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Indian Culture And Traditions

Who Is A Hindu
By Sanjeev Nayyar, December 2004 [[email protected]]

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Major world religions like Islam and Christianity are associated with Allah and Christ and seem to have a clear set of rules by which its followers live their lives. On the other hand Hindus do not - claim any one prophet, worship one God, subscribe to any one dogma, believe in more than one philosophical concept and a variety of customs and traditions. Who is a Hindu? Is it a religion? Can it be defined? What are the parameters by which one could be said to be a Hindu? As I move along the path of gyan – knowledge the definition gets only wider. In fact this is the fifth attempt at defining a Hindu!

Next can there be an all-inclusive definition? No because that would be going against one of the basic tenets of Hinduism i.e. open – mindedness. Hinduism has not one school of thought. There are six systems of philosophy along with hundreds of religious teachers each with his own interpretation of scriptures. There is nothing like this is the only way to self-realization. Over thousands of years Hinduism has continuously assimilated ideas and thoughts of people who accepted its Central Idea and came within its fold.

Notwithstanding the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures, Hinduism is for most of us a way of life. The article has four chapters, one to three attempts to define a Hindu & its key beliefs while four tells you how Bharat got the name India. Bharat is the Hindi name for India, meaning, The Land of Knowledge.

1. Hindu – Dharma

1.    How did the word Hindu come into existence?
2.    How did Hindu become Hinduism?
3.    What is Religion? (Sri Aurobindo)
4.    Darsana or Direct Vision.
5.    The Indian equivalent of religion is Dharma. Define! (Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Rama, Sri Aurobindo, Munisri Nyayavijayaji and Swami Tattwamayananda). 

2.   Key Beliefs

6.   Nine Beliefs
7.   Universal dimension
8.   Love for Motherland, Vedic view.
9.   Vedic Concept of God.
10. Idol worship.
11. 33 crore Gods! How?
12. Ahimsa. (Vedic, Holy Geeta, Yogic, Jaina views and Sri Aurobindo).
13. Tolerance.
14. Worship of Animals.
15. Worship of Water.
16. Worship of Women.
17. Worship of Trees.
18. What is it that distinguishes Hinduism from Islam and Christianity? 

3. Great Men said!

19. Swami Vivekananda
20. Veer Savarkar.
21. Sri Aurobindo.

4. Origin of Name India & a few thoughts.

Hindu – Dharma

1. How did the word Hindu come into existence?
According to our ex-President and scholar Dr S Radhakrishnan, the term Hindu had originally a territorial and not credal significance. It implies residence in a well-defined geographical area. As a modern term, Hindu has evolved from the Indo-Iranian root Sindhu. This Proto-Indo-Iranian word sindhus literally refers to the “Indus River” and the culture pertaining to its long expansive valley. This is where Hindu culture first developed.

(1) Historically, however, at a very early date, Persian explorers entered the Indian subcontinent from the far Northwest. After they returned, they published chronicles. But due to the phonetics of their native Persian language, the ‘S’ of Sind became an aspirated ‘H.’ This is how the people of the Indus Valley came to be known generically as “Hindus” by the Persians. This flawed intonation inevitably stuck.
(2) And was later re-imported when the invading Moguls conquered India. Since they always referred to the locals as “Hindus,” the term was adopted by the Indians themselves as a way of distinguishing native culture from that of the foreign Muslims.
(3) But it should be noted that still today there is a region, a people and a language called Sind.

Net net there was no word Hindu till the Muslims came to India. It was called Sanathan Dharam. Hindu is a modified version of Sindhu, was a term to indicate the region round the Sindhu river (modern day Indus) and then the whole of India. The Iranians substituted H for S making it Hindu. When the Muslims came in, there became two sets of people, one the Muslims and two the Hindus.

The 10th Sikh Guru in Dasam Granth in Ugradanti Chhake Chhand Vani under the description of ‘Chandi Ki Var’ stated, “Let Khalsa be victorious all over the world to awaken Hindu Dharma, so all falsehood or ignorance may be removed”. In another verse he has used the word ‘Hinduka’. Probably it was the word used in medieval times and the word may have been a prototype of the modern word Hindoo (Hindu) as the British would say.

2. How did Hindu become Hinduism?
The word Hinduism is incorrect nomenclature that was most probably coined by the British. Thereafter, it has stuck due to the ignorance of its followers. The term ‘ism’ refers to an ideology e.g. Marxism, socialism, communism, imperialism and capitalism but the Hindus have no such ‘ism’. Hindus follow the continuum process of evolution; for the Hindus do not have any unidirectional ideology, therefore, in Hindu Dharma there is no place for any ‘ism’. Hindus are democratic in approach, for each individual is free to adopt any philosophy or way to self-realization.

3. A more fundamental question, what is Religion?
Quote Sri Aurobindo “There is no word so plastic and uncertain in its meaning as the word is religion. The word is European…. The average Christian believes that the Bible is God’s book, but ordinarily he does not consider anything in God’s book binding on him in practice except to believe in God and go to Church once a week, the rest is meant only for the exceptionally pious. To believe in God is to believe that he wrote a book; only one in all those ages, and to go to Church is the minimum of religion in Europe”.

Extracts from an article by Nandakumar Chandran. “A religion in the modern sense is generally understood in the Semitic mould as a faith distinguished by its belief in a historical prophet and a holy book. Thus the combination of Jesus and the Bible or Mohammed and the Quran establish the distinct identity of Christianity and Islam. According to these religions salvation or access to God is possible only if you accept the authority of their prophet and holy book. So each of these religions hold that theirs is the only true path and the claims of all other religions are false and invalid. At a secondary level apart from theological distinctions the adherents of these religions also distinguish themselves by their distinct cultural traits - like naming themselves after the holy men of their religions, dressing in a distinct way or observing cultural practices particular to their own religion. So it is in these factors - primarily the exclusive belief in prophet and holy book and secondarily in theological beliefs and distinct cultural practices - that the individual identity of a religion and its adherents rests. But if we look at India the concept of a prophet is totally lacking - no saint has ever claimed, "His is the only way".

4. Darsana - The Sanskrit word for philosophy is darsana, which means direct vision. The words symbolize the difference between modern Western philosophy, which mainly relies on intellectual pursuit and Indian philosophy that relies on direct vision of truths and pure Buddhi (reasoning). Darsana is divided into two categories namely Astika (believer in the Vedas) and Nastika (non-believer in the Vedas). Astika are Nyaya, Vaisheshik, Sakhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. Nastika are Carvaka, Jainism and Buddhism. Others are a mixture of the ideas of these systems. Although each school of philosophy is unique some of the Nastika schools are treated as religions today namely Buddhism and Jainism.

However, certain common characteristics unite Astika and Nastika schools namely Direct experience, Acceptance of authority, Harmony amongst schools, Parallel growth and co existence of so many schools, open mindedness, support of logic and reasoning, belief of eternity, law of karma, moral and ethical teachings, acknowledgement of suffering, thoroughness, practicality and being inward looking. Have excluded Sikhism because in the words of Khushwant Singh Sikhism is a product of distilled Vedanta and Bhakti movement. To my mind culture, way of life and characteristics of philosophy are three key parameters that distinguish one religion from another. As a concept religion is alien to India.

5. The Indian equivalent of Religion is Dharma. Define! 
Quote Mahabharata Shantiparva – 6-7-8 “ Truthfulness, to be free from anger, sharing wealth with others, (samvibhaga) forgiveness, procreation of children from one’s own wife only, purity, absence of enmity, straight forwardness & maintaining persons dependent on oneself are the nine rules of the Dharma of persons belonging to all the varnas”.

Manusmriti, Manu X-63 “Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (not acquiring illegitimate wealth), Shoucham (purity), and Indriyanigraha (control of senses) are, in brief, the common Dharma for all the varnas”.

Swami Rama wrote i.e. explanation to verse 31 and 32 of chapter 2 of the Gita “Sri Krishna explains to Arjuna that one’s duty is of paramount importance, for it is the means to fulfill the purpose of life. That which supports the fulfillment of one’s duty is called Dharma. Dharma is not comparable to religion; it encompasses all the dimensions of life both within and without. It refers to duties done harmoniously, skillfully, selflessly and lovingly. It supports one in fulfilling the purpose of life and helps one to relate to others and to society in a harmonious way”.

Swami Dayanand Saraswati wrote “That which inculcates justice and equity, which teaches truthfulness in thought, speech and deed – in a word, that which is in conformity with the Will of God, as embodied in the Vedas, even that I call Dharma. But that which is intermixed with what is partial, which sanctions injustice, which teaches untruthfulness of thought, speech or deed – in brief that which is in antagonism to the Will of God, as embodied in the Vedas, that I term Adharma”.

Sri Aurobindo wrote “Religion is India is a still more plastic term and may mean anything from the heights of Yoga to strangling your fellow man and relieving him of the worldly goods he may happen to be carrying with him. It would be too long to enumerate everything that can be included in Indian religion. Briefly however, it is Dharma or living religiously, whole life being governed by religion. It means in ordinary practice living according to authority. The authority generally accepted in the Shastra. When one studies the Shastra we realize that Indian life and it have little in common, the Indian governs his life by the custom and opinion of the nearest Brahman. In practice this resolves itself into following certain customs and observances of which he neither understands the spiritual meaning nor the practicality. For e.g. to venerate the scriptures without knowing them, to keep Hindu holidays, to worship all Brahmans without knowing whether they are venerable or not. This in India is the minimum of religion glorified as Sanatan Dharam. If a man has emotional or ecstatic piety, he is a Bhakta, if he can talk fluently about the Veda, Upanishads etc he is a Jnani. If he puts on a yellow robe and does nothing he is a tyagi or sannyasin.
The average Hindu is right in his conception of religion as dharma, to live according to holy rule, but the holy rule is not a mass of fugitive customs, but to live for God in oneself and others and not for oneself only, to make the whole life a sadhana the object of which is to realize the Divine in the world by work, love and knowledge”.

Munisri Nyayavijayaji wrote in the book Jaina Darsana translated into English as Jaina Philosophy & Dharma by Shri Nagin Shah “This verse states that which saves living beings from falling into lower condition is Dharma. Again, it says that which lifts their life from the lower state to the higher one is Dharma. Dharma is the natural quality of the soul, which is experienced by all. On account of the removal of the traces of the past evil acts, the passions of attachment and aversion become mild, and consequently mental purity is attained, this purity is the real dharma. This is the luster of life. Compassion, friendliness, doing good to others, truthfulness, self-control, renunciation – all these good qualities constitute the auspicious light of the internal pure life. Life permeated with such light is called Dharmic life”. Interestingly Shri Shah who translated the Gujarati version into English has used the word Religion in place of Dharma although the Sanskrit verses use the word Dharma.

Swami Tattwamayananda of the Ramakrishna Order wrote “Dharma has two broad divisions, namely pravrtti and nivrtti dharma. Pravrtti dharma is dealt with in the sacrificial portion (karma kanda) of the Vedas and is a pursuit of life, which enables the individual to live a happy life in this world while performing actions, and caring for duties and responsibilities in his domestic, social and national life. Nivrtti dharma, dealt with in the Upanisadic portion of the Vedic literature, is a pursuit to make us understand the unity of the Spirit, which transcends the conventions of laws of social and domestic life. Pravrtti dharma is divided into two, special (visesa) dharma and ordinary (samanya) dharma. Special dharma denotes the performance of duties by people relevant to their particular position in life, whereas general dharma includes the virtues of character and good conduct such as non-injury, truthfulness, non-stealing, charity, cleanliness, compassion, simplicity, absence of greed etc”.

Sri Aurobindo on Dharma vs Democracy wrote “It has been said that democracy is based on the rights of man; it has been replied that it should rather take its stand on the duties of man; but both rights and duties are European ideas. Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties lose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world, which makes selfishness the root of action, and regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognize, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe”.

You see Dharma encompassed every aspect of our lives. Every action was either Dharmic or adharmic. An act of killing like that of Arjun’s was considered Dharmic because it was meant to destroy evil from this world. Dharma is unique to Bharat.

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