It is odd to read today of "Hindu fundamentalism," because Hinduism is a
religion without fundamentals: no organized church, no compulsory beliefs or
rites of worship, no single sacred book. The name itself denotes something
less, and more, than a set of theological beliefs. In many
languages--French and Persian among them--the world for "Indian" is "Hindu."
Originally, Hindu simply meant the people beyond the river Sindhu, or
Indus. But, the Indus is now in Islamic Pakistan; Indus and the world
Hindu did not exist in any Indian language till its use by foreigners
gave Indians a term for self-definition.
Hinduism is thus the name others applied to the indigenous religion of
India. It embraces an eclectic range of doctrines and practices, from
pantheism to agnosticism and from faith in reincarnation to belief in the
caste system. But none of these constitutes an obligatory credo for a
Hindu; there are no compulsory dogmas.
I grew up in a Hindu household. Our home (and my father moved a dozen
times in his working life) always had a prayer room, where paintings and
portraits of assorted divinities jostled for shelf and wall space with
fading photographs of departed ancestors, all stained by ash scattered from
the incense burned daily by my devout parents. Every morning, after his
bath, my father would stand in front of the prayer room wrapped in his
towel, his wet hair still uncombed, and chant his Sanskrit mantras. But he
never obliged me to join him; he exemplified the Hindu idea that religion is
an intensely personal matter, that prayer is between you and whatever image
of your maker you choose to worship. In the Indian way, I was to find my
Like most Hindus, I think I have. I am a believer, despite a brief period
of schoolboy atheism (of the kind that comes with the discovery of rationality and goes with an
acknowledgement of its limitations--and with the realization that the world
offers too many wondrous mysteries for which science has no answers). And I
am happy to describe myself as a believing Hindu, not just because it is the
faith into which I was born, but for a string of other reasons, though faith
requires no reason. One is cultural; as a Hindu I belong to a faith that
expresses the ancient genius of my own people. Another is, for lack of a
better phrase, its intellectual "fit": I am more comfortable with the belief
structures of Hinduism that I would be with those of the other faiths of
which I know. As a Hindu, I claim adherence to a religion without an
established church or priestly papacy, a religion whose rituals and customs
I am free to reject, a religion that does not oblige me to demonstrate my
faith by any visible sign, by subsuming my identity in any collectivity, not
even by a specific day or time or frequency of worship. As a Hindu, I
subscribe to a creed that is free of the restrictive dogmas of holy writ,
that refuses to be shackled to the limitations of a single holy book.
Above all, as a Hindu I belong to the only major religion in the world that
does not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenial
to be able to face my fellow human beings of other faiths without being
burdened by the conviction that I am embarked upon a "true path" that they
have missed. This dogma lies at the core of Christianity, Islam, and
Judaism--"I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the
Father [God], but by me" (John 14:6), says the Bible; " There is no God but
Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet," declares the Koran--denying unbelievers
all possibility of redemption, let alone of salvation or paradise.
Hinduism, however, asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, and
Hindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths.
How can such a religion lend itself to fundamentalism? Large, eclectic, agglomerative, the Hinduism that I know understands that faith is a matter of hearts and minds, not of bricks and stone. "Build Ram in your heart," the Hindu is enjoined; and if Ram is in your heart, it will little matter where else he is, or is not.