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High Court asks: What is Hinduism?

ICC Note: This question from a high court in India has the potential to aid Christians by defining Hinduism more narrowly, or hurt Christians even more by defining Hinduism in such a way that eliminates distinctions between religions.

by Nirmala Carvalho

3/27/07 India (AsiaNews) – Who exactly does the term “Hindu”, which is used to describe most Indians, refer to? This is the question which the High Court of Allahabad wants answered. The question was raised by one Phool Chand Yadav of Kushinagar in relation to the situation of a school.

Judge S N Srivastava, who heard the petition on March 16, expressed his consideration by saying: “What is the definition of the religion? Should one consider Hindus as members of one religion or a combination of various religious groups born and brought up in India from time to time? Can all religions born and practiced in India be grouped under Hinduism? If the answer is yes, how has the government made a notification declaring Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains as religious minority groups?” Srivastava said the answer to this question should be sought in censuses made in the period under British rule from 1851 to 1941.

Fr Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India told AsiaNews: “The observations of the Allahabad High Court Judge on the need for giving specific definition of Hinduism is quite intriguing since a standard definition of religion already exists, on which basis the Constitution of India classified various religious groups in India. The suggestion to club religions born in India as part of Hinduism will be met with much resistance from many quarters as it would eventually erase of legitimate distinctions between religions. What is required is to honour the spirit of the Constitution that mandates the nation to protect and promote religious minorities that need special consideration.”

John Dayal, secretary-general of the All India Christian Council and president of the All India Catholic Union told AsiaNews that he was happy with the statements of the judge and hoped it would prompt the Allahabad court, the Government of India and eventually the High Court of India to take the bull by the horns and attempt to define Hinduism.

Dayal said: “The government and courts have long hidden behind theological mumbo jumbo and have never defined Hinduism. This has given an opportunity to proponents of Hindutva and other communalists to evolve a definition of Hinduism which is overwhelming, all encompassing and which makes it difficult for any other religion to survive or be counted. A direct result of this has been the denial of constitutional rights to Dalit – a group which does not belong to any caste – Christians and Muslims because a distinction was made between religions born in India, which now include Sikhism and Buddhism, and religions not born in India like Christianity and Islam. If Buddhism is Hinduism, then all of China , Japan , Thailand , Sri Lanka and Burma are Hindu. So why complain about conversions?

Dictionaries define Hinduism as a polytheistic religion, but such a view tends to oversimplify a diverse system of thought that includes beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, monism and even atheism. A sentence by the High Court on Hinduism of 1994 described it as a lifestyle. The difference between our concept of the secular world and what is meant by this term in the east is that in India , secularism is understood by ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhaav’: an approach of tolerance and understanding of the equality of all religions. This is the true explanation of what Hinduism is. If we manage to give a proper definitation of Hinduism, we will be able to define juridically the meaning of conversion, re-conversion and so on. How can you convert from a style of life?”