What is Hinduism?

Introduction

Hinduism is the oldest of all religions and yet endures today as a healthy, colorful and exuberant tradition.

Other religions have all been founded by individuals, but Hinduism is not based on the teachings of any one single person. Before any prophet was born, the Sanatana Dharma was there.
 — Swami Rama Thirtha (1873-1906)

It has intimate links with India and Nepal, but its influence visibly extends throughout South East Asia to countries like Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, Bhutan, Indonesia-Bali etc. It has in recent times reached all corners of the world through immigration as well as through adoption by millions of persons of different nationalities, religions and cultures of one or many aspects of Hindu culture. Hinduism is conspicuous through its art, food, dress, music and philosophy. It is classified as one of the main world religions with over 1.2 Billion follwer. It has also been the source of other Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Hinduism was organized for peaceful and harmonious coexistence, not for continued confrontation with external enemies in the shape of unbelievers. It is no accident of history that, though Hinduism knew internal feuds like any social polity, it never crossed its borders to wage wars against people simply because they worshiped different Gods.
— Ram Swarup (1920-1998), foremost spokesperson of Hindu spirituality and culture in India

The Word “Hindu”

Scholars suggest that the term “Hindu” was first used around the 8th century CE, by Persian invaders to refer to the people on the far side of the River Indus. These early connotations weren’t specifically religious but more cultural, political and geographical. Only later, when outsiders (first Muslims and later Christians) tried to impose their own doctrines, did the “Hindus” and outsiders try to define the religious traditions of India as a separate autonomous whole, a religion similar to other world faiths. Many scholars prefer to call Hinduism “a family of religions” with each member unique but bearing distinctive family features; or an “umbrella-term” covering different philosophical schools of thought and systems of belief. Unlike most world religions it has no single founder, no one scripture, no common creed and no universally-accepted code of conduct. The common denominator to all the traditions within Hinduism is the acceptance of the Vedas as revealed scriptures. Indeed according to the Supreme Court of India Hinduism was legally defined in 1966 primarily as “Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophical matters”. (Buddhism and Jainism though born in India are not included within the numerous varieties of Hindu doctrines and practices chiefly because both these traditions rejected the supreme authority of the Vedas) The word Hindu and Hinduism, though very practical and convenient for Scholars, outsiders and even its followers, are nowhere to be found in any of the ancient Vedic scriptures written in the Sanskrit language, so perhaps a more appropriate way to refer to the different “Hindu” traditions could be “Vedic” traditions.

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