Mankind has made few attempts to explain the history of India. Invading foreigners created for their own understanding explanations and descriptions (mostly wrong) of a people and a world which were alien and incomprehensible to them. Adopted carelessly in the course of time by the native people, these words gave the latter a new identity that was the very opposite to the one their own tradition had given them. It changed their perception of themselves and also of others.
There were many waves of invaders and all these constitute successive chapters of mediaeval and modern Indian history. In modern times the assumptions have been: (i) There is something called Hinduism, (ii) Hinduism is the national form of Indian religion, (iii) Indian civilisation is Hindu civilisation, and (iv) in all its movements Hinduism is primarily religion, its chief direction being otherworldly and radically world denying. These have been the assumptions behind practically all Western thinking on India. Each one is a huge misconception; but what is astonishing is that they should have also become the assumptions behind much of modern Indian thinking. Together they have succeeded in concealing the main waves that arose in Indian life and which reflected the major issues of human life everywhere.
The true identity of Indian civilisation has been dharmic and not Hindu. The word 'Hindu' itself is not to be found in any of the ancient or even mediaeval Indian texts. That word was coined by the invaders - probably for the first time by the Arabs, circa 8th Century A.D. - and then it was clearly a geographical description for those who lived beyond the river Sindhu or Indus, and carried with it no religious connotation.
The irony of it is that those who are called Hindus are not Hindus. The concept is the product of what were, from the very beginning, misleading words which in turn, gave rise to a false consciousness. There never was such a thing as Hinduism (much less a national form of it), conditioned by the concepts of a religion. The truth is that the invaders of ancient India were addressing themselves, not the Indians. Starting on the wrong premise, that Hinduism is the religion of the majority in India, the invaders worked out political implications which were accepted by some and rejected by others. In search of a unified system of religious beliefs amongst the people they called Hindus, the Catholic missionaries of the 16th Century used the word 'Hinduism' (which they would now endeavour to replace with 'Catholicism'). It created a wrong understanding of Indian culture, for not only was Hinduism a false name, but the concept of religion was grafted onto it, creating a doubly false track. Of all the consequences that gradually flowed from this error, two are worth mentioning here:
(i) Indian thought, in all its movements, was concerned with the human condition. It now came to be portrayed as a religion of the people called Hindus, and therefore as something limited-one religion among other religions.
(ii) Although essentially secular in nature and demonstrably universal, the ancient Indian perception of the human condition now came to be seen as a particular form of theodicy. Since that theodicy was seen as 'Hindu' and Hindus as a majority group, it followed that any group which did not accept the elements of Hindu thought was then a minority, and a religious minority at that. It is a fact of the profoundest significance (but now hardly perceivable) that ancient Indians did not give to themselves any specific identity, national or religious, that would set them apart from others. The only thing they gave themselves, which stressed their unity with all living things was in terms of dharma, and dharma they conceived to be the identity of Man everywhere.
The very first step towards understanding Indian civilisation, and thereby the human situation in all its diverse completeness, is to see that its most fundamental concept has been 'dharma', and dharma is not a religion. Dharma is 'order inherent in life'. The main questions posed by Indian thinkers were: What is the nature of human order? What is dharma? What are the origins of human disorder or 'adharma?' Instead the question became, 'What is Hinduism?', but that question could not be answered, because one cannot define what is non-existent. The contrived answers that continue to be offered serve only to take one further away from the most detailed and profound analysis of the human personality worked out over the centuries, not by Hindu thinkers but by dharmic thinkers.