was also used in ancient times to signify more particularly and exclusively all those philosophies, moral teachings, ritual and practices, which were supposed to derive from the Vedas. Thus all those who acknowledged the general authority of the Vedas could be said to belong to the Vedic dharma.
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Sanatana dharma, meaning the ancient religion, could be applied to any of the ancient Indian faiths (including Buddhism and Jainism), but the expression has been more or less monopolized to-day by some orthodox sections among the Hindu who claim to follow the ancient faith.
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Buddhism and Jainism were certainly not Hinduism or even the Vedic dharma. Yet they arose in India and were integral parts of Indian life, culture and philosophy. A Buddhist or Jain in India is a hundred percent product of Indian thought and culture, yet neither is Hindu by faith. It is, therefore, entirely misleading to refer to Indian culture as Hindu culture. In later ages this culture was greatly influenced by the impact of Islam, and yet it remained basically and distinctively Indian. To-day it is experiencing in a hundred ways the powerful effect of the industrial civilization, which rose in the west, and it is difficult to say with any precision what the outcome will be.
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Hinduism, as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many-sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say definitely whether it is a religion or not, in the usual sense of the word. In its present form, and even in the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other. Its essential spirit seems to be to live and let live. Mahatma Gandhi has attempted to define it: ‘If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: Search after the truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after truth … Hinduism is the religion of truth. Truth is God. Denial of God we have known. Denial of truth we have not known.’ Truth and non-violence so says Gandhi: but many eminent and undoubted Hindu say that non-violence, as Gandhi understands it, is no essential part of the Hindu creed. We thus have truth left by itself as the distinguishing mark of Hinduism. That, of course, is no definition at all.
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It is, therefore, incorrect and undesirable to use ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ for Indian culture, even with reference to the distant past, although the various aspects of thought, as embodied in ancient writings, were the dominant expression of that culture. Much more is it incorrect to use those terms, in that sense, to-day. So long as the old faith and philosophy were chiefly a way of life and an outlook on the world, they were largely synonymous with Indian culture; but when a more rigid religion developed with all manner of ritual and ceremonial, it became something more and at the same time much less than that composite culture. A Christian or a Moslem could, and often did, adapt himself to the Indian way of life and culture, and yet remained in faith and orthodox Christian or Moslem. He had Indianized himself and became an Indian without changing his religion.
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The correct word for ‘Indian’, as applied to country or culture or the historical continuity of our varying traditions is ‘Hindi’, from ‘Hind’, a shortened form of Hindustan. Hind is still commonly used for India. In the countries of Western Asia, in Iran and Turkey, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, India has always been referred to, and is still called, Hind; and everything Indian is called ‘Hindi’. ‘Hindi’ has nothing to do with religion, and a Moslem or Christian Indian is as much a Hindi as a person who follows Hinduism as a religion. Americans who call all Indians Hindus are not far wrong; they would be perfectly correct if they used the word ‘Hindi’. Unfortunately, the word ‘Hindi’ has been associated in India with a particular script -the devanagri script of Sanskrit- so it has become difficult to use it in its larger and more natural significance. Perhaps when present-day controversies subside we may revert to its original and more satisfying use. To-day, the word ‘Hindustani’ is used for Indian; it is, of course, derived from Hindustan. But this is too much of a mouthful and it has no such historical and cultural associations as ‘Hindi’ has. It would certainly appear odd to refer to ancient periods of Indian culture as ‘Hindustani’.
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Whatever the word we may use, Indian or Hindi or Hindustani, for our cultural tradition, we see in the past that some inner urge towards synthesis, derived essentially from the Indian philosophic outlook, was the dominant feature of Indian cultural, and even racial, development. Each incursion of foreign elements was a challenge to this culture, but it was met successfully by a new synthesis and a process of absorption. This was also a process of rejuvenation and new blooms of culture arose out of it, the background and essential basis, however, remaining much the same.


*This blogpost is directly copied/typed from the book ‘The Discovery Of India’ !

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