Indian Culture and Traditions - 29


Author – Anil Chawla

All over India and in almost every part of the world, there are millions of
people who call themselves Hindu. Yet, the question “Who is a Hindu?” is
often raised. Some people define Hinduism on geographical basis, while
some others do so on the basis of system of worship and belief; there are
others who link Hinduism to ancient Indian culture. This controversy
about definition is unique to Hinduism. Other religions like Islam,
Christianity etc. are devoid of any such dispute since they are based on
one book. The belief in a sacred book is fundamental to such religions.
Anyone believing in the book is a follower while anyone not believing in
the book is an outsider to the religion. A Hindu is under no compulsion to
believe in any book or any prophet or even a single system of worship or
hall of worship. The freedom that a Hindu has makes it difficult to define
Before proceeding any further, one must understand the historical
background that has led to this controversy. Hindus have been subjected
to nearly a thousand years of slavery. The struggle for existence that
Hindus faced during this long period is unique in human history. To
understand this glorious struggle, one must compare Indian history with
American history. It was approximately the same time when a group of
persons reached America and another group of persons reached India.
Both the groups were from the same part of the world and were of the
same white race. At that time, population of America and India was nearly
equal. Today, the original inhabitants of America have become almost
extinct. Their civilization, culture and religion is almost dead; there are of
course some remnants which are objects of wonder and are kept as curios
displayed in a museum. The atrocities in India were identical to those in
America, but the original inhabitants of India survived. A magnificent
building that was an inspiration to many has been demolished completely
and what has been left behind is only a mass of rubble.

All the traditional institutions of the Indian society were systematically
destroyed during nearly a thousand years of foreign rule (first Islamic and
later British, Portugese and French). Books were burnt. Persons who were
active in preservation and growth of knowledge were forced by all
possible means to give up their pursuits. Attempts were made to remove
all symbols of Hindu religion from the surface of the earth. A grand
civilization was reduced to ashes. Today, Hindu finds himself sitting with
these ashes and a few semi-burnt pieces of what was once a magnificent
building. He has a dream to reconstruct the grand building, to get back to
the glory that seems almost fictional.
When Lech Walesa became the first non-communist President of Poland
he said that it is easy to make fish-soup from a fish but it is very difficult
to make a fish out of fish-soup. If the same example were to be applied to
the Indian society and nation, one finds that India does not even have the
soup - the colonial masters drank it. There are only a few skeletal
remains. The present generation of Hindus has to reconstruct a new living
civilization and rebuild the cultural edifice from these skeletal remains.
Hindus have survived the long arduous journey but have lost a lot. The
biggest loss has been of self-identity. A person who has just escaped from
a big terrible fire is primarily concerned with his burnt skin and the
wounds rather than the torn clothes. The first fifty years of postindependent
India have been spent on arranging for essentials for
livelihood. Forgetting the old wounds, taking control of the life as it is, the
Indian psyche has slowly started looking at its own identity and has
started asking questions about itself. The question “Who is a Hindu?” is
the first step in this search for self-identity. It is an attempt to seek the
foundation stone for Hindu Reconstruction and Renaissance.
It will be relevant to discuss the various definitions of Hindu in vogue.
One definition defines Hindu on geographical basis. It is said that the
word “Hindu” is derived from the word “Sindhu” based on the contention
that the aggressors from the Western side started calling persons living
near river Sindhu as Hindu. Geographical definition of Hindu treats every
person living in Indian sub-continent or having some emotional
attachment to the Indian sub-continent as a Hindu. This is possibly the
most narrow and restricted definition of Hindu. A slave often starts seeing
himself through the eyes of the master. If it is accepted that Hindu is a
distorted version of Sindhu, it will also have to be accepted that there was
no Hindu in existence before the attack from the western side. If it is

accepted that only a person living on Indian soil is Hindu, the problem
would arise about Hindu temples of Thailand. It is a well accepted fact
that at one time, Hindu religion and culture exerted strong influence on
the whole of Asia. If Hindu religion is based on devotion towards a block
of land, it is obvious that Hinduism cannot spread beyond that block of
land. If an appeal is made to the Hindus living across the world to be
devoted to the Indian soil, such an appeal can possibly serve some vested
interests but it will block the growth of Hindu religion. In such a case,
instead of becoming a global ideological revolution, Hindu religion will
become a vehicle to satisfy the interests of inhabitants of a particular
The traditionalist definition of Hindu prescribes that anyone accepting the
ancient Indian culture and traditions is Hindu. The philosophical
bankruptcy of the traditionalist definition is of the same order as that of
the geographist definition. The traditionalist mind is inherently
conservative and is opposed to all change and growth. Everything old is
considered good, while everything modern is looked down upon. The
traditionalist treats the “puratan” (ancient) as “sanatan” (eternal or
natural or essential) and sacred. The traditionalist invokes “bhakti”
(devotion and faith) to close the mental doors to any fresh thought. This
is contrary to the concept of Hindu. A closed mind cannot be the
distinguishing feature of a Hindu. If Hindu religion was a closed-minded
religion, there would have been no Upanishads and Puranas after Vedas.
Diversity of opinion and clash of opinions is a frequent phenomenon in
ancient Hindu texts. Considering the ancient as sacred will block the
growth of Hinduism. Moreover, when only a few remnants of the ancient
are available and the circumstances in the present time and world (deshkal)
are completely different, it is necessary to begin the job of
reconstruction and renaissance by starting from first principles and
fundamental values. The old can be a guide, but it is necessary to give up
the presumption that everything ancient is sacred. Hence, the
traditionalist definition of Hinduism is not only incomplete and shallow, it
is a big obstacle in the growth of Hinduism.
Often attempts have been made to define Hinduism on the basis of some
beliefs and/or symbols. For example - Hindu is one who worships Ram;
Hindu is one who worships the cow; Hindu is one who worships Krishna;
Hindu is one who considers Ganges to be sacred; Hindu is one who
considers the plant of tulasi as sacred; Hindu is one who begins his
worship with OM. Each of these is a belief of a section of the Hindus.

However, any one of the above individually or some/all of the above
taken together cannot be considered to be the fundamental basis of
Hinduism. The diversity of opinions and contradictions are too strong. A
worshipper of Ram is a Hindu just as a worshipper of formless Supreme
Being is also a Hindu; Ganges is considered sacred by many Hindus while
there are others who have ridiculed it; idol worshippers are Hindus while
there are some Hindus who are opposed to all idolatry worship; the
devotees of OM and Gayatri Mantra are Hindus just as someone who
considers Krishna to be his/her lover is also a Hindu; there are Hindus
who follow a devotional life and there are Hindus who believe in selfattainment
through work or knowledge. Clearly, Hinduism cannot be
defined on the basis of any one belief or tradition or symbol.
There is one practical definition which is the most well accepted definition
of Hindu. Every person whose parents or at least father is/was a Hindu
and who has not accepted any other religion is a Hindu. For the past more
than hundred years the rulers of India and the so-called guardians of
Hinduism have accepted and adopted this definition. As per this definition
a person can only be born as a Hindu, there is no way by which a person
may adopt Hinduism or be converted to Hinduism. The damage that this
definition has done to Hinduism has probably not been done by any other
definition. At the time when Hinduism spread from Egypt to Japan, it is
certain that there was no such definition of Hinduism. The damage that
Hinduism has suffered by stopping the entry of people from other
religions is possibly much more than the damage done by Christian
missionaries and Islamic aggressors. Various visionaries like Swami
Vivekananda, Swami Shradhananda etc. had in unambiguous terms
pointed to the damage that Hinduism has suffered on this account. If
Hindus are serious about Hindu Renaissance and dream of a glorious
future for Hinduism in every part of the world, it will be necessary to
make new Hindus in every nook and corner of the world. To do this
Hindus must first free themselves of this heredity based (racial) definition
of Hindu.
The definition of Hindu that seems plausible treats the word “Hindu” as
being made up of two words Ha + Indu. Ha means the sky and Indu
means the moon. This can be interpreted to mean that one who spreads
cool light like the moon in the sky is a Hindu. Another word associated
with Hindu is Bharat. Often the word Bharat is associated with the name
of a King. The more logical interpretation is however to treat BHARAT as
made up of two words Bha + Rat. Bha means Light and Rat means the

one who is full of or saturated with. In other words Bharat means The one
Who is full of and spreads light. Looked at carefully, Bharat and Hindu
have identical meanings. The word Bharatvarsh has often been used for a
large part of land. Varsh means varsha or rain. Combining the meanings
of Bharat and varsh we can understand that the word Bharatvarsh was
used for the region where the Hindu knowledge rained or had influence. It
is not proper to treat Bharat as only the name of a part of land. Instead of
the geographical definition of Hindu as the one who lives in the land
known as Bharat, it will be proper to say that wherever in the world there
are Hindus, they will be full of light and spread light and there will be
Another meaning of the word Hindu can also be considered. In Sanskrit,
ocean has been called as Indujanak, the father of Indu (moon). The
meaning of the word Ha in a Sanskrit dictionary is water as well as sky. If
we take a comprehensive view of the meanings of Ha and Indu, we see
the complete universe from the ocean to the sky in the word Hindu.
Hence, it will be proper to conclude that a Hindu is someone who believes
in everything from the ocean to the sky.
The totality of the sky including the earth and the oceans is named as
Universe or Cosmos and is known by the word Brahm in Sanskrit. This
Universe or Cosmos is shashwat or eternal, in other words it has always
been and shall always be, though it may keep changing. Hindu sees
himself as a part of the Universe or Cosmos. A Hindu’s belief, faith,
actions, lifestyle, thoughts should be in accordance with the rules of the
Cosmos. There could possibly be different views about the Cosmos
between two persons due to different perspectives. However, if the
difference of views is due to different perspectives and not due to preconceived
notions, both the persons, though holding divergent views are
While understanding the word Hindu, it is also necessary to understand
the word Dharm. The word Dharan and Dharm have the same root.
Dharan means to wear or to carry and Dharm refers to what is put on.
Dharm can be compared to clothing. Just as a person changes his clothes
as per the time-place and his own personal requirements, the Dharm for a
Hindu is constantly changing. This concept of Dharm is neither possible
nor imaginable for any one-book-based religion. A hindu’s Dharm, on one
hand helps him live his life as per the requirements of the cosmos and on
the other hand, assists him in acting as per his own nature and aptitude.

Just as cosmos or universe is considered to be constantly changing but
shashwat or eternal, Dharm is considered to be under constant change
but still sanatan or permanent.
Oneness with the Cosmos and the concept of a Dharm that is in
accordance with this oneness can be said to be Hindu Dharm. This
complex philosophy has been elaborated by the aphoristic words SATYAM
SHIVAM SUNDARAM. The three words define the Hindu way of life as
completely and correctly as is ever possible. An English translation of the
aphorism can be Truth, Universal Welfare & Nice feelings of the Inner
Being. The translation is not very accurate. (Incidentally, it may be
mentioned that Greek and early Christian authors also seemed to believe
in this triad of Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Augustine devotes much
space in The City of God to a discussion of Greek philosophy. In the
Augustinian synthesis of Christ and Plato, the classical triad of virtues -
truth, beauty, and goodness - become part of the Christian ethic.)
It is important to understand each of the concepts to fully appreciate the
Hindu mind.
SATYAM – The first fundamental condition for Hindu Dharm is Satyam or
truth. The cosmos or the world is experienced by us through our senses
and we make an image of the world or parts of it on our mind. If the
image corresponds to the world as it exists, the image is truth or else it is
not truth. Our capacities and abilities to see, observe, experience and
understand are limited. Hence, our ability to create mental images of the
world is limited. Just as four blind men described an elephant in four
different ways, we make different images of the world. For example, a
biologist and a poet look at a flower in different ways. Hindu accepts this
difference in perspective and therefore opinions, while at the same time
giving utmost importance to Satyam or truth. If any idea or thought is
against truth, a Hindu can never accept it.
The evaluation of the correspondence between the image and the world is
by means of evidence or proof. There can be an epistemological debate
about the suitability of different types of possible evidence and proof. It is
likely that some types of evidence are accepted by one while the same
types of evidence are rejected by others. Such a difference of opinion is
well-accepted. For example, the experience of God by the inner self has
been accepted as sufficient evidence for the existence of God by some
while others have refused to accept such experience as evidence. This led

to different versions of truth for theists and atheists. But both are Hindus
because both believe in Truth. Hinduism is possibly the only major
religion of the world which accepted atheism.
It is important to compare the commitment of a Hindu towards truth with
that of the followers of other religions. For a Christian, every word in Bible
is the ultimate truth. During the reign of the Church, any attempt to even
collect evidence that might contradict something written in the Bible was
considered blasphemy and was punishable by death. Apparently, some
holy book says that a man has more teeth and ribs than a woman has.
During the medieval period, it was blasphemy and criminal offence to try
to gather evidence against the sacred book by counting the teeth or ribs
of men and women. For hundreds of years no one in Europe could hence
count teeth or ribs. In any single-book-based religion such problems are
likely to occur at some time or the other. Both Christianity and Islam have
at some points in their history opposed science since it clashed with the
truth as provided in their sacred books.
Hinduism has never and can never be opposed to Science due to the
fundamental belief in truth. It was this belief in truth that led to the
development and growth of science and knowledge in ancient India. The
glow of science and knowledge made the Hindu full of light and the region
that was illuminated by this shower of light was called Bharatvarsh.
SHIVAM - After accepting Truth, it is necessary to go a step further and
look at the welfare of the world. Every act, belief and thought of a human
being must be evaluated on the basis of the criterion of welfare of the
world. An act or belief or thought is not proper or acceptable if it does not
promote the welfare of the world even though it may be based on Truth.
For example, a person’s strong desire may be a reality or a truth but if
the satisfaction of the desire does not lead to universal welfare, it is not
proper to permit the person to satisfy his desire.
Just as there can be differences of opinion and perception in matters
related to truth, there may be differences of opinion regarding the
concept of universal welfare, which may change from time to time and
from region to region and also based on the nature and aptitude of
various individuals. Such differences of opinion are well accepted and
though there may be debate or discussion to resolve the differences,
there is no attempt to iron out all differences and arrive at a uniform
standard code. The acceptance of differences based on the needs of

place-time and individuals has led to Hindu Dharm becoming different for
each person, for every region and from time to time. However, if anyone
ignores the argument of welfare and advances quotations from any book
as an argument, he is not a Hindu.
The concept of SHIVAM as universal welfare based on the realities of time
and place is deeply embedded in the Hindu psyche. On various occasions
this has been demonstrated. For example India was one of the first few
countries in the world to accept abortion since the majority of the
population (Hindus) appreciated the benefits of legalized abortion without
any religious restrictions. Even in matters like giving electoral rights to
women there has been no dispute since the issues are examined on
merits rather than on the basis of books written a few centuries ago.
The examples of accepting contradictory actions and beliefs based on
different ground realities are too numerous to cite. There are Hindus who
are strictly vegetarians while there are others who are permitted to eat
meat. There are Hindus who fast on some days during the year while on
the same days there are Hindus who would eat meat and offer meat to
their family deities. The opposites are always justified by logic of welfare
or Shivam as might be existing at that time and place.
SUNDARAM – Along with Satyam and Shivam, the third fundamental
foundation stone of Hindu thought is Sundaram. Anything that leads to
nice (or “Su”) feelings in the inner being of a person can be called as
SUNDARAM or aesthetic. It is very difficult to define the nice feelings in
the inner being and each person may have his own opinion in the matter.
The purpose of all arts is to give pleasure by creating nice aesthetic
feelings. A Hindu accepts all arts and accepts each person’s version of
SUNDARAM. Hindu accepts freedom of the individual in this regard,
subject, of course, to Satyam and Shivam.
It may seem strange that something as obvious as aesthetics needs to be
defined as a key fundamental block of a belief system. Yet if we look at
the treatment of the subject by other religions, the distinction is too
glaring. Islam treats all visual arts like painting and sculpture as forbidden
and even puts strictures on music. Christian churches have also from time
to time made attempts to prescribe what is right and what is wrong in
arts. In more than five thousand years of history of Hinduism there have
never been any attempts of similar nature.
SATYAM SHIVAM SUNDARAM – the triad expresses completely and
comprehensively the essence of Hindu Dharm. It may well be asked that
which of the three is more important and in case of conflict, which one
should be given priority. There have been different opinions in this regard,
yet a prominent view has been that the conflicts among the three are only
apparent. Deep within there is a unity in the three elements of the triad.
So, any fundamental conflict is not possible. This school of thought
believes that the aphorism literally translates as Satyam is Shivam and
Shivam is Sundaram. In other words the aphorism affirms the unity of the
triad. So a Hindu is expected to follow all three elements of the triad and
give due importance to each in his life. However, even while giving due
importance to all three, it is likely that an individual may emphasize one
or the other element depending on one’s own nature and aptitude. For
example, truth may be more important for a scientist while aesthetics
may be the central concern for an artist. Both are members of one unified
society and many such different persons combine together to form a
balanced society which has the correct combination of Satyam, Shivam
and Sundaram.

SATYAM SHIVAM SUNDARAM can also be expressed as Science, Ethics
and Art. Any one who accepts the triad as fundamental basis of his belief
system is a Hindu, irrespective of his/her geographic location, race,
national loyalties, system of worship, deity of worship, food habits,
language, etc. Defined in this manner, Hindu Dharm becomes a truly
global religion of the modern world. Acquiring strengths from its ancient
roots Hindu Dharm becomes the human-values-based religion of the
modern scientific age. The ability to constantly transform itself enables
Hindu Dharm to rejuvenate and always be fresh and new. Hindu Dharm is
neither “opium for the masses” nor does it bind anyone in perennial
chains. Hindu Dharm is the liberator of mankind and is an engine of
growth, prosperity and fulfillment for the individual as well as for the
society on a long term sustainable basis.
From the muddy cesspool of history, one can always pick some instances
that support the above view and also some that do not. History cannot
and should not become the guide or touchstone for philosophy. However,
surprisingly the above definition of Hindu Dharm finds extensive support
in an analysis of the Indian psyche as it evolved over the centuries and
faced a diverse set of circumstances. But the most surprising part comes
when one tries to understand the preachings of Lord Jesus Christ in the
light of the basic principles of Hinduism.

If one studies the preachings of Lord Jesus Christ, devoid of the views of
others who followed him as well as of the various churches, one finds a
striking similarity between him and many Hindu saints (for example Sai
Baba of Shirdi). The concept of church was not given by Lord Jesus Christ.
Neither did the Lord write the Bible nor any other book. It may not be
improper to say that the Lord was a Hindu. The relationship between the
teachings of Lord Jesus Christ and the essentials of Hinduism needs to be
studied. It may also be interesting to explore the etymology of the word
Christianity which has an identical sound as “KRISHNA NEETI” (the ethics
of Lord Krishna). This is not the subject of this essay and will need more
research. However, based on initial impressions, it may well be concluded
that Lord Jesus preached a version of Hinduism and was crucified for his
revolutionary ideas. The scenario that seems likely is that after the death
of Jesus, his followers started a process of compromises which led to the
acceptance of Old Testament, writing of the New Testament in a form
acceptable to the ruling classes and foundation of the Church.
It may be further added that just as Lord Jesus Christ’s sayings were
misused and distorted by Church, there are attempts to narrow and
restrict Hinduism. The churchification of Hinduism is a danger that needs
to be guarded against. In recent years, people who know nothing of
Hinduism have emerged as the self-proclaimed defenders of the faith.
They are interpreting Hinduism in their own way and are declaring their
versions to be the official versions. For a religion which does not even
prohibit the eating of human flesh, vegetarianism and non-violence are
being declared as fundamental values. Hindus are being asked to be loyal
to a geographic entity or a nation. There is even an attempt to show that
Hindus are one race. The harm that such ignorant proclaimed defenders
of the faith may inflict on Hinduism is enormous. It must be remembered
that the dark ages of Europe were not a result of anything that Lord Jesus
European Renaissance was an attempt to break the vice-like grip of the
church on all aspects of European life. It was a revolt against the Church
and not against Lord Jesus Christ. As years have passed, the influence of
church in European (and American) life has decreased considerably.
Nowadays, a Christian takes almost all important decisions of his life
based on his own self assessment and intellect. The life of a Christian is
now regulated more and more by SATYAM SHIVAM SUNDARAM though
he/she himself/herself would not define it that way. Concern with
ecological considerations and serious attempts to live life as per nature’s

laws can also be seen as an attempt to attain the oneness with cosmos
which is most fundamental to Hinduism.
The move of the world to a more rational and humane existence is in fact
a move towards Hinduism. It is time that Hindus realized this and took up
the leadership in this ongoing historical movement which has transformed
the world in the past four/five centuries. As men and women across the
world (from all races and communities) understand and adopt the “Global
Religion of the Modern World” – Hindu Dharm based on Satyam, Shivam,
Sundaram – they will not only transform their own lives but will also make
the world a better place to live in.

Om Tat Sat

(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji,  Sri  

Anil Chawla ji and hindu samskrit dot com  for the collection)


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