I have had passionate discussions with Jain and Sikh friends about intra-Dharmic boundaries with respect to Hinduism, the term.
Ideally, the term should be junked (I say that as a Hindu) and at least for intra-Dharmic purposes, we should all be just Sikh, Jain, Shaivite, Vaishnavite, Brahmo, Buddhist, Charvak etc (and hopefully no castes, but that is another long discussion). But we are where we are.
Now, the term Hindu started as geographical and non-religious, then with invaders who could not be assimilated it became a negative/residual term implying all non-Muslims and non-Christians of India.
But then, and this is the third stage, in the nineteenth century some Sikhs, Brahmos and Buddhists started to see themselves differently and now some Jains, Lingayats etc.
In the twentieth century, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Dr B R Ambedkar (and many others) started to say “caste Hindus” or what would be called Savarnas. They were accurate, even though in the end Jinnah and Ambedkar had very different ideas about Indian unity.
Ironically in second stage, when Hindu just meant non-Christian and non-Muslim Indians, that word “Hindu” (which later got “ism” added to it) became a revolutionary and deeply political term as, despite caste, it presaged kafir/heathen unity for the first time in India and perhaps for the first time in the world in relation to both the proselytising monotheisms.
So far, the pagans and gentiles and mushrik (polytheists) were being defined by others, while these spiritually fluid populations never thought it fit to define theological hard boundaries.
Now when I asked one of my Sikh friends how am I not “him” and how is he not “me”, he said Sikhism does not have caste (Sikh society very much does), does not have idol worship (except the beautiful and revered Guru Granth Sahib), and of late because some even say Sikhism is “monotheistic” or even “Indo Abrahamic”.
As if Hindus cannot be monotheistic, or monistic, or pantheistic and so on but I get ahead of myself.
Why did the Hindu-Sikh split happen in the late nineteenth century? Partially because the otherwise wonderful Arya Samaj defined Hinduism as back to the vedas, and almost everything else as “corruption” including ‘idol worship’.
It was a difficult time for Indian civilisation, and it was at least a positive if flawed definition of Hinduism — but given this Sikh “separation” made full sense to be fair.
Now in reality, most Hindus do not live by, or even normatively buy the Arya Samaji definition. Most Hindus worship deities or murtis, most still do not read the vedas with any understanding even if in translation (of course many exceptions exist).
Many Hindus from Kerala and some from elsewhere even eat beef, though it is perhaps a recent phenomenon, and I dare anyone to call them not Hindu.
What I am getting at is that, while going by what people call themselves is a perfectly fine way to look at the world, we also have to look at some logical differentiation points. If you do the latter and not the former how do you define “Hindus” in India? But I get ahead of myself again.
Let us consider the case of Jainism, another beautiful Dharmic panth and my personal favourite provided there was not the reality of war in the world (I am not saying Jain thinkers have not thought of that dichotomy, there is much more nuance — just expressing my appreciation).
Some of my Jain friends have told me atheism/agnosticism and strict vegetarianism, for example, are some clear differentiations with respect to the Hindu masses.
Similarly, Brahmos have told me they are not Hindus and so have Buddhists. I have read articles that when pushed on cattle sacrifice some tribals have said they are not Hindu and had it not been for the work of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and their schools even the rest of the North East and much of central India would have been lost to ‘Abrahamicism’.
However, what is very clear is that there are all kinds of Hindus in India, even if ratios vary. Vegetarian and meat eating, casteist and anti-caste, idol worshipping and not worshipping anything (even a book symbol), believer and atheist, shramik and charvak, vedic and nastik, monotheist and polytheist, and so on.
As I have often said, if Christianity and Islam would have deeper footprints in China, you would have a larger religion than Hinduism there called Hanism — it didn’t happen as in the nineteenth century despite a weak state they brutally suppressed almost all Abrahamic imperialistic ideas.
So, if today, one is to give a positive definition of Hinduism that fits, unlike the Arya Samajis’ one (but they did a lot of good work overall) then it is: A Hindu is a Dharmic who is related to Indian culture or Bharatiya Sanskriti. And who is a Dharmic? Who believes in reciprocity in spiritualism.
That is my definition of who is a Dharmic, and the Indian subset thereof about who a Hindu is. I am sure there maybe faults with these as well, but I will wait for better ones. There are many nuances about “reciprocity” or “mutual respect” versus “just tolerance” but let us move on for now.
So if one goes by this definition of Hinduism, many of the non-Hindu Dharmic claimants, which and who I totally respect (and we are anyway discussing rashtra not rajya) do not stand scrutiny as per this above definition since they are very much part of Indian culture, even often leading figures thereof.
Are these self definitions nonetheless genuinely felt? Absolutely yes, in most cases. Is there some regulatory arbitrage, aka claiming separatism, because of our ‘pseudo secular’ state that has minorityism enshrined in it with respect to education and place of worship regulations? That too, sadly.
Now the statist-regulatory arbitrage goes back beyond the Nehruvian (Ottoman millet style in the social sphere) state to the colonial one and its various theories of who could fight and who could not. That in term determined who could be employed in the army — one of the few stable jobs available in a brutally poor country, and this classification further widened intra-Dharmic ‘religious’ boundaries.
Note the word ‘Dharma’ itself is acceptable to Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism though it may not be currently to Zoroastrianism, Shintoism or even neo-paganisms in the West, at least at first brush.
I will finish with one example: as I have often said Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab, saw himself no differently from any ‘Hindu’ Ranjit Singh in Oudh say in terms of his spiritual (and not just civilisational) identity.
He after all gave gold to mandirs in Kashi (Banaras) and bequeathed the Kohinoor to Jagannath, a ‘tribal’ Hindu deity in far off Odisha. Giving gold/diamonds to ‘Hindus’ so far from his kingdom had limited use at best in terms of politics for power consolidation in Punjab. There were mandirs nearby to patronise which he also did.
So just because some terms are today contested, it does not mean the status quo is final. In any case, we have to get beyond semantics and reach the essence of things whereby we can bring spiritual brotherhood to the whole world while still maintaining cultural and national diversity.
This article first appeared on Medium, and was republished here with permission.
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