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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.


  • A Hindu

    Hinduism is not a religion but a philosophy of life. To call it a religion itself is wrong. Hinduism preaches that all religions are the same and that God is known by different names which in itself includes all religions of the world. Thus to question all other religious beliefs is Non-Hindu.

    • Yash

      Hinduism does not preach ‘all religions are same’. Hinduism does understand that God is known by different names all over the world, but beliefs can be questioned of all religions including Hinduism itself (and of porki trolls like you).

  • A Hindu

    Hinduism is not a religion but a philosophy of life. To call it a religion itself is wrong. Hinduism preaches that all religions are the same and that God is known by different names which in itself includes all religions of the world. Thus to question all other religious beliefs is Non-Hindu.

    • Yash

      Hinduism does not preach ‘all religions are same’. Hinduism does understand that God is known by different names all over the world, but beliefs can be questioned of all religions including Hinduism itself (and of porki trolls like you).

Next Story

10 Customs of the Hindu Dharma Explained by Science

Have you ever wondered the rationale behind the customs and traditions of the Hindu dharma?

Hindu dharma
A deeper look into the practices of Hindu dharma reveal that they are based on scientific knowledge. We tell you how! Pixabay

New Delhi, October 4, 2017 : You might have been moved by the way followers of the Hindu dharma bow down and welcome you inside their homes. Or by the way Hindu women dress, with jewellery adorning their hands and legs. Who doesn’t like the crinkling of their bangles, after all? But have you ever wondered the rationale behind their customs and traditions?

According to popular notions, the traditions and practices of the Hindu dharma have been equated with superstitions. However, a deeper look into the practices reveal that they are based on scientific knowledge and have been observed over generations , keeping in mind a more holistic approach.

Hinduism can hence, be called a dharmic scientific religion rather than just scientific religion. We prove you how!

 1. Worshiping the Peepal tree

Hindu dharma entails a myriad gods and goddesses and there exist a variety of reasons that propagate worship of Peepal tree. According to Brahma Purana, demons Ashvattha and Peepala hid inside and lured people to touch the Peepal tree and consecutively killed them. They were killed by lord Shani and hence the tree has been worshiped ever since. Another legend believed Goddess Lakshmi resides under the Peepal tree every Saturday which lends it a divinely touch. Another school of thought believes lord Hanuman sat on top of the Peepal tree in Lanka to witness the hardships faced by Sita.

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Leaves of the ‘holy’ Peepal tree. Pixabay

The Peepal tree does not have a succulent fruit, lacks strong wood and does no good other than provide shade. However, it continues to enjoy increasing devotion from people practicing the Hindu dharma. Science confirms that Peepal is the only tree which produces oxygen even during the night. Hence, in order to preserve this unique property, ancestors of the Hindu dharma related it to God. Additionally, the tree is of utmost significance in Ayurveda and its bark and leaves are used to treat diseases and illnesses.

 2. Do not chew leaves of Tulsi plant

The Tulsi plant is revered in the Hindu dharma. Apart from its medicinal qualities, the plant is also known for its symbolic presence in Hindu mythology.

According to popular belief, Tulsi is the wife of Lord Vishnu. Hence, biting and chewing it is considered disrespectful.

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According to popular belief, Tulsi is the wife of Lord Vishnu. Pixabay

However, according to botanists, Tulsi has high quantities of mercury. If raw mercury comes in contact with teeth (calcium), it can possibly result in inundation, making the teeth fall. Hence, leaves of the Tulsi plant are suggested to be swallowed and not chewed.

 3. Applying tilak on your forehead

Application of tilak is a religious ac. According to the Hindu dharma, the forehead signifies spirituality. Hence, application of a tilak on the forehead denotes an individual’s thoughts and conviction towards spirituality.  Various Vedic scriptures and Upanishads maintain that energy, potency and divinity comes to those who apply a tilak.

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A flute player from India with a tilak on his forehead. Wikimedia Commons.

However, science asserts that during the application of a tilak, the central point in the forehead and the Adnya-chakra automatically pressed which encourages blood supply to the facial muscles.  According to body anatomy, a major nerve point is located in the middle of the eye brows on the forehead. Application of the red tilak is believed to maintain vitality in the body and prevent the loss of energy. The Tilak is also believed to control and enhance concentration.

 4. Obsessive cleaning during Diwali

Diwali, the festival of lights honors the goddess Lakshmi, the deity of wealth. The festival also commemorates the return of lord Ram after an exile of 14 years to his kingdom in Ayodhya. According to Hindu mythology, the night of his return was a new moon night. To illuminate his path in the pitch dark night, the villagers of Ayodhya cleaned the entire village and lit it with lamps.

Hence, Diwali is preceded by extensive cleaning of the entire house in honor of both the deities of Hindu mythology. Legend also believed goddess Lakshmi comes home on Diwali and thereby, the entire place should be cleaned and decorated to welcome the goddess.

However, science backs the concept and explains that Diwali essentially falls in October and November, and mark beginning of winters and end of monsoon season.

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People indulge in cleaning, repari and beautification of their homes ahead of Diwali to welcome goddess Lakshmi. Pixabay

In older times, the monsoons were not a good period as they were characteristic of excessive rains that often resulted in floods and damaged homes, which then needed repair. This is why people indulged in repair, cleaning and beautification of their homes.

 5. Folding your hands for ‘Namaskar’

You will often find people practicing Hindu dharma greeting people by joining their palms together. The ‘Namaskar’ is believed to signify respect for people.

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People practicing Hindu dharma greeting people by joining their palms together. Pixabay

This pose requires an individual to join all finger tips together that carry the pressure points of ears, eyes and mind. Science says pressing them together activates these pressure points, making our mind attentive.  This aids us to remember people for a longer duration.

The Namaskar can also be backed up by an act to maintain hygiene and cleanliness since it does not involve any physical contact.

 6. Wearing toe rings

Traditionally, toe rings are worn by married woman on the second toe and are treated as a sign of holy matrimony. However, they are believed to be a part of the Indian culture since the times of Ramayana when Sita threw her toe ring for her husband lord Ram, upon being abducted by Ravana.

Science says that a nerve on this toe connect the uterus to the heart.  Wearing a ring on this finger helps regulate blood flow, thereby, strengthening the uterus and regulating menstrual cycle. It is also believed to have an erotic effect.

 7. Applying henna on hands and feet

Mehendi or henna is usually applied during weddings and festivals to enhance the beauty of the women-folk. According to popular beliefs, the color of the henna denotes the affection a girl will enjoy from her husband and mother-in-law.

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Mehendi or henna is usually applied during weddings and festivals to enhance the beauty of the women-folk. Pixabay

However, science provides rationale of applying henna during the stressful times of festivals and weddings. Festivity stress can bring fevers and migraines, which when mixed with excitement and nervous anticipation can prove to be harmful for an individual.

Thus, besides lending color, henna also possesses medicinal qualities that relieve stress and keeps the hands and feet cool thereby shielding the nerves from getting tense.

 8. Fasting during Navratri

There are four major Navratris throughout the year, however only two are celebrated on a grand scale. Throughout the nine day festival, devotees observe ritualistic fasts, perform several pujas and offer bhog (holy food) to Goddess Durga in an attempt to gratify her.

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Durga, the Goddess of strength. Wikimedia

But according to science, these navr