In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Defining Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Discussions
  • Ethnographic And Sociological Definitions

Hinduism Defining Hinduism
Laurie Patton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0015


The terms “Hinduism” and “Hindu” are notoriously difficult to define, and partly because of this ambiguity these terms have been the subject of much controversy in contemporary debates. In the past two decades alone, Hinduism has been variously called a religion, a way of life, and a construction of colonialism. In addition to a discussion of general overviews, this bibliography focuses on four different approaches to defining Hinduism—historical, constructivist (including both those who advocate getting rid of the term and those who advocate keeping it), ethnographic, and indigenous. Because it has not always been a term of self-designation, the word “Hindu” has been at the center of academic debates, involving Indian, diaspora, and Western perspectives. As will be clear in this bibliography, the voices on all sides of the debate do not line up neatly into particular camps. Rather, there are a range of views as to whether the terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” should be used at all, or whether other terms, seen as more appropriate reflections of historical and contemporary practices, should replace them. Moreover, several scholars argue that the staggering range of practices and philosophies embraced by the term “Hinduism” undercuts the very idea of a single phenomenon. These thinkers would prefer to focus on particular religious or spiritual movements within India and abroad without imposing a false unity. Other scholars argue that it is the best term we have, and is currently part of a lexicon, however problematic, of world religions. Thus one should be sophisticated in qualifying the term but continue to use it.

General Overviews

Llewellyn 2006 does the field an excellent service by bringing together some of the most important writing on the problems of defining Hinduism. In addition, almost every basic introduction to Hinduism, of which there are many today, attempts to give a definition of the term. All of these works try to grapple with the vast complexity that comes with the concept of Hinduism, either by introducing metaphors for understanding the phenomenon, or by outlining a list of basic traits and trends to keep in mind when studying the tradition. Three excellent treatments of Hinduism are currently in use in classrooms today. The first, Lipner 2004, understands Hinduism as a banyan tree, whose roots and branches are interconnected both above and below ground. Other scholars, too, opt for a metaphor rather than a definition. Glucklich 2008 begins with the story of Vishnu’s steps, the three steps that the god Vishnu took to encompass the entire world and defeat the demon Bali. A thorough and often-assigned work, Klostermaier 2007, understands four different elements of Hinduism: indigenous, Indus Valley, North Indian “Aryan,” and South Indian “Dravidian” perspectives. Klostermaier 2007 also focuses on the change, development, and conflict within Hinduism, arguing that, in addition to sectarian debates, the colonial and postcolonial worlds gave rise to various attempts to extract certain “essences” out of Hindu ideas and discard the rest as either “corrupt” or not “original.” A third introductory work, Flood 1996, takes on the question of definition in a more theoretical way. Flood 1996 argues that one can create a basic definition of Hinduism as the thought and practice of the 80 percent majority of people in India, the other traditions being Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsi, and secular. Flood 1996 introduces the idea of a “prototypical” Hinduism, thus steering a middle path between Hinduism as a “construct” and Hinduism as an “essence.” Flood 1996 also takes the view that Hinduism is a major and constantly evolving category of the self-understanding of many Indians, and thus should be included as a term of definition. The book ends with the argument that one cannot understand the term “Hinduism” without analyzing the term “religion” as well. The approach in Flood 1996 echoes the succinct essay Ferro-Luzzi 1989, which focuses on family resemblances and prototype traits rather than strict essentials.

  • Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella. “The Polythetic Protoype Approach to Hinduism.” Paper presented at the ninth European Conference of Modern South Asian Studies held in Wilhelmsfeld, Germany, in 1986. In Hinduism Reconsidered. Edited by Günther Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke, 187–197. New Delhi: Manohar, 1989.

    Unique essay in a volume whose other contributions tend to challenge the category of Hinduism altogether. Its reasonable argument for a “prototypical” approach, focusing on family resemblances between Hindu practices, is a defense of continued use of the term, albeit in a modified manner.

  • Flood, Gavin. “Points of Departure.” In An Introduction to Hinduism. By Gavin Flood, 5–22. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Flood takes a middle ground view between the extremes that Hinduism is entirely a colonial construct or that Hinduism is defined by a single “essence” that has various patterns and manifestations throughout time. Rather, he argues for understanding Hinduism as a kind of “prototype” rather than a “category.”

  • Glucklich, Ariel. The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Vishnu’s steps are an excellent metaphor because they are found in temples throughout India, and their iconography can encompass Vedic, Buddhist, Jain, and Greek materials, as well as Vaishavite and Shaivite and Shakti, or goddess-centered, ideologies. Glucklich helpfully shows the “additive” all-encompassing nature of Hinduism rather than the “exclusive” replacement-oriented nature of the tradition.

  • Klostermaier, Klaus K. “The Beginnings of Hinduism.” In A Survey of Hinduism, 3d ed. By Klaus K. Klostermaier, 17–29. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

    Klostermaier defines Hinduism in four strands: (1) the traditions of the original inhabitants of India, perhaps preserved by ādivāsis, or “first-dweller” groups; (2) influences from the Indus civilization in northwestern and northern India; (3) the ancient Dravidian culture, represented by Tamils in contemporary south India and possibly preserving features of the Indus civilization; and (4) Vedic religions codified by Aryan groups and spread through settlement, conquest, and persuasion.

  • Lipner, Julius. “On Hinduism and Hinduisms: The Way of the Banyan.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 9–36. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

    Argues that there is no single “root” or “branch” of Indian practice that is the origin of all other aspects. Rather, most facets of Hinduism are interdependent and cannot be disentangled. Devotion, caste and purity, Vedic, Brahmanical, and sectarian ideas and practices all inform one another to make an organic whole, about which it is impossible to develop a single chronologically “neat” narrative.

  • Llewellyn, John E., ed. Defining Hinduism: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

    In addition to Llewellyn’s helpful introduction, essays include Wilhelm Halbfass on the Veda and the definition of Hinduism, David Lorenzen on the “invention” of Hinduism, Will Sweetman on European ideas of Hinduism, Robert Frykenberg on problematic historical usages, Brian K. Smith on the nature of the debate, Mary Chatterjee on nationalist tendencies of world religions and ethnic groups, Gail Omvedt on Dalit visions of Hinduism, and Timothy Fitzgerald on the terms “religion” and “Hinduism.”

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