While defining religion is a theological exercise, many a times the tribunals and judges are pontificating on the nature of Hindusim on the basis of common sense and their own perceptions of it. Many of these perceptions are dictated by the contemporary politics, which wants to present Hinduism in a different light. It was a great surprise that a recent Income Tax Tribunal held that Hinduism is not a religion and stated that Shiva, Hanuman or Goddess Durga are “superpowers of the universe” and do not represent a particular religion. (March 2013) The Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, Nagpur, in a recent order, said the expenses on worshipping Hindu deities and maintenance of temple could not be considered as religious activity.

They went on to declare that “Technically, Hinduism is neither a religion nor Hindus form a religious community.” Shiv Mandir Devsthan Panch Committee Sanstan’ had argued that the temple run by it was open to everyone, irrespective of caste and creed and so “the temple does not belong to a particular religion and that installing idols is not a religious activity”.

This is fairly hilarious. Idol worship is a major part of Hinduism, while religions like Islam and Christianity don’t resort to worship of idols. It is a Hindu religious activity, that’s how the whole Ram Temple issue could be built up and Babri mosque was demolished on the pretext of fulfilling a religious obligation of restoring Ram Temple, where the idols of Ram Lalla could be installed. Then, what is this new definition of ‘*superpowers*’ in the form of Shiva, Hanuman and Durga? Contemporary times mired in the world
of politics regards the United States of America as the global superpower. In tribunal’s verdict we are being told about the Universal superpowers, Durga, Hanuman and Shiva amongst others. The learned tribunal needed to know that in Hinduism the concept of supernatural power goes through different stages. It begins with polytheism with Gods and Goddesses looking after one faction of the power. So you have Gods and Goddesses taking care of rains (Indra), air (Marut), power (Durga), knowledge (Sarswati), and even sex (Kam Devata) and wine (Som Devata). From here one goes to trithiesm where one God creates (Brahma), one maintains (Vishnu) and one destroys (Shiva). From here, one goes to the concept of monotheism (Ishwar). As such Hanuman is a mythological character, servant of Lord Ram and also referred to as God.

All this is a part of Hindu religion, to think that this is universal, applicable to all religious beliefs is a travesty of truth. Different sects of Hinduism worship different of these Gods. Some of these Gods are a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu like Ram and Krishna. In Greek mythology one does see a parallel to polytheism. In Christian tradition tri-thiesm of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is very much there. These are religion specific beliefs and don’t apply to other religions. In contrast to the verdict of the tribunal one knows that some religions like Jainism and Budhhidm don’t have faith in supernatural power. Some traditions, which developed in this part of the globe like Charvak also did not have faith in supernatural power.

Coming to the conclusion of the tribunal that Hinduism is not a religion because there are diverse trends, this can be rejected right away. True, Hinduism has diverse trends but that is because this religion is not based on the teachings of a single Prophet. It has evolved-been constructed over a period of time. So the diversity is very much there, still all this does fit into the criterion laid down for understanding a religion.

Defining Hinduism in such is a difficult task for sure. The reasons for this are multiple. One, Hinduism is not a prophet based religion, it has no single founder and two, religions developing in this part of the world have been lumped together as Hinduism and three; there are so many diversities in the practices of Hinduism that all streams cannot be painted with a single brush. To this one may add the the practices and beliefs originating at different times continue to exist side by side. Lord Satyanarayn and Santoshi Maa do exist along with the concept of Ishwar (God) and a Nirankar Nirguna Ishwar (God beyond the attributes of qualities and form at the same time.

The major point of departure for Hinduism is the imprint of caste system on the major aspects of Hinduism, the religious sanctity for social inequality, caste system being the soul of its scriptures and practices. The conditions under which the terms came into being also tell a lot about the real meaning of those terms. Aryans who came in a series of migrations were pastorals and were polytheists. During the early period we see the coming into being of Vedas, which give the glimpse of value system of that period and also the number of gods with diverse portfolios, the prevalence of polytheism. Laws of Manu were the guiding principles of society. This Vedic phase merged into Brahminic phase. During this phase elite of the society remained insulated from the all and sundry. At this point of time caste system provided a perfect mechanism for this insulation of elite. Buddhism’s challenge to caste system forced Brahmanism to come up with a phase, which can be called Hinduism. During this the cultic practices were broadened and public ceremonies and rituals were devised to influence the broad masses to wean them away from Buddhism.

It is interesting to note that till 8th century the so called Hindu texts do not have the word Hindu itself. This word came into being with the Arabs and Middle East Muslims coming to this side. They called the people living on this side of Sindhu as Hindus. The word Hindu began as a geographical category. It was later that religions developing in this part started being called as Hindu religions. Due to caste system there was no question of prosetylization. On the contrary the victims of caste system made all the efforts to convert to other religions, Buddhism, Islam and partly Christianity and later to Sikhism.

Within Hindu religion two streams ran parallel, Brahmanism and Shramanism. Shramans defied the brahminical control and rejected caste system. While Brahminism remained dominant, other streams of Hinduism also prevailed, Tantra, Bhakti, Shaiva, Siddhanta etc. Shramans did not conform to the Vedic norms and values. Brahminism categorized religious practices by caste while Shramanism rejected caste distinctions. Brahminical Hinduism was the most dominant tendency as it was associated with rulers. Sidetracking the Hindu traditions of lower castes, Brahminism came to be recognised as Hinduism in due course of time. This phenomenon began with Magadh-Mauryan Empire after subjugating Budhhism and Jainism in particular. Later with coming of British who were trying to understand Indian society, Hindu identity, based on Brahminical norms was constructed for all non Muslims and non Christians. Vedas and other Brahminical texts were projected as the Hindu texts. Thus the diversity of Hinduism was put under the carpet and Brahminism came to be recognised as Hinduism. So Hinduism as understood as a religion is based on Brahminical rituals, texts and authority of Brahmins.

Hinduism as prevails today is a religion in all sense of the sociological characteristics. It is dominated by Brahminism is another matter. To say that Hindus are not a religious community is a wrong formulation to say the least.