How Do You Define Hinduism?

The Basics of Hinduism

Brahma
Lord Brahma - The Godhead of the Hindu Trinity. Subhamoy Das

Hinduism is the dominant faith of India, practiced by over 80% of the population. As such, it is essentially an Indian phenomenon, and because religion is central the way of life in India, Hinduism is an integral part of the entire Indian cultural tradition. 

Not a Religion, But a Dharma

But it is not easy to define Hinduism, for it is much more than a religion as the word is used in the Western sense.

In fact, according to some scholars, Hinduism is not exactly a religion at all. To be precise, Hinduism is a way of life, a dharma. Hinduism can best be defined as a way of life based on the teachings of ancient sages and scriptures, such as the Vedas and Upanishads. The word 'dharma' connotes "that which supports the universe," and effectively means any path of spiritual discipline which leads to God.

When compared and contrasted with other religious systems, it is clear that Hinduism includes a system of traditions and beliefs on spirituality, but unlike most religions it has no clerical orders, no principle religious authorities or administrative group, nor even any central holy book. Hindus are allowed to hold nearly any kind of belief in deities they choose, from monotheistic to polytheistic, from atheistic to humanistic. So while Hinduism has been defined as a religion, but it may more appropriately be described as a way of life that includes any and all scholarly and spiritual practices that can be said to lead to enlightenment or human progress.

 

Hindu Dharma, as one scholar analogizes, can be compared to a fruit tree, with its roots (1) representing the Vedas and Vedantas, the thick trunk (2) symbolizing the spiritual experiences of numerous sages, gurus and saints, its branches (3) representing various theological traditions, and the fruit itself, in different shapes and sizes (4), symbolizing various sects and subsects.

However, the concept of Hinduism defies a definite definition because of its uniqueness.

The Oldest of Religious Traditions

Difficult though Hinduism is to define, scholars generally do agree that Hinduism is the oldest of mankind's recognized religious traditions. Its roots lie in the pre-Vedic and Vedic tradition of India. Most experts date the beginning to Hinduism to roughly 2000 BCE, making the tradition about 4,000 years old. By comparison, Judaism, widely recognized as the world's second oldest religious tradition, is thought to be roughly 3,400 years old;  and the oldest Chinese religion, Taoism, appeared in recognizable form about 2,500 years ago. Buddhism, emerged out of Hinduism about 2,500 years ago, as well. Most of the world's great religions, in other words, are mere newcomers when compared to Hinduism.