Before we answer this question we need to know the definition of universalizing religion and ethnic religion. That will help us in understanding why we are keeping it in one category or the other.
A religion that has spread throughout the world without being restricted by the geographical boundary of a particular country. It doesn’t limit itself and appeals to everyone.
Just contrary to the above definition, a religion that has not spread to other places and is limited to a particular area or geographical boundary. It is usually followed by a particular ethnicity or tribe.
Now let’s look at Hinduism and try to answer this question. Hinduism is primarily limited to the geographical boundaries of South Asia which include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. In addition, there are sizable communities that adhere to Hinduism in Burma(Myanmar), Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and other southeast Asian countries.
So by the above definitions, we can say that Hinduism is a Universalizing religion that accepts everyone into its fold irrespective of their cultural, ethnic, or religious background.
Even though Hinduism is limited to South Asia these days. But that was not the case always. It was spread throughout southeast Asia up to Vietnam(old name the Champa Kingdom) and Philipines in the east and Indonesia used to be a Hindu kingdom till some 1300s. The biggest Hindu temple complex is in Cambodia, not in India.
Hindus lived in Afghanistan till 2021. The last Hindu and Sikh families have left Afghanistan only recently. Of course, the presence of a few Hindu families doesn’t make a country Hindu but we all know that Kabul was under Hindu Shahi till 1000 CE.
Now after going through all these definitions we can say that yes even according to the current definition of Hinduism, it can be considered universalizing.
Why is there so much confusion when it comes to Hinduism?
The main reason for the confusion is that Hinduism hasn’t been interpreted by its local people. Instead, it has been interpreted as well as categorized by outsiders who have cultural baggage. When a person with different cultural background interprets other cultures’ concepts, they are bound to make mistakes. Concepts get interpreted out of their cultural context.
So it’s not just that outsiders are confused about various practices of Hinduism which seem to contradict each other. Even the majority of Hindus don’t understand many of the concepts themselves.
Vediconcepts wants to interpret Hinduism for Hindus. Being a Hindu gives us quite an unfair advantage over those who are well versed with the western/Christian concepts and brought up in India and now. What’s unique about the Vediconcepts team:
1. Macaulay system’s product, well versed with English and Christian outlook/worldview.
2. Born and brought up in India as a Hindu. So we know the culture and nuances around it.
3. Our Gurukul-educated Acharyas(Guru) are not just at par with western Sanskrit scholars but their capabilities go way beyond Western scholars’.
Hinduism as the culture
Hindu in itself is a geographical term. By that definition, every tradition that developed in this particular geography becomes Hindu on its own. When traditions develop in a particular cultural background, they get influenced as well as influence others around them. The diffusion of thoughts keeps happening.
So every tradition that developed in India has knowingly or unknowingly some cultural aspects that are also shared by other traditions.
In the near past, Hinduism was the culture of present-day India, Pakistan & Bangladesh. and it was the culture of Afghanistan, central Asia, and most of southeast Asia in ancient times.
Hinduism as a religion
Now if we treat Hinduism as a religion then it can be described as an amalgamation of various traditions present in India. The prominent ones are Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnava, and folk/animistic/local traditions.
British & their spiritual successors didn’t understand it quite well. So to understand it easily they created a dumbed-down version due to the lack of understanding and apathy towards Indian customs and traditions. They grouped all of those sects.
The British agenda was to divide the society along any and every fault line they could create or achieve. British encouraged the different traditions to call themselves different from the mainstream. Sikhism is a prominent example.
So with some cultural variations Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnavas, and other traditions we now call Hinduism can in itself be called religion in itself.
Flexibility is a virtue
Hinduism as the main inheritor of the Vedic tradition/religion showed a lot of flexibility in accommodating traditions that it had little in common. Flexibility is a virtue but as you know everything has its cons. This flexibility can be one of the main causes of confusion among Hindus.
To change the definition a bit, we can say every tradition that accepts Vedas as their main heritage howsoever it may be removed from its source it has become can be considered part of Hinduism.
Rigidity as a bargaining chip
The sects that showed some rigidity for various historical as well as political reasons like Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism were accorded by the British as well as accepted by the society as separate from the mainstream i.e. non-Hindu
There are many frequently asked questions related to this topic that we’ll also try to answer. Some of these are:
Is Hinduism a closed religion i.e. can outsiders join it?
Hinduism is not an ethnic religion. So anyone who wants to follow the tradition can join it. If you are ready to accept the cultural context and cultural background of some practices, Hinduism is ready to accept you with open arms.
Hinduism unlike most other religions also gives you the liberty to follow its knowledge tradition without formally accepting it. You don’t have to take any initiation to benefit from the knowledge of the rishis.
Is Hinduism universal or ethnic?
A religion that is not ethnocentric and accepts that everyone is created equal can be categorized as a universal religion. It accepts everyone in its fold as long as they are okay with following its traditions. If it doesn’t divide humanity based on color, caste, creed, etc. and takes a uniform look towards everyone.
A religion that divides the humanity into Us Vs them, can be called an exclusivist religion. It claims to have the truth and doesn’t accept others as equal.