Ideally, you would expect non-Hindus to ask this question. But surprisingly, the question seems to be more prevalent among Hindus worldwide and in India which is a Hindu majority country. The debate has grown fiercer in the recent times with the rise of BJP, a right-wing political party based on the idea of Hindutva. The argument that comes from right-wing is that everyone who lives in India is essentially a Hindu, which leads to further disputes.
Let’s try to solve this question from multiple perspectives.
First of all, the reason a lot of people, especially non-Hindus, do not understand this question is because they assume anyone who follows Hinduism is a Hindu. Fair point. But Hinduism is more complicated than that. First of all, it is not based on a particular one or set of scriptures. When you talk of Christianity, you talk of Bible; when you talk of Islam, you talk of Quran; this does not apply to Hinduism. And to make matters more complicated, there is no one god either. In fact, there are millions of them.
Clearly, in order to find our answer, we need to understand and define Hinduism first.
How did the term Hindu or Hinduism come to existence? Well, the term does not exist in Dharmashastras – a major part of Hindu scriptures (Note that although the religion is not based on scriptures but it has its own literature). The term Hindu was actually coined in the ancient times by the outsiders in order to refer to the people who lived across the Sindhu (Indus) river.
Therefore, to begin with, it was more of a geographical or cultural connotation rather than a religious one. Because the people across the Sindhu river practised a variety of religious practices, some of which shared certain commonalities, but then one could find certain commonalities in all religions. So, it would not be safe to say that they practised only one religion. Sadhguru, the widely known Indian yogi and mystic, says, “Being Hindu is like Being Indian. There is no one belief-system in India. And there can never be. For this is a land of seekers, not believers.”
During the passage of time, many sects and religions emerged out of this culture. Some of them are as following: Sanatana Dharma, Vaishnava Dharma, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism. At this point, further complications come in. In Swami Vivekananda’s words, “Modern Hinduism, modern Jainism, and Buddhism branched off at the same time. For some period, each seemed to have wanted to outdo the others in grotesqueness and humbuggism.”
As you can infer from above, some argue that these sects or religions that emerged are also a part of a wider Hindu philosophy. But the problem with this argument is that since Hinduism exists along with Buddhism, Sikkhism etc, is a proof that all these have their own separate identities now.
Therefore, Hinduism, at least from today’s perspective, has to be defined separately. Besides, since people, today, live in nation-states where religious identities are important (at least for statistical analysis if not anything else), it is required to objectively define a religion. Which is exactly what the Supreme Court of India did in its historic judgement in 1995. The Supreme Court said, “Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life and a state of mind.” It further went on to say that as long as someone professes to be a Hindu, he or she is a Hindu. No worship, no scripture, or no ritual is required. That is how the state will see you. If you say, you are a Hindu, the state will believe.
The same idea is found in most of India’s literature. The great philosopher-president of India, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, wrote of Hindus as ‘a distinct cultural unit, with a common history, a common literature, and a common civilisation’.
What about from an individual’s perspective? When does one know one is a Hindu?
It seems, the answer, once again, lies in the Supreme Court judgement. If you believe in the pluralistic philosophy of Hinduism and associate yourself with it, you are a Hindu. Author Hindol Sengupta, in his book Being Hindu, writes, “It is more critical than ever to define not just what being Hindu means but also what it does not mean; that to be Hindu is to be plural is not enough.”
Shashi Tharoor, in his latest book Why I Am a Hindu, puts it intricately. He writes, “In reiterating my allegiance to Hinduism, I am consciously laying claim to this geography and history, its literature and civilisation, identifying myself as an heir (one among a billion heirs) to a venerable tradition that stretches back into time immemorial. I fully accept that many of my friends, compatriots and fellow-Hindus feel no similar need, and that there are Hindus who are not (or are no longer) Indian, but I am comfortable with this ‘cultural’ and ‘geographical’ Hinduism that anchors me to my ancestral past.”
The point is, if you are a Hindu, or call yourself one, you don’t have to follow any rule. In fact, you can be an agnostic or atheist, and still find yourself being a Hindu.