There is a famous philosophical problem popularly known as the ship of Theseus, or the Theseus’s Paradox. Imagine a ship is brought to a museum, an ancient vessel discovered in an archaeological dig and identified as the ship of Theseus. Over time we find that some parts of the woodwork are rotting and need to be replaced. After some time, another piece needs to be replaced and then another… This goes on until finally, a couple of years later, no portion of the original woodwork is left. The ship looks the same, but it comprises new wooden pieces. Is it still the ship of Theseus or is it a new ship now?
There are two schools of thought. One says that identity is a function of time and therefore we can say that a new ship has emerged, made of new materials, replacing the old vessel made of old materials. The other school of thought is that there is a continuous identity, an essence beyond space and time. This essence has survived even though the woodwork has been replaced.
Hinduism is something like that; it can be compared to the ship of Theseus. Every few years, some traditions change. Over the years, traditions have changed so dramatically that one wonders if Hinduism has survived with a new set of traditions, which are so different from the old set. Again, there are two schools of thought. One says that new traditions represent a new religion. For example, western scholars often insist that the 3,000-year-old Vedic religion is very different from the 2,000-year-old Puranic religion. Vedic Hinduism is not Puranic Hinduism and to compare them is just cultural chauvinism. However, there is an idea of continuity among Hindus, who believe that there is something consistent and continuous in Hinduism from ancient times, and it doesn’t make a difference whether the Vedic yagyas were replaced by the Puranic temples. The essence of Hinduism has remained the same.
This idea needs to be visited in the wake of recent controversies about traditions changing. Should women be allowed into certain temples? Do people of the Dalit caste have the same rights as people of the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes? These are questions that keep emerging as a society keeps changing.