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  Hinduism (Old Persian, ‘what Indians do’) is the collective term given today to the majority religion, philosophy and culture of the peoples of India. However, this usage is problematic. In the first place, the concept is foreign to those labelled as ‘Hindus’, and is used indiscriminately to embrace both local cults and highly sophisticated and complex religious, as well as philosophical systems and social customs. There are also misleading political and social connotations. In addition, so-called ‘Hindus’ do not accept the Western definition of what religion is. It is wrong to view Hinduism as being like any other religion, that is (Latin religio, ‘that which binds’) as a force which unites people and enables them to relate to the supernatural, to the force which supplies morality to society and assuages individual longings for immortality. ‘Hinduism’ is not the cement of society, but the building itself. It is a total world-view, a way of looking at life and experiencing it, of understanding society as a whole, and one\'s place in it as a member of a family, profession or trade, caste and people. It defines what a person is and how they should behave, so it is highly ethical, yet a Hindu cannot be said to ‘practise faith’ in the same sense that a Christian or Muslim does. A Hindu is his or her faith: born a Hindu and remaining one.

The term ‘Hindu’ was originally a Persian word denoting a person of Indian religion and race, and was used by the Mohammedan conquerors of ‘India’. The independence struggle and political developments since 1947, especially since the death of Jahawarlal Nehru in 1964, have led to ‘being Indian’ becoming synonymous with ‘being Hindu’. Despite the presence of Christianity in India for at least 1,500 years, and of Islam for about 1,000 years, to adhere to these faiths is, in some quarters, considered unpatriotic. Yet much of contemporary Hindu faith was brought into India from Iran by Aryan invaders, and Hinduism has shown a remarkable capacity to absorb foreign cults and ideas.

The writer Niraud Chaudhuri, in his book Hinduism, defined Hinduism as: ‘a civilised amplification of the primitive man\'s way of living in the world by accepting the conditions which he believes are inextricably laid down by the supernatural spirits who really own and govern it. It is also an elaboration of the primitive man\'s corollary that by accepting the conditions it is possible to establish a relationship of mutual dependence which will be stable.’ This definition indicates the points of contact of classical Hinduism with traditional religion as found among tribal peoples. Thus it was possible for the beliefs of the Aryan invaders to relate to the religious experience of the indigenous, ‘aboriginal’ people, Dravidians and so on, while they were at the same time being refined and developed by priest and king to preserve the racial distinction between Aryan and Dravidian or tribal, and to prevent assimilation. To what extent Aryan culture was imposed on the tribal peoples so that the process of ‘sanskritization’ began, or to what extent Dravidian, especially Tamil, ideas filtered upwards (in the same way as Christianity moved from slaves upwards in Rome), is a matter of considerable scholarly debate—a debate coloured by political agitation, resistance to the spread of the Hindi language in southern India and the influence of the anti-Brahman movements. There is also considerable controversy about the exact dating of Hinduism. The Sanskrit language is used not as vernacular but rather like ecclesiastical Latin as a lingua franca for the educated classes all over India. It is related to Old Persian of the 9th century  BCE, but as an artificial language, it is extremely difficult to date. EMJ

See also ashrams; Brahmanic religion; caste; Dharmic religion; Gandhianism; guru movements; moksha; Saivism; sakti; Tantrism; Vaishnavism; Vedic religion; yoga.Further reading Nirad Chaudhuri, Hinduism.



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