Origins Of Hinduism
Hinduism, one of the oldest religions in the world, is today the predominant belief system of India. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of Indians profess belief in Hinduism
The roots of this vast and varied spiritual network have developed over thousands of years, and have origins that are difficult to trace firmly. Historiographers agree that the earliest ancestors of Hinduism can be found in the Indus Valley Civilisation. This civilisation flourished in the area that is now modern-day northwest India and northeast Pakistan and was responsible for the creation of farming, sophisticated urban settlements and the widespread practice of yoga.
But this civilisation had its roots in religions that predated it, such as shamanism and polytheism. Research also suggests that more than 4,000 years ago, elements of ancient Hinduism – many of which are still practised today – had appeared in the southern parts of India.
Hinduism principally relies on the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit texts believed to have been composed around 1500 to 1000 BCE. The Vedas –the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda – form the basis of the Hindu faith. The texts include hymns, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests.
It is unknown when Buddhism began, but it existed and even flourished side by side with Hinduism during the early centuriescommon era, when it became a truly global religion. By the 19th century, Hinduism had already replaced Buddhism as the largest religion in India.
Significance Of The Vedic Period
The Vedic period, during which many of the core beliefs of Hinduism were established, took place between 2000 and 1400 BCE and is immensely significant for scholars of Hinduism. This period has been described as the formative period of Hinduism.
During the Vedic period, the Vedas formed the major source of Hindu beliefs, rituals and laws. Various religious ceremonies, such as the ritual use of fire and the ritual sacrifice of animal and other offerings, greatly increased during this era. Many Hindu gods and goddesses were also first mentioned in the Vedas and are still worshipped by Hindus today – such as Indra, a warrior god and the god of rain and thunder.
The advent of the Vedic period and the subsequent formation of the central Hindu beliefs also coincided with an emerging political structure in India. The Vedic period contributed significantly to Indian history, as this is when various social classes, such as the Brahmana and Kshatriya, began to form.
The most prominent development during this period, however, is arguably the emergence of the caste system. This labelling system identified different social groups, determined by the progress of the soul. This system morphed throughout the ensuing centuries and is still prevalent today – although, thankfully, the rigidness of the system has eased over time.
Influence Of Buddhism and Jainism
The philosophical framework of Hinduism also was influenced by the exposure to both Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhism arose from within Hinduism in the sixth century BCE, approximately. Similarly, Jainism emerged in the fifth century BCE, drawing upon the dualist philosophies of Samkhya and yoga.
Whilst Buddhism focused on a fourfold path to liberation from suffering, Jainism focused on the notion of purifying oneself through kevala-jnana – or “knowledge of the soul”. This belief system aimed to teach its adherents how to cultivate the soul and release it from suffering.
This blending of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism is known as the pan-Indian tradition and is related to the idea of Advaita – a belief which stresses the unity of all existence. This emerging concept of Advaita Vedanta explains why you will often see elements of all three religions intertwined in the Hindu belief system today.
Development Of Hinduism
The Hindu religion as we know it today is mostly thought to date from the Gupta empire from around 320-540 CE. During this era, the Hindu architectural style flourished, and was built upon for the centuries that followed.
Emerging concepts such as the ‘trimurti’, or the idea of a tri-partite godhead, began to take shape. This tri-partite godhead blended elements of the major Hindu gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – and manifested as the Creator, Preserver, Destroyer triad.
The ancient Hindu texts, the Upanishads and the epics, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were also written during the Gupta period, contributing to the expansive Hindu scripture that exists today. These texts were part of the popularisation of Hindu literature, artwork, theatre and music – all of which has since been woven into the very fabric of Indian culture.
The Impact Of Islamic Rule
The next great wave of influence came from the Islamic rulers from around the 11th to 15th centuries. This wave of influence saw Hinduism become exposed to Islamic culture and customs, resulting in the adoption of various art forms, languages, and dialects, customs and foods.
These immigrants acquired many aspects of Indian culture and integrated it into their own beliefs. This caused Hinduism to mix and evolve over hundreds of years, creating a synthesis of beliefs, practices and ideas. This is why Hinduism is such a vast and varied religion today.
Western travellers, traders and colonists first began to take an interest in India during the early 17th century, driving the engine of the British Empire for hundreds of years. During this period, Hinduism was introduced to a wider audience all around the globe, reaching regions including Europe and North America.
This key stage in the globalisation of Hinduism saw great Hindu thinkers emerge, who brought fresh perspectives to the religion — most notably, Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), who opened the first Vedanta centre in the United States of America. In the same period of time, scholars were invited to teach in Europe, inspiring a renewed interest in the Oriental and Indian philosophies.
We can also see this development in the Sanskrit revival, which has helped to open up Hindu scripture and philosophy to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike, reminding them of the shared strands of belief between them.
Hinduism today is a deeply entwined part of Indian culture and is divided into a number of sects, with the two major divisions being Vaishnavism and Shaivism. To the majority of the Hindus, Hinduism is the eternal truth, which was revealed to humankind thousands of years ago and is still being revealed today.
Though Hinduism has faced many challenges, including political, economic and religious, it remains one of the major religions of the world with over one billion followers. Ultimately, Hinduism today has come to embody a vibrant culture as much as a faith, helping to unite India’s diverse population.
The Rise Of Religious Extremism
Whilst Hinduism is understandably a source of pride to many Indians, the religion has come into conflict with Islamic fundamentalism in recent history. In some regions, particularly Kashmir in the north, there have been situations of religious violence between Hindus and Muslims.
Yet, at the same time, Hinduism continues to be a unifying force. Conflicts such as those in Kashmir, sadly, can’t deflect from the spiritual, philosophical and artistic values that have been bequeathed to those who profess belief in Hinduism.
Politics And Hinduism
In more recent times, Hinduism has come under political pressure from Hindu Nationalism and other tendencies, fuelling a controversial debate about Hindu identity and culture. This tendency has been particularly pronounced in India’s ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which openly advocates Hindu interests and believes in the concept of Hindu Rashtra (‘Hindu Nation’).
Similarly, whilst the tendency of Hindu Nationalism has been supported by some, it has been opposed sternly by others. For example, many have argued that Hindu Nationalism places the diverging regional traditions of Hinduism under one umbrella, inadvertently limiting such diversity.
Prominent figures continue to emerge looking to preserve the truths contained within Hinduism, including the Indian philosopher, Swami Vivekananda. Taking his philosophy to the west, Vivekananda is credited with helping to shape the modern perception of Hinduism, and inspiring renewed interest in the religion.
We can also look to Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), who also helped increase the appeal of Hinduism on the global stage. As an essential figure in India’s struggle for independence, he notably adapted the concept of Hindu ahimsa (non-violence) into a weapon of passive resistance.
Gandhi is remembered for stating the key tenets of what it means to be a Hindu — including the respect for living creatures, the practice of truth and religious tolerance.
Hinduism is without a doubt one of the most ancient religious systems in the world today. It has developed from a combination of sources over thousands of years and continues to be both a spiritual and cultural force in India and beyond. We can thank the significant figures in Hinduism’s history for helping to shape the religion that we know today and for helping to bring it to a global stage.