What Is Hinduism?

Defining Hinduism presents unique difficulties. This difficulty arises from Hinduism's universal world-view and its willingness to accept and celebrate diverse philosophies, deities, symbols, and practices. A religion that emphasizes similarities and shared characteristics rather than differences has a difficult time setting itself apart unless this very quality is considered its defining feature. This is not to say that there are no beliefs and practices that may be identified as Hindu, but rather that the Hindu tradition has concerned itself largely with the human situation rather than the Hindu situation. Instead of basing its identity on separating Hindu from non-Hindu or believer from nonbeliever, Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.

The distinction of dharma from the Western sense of religion is crucial to understanding Hindu religious identity. To the extent that Hinduism carries with it the Western meaning of being a religion the words distort Indian reality. In the West a religion is understood to be conclusive that is, it is the one and only true religion. Second, a religion is generally exclusionary - that is, those who do not follow it are excluded from salvation. Finally, a religion is separative - that is, to belong to it, one must not belong to another. Dharma, however, does not necessarily imply any of these. Having made this point, this article will bow to convention and use the expression Hinduism.

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