Like Christianity and Islam and Judaism, Hinduism can be seen as a religion as well as mythology. In fact, all faiths can be seen as religions or mythologies. Or the very opposite— all faiths can be seen as ‘ways of life’, neither religion nor mythologies. It all depends on the meaning we choose. It depends on who is using the word, and why.
A word never has a fixed meaning and meanings change over time. For example, the word ‘gay’ meant happy in the early 20th century, and today it means a ‘male homosexual’. Very different meanings!
Further, words like ‘religion’ and ‘mythology’ emerged in Europe and America to satisfy the needs of colonial administrators first, and then academicians later. They were driven by colonial and academic compulsions. Thus, words are not ‘objective truths’ as we assume, but ‘subjective truths’, imbued with power and embedded in politics.
Let us first tackle religion, and then mythology.
Religion initially meant the Christian priesthood or monastic order. In colonial times, it meant the Christian faith, specifically the Catholic faith of the colonisers. At this time, the Catholic Church would see Protestant Christianity as heresy, and Islam as corruption, and Judaism as ‘old’ testament. Muslims would see Christianity as an old, outdated, corrupt form of religion.
Later religion meant the Abrahamic faiths: clubbing Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is a very recent 20th-century post-World War phenomenon. Currently, it means all faiths, which are organised and have rules. The concept of respecting multiple religions is very recent, rising only in the post-colonial period.
Considering the conflict between the Abrahamic faiths — despite having a common God and common prophets — the many divisions, crusades, holocausts, missionary wars; you can imagine the confusion of the 17th-century European traders, 18th-century colonisers and, of course, the missionaries that accompanied them when they encountered Hindu customs and beliefs, with its many gods, many temples, many rituals, value for oral tradition as well as textual tradition, and no yearning for a single text or single leader. They found it very difficult to call it a religion. Religion was all about organisation, rules and instructions, and Hinduism seemed to have it, as well as reject it, simultaneously, with multiple organisations, multiple rules, multiple instructions, more fluid and flexible than the Abrahamic faiths were used to. Essentially for the colonisers, to be religious meant ‘intolerance’ while to Hindus, religious meant ‘tolerance’.
Mythology in the 19th-century was used for all non-Christian faiths. Judaic and Islamic ideas and tales regarding the Messiah were not quite given the same status as Christianity despite having the same God and many common prophets and laws. Later, when the definition of religion expanded to include all Abrahamic faiths, mythology was used to include non-monotheistic faiths. In fact, many scholars tried to equate non-Abrahamic faiths with pre-Abrahamic faiths such as those of the Greeks and the Vikings.
The assumption for the Christians was that God is truth. Early scientists were all Christians, and they found it difficult to explain God scientifically. For science demands measurement and verifiability. Also, Biblical claims were proving to be all false. So what was ‘Christianity’? It could not be scientific truth. Science concluded that, until further evidence, heaven, hell, prophet and salvation are all assumptions, imaginations, at best, a hypothesis. Concepts such as sacredness and holiness cannot be ‘measured’ and so exist outside the realm of science. From a scientific lens, all religions are based on myths, which is Greek for ‘stories’. God, heaven, hell, rebirth and soul are mythic ideas.
But that which is not scientific is not necessarily irrational. And something that is irrational is also real. Mythology is indifferent to rationality but is real to the believer.
The idea that there can only be ‘one truth’ has less to do with science and more to do with religious intolerance. Scientific truth is based on facts, and expands with time; it is not static. Religious truth is based on faith and is stagnant. In a diverse world, there are multiple truths. Your truth is valid for you. My truth is valid for me. Respect for each other’s truths creates a plural society. This is what India is and aspires to be. It is the essence of Hinduism, despite all challenges.
The colonial definition of mythology is ‘falsehood’. Those who cling to it also equate religion with intolerance and get easily outraged. They are typically obsessed with purity and fear pollution. They believe that their truth is ‘the truth’. They don’t value your truth, his truth, her truth or my truth. They see truth as outside themselves and cannot take responsibility for their beliefs so they locate it outside, in a holy book or a guru, or a God.
A more contemporary definition of mythology is ‘subjective truth communicated through stories, symbols and rituals’. Thus, in Wikipedia and Google today, you can search for Islamic mythology and Christian mythology and Jewish mythology, something that would have been impossible in colonial times. All mythologies present a worldview. The Greek mythology is about establishing order in chaos. Abrahamic mythology is all about obeying the will of one all-powerful God through the holy word revealed through prophets. Chinese mythologies seek harmony with nature and alignment with culture; they value authority, ‘the Mandate of Heaven’, and value king more than God. Indic mythologies —Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism —believe in rebirth. Buddhism does not value soul or God, Jainism values soul but not God. Hinduism values soul and God, but this God, unlike the Abrahamic God, is within us, and around us. Jiva-atma is present in all organisms, and all organisms are present in Param-atma.
Please note: nationalism is also a subjective truth based on stories, symbols and rituals. It is, therefore, a mythological idea. It can be based on rigid rules and demand compliance, and be intolerant. This transforms it into a religious perception.
Spirituality is an individual’s personal journey to find meaning in their life. It is invariably based on a mythology: a subjective worldview and architecture that is communicated through stories, symbols and rituals. When it gives rise to rules that stop you from thinking, we enter the space known as ‘religion’. Mythology tends towards fluidity; religion tends towards rigidity.
How you want to see Hinduism ultimately depends on what comforts you: fluidity, or rigidity; worldview, or rules; tolerance, or intolerance; diversity, or singularity; subjectivity, or objectivity; my truth and your truth, or the truth; mythology, or religion, or a way of life, or something else.