Lethargic IITian
Musings of a 20-something lethargic IITian on India and Catholicism.

Sunday, May 12, 2002  

One standard ploy used by most Indian rightists is to equate the Hindu religion with Indian civilisation and argue that the two are not seperable. The ensuing ambiguity in the meaning of the term Hinduism and Hindu is then exploited in practically all points of the Hindutva agenda - from Kashmir to appeasement to Hindus in Bangladesh. For an example of an essay that harps on the Hinduism is not a Religion line:

What is my religion? - Chetan Vaity

In my young formative years, I used to wonder about my religion. I was adamant. "There is no God", I said. "I don't believe in any such thing". Hence when I was asked about my religion (in to hesitate for a moment before writing: Hindu.

What was the problem? Why the hesitation? Now I have solved that problem. It is a subtle answer. It lies in the meaning of the word "religion".

Ever since civilisations began, humans have been worshipping the elements. Their Gods represented the unknown and sometimes frightening phenomena of nature. Even now, the surviving tribes in Africa have their own set of beliefs and Gods, their own sacred trees and mountains, noble animals and so on. The point is that as you move across the land (say from the jungle to the grasslands) and encounter other tribes, these people will also have a complex of divinities which most probably will be quite different from the first tribe. They will have more local motifs, different sacred trees and animals. The above seems quite obvious and reasonable. The same can be said of all the older civilisations. As time passed, and such groups interfaced (fought/merged/traded whatever), they shared their beliefs and Application forms etc), Gods. The common motifs would naturally get reinforced. Some ideas would be abandoned and lost.

One cannot help noticing the plurality of divinties in the older cultures, for example the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Indian, Inca, Mesopotamian etc. All of these cultures has a plethora of Gods and Goddesses. Usually each divinity was associated with an element of nature. These Gods normally had a heirarchy of their own and usually had very human failings - greed, anger, passion, jealousy.

Enter the Hebrews and their one God. The Jews were originally a polytheistic people who at last took to the worship of one God, whom they regarded as their exclusive god who gave them victory over the enemies in return for their not going after other people's gods.

Under the stress of political calamities they thought of their god as one who punished evil doing, and was purifying them through suffering in preparation for the Messiah who would arise from amongst them and establish their universal supremacy and an ideal order of justice. Actually, this god, Jehovah, was one of the many then worshipped at that time. The Jews just chose to build their faith around that one God, exclusive of all others.

This concept of "One God" and "Chosen people" began with Judaism, and is the central thesis of faiths which eventually sprung from it (namely: Christianity and Islam)

These faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have many aspects in common.

1. One God who should be worshipped above all else.

First Commandment:

"I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the
land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods
besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape
of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters
beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship
them. For I the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting
punishment for their father's wickedness on the
children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth
generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation,
on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments..."

Belief in one God, Allah in Arabic, constitutes the very foundation
of Islam. There is no deity except Allah. He is indivisible and
absolutely transcendent. God is the Almighty, the Creator and the
Sustainer of the universe, Who is similar to nothing and nothing is

comparable to Him.

2. One Book which is of divine origin.
Bible (Old Testament) - shared by Jews and Christians

3. Chosen people.
The division of all humanity into two groups. The believers and the
non-believers. The Muslims and the Kafirs.

4. Messiah.
The concept of one special chosen human who directly communicates
with the One God and spreads the teachings - the Prophet. (Moses,
Jesus, Mohammad)

5. Missionary spirit.

It is seen as the duty of the believers to actively try and get the
non-believers into their fold. The Christian missionary spirit is
indeed commendable. It continues strongly to this day. (I get
pamphlets, invitations etc. from such societies at least twice a
year). Islam's views on the non-believers are a bit extreme. Allah's
commands are emphatic. Talking of disbelievers, he says that no
Muslim should take them either as friends or helpers until they
embrace Islam.

"Then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay
them wherever you find them." - Quran, 4:91

These 3 systems are collectively known as "Semetic" faiths.

Now returning to our basic thread. The word "religion" is applicable to such faiths. These systems have a very well defined one God, one divine Book and one Messiah. If you ponder over it carefully, you will realise that this word, "religion", cannot be used to describe the older systems - Greek, Inca, Hindu etc. The gods of these cultures are "human" gods usually with intersting mythologies. These gods are not infallible. They make mistakes and in turn are punished. Indeed, the division between humans and gods is not as wide as it is in the Semetic faiths. Human heroes fight Gods in Greek mythologies. (Human) Yogis, kings, warriors are described as meeting gods in various stories in the Hindu mythology.

Such beliefs should not be labelled "religions". Indeed, no one speaks of the Greek beliefs as religion. It is known as the Greek mythology.

Similarly, the Hindu system should not be labelled "religion". That way you are restricting the expanse of the system. The culture, the languages, the innumerable beliefs, the superstitions, the gods, the epics, the festivals. Indeed, all that this land has given birth to and has imbibed from other cultures in its long history can be termed "Hindu". With such a definition, it can be seen that the system itself has been continuosly changing, adapting and growing. The other faiths Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism etc all have their origins here. They arose in response to particular cultural and social environments. Indeed, they can be seen as adaptations of the generic and inclusive culture.

Now, we are getting somewhere. No wonder then that I felt reluctant to write "Hindu" as my religion. It is not my religion! It is my way of life. It is my culture. It is my land. It is my history. The phrase "Hindu religion" is a contradiction in terms.

A Hindu is, by definition, a person born and brought up in Bharat. A person who identifies with its history. A person who looks at this as his motherland and takes pride in its culture. A person who shares his destiny with a billion people of the subcontinent.

The Supreme Court of India has gone on record saying "Hindutva is not a religion but a way of life...a culture"

So, we have an interesting situation. I believe that there is no God. But, I still am a Hindu.

Indeed, I feel doubly proud when I notice that most other ancient systems have vanished. The Greek, the Egyptians, all have gone. They are history. Swept away by other civilizations, cultures and religions. But my culture still lives! It lives in the homes, the beliefs, the minds of the people of Bharat. Inspite of centuries of attacks, invasions and plunder, my culture survived! We are the children of probably the oldest living civilisation on the planet.

Mahatma Gandhi writes:
"Just as in the West they have made wonderful discoveries in things material, similarly Hinduism had made still more marvellous discoveries in things of religion, of the spirit, of the soul. But we have no eye for these great and fine discoveries. We are dazzled by the material progress that Western science has made. I am not enamoured of that progress. In fact, it almost seems as though God in his wisdom has prevented India from progressing along those lines so that it might fulfil its special mission of resisting the onrush of materialism. After all, there is something in
Hinduism that has kept it alive up till now. It has witnessed the fall of Babylonian, Syrian, Persian and Egyptian civisations. Cast a look around you. Where is Rome and where is Greece? Can you find today anywhere the Italy of Gibbon, or rather the ancient Rome, for Rome was Italy? Go to Greece. Where is the world famous Attic civilization? Then come to India,
let one go through the most ancient records and then look round you and you would be constrianed to say, "Yes, I see here ancient India still living." True, there are dung heaps too, here and there, but there are rich treasures buried under them. And the reason why it has survived is that the end which Hinduism set before it was not development along material but spiritual lines."

Simply put, the structure of his essay goes:

1. Opening
2. Rise of ancient civilisations/religions
3. Rise of Judaism
4. Features of so-called "Semitic" religions
5. Why Semitic religions are religions
6. Why Hinduism is not a religion
6. Closing

Let me concentrate here on the primary logical/reasoning flaw. This flaw comes in step 5.

You see, Chetan never actually defines the word "religion". He merely says:

The word "religion" is applicable to [Semitic] faiths. and Similarly, the Hindu system should not be labelled "religion".

He then goes on to say that since Hinduism is different from these faiths, it cannot be a religion.

In other words, he defines "religion" to be equal to "Semitic faiths":

religion = Semitic Faiths

In effect, by simply defining religion in such a constrained manner, Chetan assumes a priori that which he set out to prove! This is the logical flaw in this otherwise well-written essay.

Note, that if Chetan had really wanted to prove his point, he would've chosen a standard defintion for "religion", such as that given by the American Heritage Dictionary:

1a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Under this definition, it is easily seen that Hindu theology and rites are covered under the term "religion".

The other ploy is to attempt to show that Hindu religion cannot be separated from Indian civilisation (as fellow IITian Ketan Pandya puts it):

Now you also are falling into the trap of reducing Hinduism to a religion. The popular understanding of the word "religion" is essentially derived from Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and applies mainly to these only. The trouble arises because many of us try to fit systems from other civilizations into the term "religion".

What was the religion of the Greeks? The ancient Chinese?

You cannot divorce the civilizational/cultural aspect of the Hindu ethos from the theological aspects and call only the religious aspects "Hinduism". I have a problem with that. Why should I let Hinduism be defined by parameters set by some Semitic faiths, just because they conquered half the world??

For a moment, let us set aside the nomenclature. Let us call the civilizational/cultural aspects of India/Hinduism "A" and the theological/religious aspects "B".

His above statement then reads:

"You cannot divorce A from B and call only B `XYZ'".

Now suppose you visit a Syro-Malabar Catholic household on St. Thomas Day. What you will see wrt customs, language, food, dress etc will definitely belong to A; but will be completely divorced from B.

Ketan's statement is proved false by a counter-example. QED

Here I've taken the example of a Christian household. Visit a Muslim household in (say) Kozhikode and the result is the same.

Now that we've established that A can be separated from B, all that remains is the nomenclature. I personally prefer to call A "Indian Culture" and B "Hinduism". By and large, this is the same nomenclature used by everyone except the rightists.


  1. Hinduism is, in fact, a religion.
  2. The Hindu religion is separable from the Indian civilisation. In other words, you dont need to be Hindu to be Indian.

Why do Hindutvadis then insist on these two points? I think the answer is simple enough - how else can they justify the Ayodhya issue? How else can they depict Islam and Christianity as "the National Enemy" if they cannot show that the nation and religion are the same.

I've always held (and still do) that the prime flaws in the Hindutvadi stand is one of reasoning - of drawing incorrect conclusions from known data. The prime flaw is of faulty logic.

posted by Kensy | 7:50 AM
I was born in a Hindu family but later turned into a non believer.

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past blogs of interest
Hinduism as a religion
Pederasty and the American Church
Caste in Indian Christianity
Syro-Malabar engagements
Syro-Malabar weddings
Divine Retreat Centre
Varsha Bhosle and Ideological Relativism
Anti-Conversion Ordinance and the Church stance
Self-Righteous Rightism
The Hindutva Attack on St. Francis Xavier
Varsha Bhosle and the Church (U-turn)
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