While Hindu communities of thought and practice have flourished on the Indian subcontinent for at least three millennia, the concept of “Hinduism”—as a world religion, as a unitary, coherent package of beliefs and rituals akin to “Christianity,” “Islam,” or “Buddhism”—emerged only in the nineteenth-century colonial context via processes much-debated in scholarship over the past three decades.
Derived from a Persian word indicating those who live “beyond the Indus River,” over the centuries “Hindu” has been associated with a variety of regional, cultural, and religious identifications. It was in the context of British colonialism of the Indian subcontinent, however, that the meaning and significance of “Hindu” among European officials, missionaries and scholars grew increasingly complex. For example, in the late eighteenth century British Christian missionaries took aim at the “idolatry” and “savagery” of “Hindoo” practices as they failed to understand the significance of divine images or rituals of animal sacrifice. In contrast, early Orientalist scholars such as William Jones (1746-1794) countered such contemporary visions of “excess” with accounts of sophisticated philosophical wisdom from ancient Sanskrit texts. In a third example, Indian scholar Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) who was heavily influenced by both Islam and British Unitarianism, embraced the Vedas and the monotheism of the Upaniṣadic Brahman. Roy was a social reformer and the first to use the term “Hinduism” in 1816 to refer to a coherent, pan-Indian set of religious ideals and practices.
Throughout the nineteenth century—and particularly following the transfer of power over much of the Indian subcontinent from the East India Company to the British crown in 1857—“Hindu” and “Hinduism” grew increasingly identified with Indian aspirations for independence and full nationhood. While a diverse range of political and religious figures from Vivekananda (1863-1902) to Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) envisioned a religiously plural India where Hindu and Muslim, Sikh and Jain might live peaceably side-by-side, activists such as Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) sought to define India as a more exclusively Hindu nation, its social and cultural forms to be rooted in Sanskrit education, the teachings of the Vedas, and adherence to caste. From Saraswati’s conservative focus on Veda, Sanskrit, and caste would emerge the twentieth-century Hindu nationalist movements, beginning with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s (1883-1966) influential 1923 pamphlet that introduced the notion of Hindutva or “Hindu-ness” into Indian public discourse, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” There, Savarkar argues for Hindutva as a unifying cultural and political force that unites the people of India and forms the basis for authentic nationhood. Savarkar’s use of Hindutva to encompass all of Indian culture, religion, and politics is championed today on a global scale by a closely allied set of political and cultural organizations known as the Sangh Parivar.
Critique of “Hinduism” as defined during the colonial period and underlying the Hindutva rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar has grown increasingly loud in the wake of inter-religious violence at Ayodhyā and in Gujarat in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many historians have argued, for example, that the “Hinduism” understood by Rammohan Roy and increasingly taken up by the British colonial administration primarily reflected the elite traditions of the relative few, ignoring entirely the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of Hindus. In the mid-nineteenth-century census-taking exercises of British-controlled India, for example, questions of religious identity often proved confusing for respondents, with significant numbers checking both “Hindu” and “Mohammedan” in early versions of the census. Most working definitions of “Hinduism”—like the Sanskrit-, Veda-, and caste-based rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar—focus on upper-caste, elite, male views and downplay or denigrate the everyday religious lives of women, low-caste communities, and non-Hindus. On the other hand, in the contemporary global diaspora, streamlined presentations of Hinduism that target second-generation Hindus living in the US or Europe—such as Viswanathan’s widely circulated primer, Daddy, am I a Hindu?—owe much to the more liberal, inclusivist views of colonial reformers such as Vivekananda and Mohandas Gandhi. These examples represent 1) diversity within the tradition, 2) how religions evolve and change, and 3) the ways that religious influences permeate social, political, and cultural life.
"Swami Vivekananda", Chicago, IL (1893), (public domain)