The historical origins of hindu and Hinduism
Summary: Hinduism is unlike any other religion because of the circumstances in which it emerged as a major world religion. In this essay we trace the historical origin of the words hindu and Hinduism and how they acquired religious connotations overtime.
Until recently, people outside india had many misconceptions about Hinduism. Many were not even aware that it was a major world religion and the old continuing religious tradition. Even today a number of people in the western world do not know much about it or have vague knowledge of it. Hinduism is the oldest living religion of the world and the third largest. It is practiced by over a billion people in the world. It has a close affinity with Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and in some respects with Zoroastrianism. In this essay we will examine what Hinduism means and how it is different from other world religions.
Hinduism as a colonial construct
Surprisingly, although Hinduism is a very ancient religious tradition, the word Hinduism which today defines it and distinguishes it from the rest of the world religions, is of much later origin. In ancient india there were no hindus. You had either a Brahmana, pandita, somayaji, agnihotri, smarta, yogi, jogi, Acharya, bhakta, tantric, sanyasi, Samkhya-vadin, vedantin, mimansaka, vaisheshika, jina, charvaka, lokayata, ajivika, rishi, muni, yogini, devi, swami, shiava, Vaishnava, siddha, Buddha, and so on, but no hindu. People belonged to numerous religious sects, ascetic groups, teacher traditions, and schools of philosophy, most of which subsequently became part of Hinduism due to historic reasons. The name Hinduism came into existence out of expediency to distinguish the native religious traditions of india from those which were practiced outside. Somehow the name stuck, much to the discontent of many modern hindus who consider it a legacy of india’s colonialism and foreign subjugation.
The national character of Hinduism
However, some scholars tend to argue that although the name Hinduism may be of recent origin, the native religious traditions of the indian subcontinent which today go by the name Hinduism developed together in the same environment from the earliest times. They have a national aspect, a shared cultural identity and many common features, which are closely linked to the social, political and historic development of india, its ethos and people. Their essence is what we can consider Hinduism. We may therefore regard Hinduism as an ancient family of religious traditions that are distinctly indian. Although the name Hinduism is a colonial construction, the essence of Hinduism is not a fiction or an artificial construct, but an indisputable reality. This argument is gaining ground among the new generation of hindus, and in various forms, one of which is Hindutva.