ETHNONYMS: Hindoo, Gentoo (eighteenth-nineteenth centuries)

While Hinduism is undoubtedly one of the world's major religions, whether gauged in terms of its ethical and metaphysical complexities or simply in terms of the numbers of adherents (estimated at 760 million in 1991), it defies easy description. It had no founding figure, like Jesus; it has no one sacred book, like the Quran, but many; it has no central doctrines; worship can be conducted anywhere; there is no principal spiritual leader, like a pope; and there is no hierarchy of priests analogous to a church. The very words "Hindu" and "Hinduism" are foreign terms with no ready translation into Indian languages.

"Hindu" is the Persian term that referred to the Indus River and surrounding country (Greek "Sindou," modern "Sindh"). As applied to people by the early Muslim invaders, it simply meant "Indian." Perhaps it was only in the nineteenth century that Europeans and educated Indians began to apply the word specifically to adherents of a particular, dominant South Asian religion.

Despite the great diversity in forms of Hindu worship, the hundreds of diverse sects, and the vast number of deities worshiped (conventionally 330 million), there are certain philosophical principles that are generally acknowledged by Hindus. In brief, there are four aims of living and four stages of life. The aims of living (and their Sanskrit-derived names) are: (1) artha, material prosperity; (2) kama , satisfaction of desires; (3) dharma, performing the duties of one's station in life; and (4) moksha, obtaining release from the cycle of rebirths to which every soul is subject. These aims are thought to apply to everybody, from Brahman to Untouchable. So too are the four stages of life, which are studentship, becoming a householder, retiring to the forest to meditate, and finally, becoming a mendicant ( sannyasi ).

Hinduism is more a "way of life," a cultural form, than it is a "faith," for its ethical and metaphysical principles pervade most acts of daily life: taking food, performing other bodily functions, walking around, conducting any business enterprise, farming, arranging marriages, bringing up children, preparing for the future, etc. These are just some of the things with which nearly everyone will be involved, yet all of them are tinged with religious rules. A "good Hindu" (not really an Indian concept) is one who strives to do his or her duty toward a person's family and caste traditions (dharma) and who shows devotion to certain gods. Regular attendance at temple is not required, nor is worship of a specific deity or study of a particular scripture; there are no rules about prayer being obligatory at certain hours or on certain days. It is almost true that one could follow any religious practice and, if an Indian, be considered a Hindu. Thus it should come as no surprise that many Hindus consider the Buddha and even Jesus Christ to be incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu, one of the three principal deities of Hinduism (the others being Shiva and Brahma). No doubt in historic times Hinduism absorbed local tribal deities into its large pantheon, by making them avatars or simply relatives (wife, son, daughter) of already established deities.

In summary, we may say that a Hindu is a South Asian person who recognizes a multiplicity of gods (though he or she may only be devoted to one); who practices either monogamous or polygynous marriage; who lives in some form of nuclear or extended patrilineal family; and who believes he or she has one soul, though it will normally be reincarnated after death.

Because of emigration beyond South Asia during the past century, Hindus are today to be found in considerable numbers in Canada, the United States, Trinidad, Jamaica, Surinam, and Guyana; in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands; in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Réunion, Mauritius, and South Yemen; and in Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Hongkong, Australia, and Fiji. Over the past two decades many thousands of Hindu men and women have gone to take up menial jobs in the Persian Gulf nations, though they will probably not be allowed to become citizens of those (Islamic) nations. More than a thousand years ago Hindus also migrated to some parts of Indonesia, where they are still identifiable today on the islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok. There are also identifiable Hindus associated with the Thai royal court, especially Brahmans. In most of the above-mentioned countries there are at least a few Hindu temples.


Chaudhuri, Nirad C. (1979). Hinduism, a Religion to Live By. New York: Oxford University Press; London: Chatto & Windus.

Stutley, Margaret, and James Stutley (1977). Harper's Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, Philosophy, Literature, and History. New York: Harper & Row.

Zaehner, R. C. (1962). Hinduism. London: Oxford University Press.


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