A Hindu is an adherent of Sanatana Dharma which is known today as Hinduism or Hindu Dharma, that represents a set of religious, spiritual, philosophical, scientific and cultural systems that originated in bharatavarsha (Greater India). Briefly a Hindu is basically any person who is born into the indigenous religion of Bharatvarsh.

The Meaning of Hindu

If we go by the original definition of the word Hindu, any one who lives in bharatavarsha (the Indian subcontinent) is a Hindu and whatever religion he or she practices is Hinduism. The word Hindu is not a religious word and literally translated it means Indian and the word Hinduism denotes any religion or religions that are practiced by the multitude of people living in the land beyond the river Indus.

Origin of the word Hindu

The word Hindu is derived from the word Sindhu, which is the name of a major river that flows in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent. The ancient Greeks and Armenians used to refer the people living beyond the River Sindhu as Indu/Hindu and gradually the name struck. When the Muslims came to the sub continent they called the people living in the region as Hindustanis to distinguish them from the foreign Muslims. Subsequently when the British established their rule, they started calling the local religions collectively under the name of Hinduism that denotes any religion or religions that is indigenous and practiced by the multitude of people living in the land beyond the River Indus.

It is interesting to note that the word is not Sanskrit in origin and did not originate in India. It was not used by the native people of Bharatvarsh (Greater India) in their descriptions or writings till the 17th century. When and how the word 'Hindu" was coined is not precisely established. It is absent in early sacred literature of Indian origin. It was used by ancient Persians, without religious connotations, for the people inhabiting the lands of river Indus.

Hindus are the followers of Timeless Dharma

The Hindu "religion" was used to be known as Vaidika Dharma or Vedic Dharma and even Yoga Dharma, as it has the Vedas for its authority and source (Vedokhilo Dharma Mulam) and its essence is Yoga. Thus is also more commonly known as Sanatana Dharma as it delineates and embodies values and doctrines which are of eternal validity.

Hindu icons

Sanatana Dharma stands for "Rita" - the majesty of moral and spirtual law. It looks upon the whole universe as being under the purview of a divine principle and subserving to the supremacy of Brahman (Supreme Reality), its creator. Times may change, ages may roll by, continents may rise and disappear, but values of life like Truth, Love, compassion, one's duty to mother, father, preceptor and to fellow beings, and the eternal reality of the spirit and unity of all life, are truths and values that subsist and will subsist for ever. These are the eternal values and truths which are embedded in the Vedas and are embodied in the sampradaya (religion) that had evolved out of Vedas. These values being of eternal validity and universality, are the justification for the religion that embody them, for being called as Sanatana Dharma, the timeless Dharma.

Such a comprehensive teaching is evident in the many sided yogic and meditational practices of Hinduism, the vast culture of Hinduism including art, medicine and science, and in the Hindu recognition of the importance of all systems of knowledge, material, occult and spiritual. The social customs of Hinduism, with their emphasis on spiritual practices, are also based upon such universal truth, though some of them have departed from it through the long course of time. Hence they require adjustment in light of changing times.

Who is a Hindu?

Due to the wide diversity in the beliefs, practices and traditions encompassed by Hinduism, there is no universally accepted definition on who a Hindu is, or even agreement on whether Hinduism represents a religious, cultural or socio-political entity. In 1995, Chief Justice P. B. Gajendragadkar was quoted in an Indian Supreme Court ruling:

"When we think of the Hindu religion, unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one god; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion of creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more."

While Hinduism contains both "uniting and diverse views", it has a common central thread of spiritual, philosophical and scientific concepts (including dharma, moksha and samsara), practices (puja, bhakti etc) and cultural traditions. These common elements originating (or being codified within) the Vedic, Upanishad and Puranic scriptures and epics. Thus a Hindu could:

  • Follow a tradition centered on any particular form of the Divine, such as Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, etc.
  • Practice any one of the various forms of yoga systems; including bhakti (devotion) in order to achieve moksha.

In 1995, while considering the question "who are Hindus and what are the broad features of Hindu religion", the Supreme Court of India highlighted Bal Gangadhar Tilak's formulation of Hinduism's defining features:

Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and the realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.



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