A History Of Hinduism

Origins Of Hinduism

Hinduism has been part of India’s history for more than 5,000 years. Some of the earliest texts in existence, such as the Rig Veda, date back to 1500 BCE, but elements of Hinduism likely date back to the Neolithic and Mesolithic period of the Indian subcontinent. As ancient civilisations began to account for natural phenomena, the concepts of creation, life and death began to emerge, leading to the development and spread of Vedic culture, ritual and sacred texts.
Although Hinduism is commonly associated with gods such as Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, the Vedic literature also contains elements of monotheism, polytheism, and henotheism, as well as animism. Over time, the sweeping polytheistic approach of Hinduism gained precedence, with polycentrism becoming a cornerstone of the faith.
From the Vedas have flowered various schools of philosophical thought, defining Brahman (ontological understanding of reality), samsara (cycle of life and rebirth) and moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and rebirth). The ancient scriptures—which some scholars believe took origin in areas ranging from Central Asia to the Western Ghats—referenced temples and devotional rituals, and touched upon many topics including love, morality and the path to truth.
The Vedic period was followed by the Upanishadic period, where philosophy began to take precedence. This is a period that saw the rise of the Bhagavad Gita, which has become one of the most influential works of Hinduism. The Gita speaks of the importance of dharma (righteousness) and the moral code by which humans should live, whilst further developing many of the concepts referenced in the Vedas.

Hinduism In The Middle Ages

The medieval period saw an increase in the complexity of Hindu thought. This period saw the rise of devotional Hinduism, where gods were celebrated for their divine attributes, and were sometimes personified as the ultimate embodiment of divinity. This period saw the emergence of Bhakti saints and the rise of Puranic literature, popularizing the gods to greater relevance.
The Upanishadic tradition was supplemented by various Vedanta schools permeating the Indian regions, with different schools eventually developing distinct interpretations of Brahman and the ‘true nature of reality’. The Advaita Vedanta school, in particular, influenced the intellectual development of Hinduism in this period, espousing a ‘monism philosophy’ in which the distinction between the soul (atman) and the universal spirit (Brahman) was dissolved.
At this time, some of the most influential Hindu texts were written, such as the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, the two epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the Puranas—texts that explored notions of Hindu cosmology, metaphysics and mythology. These texts began to provide scriptures for a variety of other belief systems, including Shaktism, Saktism and Vaishnavism, which sought to explain the higher reality in terms of female and male pairs of individual gods and goddesses, respectively.

British Raj: A New Era

The advent of the British Raj in the late 18th century marked a long and tumultuous period for Hindus. British rule saw attempts to regulate and control religious life and practice, both through ‘direct and indirect methods’. This included introducing a formal caste hierarchy—the institution of ‘untouchables’—which had a long-term effect on Hinduism and India’s socio-political landscape.
The rise of Hindu monists, reformers and revivalists sought to counter the onslaught, which ultimately led to the development of Indic nationalism through the Indian Renaissance of the 19th century. Despite the reformers’ efforts, the spread of Christianity increased during this period.

The Indian Independence Movement & Aftermath

The Indian Independence Movement of the 1930s saw a resurgence of Hindu pride and identity, with religious and nationalist leaders converging to fight for India’s freedom from British rule. Mahatma Gandhi took a spiritual-led approach to the movement, calling upon elders from many different Hindu sects to unite and prove their strength, with his spiritual leadership proving instrumental in mobilizing the masses.
India gained independence in 1947 and soon after, in the 1950s, adopted a constitution that legally declared the country a secular state. This allowed Hindus to assert their religion and identity in a more freely and equal way, not only against religious minorities, but across wider society.
The post-independence period also saw the emergence of contemporary Hindu-inspired movements, including the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Sanathana Dharma and Ramakrishna Math. These movements provided spaces for Hindus to come together and form new interpretations of various aspects of Hinduism and other Indic traditions not fully explored before, such as vegetarianism and gender equality.

Hinduism In The 21st Century

Hinduism today is estimated to have 800 to 900 million adherents across the world, making it the world’s third largest religion. It has an ancient but very vibrant and diverse tradition, maintaining aspects of religion, belief, philosophy and cultural custom.
Hinduism is also a major presence in popular culture, with books, films and television programmes featuring many aspects of its history, teachings and deities. The rapid growth of Hindu temples and devotional groups across the world is indicative of a resurgence in Hinduism.
Furthermore, the rise of technology has facilitated the development of online Hindu communities, encouraging Hindus to maintain their connection to their faith, culture and the many aspects of its tradition.

Political Activism

Political activists in India, such as the Sangh Parivar, have actively sought to promote and protect Hindu interests, with social movements such as Hindutva (where ‘Hinduism is the basis of national identity’) gaining more traction in recent times.
Even outside of India, Hindus have sought to protect their faith and their interests, often forming diasporic networks across the world. In recent years, challenging the legal systems in their host countries to make Hindu beliefs and practices more accessible—for example, in the UK, securing the right to worship the cow and celebrate holidays such as Holi and Diwali.

Socio-Economic Factors

Hinduism has also been affected by socio-economic factors, particularly from within India itself. India’s highly hierarchical society has seen many Hindus considered to be low-caste, often facing discrimination in terms of access to work, education and other opportunities.
Caste-related violence is still extremely common, particularly in rural areas, which has pushed many Hindus out of the country, leading to an increase in the Hindu diaspora. However, in recent years, government efforts have made some progress in resolving caste-based inequalities, although social and economic divisions remain stark.
At the same time, newer religious traditions within Hinduism such as the Hare Krishnas, Ananda Marga and even movements like Yoga, have gained a greater audience and following, with the teachings of these traditions evolving and adapting for modern followers.

Western Interest And Adoption

Developments in the west present different contradictions for Hinduism. On the one hand, there has been increased interest in practicing Hinduism, leading to a general awareness of aspects of Hinduism such as meditation and yoga. On the other hand, there has also been a tendency to ‘re-brand’ Hinduism, often focusing on the more superficial aspects with scant attention to the wider doctrinal and philosophical strands.
Despite these tensions, Hinduism is more relevant than ever before and its future looks guaranteed, given its vastness and complexity. Hinduism will no doubt continue to inspire generations to come, offering a unique and intricate worldview of understanding life, while balancing the material, physical and metaphysical realms.

Jennifer Johnson is an experienced author with a deep passion for exploring the spiritual traditions of different cultures and religions. She has been writing about religion and spirituality for the past ten years in both print and digital platforms, engaging readers in meaningful dialogue about the soul's journey through this life. With degrees in Comparative Religion and English Literature, she brings an insightful perspective to her work that bridges the gap between traditional knowledge and modern theories. A lifelong traveler, Jenn has lived in multiple countries exploring various paths to understanding faith, and her dedication to learning new things is palpable in every piece she creates.

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