The word ‘Hindu’ was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sindhu’ which is the local name for Indus River. The word ‘Hindu’ or ‘Indu’ was used by Greeks to denote the people living beyond the Indus River. Megasthenes’ ‘Indica’ used those two words around the 4th Century BC. So, Arabs have wrongly been credited to first use the term ‘Hindu’ by medieval and some modern Indian Historians. However, by the 13th century, the word ‘Hindustan’ began to be used, due to the influence of Persian language, as a popular name for the “land of Hindus”.
When Muslim invaders and then Europeans invaders came to India and started to understand the religion of the majority inhabitants of Hindustan, they were confused as the people of Hindustan had no concept of single religious book of ‘divine revelation’ like Quran, Bible or Torah. Moreover, people were identified as Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishwa and Sudra or Shaiva, Shakta and Vaishnava or Aastik and Nastik etc..
The term ‘Hinduism’ (loosely akin to ‘Sanatan Dharma’), as the religion practiced by the majority inhabitants of Hindustan, was coined only about two centuries back by some British writers. Even today some confusion still prevails among many non-Hindus of India and outside world about Hinduism.
Under Hinduism, if you believe in God, you are accepted as ‘Aastik’. If you don’t believe in God, you are accepted as ‘Nastik’. If you want to worship idols, you are accepted a ‘Murti Pujak’. If you don’t want to worship idols and want to worship unseen omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God, you are accepted as worshiper of ‘Nirguna Brahman’.
Hindus have been seekers of ultimate truth. If you want to start your journey by reading ‘Vedas’, please go ahead. If you want to start your journey by reading ‘Bhagvad Gita’, it is okay. If you want to start your journey by reading ‘Upanishada’, nobody prevents you. If you want to start your journey by reading ‘Purana’, that is also fine.
If you just don’t like reading, start with ‘Bhakti Tradition’. If you don’t like the idea of ‘Bhakti’, do your ‘Karma’. If you want to enjoy materialistic life, go ahead with ‘Charvaka Philosophy’. If you want to abstain from all enjoyment and materials of life to find your God, renounce family, home and society and become a jungle living ‘Sadhu’.
You don’t like concept of God? You believe in ‘Nature’ only? Welcome to ‘Vrukshavali Amha Soyare’ meaning trees is our friends. You believe in ‘One God’ or ‘Supreme Energy’, you can follow ‘Advaita Philosophy’. You believe every human is the same? You are a believer of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ meaning the world is a family.
You are a working person and don’t have time for religion. You still are a Hindu. You don’t like to go to temple. You are still a Hindu. You don’t want to believe that everything has God in them? No problem. Your view point is respected. You simply believe in ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah’ meaning may all live happy. Okay, you are free to choose that also and still remain a Hindu.
In a family, one member can be ‘Shaiva’ (follower of ‘Shiva’), another ‘Shakta’ (follower of ‘doctrine of the Goddess of power,’), another ‘Vaishnava’ (follower of ‘Vishnu’) and still another ‘Nastik’. But there is no problem or discord in the family.
You want to criticize something in Hinduism? Please go ahead. ‘Nyaya’ (literally means ‘rules’, ‘method’ or ‘judgment’) & ‘Tarka’ (it is the science of dialectics, logic and reasoning, and art of debate) are accepted in Hinduism and you still remain a Hindu.
In a nutshell, Hinduism is a complex, inclusive, liberal, tolerant, open and multi-faceted socio-spiritual system of India called “Dharma”. Due to its innumerable divergences, Hinduism has no concept of ‘Apostasy’. No ‘Astik’ will kill a ‘Nastik’. No ‘Vaishnava’ will hate a ‘Shakta’. No rituals following Hindu will attack another Hindu who does not follow rituals.
Religion and Dharma are not synonymous. Hinduism (Hindu Dharma or Sanatan Dharma) is not a religion like Christianity, Islam or Judaism. It is an assimilation of several spiritual and cultural traditions, allowing each individual to tread his own spiritual path in any way he likes which does not and should not dislocate the peace and harmony of society. It is a way of life. So, it is Dharma.
Followers of one book, one God can’t, therefore, comprehend Hinduism. They commonly criticize Hindus as idolaters. But Hindus don’t restrict themselves to idol worship only. They worship rivers, trees, animals, birds and even stones. They find God in everything. Even one is accepted as part of that God.
In Hinduism creation is a part of creator. ‘Aham brahmāsmi’ meaning ‘I am Divine’ is accepted in Hinduism. In Hinduism creator has no existence without creation. In the words of Tagore “without me, O Lord of The Universe, Your love would have been futile” (Aamayay Noile Tribhubaneswar Tomar Prem Hoto Je Michhe). With this time tested intrinsic strength, Hinduism has been thriving as oldest living spiritual civilization of the world today.