My father, Jayant Lele, has often liked to say of Hinduism that it doesn’t exist. His view made a lot of sense to me when I first travelled around India – first encountering claims that Hindus were vegetarians because of their deep respect for animals, and then visiting the temple in Calcutta where the priest suggested I stick around to watch them sacrifice a goat. Could there be anything in common here?
I’ve moderated my own views on the subject a little. I think there is such a thing as Hinduism now; it’s just a relatively recent invention. The first person to use the word “Hinduism” was Rammohun Roy, a modern reformer who wanted to see a modernized, politically active Hinduism. I have no problem using the term “Hinduism” and “Hindu” to refer to modern Hindus who follow Roy’s example (like Gandhi, Aurobindo, the Arya Samaj, or Swami Vivekananda). Hinduism, then, is something closely parallel to Yavanayāna Buddhism: a modern reform movement that can be intellectually honest as long as it recognizes itself as such.
Before that, things get hazy. True, Muslims in India referred to non-Muslim Indians as “Hindu.” But it was a generic term for exactly that: non-Muslim Indians. When “Hinduism” is used to mean anything other than the 19th-century reform movement, it means little more than “miscellaneous Indian traditions”: Indians who are not Muslim or Christian, and in more recent cases not Buddhists or Jains or Sikhs. (Muslim chroniclers like al-Biruni would have been startled to hear Buddhists called anything other than Hindu.)
I’m fairly comfortable, then, in saying that premodern “Hinduism” doesn’t really exist. But let me be clear on this point, as it’s one of the things that’s got me into trouble with Hinduism’s would-be defenders before: this isn’t a criticism. I like the fact that in early India, “religious” boundaries were so porous: the same king might pay homage to Buddhist monks and Śaivite bhakta mystics. Early India is comparable more to “Greek and Roman religion,” or perhaps to “Chinese religion,” than it is to Judaism or Christianity: a set of philosophies, practices, supernatural beings moving around between traditions. If you were going to give yourself to a certain idea wholeheartedly (as a monk would do), your loyalty might have needed to be more absolute – as it would have been in Greece for those who wanted to follow Epicurus in his garden. For most people, though, it wasn’t, and the point strikes me as something worth learning from now. Wisdom can be found in many places, and we do well to look for it in as many of those places as possible, rather than refusing to look at ideas and practices that aren’t Christian – or are Christian, depending on where our allegiance has been declared.