Hinduism‘s most remarkable characteristic is that unlike other theistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, it is beyond narrow definitions. It is the oldest extant religion in the world, but is it really a religion? Or a religious tradition? Or just a way of life? It doesn’t have one god you have to pray to, one book you must read, one temple you must visit, one set of beliefs or commandments you should follow.
It is what you make of it and you define it at your own peril.
This is at once charming and infuriating. Charming to those who respect the multifarious nature of the human being, the vishwa manava, because it offers a startlingly simple rationale for a Hindu’s subliminal liberalism. But it is infuriating to those who cannot round up the devout at the crack of a whip like other religious followers, because they accept and assimilate “the other” all too easily.
Now, Britain’s first state-funded Hindu school has come up with a five-step definition of a “practising Hindu. And by that definition a Hindu is one who prays daily at home or at a temple, and observes the key festivals like Deepavali, Krishna Janmashtami and Rama Navami; one who accepts and follows Vedic scriptures, in particular the Bhagavad Gita; one who does voluntary work once a week at temples; one who follows a vegetarian diet, abstaining even from fish and eggs; and one who abstains from intoxication of smoking, drinking or drugs.
Questions: Is it right to define Hinduism thus? Is this definition reasonable or self-serving? Inclusive or exclusionary? Brahminical or all-encompassing? Will such definitions divide or unite Hindus? And by this yardstick what proportion of the 80 per cent Hindu population in the country would qualify as practising Hindus? Would you?