Hinduism – 2: Getting to Terms with Religion

Continued from Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’?

It’s time to remove the quotation marks around ‘Hinduism’.

It just adds to the confusion when one argues in this day that Hinduism is not a religion in the sense religion is understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is better to explain that ‘religion’ has a wider scope.

See how religion is defined in the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:

Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.

If one starts with that definition it would be very hard to fit Hinduism into the mould.

However, one can take a modern perspective and understand religion as a “system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.” In this perspective, Hinduism is a religion but with characteristics very different from those of a Judeo-Christian religion.

One can immediately see the big difference between Islam and Hinduism in this context. The former placed a lot of emphasis on the ‘true’ word of God, quarreling even amongst fellow Muslims on correct interpretations of the true word. The latter placed much more emphasis on the practices of everyday life with a lot more room for variations from any externally prescribed way.

One can also now understand the puzzlement of the British when they got ready to conduct the first major census in the Punjab in 1868. The presence of Muslims and Sikhs convinced them that Punjab society could only be understood through the lens of religion.  But when they attempted to define Hinduism they were stumped: “Primarily and historically, it is the antithesis of Islam. Religion, in the etymological sense of the word, it is not, and never was.”

Denzil Ibbetson in the Punjab Census Report of 1881 wrote that “the books on Hinduism describe Hinduism as it ought to be, Hinduism as it once was, perhaps Hinduism as it now is among the pandits and educated Brahmans of the holy cities; but they do not describe Hinduism as it is in the daily life of the great mass of the population.”

And thus the rule that was adopted for the census definition of Hindus was “that the Native of India must be presumed to be Hindu unless he belongs to some other recognized faiths.”

This different nature of Hinduism as a religion was not trivial and one would need to keep it in mind as we proceed to explore its interaction with Muslims and the British in the posts to follow.

To be continued…

The definitions of religion are to be found in a thoughtful post in Religion Dispatches. The material on the Punjab Census is from In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007.

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