As a Hindu living outside of Asia, I’ve been in the uncomfortable situation of explaining Hinduism to someone who’s never met a Hindu before. The kind of situation that used to elicit a sudden rise in the temperature of my face and plenty of “umm’s“ and “uhh’s”. Over the years, I’ve been in this situation several times and my explanation of Hinduism changed and grew just as I did. It wasn’t until the latter half of college that I was able to draw a coherent picture of Hinduism in my head and make my explanation consistent.
These days, when someone asks “What is Hinduism?” I say: Hinduism is really an umbrella term for several types of religions practiced in India. There’s a few principles that most of these religions share, like a belief in reincarnation (the soul returns in another body), karma (what goes around comes around), and dharma (moral and religious duty). But in general, the religion is a very personal one, and can be practiced in many different ways. Many Hindus, for this reason, choose to think of it more as a way of life than as a strict religious doctrine.
[Good speech, right? Mic drop]
The issue with defining Hinduism is that it’s a reflection of its homeland, India. It is confusing yet simple, diverse yet homogenous, dirty yet pristine, philosophical yet rudimentary. It can be both magnificent in scale and miniscule. If Hinduism had its origins in modern-day northwestern India, then by the time it reached the southern tip of India, it had been transformed and adapted, and those changes would have been sent back to the north as well. In short, there is no single Hinduism. We do not have a single prophet, a single text, or a single unifying vision of God. This is the probably the most unique aspect of my religion, and perhaps the most difficult.
The specific common themes and differences in Hindu practices are a topic for another day. In order to better answer the question “What is Hinduism”, the true key is to understand the open nature of the religion itself. To understand this open nature, I think of the following metaphor:
An Island of Religions
Imagine an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. We’ll use this island to represent different world religions. The island has diverse and beautiful scenery, including beaches, forests, and rolling hills with distinct boundaries. Some areas of the land are well-trodden by tourists, while other areas at the fringes are not as populated. The land is large, but surrounded on all sides by water that stretches out for miles and miles.
This island represents the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Their boundaries are well-defined. If someone believes in the word of the Qu’ran, they are Muslim. If they believe Christ died for their sins, they are Christian. If you don’t believe those things, you usually can’t consider yourself part of that religion. Sure, there are different levels of belief and strictness within each of these religions, and there are people in each religion who live at the fringes, but it’s very easy to draw those lines. Land by its nature is solid and dependable, but limiting.
In contrast, Hinduism has blurred lines. If the Abrahamic religions are the island, then Hinduism is the ocean itself. When you wade into the water, you can’t see where it ends and begins. You’re not sure how far you can go before you end up in deep waters. You could move in any direction and still be in the ocean, no closer to reaching land anywhere.
The possibilities in Hinduism are nearly endless – as a Hindu it’s hard to define what should and should not be considered Hinduism (there are even philosophies in Hinduism that doesn’t believe in the existence of God!). Because of this, it’s easy to feel confused about your own spiritual progress. When you compare yourself to other Hindus, it’s often not an apples-to-apples comparison, and the religion ends up being an entirely personal one. Of course, many Hindus choose to seek community and direction in the midst of all this open-endedness. There are many sects, community groups, collectives, etc. that agree on and follow a decided set of Hindu beliefs. Some follow a particular leader, and others follow a particular book. Whilst being in the ocean, these people are swimming close to the shore.
But if you’re not sticking close to shore, your progress and direction is your own to measure. That’s what is difficult and beautiful about Hinduism. My religion provides some guidelines and examples of good morals, but there are very few hard and fast rules. A person needs to test themselves, grow and change their ideals, perhaps even cease to believe in some things, on their Hindu journey. My beliefs currently are entirely differently from my beliefs as a high school senior, and they are also entirely different from my Hindu friends and family. The only common thread is that we all consider ourselves Hindu: we choose to find ourselves in the ocean, comfortable not setting foot on shore.
In case you’re wondering, atheists fit into this metaphor as well. They’re at the island bar not giving a crap.
For the reasons above, it’s often hard for Abrahamic faiths to truly understand the nature of Hinduism. I’ve heard multiple times that in faith-based schools, Christian students will study the Bhagavad Gita as an introduction to Hinduism. Yet, is reading a single ”holy” book an appropriate way of trying to understand something that is not Christian? Growing up, I’ve been exposed to the Bhagavad Gita but my family and community never emphasized its role in my religion. It’s not a requirement to be a Hindu, like reading the Bible might be a requirement for being a Christian.
Perhaps a better way to understand and explain Hinduism is to understand the breadth of spiritual beliefs possible amongst Hindus. When we describe our religion, we should draw attention to what is unique about it – our boundaries are ours to define, and no two people have to practice it the same way. Instead of describing Hinduism as one belief system, perhaps we describe it as a collection of beliefs with a few common threads and an emphasis on finding your own path.
Whether you are Hindu or not, by reading this I hope to have shed some light on how to handle the question “What is Hinduism”? What are your reactions to the above?