Can we call Hinduism a “paganism” ?
There is a strange misconception about paganism, which consists in presenting paganism as a closed, precise, list of religions : European pre-christian polytheist religions. But paganism is not a list. Paganism is a broad category used to describe a certain type of religion : an ancestral and local religion admitting several divine entities. Paganism is not limited to the most famous European paganisms such as Norse paganism, Celtic paganism, Greek paganism, Roman paganism and Slavic paganism. Most religions that have existed and exist in the world since the beginning of humanity can be described as “pagan”. Monist religions (christianity, islam and judaism) are the exception. Only very recently did some pagans started to call themselves “pagans”, as a way to reclaim a term that has been use in a derogatory way by christians oppressors for centuries. Pagan religions of all continents generally have a specific name or no name, and do not call themselves “pagans”. However, in some contexts, using the category of paganism is relevant, especially when addressing the past and present persecutions and oppressions against pagans in the world by monist dominions. In the same way, just because a religion has a specific name, does not mean we should never use the concepts of “polytheism” or “monotheism” to describe it. There are common patterns in the past and present oppression against non-monist religions in the world, and refusing to put any global label would prevent us from finding a global solution.
Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) is technically a paganism, if by paganism we mean an ancestral religion practiced by people who have a strong connection to the land of their ancestors. For the record, “paganus” means “people of the country”.
Some Hindus, do not like to be called “pagans” because “pagan” is historically a slur used by christians to portray native people who stayed loyal to their ancestor’s religion as idiot and demonic. They get offended by the word “pagan” for a very understandable reason : this word has been and is still used to inferiorize people and deprive them of all their most fundamental rights. In addition, some Hindus just do not want to use a terminology that has been established by their oppressors : European christians.
For centuries, “pagan” was an derogatory term and being labelled a pagan meant the christian dominion had the right to kill you, torture you, take your children, and force you and your people to disown their ancestors.
As polytheists and followers of their ancestral religion, Hindus have been targetted by paganophobic hatred for centuries. In 1561, the Portuguese created the Inquisition of Goa in order to force Hindus to convert and destroy their culture. Many atrocities were committed by the christian invaders who felt perfectly entitled to torture, kill and terrorize the hindu population, since it was a pagan population.
The British colonization also had a strong paganophobic component. Hinduism was defamed, mocked, berated, similarly to what had been done previously to European ancestral religions. To give you an idea of the level of degradation Hindus endured : Devadasi, the talented, refined, magnificent female artists who dedicated their lives to worship hindu gods, were labelled “prostitutes” by the christian colonizers. They ended up being actually pushed to resort to prostitution, due to the degradation of their status and the lack of funding of the temples. It reminds me a lot of the first centuries of the forced christianization of Europe, when Christian zealots insulted ancient greek goddesses by calling their “whores”, “prostitutes” and so on.
After more than 1500 years of massive demonization of pagans, many Europeans escaped from the hold of the Church and started to reclaim the word “pagan”. In itself, “pagan” has no negative meaning, it just refers to being connected to the land of your ancestors, to being native to a certain part of the world. This word should never had been transformed into a slur. The fact that christians turned that word into an insult says a lot about their hatred towards native people everywhere in the world, including in Europe.
Hinduphobia is still active today and still has a strong paganophobic component. Mockery about the multiplicity of their gods is typical of paganophobia. The use of the word “guru” in a derogatory way is anti-heretic rhetoric, which is also a sign of paganophobia. Many idiotic anti-hindu stereotypes are rooted in the Abrahamic habit of calling non-monist religions “idol worshipping”.
I deeply believe that we cannot fully understand colonization if we see only the material predation and not the paganophobic and ethnophobic project of destruction of native cultures. Whether it is explicit evangelization or a secularized equivalent (“civilize population X”), there is still a strong paganophobic motivation.
Throughout history, several neutral terms like “pagan” have been converted into slurs by christians. “Heresy” used to be a neutral term in greek that meant “school”, “academy”, and became a negative term only with christianity.
From my European pagan perspective, it is important to reclaim words like “pagan” or “heresy” and restore their original neutral meaning. When I use the word “pagan” to describe hinduism, it is always as a descriptive, respectful term and because I believe it is important to talk about the paganophobic nature of hinduphobia, but I do understand why many Hindus do not use that term to describe their religion.