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How a Nation of Mystics, Occultists, and Yogis became “Hindus”

Hinduism is not a 4000-year-old religion, it’s a 200-year-old colonial era invention.

An  estimated 1.2 billion people identify as Hindu. Almost all religious scholars agree on the claim that Hinduism is at least 4000 years old, originating in the Indus Valley with the authoring of the Vedas in 2000 BCE. What makes Hinduism distinct from Abrahamic faiths and has fascinated many people in the West is just how “complicated” and “diverse” it is. Unlike the Abrahamic religions which follow a salvation theology, Hinduism has no one true God or one Holy text from which Hindu philosophy or morality is derived. Religious scholars in the West often note that there is such openness and freedom within the Hindu faith that the various traditions, philosophies, and ideas within it at times appear to contradict one another. There are even contradictions amongst some of the texts that are considered central to Hinduism. For example, the Brihadâranyaka Upanishad (3.8) states “One who declares anything other than the Self as dear, to him nothing will be dear … Let him worship the Self alone as dear”, however in the Bhagavâd Gita (9.34), Krishna states, “Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, offer obeisance and worship Me.” So, is one to worship only the Self, or is one to worship Krishna? How can one who identifies as Hindu make sense of conflicting statements such as these?

To me this brings into question whether there is such a thing as a coherent “Hindu” identity at all. For other major religions, such as Islam and Christianity, the identity of a follower is clear: one who believes in the doctrines expounded in the Holy books and acts according to the path laid out by a Prophet. Hinduism, however, has no single Holy book or Prophet. It fits under the categorisation of religion only because it demands faith in something beyond the physical world, but it does not demand devotion or sacrifice to a God for the promise of salvation or damnation. For example, Hinduism expounds the idea of Karma but does not demand that you must act “good” in order to score points with a God. 

In that sense, Hinduism can be better understood as a culture built upon spiritual teachings rather than a theocentric religion. The only problem with this, however, is that Hinduism can be better understood as a culture only because it was never supposed to be a God worshiping religion in the first place. Hinduism is not a 4000-year-old religion, it’s a 200-year-old colonial era invention.

There is no question that key events in Hindu history did, in fact, take place. There is archaeological evidence that the Mahabharata (Kurukshetra War) and a war between South India and Sri Landa described in the Ramayana occurred, and that Shiva (Adiyogi) most likely lived in the Himalayan region during the years 17000 BCE – 14000 BCE.  All of these are reasonable claims, and Ancient writings on the spiritual aspect of human existence from the Indus Valley which fall into four classes: Vedas (a collection of hymns, philosophy, and guidance in regards to ritualism), Upanishads (an expansion on the spiritualism of the Vedas from a standpoint of monism),  Aranyakas (a further expansion on the philosophical nature of rituals introduced in the Vedas), and Brahmanas (a book of instruction on how one should perform rituals in the Vedas) have been preserved through oral and written means for 4000 years. 

However, the fusion of the many hundreds of Indian traditions that have developed over a few thousand years under the one religion called “Hinduism” is only a very recent invention. It is the product of efforts by Western “orientalists” and British missionaries to cement the idea that there was a sufficient amount of Ancient regional and sectarian tradition in the Indian culture to construct a single systematic religion. Between 1789 and 1890, the British Raj attempted to create a comprehensive description of Hinduism that exhibited it as a coherent system of beliefs and practices operating under clear, regular, and rigid principles. The word Hinduism as we use it today comes from this period in which the British Raj, in an effort to study the distinct Indian spiritual practices, created texts such as Hinduism (1877) by Sir Monier-Williams and many others which eventually led to the compilation of Indian spiritual traditions and those who practiced them being put under the one label “Hindu”. 

For example, before the 19th Century, the Bhagavad Gita was an esoteric academic text understood only by scholars to extract ideas for their own spiritual pursuits. The 1785 translation of the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit to English by Sir Charles Wilkins sparked great interest amongst the British elite in India’s spiritual culture. The framework by which they understood this culture was through this idea of a unified religion, which was later called Hinduism. This new Bhagavad Gita, translated and re-written by colonists in the 19th Century seems to contradict the ancient Vedic Upanishads which lay the groundwork for later Indian spiritualism. In the Upanishads, for example, there is no concept of God. Brahmin in those texts is described as an “eternity” which permeates all things in the Universe, not a “God” or “creator” who invades the personal lives of individuals to demand devotion and answer prayers. Strict devotion was not the norm in pre-Colonial India but in this 19th Century version of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna claims himself to be a “Supreme God” and that all those who wish can find deliverance from the perpetual cycle of reincarnation by worshipping him, a narrative which sounds strikingly similar to the native salvation theology of the colonists who translated and promoted the Gita both in India and Britain.

Since then, in the 20th  and 21st Centuries, Indians have decided to react to this in many ways. Overwhelmingly Indians both in India and in the West have accepted the term Hinduism and consider the trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh) as central Gods of their polytheistic faith. Others have decided to reject this new religion and instead follow the Vedic scriptures, while others still identify as Hindu but stay within indigenous formulations of their own practices and traditions developed by their ancestors in a certain region of India.

With such a complicated history it is becoming increasingly tempting for one who grew up with a Hindu family in the 21st Century to reject Hinduism altogether in favour of another faith or to have no faith at all. There is a great deal of confusion as to how to approach which branch of Hinduism one’s family follows and why the continuation of such traditions is important at all, especially for the diaspora living in the Western world. It would be untrue to say that the identity “Hindu” does not exist, but digging below the surface for a moment we can see that the picture of a Hindu is not as  clear as we would first imagine a religious person to be, even for Hindus themselves.