In India, invading foreigners created for their own understanding, which turned out to be wrong, a set of words to describe a people and a world view that was alien and incomprehensible to them. Adopted carelessly in course of time by the native people, too, they allowed those words to give them an identity that was the very opposite of the identity their own traditions had given them.
In modem times the assumptions have been that there is something called Hinduism, that Hinduism is the national form of Indian religion, that Indian civilisation is Hindu civilisation, that in all its movements it is primarily religious and, its chief direction being other wordly, that it is radically world-denying. Each one of them is a huge misconception.
The notion that Indian civilisation is Hindu civilisation carried within itself already a reversal of the main direction of Indian thought, which flowed from one centre – the concept of dharma. Of all the consequences that gradually followed, three merit mention here.
First, whereas in all its movements the evident concern of Indian civilisation was with the human condition, it now came to be portrayed as a ‘religion’ of the people called Hindus and, therefore, something limited-one religion among others.
Secondly, essentially secular in their nature, and demonstrably universal, the ancient Indian perceptions of the human condition now came to be seen as a particular form of theodicy (meaning vindication of divine providence in view of existence of evil). Since that theodicy was seen as ‘Hindu’, and ‘Hindus’ as a majority, it followed that any group that did not accept the elements of Hindu theodicy was then a minority, and a religious minority at that.
Starting with a wrong premise that Hinduism is the religion of the majority of India, which was not resisted, the British soon worked out its political implications which were uncritically accepted by persons like Gopalakrishna Gokhale. The notion of ‘minority’ was thus firmly established in a society where, the concern always being with the universal order enfolding human destiny, the question of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ quite simply did not exist.
Once established, an altogether new kind of conflict was brought into being, between ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, and for numerical reasons alone. Psychologically, it tended to degrade both alike. It is to these reversals, which took some time to manifest themselves, that most of the social violence and disorder in modem India can directly be traced.
If it were true that Indian civilisation was Hindu civilisation, would it not be a legitimate question for Indian Muslims to ask: ‘Have we made no contributions to the making of civilisation in India?’ The Indian Christians of Mar Thoma can legitimately ask a similar question. Muslims have been an integral part of India for eight centuries, and the Syrian Christians, who are also the most ancient Christians of the world, for nearly nineteen centuries. How will such a question be answered? Moreover, the Buddhists and the Jains are not Hindus, and the Sikhs now assert that they are not Hindus. The excruciating irony of it all is that those who are called ‘Hindus’ are not Hindus either.
I agree that the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are not our words.
– Sri Jayendra Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of Kanchi
The true identity of Indian civilisation has been dharmic and not ‘Hindu’. The word ‘Hindu’ itself is not to be found in any of the ancient or even medieval Indian texts. That word was coined perhaps for the first time by the invading Arabs in circa eighth century A.D., and then it was clearly a geographical description of those who lived beyond the river Sindhu or Indus, and carried with it no religious connotation (However, there is a problem with this word corruption theory. The premise that Arabs couldn’t pronounce ‘Sindhu’ and hence they called it ‘Hindu’ is incorrect. Phonetically speaking Arabs could very well ‘S’, as in ‘Suleiman’ or ‘Salama’ or in this case ‘Sindhu’).
Nor was there ever any such thing as ‘Hinduism’. Conditioned by the concept of ‘religion’, and in search of a unified system of religious beliefs amongst the people they called ‘Hindus’, which they would now endeavour to replace with Catholicism, the Catholic missionaries of the 16th century manufactured the word ‘Hinduism’. If Western scholars and missionaries found it painfully difficult to define ‘Hinduism’, it was because a common name was sought for the maddening diversity of faiths and living in India. There has thus been a double error of identity, first in gathering the diverse faiths, beliefs and practices under a fictitious ‘Hinduism’, then in taking that to be a ‘religion’. This error still persists.
When I raised this issue with Sri Jayendra Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, he said: “I agree that the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are not our words. But they have been in usage now for a very long time and cannot be abandoned overnight, without inviting confusion. The concept of dharma is undoubtedly central, and I have been emphasising that myself, but the common people, the masses, now call their religion as Hindu dharma“.
The question is whether the use of the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ has also altered our self-perceptions today, to a degree that our organised political life is artificially fragmented, breaking away from the wholeness of life, and has therefore led to the mindless violence witnessed today.
The question does not pertain to semantics; it is related to the abiding substance of Indian civilisation, dharma, from which we have moved away just at a time when we need it the most.
The word ‘secular’ itself has been misunderstood and much abused in India, conveying either an attitude of anti-religion or nothing deeper than equal respect for all religions. The first attitude has been as mindless as the second has been somewhat insincere. Indian culture was essentially secular in the sense that its views of the world were derived not from anything outside the world but from the inherent nature of man, which carried within itself both immortality and death, and the human privilege to choose the one or the other. The concept of dharma was indisputably a secular view of life, not a ‘religious’ one.
Dharma in fact cuts across the very polarity, religious-secular, which had affected the history of the modem West so deeply, and affects it even today.
That Dharma was a secular order, and not any order derived from the revelation or commandment of God, or from any theological doctrine, can be further seen by the numerous references to what its embodiments are. The Mahabharata speaks of ten embodiments of dharma: good name, truth, self-control, cleanness of mind and body, simplicity, endurance, resoluteness of character, giving and sharing, austerities and continence. And there are five ways to the order in which our being is firmly grounded: non-violence, an attitude of equality, peace and tranquillity, lack of aggression and cruelty, and absence of envy. While each individual has a relation to himself, he has relationships with others. In the dharmic view the two are not separate. It is only when our relationship with ourselves is right, that our relationship with the other can be right: and it is not until we achieve a right relation with the other, that our relation with ourselves can be right.
Thus the one concern from which everything in Indian thought flowed, and on which every movement of life ultimately depended, was the idea of dharma, order, which was not any positive order but the order that was inherent in all life. Derived from the Sanskrit root word dhr, ‘to support’, ‘to sustain’, dharma means that whereby whatever lives, is sustained, upheld, supported.
The least that is involved in any realistic conception of order is the condition that there be room in it for every expression of individual development, provided the general flow of social life was not disrupted either by the anarchy of ideas or by the, anarchy of individual desires.
The immense importance attached to non-violence, ahimsa, as the essential condition of order, weaving it into the daily acts of the individual, only reflected the dharmic principle that every being has a right to live, and every individual has the right to order his life according to his given temperament, capacity and circumstances. When either of these two basic conditions is disregarded, in the name of religious faith or political ideology, there will only be adharma, disorder and violence.
Delivered on 11 November 1989 by Chaturvedi Badrinath, an Indian Administrative Service officer and recipient of the 2009 Sahitya Akademi award for The Mahabharata: An Inquiry In The Human Condition.