Hindu Dharma

Who are Hindus and what are the features of Hindu religion?


What are the distinctive features of Hindu religion?

In attempting to answer this question, we must inevitably enquire what are the distinctive features of Hindu religion? The consideration of this question, prima facie, appears to be somewhat inappropriate within the limits of judicial enquiry in a court of law. It is true that the appellants seek for reliefs in the present litigation on the ground that their civil rights to manage their temple according to their religious tenants are contravened; and so, the Court is bound to deal with the controversy as best as it can. The issue raised between the parties is undoubtedly justiciable and has to be considered as such; but in doing so, we cannot ignore the fact that the problem posed by the issue, though secular in character, is very complex to determine; its decision would depend on social, sociological, historical, religious and philosophical considerations and when it is remembered that the development and growth of Hindu religion spread over a large period of nearly 4,000 years, the complexity of the problem would at once become patent.

Who are Hindus and what are the broad features of Hindu religion, that must be the first part of our enquiry in dealing with the present controversy between the parties. The historical and etymological genesis of the word “Hindu” has given rise to a controversy amongst Indologists, but the view generally accepted by scholars appears to be that the word “Hindu” is derived from the river Sindhu otherwise known as Indus which flows from the Punjab. “That part of the great Aryan race”, says Monier Williams, “which immigrated from Central Asia, through the mountain passes into India, settled first in the districts near the river Sindhu (now called the Indust). The Persians pronounced this word Hindu and named their Aryan brethren Hindus. The Greeks, who probably gained their first ideas of India from the Persians, dropped the hard aspirate, and called the Hindus ‘Indoi’

The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. VI, has described “Hinduism” as the title applied to that form of religion which prevails among the vast majority of the present population of the Indian Empire (page No. 636). As Dr. Radhakrishnan has observed:

“The Hindu civilization is so-called, since its original founders or earliest followers occupied the territory drained by the Sindhu (the Indust) river system corresponding to the North-West Frontier Province and the Punjab. This is recorded in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures which give their name to this period of Indian history. The people on the Indian side of the Sindhu were called Hindu by the Persian and the later western invaders (2)”. That is the genesis of the word “Hindu”.

When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.

Confronted by this difficulty, Dr. Radhakrishnan realised that “too many Hinduism seems to be a name without any content. Is it a museum of beliefs, a medley of rites, or a mere map, a geographical expression[3]?” Having posed these questions which disturbed foreigners when they think of Hinduism. Dr. Radhakrishnan has explained how Hinduism has steadily absorbed the customs and ideas of peoples with whom it has come into contract and has thus been able to maintain its supremacy and its youth. The term ‘Hindu’, according to Dr. Radhakrishnan, had originally a territorial and not a credal significance. It implied residence in a well defined geographical area. Aboriginal tribes, savage and half-civilized people, the cultured Dravidians and the Vedic Aryans were all Hindus as they were the sons of the same mother. The Hindu thinkers reckoned with the striking fact that the men and women dwelling in India belonged to different communities, worshipped different gods, and practiced different rites (Kurma Purana.).

Monier Williams has observed that “it must be borne in mind that Hinduism is far more than a mere form of theism resting on Brahmanism. It presents for our investigation a complex congeries of creeds and doctrines which in its gradual accumulation may be compared to the gathering together of the mighty volume of the Ganges, swollen by a continual influx of tributary rivers and rivulets, spreading itself over an ever-increasing area of country, and finally resolving itself into an intricate Delta of tortuous streams and jungly marshes…….The Hindu religion is a reflection of the composite character of the Hindus, who are not one people but many. It is based on the idea of universal receptivity. It has ever aimed at accommodating itself to circumstances, and has carried on the process of adaptation through more than three thousand years. It has first borne with and then, so to speak, swallowed, digested, and assimilated something from all creeds.”

We have already indicated that the usual tests which can be applied in relation to any recognised religion or religious creed in the world turn out to be inadequate in dealing with the problem of Hindu religion. Normally, any recognised religion or religious creed subscribes to a body of set philosophic concepts and theological beliefs. Does this test apply to the Hindu religion? In answering this question, we would base ourselves mainly on the exposition of the problem by Dr. Radhakrishnan in his work on Indian Philosophy. Unlike other countries. India can claim that philosophy in ancient India was not an auxiliary to any other science or art, but always held a prominent position of independence. The Mundaka Upanisad speaks of Brahma-Vidya or the science of the eternal as the basis of all sciences, ‘sarva-vidya-pratistha. According to Kautilya, “Philosophy” is the lamp of all the sciences, the means of performing all the works, and the support of all the duties “In all the fleeting centuries of history” says Dr. Radhakrishnan, “in all the vicissitudes through which Indian has passed, a certain marked identity is visible. It has held fast to certain psychological traits which constitute its special heritage and they will be the characteristic marks of the Indian people so long as they are privileged to have a separate existence”. The history of Indian thought emphatically brings out the fact that the development of Hindu religion has always been inspired by an endless quest of the mind for truth based on the consciousness that truth has many facets Truth is one but wise men describe it differently. The Indian mind has, consistently through the ages, been exercised over the problem of the nature of godhead the problem that faces the spirit at the end of life, and the inter-relation between the individual and universal soul. “If we can abstract from the variety of opinion”, says Dr. Radhakrishnan, “and observe the general spirit of Indian thought. We shall find that it has a disposition to interpret life and nature in the way of monistic idealism, though this tendency is so plastic, living and manifold that it takes many forms and express itself in even mutually hostile teachings”.

The monistic idealism which can be said to be the general distinguishing nature of Hindu Philosophy has been expressed in four different forms:

(1) Nondualism or Advaitism; (2) Pure monism, (3) Modified monism, and (4) Implicit monism. It is remarkable that these different forms of monistic idealism purport to derive support from the same Vedic and Upanishadic texts. Shankar, Ramanuja, Vallabha and Madhva all based their philosophic concepts on what they regarded to be the synthesis between the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagwad Gita. Though philosophic concepts and principles evolved by different Hindu thinkers and philosophers varied in many ways and even appeared to conflict with each other in some particulars, they all had reverence for the past and accepted the Vedas as sole foundation of the Hindu philosophy. Naturally enough, it was realised by Hindu religion from the very beginning of its career that truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express. This knowledge inevitably bred a spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent’s point of view. That is how “the several views set forth in India in regard to the vital philosophic concepts are considered to be the branches of the self-same tree. The short cuts and blind alleys are somehow reconciled with the main road of advance to the truth”. When we consider this broad sweep of the Hindu philosophic concepts, it would be realised that under Hindu philosophy, there is no scope for ex-communicating any notion or principle as heretical and rejecting it as such.

Max Muller who was a great oriental scholar of his time was impressed by this comprehensive and all-pervasive aspect of the sweep of Hindu philosophy. Referring to the six systems known to Hindu philosophy, Max Muller observed:

“the longer I have studied the various systems, the more have I become impressed with the truth of the view taken by Vijnanabhiksu and others that there is behind the variety of the six systems a common fund of what may be called national or popular philosophy, a large manasa (lake) of philosophical thought and language far away in the distant North and in the distant past from which each thinker was allowed to draw for his own purposes”.

Beneath the diversity of philosophic thoughts, concepts and ideas expressed by Hindu philosophers who started different philosophic schools, lie certain broad concepts which can be treated as basic. The first amongst these basic concepts is the acceptance of the Veda as the highest, authority in religious and philosophic matters. This concept necessarily implies that all the systems claim to have drawn their principles from a common reservoir of thought enshrined in the Veda. The Hindu teachers were thus obliged to use the heritage they received from the past in order to make their views readily understood. The other basic concept which is common to the six systems of Hindu philosophy is that “all of them accept the view of the great world rhythm. Vast periods of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession. This theory is not inconsistent with belief in progress: for it is not a question of the movement of the world reaching its goal times without number, and being again forced back to its starting-point …. It means that the race of man enters upon and retravels its ascending path of realization. This interminable succession of world ages has no beginning”. It may also be said that all the systems of Hindu philosophy believe in rebirth and pre-existence. “Our life is a step on a road, the direction and goal of which are lost in the infinite. On this road death is never an end or an obstacle but at most the beginning of new steps”. Thus, it is clear that unlike other religions and religious creeds, Hindu religion is not tied to any definite set of philosophic concepts as such.

Do the Hindus worship at their temples the same set or number of gods?

That is another question which can be asked in this connection; and the answer to this question again has to be in the negative. Indeed, there are certain sections of the Hindu community which do not believe in the worship of idols; and as regards those sections on the Hindu community which belief in the worship of idols, their idols differ from community to community and it cannot be said that one definite idol or a definite number of idols are worshipped by all the Hindus in general. In the Hindu Pantheon the first gods that were worshipped in Vedic times were mainly Indra, Varuna, Vayu and Agni. Later, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh came to be worshipped. In course of time, Rama and Krishna secured a place of pride in the Hindu Pantheon, and gradually as different philosophic concepts held sway in different sects and in different sections of the Hindu community, a large number of gods were added, with the result that today, the Hindu Pantheon presents the spectacle of a very large number of gods who are worshipped by different sections of the Hindus.

The development of Hindu religion and philosophy shows that from time to time saints and religious reformers attempted to removed from the Hindu thought and practices elements of corruption and superstition and that led to the formation of different sects. Buddha started Buddhism: Mahavir founded Jainism; Basava became the founder of Lingayat religion, Dhyaneshwar and Tukaram initiated the Varakari cult; Guru Nanak inspired Sikhism; Dayanada founded Arya Samaj, and Chaitanaya began Bhakti cult; and as a result of the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Hindu religion flowered into its most attractive, progressive and dynamic form. If we study the teachings of these saints and religious reformers, we would notice an amount of divergence in their respective views; but underneath that divergence, there is a kind of subtle indescribable unity which keeps them within the sweep of the broad and progressive Hindu religion.

There are some remarkable features of the teachings of these saints and religious reformers. All of them revolted against the dominance of rituals and the power of the priestly class with which it came to be associated:and all of them proclaimed their teachings not in Sanskrit which was the monopoly of the priestly class, but in the languages spoken by the ordinary mass of people in their respective regions.

What, according to this religion, is the ultimate goal of humanity?

Whilst we are dealing with this broad and comprehensive aspect of Hindu religion, it may be permissible to enquire what, according to this religion, is the ultimate goal of humanity? It is the release and freedom from the unceasing cycle of births and rebirths; Moksha or Nirvana, which is the ultimate aim of Hindu religion and philosophy, represents the state of absolute absorption and assimilation of the individual soul with the infinite. What are the means to attain this end? On this vital issue, there is great divergence of views; some emphasise the importance of Gyan on knowledge, while others extol the virtues of Bhakti or devotion; and yet others insist upon the paramount importance of the performance of duties with a heart full of devotion and mind inspired by true knowledge. In this sphere again, there is diversity of opinion, though all are agreed about the ultimate goal. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to apply the traditional tests in determining the extent of the jurisdiction of Hindu religion. It can be safely described as a way of life based on certain basic concepts to which we have already referred.

Tilak faced this complex and difficult problem of defining door or at least describing adequately Hindu religion and he evolved a working formula which may be regarded as fairly adequate and satisfactory. Said Tilak:

“Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and realisation of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion”. This definition brings out succinctly the broad distinctive features of Hindu religion. It is somewhat remarkable that this broad sweep of Hindu religion has been eloquently described by Toynbee. Says Toynbee:

“When we pass from the plane of social practice to the plane of intellectual outlook. Hinduism too comes out well by comparison with the religions and ideologies of the South-West Asian group. In contrast to these Hinduism has the same outlook as the pre-Christian and pre-Muslim religions and philosophies of the Western half of the old world. Like them, Hinduism takes it for granted that there is more than one valid approach to truth and to salvation and that these different approaches are not only compatible with each other, but are complementary”

The Constitution-makers were fully conscious of this broad and comprehensive character of Hindu religion; and so, while guaranteeing the fundamental right to freedom of religion, Explanation II to Art. 25 has made it clear that in sub-clause (b) of clause. (2), the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly.

Consistently with this constitutional provision, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; the Hindu Succession Act, 1956; the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956; and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956 have extended the application of these Acts to all persons who can be regarded as Hindus in this broad and comprehensive sense. Section 2 of the Hindu Marriage Act, for instance, provides that this Act applies-

(a) to any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms or developments, including a Virashaiva a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo Prathana or Arya Samaj,

(b) to any person who is a Buddhist Jaina, or Sikh by religion, and

(c) to any other person domiciled in the territories to which this Act extends who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion, unless it is proved that any such person would not have been governed by the Hindu Law or by any custom or usage as part of that law in respect of any of the matters dealt with herein if this Act had not been passed. The same provision is made in the other three Acts to which we have just referred.

It is in the light of this position that we must now proceed to consider whether the philosophy and theology of Swaminarayan show that the school of Swaminarayan constitutes a distinct and separate religion which is not a part of Hindu religion. Do the followers of the said sect fall outside the Hindu brotherhood, that is the crux of the problem which we have to face in the present appeal. In deciding this question, it is necessary to consider broadly the philosophic and theological tenets of Swaminarayan and the characteristics which marked the followers of Swaminarayan who are otherwise known as Satsangis.

In dealing with this aspect of the problem, it would be safe to rely upon the date furnished by Monier Williams in his book “Religious thought and life in India” (1883). It is hardly necessary to emphasise that Monier Williams played a very important role in explaining the religious thought and life in India to the English-speaking world outside India. “Having been a student of Indian sacred literature for more than forty years”, observed Monier Williams “and having twice travelled over every part of India, from Bombay to Calcutta, from Cashmere to Ceylon, I may possibly hope to make a dry subject fairly attractive without any serious sacrifice of scientific accuracy, while at the same time it will be my earnest endeavour to hold the scales impartially between antagonistic religious systems and as far as possible to do justice to the amount of truth that each may contain” (page No. 1). It is a remarkable tribute to the scholarship of Monier Williams and of his devotion to the mission which he had undertaken that though his book was written as early as 1883, it is still regarded as a valuable source of information in dealing with problems connected with the religious thought and life in India.

The question of Hinduttva

In a  Constitution Bench decision in Commissioner of Wealth tax, Madras v. Late R. Sridharan by L. Rs., (1976) Suppl. SCR 478, the meaning of the term ‘Hinduism’ as commonly understood is stated thus:-

“…….. It is a matter of common knowledge, that Hinduism embraces within self so many diverse forms of beliefs, faiths, practices and worship that it is difficult to define the term ‘Hindu’ with precision.

The historical and etymological genesis of the word ‘Hindu’ has been succinctly explained by Gajendragadkar, C. J. in Shastri Yagnapurushdasji v. Muldas Bhudardas Vaishya, AIR 1966 SC 1119.

In Unabridged Edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English language, the term ‘Hinduism’ has been defined as meaning ‘a complex body of social, cultural and religious beliefs and practices evolved in and largely confined to the Indian subcontinent and marked by a caste system, an outlook tending to view all forms and theories as aspects of one eternal being and truth, a belief in ahimsa, karma, dharma, samsara and moksha, and the practice of the way of works, the way of knowledge, or the way of devotion as the means of release from the bounds of rebirths; the way of life and form of thought of a Hindu”.

In Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th Edition), the term ‘Hinduism’ has been defined as meaning “the civilization of Hindus (originally, the inhabitants of the land of the Indus River). It properly denotes the Indian civilization of approximately the last 2,000 years, which gradually evolved from Vedism, the religion of the ancient Indo-European who settled in India in the last centuries of the 2nd millennium BC. Because it integrates a large variety of heterogeneous elements, Hinduism constitutes a very complex but largely continuous whole, and since it covers the whole of life, it has religious social, economic literary and artistic aspects. As a religion, Hinduism is an utterly diverse conglomerate of doctrines, cults, and way of life…. In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. The Hindu is inclined to revere the divine in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and is doctrinally tolerant, leaving others including both Hindus and non-Hindus-whatever creed and worships practices suit them best. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be Hindu, and since the Hindu is disposed to think synthetically and to regard other forms of worship, strange gods, and divergent doctrines as inadequate rather than wrong or objectionable, he tends to believe that the highest divine powers complement each other for the well-being of the world and mankind. Few religious ideas are considered to be finally irreconcilable. The core of religion does not even depend on the existence or non-existence of God or on whether there is one god or many. Since religious truth is said to transcend all verBal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Hinduism is then both a civilization and a conglomerate of religions with neither a beginning, a founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization. Every attempt at a specific definition of Hinduism has proved unsatisfactory in one way or another, the more so because the finest Indian scholars of Hinduism, including Hindus themselves, have emphasized different aspects of the whole.”

In his celebrated treatise “Gitarahasya”, B. G. Tilak has given the following broad description of the Hindu religion:-

“Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways of salvation or diverse; and realisation of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.”

In Bhagwan Koer v. J. C. Bose, (1904) ILR 31 Cal 11, it was held that Hindu religion is marvelously catholic and elastic. Its theology is marked by eclecticism and tolerance and almost unlimited freedom of private worship…….

This being the scope and nature of the religion, it is not strange that it holds within its fold men of divergent views and traditions which have very little in common except a vague faith in what may be called the fundamentals of the Hindu religion.”

(emphasis supplied)

(at pages 481-482)

These Constitution Bench decisions, after a detailed discussion, indicate that no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms ‘Hindu’, ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage. It is also indicated that the term ‘Hindutva’ is related more to the way of life of the people in the sub-continent. It is difficult to appreciate how in the face of these decisions the term ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ per se, in the abstract, can be assumed to mean and be equated with narrow fundamentalist Hindu religious bigotry, or be construed to fall within the prohibition in sub-sections 3 and/or (3A) of S. 123 of the R. P. Act.

Bharucha, J. in Dr. M. Ismali Faruqui v. Union of India, (1994) 6 SCC 360 , (Ayodhya case), in the separate opinion for himself and Ahmadi, J. (as he then was), observed as under:

“……….. Hinduism is a tolerant faith. It is that tolerance that has enabled Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism to find shelter and support upon this land…………”

(at page 442) (of SCC)

Ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and it is not to be equated with, or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism. In “Indian Muslims – The Need For A Positive Outlook” by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, (1994), it is said:

“The strategy worked out to solve the minorities problem was, although differently worded, that of Hindutva or Indianisation. This strategy, briefly stated, aims at developing a uniform culture by obliterating the differences between all the cultures co-existing in the country. This was felt to be the way of communal harmony and national unity. It was thought that this would put an end once and for all to the minorities problem.”

(at page 19)

The above opinion indicates that the word ‘Hindutva’ is used and understood as a synonym of ‘Indianisation’, i. e. development of uniform culture by obliterating the differences between all the cultures co-existing in the country.

Thus, it cannot be doubted, particularly in view of the Constitution Bench decisions of this Court that the words ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the people of India, depicting the way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practising the Hindu religion as a faith.

Considering the terms ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ per se as depicting hostility, enmity or intolerance towards other religious faiths of professing communalism, proceeds from an improper appreciation and perception of the true meaning of these expressions emerging from the detailed discussion in earlier authorities of this Court. Misuse of these expressions to promote communalism cannot alter the true meaning of these terms. The mischief resulting from the misuse of the terms by anyone in his speech has to be checked and not its permissible use. It is indeed very unfortunate, if, in spite of the liberal and tolerant features of ‘Hinduism’ recognised in judicial decisions, these terms are misused by anyone during the elections to gain any unfair political advantage. Fundamentalism of any colour or kind must be curbed with a heavy hand to preserve and promote the secular creed of the nation. Any misuse of these terms must, therefore, be dealt with strictly.

It is, therefore, a fallacy and an error of law to proceed on the assumption that any reference to Hindutva or Hinduism in a speech makes it automatically a speech based on the Hindu religion as opposed to the other religions or that the use of words ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ per se depict an attitude hostile to all persons practising any religion other than the Hindu religion.


  2. Bal Thackeray Vs Prabhakar Kashinath Kunthe and Ors-11/12/1995

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