Understanding the Hindu Identity

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The term “Hindu” is rooted in the Sanskrit texts that refer to the Indus River, as Sindhu. Language barriers that came into play when invading parties presented in the Indian subcontinent lent an evolution to the words and specifically the Arabic language assigned the label al Hind to the “ people of the Indus River area”. The term further evolved into the name Hindustan for the area they deemed the concerned country. Some sources also claim that the British officers in the East India Company assumed that the native people were mispronouncing the name of their own local river by omitting the “H” therefore saying Indoo when what they really meant was Hindoo.

The concept of Hinduism is broadly defined using characteristics of geographical location, ceremonial rituals, spiritual beliefs, and overall cultural traditions. It was originally applied to those born into the region of the Indus River Valley and expanded to what became known as Hindustan which is present day India.  However, as foreign intruders and those seeking commercial relations began to document the culture for the rest of the world, an intricate network of traits were found to be woven together to create the dynamic that defines what is now known to be one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.

Scholars have long taught that the basic criteria for one to be defined as Hindu is that he is born into the culture and accepts the divinity of the ancient Sanskrit Vedas. Other concepts are an adherence to caste rule, the authority of the Brahmin priests, a practice of puja (worship and offerings to deities and other rituals), and belief in the Atman (the eternal self) and reincarnation although this is not a doctrine owned by Hindus alone. A later premise is that of ahimsa, or non-violence which led to the widespread practice of vegetarianism amongst Hindus.  However, it is entirely possible to meet Hindus who do not live in accordance with every one of these. As the traditions have been dated to 3000 B.C. it is inevitable to have evolved in some areas.

For example, although acceptance of the Vedas is one of the most basic tenets, the Vedic texts have proven to be of such expansive volume that even the most illumined holy men are accepted to not have thorough knowledge of them all and this must come as a welcome surprise to the overwhelmed new student.  Most every day Hindus share a respect for the Vedas even if they do not have a personal study or understanding of them.

Another aspect of Hinduism that is open to interpretation is the acceptance of Brahmin authority. This is the caste that was of the educators, priests, and other intellectuals who were looked to for guidance and decision making. Once respected as the only channels through which the sacred texts were passed, they were also the only ones able to perform rituals and sacrifices for the people. They alone were entrusted to pronounce the mantras and chants to the precision required to render the ceremony effective. Over time, their services became increasingly specialized that the cost of arranging these services and the procurement of the materials for sacrifices seems to have had an off putting effect on the faithful. Many Hindus don’t participate in this type of worship and instead ascribe to a more personal manner of worship such as darshan which is “seeing” and being seen by the images of the deities in temple and murti puja, adornments and offerings of flowers and sweets made to the altars of deities. This is known as bhakti, acts of devotion. Still others may not identify with a specific deity and instead follow the road of jnana, or knowledge-seeking, pursuing wisdom through meditation, study and renouncement.

Most of these practices could be performed by anyone. So, can someone not born in India adopt a Hindu lifestyle and literally “convert” into a Hindu? Most born Hindus would probably say no but not to be self righteous or exclusive, for Hindus by nature are very inviting and tolerant. It’s more a matter of semantics. While not possible within these definitions to actually convert into a Hindu, it can be said that a person could easily accept the philosophy and practices of the Hindu traditions. Thinking of it in this way may border on defining it as an ethnicity or race and some Hindus would accept that. Even if not born in the region or descended from those who were, one with respect to Hinduism can say, “I am Hindu,” but what he has done is embraced the Hindu philosophy.

For someone who wishes to claim Hinduism but was born outside of it, probably the strongest obstacle he will face is his initial identity which is based on caste.  But if you’re not born a Hindu, you have no way to identify yourself for you have no caste—it can’t just be chosen. Caste is the identity one is born into. Ironically, going farther back in antiquity we see that caste was more of a choice. People found their talents and strengths and often chose a walk of life or profession that they were suited for. It seems cultural regression to know that as time went on, it became less of a choice and quality of life eroded (at least for the lower castes) into a manner that one has no way of rising above what they were born into. Inter-caste marriage is at best discouraged, at worst punishable by death.

The caste system is divided into four primary classes or varnas, the first three of which are considered “twice born” for they adhere to traditions that allow them to undergo certain sacraments and enjoy a more privileged life. There are further divisions of the 4 castes, subcastes called jatis. The Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), and Vaishyas (merchants and agriculture) are these. Shudras (manual laborers) are the fourth caste and are often mistakenly looped into the lowest jati of all the subcastes, the Dalits or “Untouchables”.

The Brahmins are the priests, teachers, and legal authorities. Those born into this caste would start hearing the sacred texts at early ages and for centuries they were passed down primarily through oral tradition. The most dedicated of the students were able to recite Vedic scripts not only as they were dictated to them but also backwards and sometimes even by omitting every other word. This is what led to the sacraments becoming so specific that it was believed that if one note was chanted off-key or one syllable of a mantra mispronounced during a ceremony, that flaw would render the entire ritual null.

The demand was created for priests of perfection and the costs of affording a Brahmin ceremony became out of reach for the typical Hindu. For a faith that holds end of life renunciation of material wealth in such high regard, it seems that expensive demands from priests for blessings and to restore karma is contradictory.

Nandan Upadhyay of Varanasi described a situation that required consulting with a Brahmin priest. When asked if he kept any pets in his home such as dogs or cats, he explained that one will rarely find a Hindu home with a cat as a pet for they believe that if a cat dies while in their care—regardless of the death having been caused by mistreatment, illness, or accident—an expensive offering of a golden image of a cat must be made to a Brahmin priest. It does not have to be large or even of solid gold; it could be an image etched onto a piece of wood or drawn on paper and then painted in gold leaf, but it did have to be of real gold.  He recalled a day of riding his bicycle through the narrow streets of Benares when a cat darted in front of him. He didn’t have time to brake and avoid it and the back tire hit the cat but as he looked back, he saw it get up and move on although visibly injured. Nandan said he dreaded having to tell his mother because of the expensive offering they would have to come up with if the cat died but if it did, they were to honor their obligations so they started preparations for the offering. He went back to the neighborhood and found the cat’s owner. In the end, the cat had recovered so the need for the offering never materialized and he actually still goes to visit it from time to time.

The Kshatriyas, or the warrior caste, are those destined to serve in the military, become police officers, politicians and local activists. In antiquity they are the leaders of the defense against invading armies. Their history is rich with stories of fierce battles as they fought tirelessly to fend off neighboring kingdoms trying to overtake their region and of devastating defeats as the Mughal rulers pressed on and occupied what was the wealthiest civilization on earth at the time.

The Vaishyas, or merchants, may not be as glorified as the Brahmins or Kshatriyas but they are the pillars of the community. These are the merchants, business owners, the agricultural professionals who run the farms that grow the grain and rice and tend the cattle. Society depends upon them for structure and survival. A culture may be chaotic without religious discipline and military but it could continue. But in a region like India, it is imperative that there be a portion of the population whose purpose is to see that food is farmed and marketed for this is what employs the most and propels the economy.

To a Westerner, the most intriguing aspect of the caste system is that of the lowest caste, the Shudras, for often their treatment is terribly inhumane. They are the laborers who perform the chores and hold not only the lowliest jobs in society, but the poorly paid and most dangerous, especially for the Dalits. They are barred from obtaining educations and in the most orthodox cases forbidden to even hear uttering of any of the sacred texts. It was considered so taboo for the divine words of the Vedas to fall on the ears of a Dalit that if it was suspected it had even occurred by accident or in passing, the usual punishment was to pour molten lead into his ears. A Dalit’s shadow was inauspicious and he could be beaten severely if his passed over an individual of a higher caste. His footprints were considered cursed and many would tuck whisked brooms or palm fronds into the backs of their belts to sweep their footprints from behind them as they walked. The Shudras were the ones with the duty of emptying the night soil from homes, digging latrines, cleaning, and serving. It’s considered inauspicious to touch a corpse but someone has to perform the duties of preparing them for cremation and burial. The Dalits retrieve the body from the home, anoint with oils, wrap in the shrouds, adorn with flowers and place on the pyre. When the cremation is complete, they sweep up the remains and, if in Varanasi, surrender them to the holy Ganges.

To the rest of the world the caste system seems terribly antiquated and a clear violation of human rights but most of India will still defend it and state its value in socio-economics. It’s a widespread misconception that it was officially outlawed a few decades ago although some updating has been attempted. Mahatma Gandhi worked feverishly to improve the conditions for the lower castes, even refusing to refer to them as outcastes, but instead as “Children of God”. The concept of “Untouchable” was abolished and any discriminatory treatment of anyone of that caste is actually illegal, but most will say that progress is slow to be made to truly see tangible changes in how they are treated in society.

2 responses »

  1. As with most people who have an exposure to the caste system, you have got somethings right and something wrong. I am working on a post on the caste system in Hinduism and what went wrong.

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    • I look forward to reading your post, Sriram. I’m sure that anyone not born into the culture can often sound ignorant at times especially considering how long Hinduism has had to evolve. I have obtained my understanding through my visits to India, my Hindu friends, and courses I took through Oxford University’s Center for Hindu Studies. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is that the traditions can be so varied that even a Hindu can come across schools of thought that are new to him, even in old age. For example, I had never heard of the belief surrounding cats that my friend Nandan told me about. I have many Hindu friends who keep cats as pets so I still think of that story with wonder.

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