Hinduism from within and without

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The belief of India’s Hindu population
2.1. A term study
2.1.1. Etymological development of the term 'Hinduism'
2.1.2. Definition of the term 'Hinduism'
2.2. General features of Hinduism.
2.2.1.Cyclical thinking and its consequences for a Hindu
2.2.2. Finding salvation Yoga Bhakti
2.2.3. All good things come in fours: Four castes, four stages of life, four aims in life

3. Neo-Hinduism

4. Conclusion

5. List of sources

Appendix: Plagiarism Declaration

1. Introduction

To be concerned with Hinduism means to immerse oneself in a world which seems to be so different from our Western world. The question is why one has this feeling? Is it just because we combine Hinduism with the Indian subcontinent and hence a spot on earth which is so far away from us? Is the great distance the reason why Hinduism feels so exotic? Or is it rather the way Hinduism appears in comparison with other world religions? Is the religious praxis the reason for perceiving Hinduism as far out? Or is it simply the Hindu way of life which seems to be so unfamiliar? Is it the Hindu society which is so different from other ones? All these questions can be answered in several different ways. They are dependent from the perspective one looks at them and which of the themes mentioned above is going to examined more intensively.

The specific aim of this paper is to depict important aspects of Hindu religiousness and society in the same breath. There is no focus of either religion or society. These two aspects should rather be combined. This means that the paper wants to depict specific facets of Hindu belief and simultaneously raise the question what this means for the concrete life of Hindu people. If the effects of religious convictions on human life and society are examined, it will become possible to draw comparisons to our Western way of thinking. Under no circumstances will be made comparison between Christianity and Hinduism or even a two-sided social criticism. It is rather important to illustrate the different ways of thinking to show why Hinduism is so fascinating for Western Europeans and why certain convictions would not work in our society.

Unfortunately it is not possible to give a complete portrayal of Hinduism. Why this is impossible will become clearer at the end of this paper at the latest. Thus the description of Hinduism will happen by giving first an explanation of the term 'Hinduism', second by presenting the most important pillars or general features, respectively, of Hinduism and finally by speaking about the concrete life of Hindu people by the presentation of the caste system. Of course, the choice of these discussion aspects is a very personal one. Another writer would probably chose other aspects to present in such a paper, especially if he or she had another religious background him- or herself. So, the answer to the question of what is so fascinating and exotic in Hinduism is also a very personal one. In the conclusion, however, the attempt should be made to find such an answer, being aware of the fact that the answer cannot mirror the one and only truth. One reason is that this answer will be influenced by a modern way of thinking, another reason is that the answer will be given by a writer who has no personal relationship to Christianity or any other religion and who is therefore maybe more open-minded concerning other ways and forms of living than strict religious persons.

2. The belief of India’s Hindu population

2.1. A term study

2.1.1. Etymological development of the term 'Hinduism'

The vast majority of the Indian population follows Hinduism. This means roughly 700 million from 900 million people believe in it (cf. Flood 1996, 5) and thus it is the most important and influential religion on the Indian subcontinent. The streets are full of Hindu people, who shape the specific cultural Indian life by practising their religion. The other 200 million Indians are either Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains or Parsees (cf. Flood 1996, 5). This religious diversity paints the colourful image which an outsider has while thinking of India.

The term 'Hinduism' itself holds difficulties. But at this point the etymological development should be taken into consideration rather than the way the term 'Hinduism' is related to other religions or its actual definition. This issue will be broached in the following paragraph.

By considering the '–ism' ending it becomes obvious that this term is not of Indian origin. In fact, it is a European invention (cf. Becke 1996, 11) . This implies that the term is younger than the religion itself. How can it be explained and what does this fact say about Hinduism? The word 'Hindu' was first applied by Persians. Used in the singular it denoted as well the river Indus as the country, which the river flows through. Used in the plural it meant the people living at the Indus river (cf. Becke 1996, 11). We see that there is no distinction between followers of a religion or a special group of people.

In the 8th century the word 'Hindu' was first used by Arabian Muslims who penetrated the Indus river valley. They transferred the term 'Hindu' to all people living there who were not Muslims (cf. Becke 1996, 11). Consequently, it was the first time that the word 'Hindu' got a religious aspect.

In the course of the 16th century European merchants and Christian missionaries overtook the term because they thought all the people who were called Hindus by the Muslims belonged to one specific religion (cf. Becke 1996, 11). And finally the word 'Hindu' underwent a general word formation process so that finally the assumed religion of the Hindus was called Hinduism.

As indicated by these etymological process the Hindus do not have a denotation for their religion. In fact, it is an invention of foreigners. It were the Muslims who said that people living at the Indus river had a special religion. And it were the Europeans who developed a certain name for it. Why did not the Hindus themselves develop such ideas and terms? Does this mean that originally Hindus did not have the feeling that they practised a certain religion? The answer is yes. The reason for that fast answer is found in the fact that the Hindu language does not know a word for religion (cf. Becke 1996, 10) or in other words in original Hindu culture a distinction between religious life and normal life was not necessary. So, is Hinduism really a religion?

2.1.2. Definition of the term 'Hinduism'

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Hinduism is “a term generally employed to comprehend the social institutions [...] of the Hindus [...]; as well as the multitudinous crop of their religious beliefs which has grown up, in the course of many centuries [...]” (E.B. 1910, 501). It becomes obvious that the E.B. makes an attempt to define the term Hinduism without using the word 'religion'. Rather does it speak of various religious beliefs and institutions of Hindu people.

A reason can be found a comparison to other world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. In contrast to them Hinduism has not got a founder and therefore also no universal dogma which someone has to admit to, has to convert to or even has to commit to (Schneider 1989, 1). Instead it is grown independently in the course of history. Because Hinduism does not know a leader or someone who tells the Hindus how the right way of believing looks like, it is strongly connected to society. In other words, as the latter has changed in the course of time, aspects of Hinduism have changed as well. As a result there is no unique way of exercising Hinduism. There are numerous cults, customs and rites that it is hard for an outsider to understand that diversity. As a result, Hinduism is more a collection of various kinds of religiousness than a solid and compulsory way of believing. This fact leads to the second reason why the E.B. avoids the term 'religion'.

One very important and interesting, and maybe hardly understandable aspect of Hinduism, is the fact that, according to traditional Hindu teachings, in contrast to all the other world religions nobody could, even if he or she wished to do so, convert to Hinduism. Because Hinduism is so strongly connected to the Hindu society, to the Hindu way of living and thinking one can only exercise Hinduism by becoming a Hindu, or to put it in another way, one has to be born into Hinduism and being born into Hinduism means to be a member of a caste. Vice versa one can only become a caste member by birth (cf. Meisig 1996, 12).

Again we can see that religious practice, society and additionally the personal origin are intrinsically tied together so that at the end Hinduism denotes not only a religion. It also stands for the social, religious and even political system the Hindus live in. On a more abstract level it also stands for their whole world view, all their knowledge, philosophy, experience and sensations.

This is the point where on has to think about whether this kind of exceptional position among the other religions of the world is one aspect why Hinduism seems to be so fascinating. Maybe while reading this paper so far one does not loose the feeling that Hinduism is somehow more peaceful and more tolerant than other religions. Why one could think it? Especially the fact that according to traditional Hindu thinking (in the end of this paper we will see that things have changed) nobody except a Hindu him- or herself can be a follower of Hinduism the feeling of peacefulness is emphasised. Thinking more intensively about it, it results namely into the conclusion that Hindus do not see their way of living or religiousness, respectively, as the measure of all things. By the restriction that only Hindus can believe in Hinduism, they do not wish that all human beings become Hindus. Because they do not want it or because it is simply impossible, Hinduism is automatically a religion which does not think it is the right one and thus every human being has to believe in it. As a result Hindus do not do missionary work. If we think of the misery missionaries cause, it is a fascinating feature of Hinduism that it does not see the necessity of fighting for an expansion. Out of a Christian or Muslim perspective this is probably unimaginable. This is an aspect which makes Christianity and Islam appearing somehow absolute and Hinduism more open-minded. Especially for cultures which are affected by a religion which has gained its power mainly through violence, war, suppression and / or terror a religion such as Hinduism can appear even more exotic and fascinating. Hinduism does not claim to be an universal religion. It is in its original sense solely a folk religion. And maybe this is the simple explanation for its apparent peacefulness and tolerance.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Hinduism from within and without
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
India from within and without: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim & E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India
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Hinduism, India, Religion
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Katharina Hüfner (Author), 2009, Hinduism from within and without, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/159292


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