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Who is a Hindu?

by Dr. Jeffery D. Long August, 2015

Kali Temple at Sarahan

In future issues of Sūtra Journal, I hope to share essays that will argue for various aspects of a Hindu worldview and way of life. The intent of these essays will not be to proselytize, much less to denigrate other traditions; for I see both of these activities as incompatible with a Hindu way of thinking, as I understand it. One may, and indeed one has a duty to, offer fair criticism of any view that one encounters, and also to turn the lens of criticism back upon oneself. Spiritual advancement is not otherwise possible. But to offer such a fair critique in the name of illuminating truth is not the same as to denigrate or distort the view or practice of another out of hatred or malice.

My intention, rather, is to think out loud: to share with others what draws me to Hinduism in the hope of sparking a constructive dialogue that will aid all involved in our ongoing search for truth. This essay, however, is devoted less to arguing for specific Hindu practices or ideals than to arguing for the use of the term ‘Hinduism’ itself.

Good philosophers must of course define their terms, so it is important to make clear from the outset what I mean by both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism.’ It is also the case, though, that these words are, at the moment, contentious, with some scholars going so far as to argue that Hinduism does not exist. I will argue in this essay not only that Hinduism exists (as much as anything does in this constructed realm of māyā), but also that the ideal of Hinduism is an important one to the future survival of humanity.

Finally, I will note that I come to this topic as a scholar-practitioner. My spiritual affiliation is to the Vedānta tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. As a professional scholar, I am a professor of religion and Asian studies at a small liberal arts college in North America, trained at the University of Chicago.

For complex reasons, the Hindu community and the academy of religion are often seen as mutually antagonistic. I am however dedicated to the belief that practice and scholarship are inseparable and, in fact, mutually illuminating. I hope this mutual illumination will be evident in this essay.

THE NATURE OF HINDUISM: Two Extreme Views (and the Truth in Both)

In the often-conflicted conversation between Hindu practitioners and scholars of Hindu studies, two views have tended to predominate in each respective camp regarding the basic character of Hinduism. I shall call these, respectively, the eternalist view and the constructivist view.

According to the eternalist view, which is held by many Hindus, Hinduism has always existed.

It is the eternal, Sanātana Dharma, essentially unchanging and true, and encompassing the vast range of spiritual traditions that have emerged in the Indian subcontinent over the course of many millennia, anchored by the ancient authority of the Veda. Hindu and Hinduism are, from this perspective, words that evoke deep pride in a wise and ancient family of traditions that form the inheritance of all Hindus.

According to the constructivist view, held by many academic scholars, Hinduism is a construct, an artificial term of relatively recent coinage which creates a deceptive impression of unity where the reality is an irreducible diversity. From a constructivist perspective, it is only proper to speak of Hindus and Hinduism when one is discussing the last couple of centuries of history. And even these usages are seen as problematic and contentious: as more obscuring than illuminating.

While the great diversity to which the constructivist points is certainly real, the incompatibility of the various Hindu systems can be overstated.

Both of these views are, each in its own way, limited and problematic, and each also points to important truths about the nature of Hinduism. As the constructivists tend to argue, the eternalist view can obscure or elide the real differences among the numerous traditions that make up what is now called Hinduism. Many schools of thought now seen as Hindu were, in ancient times, engaged in sharp polemical debate with one another on a variety of important topics. To call them all Hindu can underplay this indisputable fact.

While the great diversity to which the constructivist points is certainly real, the incompatibility of the various Hindu systems can be overstated.

Ganga at Varanasi

The constructivist view, on the other hand, errs in the opposite direction.

The truth of the matter, as I see it, incorporates the core insights of each of these perspectives: that there is indeed an eternal truth, a Sanātana Dharma, but that this truth manifests in the world through profound diversity, and through temporal processes that can be studied by the means employed in conventional scholarship.

This distinction between an eternal truth and the means by which it manifests in the world is made by Swami Vivekananda himself.

In a lecture titled “Hinduism and Sri Ramakrishna,” Swami Vivekananda discusses an eternal, uncreated (apauruṣeya) Veda, which he identifies with “The whole body of supersensuous truths, having no beginning or end... The Creator Himself is creating, preserving, and destroying the universe with the help of these truths.” (Complete Works, Volume 6, p. 181)

Swamiji, though, further distinguishes this eternal Veda from the collection of texts called by the same name: “These are a series of books which, to our minds, contain the essence of all religion. But we do not think they alone contain the truths.” (Complete Works, Volume 1, p. 329) Eternal truth cannot be exhausted by any single text, tradition, or teacher. The incredible diversity of what we now call Hinduism is therefore entirely to be expected. Hindu diversity is not a problem, or a puzzle to be solved, though it may be confusing to one who expects truth to come in a clear and tidy package. It is, rather, a natural outcome of the creative efflorescence of the truth itself, the manifestation of the Infinite in lived human experience.


The process by which a variety of traditions, with many overlapping assumptions, views, and practices, as well as many points of divergence and contention, came to be seen as a singular, albeit internally diverse, tradition called Hinduism is a complex one. I have elsewhere used the image of the upside down tree that is found in the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā to describe this process (Long 2014). Whereas other traditions tend to start with a single founding figure on the basis of whose teachings a community of practice forms – a community which can be likened to the trunk of a tree – and branches of this community gradually form on the basis of differences of interpretation, Hinduism can be said to have coalesced gradually from many branches coming together to form the trunk of what is now seen by Hindus as the Hindu tradition.

Kailashnath Temple at Elora

Many arguments have been presented, not only by academic scholars, but also by Hindu practitioners, against the terms Hindu and Hinduism. As many have pointed out, the terms themselves are a foreign imposition. Asko Parpola notes,

Many arguments have been presented, not only by academic scholars, but also by Hindu practitioners, against the terms Hindu and Hinduism. As many have pointed out, the terms themselves are a foreign imposition. Asko Parpola (2015, 3) notes that,

“The etymology of ‘Hindu’ goes back to about 515 BCE, when the Persian king Darius the Great annexed the Indus Valley to his empire. Sindhu, the Sanskrit name of the Indus River and its southern province–the area now known as Sindh–became Hindu in the Persian language.”

‘Hindu’ was a name coined by invaders and conquerors, and can be seen as derogatory. Some of this derogatory character seems to persist, as many westerners who have taken up practices that draw heavily from Hindu traditions–such as Yoga and Tantra–often display what appears to be a visceral aversion to having their practice, or themselves, identified as Hindu (though some of this also derives from an aversion to any identification with a religion, which is what Hinduism is considered to be). And even many self-identified Hindus favor jettisoning these ‘foreign’ terms in favor of the indigenous Sanskrit name Sanātana Dharma. The view of many scholars is that, given that most of the people and traditions that we now call Hindu were not called that for most of history, the term is simply inaccurate and distorting (for reasons mentioned earlier).

Shore Temples at Mahabalipuram


There is a case to be made, though, for the use of the terms Hindu and Hinduism, albeit with more nuance and self-awareness than has often been the case in the past.

One of the most common arguments made by academic scholars against the use of these terms is that they are a distorting colonial imposition, an outgrowth of the work of European indologists to try to comprehend the vast variety of Indian spiritual traditions as part of the broader effort to control the Indian subcontinent.

An important work of recent scholarship, though, Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism: Philoso phy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History, demonstrates that the process of the bringing together of the many ‘branches’ that make up the ‘trunk’ of what is now called Hinduism (my image, not Nicholson’s) began centuries before Europeans began to study and write about Indian traditions. And forthcoming work by scholar James Madaio affirms the very clear line of continuity between the work of modern Hindu thinkers, such as Swami Vivekananda, to articulate a unified Hindu identity, and those of pre-modern thinkers going back to Adi Śaṅkarācārya.

The import of this work is that Hinduism and Hindu identity are not solely impositions by outsiders, to be discarded as colonial distortions, but are the continuation of a process that has been at work in Indian history for a very long time.

Why, then, should there be any objection to the use of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’? To be sure, one who is doing careful scholarship, especially on the period before these terms were widely embraced by practitioners, needs to be clear about the fact that these terms, if they are being used, are being projected retroactively into the past.

It may be perfectly proper to refer to the Vedic sage Yajñavālkya as a Hindu sage, given that the Vedic tradition in which he stands is integral to what we now know as Hinduism.

But we should also be mindful that the term ‘Hindu’ was unknown to Yajñavālkya, just as the name Confucius was unknown to the Chinese master K’ung fu tzu, as European Jesuits coined that name centuries after his death upon translating his works into Latin.

The objections to using ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ seem to run deeper than merely a concern for scholarly historical accuracy. They have a political dimension as well.

Part of the history of the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ that scholars emphasize, apart from the fact that they are a foreign imposition, is the fact that these terms were also integral to the to the rise of national self-consciousness among Indians, and to the movement for Indian independence. The idea of Hindu identity became a way to unify Indians who practiced a wide array of spiritual traditions, and who lived in diverse regions, speaking a multiplicity of languages and adhering to a variety of cultural practices. All could claim the Hindu tradition as their shared inheritance, proclaimed by such figures as Swami Vivekananda.

What unites, however, can also divide, for not all Indians are Hindu, as this term has come to be understood. Many scholars are uncomfortable with the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ because they see these terms primarily as divisive: as definitive of an Indian identity that marginalizes or problematizes the identities of non-Hindu Indians, primarily Muslims and Christians.


Why, then, should I want to make a case for Hinduism? Let me first repeat what I affirmed at the outset. My intention here is neither to proselytize nor to denigrate other traditions. I will add, in the same spirit, that it is certainly not my intention to call into question or to marginalize the identities of minority communities in India, nor in fact to intervene in any way whatsoever in India’s internal politics.

I have come to this tradition from the outside. I did not grow up in India, nor am I of Indian descent. (I may have been in a past life, or in many past lives, but that is beside the point at hand.)

I was drawn to Hinduism – to the Bhagavad Gītā, to the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda, the pluralism of Sri Ramakrishna, the practice of yoga, the spiritual aesthetic of bhakti and Tantra – because I found it to be a life-affirming path that enabled me to make sense of some of life’s biggest and most urgent questions. The fact that these ideals and practices came from India was, for me, secondary to their content: to the way they helped me to navigate my life experiences. I suspect I am similar to most western seekers in this regard.

To be sure, I have since lived in India, married an Indian, and in many ways adopted an Indian way of thinking and living, while still retaining what I find to be of value in the western culture of my upbringing. I feel that I have the best of both worlds, and am every day grateful to be following the path that I do.

My case for Hinduism is that, while it may be true that this term, like any term that marks an affiliation, can be divisive (particularly in the context of Indian politics), it also has a capacity at least as great to unify not only people in India or of Indian descent, but people of all nations and ethnicities. Many Hindus are averse to the term ‘religion,’ and point out, quite rightly, that it is a deeply inadequate translation of the term dharma. But let us say not that Hinduism is simply a religion, but that it is, among other things, a religion: a way of life centered on certain normative ideals in which its adherents believe very deeply. To the extent that Hinduism can be seen as a religion, it shares the quality that anyone who accepts its ideals and practices can be an adherent of it. Who, then, is a Hindu? Anyone who consciously adheres to a way of life and worldview derived from the ancient family of traditions known as Hinduism. The term ‘Hindu’ may be seen as divisive by some in India; but this is if we insist on defining it in a way that confines it to the Indian subcontinent. If the dharma is truly universal – truly sanātana – then there can be, and there are, European Hindus, African Hindus, Latin-American Hindus, and so on.

Hanuman Temple at Vijaynagar

Moreover, because Hinduism encompasses such an enormous diversity of views and paths–the very diversity that makes some scholars puzzle over how it can possibly be seen as a unified tradition–it provides, I believe, a model for how all of humanity may one day be united. Vaiṣṇavas, Śaivas, Śāktas, and Smārtas have all been able to unite, while yet each preserving its distinctive identity, under the term Hindu. As I argued in my first book, A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, “Rather than reject the use of the term Hinduism, which has become so fixed in the shared lexicon of India and the West…one can make a virtue of necessity and celebrate the emergence of a tradition that can ground and justify a pluralism in which a variety of spiritual paths can co-exist in peace and mutual support.” (Long 2007, p. 96)

In other words, anyone can be a Hindu. A religion, in contrast with a national or an ethnic identity, has this capacity for universality, for inspiring people globally, and not only those of a particular ethnicity or nationality. Hinduism certainly has this capacity

While it is true that the exclusivist ways in which the adherents of some traditions conceive of salvation are currently an obstacle to any kind of unification of all religions under a single umbrella, it is also true that there are voices in each tradition who argue for a more pluralistic understanding: the kind of pluralism that is embodied in Hindu unityin-diversity, and in the lives of such sages as Sri Ramakrishna. As Arvind Sharma has argued, the Hindu equivalent of the missionary imperative found in other traditions is to encourage the voices of pluralism and acceptance that are to be found among adherents of those traditions. (Sharma 1997) The objective is not so much to make the world Hindu as to make the relations among global traditions like those among Hindu traditions. There was a time when Śaivas and Vaiṣṇavas clashed violently. Now they worship together in the same temples. Might the same one day be true of all of humanity? And importantly, this is not a unity which obliterates diversity. Śaivas continue to be Śaivas and Vaiṣṇavas continue to be Vaiṣṇavas, even while both are Hindu.


It has become a common practice among scholars of Hinduism to use this term as an umbrella term to encompass a wide range of traditions: Vedic, Yogic, Tantric, and so on. Much scholarship is devoted to separating out these various threads and determining what in Hinduism is purely Vedic, what is purely Yogic, what is purely Tantric, and so on. On the other hand, some works, such as Christopher Wallis’ Tantra Illuminated (2013), tend to identify that which is ‘Hindu’ in Hinduism as existing solely within the Vedic tradition, thus implying that non-Vedic traditions such as Tantra are not Hindu, or were not originally Hindu.

Of course, as we have seen, even the Vedic tradition was not ‘originally Hindu,’ in the sense that the term Hindu did not yet exist when the Vedic tradition emerged. The process of separating out the various threads of what we now call Hinduism is difficult indeed, for all of these strands interpenetrate and overlap to such a great extent that it is probably impossible to find an artifact of one that bears no influence from the others. The Vedic literature itself – especially the Atharva Veda – includes many elements that are arguably Tantric, or Proto-Tantric, just as Tantra incorporates many elements of Vedic mantras and ritualism (See Timalsina’s Mantra essay in this volume). So even calling Tantra non-Vedic is problematic. And for Hindu practitioners today, of course, all of this variety is part of one tradition, one dharma, so all of these questions of what is what and what comes from where can be seen as, at best, a useless distraction, from a spiritual standpoint, and at worst, as a deliberate attempt to undermine Hindu unity – a continuation of the divide-and-rule policies of the colonial era.

The hope behind this essay is that the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ can emerge, not as designating an artificial construct (or at least not one any more artificial than any other element in our constructed human experience in this virtual spatio-temporal realm), nor as divisive terms bandied about in Indian politics, but as terms pointing to a tradition that is many things in one: a pluralistic tradition capable of pointing the way towards a more pluralistic world for us all.

works cited

  1. Jeffery D. Long, A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism (London: IB Tauris, 2007)
  2. Jeffery D. Long, “Hindu Relation with the Religious Other,” in Understanding Interreligious Relations. David Cheetham and Douglas Pratt, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2014)
  3. David Cheetham and Douglas Pratt, eds., “Hindu Relation with the Religious Other,” in Understanding Interreligious Relations, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  4. Andrew Nicholson, Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010)
  5. Asko Parpola, The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)
  6. Arvind Sharma, Hinduism for Our Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1979)
  7. Christopher Wallis, Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition (San Rafael, Calif., Mattamayūra Press, 2013)
  8. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama 1979)
Dr. Jeffery D. Long

by Dr. Jeffery D. Long

August, 2015

About Dr. Jeffery D. Long

Dr. Long is Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania, USA. He is associated with the Vedanta Society, DĀNAM (the Dharma Academy of North America). A major theme of his work is religious pluralism.

Dr. Long has authored three books, A Vision for Hinduism: Beyond Hindu Nationalism, Jainism: An Introduction, and The Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. He has published and presented a number of articles and papers in various forums including the Association for Asian Studies, the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, and the American Academy of Religion.

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