The ‘Hindu’ Identity by Prashant Parikh

Hariḥ Ōm and Namaste (customary greeting of Hindus). This being my first post on ‘State of Formation’, I would like to express my  great pleasure in being amid this crowd of intellectuals and academicians. Interfaith dialogue is a must- evermore so in today’s world, filled with strife and violence in the name of religion. Unfortunately, I have often seen people hide behind the curtain of an interfaith dialogue to superimpose a false sense of “sameness” among all religions. That, to me, defeats the entire purpose of such a dialogue. There are stark differences in what every faith teaches; trying to hide these differences under the carpet to establish universal brotherhood is both dishonest and ineffective, and will only lead to passive issues. The more mature method is to accept differences, and respectfully, compassionately  accommodate them. Furthermore, ‘Religious tolerance’ is an archaic expression that needs to be discarded. One only needs to “tolerate” something that one does not necessarily want around, but still has to keep out of obligation.

My limited expertise lies in the understanding of Hindu culture, and the Vedic view of the world. In a subsequent post, I will try to explain why ‘Vedic dharma’ cannot be called a “religion” in the real sense of the word. Today, however, I intend to elaborate upon what it means to be a ‘Hindu’, and also reveal how the Hindu culture is informed by the Vedic viewpoint, and how people of different faiths can still be called Hindus, even while following their own path.
 Prashant Parikh

Who is a Hindu?

‘Hindu’ was a term first used by Persians to denote the people living in the sub-continental peninsula, bordered by the river Sindhu (whose distortion gave rise to the term ‘Hindu’), the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. The term ‘Hindu-ism’ was introduced by the British to identify the cultural practices native to the people of India. In that sense, Hinduism is an umbrella term. The Hindu culture is an amalgamation of practices, informed by the indigenous faiths, namely: the Vedic (Sanātana dharma), Jain, Buddhist and Sikh religions, hence it is a cultural classification and not a religious one. For instance, being a follower of the Vedas, I would identify myself as a Vaidika by faith, and a Hindu by culture.

The Hindu culture includes (but is not limited to) the traditional languages we speak, our dance forms, art forms, music, festivals, mannerisms, clothing, family structure, diet and so on. Wearing a turban is essentially as Hindu as applying a tīkā (dot) on one’s forehead, wearing a sāree or touching the feet of elders.

Even the Indian converts following the Abrahamic religions share a common past with the subcontinent, hence while practicing their own respective faiths they can still happily be connected to the Hindu culture. Technically speaking, every person living in India- regardless of their faith- would be correct in culturally identifying themselves as a Hindu.

What makes Hinduism so resilient?

Having stood the test of time, the Hindu civilization is the last of the great civilizations to still exist. The Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Mesopotamians, the Mayans and several other ancient civilizations (known and unknown) all died a cultural death. No trace of either their philosophy or practice exist in contemporary times, all we find are their archaic remnants in history books and UNESCO conservation sites. Hindus stood the onslaught of invasions from the Greeks, the Arabic nomads, the mongoloids, the Moghuls, the British, and today, the pseudo secular types who wish to do away with traditional norms in lieu of faulty post-modernist interpretations of an ancient culture.

The practices of our Āchāryas (teachers) have always been reasoned with logic, and tempered with Shraddhā (faith, pending understanding, in the words of God, Guru and Scripture). In addition, we have had a long standing tradition of debate, where ideas were sieved through brilliant minds, and the husks, discarded. These ideas trickled down through the generations, always meeting further refinement or elaboration. While the source scriptures have remained the same, the ideas have evolved, and incorporated themselves into cultural practice.

Why is the Hindu culture an integral part of every Indian’s life?

As Hindus/Indians, we instinctively touch a book or money to our head if we inadvertently lay a foot on it. This is out of respect for Lakshmi Mā (the symbolic manifestation of all forms of wealth), and Saraswati mā (the manifestation of knowledge). When we go to a temple and accept prasādam (food served to devotees after having first offered it to God) gratefully, it is symbolic of living by the attitude of graceful acceptance, i.e. prasāda buddhi, a concept taught by Krṣṇa Bhagavān (Lord Krishna) as part of karma yoga. As such, every cherished practice of ours can be traced back to ancient roots; this is what makes our culture so endearing and enduring. Violence may happen, and will continue to take place, temples may be destroyed, history can be re-written by rulers to undermine what we once were and who we are today, however, what can never be taken away is the Hindu spirit that lives on through the arrow of time.

The logic is simple. An idea cannot be destroyed, but only be replaced with a better one. The ones Hindus inherited have withstood incessant bombardment from all sides, and their longevity is proof of their worthiness and trans-generational wisdom. The Hindu culture is very porous and easily absorbs, accommodates followers of all faiths without exception.  Every culture should strive for openness, and (I re-iterate) progress, by accommodating, not tolerating.

Hariḥ Ōm,
Prashant Parikh.

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9 thoughts on “The ‘Hindu’ Identity by Prashant Parikh

  1. What an enduring question! Sometimes I feel similarly about Judaism, which is a polythetic tradition with cultural, religious, and ethnic dimensions.

    All the best,

  2. Thanks for commenting, Josh. Yes, one of the reasons Judaism is closer in its cultural ideology is because it does not believe in the same form of aggressive proselytizing of followers of other faiths. The greatest form of mutual respect we can give others is establish a dialogue with them, without trying to lure them over to our way of thinking. True unity in diversity lies in being able to accommodate differences without vying for sameness, because it begs the question “whose version of sameness? Do you wish to be the ‘same’ like me, or should I be the ‘same’ like you”? And as we know only too well, this creates unhealthy friction all around.

    There is a beautiful book called ‘Being Different’, by Rajiv Malhotra, which expresses these sentiments better than I can. If you would like to see a Hindu perspective on this issue, you can watch:

    In their commitment to not wanting to proselytize, I find the tenets of the Vedic faith, Judaism and Zoarastrianism very alike.

    Best regards,

  3. The right man to represent Santana Dharma. Prashant, you are a needle in a hay stack in properly representing and educating our Hindu Identity. We need unconditional minds like you. Thank you for this.

  4. Thanks very much, Bhāi 🙂

    Hariḥ Ōm, I would like to add two corrections to the article, pointed out by a learned vedāntin, Sugavanan Krishnan ji

    1) The oft quoted mispronunciation of Sindhu, becoming Hindu, is unverified, and as such may be ignored to not perpetuate something quite possibly wrong. It came to my knowledge that the cultural identity of Vaidikas was also given a separate regional identity to further propagate the completely baseless Āryan/Dravidian divide.

    2) Hindu culture is synonymous to Vedic culture. Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and other indigenous minorities have adopted this Vedic culture and made it their own, and quite successfully so 🙂

    The rest is as follows. My thanks to Suka ji, for these suggestions.

    Hariḥ Ōm

  5. I don’t think you can rightly say that “The Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Mesopotamians, the Mayans and several other ancient civilizations (known and unknown) all died a cultural death. No trace of either their philosophy or practice exist in contemporary times…” There is much evidence that Egyptian and other beliefs (Pagan, Zoroastrian, etc.) have been incorporated into Christianity and Islam. Yes, I know Zoroastrianism exists in India among the Parsis, but it has been pretty much wiped out in the lands of its historical existence. But the point is that while these practices have been subsumed or “digested” (to use the terminology of Rajiv Malhotra) and no credit is given to them, Hinduism alone has been able to assimilate various practices and beliefs without digesting them, and allows multiple identities within itself to coexist peacefully. Also, I think that most Sikhs and Buddhists anyway (not sure about Jains) will be upset at being called Hindu. Therefore, while such an umbrella may have been acceptable at one time, it is not anymore. Hinduism now pretty much refers to those who identify themselves as Hindus. Of course, what exactly a Hindu is is probably another discussion.

  6. The emphasis upon ‘sameness’ is probably an attempt to showcase modesty by the comparatively larger, older religions towards the newer, more recent faiths.

    You’ll always find Sanatanis talking about ‘sameness’ and rarely, say, a Sikh.

    Excellent write up.Best wishes.

  7. Thank you for this posting. It stimulated several responses from me. Overall your piece is very helpful and I learned very much. It also left me confused at points.
    I felt this statement is too broad and inaccurate: “The Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Mesopotamians, the Mayans and several other ancient civilizations (known and unknown) all died a cultural death. No trace of either their philosophy or practice exist in contemporary times…”
    The point you made about Hindu as a culture and not a religion, can potentially be demonstrated for other religions, and I think in some form continues in all traditions, albeit differently. I think this statement could me made for all religions, although how/what this looks like is unique for each geographical context as well as the philosophical context within the varieties of religions. “…where ideas were sieved through brilliant minds, and the husks, discarded. These ideas trickled down through the generations, always meeting further refinement or elaboration. While the source scriptures have remained the same, the ideas have evolved, and incorporated themselves into cultural practice.” I doubt one can go anywhere and not encounter practices or ideas that have ancient religious origins. Perhaps the difference is in the degree to which the ancient ideas permeate a given culture, or the degree to which contemporary practices “remember” where they come from ?

    In your beginning comments you highlighted the necessity of valuing differences and not trying to seek a common “essence” that all must conform to. Something I strongly agree with. Yet in your discussion of Hindu culture as all-encompassing it comes across as another attempt to seek a common essence through which to explain or subsume all the particularities of the other religions, defeating or un-demonstrating your opening point.
    I also think you can make your important points about Hindu culture’s ability to honor particularities without having to “bash” other religions that you describe as proselytizing. This came across as a broad paint brush stroke of the other religions, again defeating the larger goal of honoring particularities. india has its own experience of proselytization by other religions (an experience of those religions as they were/are enmeshed with political power) that cannot be interpreted as the only form those religions exist in. Indeed, as you tried to discuss how religion and culture can be different it might serve you to consider how Hindu culture contributed to your opinion that certain religions are to be categorically described as proselytizing. Why are you willing to consider the nuances within Hindu culture and the variety of religious expressions within, but not willing to offer the same generosity towards other religions that may also be shaped by culture and contain similarly wide varieties of expression ? Your choice to contrast Hinduism in this manner almost comes across as triumphalistic and detracted from your piece, in my opinion. To name something “Christian” for example, does not mean we are attributing the same meaning, since what is “Christian” can be widely divergent, and for insiders themselves they can look at a widely divergent form of Christian practice and experience it as another “religion”, even though a book about religions might categorize them as one and the same.
    I also noted that you did not consider how a given political arrangement can contribute to a distortion of a religions ethos and contribute to what aspects of culture and philosophies endure and which do not (cannot) due to political suppression, for example.
    Having raised those observations and questions, I very much appreciated this post and look forward to further reflections from you.

    1. What he said doesnt mean the Sanatana Dharma and its philosophy is a culture. He said the word hindu represents a culture. Today the word “hinduism” is used by many for representing culture, philosophy or even certain regional practices in India.
      What he said is the word hindu represents a culture. Also he has said he would elaborate on why hindu is not a religion. There he will also explain Vaidhika dharma also known as Sanatana Dharma is. You can see in this post, “I AM A VAIDHIKA by FAITH and Hindu by Culture”. So we are not just having a culture but also a faith or Vaidhika dharma, which is also called as hinduism or hindu religion nowadays.
      On cultures beind dead, he is not abusing greek, mayan etc. He is simply stating the facts. Although some form of this culture has reborn as neo-pagan/wiccan, the true form of it has been lost. It is due to aggression and invasion of later born faiths.
      Also he has said nothing like Abrahamic religions have aggressive, proselytizing form only.
      But it is what the invaders practised here and in many other countries. Portughese were the first christian country to invade. They imposed Inquisition in all places they invaded. Also forced the syrian christians who lived peacefully to give the indian culture, language and take up latin. If you read history of Indian state goa and other portughese invaded places you can learn about it. My own ancestors left goa due to forced conversions there. Many hindus left goa during inquisition. Temples, monastries etc were vandalized, demolished.
      In kerala, another indian state, a group of Syrian christians took an oath against such suppression and not to follow foreign religious authority. These all are part of history.
      Arch bishop Desmond Tutu himself has said it in his famous quote ” when they came they had bible and we had land, they said close your eyes, lets pray and when we opened our eyes we had bible and they had the land”.
      So this is a popular form of Christianity but not the only one.
      Still a lot of money nearly 2billion dollar is flowing into India, per year, for conversions and suppressing hindus. Having never invaded any country nor imposed tgeir faith on others, hindus feel they have the right or they deserve to be treated in the same way.
      The Aim here is not to create hate or arguements based on past events. But just let people understand what Vaidhika dharma and hindu culture is and thus pave way for Real interfaith dialogs, that will help in building religious equality(not sameness), acceptance and respect for each other,.
      If hate and disrespect of other faith was the Aim there is no need for having an interfaith dialog. 🙂

  8. You can take the Indian out of Hindustan but cannot taken hindu out of an Indian.
    Gr8 article. Bravo. Dr Swami says the same things in many of his talks/books.
    Keep up the good work!!

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