Religion dresses in several names

Worshippers circle the Mother Goddess Shrine, chanting and playing drums to complete a ritual offering.

Mac Kenney

Worshippers circle the Mother Goddess Shrine, chanting and playing drums to complete a ritual offering.

The current appellation of the majority of Indians, “Hindu,” is a word foreign to India and its people.

Tracing the etymology of this word brings us to the geography of India and the Indus River. The word “Hindu” began as a mispronunciation of the word “Sindu,” which meant to define those living east of the Indus River.

Islamic invaders first used this term, but British colonialist put it into common usage. This happened, ironically, with the publication of a Hinduism handbook by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1877. The British began using the name specifically to define the religious practices dating back to the Aryan migration, and perhaps, inadvertently invented the reality of a unified Hinduism as well.

The practices and beliefs that are now considered “Hinduism” vary widely. Within the spectrum of Hinduism there is a plethora of deities and mythological figures, and the meanings of many of these differ across India. One of my favorite examples of this is the mythological figure Hanuman. In most parts of India, Hanuman, guardian of Kishkindha the monkey kingdom, is worshiped for his celibacy and devotion to God. Yet, there is a temple in southern India in which Hanuman is worshiped as a promoter of fertility, and women line up to embrace his statue to guarantee conception of a child. This large disparity in what “Hanuman” means suggests the many different beliefs and people that have come to be under a common title.

It becomes difficult, and perhaps an overreaction, to say that the ways of Hindu life are completely different. They have much in common because they have developed next to each other, and in some cases grown out of each other. Perhaps an analogy can be made between the many forms of Hinduism and the differences between denominations of Christianity. There are splits as subtle as those of Protestant denominations, and as striking as that of Catholicism and Protestantism. Where this analogy stops working, though, is when we talk about the common thread that binds these sects together. In Christianity, there is the Bible, but there is not an exact counterpart to that sacred text in Hinduism. The Vedic texts may come close, but there have been too many divergences from or adaptations of these texts to let them adequately represent the core of Hinduism. Instead, there are ideas that run through those beliefs grouped together as Hinduism. Ideas such as reincarnation, dharma (or cosmic order), and karma (energy that carries over through reincarnation) are found in nearly all forms of Hinduism.

Buddhism is a good example of a faith that in some ways is a part of Hinduism, but in others is very distinct from it. It began as a cult, under the guidance of a leader who wrote new texts, and is often viewed as a separate religion. However the Buddha is also considered one of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, an important deity in Hinduism. Even today some see Buddhism as a sect of Hinduism, though there also are many who see Buddhism as quite separate from Hinduism, such as Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and current Dalit political activists who have converted to Buddhism in protest of the caste system and Hinduism.

What does this all mean for religious coexistence? What is often thought of as one unified religion is itself a contemporary model of coexistence. During the 3,000-year history of religion in India, Hinduism itself is perhaps the firmest and deepest running root of coexistence.