Occasionally, an ad appears in a column adjacent to my blog on patheos.com that promises to answer the question “Who Founded Hinduism?” I’ve never clicked on the link, though, because I already know the answer. Unlike Christianity — and unlike “Muhammadanism” (an increasingly unfashionable term for Islam that was never appropriate in the first place) and very unlike Zoroastrianism, Confucianism and Buddhism — the title “Hinduism” doesn’t incorporate the name of its founder. An excellent reason can be given for this: Hinduism has no single, known founder.
Nor is there a particular date for its “founding.” It seems to have emerged gradually, out of elements already discernible roughly 3,500 years ago. In fact, some scholars have even argued that there is no single religion that is properly called “Hinduism” — the very term itself, as the name of a religion, arose only in the 17th or early 18th century — though their denial may go somewhat too far. Perhaps it can best be said that Hinduism is a family of related practices and worldviews, a synthesis or fusion of originally distinct but more or less compatible ideas and rituals that is associated with the Indian subcontinent, where roughly 95% of the world’s Hindus live.
In fact, the earliest occurrence of the word “Hindu” (originally “Sindhu”) seems to have had purely geographical reference, to what is now known as the Indus River and to the people who lived near it. (Our word “India” has the same origin.) In the pre-Islamic Middle Persian language, the inhabitants of today’s India were called “Hindu,” and their homeland was known as “Hindustan.” Medieval Arabs referred to India as “al-Hind.”
Although texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are much revered and play a greater or lesser role in many strands of Hinduism, there is no single authoritative Hindu revealed scripture, no precise equivalent to the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible (with its Old and New Testaments), or the Muslim Quran. There is no Hindu “creed.” Hindus can be monotheists, henotheists, polytheists, even atheists.
Nevertheless, there are shared concepts, rituals and values, as well as common pilgrimage destinations and temple ideas, across the Hindu tradition. Notable among these are the idea that we mortals are trapped in a cycle of pain and suffering, death and rebirth (“samsara”), and that our goal is “moksha” or liberation from that cycle — roughly comparable to Christian ideas of “salvation.” There are, however, wide variations regarding how exactly to attain that liberation, including rituals and sacrifices, recitations of sacred texts, ascetic or monastic withdrawal from the world, and meditation.
Prominent among the shared values is “ahimsa” (literally, “non-striking”), which is often translated as “nonviolence” but is frequently interpreted more broadly than that, to mandate doing no harm at all to any living being. Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) developed his practice of “satyagraha,” or nonviolent passive resistance to the British occupation of India, from the Hindu principle of “ahimsa.”
A very basic idea is that of “rta,” which arose in the so-called “Vedic age” (the period between roughly 1500 B.C. and 500 B.C. when the texts of the Vedas — the oldest Hindu “scriptures” — were created). The term has been translated as “truth” or “order,” and it refers to something that is thought to be inherent in the universe, somewhat like the Chinese concept of the “Tao” or even Western notions of “natural law,” which can refer to morality as well as to physics.
Correlated with “rta” is the idea of “dharma,” notoriously difficult to translate but often rendered as the “way” or the “right way” or a “way of life,” which refers to behavior that accords with “rta.” (Early Christians seem also to have described themselves as following “the way”; see, for example, Acts 9:2.) The word “dharma” is connected with notions of “firmness” and stability or reliability, and thus, with “law.” It goes well beyond the narrow sense of “religion.”
The term “Hinduism” will likely not be retired anytime soon as a name for the world’s third-largest religion (or family of religions), and I’m not suggesting it. There is, for one thing, no adequate current substitute. In India itself, though, and among many practitioners of Hinduism, a preferred term is simply “Sanatana Dharma,” the “eternal way” or, even, the “traditional way of life.” It is thought to go back beyond time, to before the foundation of the universe; certainly it has been handed down from the Indian subcontinent’s far distant past.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs interpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.