Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who is a Hindu?

To answer this question, first we need to characterize Hinduism. Here is a tentative list.

1. Varnashrama - Caste, marriage, family, Sanyasa.
2. Vedic gods - in various forms as idols, female, animals and plants.
3. Rituals - Samskar, shradda and special occasions like Grahana, melas (Kumbh)
4. Philosophy - Vedas, Upanishads, Ayurveda, Yoga, Gita, Ramayana
5. Hindu values - stable families, harmonious living, etc
6. Associated with India.

One who has some characteristic of Hinduism could be called as a Hindu.
1. Those who are followers of Varnashrama Dharma
2. Those who worship idols, gods and goddesses - of Vedas, animals and plants.
3. Those who perform shradda, rituals during Grahana
4. Those who understand Vedic philosophy - rebirth and karma, benefit from Ayurveda and Yoga.
5. Those who have an inbuilt sense of tolerance, harmonious approach towards diversity.
6. Those who reside in (citizens of) India.


Those who are aligned with Varna Dharma, even partially, are readily identified as Hindus. Caste identities and associated life style features determine could be used to identify a Hindu. Such a person may not be aware of Vedic philosophy or other important aspects of Hinduism. But he/she cannot be excluded from being termed as Hindu.

A Hindu worships Gods of Vedas and Puranas - as an idol, in the form of female form, as an animal or as a plant, many of them simultaneously. Performer of rituals related to Shradda, Grahana, Melas, variants of them – is a Hindu.

Those who are not aligned with rituals may still be influenced by Upanishads and other parts of Vedas. Those who believe in rebirth and causal Karma cannot be termed anything other than Hindu. Slightly extending, those who are benefiting from yoga, Ayurveda could also be considered as Hindus.

All of them, have an inbuilt sense of tolerance towards those who follow different rituals, lifestyle and thought process. They have a predisposition towards a harmonious living.

A nation is defined on a common history, culture and people. Historically, India was a land of Hindus. Today, majority of the people are Hindus and cultural elements of the nation are dominantly Hindu. Hindu culture and Hindu as religion is naturally the main stream culture and religion of the modern India. The harmonious living of various diverse groups including Muslims and Christians is possible only if some of the tolerant ways of Hindus are adopted as a public policy. When these statements are inverted, Hindus could be generally defined as those who are in India.

In current times, there are two trends in defining Hindu/Hinduism. One is to include all aspects of the Hinduism which are good (or beneficial to the society) into the definition and exclude all the other aspects which are difficult to understand and explain. Second one is to include all aspects which are attracting criticism into the definition and to separate attractive and demonstrably useful characteristics from Hinduism.

A – Exclude Varna & rituals - Include Upanishads & Yoga
Some people try to restrict Hinduism to a subset of noble aspects of Upanishads and exclude ritualistic and Varna and caste characterization from Hinduism. These people argue that rituals and noble thoughts of Vedas, Darshanas are separable. Varnashrama, for them, is time and space dependent. For the present, Varna is obsolete or irrelevant. They may be proud or possessive about Yoga or Ayurveda. Some of them define Hinduism as the set of all concepts which are demonstrably beneficial.

B – Include Varna & rituals – Exclude Upanishads & Yoga
On the other hand, there are some who are keener to restrict Hindu definition to ritualistic aspects. They accept Varnashrama as an integral part of Hinduism. Untouchability, for them, is an unavoidable consequence of Varna vyavastha. Some of them don’t accept that rituals are inseparable from the noble Upanishad philosophy, Yoga or any such topic. They would prefer to use them in isolation and independently. Some of them would like to delink them from Hinduism.
Interestingly, both camps A and B agree that rituals and the philosophy are separable. It is instructive to identify the groups in each of the camp.

Group A – Who exclude rituals and include Yoga

1. Those who are not following rituals
2. Those who are finding it difficult to follow rituals
3. Who are not able to explain rituals or who have not understood them or both
4. Those who are unable to explain or understand Varnashrama system.

Typically, Educated Hindus (precisely stating, those who have imbibed western values), those who have accepted the criticism against rituals and Varna vyavastha are in this category. Restricting the definition of Hindu is an attempt to avoid problems.

Group B – Who exclude Yoga and include rituals

1. Those who are trying to undermine Hindus (Hinduism)
2. Those who are detached from Hinduism
3. Those who are trying to hijack Yoga and Upanishads away from Hinduism
4. Those who lack understanding or unable to get into the details.

Mostly non Hindus - mainly proselytizing Christians, Jihadi Muslims and other intolerants are in this category. Hindus who have detached themselves with wrong notions also fall under this category. People who lack understanding of fairness and justice and misinterpret Varna are included in this category.
With the above considerations, it is fair to define a Hindu in the following way

One who is guided by Sanatana Dharma in all aspects of life
Who see divinity in many forms, human, plants and animals – as an idol
Who adopts Dharmic lifestyle based on Varnashrama, rituals, samskaras, shradda etc
Who adopts values and outlook determined by Vedas, Upanishads, Smrithis, Puranas
Who receives guidance through guru, inspiration from India.
Sanatana Dharma being the sustaining principle of the manifestation.

The real question is how much you are Hindu? Not whether you are a Hindu?

[Contributed by VS and SH]


  1. Why is it Hinduism always having a link to INDIA. Why cant it be detached of INDIA?

    INDIA is a land of recent times. its never as ancient as sanatana dharma itself

  2. The characterization of a Hindu has been nicely put. But one subtle point I want to make here is Hinduism i.e. Hindu - WOL is a very broad concept and not limited to any Geographical entity or for that matter any worldly thing. But as rightly said in your article "inspiration from India." India is like the capital or the center for Hindu preaching. But this has been the case in the past and present and may be in the future. But as we know hindu - WOL has been spread across geographical boundaries and work on sanatana dharma is happening everywhere but at different scales. May be a 1000 yrs from now people may draw more inspiration on Hindu - WOL from some other geographical entity other than India or may be India itself may look up to some other country for Hindu - WOL. This may happen other way round as well i.e India may itself grow very high because of Hindu- WOL that others may look upon it ( e.g. Obama looking up for Lord Hanuman Statute ;) ). But it is again a tough question that how should India be made more powerful by Hindu - WOL. Any thoughts?