Home | Our Mission | History | Religion & Society | Books & Magazines | Ol Chiki Script | Dictionary & Grammar | Fonts | Disom Khobor | Art & Culture | Projects | Pasteboard | Feedback
a portal for Santals
Who is Hindu ?

Who is a Hindu? - I
 (Business Standard 11-9-2001)
 For historians, defining a Hindu is still elusive,
writes Rajat Kanta Ray
The question as to who is a Hindu cropped up once again on a ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this  year during a marital dispute. An Oraon tribal woman had challenged her Santhal husband's right to marry a  second time. The woman lost her case because bigamy is prmissible  under the tribe's customs, but that is an  incidental matter. What is of general interest is the Supreme Court's effort to grapple with the definition of who is a Hindu, and the question whether the tribes are covered  by the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 (in other words, whether the scheduled tribes are Hindus).  The question is not a new one. The Muslims, when they  came to India, had to deal with this puzzling  question. It is of some interest to note that Muhammad Qasim Firishta, author of the standard Persian history of medieval India, paused at one point to dwell on the tribal population of central India, and he remarked, incidentally, that they could hardly be considered Hindu.  The remark is of interest because of several reasons.  In the first place, it indicates a growing acquisition of knowledge of the population of India by the incoming Muslim scholars and administrators.  Initially, they had indiscriminately regarded all inhabitants of the land as Hindus, but by this time  (i.e. the sixteenth century, when the Tarikh-i-Firishta was written) they were learning to  distinguish between the diverse groups in the  subcontinent.  Equally interesting is Firishta's clear identification of the Hindus as a religious group, distinct in its  faith from the animist tribal groups. This is a  striking redefinition of the term "Hindu": from the  earlier ethnic sense of all inhabitants of Hind,  including "the Shamanyya" (Buddhists), the term is now restricted to those in the Brahmanical fold.  The problem of defining "Hindu" assumes even greater complexity when we consider that the very term is a Muslim and foreign coinage. The so-called Hindus did not call themselves as such in earlier times.  In fact, they borrowed the term from the Muslims to give themselves a name for the first time in history. This happened not earlier than the fourteenth century when, for the first time, the sovereign prince of Vijayanagar styled himself "Hindu Sultan". Before this, the Hindus had no name for themselves. Both the Brahmans and the Buddhists spoke of the "Dharma", and not of Hindu religion or Buddhist religion, when speaking of faith.  In so far as an attempt was made to distinguish between the two, adherents of the Brahmans might speak of the "Sanatan Dharma", and those of the Buddhist Sangha would talk of the "Sad-dharma". Small wonder that the Muslims could not distinguish between the two at first, and chose to refer to the whole of the population by the initially undifferentiated category of "Hindu" (i.e. Indian). The inescapable conclusion that emerges from this is that the term "Hindu" was defined in Indian history in relation to "Muslim" and would have made no sense without this "other". Hindu was a category produced by a historical process that occurred in the first  centuries of the Turkish occupation of Northern India.Before this, there were of course adherents of the Brahmanical faith, along with heterodox sects like the Buddhists and Jains. Arab traders were in the habit of referring to all of them as Hindus. But as far as the people themselves were concerned, they had no collective name for themselves, and would pronounce "Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra" together whenever an occasion arose for referring to the collective identity.  Shankaracharya, who launched a counter-reformation toabsorb the heterodox sects within the Brahmanical fold  around the time of the Arab occupation of Sind, would have been surprised to be addressed as a Hindu Sannyasi, for there was no such person. It is in contradistinction to the Muslims that Hindus acquired a collective denomination. Before this happened, the Brahmanical faith for which Shankaracharya brought final victory in pre-Muslim India had itself gone through several mutations. The Vedic cult of protohistory, which concentrated on sacrifice (yojna) of clarified butter in the fire-pit (1000 BC), was not the same as the Puranic worship (puja) of images of gods and goddesses installed in temples of the historical era (AD 500). Historically, the faith advocated by the Brahmans, themselves a much-evolved group, was an ever-changing phenomenon.  If the historian faces so complex a problem in describing the Hindu, the judge has no less complex a task in defining him or her. The Privy Council of Great Britain had to reckon with the task in Koer v.Bose in 1903. Its judgement in that case has recently been quoted approvingly by the Supreme Court of India:
"We shall not attempt here to lay down the general definition of what is meant by the term Hindu. The Hindu religion is marvellously catholic and elastic. Its theology is marked by ecclecticism and tolerance and almost unlimited freedom of private worship. Its social code is much more stringent, but among its different castes and sections, exhibits wide diversity of practice. It is easier to say who are not Hindus, practically and separation of Hindus from non-Hindus is not a matter of so much difficulty. The people know the differences well and can easily tell who are Hindus and who are not."  That is the nearest the judges ever came to defining a Hindu. For historians, the answer is still elusive. 


E-Group: Wesanthals