Who is a Hindu?

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This paper calls upon everyone to revisit and challenge the prevalent populist view of who is a Hindu. This paper argues that the Hindu identity, which was popularised by those outside the tradition in the first instance to denote a people who lived in a specific geography (Ancient India), later to be adopted, has now come to mean something far more wholesome. Hindu is a difficult term to grapple with, and yet Vichaar Manthan UK uses it to denote a civilizational movement, rather than a narrow religious meaning in the Abrahamic sense. This paper is an attempt to expose what is meant by Hindu as a civilizational movement, which is encompassing of various religions, sects, races, languages, cultures, and geographies, and to dispel the narrow(ing) definition of Hindu as a religion of the East. Furthermore, the paper argues for why it is more accurate and perfectly reasonable to include Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists as essentially Hindu in the 21st century. The paper also argues for a call on scholars, thinkers and people from within the Hindu tradition to embrace a more accurate idea of the Hindu identity, one that is inclusive of non-Indian Hindus and those that are non-theists. I have tried to bridge foundational ideas which underpin the Hindu identity, such as the connection with (Ancient) India, the Vedas, its subsequent literature, its critique of, and all the multifarious sects and traditions that have spawned thereof, while arguing for a Hindu identity that is inclusive. While attempting to expand the boundaries of the Hindu identity, the paper looks to show an internal perspective of what it means to be Hindu. A Hindu identity that is not only built on negation, but something positive.

India is a new nation-state. It’s less than a hundred years’ old and by any account that is young. And yet, paradoxically the Indian civilisation is at the very least several millennia old. It appears to have a seamless continuity through its literature, philosophy, social structures, and religious beliefs. Most significantly, the Indian civilisation, as it ebbed and flowed, through its heights and troughs, has kept a concept above all else at its centre. A concept rooted in the collective human imagination; a yearning that necessarily cannot be satisfied, but which invigorates the spirit to relentlessly seek a deeper psychological union with ‘kārya-brahma’ (all that is manifest) while contemplating on that which is ‘Para’ (beyond the manifest). But mere imagination and yearning will not do, the Indians have gone that much further, and have continuously attempted to build a civilisation in the here and now that is not only rooted in the concept, but one which repeatedly tries and errs, and then tries again to build a society designed to create order and freedom in human existence. An order sculptured through a combination of nurturing our deepest potential and pruning our base natures. Yet this concept is not a prescription, or a commandment, – it is a way – it is a term that is itself difficult to rationalise, cognise or articulate – that most difficult of concepts – Dharma.

What is Dharma? Dharma is a concept that is visible throughout recorded Hindu history. According to Acharya Vidyabhaskar, the meaning of Dharma is related to what is now an antiquated term no longer in use in mainstream Hinduism: Ṛtam. Ṛtam is a term central to the earliest hymns in the Rig Veda, and is closely related to the word Satya, meaning truth. Ṛtam is the precursory expression to Dharma (1). Like Ṛtam, later conceptions of Dharma understand it to be the source of, and that which sustains all reality, the whole (Paramārtha); it is the moral law that holds society together; it is the spiritual order that unveils ultimate meaning and reality; it is truth itself; and it is also ultimate reality (para-brahman) itself, which is unspeakable and inexpressible (2).

This element above all else binds together the immeasurable multitudes of the modern Indian nation with all its diversity intact. The Indian civilisation is, as best as we can tell, an exemplary melting pot of cultures, customs and beliefs. A cradle of civilisation (3), the earliest evidence of anatomically modern humans in the Indian subcontinent is recorded as far back as 75,000 years ago, and the oldest archaeological remains of a mature sophisticated urbanised population goes as far back as 3300 BCE (4). In popular Hindu folklore, the epic tale of the Mahabharata – the longest known piece of literature in history, is said to have occurred some 5000 years ago, which would place it around this period; but when tracing the antiquity of Sanskrit texts we need to distinguish between written texts (the first written texts in India are very late), and orally preserved works. The Vedic verses were orally preserved from at least 2000 BCE to 1100 CE, when they were first put into writing. Thus, the Vedic texts are unique in the history of humankind in that their antiquity is undisputed, while the oldest written manuscripts still in existence are barely 900 years old. This feat of memory among the Brahmanical communities was made possible by a combination of complex mnemonic techniques, and entire communities dedicated only to the oral preservation. Along with ancient Mesopotamia, the ancient Indian civilisation is thus undoubtedly old, and one cannot but feel, after speaking with archaeologists and historians that the Indian story has still much to reveal in the decades to come. However, unlike the ancient Mesopotamian, Greek, Egyptian, Persian and the like, which have all been superseded, with the modern populations in these parts no longer psychically rooted in this deep past, the modern Hindu is still very much rooted. Indeed, I can personally attest that one is not only rooted, but invigorated by this deep unbroken link to the past. The Indian civilisation, at its height had Indianized kingdoms, named as Greater India (5), as far as Indonesia and Cambodia to the East, and as far as Bactria in the West. Its cultural influence spread far beyond, indeed as far as Rome to the West and Japan to the East.

The word Indian is linked to India, and comes from the English Indus, which in turn comes from the Greek Indos, and the people referred to as Indoi. The Greeks themselves took the word from the Persian term Hindu, which was equivalent to the Aryan term Sindhu representing the river in modern Pakistan. Sindhu, in turn comes directly from the Rig Veda’s poetic language which addresses the sacred rivers Ganga, Yamuna and many others. The sacred Sindhu river is praised above all rivers:

“Sindhu in might surpasses all the streams that flow.” (6)

“His roar is lifted up to heaven above the earth. He puts forth endless power with a flash of light. Like floods of rain that fall in thunder from the cloud, so Sindhu rushes on, roaring as the mightiest.” (7)

The equivalence of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Sindhu’ comes from the regular phonetic relation between the Indo-Aryan and Iranian branches of the Indo-European language family: initial [s] is retained in Indo-Aryan but changed to [h] in Iranian, while aspirated voiced stops like [dh] are retained in Indo-Aryan but lose their aspiration in Iranian (8). So the river Sindhu becomes Hindu for the Persians. The point I want to make is that the term Indian is related to the name Indus, which is the river Sindhu, where the term Hindu derives. The term Indian and the term Hindu derive from the same source, that is the river which demarcated Persia and India. The ancient Indians themselves did not use these terms, they called India by the term Āryadeśa or Brahmarāṣṭra (9), with one exception: in one of the Purāṇas, the word ‘Sindhusthānam’ does appear in the context of King Śālivāhana establishing the Sindhu river as a marker to identify the Ārya-Dharma's greatest domain. The verse is as follows:

sthāpitā tena maryādā mlecchāryasya pṛthak pṛthak sindhusthānam iti jñeyaṁ rāṣṭram āryasya cottamam “He [King Śālivāhana] separately determined the morality (maryādā) of the mleccha (non-Vedic) and the noble one (ārya). The greatest (uttama) domain (rāṣṭra) of the noble one (ārya) is to be known as Sindhusthāna.” (10)

The above verse can be interpreted in various ways. The ‘greatest domain’ can mean that while India was not considered the only domain of the Vedic Dharma, it is clearly the greatest one. The verse also clearly shows that ‘Sindhusthāna’ was a concept that found its way even into the Puranic texts. Therefore, the common, and widely accepted idea that the name Hindu is something attributed by Persians upon the Indians at best needs to be re-examined, or simply discarded.

Indians in South-East Asia were never known as Hindu, but the Arabs, Turks and other northern and western foreigners adopted the Persian name. In Arabic, Hindu became Hind, and in Turkish, Hindistan. The Chinese traveller Xuan Zang from the 7th century who wrote extensively about Indian civilisation also used the term Xin-du, which is the Chinese rendering of Hindu. At this level, the word Hindu means Indian, and vice versa.

Hindus were the people across the river Sindhu, who revered it. The term did not differentiate between various sects or traditions such as Shaivism, Buddhism, Jainism or even Islam. Rumi, the 13th century mystic and poet even classed Muslims living across the Sindhu as essentially Hindu (11). Hindus never described themselves as Hindus until as late as the 10th century, or even later, when Muslim invaders came and designated them by the Persian term (12). That is not to say that Hindus before being designated as Hindus did not possess a pan-Hindu cultural unity. It would be verbal terrorism, in the words of Arun Shourie (13), if anyone would class Hindu identity merely as a mental construct and not apply the same standard to others. One should not confuse the term with the concept. People within a collective will refer to one another’s lower identities, but when meeting with outsiders, everyone realises that something distinguishes the outsiders from all the members of the collective. This is not very problematic. Everybody within the Christian faith will seldom identify themselves as Christians when talking to other members of the collective, rather they will express that they are Catholic, Church of England, Lutherans or 7th day Adventists. But when these same individuals meet a Hindu, they will identify themselves as Christian. In the same way, there has been a pan-Hindu consciousness amongst the people of India for many thousands of years, without ever using the word Hindu. As a further point, it seems apparent from the Rig Veda that it was the ancient Hindus who venerated the river Sindhu, from which the Persians may have drawn the line between ‘Āryāvarta’ and Persia (14). In other words, it was the Hindus who decided the demarcation line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and not something that was imposed on them.

The Hindu identity therefore denotes a people, who originated from a specific geographical location, and who possessed a common set of cultural traits, and not merely a religion in an Abrahamic sense. The Hindu culture did produce sub-groupings amongst its people by way of social groupings, guilds, languages, philosophies and religions. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are but to name only three religions that have directly stemmed from, and are rooted in, the overall Hindu framework.

Are Jains Hindu?

The Jain saint Acharya Tulsi has categorically asserted that Jains are an integral part of Hindu society (15). In Hindu families one member can be a Vaishnava, another an Arya samaji, and another Jain, all belonging to the wider identity of Hindu. Another reason to believe that Jains are part of the Hindu pantheon is that even today they are divided into several merchant classes which intermarry with Hindu classes. A point in case is that Jain Aggrawals will marry Hindu Aggrawals, but they will resist marrying fellow Jain Oswals. This intermarrying that has been happening for many centuries, means that Jains are biologically part of Hindu society if jāti endogamy is to be a criterion for being Hindu. Jains have also played a key role in Hindu revivalist movements such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh in the UK, where prominent workers advancing the Hindu cause are Jains. Finally, prominent Jain writers such as Girilal Jain, in his book called the Hindu Phenomenon explicitly rejects Jain separatism when he states:

‘though not to the same extent as in the case of Sikhs, neo Buddhists and at least some Jains have come to regard themselves as non-Hindu. In reality, however, Buddhism and Jainism have been no more than movements within the larger body of Hinduism’.(16)

He goes on to argue that any difference between the Hindu philosopher and the Jain renouncer has been largely eliminated through adoption of ideas from the latter to the former. A case in point is the adoption of vegetarianism by Brahmins, which was clearly inspired by early Jain teachers. Jainism is clearly a Hindu tradition, if Hinduism means all the traditions native to India. To this extent, Jainism is part of the Hindu tradition.

Are Sikhs Hindu?

According to the German Indologist Dr E. Trumpp, who found Guru Nanak to be a “thorough Hindu” and his religion a “Pantheism directly derived from Hindu sources” (17). Even Khushwant Singh, a well-known separatist writer from India concedes, and is worth quoting at length:

However, what is worthwhile to bear in mind is that, despite these innovations, this new community, the Khalsa Panth, remained an integral part of the Hindu social and religious system. It is significant that when Tegh Bahadur was summoned to Delhi, he went as a representative of the Hindus. He was executed in the year 1675. His son who succeeded him as guru later described his father’s martyrdom as in the cause of the Hindu faith…the guru himself looked upon his community as an integral part of the Hindu social system.(18)

Sikhism is at the very least deeply rooted in the Hindu tradition, and the call by modern Sikh separatists asserting the idea of Sikhism as a distinctly ‘other’ is strongly questionable. Khushwant Singh in the same book later tells us that when the Khalsa did get their own Kingdom, they protected, and even enhanced the role of the Brahmins. The Khalsa certainly did not experience themselves as being something distinct from Hinduism, but rather a protector of Hindu Dharma.

The Sikhs triumphed and we had Ranjit Singh. You may feel that here at long last we had a Sikh monarch, and the Khalsa would come into their own. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead of taking Sikhism in its pristine form, he accepted Hinduism in its Brahmanical form. He paid homage to the Brahmins. He made cow-killing a capital offence.(19)

Further evidence is provided by Khushwant Singh in his book The History of the Sikhs volume 1, where he describes at some length how Ranjit Singh was a Hindu ruler by all accounts. Ranjit Singh is said to have donated three times as much gold to the Vishvanath temple in Varanasi then to the Hari Mandir in Amritsar. He threatened the Amirs of Sindh with invasion unless they stopped persecuting the Hindus, and he was said to have worshipped in Hindu temples as much as in Sikh gurudwaras. Another case in point is when he wrestled Kashmir from the Afghans, he asked for the gates of Somnath temple back from them after they had looted them. Why would a separatist Sikh king such as Ranjit Singh make all these Hindu demands? Either Ranjit Singh was not Sikh, which is an implausible statement to make, or the separatist Sikh notion of being distinctly separate from Hindu tradition is a recent political concoction.

Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom in 1675 was in the service of the Hindu tradition as a whole, and not just for Sikhism. The Guru tells Aurangzeb that he loved his Hindu Dharma and that Hindu Dharma would never die, - a statement he spoke in Hindi, which was conveniently overlooked in most neo-Sikh accounts (20). From this, one can deduce that Tegh Bahadur was not acting as a Sikh protecting Hindu Dharma, but rather as a Hindu of the Nanakpanth defending his own Hindu tradition.

Sikhism has no separate theology or philosophy, no separate ethics or social structure (21). Sikhism can also be called the Nanakpanth of Hindu Dharma. It appears to be ignoble and below the dignity of human intelligence to remain stuck in prevailing situation where externalities like turbans and beards call for a separateness from the wider Hindu tradition (22).

Are Buddhists Hindus?

According to Christian Lindtner, in his paper from Brahmanism to Buddhism (23), he writes that except later Buddhist authors’ rejection of the authority of the Veda, the doctrine of a Creator of the world, the conviction that rituals can cause moral purity, and the haughtiness based on claims of birth, Buddhism should be seen as a reformed Brahmanism. The argument as shown by Lindtner and others is that Vedic cosmogonic speculations, Vedic exegesis and ascetic practices were vital in forming the Buddha’s way of thinking. Indeed, Buddha himself may have felt that he was merely extending that which was already there. Throughout the Pali Canon, the Buddha speaks of the Śramaṇas (who are today known as Buddhists) and Brāhmaṇas (who are today known as Hindus) as a collective, thus clearly not distinguishing between them. On several occasions, the Buddha states that in the future both Śramaṇas and Brāhmaṇas will arise who will attain the same state of spiritual realisation as himself. If early Buddhism had rejected Hindu Dharma, the historical Buddha would have never made such statements. In other words, he saw his revival of the Dharma as an integral part of the overall Hindu traditions when he says, “the ancient way along which the previous Buddhas walked” (24). This line suggests that Buddha was not creating a new philosophy, but continuing and being a representative of a timeless truth – Dharma.

Even though in some of the Sūtras such as the Tevijja-Sūtra the Buddha seems to argue against many of the ritualistic aspects of Brahmanism of his own times, he seems to do this in the same vein as Kṛṣṇa argues against Vedic ritualism in the Bhagavad Gita, often using the same vocabulary. Thus, a closer scholarly analysis shows Buddha’s criticism of the Vedas to be on a par with Kṛṣṇa’s. Kṛṣṇa states that:

‘To a knower of Brahman who has realised [the truth] all the Vedas are as useful as a well when the entire [land] is flooded.’ (25)

Furthermore, in Bhagavad Gita chapter 2, verse 42, Kṛṣṇa describes those who adhere to the ‘flowery language’ (puṣpitā vāk) of the Vedas, and who say, ‘there is nothing but this’, to be ‘unwise’ and ‘foolish’. Such people are described by him to be ‘immersed in Veda-Vāda (veda-vāda-ratāḥ). The whole section in chapter 2, verses 42 to 46 of the Bhagavad Gita delivers a criticism of the Vedas, which one could well argue, was more anti-Vedic ritualism than the Buddha’s.

Despite its anti-ritualist stance, Buddhism has nevertheless over the centuries kept close to Hindu tradition in continuing to maintain many of its ritualistic frameworks. An example of this can be seen in Tibetan Buddhism, which is rooted in Vajrayāna, a 4th to 6th century development within the Indian Mahayana Buddhism. The followers of Tibetan or Vajrayāna Buddhism worship many of the same Deities as Hindus do, including Ganesha, Mahadeva, Uma, Kali and many more; the 5-fold, 16-fold or 64-fold structure of a traditional Tibetan Pūjā is indistinguishable from that of a Hindu Pūjā; and the Tibetan performance of the so-called ‘Fire-Pūjā’ is for all practical purposes the same as a Hindu ‘Homa’ or ‘Havana’, even using the same ancient Vedic formulas as Hindus continue to do today. Tibetans would be very surprised if one told them their Deities are Hindu Deities, and not Tibetan. Indeed, Tibetan scholars have argued that because they enjoyed 1200 years without invasions and disturbances, they were able to maintain the knowledge of how to worship these Deities in better detail than mainstream Hindu traditions have (and examples of many sacred texts preserved in Tibet but lost in India prove the point). Furthermore, in Japanese Buddhism too, one can observe rituals that are not indigenous to Japan, nor distinctly Buddhist, but carried over by Buddhism as part of its Hindu heritage. A case in point is the fire ceremony of the Shingon sect, which like the Vedic sacrifice, is called “feeding the Gods” (26).

Even if one is to argue that Buddhism originally constituted a break-away from Hindu traditions of the 6th century BCE, the fact that it has maintained so much of Hindu tradition was inevitable due to the simple reason that most of its monks were Brahmins by birth. Even if these new Buddhists rejected jāti per se, they certainly didn’t lose their intellectual traditions, for example the eating of beef was prohibited from the earliest days of the Sangha, and Ahimsa as a philosophy was part and parcel of what it meant to be a Buddhist. According to Kosambi, the higher philosophies of both Buddhists and Brahmins began to converge in essence (27). A further example of this can be seen in the adoption of Sanskrit as the language of choice from the original Pali, and many of the most famous Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna were born Brahmins. All of the above evidence suggests that Buddhism was deeply influenced by Hindu traditions and ideas (and in turn greatly influenced the development of Hindu thought), but can it be classed as essentially Hindu?

The only way one can confidently assert that Buddhism is essentially a part of the wider Hindu tradition is if there is clear doctrinal kinship between the two. M.K. Gandhi certainly thought that Buddhism was part and parcel of Hindu society in a speech he made in 1927 in Colombo, where he was speaking to a largely Buddhist audience, making an argument that the Buddha was saturated with the best that was buried in the Vedas…Buddha never rejected Hindu Dharma but he broadened its base(28). The Dalai Lama too argues that essentially Buddhism and Hinduism are made out of the same cloth. In an interview in Organiser magazine, in 1992, he says:

“When I say that Buddhism is part of the Hinduism, certain people criticize me. But if I were to say that Hinduism and Buddhism are totally different, it would not be in conformity with truth.”

Therefore, it is no coincidence that the Dalai Lama attends the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) world conference, which is supposed to be a gathering of all the varieties of the Hindu tradition. The Dalai Lama’s position is strengthened further by the realisation that Buddhism has continued one of the key tenants of the Hindu tradition, namely, Gurudom. The Guru is venerated in his impersonal capacity as the embodiment of the ultimate Truth realised: Paramārtha (the term ‘Paramārtha’, meaning the ‘ultimate truth’, the ‘ultimate reality’, is the one term that is common to all Buddhist and Hindu scholarship); it is not the person but the universal Brahman which is venerated through the Guru. In Buddhism, Gurudom remains a bedrock of the tradition. It is not the individual Siddhartha Gautama that is being worshipped by Buddhists, but the Buddha-Nature which Gautama, like other awakened individuals before and after him, had realised.

At this juncture, a separatist may remind one of the doctrinal ‘elephant in the room’ – the seeming opposition between the Upanishadic notion of Self (ātman) and the Buddhist doctrine of Non-Self (anattā). Coomaraswamy suggests that this opposition is a ‘misunderstanding’. It could be argued that the Buddha used the teaching of non-self in the very same way that Vedanta uses the teaching of non-self (anātman), i.e. as a didactic method according to which any mental conception of a self will keep the spiritual seeker from realising the true self. Gautama and his successors were aware of this distinction and this was apparent to them only because the Brahminism they were critiquing was a ‘popular’ form. From a detailed study of the Buddha’s dialogues, it would appear that he is restating rather than critiquing the highest Vedantic idealism of Yajnavalkya, Gargi or Janaka, but later Buddhist authors naturally formed the idea that Anattā lay outside the scope of Brahminism. This is simply incorrect, as Vedanta (possibly under the influence of Buddhism) developed the very same concept of Anātman as a didactic tool to realise the truth. To Coomaraswamy the same truth was present in the Upanishads, in the phrase ‘where the truth was held, that the Atman is not so, not so’ (29). A misunderstanding arises when people are using the same word but with a different meaning, and it is worth citing Coomaraswamy in full:

At first sight nothing can appear more definite than the opposition of the Buddhist An-atta, ‘no-Atman’, and the Brahman Atman, the sole reality. But in using the same term, Atta or Atman, Buddhist and Brahmins are talking of different things, and when this is realised, it will be seen that the Buddhist disputations on this point lose nearly all their value. (…) There is nothing, then, to show that the Buddhists ever really understood the pure doctrine of Atman, which is ‘not so, not so’. The attack which they led upon the idea of self is directed against the conception of the eternity in time of an unchanging individuality; of the timeless spirit, they do not speak (…) In reality both sides were in agreement that the self or ego (manas, ahamkara, vijnana, etc) is complex and phenomenal, while of that which is ‘not so’ we know nothing. (30)

The Hindu tradition at its peak speaks of a true Self, which is pure subject, and therefore cannot become an object of knowledge, and therefore is unknowable (and hence, according to Vedanta, as in Buddhism, everything that is knowable is Anātman, non-self); but in a state of ‘kaivalya’, that is isolation of consciousness from its objects (which is equivalent to the Buddhist state of ‘nirodha’ – a term, which in fact is also used in the Yoga-Sutras to approach ‘kaivalya’), Consciousness realises that it is both subject and object and the perception linking them. Everything else, that is perception, imagination, memory, and so on, are objects within Consciousness, arising and passing away, much as clouds are swept away by the wind (31). The position, as taken up by most Buddhists, that the Self (in Buddhist terminology the ‘self’ means ‘the ego’) is as temporary and ‘unreal’ as the modifications of its contents, can only be taken by someone who does not know the established meaning of the Self in Hindu tradition, or vice versa. One could argue that even within the Hindu tradition the word ‘self’ had many meanings. For example, in the Purva-Mimamsa tradition, the word ‘Ātman’ in fact denotes ‘ahamkara’ (ego), therefore it could very well be that like later Vedantins, the historical Buddha and his followers were critiquing the Purva-Mimamsa notion of the ‘self’. On a different note, Coomaraswamy suggests that either Gautama was only acquainted with popular Brahmanism, or he chose to ignore its highest aspects (32), or rather one could argue that the highest aspects of Brahmanism had not yet developed at the time of the Buddha. They may have emerged only centuries later, precisely in interaction with the new thrust of thought that emerged through the Buddha’s teachings, which, however, at that period in time were never considered separate from the overall Brahmanical tradition of Dharma.

Alternatively, one could argue that it was later Hindu scholars who created strawman arguments of the Buddhists’ position – since the most influential Buddhist scholars like Bhāviveka clearly identify the Buddha-Nature with ‘para-brahma’: “tad idam paramam brahma” (that [Buddha-Nature in its true form] is the ultimate Brahman’). One could historically argue the other way that Brahmins were threatened by the growing influence of Buddhist monks (who were, at that time, simply one order of Sannyasis among many). This is evidenced by the fact that the distinction into ‘Āstika and Nāstika’ where Buddhists and Jains are Nāstika and the other philosophical schools are Āstika is a very late one (not older than the 8th century), and Buddhist scholars at the very same time were arguing that they were the Āstika.

Furthermore, according to the Mahāparnirvāṇa-Sūtra, we find the Buddha, called Tathāgata (meaning ‘thus gone’, as in gone beyond the cycle of birth and death) teaching his monks (Bhikṣus) about the nature of the Atman. Here he is seen to be describing how a Tathāgata thus teaches about the Self and non-Self:

That is why we say:

There is no self, no man, no being, no life, no nurturing, no knowing, none that does, and one that receives.

O Bhikṣus! Know that what the doctrines say is like the case of a worm that eats upon [a piece of] wood, from which, by chance, there appears what looks like a letter. Because of this, the Tathāgata, teaches and says no-self. This is to adjust beings and because he is aware of the occasion. Such non-self is, as occasion arises, spoken of, and it is [also] said that there is the Self. (33)

The Buddha clearly states that he initially taught the idea of the non-self in order to help people defeat, or overcome egoism (ahaṃkāra); but once a person has truly understood the truth, they realise the true Self as the Atman – that which is Satya (truth). Like the great Vedantic teachers, the Buddha also teaches that any worldly presumptions of Self are also erroneous and should be rejected. From this point of view, ultimately both the Buddha and Vedanta teach that the only reality is the true Atman, a truth that cannot be known or expressed in any meaningful way and hence any expression of it should be understood to be non-self (anātman in Vedanta, anattā in Pali Buddhism).

Indeed, the appropriate way to understand the development of Buddhist thought vis-à-vis Hindu thought, is that Buddhist thinkers without doubt, created a consistency, and in many cases a more systemic approach to the understanding of Paramārtha (the ultimate reality). This is most apparent when one compares the inspired poetic language of the Vedas and Upanishads, with the systematised language of the Buddhist scriptures. This in turn affects later Hindu traditions of philosophy which became systematised as a direct influence. To this extent, I would argue that Buddhism is a natural extension of Hindu thought from being inspired poetry to becoming systematised philosophy. Where Hindu tradition has become all-encompassing, Buddhist thought has made great leaps forward in understanding and systematising the pursuit of Moksha; whereas the wider Hindu thought pursues Artha (material wellbeing), Kama (sensual pleasure), and Dharma in equal measure. To this end, it is far more useful to compare and contrast the Buddhist ethical ideal with the (identical) standard expected of Brahmins; we must contrast the Buddhist monastic system with the wider Brahmanical orders (here again it could be argued that the later Brahmanical orders were modelled on the Buddhist orders); the doctrines of Anattā with the doctrine of Anātman in Vedanta, and in this commonality, we can find that to contrast Buddhism with the wider Hindu tradition is to compare a part with the whole (34).

Can atheists be Hindu?

When the term Hindu referred only to a people who inhabited a particular geography, beliefs were not the source of that identity. Hindus came in all shades, and mostly in varying shades of grey. At one end of the spectrum, we find reference to the term nir-īśvara-vāda (particularly in the highly influential Samkhya tradition), which is popularly translated as ‘no Lord’ or rather crudely and often translated as ‘no God’. Specific texts within the Samkhya tradition, like the Jain and Buddhist texts, argue that a concept of a ‘prime mover’, an ‘ultimate creator’ is unnecessary to explain the dilemma of Samsara, and that in fact it leads to an infinite regress. Why does ‘existence’ need a creator, when in fact upon closer inspection non-existence never exists? Based on such arguments, specific texts within the Hindu Samkhya tradition argued that God does not exist and is a figment of the imagination of the Brahmins in order to perpetuate rituals and make a living. In fact, most scholars of Sanskrit accept that the term īśvara is more subtle and worthy of exploration. The term itself is found only rarely in the Rig Veda, but the root īś in the sense of ‘to be capable of’ is used. Many scholars from within the later traditions have argued that the term īśvara denotes a personification of the cosmic order (samaṣṭi). In other words, it is a personification of the entire collection of laws which govern, or underpin reality – that which is. A few Hindu philosophical schools are thus atheistic in nature, in that they do not describe God (in the Abrahamic sense) at all, and refer to Brahma or Paramārtha, the absolute impersonal reality. Hindus whether they have a reverie for īśvara or not are still Hindu, because even though their expressions are different they both share the same point of reference underneath, that is Paramārtha (the ultimate reality).

Then there is the term Nāstika, which literally means not-Āstika. Āstika means there is, or there exists. According to Andrew Nicolson, those who do not accept that there is Ātman, or accept the epistemic authority of the Vedas, or those that deny the existence of īśvara are Nāstika. However, this is a very young distinction, perhaps not older than the 8th century, and may have arisen due to sectarian rivalries lead by Kumarila Bhatta (Buddhist and Jain monks had a lot of sway over the kings of the Indian kingdoms. From the 8th century onward a number of Hindu Brahmin scholars began to write works against the other schools of thought, especially against the Hindu school Samkhya, as well as Buddhism and Jainism). However, he does make it explicit that this does not mean theist or atheist, and claims that 20th century translations which do so, are on the whole unsophisticated (35). He asserts that these terms are better rendered as ‘affirmer’ and ‘denier’. Hindus can be both affirmers or deniers of the Vedas, of the Ātman, or of īśvara and still be completely Hindu on two grounds. The first, that they are intrinsically Hindu, that is belonging to that long-lasting civilisation rooted in India, as discussed earlier, and second, that one can be a denier and still live in accordance to Dharma, which by definition makes one Hindu.

Therefore, we can assert with relative confidence that the western notions of atheism and theism do not apply at all to the Hindu framework, and when applied are nonsensical. Furthermore, anyone that is rooted through cultural ancestry, or (tries to) lives in accordance with Dharma are Hindu regardless of what they deny or affirm.

Can non-Indians be Hindu?

If the term Hindu is taken only for its base meaning, that is peoples who originate or live in a specific geography on the Eastern side of the river Sindhu then the answer is no. But, this criterion will not suffice. The facts speak for themselves. A famous Hollywood actress who is a well-known Hindu is blonde, with no ancestral connections to India, and yet, she lives her life according to Hindu principles, or another way to express this, is that she lives her life trying to live in accordance with Dharma. This fact above all else makes her a Hindu. She experiences her reality through the prism of Hindu values.

Pratap Kumar in his book, Contemporary Hinduism, references Lola Williamson (2010) who makes the point that even though non-Indians do identify themselves as Hindu, and indeed are Hindu, there are qualitative differences between those born into the tradition, and those that have chosen to adopt certain parts of it (36). These differences are observed in how each chose to engage with the tradition. The Indian temple is often chaotic and noisy, whereas meditation centres are silent and contemplative (of course here one could point out that meditation centres try to replicate the quietude of the ancient forest Ashrams, not the hectic atmosphere of temples). The non-Indian Hindu is often attracted by the latter. Even though this may be true anecdotally, it cannot be applied in a general sense, as there is no doubt that non-Indian Hindus often adore Indian rituals, their extravagance and sheer chaos of the occasion.

The non-Indian Hindu naturally absorbs Hindu values, that is Dharma, and fuses it with their native tradition in which they may still be rooted. Indeed, a key feature of the Hindu is that there is no necessary conflict in one being Hindu and the other simultaneously. Hindu tradition is often enriched by wider influences, and on the whole throughout its history has absorbed many outside influences and made it its own.