What is Hinduism?

Mohenjo Daro

Hindu Dharma is the world’s oldest living religion, over 8500 years old. The Rig Veda mentions the Winter Solstice in 6500 BCE, confirming the existence of an advanced civilisation much earlier. Its roots lie in the Indus Valley. in the vast Indian Subcontinent, which was home to 300 advanced settlements as early as 5000 BCE.

The people living around the river Sindhu (Indus) came to be known as Hindus. The word Hindu did not occur in the Vedas, but when Alexander the Great invaded India, the inhabitants of the country to the east of Sindhu were described as Hindus. Though the genesis of the term is controversial, the consensus is that the term Hindu or Indus was used by Persians to refer to the Indian peoples in the Indus Valley as early as 500 BCE. Additionally Indian scholars point to the appearance of the related term ‘Sindhu’ in the ancient ‘Rig Veda Samhita’. The ‘Rig Veda’ (the most ancient scripture of Hindus) uses the words ‘sapta Sindhu’ in the singular or in the plural at least 200 times; the Persians referred to this as ‘hapta Hindu’. This meant the region of North-West-India and the Punjab (before partition).

While Persians substituted H for S, the Greeks removed H also and pronounced the word as ‘indoi’. Indian is derived from the Greek word ‘indoi’.

mohenjo daro 2
Mohenjo Daro

Dr S. Radhakrishnan similarly observed:

The Hindu civilisation is so called since its original founders or earlier followers occupied the territory drained by the Sindhu river system corresponding to the North-West frontier province and the Punjab. This is recorded in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, which give their name to this province of Indian territory. The people of the Indian side of the Sindhu were called Hindus by the Persians and the later Western invaders. That is the genesis of the word Hindu.

The word Hindu is also used in Sanskrit dictionaries: if we look in Ram Kosh, Sabad Kalapdrum, Advut Kosh and Maidini Kosh the word Hindu was frequently used. In Barhaspat Shastra even the name of the country is Hindustan – a country lying between the Himalayan mountains and Bindu Sarovar (Cape Cormoin Sea).

The country is also called Hind, and Bharat (the name of the son of King Dushyant) as a popular legend says that his name was also accepted by the constitution of India as a name for the country. We also call the country ‘Bharat Mata’.

If Hindus speak of Bharat Mata it is much more than a metaphor or nationalist slogan: for the Hindus, India is the holy land. As Klaus K Klostermaier writes in his brilliant book ‘A Short Introduction to Hinduism’:

“for the Hindus India is holy land, for thousands of years many of its rivers, mountains, cities and groves have been associated, often identified, with deities and events of religious importance. The very names of mountain peaks like Kailash or Arunachal of rivers like Ganges, Yamuna, of places like Prayaga and Kanchipuram, of groves like Vrindavan and Bhadraban suggest to the Hindus the presence of Shiva or Vishnu, Devi or Krishna. Virtually all older place names have associations with Hindu gods, and so have the proper names of most people. Hinduism is linked in a very literal way to the geography of India.”

The River Ganges near Rishikesh

Thus Hinduism is linked with India but is also much more than that. We call it Vedic Dharma or Sanathan Dharam (Universal Dharam) In the English language there is no single word that conveys the truth and complete meaning of Dharma, although it is usually translated as religion. Dharma comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Dhr’ which literally means to hold, to sustain.

Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religion. It is a most tolerant religion that gave shelter to the early Christians who fled from persecution, and also the Jews known as Beni-Israil, and to the Parsis.

It gave the world the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Patanjali’s yoga sutras which are the acme of Ahinsa, and oneness of all creation. Hinduism does not believe in any dogma and rejects the exclusive claim of any individual however highly evolved, to the monopoly of truth.