Religion has fallen from grace in many parts of the world today. Secularism seems to be the name of the modern game.
But religion undeniably had a huge effect on the path of history. People argued, fought, and died over which god or gods are the ‘right’ ones. Kings and priests bickered over what gives one the right to rule, and would generally try to grab power from the other. On a more communal or personal level, religion and spirituality shaped our customs and the way each culture and individual views the world around them.
Given its massive impact on history, religion is always an interesting topic of conversation. We’ve talked about the origins of religion in general. Today, let’s build on that general picture with a more in-depth look at the oldest religion we know of: Hinduism.
To the best of our knowledge, the story of Hinduism starts around 3500 years ago. One of the best shorthands for understanding this religion is that the word ‘hindu’ — which itself is an exonym, a name by which outsiders refer to something — is used to describe people or cultural elements that come from the Indian subcontinent. Its very name, then, means ‘the Indian’ faith.
It’s quite uncommon among today’s religions: it has no known founder. Its oldest roots probably formed as Indo-Aryan peoples migrated into the Indus Valley, thus mixing their language and culture with those of the indigenous Harappan people. On the other hand, it’s possible that this incursion was what ultimately collapsed the Harappan civilization.
Whichever way that meeting went down, it does suggest that Hinduism is the cultural successor of the beliefs and customs of ancient Indus Valley peoples.
It is believed that Hinduism emerged in the area near modern-day Pakistan between 2300 BC and 1500 BC as a collage of philosophies, cultural elements, religious texts, rituals, and customs that had merged together. Many adherents to the faith, however, say it has always existed — in fact, one of the names they know their own faith by is “the eternal way”.
Today, Hinduism is the third-largest religion on the planet. Its most important texts are known as the Vedas and were composed between about 1500 BC and 500 BC. This span of time, which came to be known as the Vedic Period, mostly emphasized rituals including chanting and sacrifices. During the later Epic, Puranic, and Classic Periods (which collectively lasted until 500 AD), the worship of deities became a central part of the faith, along with the concept of dharma.
The Vedic period of Hinduism (1500-500 BC) mostly saw a fleshing out of the philosophies and ideas that were already part of the faith.
It was a time of much debate and growth inside the Hindu faith. The Vedic teachings coagulated inside the hearts and minds of pastoral, nomadic tribes while they started shifting towards agriculture — a period of dramatic social change.
Given these times of change it’s perhaps not surprising that Hinduism (note: it was still the Vedic faith) at this time was trying to move in two different directions. On the one hand, the numerous and elaborate sets of rituals that are still part of Hinduism to this day started to form. Other Hindus were moving the faith more into the abstract, pondering on the meaning and purpose of their rituals and internalizing them as ethical tenets. This latter group formed the groundwork of the Buddhist and Jainist faiths which branched out from the Vedic body.
Brahmanism emerged during this time — Brahmins are a priestly class (varna) in India’s caste system. This branch of Hinduism drew from both Vedic and post-Vedic texts, and placed emphasis on ritual and the dominant position of Brahmins. They would lose much of their power in the coming centuries due, in particular, to higher urbanization and outside influences (such as Alexander the Great’s Indian Campaign). Another factor that challenged the Vedic faith was a growing ascetic movement closely linked to the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism.
The Classical Period
The rituals and beliefs of Hinduism matured between 500 BC and 300 AD, as the Vedic and Brahmin systems continued to merge. During this time, the faith also spread within India, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia along with Buddhism.
Hinduism as we know it today took religious elements from those Indo-Aryan peoples of old and incorporated them within the Vedic-Brahmin systems. Elements from the Srmanic faiths (Buddhism and Jainism) also make their way into the modern form of Hinduism.
One of the key criteria for being a Hindu today is accepting the Vedic and Upanishad texts as the basis of the faith — similar to how Christianity is inseparable from the bible.
Many of Hinduism’s most influential texts were composed during this period, likely due to higher urbanization creating the socio-economic conditions to make them possible (such as higher availability of education and wealth to support religious activity).
Up until 650 AD, during the rule of the Gupta dynasty, India is considered to have experienced a ‘golden age’. The oldest stone Hindu temples were built during this time, alongside many monasteries and universities which supported both Vedic and non-Vedic studies. The earliest version of the Puran texts were written during this time, which heavily expanded on the mythos of Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi (major Hindu deities). The Puran texts fit into the older Vedic faith, but also added to it — and they were living texts, meaning they were revised and updated over time, changing the faith as they changed.
As the Gupta collapsed, so did their empire. Religion became a local affair, leading to the regionalization of faith. Srmanic faiths both declined but were also integrated into Hinduism and courtly life (royal courts were especially involved in Buddist ritual and sponsored religious texts).
Interactions with Islam
Islam had quite a powerful impact on the history of India. The religion first arrived on the backs of Arab traders in the early 7th century, but its true effect started being felt from the 10th to 12th century as various regions of India fell under Islamic rule. Buddhism especially declined during this time, and a new culture mixing Indian and Islamic elements emerged although many ulamas (“learned Islamic jurists”) worked against the in-mixing of these two.
The Islamic kingdoms of India are the last element that shaped the Hindu religion in its current form. While the two faiths generally coexisted peacefully, some violent confrontations did occur. Non-Muslims were also enslaved (especially Hindus), although this practice became less common after it was abolished in 1562 by Akbar the Great. Kalinga was one of the last real Hindu strongholds in the area during this time, keeping their religion, philosophy, art, architecture, and customs alive.
But not all Muslim leaders were as tolerant as Akbar. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, several important Hindu temples were broken down and mosques built in their place. Various rulers at various times also allowed or supported the persecution of non-Muslims, including Hindus. Some converted to Islam either for socio-economic benefit or genuine belief; in some regions, as much as 90% of the population were Muslim, although in others it was as little as 10%.
The expansion of Islam in India was blocked by the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries, which also nurtured Hindu customs and administration in its lands. The Hindu Maratha Confederacy, India’s last great empire before the British came, rose to power in the 18th century and brought the country back firmly into Hinduism.
It was during this time that scholars began considering Hinduism as we know it. Before, the individual texts and traditions of each faith were seen as more separate. These ‘saddarsana‘ now form the foundation of the Hindu religion.
Hinduism saw a reemergence during British rule from the 18th century in the British Raj. The British Raj was the name of the colonial government imposed in India (‘raj’ is an Indian word for ‘rule’).
The British didn’t show much academic interest in the Raj, being more concerned with milking its enormous wealth of cotton, spices, and tea. Hinduism started to receive academic scrutiny only in the 19th century, which first exposed Europe and the West to the belief.
In many ways, Hinduism didn’t really ‘exist’ until Europeans started referring to the area’s rich religious heritage as a unified set of beliefs. Those traditions were there, but they weren’t seen as a single entity the way Christianity or Islam is. It was through the eyes of Westerners trying to explain this exotic Indian faith using the concepts and systems that defined their own religion that Hinduism took the mantle of a single, unified religion.
Today, it is the third-largest religion in the world with 1.2 billion adherents worldwide — although most of them are found in southeast Asia, for example in Nepal and India. Countries that were part of the British empire, such as Canada, the USA, or South Africa also typically have Hindu populations today.
Apart from that, it’s not very widespread. In Europe, the only countries with a sizable Hindu minority are Sweden and the Netherlands. In South America, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana are the only countries where Hinduism makes up an important minority.
However, one element of Hinduism does capture the hearts and minds of trendy, educated, wealthy people all over the world — yoga.
Condensing the history of a religion such as Hinduism in a single article is a very hard task; condensing its beliefs might just be impossible.
Hinduism is enormously rich in ritual, customs, and philosophical thought. It’s also a polytheistic religion with “33 million” gods. It doesn’t actually have that many, but they do have 33 types of deities. There’s no way we can cover all of that here and keep you guys and gals awake through it, but if you do have some free time on your hands (and, given the pandemic, you probably do) delving into the beliefs of Hinduism is a very gripping, exotic, sometimes surreal experience.
It is, after all, a religion thousands of years old.