For some reason, people are frantic to box and classify Hinduism. Whether it be the Muslim Invaders to the country, or the British who came to rule the country, the missionaries, the academics, or even the current lot of Hindu political leaders. For a variety of purposes, none of which related to the actual adherents of the religion, this forcing of people into this box called as Hinduism continues.
The main reason for this, in my mind, is the nefarious impact of those desert originated religions, namely Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Each of them obviously dealt with a bunch of people who needed some pretty strong medicine, so they came up with a whole panoply of rules, regulations, myths, leaders and the like. And because they were all jostling for space and adherents between each other, they had to have “us and them” as a very strong component in their own theology. Driven by politics and priest/mullahs and what have you, this growth in their religions meant that while they gained a religion with rules, they lost the faith in humanity.
Not so in this wonderful land of South Asia. As it so happens, the original name of Hindu related to a geographical region. To with, the people who live in and to the east of the river Sindhu (Indus). And because at that time, the Persians were the closest large neighbour with a flourishing civilisation and links to the desert and to Europe, guess what everybody started calling them? There is evidence of this name from the inscriptions made in the name of Darius 1, way back in the 6th century AD.
But but but, there have been religious texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Pruranas and and and for much longer than the 6th century AD. Sure has heck there have been. And you know what? the people who studied this and followed these religious books (collectively known as Dharmashastra) were not that keen on being labelled as such because no such common name exists. What they were more concerned about was to live in a way that Dharma is fulfilled. And because there were multiplicity of Gods and pathways to God and all meeting in the supreme godhead, besides some skirmishes in the temples, nobody really cared to label them or bring them into another fold.
Then comes the entry of trade and missionaries, all gung ho and happy to harvest souls for Jesus or what have you. And their tiny minds were simply unable to comprehend a vast corpus of literature, a different language and a multiplicity of Gods. Hence, they were basically named as Pagans. As one goes through a variety of missionary tracts and memoires, the overwhelming image that pops into my head is this Christian or Muslim desire to try to comprehend this vast philosophical edifice according to their rigid tiny frameworks and failing. Here’s a simple example, this idea of forcing a God framework with a creator (Brahma), preserver (Vishnu) and destroyer (Shiva) is a foreign construct, yes, the individual Gods do exist but to ascribe a framework to them, totally foreign and I suspect emanating from the idea of the trinity.
On the other hand, when the Muslim invaders did pop into this land beyond the Indus, it was the idol worshipping that primarily got their goat, and again, because they were usually driven by religious (and that fairly secular motive of greed) jihad, anybody who had anything to do with idols was summarily labelled as foreign or other. Lets also not forget that from an politico-economic perspective (the imposition of zakat and the religious requirements for treating non-Muslims differently) required the identification of the original inhabitants as a religious unit.
So we end up with two external forces, the Muslim invaders from the 12th century onwards and the European Christian (traders and missionary) entry from the 14th/15th century onwards. Both of which were driven due to different reasons but both very interested in defining and labelling the bunch of people who they found living in the lands to the east of Indus. Check out Al-Biruni’s work on this or the Asiatic Society’s work from the European traders perspective or the various missionary tracts published by the Italians, Spanish and others priests (see the link at the bottom for the article where a good overview is given).
The right way to describe this corpus of knowledge is “Sanatan Dharma” rather than Hinduism because that is how the followers (if that word can be used) describe it and it has theological backing to it. It is classically simple in its meaning. Unlike Christianity which describes itself as a follower of Christ, and like Islam (which stands for peace or surrender to God), Sanatan Dharma simply means, “the way of life” or “the way of truth/righteousness” Be good and live a good life.
And before you think I am taking off on these early Muslim and Christian documenters of my religion, let me also direct my ire at the Hindu leaders themselves. When these people try to claim a consistency and coherence in Hinduism (like claiming that Hinduism doesnt do meat, period), they are doing exactly what the Muslims and Christians did, try to convert Sanatan Dharma into a Christian or a Islamic representation of a religion with rules, regulations, good and bad and something that is totally foreign to Sanatan Dharma. Its pretty clear why they do this, they are doing it for political purposes and wanting to create a political force out of the religious identity of the Sanatani’s. These people are the danger to the religion, not the external forces. But I am confident in the Sanatan Dharma, it has overcome bigger challenges than these contemptible Hindu leaders
I read a fascinating article recently which gave a reasonably good overview of the historical evolution of how Hinduism evolved. It concludes with a great paragraph which I am quoting here:
“this Hinduism wasnt invented by anyone, European or Indian. Like Topsy, it just grow’ed”