Use of the English term “Hinduism” (and its equivalents in various European languages) to designate certain aspects of the cultural traditions of Hindus anywhere is commonplace, but it is relatively recent and not wholly unproblematic. The idea that the Hindus must have a “religion” comparable to Christianity and worthy of study originated with British administrators and scholars in India in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These scholars, known as the Orientalists, devoted themselves to the study and translation of textual materials, mainly in Sanskrit, some of which they identified as religious and others as secular texts. By the time the British parliament allowed proselytization among the “natives” of India in 1813, the word Hinduism had come into use. Christian missionaries also devoted themselves to the study of religious texts and the observation of religious practices, but unlike the admiring Orientalists their primary aim was to expose the “wickedness” of polytheistic and idolatrous religions and to highlight the “perfection” of Christianity.

The problematic aspect of these studies, often laudable for their reliability and detail, was the basic assumption that the Hindus had a religion which, however, was curiously deficient in significant ways given the absence of most notably, a founder, a single revealed text, and a church like organization. But that the Hindus were a community of faith, united by a common religion, Hinduism, was considered unquestionable. The widespread use of the Hindu term dharma (dharma literally means ”moral law,” ”that which sustains” the social order) in Indian languages, at least from medieval times onward, was deemed sufficient terminological evidence for the historical authenticity of Hinduism. When the first census of the peoples of India under British control was conducted in 1872, classification by religion was considered an obvious objective. The Hindus emerged as the numerically preponderant community. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when a national movement for some measure of self governance under the British imperium began to take shape, the notion of India wide religions, respectively claiming the allegiance of millions, was further strengthened, despite some initial skepticism among intellectuals well versed in the Hindu tradition on the ground that the religious-secular dichotomization of areas of life was alien to their way of thinking. Simultaneously with the emergence of the notion of monolithic Hindu and Muslim religious communities, officially enumerated and described, came the idea of mutually exclusive identities and religious nationalisms, that eventually led to the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

At this point, it may be recalled that the term ”Hindu,” like Hinduism, is a foreign coinage from around the middle of the first millennium before the Christian era. The Persians and the Greeks identified the peoples of the plains of northwestern India in the name of the river called Sindhu in Sanskrit. Sindhu became Hindu in Persian and Indos in Greek. The Arabs appeared as conquerors in this area in the eighth century CE and called it al Hind and the peoples thereof, al Hindi. In the course of time a distinction came to be made between the Hindi, an ethno geographical category and the Hindu, a religious category. By further elaboration Hindus were those Indians (and even peoples further east) who remained outside the Islamic fold. By medieval times ”Hindu” was established as a term of self designation and Hindu dharma also came into use. And, as noted above, Hindu dharma became Hinduism in the early nineteenth century.

The roots of Hinduism as we know it now go back to the belief and ritual complex, marked by nature worship, of immigrant Aryan speaking peoples, who were the composers of the body of hymns and instructions on ritual performances collectively known as the Veda (”knowledge”). The earliest of these collections of ”texts,” transmitted orally, are about 3,200 years old and have over the millennia acquired the status of revealed scriptures. Some elements of Hinduism have been traced further back in time to the Harrappan civilization of 5,000 years ago. As the carriers of the Vedic cults proceeded east and south, a widespread and long-lasting process of give and take (called by anthropologists ”parochialization” and ”universalization”) between them and local communities of faith (”folk religions”) began, producing immense regional varieties of belief and ritual and generating a vast body of post Vedic texts known as the Purana (“legends”) from around 300-600 CE. New gods and goddesses and the cults, cosmogonies, and mythologies associated with them proliferated. Mutually hostile sectarian divisions crystallized around some of the new deities (notably Shiva, Vishnu, and the female Devi). These immense diversities rule out any notions of a linear development of Hinduism or of a subcontinentally homogeneous religious community. It must be noted, however, that efforts have also been made for a long time to overcome these diversities. A daring young intellectual and renouncer of South India, Shankara (ca. 788-820), instituted a non sectarian form of domestic worship (smarta puja), combining devotion to Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, and other deities, and traveled to the far corners of India to stress the unity and sacredness of the land through pilgrimage and to propagate a monistic philosophy of the oneness of the divine or Abso lute and the human in its true essence. This and other philosophies are known as Vedanta, the culmination of the Veda, or the ultimate true knowledge. The earliest of the Vedantic texts, concerned with metaphysical issues and known as the Upanishad (secret knowledge), are believed to have been composed about the same time as the birth of Buddhism and Jainism (around the middle of the first millennium BCE), which were the first major heresies, so judged by the Brahmans, the teachers and practitioners of the Vedic religion. These ritual specialists were the most privileged of the categories of people who constituted Vedic society.

Social Organizational Framework of Hinduism

One of the hymns in the Rig Veda mentions the birth of four major social categories of human beings, and indeed the whole cosmos, from the self sacrificial dismemberment of the divine ”primeval man.” From his mouth came the Brahman, knower and teacher of sacred knowledge; the Rajanya (or Kshatriya), warriors, and protectors of the realm, were his arms; the Vaishya, working people, his thighs; and the Shudra, providers of services to the other categories, his feet. Besides the division of labor that they embodied, the four varnas, so called, were ranked, the Brahman downward, in terms of ritual status and social privilege, but in a holistic framework. Over the long duration, the fourfold varna order became the caste (from the Dutch casta) order comprising numerous jatis through a variety of processes including inter varna marriages, incorporation of outsiders, and fusion or fission of existing groups. In principle, however, the caste system is based on hereditary membership within a jati, endogamy, and the inheritance of occupation and ritual status. Consequently, the caste system is, at least in theory, the most rigid social order conceivable. It is a mirror image, as it were, of the looseness (liberalism) of the belief and ritual complexes that characterize Hinduism in its regional and sectarian diversities. In view of this, some sociologists have suggested that the unity of Hindu society rests not in Hinduism but in its social organization.

Indologists (specialists of classical texts) have long described Hinduism as varna ashrama dharma, the morally grounded way of life appropriate to one’s varna or jati and one’s ashrama. The latter stands for stage of life, of which four are recognized: the preparatory stage of student ship, householdership, retirement, and finally renunciation of all worldly engagements. The renouncers (not all of them may have gone through all the earlier stages) turn their back on caste rules as well as family obligations. In textual Hinduism the three upper varnas (referred to as dvija, the twice born, in view of the rites of initiation through which everyone must ideally pass) are guided by a grammar of value orientations (purushartha). Hierarchically ranked, these values are dharma (grounding in moral law), artha (rational pursuit of economic and political goals), and kama (aesthetic enjoyment and physical pleasure). The fourth value orientation, moksha (liberation), is the alternative to the first three taken together. It should be clarified that in a householder’s life, being grounded in dharma acquires meaning through the pursuit of artha and kama; but kama must not violate the dictates of artha and dharma, and artha, of dharma. The renouncers who seek liberation from the web of kinship and other social obligations do not necessarily go out of society altogether: they may return awakened, as the Buddha did, and found new sects, some of which (most notably Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) blossom in the course of time into full religions. Social involvement and renunciation are not necessarily mutually exclusive: their relationship is dialectical and socially creative. The preoccupation of sociological literature with caste and renunciation, presumably because of their unique character, has led to the grievous neglect of the empirical presence and ideological vigor of the householder as a key bearer of the values and rituals of Hinduism.

The householder, man or woman, is ever engaged in karma. In its narrower connotation karma is ritual action, but broadly karma stands for the full range of legitimate purposive action. Karma is the enactment of the triple goals of purushartha. Every karmic act has consequences (karma phala), whether intended or (because of interferences or inadequacies) unintended. A chain of cause and effect is thus constructed; its most significant implication is the belief in reincarnation. Samsara, the web of worldly entanglements, is considered a bondage, and moksha is the release from it. In practical terms these beliefs do not mean withdrawal from all activity, but rather its pursuit according to dharma, so that the secular and the religious make up (at least in principle) one seamless whole, and in a spirit of detachment.

From conception to death and thereafter a Hindu’s life is involved in a succession of rites of passage, including the rituals of birth, initiation, marriage, death, and postmortem offerings. These periodic household ceremonies, daily rituals for the well being of the family (steps in a process of moral maturation) and of adoration (puja) of one’s chosen deities, are a major preoccupation of all households. Pilgrimages to holy places (for example in the high mountains, at the confluence of rivers, or on the seashore) carry Hindus away from home. The precise content of these ritual performances varies from region to region and caste to caste. But there is more commonality in this respect between the upper (”twice born”) castes than among the lower, owing to a greater adherence to textual Hinduism in the case of the former and to folk traditions in the case of the latter. Sociological studies of ”popular” Hinduism bear witness to its richness and viability; they have also recorded the process named Sanskritization by which lower castes tend to move away from their folk moorings and attempt to raise their ritual and social status by taking over the religious and secular practices of the upper castes. While such efforts at status enhancement are group based, it is noteworthy that Hinduism is a non congregational religion: its principal agent is the individual and its primary locus is the home. Even in temples and places of pilgrimage, it is the individual or a family who offer worship.

Karma in its various expressions is, then, the way (marga) of religion among Hindus. But there are two other equally valid ways, those of gyan (knowledge) and bhakti (devotion to the chosen deity), and all three are recognized in the scriptural text Bhagavad Gita (first century ce), which has gradually emerged as the single most revered ”revealed” book of Hinduism. Beginning with the ninth century commentary of Shankara, there has been an unending tradition of commentaries on this text, including in the twentieth century those by the firebrand politician Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the mystic Aurobindo Ghosh, and the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, each emphasizing a particular mode of interpretation. For Gandhi, the Bhagavad Gita is a moral treatise of selfless action (anasakti) in the service of humanity, which brings out the futility of violence and the imperative of divine grace in human affairs.

Medieval Synthesis and Modern Hinduism

Hinduism is not a static tradition. As we have seen, it has grown through dialogic processes involving different levels of articulation from the local (tribal, folk) to the regional and finally the subcontinental, in an increasing order of eclectic complexity. Rightly perhaps, Hinduism has been described as a family of religions. Moreover, internal heterodoxies, some of which have grown into fully fledged independent religions, have also altered the character of the core tradition of Hinduism, one of the best known examples being the value placed upon vegetarianism following the great emphasis on non violence in Buddhism and Jainism.

The arrival of Islam as a proselytizing religion in the eighth century, accompanied by the establishment of pockets of Muslim rule, first of all in the northwest, that by the early seventeenth century had grown into the subcontinental Mughal empire, opened new possibilities of religious syncretism, particularly at the folk level, but also temporarily and unsuccessfully in the imperial court. Elements of Sufi religiosity blended well with Hindu theistic devotionalism (bhakti) that had originated in southern India, partly in reaction to the ritualism of Vedism and the atheism of Buddhism. New communities of faith with their distinctive cults, such as the medieval Kabir Panth, were born, providing a “home” to low caste Hindus as well as Muslims, bound together by their ecstatic love of a form less (nirguna) divine, unblemished by idolatry and mechanical ritualism. It was in such an ambience that Sikhism took shape as an independent religion in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

After Islam it was Christianity that provided the new challenge, drawing from the Hindu intelligentsia a variety of creative responses. Bengal was the stage on which these dramas were enacted before they spread elsewhere. Christianity arrived in India early in the Christian era, but it was only in the sixteenth century that, under the aegis of Portuguese and other colonial powers, which gained footholds on Indian shores, that conversions began. Since it was the British who emerged as empire builders in the late eighteenth century, Christianity became a subcontinental presence, particularly after the British parliament lifted restrictions on evangelical activities in 1813. An early response to the new challenge was the search for the best in the Christian gospels – for instance, their ethical precepts – that could be welcomed into Hindu ism. Thus the Brahmo Samaj (Society of God) sought to combine the best of Vedanta with the best of Unitarian Christianity, but fared no better than the great Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Din i Ilahi (Religion of God) in the late sixteenth century.

As the activities of missionaries (often excessively condemnatory of Hinduism) gathered force, a spirited Hindu response, combining reform and revivalism, virtually burst upon the Indian scene in the closing years of the eighteenth century. Its luminous torch bearer was the Bengali renouncer Vivekananda (1863-1902). Breaking with tradition, he traveled overseas to emerge at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 as one of its most charismatic participants. Taking his stand on Vedanta, which he claimed contained all the great truths of all religions, he proclaimed that the essence of Vedantic Hinduism was the acknowledgment of religious pluralism. All paths of religious seeking were true, but the tradition that acknowledged this principle, as Vedanta did, was the paradigm of perfection. Lecturing in the US, the UK, and India, he called upon the West to look beyond its materialist riches to the spiritualist treasures of India. To the Indian youth his message was social uplift of the down trodden and the cultivation of rationalism at home and spiritual con quest abroad. Like Shankara, he died young at 39 years of age. Vivekananda was indisputably the founder of global Hinduism.

If Vivekananda’s pluralism was under the umbrella of Vedanta as the essence of true religion, the pluralism of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), known to the world as Mahatma (Great Soul), a name bestowed upon him by the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, was radical and his pluralism was open to the sky. All religions spring from divine inspiration, he said, but are imperfectly articulated because of the limitations of human reason. Things that are only implicit in some religions are explicit in others. Humanity, therefore, needs all religions. In judging each of them, moral sensibility, which he considered innate and universal, provides the yardstick. Whatever is in conflict with it, including ancient texts, must be discarded: the search for truth is unending. The strength of Hinduism, in Gand hi’s view, lies in its inclusivism and willingness to listen and learn from other religious traditions. Indeed, he considered this the true Hindu perspective. That he should have died at the hands of Hindu bigots should therefore not cause any surprise.

Hinduism is today a global religion. By present estimates there are nearly 900 million Hindus spread over six continents. Asia is where most of them live: over 800 million in India, 18 million in Nepal, 14 million in Bangladesh, 3 million in Sri Lanka, and about a million in the US. Migrants and itinerant religious teachers are the principal agents of a globalized Hinduism. Some forms of Hinduism have grown in foreign settings in response to the internal crises of other cultural traditions. The best known case, perhaps, is that of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the US.

In India Hinduism remains a personal spiritual engagement for millions; but those who look upon it as a resource for political mobilization in the pursuit of power are also quite numerous. Their Hinduism is exclusive and often degenerates into communal hate and violence. Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 did not bring the conflict between the two Hinduisms to a close.


The study of Hinduism in modern times has proceeded along two tracks. On the one hand, there have been the textualists whose studies have presented us with the ideals and norms of Hinduism as a way of life. On the other hand, the contributions of social scientists (particularly social anthropologists) have contributed richly to our understanding of ”lived Hindu ism” in its immense variety. Methodologically, the truth of Hinduism lies at the confluence of the textual and contextual perspectives. In recent years, both perspectives have become theoretically more sophisticated: structuralism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, cultural analysis, etc. have all been drawn upon with much benefit. As befits an expanding religious tradition, its study also seeks new points of departure and new frameworks of interpretation.


  1. Biardeau, M. (1981) Hinduism: The Anthropology of a Civilization. Oxford University Press, Delhi. Flood, G. (Ed.) (2003) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Blackwell, Oxford.
  2. Fuller, C. J. (1992) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  3. Madan, T. N. (1987) Non renunciation: Themes and Interpretations of Hindu Culture. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
  4. Radhakrishnan, S. (Trans.) (1948) The Bhagavadgita. Allen & Unwin, London.
  5. Srinivas, M. N. (1952) Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

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