I see far too much misconceptions of Hinduism circulating in Quora and elsewhere. These definitions and misconceptions confuse the non-Hindus than they seek to enlighten.
Myth 1: Hinduism is an "Open-Source" Religion
This analogy is highly faulty. Can I recompile Rig Veda and create own version of it? Can I fork Atharvana Veda and create a new 5th veda? Can I improve Bhagvad Gita by inserting/deleting 30 new verses in Chapter 18? On the contrary, if you change even one syllable in a Rig Vedic verse, you risk invalidating it.
Hinduism is fairly relaxed and tolerant, but that doesn't mean we are a free for all. The Vedas are called shruti -
meaning that no kind of alteration is permitted. When we are initiated into the religious practice during Upanayanam, we have to exactly recite the mantras as is.
Myth 2: Hinduism has atheism within it
There were a few nastika
schools of philosophy in ancient India. But, that doesn't mean they form a part of the Hindu canon that is followed in practice today. Hindu philosophy is a subset of all ideas that originated in India. All the mainstream religion texts are all theistic with explicit reference to God (although some try to twist a fringe shloka or two).
Vedas speak of God, in Bhagvat Gita Krishna leaves no room for doubt when it comes to God, Adi Shankara leaves no room for further doubt in Bhaja Govindam. From Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas to almost any text used by a religious Hindu, God/gods form a central part.
In the orthodox religious family I grew up, "nastika" was always used in a derisive way & negative context. The reason why Hinduism doesn't explicitly go after nastikas, is because of the fundamental role of tolerance built into the system to allow multiple ideas, not because we accept their ideas to be correct.
Myth 3: Hinduism is not a religion
The myth goes that given that Hinduism has no real founder, it is not a religion. The fact is that, having a founder is not essential to the definition of religion. Even Judaism has no founder. They have prophets, just like we have great saints. Jainism has no founder (Mahavira just popularized a concept that had been practiced for a while by other saints).
Religion is a belief system that provides a framework to talk about things beyond this world. Karma, Dharma and Swarga are some of the common beliefs among most Hindus that talk about a natural order.
Just like India itself, Hinduism is noisy/diverse at the surface, but inside the religion, there is a natural harmony that connects all the dots together.
Excessively broad definitions of the religion
Some Internet Indians have widened the scope of Hinduism so much that even Martian creatures could have been included in the religion. Not all things that Christians do are related to their religion. In the same way, Hindus hold a lot of believes and practices that might not have anything to do with the religion. By including every practice and belief than any of 800 million Hindus hold, you have created a definition that is meaningless.
Defining characteristics of Hinduism
- Primacy of Vedas. This is one separator between Hinduism and other religions that originated in India - Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
- Happiness. Hindus don't repent, mourn or cry. While we remember the birth of Rama & Krishna, we have no events for remembering their end. "Sarva Jano Sukhino Bhavantu" -- "let us all be happy" is a central tenet of Hinduism. We fill our year with festivals and even when we celebrate the death day of our ancestors, we put a positive spin to it.
- Polytheism/Monotheism hybrid. Hinduism has 3 main families of the Gods (Shiva, Vishnu, Shakthi) and the gods followed by 99% of Hindus are directly related to these three. You get to choose from a variety of options, but then people usually stick to one God (called ishta deivata).