Arun Gupta (gupta@mrspock.mt.att.com)
Sat, 4 Feb 1995 16:18:22 GMT

The creation of invalid categories, and their reification has led
to tremendous confusion. One example is "race". Another example,
is "Hinduism". "Hinduism" is a religion as much as "Americanism"
would be. Following is an excerpt from "Christianity and the
World Religions" by Han Kung et. al. The excerpt is by Heinrich
von Stietencron. It is one that as one from Hindu culture, and
a student of such that I completely endorse.

For those who don't want to read the whole excerpt, here is the
meat of it :

" For a time people believed that there really was such a thing. Nowadays they
know, without admitting the fact, that Hinduism is nothing but an
orchid cultivated by European scholarship. It is much too beautiful to
uproot, but it's a test-tube plant and not found in nature."

[ I bring this up because of the following statements by
jerrybro@uclink2.berkeley.edu :
>I wasn't using "hindu" as a designator of "race". I was using
>the statistical fact that not a lot of Africans are Hindu.
>Hinduism is not as far as I know a proselytizing religion. It
>is much like Judaism in this respect. In particular, at least
>prior to the arrival of the British in India Hinduism involved
>strictly controlled *hereditary* castes. Brahmins, for example,
>were born Brahmins. Hardly an example of the proposition you
>seem to be trying to prove, namely:
> [etc. etc.]

Begin excerpt :

What Is Hinduism? On the History of a Religious Tradition

1. Heinrich von Stietencron: Hindu Perspectives



European scholars have been studying Hinduism for almost two hundred
years, but defining just what Hinduism is still presents the greatest
difficulties. This is primarily because of its multiform nature and
inner contradictoriness. Even within Hinduism, one person's sacred
scripture is by no means necessarily someone else's. This individual
may assign a minor role to a god whom another individual worships with
deep devotion as the supreme divinity and Lord of the world. One man
teaches that living creatures should never be harmed, while another
man's altar drips with the blood of sacrificed goats and buffalos. One
believer's Tantric practices are an abomination to others. Even the
doctrine of reincarnation, which we think of as being so closely linked
with Hinduism, is not a universally accepted part of Hindu teaching and
faith. Hence we are facing a hard job in our effort to integrate the
varied phenomena of Hindu religion into a clearly perceivable pattern.
And no wonder: after all, we are dealing with expressions of religion
that cover an immense spectrum, from the use of magical powers in
fertility rites and sacrificial cults, across every nuance of
polytheistic, dualistic, and monotheistic modes of faith, all the way
to the concept of a nonanthropomorphic, impersonal Absolute which
transcends the human imagination. Perhaps no one would have tried so
hard to bring all these things under a single heading if confusion had
not already crept in during the very formation of the term "Hinduism."

No Indian religion ever called itself "Hinduism," a word invented by
Europeans. It was supposed to designate the religion of the Hindus, but
unfortunately not enough was known about the Hindus when the term was
coined. Westerners had not yet realized that Hindus had a number of
different religions. Since then it has become customary to speak and
write about Hinduism as one of the great world religions. And for some
time people believed that there really was such a thing. Nowadays they
know, without admitting the fact, that Hinduism is nothing but an
orchid cultivated by European scholarship. It is much too beautiful to
uproot, but it's a test-tube plant and not found in nature. No doubt,
this is a rather shocking assertion. What's the point of the many books
about Hinduism? Why does the term appear in all works about the
religions of the world? And don't all the religious statistics offer
impressive proof that Hinduism is one of the greatest, numerically
speaking, religions in the world, the third-largest, after Christianity
and Islam? But such statistics disguise more than they reveal. As
government officials see it, every Indian is automatically a Hindu
unless he or she specifically claims adherence to another religion.
Recent Indian jurisprudence goes even further than this, in some ways,
by expressly subsuming Buddhists, jains, and Sikhs as well under the
umbrella term "Hindu." Thus the Orissa Religious Endowments Act, 1969
(Orissa Act 2 of 1970), among the preliminary observations on page 1,
declares: "The expression 'Hindu religion' shall include jain,
Buddhist, and Sikh religions and the expressions 'Hindu' and 'Hindu
public religious institutions and endowments' shall be construed
accordingly." (Cuttack Law Times, 1970, p. 1)

To deal properly with the terms "Hindu" and "Hinduism" we must first
know what they really mean - and for that purpose it is useful to
recall how these terms arose. Ultimately it all goes back to the names
of the great Indus River (which flows from Tibet through Pakistan into
the Arabian Sea). From its old Sanskrit name Sindhu comes the name of
the Pakistani province of Sind. We owe our words "India" and "Indians"
to the Greek name of this river, Indos. The same river is called Hindu
in Persian, and, as in Sanskrit, this word also indicated the land
through which the river flows: in the first instance, the province,
conquered by the Persians, on the river itself, and then the rest of
the country beyond that, India. The plural of this geographical name
stood for the people who lived there, the Hindus, the "people of the
Indus" or the "people of India," the Indians.

As far back as the Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions and in the
Avesta, the word "Hindu" appears as a geographic term; and once the
Persian king Darius I, in the year 517 B.C., had extended his empire to
the banks of the Indus, Hindus (inhabitants of the land of the Indus,
i.e., the Indians) were incorporated into the multination Persian state
and its army. From then on, for more than a thousand years, the
Persians and other Persian-speaking peoples lumped all Indians together
as "Hindus." The Arabs, too, later called India "Al Hind." The meaning
shift in this word began relatively late, took place quite gradually,
and was fully completed only by the Europeans.

Ever since the year 712, when Arab Muslims began penetrating into the
Indus Valley and settled there permanently, there was a large group of
people in India who were reckoned by Arab and Persian authors as not
belonging to the Hindus. And the Hindu converts to Islam, too, were now
looked upon as Muslims, and no longer as Hindus. In addition, having
known them from Central Asia, the Muslims were familiar with the
Buddhists, whom they called "Shamaniyya" or "Sumaniyya," a word derived
from the Sanskrit shramana or Middle Indic samana, both of which mean
"monk." Thus they could distinguish in India between the Buddhists and
the Brahmans (Arabic barahima). When Persian-speaking Muslims from
Afghanistan and Central Asia invaded India, first around the year 1000,
as plunderers but later, after 1200, also as empire builders, they did
subjugate large parts of India, but they managed to convert only a
fraction of the people to the religion of the prophet Muhammad. The
Muslims then used the word "Hindu" to characterize the Indians who
would not convert to Islam and who were also not Buddhists, in other
words the majority of India's "infidels."

And so in this Islamic context the word "Hindu" contained a
distinct religious element, not as the label for a religion, but as a
mark of separation from Islam and Buddhism. Muslim travelers and
scholars, such as abu-al-Qasim, al-Mas'udi, al-Biruni, al-ldrisi, and
especially Shahrastani were very much aware of the manifold Indian
religions and cults, as Bruce B. Lawrence has amply demonstrated in his
work on "Shahrastani on the Indian Religions" (1976). They also knew
different names of these indigenous forms of faiths, although they also
used "Hindu" as a generic term for all adherents of alien religions in
India. In the sixteenth century, merchants and missionaries from Europe
came to know this expression for the majority of non-Muslims in India;
and it was Europeans who for the first time separated the terms "In-
dian" and "Hindu," applying the first to the secular sphere, the second
to religion, and ultimately deriving from it the word "Hinduism."


This created confusion. Even when Westerners subtracted from the
non-Muslim Indians not just the Buddhists but other important reli-
gious groups such as the Sikhs, the jains, the Parsees, Jews, native
Christians, and the followers of tribal religions, they still tried to
describe all the others (the great majority of the population) as
Hindus and their religion as Hinduism. That led writers on the subject
into difficulties. In surveys of Hinduism they were practically
forced to elaborate points of agreement; differences were played down.
Indian religions, as it happens, readily lend themselves to such
synoptic presentation. In almost all cases they accept and recognize
each other; and they postulate not that all religions are one, but that
the ultimate goal of all religions is one and the same. Furthermore, in
the opinion of orthodox (i.e., based on Vedic tradition) Brahmanism,
there is only one dharma, a single normative principle that determines
religious, ethical, and practical human behavior. Even if this
principle prescribes partially different norms of behavior to the
various strata of society (the warrior's code, for example, is not the
same as the Brahman's), that does not impair the universal validity of
dharma. Rather, dharma controls and structures behavior at every level
of society and assigns to each creature its own dharma (svadharma), its
particular rules, tasks, and duties. Dharma is thus both a universal
ethical norm - and as such only approaches realization in a society
founded on Vedic tradition - but also a prescription for individuals and
groups, regarding tasks, morality, and the rules for social behavior or
religious practice. In the latter sense, it affects all forms of
religion - from the various Hindu religions through the heretics (such as
the Buddhists and jains) to the heterodox barbarians (such as the
European Christians or the Muslims, who none but extremely conservative
Brahmans would say act altogether without dharma).

Each group has its own peculiar form of dharma, and if the group is powerful
and literate enough, it can claim this form as the highest or best.
That is what the different Hindu religions did when they classified the
other Hindu religions on a scale of increasing distance from realizing pure
dharma. That is what the Brahmans did when in their capacity as bearers
and transmitters of sacred knowledge they claimed for themselves a place
at the summit of the social hierarchy. The Brahmans' claim to superiority
as experts on dharrna resembles, perhaps, the claim put forth by Christian
clergymen as experts in the "true" religion. But dharma, although sometimes
translated as "religion, embraces a considerably wider domain than
our term "religion," since it also includes the general conditions of
individual existence and all worldly action, and even operates in the
plant and animal kingdom. As a result of the breadth of the concept of
dharma, the Hindu - in contrast to the often antagonistic relationship
between Christians and pagans can view the many attempts at, and forms
of, realizing dharma as meaningful, because they correspond to the
hierarchical structure of spirituality and to the multiplicity of the
possible earthly forms of existence. Hence there is a great
difference between the Hindu understanding of religion, which is guided
by the concept of dharma, and the Christian or Islamic notion. What a
Christian or Muslim should believe and how he or she should act are
defined in a more standardized manner and with far more precision than
what a Hindu, who can belong to quite different religious systems, is
supposed to believe and do. But anyone who wishes to engage in a
meaningful religious dialogue must know more exactly whom he is dealing
with. The issue here is not simply one of religion in general, but of
the specific contents of faith. Therefore we must know what our
dialogue partner believes and what his ideals of religious behavior
concretely demand of him. For this reason we must, as a precondition
for dialogue, revise our idea of Hinduism. We may have gotten used to
looking upon Hinduism as a single religion, but that was never quite
correct. In the sense that Westerners understand religion, the Hindus
have not one, but various religions. They themselves do not claim to
have just one religion; this, as I have said, was a European invention.
Words are seductive, they shape our thinking; and it is not easy to
break away from them. When a term like "Hinduism" has become a fixture
not only in the education of German or English speakers, but of the
entire world, then it is especially hard. Any attempt to get rid of it
would probably be fruitless. It is more important to give the word a
new and more accurate content, that is, by understanding it not as a
religionbut as a collection of religions. Though actually different, they are
nonetheless bound together by geography and history, as well as by the
socioeconomic conditions and cultural frames of reference that devel-
oped in their common space. These are religions containing elements of
shared traditions, and religions that have continually influenced each
other down through the ages, and that have jointly contributed to form-
ing the culture of India. The boundary between tribal religion and
"Hinduism" is blurry and, once again, the result of habitually jumping
to conclusions. Some authors speak about a "Hinduization process,"
thanks to which whole tribes or parts of tribes have gradually been
integrated into Hinduism. What they really mean is a form of social
mobility that includes adopting a number of brahmanical rites, laws of
religious purity, and pieces of transregional mythic traditions. The
further question of whether the Untouchables actually belong to the
Hindus or not, has recently, with the conversion of some Harijan groups
to Islam, been the subject of spirited discussion and has been widely
answered in the affirmative. Nowadays Vishnuism (worship of the god
Vishnu) and Shivaism (worship of the god Shiva) are by far the most
important Hindu religions. The next-largest is Shaktism (or the cults
devoted to a female divinity). Many smaller cults are loosely
associated with these great religions. Of course, practically all the
books on Hinduism say that the cults of Vishnu, Shiva, and the other
gods and goddesses are Hindu sects. But we cannot apply the term "sect"
to religious bodies that, despite their adherence to a common cultural
tradition, have obviously different founders, holy scriptures, seers,
theologians, and liturgies, and that, above all, do not worship the
same highest god. To do so would be comparable to labeling Judaism,
Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam different sects of the same
religion. They are, in fact, rooted in the same religious tradition and
have important elements in common, despite their different founders,
scriptures, and names for the highest divinity. This would set up a
parallel with "Hinduism," but the members of such a Procrustean unit
would presumably give a cry of outrage.


Modern Indians characteristically do not utter indignant cries when we
lump their religions together as "Hinduism." There were times when they
might have, but not today. There are differences, to be sure; but, as
Indians see it, stressing what separates them, insisting on the
rightness of my religion and the wrongness of yours, is rather petty.
This sort of attitude overlooks the fact that there has to be a variety
of religions to offer approaches to the divine to a variety of people
with differing needs and at differing stages of development, to enable
everyone to pursue his
own access to the divinity. Besides, all this variety stops at the
surface. Beneath it, Hindus think, lies a broad intentional unity,
insofar as all religions are trying to open up a path for human beings
to God (or to the ultimate reality, to the Absolute) and to salvation,
however defined. This holds true not merely for Hindu religions but, in
the eyes of the Hindus, for all the religions of humanity.

Compared with the other revealed religions, this is an extraordinarily liberal
position. It makes possible the productive coexistence, the recip-
rocal respect, recognition, and equal social status of the great Hindu
religions, which suggested to Western observers that they were looking
at a single religion. Christians, by contrast, like Muslims andjews,
live in a tradition of religious confrontation, or at least of
religious differentia- tion, where in the most favorable situation
alien religion is tolerated, although one never gives up one's claim to
absolute religious truth. Anyone acquainted with Islam who refuses to
accept it is considered obdurate and deserves to go to hell. And when
someone who knows the gospel does not become a Christian, while
mitigating circumstances may be invoked, some believers still mourn him
or her as a lost soul. Such contemporary views still are far removed
from the liberal out- look that Vishnuism developed already about two
thousand years ago. For according to the teaching of the Vishnuites, if
a person turns to another god, through his own fault or otherwise, the
grace of the high- est God will not be taken from him. Thus, for
example, in the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the Vishnuites' funda- mental
texts, Krishna says that he himself is the one who fulfills the
requests that a person makes out of deep faith in another god. (VII,
22) And in another passage he gives a theological justification for his
gener- osity to the worshippers of other gods:

"Those devotees of other gods Who worship them, endowed with faiths,
They even worship me alone, If not quite in the proper way." (IX, 23)

The highest God does not see the other gods as His rivals. They all
exist only through Him, have the fullness of their power from Him, are
manifestations of parts of His reality. Whv should He be jealous of
them? This doesn't mean that it's all the same what god one worships.
Here is where the particular Hindu religions show how different they
can be. Their unity consists in a common goal, but the ways to it are
not the same, and not all have the same value. Some lead to the goal
more quickly than others, some prove to be detours that one takes out
of ignorance or is forced to take by one's karma. Krishna addresses
this matter when he says, just after the first passage mentioned above,
that in worshipping other gods the faithful believer will gain only temporary
results. And he continues:

"Celestials reach who worship them, My devotees proceed to Me!" (VII,

Going to the celestials means a great deal. It is the fulfillment of
one of the highest wishes man can have. He himself becomes a celestial
being, enjoying divine 'oys and divine power in heaven for thousands of
years. The only drawback is that one remains bound up in the cycle of
becom- ing and decaying. One might sink back into lower forms of
existence, and the struggle for salvation will have to go on. It will
not end until one reaches the highest divinity. To get there, Vishnuite
theology points out a shorter, more reliable way, the promise made by
the highest God Vishnu, incarnate as Krishna: "My devotees proceed to
Me!" Similar positions may be found in the sacred scriptures of the
Shivaites or the worshippers of the Great Goddess, with the roles re-
versed in each case, so that one's own religion integrates and at the
same time surpasses other people's religion. There is no need to
disguise the fact that India, too, has occasionally known
interreligious conflict, for example when triumphant Muslim zealots
destroyed the images of Hindu gods and desecrated their tem- ples. In
contemporary religious documents the Hindus sometimes de- scribe the
Muslims as demons, and to this day Hindus and Muslims continue to be at
odds. From time to time there were also conflicts with the Buddhists,
who played a key role in India for several centuries before they were
partly absorbed and partly driven out by an increas- ingly powerful
wave of emotional piety. And finally, there were also occasionally
violent quarrels between different groups of Hindus, espe- cially in
southem India. But these episodes are the exception, because the
protection of all religious communities has been one of the tradi-
tional duties of Indian princes since at least the middle of the first
millenniUM B.C. Since then the rule has been not conflict but competi-
tion, and Hindu theologians have been more inclined toward integra-
tion than confrontation. Naturally this attitude cannot neutralize all
social tensions, but when conflicts flare up it is rarely owing to
religious affiliations only, but rather due to economic or political
interests and sometimes also owing to friction and rivalry within the
caste system, which cuts across most Hindu religions. Nowadays many
educated Hindus carry their individual tolerance still further by
dropping any insistence that their religion is superior to the others.
"This is the right way for me," they will say; "yours is the right one
for you. We shall meet at the goal, in final salvation." But it would
doubtless be a mistake to think that such tolerance arises from a lack
of self-confidence and so from a weakness of faith. On the

contrary, Hindus are at ease with their religious convictions and their
habits (which are structured and stamped by countless ritual elements)
in a way that many a Christian pastor would envy. This is not the case,
to be sure, with some members of the small political ruling class,
people trained in Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, and Moscow. But it does hold
true for the overwhelming majority of Indians. And this majority gives
the lie to most of our clich6s about Hindus. They are not, in the main,
unworldly, passive, emaciated, and miserable. Nor are they all gurus,
yogis, and ash-smeared ascetics. They are men and women like us, human
beings with troubles big and little. But unlike too many of us, they
are not driven by the inexorable hands of an intemal- ized clock
measuring time's forward rush. They are not pressured by the anxious
thought that at any moment they may be missing something. They don't
feel thrust into a brief, now-or-never life, which all too quickly
passes away, in which one must prove oneself, and which may decide
one's etemal salvation or damnation. The possibility of rebirth gives a
wider horizon to life and a different sense of time. A characteristic
feature of the great Hindu religions is that they never start out by
assuming an irreconcilable opposition between two postu- lated truths.
Any claim to absoluteness is alien to them. They see it as narrowing
the range of potential human consciousness. Wherever they find
unavoidable contradictions, they view them as lodged within the
framework of complementary oppositions, and they try to integrate them
into some comprehensive connection. In practice, this attitude has led
the Hindus to develop an unusual capacity for assimilating foreign
influences and other religions, while maintaining their own traditions.
This preserving of tradition has in itself a religious quality. One
does not throw old truths overboard for the sake of new discoveries;
one adds on the new to the old, because truth is eternal and
unchangeable. By contrast, the world is in a state of constant change,
and our understand- ing is limited. Hence, when in the course of time
any group of Hindus can no longer quite comprehend or accept the
teachings of olden days, such sacred lore is brought up to date by
means of commentaries and glosses, shifts of accent and supplements,
but not by abandoning tradi- tion. In this regard the Hindu attitude
has similarities with Islam. Both start from the supposition that at
the very beginning-or at the instant of revelation-the sacred knowledge
imparted by the gods was pure and unadulterated. That is why one
focuses on the origins. The watchword is not progress but preventing
decline, and it is precisely in order to prevent decline that one has
to adapt to changing conditions and needs or even to make innovations.
In this way Hindu religions have preserved and kept alive substantial
portions of the legacy of various and sometimes very old traditions. A
glance at the past, which follows, should make this clear.

arun gupta