Hinduism – At a Loss for Words!

The number of times it is claimed that Hinduism does not have a name for something is nothing less than striking.

Let us begin with the claim that Hinduism does not have a word for itself. A. L. Basham writes:

There are probably over 300 million Hindus in the world, most of them in India, but also many in other parts of Asia, and in Africa and the West Indies. Though they form one of the largest and most important groups of the world, their faith is indefinable in a few words. It is possible to define the Christian or Muslim as the man who attempts to follow what he believes to be the teachings of Christ or Muhammad respectively, but Hinduism had no such single founder. Some modern sociologists have defined Christians and Muslims as those who consider themselves as such, but a similar definition cannot be applied to Hindus, for probably most of them have never even heard the word Hindu, and have no name for their religion. It was once said that anyone might be considered a Hindu who respected the Brāhman and his cow, and maintained the rules of caste, but his definition would exclude many of the most earnest of modern Hindus, as well as a number of unorthodox Hindu groups of earlier times. We can perhaps best briefly describe a Hindu as a man who chiefly bases his beliefs and way of life on the complex system of faith and practice which has grown up organically in the Indian sub-continent over a period of at least three millennia.[i]

Then comes the claim that the Hindu does not have a word for religion:

In classical India – again if we exclude personal religion, or religiousness, there is no word for our concept. In the threefold trivarga of mundane life, the realm of human behavior is classified into those actions that one does for the sheer enjoyment of them (kāma), those that are means to some end (artha), and those that are duties (dharma). The last of these, dharma, ranging in its reference from propriety to public law, from temple ritual to caste obligations, and much more, has on occasion been proffered by moderns as a term signifying systematic religion for Hindus. It does include a good deal of what the modern Western student regards so, as normative ideals and as sociological pattern; though it includes also a certain amount of matter that falls outside such a concept.[ii]

Next comes the claim that Hinduism does not have a word for caste:

The Hindus have not any name for the caste institution, which seems to them part of the order of nature. It is almost impossible for a Hindu to regard himself otherwise than as a member of some particular caste, or species of Hindu mankind. Everybody else who disregards Hindu dharma is an ‘outer barbarian’ (mlechchha) no matter how exalted his worldly rank or how vast his wealth may be. The proper Sanskrit and vernacular term for ‘a caste’ is jāti (jāt), ‘species’, although, as noted above, the members of a jāti are not necessarily descended from a common ancestor. Indeed, as a matter of fact, they are rarely, if ever, so descended. Their special caste rules make their community in effect a distinct species, whoever their ancestors may have been. [iii]

Finally we learn that Hinduism does not have a word for ‘conversion.’

The diffusion of Vaiṣṇavite and Śaivite ideas outside India is enough to show that Hinduism, too, was a missionary religion; at a very early date a Hinduist movement took root in the Hellenistic world and penetrated as far as Egypt. The decline of Hinduism after the Moselm period must not be allowed to obscure this fact. The old lawgivers say that to be a Hindu, or, more exactly, to belong to one of the three Āryan classes, means to have been born in a certain area of Hindustan, the Āryāvarta (or homeland of a the Āryas); but this assertion need not be taken literally. Hinduism long ago advanced beyond the limits assigned to it by the laws of Manu, by means of conquest or peaceful absorption, by marriage, and by adoption. Hinduism has not a word to express the process of conversion so frequently referred to in Buddhist and Jaina apologetics, books written by the converted for those to be converted; but passages can be cited from the Mahabharata which show that people of low caste, enemies and foreigners who were received into the Hindu fold. Many people wanted to raise their status and to be admitted to the Ārya society; others fell away from it through marriage outside its ranks and by transgressions and misfortunes. A passage of Patañjali attests that the Śakas and the Yavanas could perform sacrifices and accept food from an Ārya without contaminating it. The fact is that Hinduism is a way of life, a mode of thought, that becomes second nature. It is not so much its practices that are important, for they can be dispensed with; not is it the Church, since it has no priesthood, or at least no sacerdotal hierarchy. The important thing is to accept certain fundamental conceptions, to acknowledge a certain ‘spirituality’, a term much abused in current parlance. For many Hindus it would be quite legitimate to take Jesus as iṣṭadevatā, without even regarding him as an avatāra, so long as Indian tradition were acknowledged.[iv]

If we couple this with the fact that those who take to Hinduism in the West do not to admit to doing so, we have the spectacle of countless unacknowledging people converting people anonymously though a nameless process, to a religion which does not even have a name.


[i] A.L. Basham, “Hinduism”, in R.C. Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967) p. 225

[ii] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York: Mentor, 1963 [1991]) p. 55-56

[iii] No longer traceable.

[iv] Louis Renou, Religions of Ancient India (New York: Shocken Books, 1968) pp. 54-56

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2 Responses to “Hinduism – At a Loss for Words!”

  1. S Says:

    Interesting point.

    Just a comment about the sources marked as “no longer traceable”: a Google search reveals that your second quote is from
    Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The meaning and end of religion (1962/3, and pp. 55–56 at least in the 1991 reprint),
    and the third quote is from
    Louis Renou, Religions of Ancient India, as found in this book on p.157. The phrase “passages can be cited from people of low caste…” seems to be “passages can be cited from the Mahabharata which show that people of low caste…” etc.

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