Identity question for Hindus


Hello Swamiji,I had been having some interesting conversations with a close friend of mine (PGK) – …. (who is now in Denmark).  He had some very serious questions about Hindu identity and i tried answering to the best of my knowledge.His main question was “how is hinduism defined”? (Is there any one-line answer for this which is accurate 🙂 and what does it mean to have a “Hindu identity” ? It will be great if you can sound this right as i did not want to give him any misguiding principles. Please do let me know your thoughts…..



For Hindus, there is definitely no straight identity based on rituals or traditions. My derision towards the term ‘religion’ also is closely related to this aspect. Boxing and labeling a diverse set of beliefs is impossible while it is so much more easily possible for the ’Abrahamic’ religions. Their whole methodology of ‘top down’ or ‘one book down’ approach is very well suited for a very clear identity. Reversing the gaze or doing a purva paksh, we notice that this single aspect is what helps them achieve a semblance of respectability when approaching naïve civilizations.

Reverse take: We should definitely carve an identity…but not carve it on their platform. We cannot and should not carve it on the basis of traditions or number of Gods or rituals. Just because they are too diverse and in the process of carving a single identity, we would invariably alienate the not-so-well-represented. We should carve an identity on the basis of values…on the basis of ‘Dharma’ which is something which will “never” overlap with the Abrahamic religions.

I have had a few conversations with Christians/Atheists here in Denmark and predominantly the one question they ask is “If you as a Hindu believe in multiple Gods, then you should also believe in Christianism”. At first, it was a conundrum but after some introspection and reading up .. mainly Malhotra and a couple of others… my reply now is that
“I would definitely believe in any religion which accepts the possibility of another religion being completely equal … in other words.. if your religion said Christ was not the ONLY savior, then I would definitely believe in it”. This puts them off mostly but some come around to accepting the fact and also leads to serious soul-searching for them.


Dear SKM


PGK is hundred per cent correct about his view on Hindu identity in comparison with and the Christians’ (wrong) approach about the identity of others (religious and non-religious).  Both traditionally and historically Christians had such a wrong view, from which they cannot come out.  So for me we need not even think about our identity on their terms or anybody’s term.

At the same time, living on this earth, no one can claim to live in a ‘no man’s land’.  And the first criteria that decide the identity in modern time is not one’s value, principle, religion, culture etc. but Law (or Constitution) at least in India.  So we Hindus should begin from there viz. what our Constitution says about our identity.  As lots of information is available about this, so I need not give them here.

Regarding the ‘value’ which should give our identity as a principle, that too is very evasive.  What ‘dharma’ is a contested question and developing a Hindu identity, based on it though good and reasonable one, yet very evasive1 as Yudhishtira himself say:

tarko’pratisthah srutayo vibhinnaah; naiko rsir yasya vacah pramaanam | 

dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhaayaam; mahaajano yena gaatah sa panthaah||

Inferential logic is uncertain, i.e. it is such that it will give birth to various inferences according to different degrees of keenness of intelligence in men; the srutis, that is, the precepts, of the Vedas, are all mutually conflicting; and, as regards the smrtis, there is not a single Rishi whose precept we can look upon as more authoritative than that of others.  Well, if we seek the fundamental principle of this (worldly) dharma, it is lost in darkness, that is to say, it is such as cannot be understood by a man of ordinary intelligence.  Therefore, the path which have been followed by venerable2 persons is the path of dharma.] { B.G. Tilak, Tr. by A. S. Sukthankar: Srimad Bhagavadgita-Rahasya,seventh edn., Poona, 1986,}

After quoting from the scholars, my personal view is that a common Hindu least bothers about all kinds of hair splitting analysis of words and concepts.  She lives the life as it comes, based on the value set by her family, (caste) community and society.  So however theoretically we argue over the identity of a Hindu (based on one’s own ideology),3 yet for me the right question of our identity is not ‘What Hinduism is’ but ‘Who a Hindu is’?  Then:

A Hindu is a member of a particular community irrespective her faith.  If I understood our Constitution vaguely, that too endorses this view along with the practical identity of Hindus.

This is the Hindu reality in India.  When I say ‘in India’, I have to recognize the same diaspora Hindus (now) have to work out their identity in a different context (as they are not living under the ‘Hindu Personal Law’ there), recognizing the fact that their diasporic identity (or struggle) cannot be universal or ‘pan-Hindu’.

In this post-modern context, any universal claim needs to be questioned, at the same time no local context could remain an island of its own not influenced by some universal views.

I know my response raises more questions than giving a specific answer to PGK’s view.  But not get lost in so many sub-points:

I agree with PGK’s view about Hindu identity, but want to qualify that he too began to think Hindu identity based on his response to Christian view and not independently as a Hindu– keeping his social and cultural roots (now with a diasporic identity crises).  The movement we keep ‘the Other’ (here the Christians) as the purva-pakshin, then we will end up giving a wrong answer to the right question about our identity.

Having shared my initial view, I have few questions on PGK’s comments:

We should carve an identity on the basis of values…on the basis of ‘Dharma’ which is something which will “never” overlap with the Abrahamic religions.—PGK

Though life cannot be compartmentalized (as social, cultural, religious etc. at least for a Hindu then) what is the ‘value’ which he means here?–db

On what basis he says that ‘dharma will ‘never’ overlap with the Abrahamic religions?–db

“I would definitely believe in any religion which accepts the possibility of another religion being completely equal—PGK

Does Hinduism accept the possibility of another religion being completely equal?  No two Hindu sampradhyas accepts each other equal.  This is true with deities’ too.–db

Rest after hearing from others comments.

Db. Gurukulam. 25-02-2013


Dharma does not have a definitive form.  It has an ever-elusive nature that has been well illustrated in the story from the Mahabharata.  It is also open-ended and rational.  Dharma does not rule, but (as Robert Lingat once put it{The Classical Law of India, trn. By J.D.M. Derrett, Berkeley: University of California Press. 1973}), it reigns from above.  It is a going concern of the society as well as the individual.  It demands the best from our practical wisdom….— The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Ethics and Epics, ed. Jonardon Ganeri, New Delhi, Oxford, 2002,  p. 69

2 Prof. Sharma’s comments on this word ‘venerablepersons’ will help us to understand this concept in its right context:

…The word mahaajana can mean either (1) a great person or (2) a great number of persons.  Although the first sense is the obvious one, tradition, in this context, favours the second sense, an understanding which is surprisingly logical.  If it has already been asserted that the sages, who were great persons, differ among themselves, then how does the great man, the mahaanjana, help us overcome the dilemma?  The point then is that if contradiction is to be avoided, as in a previous line the sages, who are or were presumably great persons, are declared to be at odds regarding (p.19) dharma, the sense of a ‘great number of persons’ must be favoured.  To put the matter succinctly: consensus is the arbiter of dharma.

…this is how P.V.Kane translates the term.  He renders the entire verse as follows (from a text in which the first line read tarko ‘pratistah):

rationalization is unstable, Vedas are in conflict with each other, there is no single sage whose opinion is held to be authoritative (by all, the truth about Dharma is enveloped in a cave (i.e. it cannot be clearly discerned) and that therefore the path to be followed) is the one followed by the great mass of people. [History of Dharmasastra, vol. V, pt. II, pp. 1271.]

He also points out that Sankara has employed the word in this sense in his gloss on Brahmasutra iv.2.7.  In fact Nilakantha, in the sixteenth century, in his commentary on this verse takes it clearly in this sense; for he glosses it as bahujanasammatamityarthah.  The late Professor B.K. Matilal# tentatively offered the sense as an open possibility, which is my unhesitating choice also.— Arvind Sharma, Hinduism for our Times, Delhi, Oxford India Paperbacks, 2001, pp.19-20

#…the public rituals in classical India used to be prefixed by a benediction ritual-recitation (mangala), where the following phrase was commonly used:

bahujana-sukhaaya bahujana-hitaaya ca.

For the sake of the happiness of many people, and for the sake of the good of many.—Matilal, op. cit.  p. 68

[This view of ‘maximum good to maximum number of people always clashes with society and an individual.  This topic itself is a big subject deserving separate study—db]

3. …texts are basically normative and prescriptive rather than descriptive of actual practices, not to mention the fact that most of the texts cannot be dated with any precision.  All ideology is, of course, normative and prescriptive by definition.—‘ The Ideology of Gupta Kingship ‘ Lorenzen, in Who Invented Hinduism: Essays on Religion in History, David N. Lorenzen, New Delhi, Yoda Press, 2006, p. 184