With the revival of pre-Christian religious practices of Europe and America by modern pagan movement, there is increasing tendency of use of pagan word by Hindus to identify themselves. This is also a result of growing contact with the universal terminologies and seek common cause with them. Ram Swarup, one of the finest Hindu thinkers of the previous century was hopeful about regeneration of polytheistic and pantheistic religions of Europe and America and Hindus acting like their guide for their spiritual rejuvenation. I won’t be exploring the modern paganism movement and its relationship with Hinduism, but validity of use of the word pagan by Hindus to describe themselves.
The word pagan in Western world has two meanings. The first meaning comes from Old Testament in which the word is used to describe idolaters. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, he sees some of the people worshipping golden calf and asks for the killing of these idolaters. The other meaning of the term comes from its root word in Latin Paganus which means rural or rustic. To understand why polytheists of the Roman society were called Pagans, the reason lies with the spread of Christianity in Rome. Christianity in Rome was an urban phenomenon sustained by the state patronage in the beginning and to save from Christian persecution, quite a few of them took shelter in rural areas. Christians called them pagans as they were practicing polytheism but concentrated in rural areas. In both the definitions, the term has a negative connotation rooted in Abrahamic worldview to assess and label the people of other faiths.
Are Hindus pagans? If we accept the Old Testament meaning of the term, Hindus are undoubtedly pagans and it’s the reason why a formidable philosopher like Ram Swarup called Hindus pagans. The Christian meaning of the term doesn’t actually denote Hindus but as typological similarly, Hindus can be called pagans as the elements of nature worshipping and different forces of nature are present in Hinduism. Yet, the similarity ends there as there is no equivalent of ज्ञानकाण्ड in pagans religions which seldom went beyond the mechanical rituals. Nor there is any equivalent tradition of योग in either of the pagan religions. But, some people can argue that for global solidarity with other pagans of the world, Hindus can call themselves pagans.
Now, we have reached the crux of the issue around the usage of the term. Pagan is a word rooted in the theology of Abrahamic religions which assigned pejorative meaning to the culture it managed to conquer. As a confident civilization which was never conquered by Christianity and much more sophisticated and older than Christianity, why should we use words like pagan which was assigned to us by dominant power in a particular historical period? Adopting the characterization of a society by its rival society shows that the rival society or culture has an advantage over us and they’re dictating how we see ourselves. It’s not based on how as a group we would like to define ourselves and it’s more problematic as it’s a negative definition (negative definition in the sense a definition based on negation or what one is not).
One more question around the subject will be why the modern followers of pagan religions such as Druids, Wicca or Celts call themselves pagans? The answer is not straightforward. European pagans prefer calling themselves Ethnic Religions and their biannual conference is known as World Council of Ethnic Religions. The others prefer the term as they started practicing their ancient religions as a revolt against Christianity and prefer to retain the historical connotation behind the term and its suppression by Christianity. As a confident, enduring and sophisticated civilization rooted in Dharma, calling ourselves pagans is probably an insult to our ancestors who never adopted the terminology given by their rivals. The term Hindu is not equivalent as it has evolved to mean a religious group now and applies only to us, not to different set of people around the world.