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A brief history of Hinduism

Posted by Admin on May 26, 2012

A brief history of Hinduism

May 17, 2012 by

|| Like mothers to their calves, like milch kine with their milk, so, Sindhu, unto thee the roaring rivers run.
Thou leadest as a warrior king thine army’s wings what time thou comest in the van of these swift streams. || [Rig Veda]

The word Hindu is derived from word Sindhu which means Indus in English. The religion of the people at eastern side of Indus was called Hinduism by Arabs and British.

When we didn’t have any answers to the questions of the universe, our ancestors used to invoke a super-natural entity to answer those curiosities. That Supernatural power is God. Religion is a set of cultures and beliefs which tells human-beings about how to live their life morally and connect their human self with a metaphysical self of God. Naturally, every tribe, culture, nation, race must have had their own set of supernatural beliefs. In India, different groups of people believed in different kind of Gods and performed different rituals to please them.

The oldest civilization in India established itself around the river Indus.  It was called the Indus Valley Civilization. This is considered one of the oldest civilizations in human history (est. 3300 BCE). Seals have been found during excavations which show that the Indus valley people revered a deity which almost looked like Lord Shiva. Also, seals of Swastika and remnants of fire altars have been found in the excavations of Kalibangan.

The Indus valley civilization declined around 1500 BCE. It was the time when Vedic Rituals and culture took over. We call this period as the Vedic periods because it was when the earliest Vedas were formed. Rig-Veda is the oldest Veda. Though it is very hard to determine the precise age and location where early hymns of Rig-Veda were formed but it can be argued that Vedas are thousands of years old. Rig-Veda talks about Soma as God; also Soma is an intoxicating plant that is currently found in western Pakistan. The other two initial Veda were Sama-Veda and Yajur-Veda. The last Veda to be compiled was Atharva-Veda during 1000 BC. It is a collection of hymns and chants for healing diseases. One point to mention here is that all the Vedas were propagated orally. That is, Teachers in different schools of thoughts in Vedic societies used to preach the Vedas orally. The students would cram those verses by heart and teach their own students. It was not until 300 BCE that Vedas were codified into written language. Think about the vast periods in which Vedas were just propagated orally? Anyone can easily deduce by logic that Vedas must have been corrupted and changed by some of the teachers in between. Fire-sacrifices, called yajñawere performed during this period, and Vedic mantras chanted but no temples or idols are

Seals of the Indus Valley Civilization. also showing Swastikas. British Museum. Personal photograph, 2005.


Around 500 BCE, there were many schools of thoughts all over India. They taught similar or different concepts of the world. Many new texts were written during that time. Puranas are the texts which tell the stories about Gods, Philosophy, Universe, Morality and other things. Gods fight against the demons in these texts and humans get a reason to endure their earthly pains and hope for a good world by praying and believing in an afterlife through Puranas. According to Bhaktivedanta VedaBase: Śrīmad Bhāgavatam ; Puranas are the texts through which an ordinary individual can learn about the Vedas.

                                                       nārāyaṇaḿ namaskṛtya

                                                            naraḿ caiva narottamam

devīḿ sarasvatīḿ vyāsaḿ

tato jayam udīrayet”

[All men are not equal. There are men who are conducted by the mode of goodness, others who are under the mode of passion and others who are under the mode of ignorance. The Purāṇas are so divided that any class of men can take advantage of them and gradually regain their lost position and get out of the hard struggle for existence.]

Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata were compiled during 500 BCE. They were also propagated through oral traditions.

Goddess Durga riding a Tiger.

Until now, my readers must have understood that several texts and cultures had come out in different parts of India during this period. Different groups in India worshipped different Gods; it was based on the school of thought with which they were influenced. Let us take the example of Goddess Durga. She is mostly worshipped in the Himalayan ranges of Uttrakhand (Indian state) or Bengal (The state that was once a dense jungle of Mahogany trees and Tigers). The major occupation of people of these places must have been to collect woods and other things from dense forests. They must have been afraid from Tigers and Lions living in those jungles. As we know, people start worshiping those things that they fear off. Is it a surprise that Goddess Durga rides a tiger? She is an embodiment of the fear that those tribal people felt, she is s goddess borne out of the fear of those people.

Buddhism and Jainism are offshoots of the early Vedic religions. These were the schools which did not believe in the superiority of Vedas. They taught their own philosophies of reaching a higher goal through breathing exercises, worldly acts and meditations.

Islam entered India during 7th century CE.  It was the period when many Indians converted to Islam through force and subjugation. The Indian philosophies about God we got highly influenced by the thoughts of Islam. Numerous Muslim rulers or their army generals such as Aurangzeb and Malik Kafur destroyed Hindu temples and persecuted non-Muslims; however some, such as Akbar, were more tolerant. It was during this period when Bhakti movement in India got prominence. There were many Indians in south that used to worship only one God. They were either Shaivites (Followers of Shiva) or Vaishnavites (Followers of Vishnu). They started preaching about one religion in India and they brought all the different rituals and cultures in India under one umbrella body of Hinduism. During the 14th–17th centuries, a great Bhakti movement swept through central and northern India, initiated by a loosely associated group of teachers or saints. Ravidas, Srimanta Sankardeva, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Vallabhacharya, Surdas, Meera Bai, Kabir, Tulsidas, Namdev, Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram and other mystics spearheaded the Bhakti movement in the North. They taught that people could cast aside the heavy burdens of ritual and caste, and the subtle complexities of philosophy, and simply express their overwhelming love for God. This period was also characterized by a spate of devotional literature in vernacular prose and poetry in the ethnic languages of the various Indian states or provinces. The word Hindu was borrowed into European languages from the Arabic term al-Hind, referring to the land of the people who live across the River Indus, itself from the Persian term Hindū, which refers to all Indians. By the 13th century, Hindustān emerged as a popular alternative name of India, meaning the “land of Hindus“. This was the time when Hinduism was really born. Before that it was just a collection of different faiths and cultures that were followed in different parts of India.

Hinduism can be called as a collective term for all the different traditions that were followed at the eastern side of river Indus. The Britishers who ruled India called Hinduism as a religion that was followed all over India. As per the above definition, Hinduism cannot be characterized as a religion like the western religions of Islam and Christianity. Some academics suggest that Hinduism can be seen as a category with “fuzzy edges”, rather than as a well-defined and rigid entity.

Hinduism does not have a common or single founder. It has evolved since the ages. Hinduism is flexible and accommodates any views that come to its vicinity. Therefore, there is no particular time at which we can say that Hinduism was born. Nobody can say about which book is the central book of Hinduism. Nobody can define who a Hindu is? Because of its weak and fuzzy boundaries, Hinduism is both a monotheistic as well as a Polytheistic religion. That depends on the followers. A follower can easily choose what he wants to believe into. There are numerous Hindus who believe in one God like Vishnu and Shiva and plus there are a million others who believe in millions of Gods.

Just remember that, if a person is from India and is not a Christian, Jew or Muslim, than most probably he is a Hindu. Even if his beliefs do not match with his neighboring Hindu – Hinduism allows for that variety. There is no common founder of Hinduism. It has evolved as things evolve with time and finally, it has found a name for itself.

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