On Hinduism: Clarifying Some Confusions



There is quite a lot of political debate going on about Hinduism. Laymen and young cadres are quite confused about it. This article attempts to remove some fog from the issue. So the language is simple and non academic. All dates and figures are rounded off though care is taken that they are not significantly different from more accurate estimates.

   We will attempt to answer four basic questions which to us appear at the root of confusion. They are:

1.      What is Hinduism?

2.      How old is Hinduism?

3.      How many Hindus are there in India?

4.      What is Sanatan Dharma? How many Snatanis are there?

What is Hinduism?

The words Hindu, Hinduism and Hindu Dharma are not from the Indian tradition. They are of Western origin and all relate to the river Sindhu (Hindu) or Indus (India). They refer to the region and people generally east of this river. The Muslim rulers called all non Muslims as Hindus in India. The British called all non Muslims and Christians as Hindus!

   The term Dharma does not mean religion in the Indian tradition. The term for religion in the Indian tradition is ‘Sampradaya’ or sect. But the word Hinduism has acquired a meaning which signifies a set or a group of Sampradayas or sects in India. How do we define this ‘Hinduism’?

   The scholar Rahul Sankrityayan defined Hinduism as having three characteristics:

 1. Belief in the Karma theory and rebirth

 This answered the classic question that all religions must grapple with: Why do good people suffer? And why does the ruling class get away with all the injustice and corruption? The answer in Hinduism is that you are born in a particular caste and you get what you deserve because of the Karma or deeds you did in the past birth. If you behave well, that is, obey, follow ethics etc., then in the next birth you will have a better life/be born in a higher caste. The idea of rebirth came from Buddhism as Vedic Aryans did not believe in rebirth. The Karma theory was developed as both Buddhism and Hinduism developed into full fledged religions.

2. Creation of the caste system

The caste system is obviously related to Karma theory as explained above. It is especially Hindu as Vedic Arya, Buddhism and Jainism had no caste system. It was a master stroke to combine the two since it has lasted all these years! This was the Arthashastra and the Manusmriti’s way of consolidating peasant society. What is so special about the caste system? After all, some kind of hierarchy exists in many societies. Ambedkar defined caste as ‘enclosed class’. That is, endogamy (marrying within the caste) is compulsory and exogamy (marrying outside the caste) is prohibited. This effectively curbed unity of the oppressed classes. Even today if a lower caste man marries a woman from upper caste ‘honour’ killing can occur where the man and sometimes woman is also murdered.

   Many tribal communities were probably forced out of their habitat to clear land for agriculture and later were absorbed in to Hindu society as Shudras and Panchamas (untouchables). Untouchability was the Indian form of slavery which continued unhindered till Independence in 1947. It was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and the Hindu reformers who finally managed to abolish it legally through the Indian Constitution. However Ambedkar’s dream of abolishing caste probably cannot be realised because caste is quintessentially a Hindu phenomenon. Abolish caste and you abolish Hinduism itself!

 3. Taboo on cow slaughter and beef eating

 This was a classic case of a totem turning into a taboo. Earlier the totemic food for the cattle herding communities was beef and cow sacrifice was a major Vedic ritual. This transformation occurred due to agriculture becoming more important. Buddhism and Jainism also contributed to it. This also distinguished Hindus from the tribals.

 To conclude, Hindus are those people who have belief in 1. Karma theory and rebirth, 2. Caste system 3. and taboo on cow slaughter and beef eating.

How old is Hinduism?

We have dated Hinduism to 200 BCE (Before the Common Era). This needs some explanation as many people keep on saying that Hinduism is thousands of years old. But if you use the above mentioned yardstick of the definition of Hinduism, that is: 1. Belief in karma theory and rebirth, 2. Creation of caste system and 3. Taboo on cow slaughter and beef eating, we will show that the earlier periods in Indian history did not exhibit all these characteristics.

   Indian civilization is normally dated from the Indus Valley Civilization. The Indus Valley Civilisation was a Bronze Age civilisation in the North Western regions of South Asia, lasting from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, and in its mature form 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. We do not know enough about its civilisation because its script has yet to be deciphered. However if we apply the above definition of Hinduism, they were certainly not Hindus! Of course being part of the same subcontinent we have certainly absorbed some of their achievements.

   Present day Hindus themselves trace their origin to the Vedic period (1200 BCE-600 BCE). These people were called Aryans. Cow and beef was totemic food for them. Nor did they believe in rebirth. Certain social divisions were certainly there – warriors, shepherds, peasants and traders – but they were not rigidly frozen as castes and certainly untouchability was not there. Actually the main division was probably ‘Aryans and Nonaryans’ communities.

    Hinduism as we know today dates from the Arthashastra and Dharmashastra (or Manusmriti) around 200 BCE. These texts got consolidated between 200 BCE and 300 AD. Buddhism and Jainism, dating from 500 BC, were a big challenge to Hinduism which lasted up to 800 AD. Buddhism then almost vanished from India, but Jainism has survived as a small but powerful sect of traders. However, their daily life is indistinguishable from other upper caste Hindus except for their strict vegetarianism. For all practical purposes, Jainism is treated as one of the Sampradayas of Hinduism.

    What happened during this period that allowed Hinduism to consolidate? The answer in one word is ‘iron’. The coming of the Iron Age made settled agriculture the mainstay of the economy. Iron ploughs and tools helped clear forests and improve agriculture production. This in turn supported the formation of a stable State in two ways. It made it possible to impose taxes and also supported an urban population and army with food. The taxes helped to pay the army and bureaucracy. Iron also gave better weapons to the army.

    Now a State is an instrument of the ruling class to serve its interests and keep the ruled classes under control. This control is rarely done by force, although it is always there. Most of the time however, this control is done through a set of cultural processes which legitimise or justify the system of State power. Among them, religion is one of the most important one. In modern times democracy and elections also perform this role. In ancient India, Arthashastra by Chanakya and Dharmashastra or Manusmriti by Manu helped legitimise the State and consolidate Hinduism.

    Thus Hinduism is about 2200 year old, that is about 200 years older than Christianity and 800 years older than Islam!

 How many Hindus are there in India?

The numbers used in this section are rough estimates, rounded off to make reading simpler. But as we said in the beginning they do not significantly differ from accurate estimates.

   Today the Indian population is roughly estimated as 140 crores (1400 million or 1.4 billion). But we will use 2011 data as no census so far has been conducted since then. We will also round off data for ease of reading. According to the 2011 census, total Population in 2011 was 121.1 crores; Hindu 96.6 crores (79.8%); Muslim 17.2 crores (14.2%); Christian 2.8 crores (2.3%); Sikh 2.1 crores (1.7%); Buddhist 0.8 crores (0.7%); Jain 0.5 crores (0.4%). Obviously this is just like what the British did – all non Muslims and non Christians were lumped together. This suits those political forces who visualize India primarily a Hindu country, in opposition to the Indian Constitution which visualizes India as a secular country.

   However not all these 79.8% or 97 crores Hindus consider themselves as Hindus. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprise about 16.6% and 8.6%, respectively, of India’s population. That is, there are some 23 crores Scheduled Castes and some 12.0 crores Schedule Tribes in India. So there are some 35 crores of SC and ST people. These 35 crores are by most yardsticks not Hindus, though the Sangh Parivar would claim the SC/ST population of 35 crores as Hindus. The remaining 62 crores are unambiguously Hindus. That is to say Hindus constitute about 51% of India’s population. They live in today’s political India. North East India and Kashmir have very few Hindus and Hindu Indians are treated as foreigners/exploiters/enemies by the majority of these people.

   The position of the Scheduled Castes is ambiguous. Traditionally, they were the shudra and panchamas, the lowest castes within the Hindu religion. They might include many tribal communities that were absorbed into Hindu society. The daily life of the Shudras and Panchamas is closer to the tribals because of this history. Their gods and goddesses are not the normal Hindu deities like Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Rama and Krishna. Nor are their festivals the same as Diwali, Dussera, Holi, Ugadi etc. Even in the 20th century, there have been instances of tribals becoming Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Castes going into the forests to become tribals. This probably has happened throughout the last 2000 years, the reason why these communities (today known as Scheduled Castes and Tribes) are viewed outside Hinduism. The political leaders of these communities also do not see a future within Hinduism. Today there is a sense of revolt against mainstream Hinduism, and large-scale conversion to other religions (Christianity, Buddhism and Islam) have occurred much to the anger of Sangh Parivar. What is clear is that the ideology of the Sangh Parivar wants to keep them as slaves and second class citizens within the Hindu fold.

    To conclude this section, there are 62 crores Hindus and they constitute about 51 % of India’s population.

 What is Sanatan Dharma? How many Hindus are Snatanis?

 Recently there has been a huge controversy where some people have suggested that all Hindus do not believe in Sanatan Dharma. So what is Sanatan Dharma?

    From the very beginning Hindu religion had this debate. First it was those sects who accepted the authority of Vedas and there were some who did not. Buddhists and Jains obviously did not. There were other sects at that time who did not accept the authority of Vedas either. So to begin with, Sanatanis are those Hindus who believed in the authority of Vedas and Manusmriti. These people consolidated their power and remained the dominant force up to 8th century A. D. By that time people were getting much oppressed and a religious revolt/reform movement began. This was called the Bhakti movement.

    The Bhakti movement had two distinct strands, referred to as Sagun and Nirgun. Both trends contributed to the emergence of modern Indian languages through Bhakti literature. As a rule, the Sagun tradition is identified with upper castes and Nirgun with the lower castes.

    The word Sagun means ‘with qualities’ and it refers to a concept of God who is all powerful and all knowing. In practice it means identifying God with the king and in the temples there will be an image of God looking like a king with his queen and other court people. Almost all the founders and saints of this tradition were Brahmins. Ramanujacharya (12th c.) is considered to be the main source of the Sagun Bhakti movement. His theology was called Vishishtadvaita, and his Bhakti ideas went by the name of Vaishnavism.  Apart from Brahmins and many traders, peasant castes also followed Vaishnavism, although their priests were normally Brahmins. There were many other founders of the Sagun tradition of Bhakti, who composed and created modern Indian languages. Among others by Chaitanya in Orissa and Bengal, Surdas and Tulsidas in the North and other Vaishnavas of Gujarat, Western M.P., and Rajasthan etc. In content, Sagun Bhakti emphasized obedience and surrender to God!

    As against this, there is a Nirgun (without qualities) tradition. In this there are no deities in a temple and God is regarded as formless. Most of the saints in this tradition were artisans or belonged to the lower castes (except Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, who was a trader). Prominent among them were Kabir and Dadu. The Sikh religion has a book called Grantha Sahib which is a compendium of Nirgun Saints. Many Sufi saints are also included in it, because the Nirgun ideas are close to Sufi ideas. This is the main reason that most of the converts to Islam were artisans! In content Nirgun Bhakti emphasized love and equality among all people. The great classic inter-community love stories like Heer-Ranjha, Laila-Majnu, and Sohni -Mahiwal etc. come from this tradition and have enriched modern languages.

   As per our analysis above it is the people who follow the Sagun trend that can be classed as those Hindus who believe in Sanatan Dharma. In terms of caste, it is the upper castes – Brahmins, Kshatriyas and traders undoubtedly belong to this tradition. SC and ST certainly do not belong to it. Among the OBC (Other backward Castes) the peasants and cattle herding castes also believe in Sagun Dharma. The lower OBC castes, mainly artisan castes – like weaver, carpenter, iron smiths, potters etc. are by and large Nirgunias. So we can define Sanatanis as: Hindus minus Artisan Castes.

    In terms of numbers we will use 2011 data as above. There will be some small confusion because the percentage of OBC varies from state to state and we will take a rough estimate of 40% for all India levels. According to the 2011 census, total Population in 2011 was 121 crores. OBCs account for 40% of India’s population, that is, some 48 crores. So out of 62 crores Hindus, 48 crores are OBCs. And the upper castes account 14 crores only. What is the proportion of artisan caste in the OBC group? This varies from state to state. Caste surveys are being carried out in several states (so far five) and the figures are emerging. A working hypothesis can be 50%. For the country as a whole it can be between 20 – 30 crores. If you take the halfway figure, that is, 24 crores, then the maximum number of Sanatanis among the 62 crores Hindus will be about (62 -24) 38 crores or about 31 % of population. (This is just an estimate. Figures therefore will not fully tally). The number of the upper caste alone will be (38-24) 14 crores.

 To conclude this section, Sanatanis are those Hindus who believed in the authority of Vedas and Manusmriti. Also they are Sagunias, that is, they believe in a God who has qualities! Some 38 crores Hindus or about 31 % of population are Sanatanis.

 Our Figures at a Glance

Note: All figures are rounded off. Estimated means our estimates. This chart is mainly indicative. Figures will not fully tally. We have also adjusted the figures for 2023.     

S. N.CATEGORYTOTAL (2011)PERCENTAGETotal (2023) Adjusted
1India121 crores100 %140 crores
2Hindus97 crores80 %113 crores
7Scheduled Castes23 crores16.6 %27 crores
8Scheduled Tribes12 crores8.6 %14 crores
9Hindus minus SC&ST62 crores51 %72 crores
10Hindus (Sanatanis)38( Estimated) crores31 %44 crores
11Hindus (Nirgunias)24 (Estimated) crores20 %28 crores

T Vijayendra (1943 – ) was born in Mysore, grew up in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s.

Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left-wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left-wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last ten years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. In 2017 he spent a year celebrating the Bicentenary of the Bicycle. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving license nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel-based vehicle.

He divides his time between Hyderabad and organic farms at several places in India, watching birds and writing fiction. He has published a book dealing with resource depletion, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella, an autobiography and a children’s science fiction story on the history of the bicycle, apart from booklets on several topics. His booklet, Kabira Khada Bazar Mein: Call for Local Action in the Wake of Global Emergency (2019, https://archive.org/details/kabira-khada-bazaar-mein) has been translated into Kannada, Bengali and Marathi and is the basic text for the emerging Transition Networks in these language regions. His last book ‘Vijutopias’, which has 12 short stories, is an entertaining book full of hope and energy in these dismal times.

Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com

This was first published in Mainstream on November 11, 2023

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