History of Hinduism
Hinduism's early history is the subject of much debate for a number of reasons.
Firstly, in a strict sense there was no 'Hinduism' before modern times, although the sources of Hindu traditions are very ancient.
Secondly, Hinduism is not a single religion but embraces many traditions.
Thirdly, Hinduism has no definite starting point. The traditions which flow into Hinduism may go back several thousand years and some practitioners claim that the Hindu revelation is eternal.
Although there is an emphasis on personal spirituality, Hinduism's history is closely linked with social and political developments, such as the rise and fall of different kingdoms and empires. The early history of Hinduism is difficult to date and Hindus themselves tend to be more concerned with the substance of a story or text rather than its date.
Hindu notions of time
Hindus in general believe that time is cyclical, much like the four seasons, and eternal rather than linear and bounded. Texts refer to successive ages (yuga), designated respectively as golden, silver, copper and iron.
During the golden age people were pious and adhered to dharma (law, duty, truth) but its power diminishes over time until it has to be reinvigorated through divine intervention.
With each successive age, good qualities diminish, until we reach the current iron or dark age (kali yuga) marked by cruelty, hypocrisy, materialism and so on. Such ideas challenge the widespread, linear view that humans are inevitably progressing.
Main historical periods
Although the early history of Hinduism is difficult to date with certainty, the following list presents a rough chronology.
- Before 2000 BCE: The Indus Valley Civilisation
- 1500–500 BCE: The Vedic Period
- 500 BCE–500 CE: The Epic, Puranic and Classical Age
- 500 CE–1500 CE: Medieval Period
- 1500–1757 CE: Pre-Modern Period
- 1757–1947 CE: British Period
- 1947 CE–the present: Independent India
Indus Valley Civilisation
The Indus Valley Civilisation (before 2000 BCE)
The Indus basin
The Indus Valley civilisation was located in the basin of the river Indus, which flows through present day Pakistan. It had developed by about 2500 BCE although its origins reach back to the Neolithic period. It had faded away by 1500 BCE.
The Indus Valley was a developed urban culture akin to the civilisations of Mesopotamia. Two major cities have been uncovered, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, which has given us the alternative name of Harappan culture. These cities housed about 40,000 people who enjoyed quite a high standard of living with sophisticated water systems; most houses having drainage systems, wells, and rubbish chutes. Grain was the basis of the economy and large grain stores collected grain as tax.
The civilisation was extensive, from the eastern foothills of the Himalayas, to Lothar on the Gujarat coast, and to Sutgagen Dor near the Iranian border. Some cities of the Indus valley culture have yet to be excavated.
The Indus civilisation did not develop as a result of contact with other civilisations such as Sumer or Egypt but was an indigenous development growing out of earlier, local cultures.
Religion in the Indus valley
We know little of the religion, social structure or politics of this early civilisation and we do not know the language, but seals have been found with what looks like a script inscribed on them. This has not been deciphered successfully and some scholars now question whether it is in fact a script, although this is contentious.
Male figure found at Mohenjo-Daro. Photo: Amir Taj ©
Religion in the Indus valley seems to have involved temple rituals and ritual bathing in the 'great bath' found at Mohenjo-Daro. There is some evidence of animal sacrifice at Kalibangan. A number of terracotta figurines have been found, perhaps goddess images, and a seal depicting a seated figure surrounded by animals that some scholars thought to be a prototype of the god Shiva. Others have disputed this, pointing out that it bears a close resemblance to Elamite seals depicting seated bulls. One image, carved on soapstone (steatite), depicts a figure battling with lions which is reminiscent of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh myth.
There may be continuities between the Indus Valley civilisation and later Hinduism as suggested by the apparent emphasis on ritual bathing, sacrifice, and goddess worship. But ritual purity, sacrifice and an emphasis on fertility are common to other ancient religions.
The Vedic Period (c.1500–c.500 BCE)
There have been two major theories about the early development of early south Asian traditions.
- The Aryan migration thesis that the Indus Valley groups calling themselves 'Aryans' (noble ones) migrated into the sub-continent and became the dominant cultural force. Hinduism, on this view, derives from their religion recorded in the Veda along with elements of the indigenous traditions they encountered.
- The cultural transformation thesis that Aryan culture is a development of the Indus Valley culture. On this view there were no Aryan migrations (or invasion) and the Indus valley culture was an Aryan or vedic culture.
There are two sources of knowledge about this ancient period - language and archaeology - and we can make two comments about them. Firstly, the language of vedic culture was vedic Sanskrit, which is related to other languages in the Indo-European language group. This suggests that Indo-European speakers had a common linguistic origin known by scholars as Proto-Indo-European.
Page of the Rig Veda in Sanskrit: early 19th century Indian manuscript
Secondly, there does seem to be archaeological continuity in the subcontinent from the Neolithic period. The history of this period is therefore complex. One of the key problems is that no horse remains have been found in the Indus Valley but in the Veda the horse sacrifice is central. The debate is ongoing.
If we take 'Vedic Period' to refer to the period when the Vedas were composed, we can say that early vedic religion centred around the sacrifice and sharing the sacrificial meal with each other and with the many gods (devas). The term 'sacrifice' (homa, yajna) is not confined to offering animals but refers more widely to any offering into the sacred fire (such as milk and clarified butter).
Some of the vedic rituals were very elaborate and continue to the present day. Sacrifice was offered to different vedic gods (devas) who lived in different realms of a hierarchical universe divided into three broad realms: earth, atmosphere and sky.
Earth contains the plant god Soma, the fire god Agni, and the god of priestly power, Brhaspati. The Atmosphere contains the warrior Indra, the wind Vayu, the storm gods or Maruts and the terrible Rudra. The Sky contains the sky god Dyaus (from the same root as Zeus), the Lord of cosmic law (or rta) Varuna, his friend the god of night Mitra, the nourisher Pushan, and the pervader Vishnu.
Epic, Puranic and Classical Age
The Epic, Puranic and Classical Age (c.500 BCE–500 CE)
Arjun and one of his brothers, two of the heroes of the Mahabharata. Dasavatara Temple, Deogarh, 6th century. Photo: Vaticanus
This period, beginning from around the time of Buddha (died c. 400 BCE), saw the composition of further texts, theDharma Sutras and Shastras, the two Epics, the Mahabharata and theRamayana, and subsequently thePuranas, containing many of the stories still popular today. The famousBhagavad Gita is part of theMahabharata.
The idea of dharma (law, duty, truth) which is central to Hinduism was expressed in a genre of texts known as Dharma Sutras and Shastras. The Dharma Sutras recognise three sources of dharma: revelation (i.e. the Veda), tradition (smrti), and good custom. The Laws of Manu adds 'what is pleasing to oneself'.
During this period the vedic fire sacrifice became minimised with the development of devotional worship (puja) to images of deities in temples. The rise of the Gupta Empire (320-500 CE) saw the development of the great traditions of Vaishnavism (focussed on Vishnu), Shaivism (focussed on Shiva) and Shaktism (focussed on Devi).
From this period we can recognise many elements in present day Hinduism, such as bhakti (devotion) and temple worship. This period saw the development of poetic literature. These texts were composed in Sanskrit, which became the most important element in a shared culture.
Medieval Period (500 CE–1500 CE)
Temple to Sri Brahadeeswarar (Shiva) in Tanjavur, the world's first granite temple, built 1004–1009 CE
From 500 CE we have the rise of devotion (bhakti) to the major deities, particularly Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. With the collapse of the Gupta empire, regional kingdoms developed which patronised different religions. For example, the Cholas in the South supported Shaivism.
This period saw the development of the great regional temples such as Jagganatha in Puri in Orissa, the Shiva temple in Cidambaram in Tamilnadu, and the Shiva temple in Tanjavur, also in Tamilnadu. All of these temples had a major deity installed there and were centres of religious and political power.
Poet-saints and gurus
During this time not only religious literature in Sanskrit developed but also in vernacular languages, particularly Tamil. Here poet-saints recorded their devotional sentiments. Most notable are the twelve Vaishnava Alvars (6th–9th centuries), including one famous female poet-saint called Andal, and the sixty-three Shaiva Nayanars (8th–10th centuries).
Subsequent key thinkers and teachers (acharyas or gurus) consolidated these teachings. They formulated new theologies, perpetuated by their own disciplic successions (sampradaya).
Shankara (780–820) travelled widely, defeating scholars of the unorthodox movements, Buddhism and Jainism, which around the turn of the millennium had established prominent seats of learning throughout India. He re-established the authority of the Vedic canon, propagated advaita (monism) and laid foundations for the further development of the tradition known as the Vedanta.
Madhva (c.1238–c.1317, Vaishnava saint and founder of the philosophical school Dvaita Vedanta
Developments in Vaishnavism and Shaivism
The Vaishnava philosophers Ramanuja (c. 1017–1137), Madhva (13th cent) and others followed, writing their own scriptural commentaries, propounding new theologies and establishing their own successions. Ramanuja qualified Shankara's impersonal philosophy, and Madhva more strongly propounded the existence of a personal God.
Shaivism similarly developed during this period with important philosophers such as Abhinavagupta (c. 975–1025) writing commentaries on the Tantras, an alternative revelation to the Veda, and other texts.
The Tantras became revered as a revelation that fulfilled or superseded the Veda. Some of these texts advocated ritually polluting practices such as offering alcohol, meat and ritualised sex to ferocious deities but most of these texts are simply concerned with daily and occasional rituals, temple building, cosmology and so on.
The Pre-Modern Period (c.1500–1757 CE)
Marble elephants at Jagdish Temple in Udaipur, Rajasthan (1651 CE). Photo: Christopher Walker
Alongside the development of Hindu traditions, most widespread in the South, was the rise of Islam in the North as a religious and political force in India. The new religion of Islam reached Indian shores around the 8th century, via traders plying the Arabian Sea and the Muslim armies which conquered the northwest provinces.
Muslim political power began with the Turkish Sultanate around 1200 CE and culminated in the Mughul Empire (from 1526). Akbar (1542–1605) was a liberal emperor and allowed Hindus to practice freely. However, his great grandson, Aurangzeb (1618–1707), destroyed many temples and restricted Hindu practice.
During this period we have further developments in devotional religion (bhakti). The Sant tradition in the North, mainly in Maharashtra and the Panjab, expressed devotion in poetry to both a god without qualities (nirguna) and to a god with qualities (saguna) such as parental love of his devotees.
The Sant tradition combines elements of bhakti, meditation or yoga, and Islamic mysticism. Even today the poetry of the princess Mirabai, and other saints such as Tukaram, Surdas and Dadu are popular.
British Period (1757–1947 CE)
Map of British Indian Empire, 1909
Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) heralded the end of the Mughul Empire and the rise of British supremacy in India.
At first, the British did not interfere with the religion and culture of the Indian people, allowing Hindus to practice their religion unimpeded. Later, however, missionaries arrived preaching Christianity. Shortly after, the first scholars stepped ashore, and though initially sympathetic, were often motivated by a desire to westernise the local population. Chairs of Indology were established in Oxford and other universities in Europe.
The nineteenth century saw the development of the 'Hindu Renaissance' with reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) presenting Hinduism as a rational, ethical religion and founding the Brahmo Samaj to promote these ideas.
Another reformer, Dayananda Sarasvati (1824–83), advocated a return to vedic religion which emphasised an eternal, omnipotent and impersonal God. He wanted to return to the 'eternal law' or sanatana dharma of Hinduism before the Puranas and Epics through his society, the Arya Samaj.
Both of these reformers wished to rid Hinduism of what they regarded as superstition. These groups were instrumental in sowing the seeds of Indian nationalism and Hindu missionary movements that later journeyed to the West.
Another important figure was Paramahamsa Ramakrishna (1836-86), who declared the unity of all religions. His disciple Vivekananda (1863–1902) developed his ideas and linked them to a political vision of a united India.
These ideas were developed by Gandhi (1869–1948), who was instrumental in establishing an independent India. Gandhi, holy man and politician, is probably the best known Indian of the twentieth century. He helped negotiate independence, but was bitterly disappointed by the partition of his country. He was assassinated in 1948.
A shrine to Paramahamsa Ramakrishna at Mysore. Photo: Chetan Hegde M
Gandhi drew much of his strength and conviction from the Hindu teachings, such as the notion of ahimsa (non-violence), and propounded a patriotism that was broad-minded and magnanimous.
During the resistance to colonial rule, the term 'Hindu' became charged with cultural and political meaning. One central idea was hindutva (hindu-ness), coined by V.D. Savarkar to refer to a socio-political force that could unite Hindus against 'threatening others'.
Cultural organisations such as the RSS (Rashtriya Svayam-Sevak Sangh) and VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) have embraced and developed this ideal, which found political expression in the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). These sectarian ideas continued after independence.
Independent India (1947 CE–present)
Gate of the Swaminarayan Temple in London. Photo: Colin Gregory Palmer
The partition of India in 1947, and the resultant bloodshed reinforced nationalistic tendencies and specifically notions of India as 'a Hindu country', and of Hinduism as 'an Indian religion'.
These tendencies have continued and, since then, communal violence has frequently erupted. In 1992, Hindus were incited to tear down the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, which they believe was deliberately and provocatively built over the site of Rama's birth. Tensions have been exacerbated by attempts to covert Hindus to other religions and reactions by the continuing hindutva movement.
Identity in the Hindu diaspora
However, the post-war Hindu movements imported into the west, and wide migration of Hindus, raised questions about the exact nature of Hindu identity. From the 1960s onwards, many Indians migrated to Britain and Northern America. Gurus travelled to the West to nurture the fledgling Hindu communities, sometimes starting missionary movements that attracted Western interest.
In the late 1960s, Transcendental Meditation achieved worldwide popularity, attracting the attention of celebrities such as the Beatles. Perhaps the most conspicuous was the Hare Krishna movement, whose male followers sported shaved heads and saffron robes.
Practising yoga in Paris. Photo: austinevan
Many such Western adherents, and casual practitioners of yoga also, were attracted to the non-sectarian spiritual aspects of Hinduism. Many Hindu youth in the diaspora have similarly preferred these universal aspects of Hinduism, standing in tension with its more political and sectarian elements.
At the end of the millennium, the Hindu communities became well established abroad, excelling socially, economically and academically. They built many magnificent temples, such has the Swaminarayan Temple in London.
Hindus in diaspora were particularly concerned about the perpetuation of their tradition and felt obliged to respond to Hindu youth, who sought a rational basis for practices previously passed down by family custom. They are now particularly concerned about how to deal with contentious issues such as caste, intermarriage and the position of women. In many ways, Hindus in the West are turning back to their roots.
Hinduism in Nepal
Nepal used to be a Hindu nation, the only Hindu nation in the world. Hinduism is practiced by about 81.3% of Nepalese, the highest percentage of any country. Buddhism is linked historically with Nepal and is practiced by 9% of its people, followed by Islam at 4.4%, Kiratism 3.1%, Christianity 1.4%, and animism 0.4%. A large portion of the population, especially in the hill region, may identify themselves as both Hindu and Buddhist, which can be attributed to the syncretic nature of both faiths in Nepal