Hindu or Hinduism was known as Sanatan Dharma (eternal religion) in very ancient days. Some religious conceptions of Hindus such as truth, non-violence, mercy, forgiveness, and control over sensual pleasures have eternal importance. These principles were formulated much earlier than the advent of other major religions. Hinduism is the basis of all religions, for it embraces universal spiritual truths which underlie all doctrines. The increase of valid knowledge called science is hammering every faith, dogma or belief and making a thorough assessment of the utility of everything. Hinduism need not fear from the onslaughts of scientific temper because its essential principles have rational basis and eternal effect.
Some people and some organizations like Arya Samaj use the words Arya Dharma for explaining Hinduism and want the Hindus to be called Aryas. On some wrong notions and misconceived facts some scholars have concluded that original home of the Aryas was outside South Asia such as the Arctic region, the great table-land of Central Asia, the Mediterranean Coast etc. These daydreamers, having poor knowledge of Indian culture, have given to the word ‘Arya’ a racial connotation. Actually ‘Arya’ means ‘noble’. Any virtuous person can call himself an Arya. At the most this word can be connected with the superiority complex. As an educated person considers himself superior to an uneducated person and often abuses him by using adjectives like stupid, foolish, savage, barbarous etc., so an Arya differentiated himself with an Anarya i.e. the man who was not noble. Therefore, if we call Hinduism as Arya Dharma it only means the religion of noble society. In the same way Aryavarta being the name of ancient India meant the land of noble people.
The name Hindu was given by the Persians. The Sindhu River, now mainly in Pakistan, had the earliest civilization. Watered by five great tributaries- the Jhelam, Chinab, Ravi, Beas and Satlaj- this river witnessed a high culture over two thousand years before Christ. In Sanskrit language the word ‘Sindhu’ means ‘Sea’ also. Now it is almost proved that this high culture spread down the lower course of Sindhu (Indus) river and touched the waters of Indian Ocean at Kanyakumari. On the other side of the river Sindhu lived the ancient Persians. It was by the name of this river the Persians called the inhabitants. But they found difficulty in pronouncing an initial ‘S’ and instead used the sound of the letter ‘H’ for it. Thus the word Hindu spread and passed to Greece, where the whole of India became known by the name of the western river. With the Muslim invasion the Persian name returned in the form ‘Hindustan’ and those of its inhabitants who followed the old religion became known as Hindus.
Some people in India want to use the word ‘Hindu’ in geographical sense and espouse the cause of cultural nationalism. Some political parties and their supporters exploit the sentiment of Hindus for political gains. When they are criticized for misusing the name of Hinduism or Hindutva, they say the word ‘Hindu’ means an inhabitant of India and is a synonym of the word ‘Bhartiya’ or ‘Indian’. As it has been explained above, those who used the word ‘Hindu’ in geographical sense stopped doing so after Muslim invasion. They called Hindus only to those who followed the old religion. In common parlance across the world a Hindu is known for his attachment to a particular religion. Now there seems to be no necessity to use the word ‘Hindu’ in its oldest or geographical sense mainly for two reasons. Firstly the article one of the constitution of India says that India that is Bharat shall be the union of states. The word ‘Bharat’ is an abridgement of ‘Bharatvarsha’. It is generally believed that Bharatvarsha means the Land of the sons of Bharat, a legendary emperor. But this belief is unfounded. Actually ‘Bharatavarsha’ is the combination of three words- Bha (splendour) + rat (occupied with) + varsha (vast tract of land) and stands for ‘the vast tract of land occupied with splendour). The word India is also derived from Arabic word ‘Indiah’ which means ‘thought’. A country that exported thought got the name ‘India’ when the word reached Greece. Thus both these names enshrined in our constitution fill our hearts with glory. And there is no necessity to add more names for the country. Secondly if we start using the word ‘Hindu’ in geographical sense, what name should we give to our religion? What name do we propose for the Hindus who have settled in other countries?
India has been the birthplace of many sages, many saints and many seers. The views expressed by these holy men cover all aspects of life. Sometimes their views are complementary to each other but sometimes they appear to be paradoxical in nature. There has been freedom of expression although sometimes efforts were made to contain it. We cannot depend on any one sage or any one book to understand Hinduism. There is diversity of views; there is diversity of thought; there is diversity of ways. Yet like the course of a river there is continuity in it. We can certainly sort out common features and know vividly what Hinduism is.
Hinduism is a way of life that offers opportunities for moral, material, mental and spiritual betterment of an individual or society through Purushartha or four supreme goals viz.
1. Dharma (Righteousness and piety)
2. Arth (Prosperity or earning of wealth)
3. Kam (Love and fulfilment of desires)
4. Moksha (Salvation)
Hindus are not tied to thoughts or rituals of any one book; they are not bound by the perceptions of any one prophet. They may believe or may not believe in the existence of God. There is not one method of worship. There is not one set of customs, rituals and rites. The values cherished by Hindus, their conception of the world and vision of truth and outlook on life go beyond the scope of religion as conceived in the West. Hinduism, in essence, fulfils material, mental, intellectual and spiritual needs of an individual.
Idolatry does not find any support from Vedas. In chapter 32 of Yajurveda it has been said that God Supreme or Supreme Spirit has no ‘Pratima’ or material shape. He cannot be seen directly by anyone. His name is so great that only the Name is enough to invoke Him. He pervades all beings and all directions.
As God is formless and his name is enough, syllables comprising the words may, therefore, be taken as adequate representation. What God is like? The answer is, it is like the word ‘God’ containing the syllables G, O, D. The most striking example of this is the word ‘Om’ which means God in spiritual and material form. Thus according to the Vedas God neither has any image nor He resides in any particular idol or statue.
However we find that Hindu temples are filled with images or idols of gods and goddesses. This phenomenon can be easily understood if we try to know the necessity of assumptions. If we teach a child at nursery stage that ‘A’ stands for ‘apple’ we are making an assumption for easy learning of a letter of alphabet. While teaching geometry the teacher draws a triangle and says, “Let ABC be a triangle”. The word ‘let’ is used here because the lines forming the triangle are not really lines according to the definition of a line. A line, by definition, has length but no breadth. How to draw such a line on a blackboard? Breadth invariably accompanies length whenever one attempts to draw a line. Hence one has to use the word ‘let.’ One has to assume that what has been drawn is a line. Similarly, geometry asks us to assume a point also. A point is defined as having neither length, nor breadth nor thickness. It is without any dimension; still we try to draw it on a blackboard. What we draw is practically a circle, but it is assumed to be a point. A true triangle and a true point exist only in definitions. Yet we have to proceed on the assumption that they actually exist.
As the mind cannot concentrate itself on a formless being or spiritual form of Supreme Being one has to assume God in some visible object or image. During the Vedic period there were neither temples nor images or idols of deities. So God was invoked through the fire kindled for havan materials. The seers of Upanishads discarded the practice of havans and concentrated on Imperishable ‘Om’. When the Buddhism and Jainism flourished in India the idols or statues of Gautam Buddha and Vardhaman Mahavir got much popularity. To rejuvenate Hinduism different images of God varied in shape according to different names of God came into existence. One may say that it resulted in spread of superstition in Hinduism. Yet it is a fact that all temples, mosques, churches and other religious buildings are also idols and images where God does not come to reside. It is weakness of the man that he likes human shape. So majars (graves) of Sufi saints among Muslims and crucified figure of Jesus Christ in the churches command much reverence. In the same way personification of different names of God and giving different forms to them have helped sculptors to make statues or idols that may find place in temples to be adored by devotees.
We can say that idolatry, in whatever form it may be, is based on assumption that God comes to a sacred place (building) or resides in a statue. There is no harm in going to temples or other places of worship. There is also no harm in saluting the image or images of God. However it must be clear to every one that no temple or an idol kept there enjoys any supernatural power. As the spiritual form of Supreme Being cannot be conceived through sense-organs and material form of Supreme Being (Virat) is the cosmos which also cannot be fathomed by the mind, so a devotee may concentrate on syllables or some image of his liking. As one’s folding of hands or touching of feet to give reverence to one’s father and mother actually reaches them; so any salute or reverence shown to an image thinking that the salute or reverence is meant for God really goes to God.