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How Indian laws define the term ‘Hindu’

Nithin Sridhar

The Union Home Ministry in its reply to a Right to Information (RTI) query about the legal definition of the term ‘Hindu’ has claimed that it is unaware of the definition. The query was filed by Chandrashekhar Gaur, a resident of Neemuch district in Madhya Pradesh.

The response of the Union government is quite amusing because, if the government is really unaware of any definition of the term ‘Hindu’ with reference to law and constitution, then it means, that the entire range of personal laws that govern various religious communities have no basis.

Gaur rightly asks: “If the government doesn’t know the meaning and definition of the word Hindu, on what basis did it enact the Hindu Marriage Act?”

But thankfully there is indeed a well-defined legal explanation of the term ‘Hindu’. While speaking about how the Article 25 which comes under Right to Freedom of Religions does not prevent the State from providing for social welfare or reforms of the Hindus (See Article 25 (2) (b)), the said article adds an explanation that the reference to “Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist religion.”

Therefore, the constitution itself makes it clear that for all legal purposes, the definition of the term Hindu refers to not only various denominations that is collectively referred as Hindu religion but also faiths like Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism.

This definition is further elaborated in The Hindu Marriage Act, 1965 wherein we see two definitions for the term Hindu. It first defines Hindu Religion as constituting all those people who adhere to any forms or developments of Hinduism including Virashaivas, Lingayats, Brahmo Samaj followers, and adherents of Prarthana and Arya Samaj. It further says that legally, the tenets of Hindu Marriage Act not only applies to those who are Hindu by religion, but also to who follow Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, or any other religion excluding Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

These two definitions are very significant. The Legal definition of the term ‘Hindu’ as including Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and as excluding Christians, etc. is in sync with the historical definition of the term. The consensus among various scholars is that, the term ‘Hindu’ basically is derived from the term ‘Sindhu’. The Persians used the term ‘Hindu’ to refer to people east of River Sindhu. The term ‘Hindu’ was also used by the Islamic invaders who established their empires in India. They considered all Indians whom they subjugated as Hindus irrespective of their faiths Therefore, historically, the term Hindu not only referred to the geographical area of India, but also to the culture and traditions of the population of India that existed prior to the occupation of India by Islamic invaders.

Therefore, the legal definition of the term as referring to people adhering to Indigenous religion and culture is very well in sync with history. This definition fits well, even with the notion of Dharma that is prevalent in India from ancient times. Hindus themselves never referred to their culture and practices using the term Hindu or Hinduism until the arrival of Islamic invaders. Instead, the discourse regarding philosophy, culture, and practices was surrounding the concepts of Dharma.

Historically, Buddhism or Jainism was never perceived as separate religions. They were perceived only as ‘Nastika’ world-views (Darshana) as against Ashtika Darshanas of Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya, etc. Astika is one who accepts Vedas as a Pramana (means/valid authority) for attaining liberation. By corollary, they accept the tenets of rituals, of re-incarnation, heaven, etc. that are propounded in the Vedas. ‘Nastikas’ are those whose world-view rejects the authority of Vedas, and hence many tenets propounded in them.

Hence, even Jaina, Buddhist, or Sikh philosophy is strongly rooted in the concept of Dharma, Karma, and Moksha that are also central to Astika schools.

Further, the founders of the faiths of Buddhism, etc. never actually founded any religion, but only taught a different path to emancipation. Dr Ambedkar had reiterated this in reply to a question about Hindu Code Bill being applicable to Buddhists, etc. in 1951. He had said:The application of the Hindu Code to Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains was a historical development and it would be too late, sociologically, to object to it.  When the Buddha differed from the Vedic Brahmins, he did so only in matters of creed, but left the Hindu legal framework intact.  He did not propound a separate law for his followers.  The same was the case with Mahavir and the ten Sikh gurus.”

Therefore, it is but proper that the legal definition of the term Hindu applies to all Dharma-based religions that have their roots in India. Another interesting aspect is that, this definition is in sync with the definition given by renowned but controversial freedom fighter Veer Savarkar. He defines ‘Hindu’ as any person who considers India as his fatherland, as well as his holy land. In other words, a person must be geographically and culturally rooted in India. This again is how the term Hindu was originally used by Persians and Islamic invaders.

Now coming to the other definition of Hindus by religion, though the Supreme Court in its Judgment in 1995 in the matter of Ramakrishna Mission’s petition to be declared a non-Hindu, minority religion, under the Indian constitution, had conceded that: When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion of creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more,” it did not stop at that.

The Supreme Court, after analyzing the issue from various angles, successfully outlined certain tenets as being very fundamental to Hindu religion. These basic tenets include: acceptance of the Vedas as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters; acceptance of great world rhythm, vast period of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession; acceptance of the belief in re-birth and preexistence, and acceptance of worship of multiple Gods as well as those who do not worship idols.

The Supreme Court sums up its observation by quoting the definition of Hindu given by BG Tilak, which it calls as a ‘working formula’ that is ‘adequate and satisfactory’: Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and the realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshiped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.”

The court further notes that: “unlike other religions and religious creeds, Hindu religion is not tied to any definite set of philosophic concepts as such” upholding the fact that, a person need not adhere to all the salient features mentioned above compulsorily to be regarded as Hindu. He may adhere to only a few of them, or may even adhere to some other basic feature that has not been outlined in the judgment. The Court adds: “If we study the teachings of these saints and religious reformers, we would notice an amount of divergence in their respective views; but underneath that divergence, there is a kind of subtle indescribable unity which keeps them within the sweep of the broad and progressive Hindu religion,” thus recognizing the true spirit of Unity in Diversity that is inherent in Hindu religion.

Therefore, the Indian law, not only recognizes a working legal definition of the term ‘Hindu’ that is in perfect sync with the historical usage of the term, but the law also outlines the salient features of the term Hindu in its religious usage.

Hence, it is both baffling and amusing at the same time that the Home Ministry has made such a huge slip up in its response to the RTI query. It would do well for the union government to sort the issue soon without giving a reason for its detractors to create another controversy.




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