Defining Hinduism





To What Extent Is Hinduism Constructed?, and How Do European Orientalists, And Modern Scholars Have Difficulty Defining Hinduism

A very interesting development in the realm of modern scholarship is the perception that there ceases to exist an unbroken tradition of Hinduism. What is left is simply a set of discrete traditions and practices that are restructured to form a larger entity known as Hinduism. There current disagreement on this scholarship revolves around whether Hinduism is completely a construct of western scholars who undertook academic studies in India or of anti-colonial Hindus who purpose to attain the systemization of incongruent practices meant as a recovery process from a pre-colonial national identity.

Scholarly research indicates that in the nineteenth century, the royal colonial powers constructed Hinduism. They rendered it as a single religion that did not exist in any way before the colonization of India. The process of construction was mainly carried out through the enactment of religious laws and the classification of the Indian society into varying aggregate categories. The various categories included the ‘Hindus’, ‘Buddhists’, and the ‘Jains’. This was carried out to serve the administrative requirements of the imperial rule. This construction was also facilitated by the some of the Indian natives such as the Brahmins. The collaboration of the above led to the creation of a homogenous religion resulting into a constructed entity that mirrored the utilitarian motives, social suppositions and religious beliefs of both groups.

Most of the accounts forwarded by the constructionist base the construction of Hinduism on the colonial collaboration between the natives and the imperial rulers. They suggest that the imperial government under the assistance of the Brahmins imposed a biased perception of the social-cultural phenomena and extended their perception to the entire Indian society. The tendency is therefore focused on blaming the native collaborators for the construction of Hinduism by the imperial masters.

Hinduism fails to conform to any reality in the world. This phenomenon fails to exist in the present contemporary India than it existed during the colonial era. However, this “religion” thrives purely as an experimental entity that basis its structure and conforms to the European experience of the Indian social cultural practices and beliefs. That is, the western civilization has created a Hindu religion in the region of India based on the region’s nature as a religious people. Thus the answer to the extent of construction of Hinduism is that Hinduism as a religion has been constructed to the extent that it is a concept (Lorenzen, 102).

Hinduism exists as a construct because it serves to unify the western experiences based on its aspect as an experiential entity. Although both European Orientalists and modern scholars modeled this experiential entity into an object of study, the imperial rulers did not create this socio-cultural entity. It is the colonial masters who regarded these entities as though they were in existence. The European Orientalists and modern scholars acted as if these entities were realistic. The imperial rulers established laws, policies and legal categories based on the perception that these entities were fundamental aspects of the Indian culture. However, these entities had never been in existence either before or after the colonial era.

The apportionment of the blame on the construction of a westernized conception of a religion and the prevailing denial of the cultural diversity among the Indian civilization serves no fundamental good. The necessary path to follow is the global acceptance that Hinduism as a religion does not exist and is primary a construction of the colonial rulers who perceived the socio-cultural practices of the Indian civilization and consequently attempted to define it as a unitary religion based on the westernized  concepts and standards of what a religion is supposed to be.

One of the fundamental reasons as to why scholars both European Orientalists and modern scholars have had difficulty in defining Hinduism is due to their predisposed inability to perceive Hinduism on its own terms. Philosophers have argued that one of the best forms of approach in studying culture and a people is through perspectivism. Under perspectivism, one does not judge a given cultural practice based on other cultures, but primarily considers the concerned culture in its own analysis. This is also the reason why Forster failed to appreciate the Hindu culture at the beginning. Forster resorted to western aesthetic standards in the evaluation of Hinduism (Flood, 25).

It is essential to approach a different culture with a “tabular rassa”. The culture or religion in question ought first to be given a clean slate before comparison is made with other religions and cultures. This failure led to the limitation in Forster’s personal odyssey in framing a realistic experience of Hinduism. The attempt to define Hinduism is by no means a modern event. The lack of a clear scholarly definition on the subject is also not very surprising. Since the colonial era, the individuals who experienced the phenomena and gave it the name, “Hinduism” have been plagued with the inherent difficulty in the attempt of precisely defining the phenomena. This is probably because most of the scholars who undertake the task of defining it lean on definitions that are generally inclusive whereas others still remain determined to have specific definitions.

In the consideration of the inherent history and complexities of the religion, we find that most attempts by scholars such as Brian K. Smith tend to be expedient, problematic and inaccurate. These definitions are expedient because they still insist on terming the phenomena as a religion. Although they acknowledge that it is not a unitary entity and an illusion that is termed as a religion as a result of the colonial empire’s attempt to establish and control the complex configuration of people and their customs, the insistence on terming the phenomena as a religion renders the definitions as expedient (Smith, 33).

Hinduism is not a religion. This has been widely accepted after taking into account that from the history of the phenomena, this was a geographical referent that resulted into a religious connotation as a means of identifying the non-Muslim religions and customs in the region. The connotation still serves to categorize ‘enormous configuration of people’ on the basis of who they are not. Thos however, fails to infer on the historic existence of a unitary religion referred to as Hinduism.

It is proposed that the inherent limitation in the concise definition of Hinduism lies on the fact that scholars are insistent on perceiving it as a unitary religion. This problem would cease to exist if the scholars took the approach of taking Hinduism to signify a socio-cultural unit or civilization that comprises of various distinct religions. The acceptance of Hinduism by various scholars seems to serve the purpose of academic convenience as opposed to that of scholastic integrity.

The definition is also challenging because scholars such as Brian K. Smith, have put Hinduism in the frame of a unitary religion. This makes them perceive that it should conform to the westernized model of religion. The lack of Hinduism to conform to the westernized standards of the model of a religion then creates a challenge for both European Orientalists and modern scholars. Insisting on modeling the phenomena based on the same standards of westernized religion is not a way of concisely defining the socio-cultural unit but a means of changing it.

It is therefore wrong to categorize the phenomena as a religion with respect to the standardized customs and cultures of the western religions. Such westernized standards include the perception that belief tends to be focused on primacy as opposed to practice and the belief that an individual can only serve a single religion. This approach stems form the perception that religion is primarily coherent.  In this way, the challenge is that both European Orientalists and modern scholars are not engaging in the concise definition of the phenomena but attempting to make the phenomena to become compliant with the Christian prototype.

With this regard, it is therefore impossible to concisely define Hinduism by first terming it as unitary religion. This is because the approach is purely westernized and therefore highly inefficient because a foreign perspective cannot be used to define a local phenomenon. The conglomeration of numerous religious traditions and then sheltering them under a unitary umbrella will obviously bring about inherent challenges in the study of this phenomenon. At best, the approach is to speak about a variety of Hinduism as opposed to a unitary religion.

On the other hand, it is impossible to study a fictitious aspect created by the colonial rulers as if it were reality. What first needs to be done is travel back and right the wrongs committed in the past in the depiction and definition of the phenomenon from a westernized perspective. This will work to ensure that the consequent studies are founded on an established foundation hence the results will cease to be expedient, problematic and inaccurate.


Works cited

Flood, Gavin D. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2003. Print.

Lorenzen, David N. Who Invented Hinduism: Essays on Religion in History. New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2006. Print.

Smith, Brian K. “Questioning Authority: Constructions and Deconstructions of Hinduism.” International Journal of Hindu Studies. 2.3 (1998): 313-339. Print.


Use the order calculator below and get started! Contact our live support team for any assistance or inquiry.