The History of Hinduism

The roots of Hinduism may go back as far as 9000 BC to the first indigenous civilizations in the Indus Valley, but as they say, the specifics are “lost in the mists of time.” Very little is known of pre-Vedic indigenous spiritual life in India, but scholars believe they were centred – just as they were for virtually every other indigenous culture – upon natural and cosmic forces such as storms, fire and the sun. These forces were eventually given names and superhuman character traits which would ultimately be absorbed into Vedic worship, as gods with physical form and specific characteristic and responsibilities such as Rudra, Agni and Surya. Much later, elements of Rudra’s characteristics would evolve to become those of Shiva, while Rudra’s importance would wane. Other Vedic gods represented more abstract qualities such as friendship (Mitra) and statecraft (Indra). A similar process applied to many other deities as well. The inclusive nature of Hinduism ensures ancient pre-Vedic beliefs live on as nature spirits, such as yakshas, which still guard springs and trees, while the homes of cobra-like deities, or nagas, such as anthills will often receive offerings of food and flowers (note 1).

While most scholars agree The Vedas would become the authoritative spiritual source of Hinduism (note 2), there is an ongoing debate over whether they originated with the religious beliefs of Aryans or Indus Valley civilizations. The Aryans were multi-ethnic, Sanskrit speaking, tribal nomads from what is now Iran, who moved into the Indus Valley around 4000 BP. The indigenous Indus Valley civilizations, on the other hand, were agriculturists with sophisticated civil engineering technology and extensive sea-going trade networks (note 3). While their writings have yet to be decoded, they likely spoke a Dravidian dialect, which may have formed the basis for the Tamil language (note 4). Aryan religious beliefs were based on ritual sacrifice to deities embodying natural forces such as storms, rain and rivers (Rudra), fire (Agni), and the sun (Surya). Vedic foundations of Hinduism are possibly a synthesis of Aryan and Harappan, beliefs and may have included yogic meditation and the concepts of Shiva and Shakti. The Vedas, in the form of hymns and poems, were passed down orally for thousands of years before being written in Sanskrit between 3700 and 2500 BP. Meanwhile, Aryan hierarchal social structure (varna) grew out of Vedic religious practice and later came to be known as the caste system (note 5).

The period from 1000 BC to 500 AD saw the peak of Vedic spiritual influence in India. As its ritual and practice grew more sophisticated, scholars and sages continued to expand Vedic thought in three further volumes of writings; Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These texts introduced the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, while later Upanishads developed the concept of Atman, the deep inner essence within the individual, and moksha, union with the Ultimate Soul; Brahman. The Vedas now offered an alternative to temple rituals, and it was now possible to worship a personal manifestation of Brahman.

Traditionally, access to The Vedas and performance of their rituals was the exclusive right of the literate upper caste. Brahmin control over access to God led to widespread spiritual dissatisfaction, and the masses began to believe the ritual performance was of less importance than the ritual’s meaning to the individual. A movement (Sramana) gained popularity, which encouraged an internalized spiritual path through personal ascetism, setting the stage around 2600 BP for the birth of Buddhism (note 6) and Jainism (note 7). Buddhism rejected Vedic ritual, seeking moksha through meditation, while Jains rejected the concept of both Brahman and Atman altogether, finding moksha through strict austerity, and by 400 BC, both religions had gained ground on Hinduism. It was reported by a Chinese diplomat that in Kanchipuram, (south India) alone, there were 100 monasteries and 10,000 monks. This was not to last, however, as Hinduism would eventually absorb many Buddhist and Jain principles and practices, and by 1200 AD, Buddhism was on the fringes of south Indian spiritual life.

Devotional practice in south India reflected the passionate nature of the Tamil people and proved to be fertile ground for a renewed burst of spiritual energy known as Bhakti. Beginning about 1400 600 AD ascetic Tamil poets wandered south India, reciting poems and singing devotional hymns of unparalleled beauty and passion, praising Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Devi, the Mother Goddess. These poet-saints espoused a goal of mystical union with God bypassing the Brahmin controlled Vedic temple rituals with its divisions of caste and gender. 

Eight hundred years ago the poetess-saint Mahadeviyakka wrote of her devotion to Shiva in terms not unlike that of a lover to their beloved;

“He bartered my heart, looted my flesh, 

claimed as tribute my pleasure, took over all of me. 

I’m the woman of love, 

for my lord, white as jasmine.”

In the time of the Cholas, most Hindus wouldn’t disagree The Vedas were Hinduism’s spiritual source, though outside of Brahmin priests, very few would live their lives strictly according to Vedic precepts. The majority of popular Hindu practice is ritual worship to one or more or all the gods. Bhakti may be confined to one or two personal Gods, but a worshipper would be quite comfortable, for example, calling upon Ganesha to remove an obstacle in their lives in one moment and in the next to to beseech Boga Shakti to grant them a grandchild. Then as now, when devotees visit a large temple, for instance, they traditionally follow a circuit around the outside the main temple structure offering puja to stone icons, or mulamurti, installed in niches along the walls before they enter the inner temple. Hinduism’s innumerable deities are not deities in their own right but are manifestations of Brahman, The Ultimate Truth and Reality. Each god or goddess is a lens through which the worshipper is offered a brief glimpse of Brahman; therefore, there is no contradiction for a Saivite, for example, to offer devotion to Vishnu or a Devi or a sacred rock at their village well.  

Note 1 – When the primary source of domestic water for so many rural Indians is a well or spring, and when a recent survey of doctors in India showed 46,000 deaths a year by snake bite, perhaps it is understandable that people would like to stay on the right side of yakshas and nagas.

Note 2 – It’s essential to bear in mind The Vedas were created by human beings rather than the literal word of a Creator Deity. They are, therefore, open to interpretation and have been for thousands of years, resulting in a truly vast body of sacred literature, added to and amended up to the present day.

Note 3 – The Harappans were the first in the Indian sub-continent to cast bronze sculpture in about 2500 BC.

Note 4 – Around 1700 BC, the Harappans migrated into south India after the collapse of their Indus Valley Civilisation following a 200-year drought.

Note 5 – Despite the efforts of today’s Indian government to eliminate the caste system, it is so ingrained by 4,000 years of Indian culture that such efforts have been mostly ineffectual. By the way, the word caste comes from the Portuguese word for colour.

Note 6 – The decline of Buddhism in India had more to do with the attraction of participation in social and cultural life rather than the Buddhist doctrine of renouncing and retreating from the world. Today in India, Buddhism is enjoying a modest rise in popularity, primarily due to the conflict of modern human rights values with a patriarchal Vedic caste system.

Note 7 – Jainism, with its extreme austerity, has never enjoyed mainstream popularity, though its beliefs have had a disproportionate effect upon Buddhism and Hinduism.