Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | October 1, 2010

Who is a “Hindu”?

Teaching in the Sunday School at the Hindu Temple in Toledo, we (Sanjay Khare, Ravi Joshi and myself) were put a question by a group of 12- 18 year olds: Who is a Hindu? What follows below, is our attempt to answer it.

1. There are no exact dates, but it is believed that some time around 5000 years ago, human beings in ancient India began to ponder at things around them – essentially at  nature and its patterns. In doing so, they (1) realized that nature follows certain laws and properties , and (2) attributed powers to different elements of nature because those laws and propertieswere not under the control of humans. So those first humans in India who sensed and tried to understand about the forces that control events and patterns that they observed in nature, can be called Hindus.  The idea of attributing special powers to different elements of nature is manifest in ancient Indian/Hindu thought as different “Gods” – as Varun (Water God), Maruti (God of the Wind), Surya (Sun God). So that is the first definition of a Hindu – the ancient beings from India who first started on a quest to understand why the world works the way it does.

2. The meaning of “Dharma” – is “essential property of being”. It comes from the Sanskrit root “Dhri” – meaning to “hold together”. That is, the “dharma” of any object or living being  holds that object or living being together and indeed defines it. Without “Dharma”, an object or a living being would not have a purpose. Now, the laws that govern the essential properties of objects or beings are eternal – they do not change, whether or not we know about them or understand them. So in that sense they are “forever” or “eternal” – before and beyond time – in Sanksrit, “Sanatan”. So anyone who believes that there is an eternal system of essential properties that every being embodies and that there are laws that govern the interaction between these properties, believes in “Sanatan Dharma” – that person is a Hindu. Hinduism is thus about understanding “Sanatan Dharma”. A Hindu believes that the “Dharma” of a human being is to be “Divine” and to express Divinity in all thought, word and action.

3. So where is this understanding about Sanatan Dharma located? It is believed that this understanding was revealed to ancient sages in India who meditated upon this quest some 5000 – 10,000 years ago. We identify these sages as “Rishis”. This revelation is called “Shruti” – loosely translated into English as “knowledge as revealed to Rishis during their meditations to understand Sanatan Dharma”. This knowledge was added to and passed on orally from one generation of Rishis to the next and is encapsulated in what we know as the “Vedas” or “Veds” – there are four of them Rig, Sama, Atharva, Yajur. The Rig Veda is widely regarded as perhaps the oldest book in the world.  Now, there are other books where this knowledge resides. The Upanishads – some sources say there are 9 major ones, some say 12 – are also Shruti – that is, knowledge about Sanatan Dharma passed on by and revealed to Rishis across generations.  So we come to the third definition of a Hindu – anyone who believes in and follows the knowledge and understanding contained in the Vedas and Upanishads is a Hindu.  Now what about the Bhagwad Geeta? Isn’t that about the most popular or well known of all Hindu books? The Bhagwad Geeta (Geeta: song, Bhagwad: of or from the Divine) is what is called Smriti- that is knowledge of Sanatan Dharma that is acquired, not revealed. There are a number of books that encapsulate Smriti – the Puranas and the Bhagwad Geeta for example. These were written much later than the Vedas, by people who perhaps came in contact with Rishis or their disciples and acquired knowledge of Sanatan Dharma and described and interpreted it through these books. All of the knowledge embodied by Shruti and Smriti- is what the Hindu draws from and believes in.

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