HISTORY OF HINDUISM
Hinduism is the oldest of the great religions. Its birth has been dated to between 2000 and 1500 B.C., a period of time when Aryans invaded the Indian subcontinent and grafted their religion onto beliefs of the people they conquered, namely the Dravidians. It is thought to have emerged from a kind of animism that predated organized religion and is still alive among some tribal peoples. Its origin however is unknown and difficult to date with any precision.
Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “There is no single founder or doctrine of Hinduism. It has evolved over the centuries, incorporating previous doctrines and deities, for instance, maintaining reverence for the ancient Vedic texts and adopting some of the Vedic deities but in new guises, and responding to non-Vedic religious movements such as Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism as we know it seems to have coalesced at the beginning of the first millenniumA.D.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]
Hinduism has a history of amalgamating everything that has come in its path. As it expanded it absorbed rather than conquered or drove out the religions, beliefs and gods that it encountered. Buddhism grew out Hindu. It developed in the 6th century B.C. partly as a rejection of the caste system. Hinduism and Buddhism still have many similarities and shared beliefs.
Hinduism was never organized and did not spread beyond India and Nepal very much until recently. It never has had a particular leader and it has never been powered by any sort of empire. Thus it evolved into a list of teachings and guiding principles without the political influence as has been the case with other major faiths. There is no founder of Hinduism and no specific origin date.
Gavin Flood, a professor of Theology at Oxford, wrote in a BBC article: “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. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]
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.
See Separate Article VEDIC PERIOD (1500–500 B.C.): ARYANS, EARLY HINDUISM, LIFE AND GOVERNMENT factsanddetails.com
Although the early history of Hinduism is difficult to date with certainty, the following list presents a rough chronology: 1) Before 2000 B.C.: The Indus Valley Civilisation; 2)1500–500 B.C.: The Vedic Period; 3) 500 B.C.–500 CE: The Epic, Puranic and Classical Age500 CE–1500 CE: Medieval Period; 4) 1500–1757 CE: Pre-Modern Period; 5) 1757–1947 CE: British Period; 6) 1947 CE–the present: Independent India
Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) iep.utm.edu/adv-veda ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs ; Hindu Texts: Clay Sanskrit Library claysanskritlibrary.org ; Sacred-Texts: Hinduism sacred-texts.com ; Sanskrit Documents Collection: Documents in ITX format of Upanishads, Stotras etc. sanskritdocuments.org ; Ramayana and Mahabharata condensed verse translation by Romesh Chunder Dutt libertyfund.org ; Ramayana as a Monomyth from UC Berkeley web.archive.org ; Ramayana at Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Mahabharata holybooks.com/mahabharata-all-volumes ; Mahabharata Reading Suggestions, J. L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University brown.edu/Departments/Sanskrit_in_Classics ; Mahabharata Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Bhagavad Gita (Arnold translation) wikisource.org/wiki/The_Bhagavad_Gita ; Bhagavad Gita at Sacred Texts sacred-texts.com ; Bhagavad Gita gutenberg.org gutenberg.org
Early Religious Practices in India
Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
horned figure on a Pre-Indus civilization in Kashmir, 2700 BC
“Only fragmentary information can be pieced together about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Horned animals, trees, many female figurines (probably mother goddesses), and phallic sculptures suggest that the people practiced some kind of fertility worship. Depictions of figures in yogic postures suggest that meditation was used. These images relate to those of later Indian religions, and some may be prototypes of later Indian deities.
“Some time after the collapse of the Indus civilization, Aryans migrated down to the subcontinent from Central Asian steppes, bringing with them beliefs in gods, predominantly male, who personified forces and nature and were worshipped in elaborate sacrifices performed by Brahmins, the priestly class. The Aryans composed religious texts beginning with the Rig Veda, Soma Veda, and Athar Veda (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), which contained hymns to the gods and descriptions of the customs, behavior, and traditions of Aryan life. The Upanishads, composed later (700–500 B.C.), contain profound philosophical speculations about the “One who lies behind.” This “One,” called Brahman, is eternal, formless, all encompassing, and the origin and essence of all things.”
Early History of Hinduism
Hinduism is regarded by some scholars as the oldest surviving religion. It originated around the Indus Valley near the River Indus in modern day Pakistan. Some elements date back as far as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The earliest form of Hinduism was essentially nature worship. Based on study of its earliest scriptures, scholars say it “was full of childhood's simple faith" and was "not yet burdened with intellectual brooding." Under the Aryans Hinduism and the caste system evolved together.
Mulabandha from the Indus Valley
The earliest forms of Hinduism arose from prehistoric faiths. The true beginnings of the faith began around 4000 B.C.with the combined practices of several tribal religions, which makes it the oldest still-practiced religion in the world. [Source: Jonathan H. Kantor, Listverse, July 31, 2016]
The Hindu synthesis began to develop between 500–300 B.C. as various forms of Hindu study coalesced into the practices we see today. The earliest records of Hindu gods, goddesses and Hindu beliefs were first written down in about the fourth century A.D. However, by this time, there was already a strong oral tradition which supported these beliefs. The early Hindu epics and myths help us to understand the evolution of the gods and goddesses and the development of beliefs which form the basis of the modern Hindu religion. [Source: British Museum]
Professor Gavin Flood wrote: “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. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]
Religion in the Indus Valley: Before 2000 B.C.
An examination of South Asian religious life begins with the Indus Valley civilisation located in the basin of the river Indus, which flows through present-day Pakistan. Embracing two cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, with about 40,000 people, it had developed by about 2500 B.C., although its origins reach back to the Neolithic period, and largely disappeared by 1500 B.C. The Indus Valley was a developed urban culture similar to the civilisations of Mesopotamia. Its people enjoyed quite a high standard of living with sophisticated water systems. Most houses had drainage systems, wells, and trash chutes. Grain was the basis of the economy and large grain stores collected grain as tax. Indus Valley civilisation was extensive, extending from the eastern foothills of the Himalayas, to Lothar on the Gujarat coast, and to Sutgagen Dor near the Iranian border. 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.
Fertility goddess from Mohenjo-Daro
Professor Gavin Flood of Oxford University wrote: “ 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. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]
“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.” |::|
Indus Valley Religion
We know as little about the Indus religion and philosophy as we do about their language. The Indus people left behind no large monuments to their religions. Most of what is known is derived from small miniatures described as "small, modest, even humble expressions of human sentiment."
Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]
Indus cow seal “Only fragmentary information can be pieced together about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Horned animals, trees, many female figurines (probably mother goddesses), and phallic sculptures suggest that the people practiced some kind of fertility worship. Depictions of figures in yogic postures suggest that meditation was used. These images relate to those of later Indian religions, and some may be prototypes of later Indian deities.
“Some time after the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization, Aryans migrated down to the subcontinent from Central Asian steppes, bringing with them beliefs in gods, predominantly male, who personified forces and nature and were worshipped in elaborate sacrifices performed by Brahmins, the priestly class. The Aryans composed religious texts beginning with the Rig Veda, Soma Veda, and Athar Veda (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), which contained hymns to the gods and descriptions of the customs, behavior, and traditions of Aryan life. The Upanishads, composed later (700–500 B.C.), contain profound philosophical speculations about the “One who lies behind.” This “One,” called Brahman, is eternal, formless, all encompassing, and the origin and essence of all things.”
Indus Phallic Symbols and Animal Cults
Religious life may have revolved around fertility cults. Miniatures of decorated, pregnant females with high collars and headdresses, collected from Mohenjo-Daro seem to suggest the Indus Valley civilization worshipped mother-goddess figures. Terra cotta figures, often heavily adorned with jewelry and wearing elaborate headdresses, have been excavated from a number of sites. As a balance some scholars also believe the Indus people paid homage to phallic gods as well. The miniatures may have been offerings brought by people who hoped their wishes would be granted.
Indus Valley Civilization A figure with a human face, the trunk of elephant, the hind quarters of a tiger and the hind legs of bull has been found on seals. Humans with the horns of bulls or water buffalos have been found on tokens. These discoveries have led some scholars to conclude the Indus people were members of animal cults.
Among the other animals depicted on tokens and seals are rhinos, crocodiles and elephants. Images of unicorns are particularly common. The unicorn symbol disappeared from the subcontinent after the Indus Valley civilization collapsed. Another token shows a human head set before a horned figure like an offering.
Scores of stone phallic, vulva and bull figures have been found that are similar to iconic symbols in Hinduism. Some archaeologists and historians present this as evidence that Indus religion may have been the precursor to Hinduism. The bull was mount of the Hindu god Shiva. Indus phallic symbols' resembled the lingams (phallic emblems) used in the worship of Shiva. Some tokens show humans bowing before a pipal tree shading figures that may be deities. Pipal trees symbolize fertility and protection in Hinduism.
One three-sided seal that was unearthed depicts a squatting god surrounded by animals which, some scholars say, may have been a forerunner of Shiva. Some of the most beautifully carved images on seals are of cattle, which suggests a link to cattle worship.
The Hindu religion is thought to have originated with the Aryans (early Indo-Europeans), a loosely federated, semi-nomadic herdsmen people who spread both east and west from Central Asia, taking their sky gods with them. The Aryans first settled in the Punjab and later moved on to the Ganges Valley. They are also ancestors of pre-Homeric Greeks, Teutons and Celts.
Early Indo-European charioteers
in this case, the Hittites Between 2000 and 1000 B.C. successive waves of Aryans migrated to India from Central Asia (as well as eastern Europe, western Russia and Persia) . The Aryans invaded India between 1500 and 1200 B.C., around the same time they moved into the Mediterranean and western Europe. The relatively light-skinned Aryans drove many of the original dark-skinned Dravidian inhabitants south. Some scholars believe they conquered the Indus River civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Others think the Indus civilization had already been destroyed or was moribund when they arrived.
Aryans are defined as early speakers of Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-European language that provided the basis for all the languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the majority those in Europe.
Based on linguistic evidence Aryans are believed to have originated from the steppes of Central Asia. They were led by a warrior aristocracy whose legendary deeds are recorded in Rig Veda. The term “arya” in Sanskrit means “noble.” The Aryans introduced the horse-drawn chariot, the Hindu religion and sacred books known as the Vedas to present-day India.
The term “Aryan” has been used by European writers since 1835 but fell into disfavor in the mid 20th century because of its association with Nazi propaganda, which described the people of northern and central Europe as being the purest representatives of an “Aryan race.” Today, historians and ethnologist who discuss Aryans make it very clear they are taking about speakers of Aryan languages and are not taking about Aryan blood, hair, eyes or other features.
The Aryans were originally nature worshipers who revered a number of gods and believed that their gods represented forces of nature. Most of the important deities were male, including a celestial father and a king of gods who lit up the sun, exhaled the wind and knew the pathway of the birds.
Brahmins, a priestly class sort of like the Druids, were the only people who could perform religious ceremonies based initially on knowledge that was passed down orally over the centuries. Their ability to memorize was quite extraordinary because the rituals they presided over were quite involved and complex. The hymns and knowledge associated with these rituals has survived intact since 1000 B.C.
Kernosovskiy idol, discovered in 1973 in Kernosovka, Ukraine and dated to the middle of the third millennium BC and associated with the late Pit Grave (Indo-European,Yamna) culture
Aryans that settled in the Punjab and wrote hymns to natural deities of which 1028 were recorded in the Verdic verses. The “Brahmanas” were written between 800 and 600 B.C. to explain the hymns and speculate about their meaning.
Among the differences between the early Aryan religion and Hinduism are: 1) Aryan religion had no icons and no personal relationships with a single supreme deity whereas Hinduism does; 2) Aryan offering were made for something in return while Hindus make offering as a sign of worship; 3) The Aryan gods rode chariots while Hindu ones ride mounted on their animals; and 4) nearly all the early Aryan gods were male while Hindus have male and female gods as well as ones with cobra heads and ones that are worshiped with phallic symbols. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
The Aryans conducted elaborate sacrifices and incorporated fire and an inebriating drink called soma ("Drink of Strength") into them. The sacrifices were often so complex and expensive only the upper classes could afford them. In royal sacrifices the king was sprinkled with soma and a horse was set free for year and then captured and sacrificed in the name of the queen to insure good health for the royal family.
In the early days cattle were sometimes sacrificed. The Vedas describe funerals in which a cow was slaughtered while mantras were chanted and the body of the animal was used to cover the human body on the funeral pyre, limb by limb, in a clear effort to create a double of the human body and direct negative energy into it. In most cases however it seems that milk, ghee and vegetable substance were offered up at ritual ceremonies rather than cows or any other animals.
Sacrifices were festive events meant to be enjoyed and bring fertility and prosperity. They were not intended to help people in the afterlife. Aryan religion was concerned mostly with the here and now not the hereafter. Some elements of the sacrifice though were identified with parts of the cosmos and the sacrifice was regarded as a re-enactment of creation.
Sometimes human sacrifices were held. The victims were usually criminals provided to the king or volunteers who hoped to gain quick trip to a better world. Animal sacrifices are largely a thing of the past. The ritual lives on the offerings of rice balls and marigold pedals left at temples.
See Ancient Cow Eating, Sacred Cows
Vedic Period Religion, 1500–500 B.C.
Hindu fire ritual There have been two major theories about the early development of early south Asian traditions: 1)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; and 2)The cultural transformation thesis: that Aryan culture is a development of the Indus Valley culture. According to the The Aryan migration thesis there were no Aryan migrations (or invasion) and the Indus valley culture was an Aryan or Vedic culture. According to the cultural transformation thesis Hinduism derives from their religion recorded in the Veda along with elements of the indigenous traditions they encountered. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]
Professor Flood wrote: “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.” |::]
The religion of the Rigveda is essentially simple, though it has many gods. This is natural, as the hymns are the product of a long period of priestly effort, and represent the deities of the various tribes. Most of the objects of devotion are the personifications of natural phenomena. They may be broadly classed as 1) Terrestrial gods, like Prithvi, Soma, Agni; 2) Atmospheric gods, like Indra, Vayu, Maruts, Parjanya; 3) Heavenly gods, like Varuna, Dyaus, ASvins, Surya, Savitri, Mitra, Pushan, and Visnu — the latter five forms being all associated with the different phases of the sun’s glory. Among these deities, Varuna occupies the place of honour, and is extolled in many a sublime hymn. He is god of the sky, and with him is bound up the conception of rita, first indicative of the cosmic and then of moral order. Next comes Indra, the god of thunder-storm, whose majesty is another favourite subject of praise. He causes the rain to fall and thus relieves the dryness of the earth. His importance grew with the advance of the Aryans to regions noted for storm and seasonal rainfall. It must not, however, be supposed that any kind of hierarchy among the gods was in the course of formation. The Rigveda also refers to some minor deities like the Ribhus (aerial elfs) and Apsaras (water-nymphs). [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]
The poets at different times ascribed pre-eminence to different gods, as they had to serve many masters and needs. The Rigveda also mentions abstract deities, such as Sraddha (faith) and Manyu (anger); and among goddesses Usas (goddess of Dawn) inspires much noble poetry. To propitiate these gods, prayers and sacrifices or oblations of milk, ghee, grain, fish, etc. were offered. The utmost stress was laid on the performance of the latter in order that the worshippers may enjoy all happiness and prosperity. There is also a tendency in a few hymns of the Rigveda to identify one god with others, or to group them in pairs (e. g., dyavd-prithvi), and carrying it further the composers arrive at the great monotheistic doctrine that “the gods are one and the same, only sages describe them differently.”
Development of The Vedas
The main Hindu texts are the Vedas and their supplements (books based on the Vedas). Vedais a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge” or “sacred knowledge”. These scriptures do not mention the word 'Hindu' but many scriptures discuss dharma, which can be rendered as 'code of conduct', 'law', or 'duty' Hindus believe that the Vedas texts were received by scholars direct from God and passed on to the next generations by word of mouth.[Source: BBC |::|]
Vedas dated to 1500-1200 BC
The Vedas are Hinduism's oldest and most sacred texts, and compiled by Vyasa Krishna Dwaipayana. They are considered divine revelation or sruti ("that which has been heard") as opposed to texts of human origin, smrti ("that which is remembered"). Brahmin priests methodically memorized the content of the Vedas to ensure their consistent transmission to subsequent generations. The Vedas also provide early records of astronomy and mathematics in India that came out of Vedic ritual and temple construction. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]
The Vedas are the most ancient religious texts which define truth for Hindus. They got their present form between 1200-200 B.C. and were introduced to India by the Aryans. Hindus believe that the texts were received by scholars direct from God and passed on to the next generations by word of mouth. Vedic texts are sometimes called shruti, which means hearing. For hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, the texts were passed on orally. |::|
Indus Valley and Vedic Culture
Anne Murphy, a professor at Seton Hall University, wrote: Some scholars postulate that there are continuities between elements of the Indus Valley culture, “such as possible goddess or fertility worship, and later religious developments in South Asia, such as the growth of the cult of the goddess in Hinduism. The great Hindu god Shiva, who gained prominence later, may also relate to a figure present on Indus Valley seals. Similarities between the Indus Valley and later cultures are difficult to verify, because the script found in the Indus Valley is undeciphered and available evidence is entirely material. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]
“In contrast, our understanding of the culture that immediately followed, that of the arya (or “nobles” as they called themselves in their texts), is almost exclusively shaped by literary evidence. By 1200 B.C.E., the Vedic culture of the arya came to dominate the central plains of the north. Vedic culture is so named for the literature of the period, the Veda. The word veda comes from the Sanskrit root vid (to know) and veda generally means “wisdom,” or in this context, a set of texts that deal primarily with ritual. It is not exactly clear from the available evidence how the arya—who spoke a language (Sanskrit) with Central Asian roots and had cultural ties to the Greeks and Romans—came to dominate the area. ~~
2nd century BC Nanaghat Sanskrit inscriptions from Maharashtra, India
“Interactions between the arya and other local peoples are to a degree reflected in a late hymn from the Rig Veda (the earliest of the Vedic texts), which describes a hierarchical division of society into four varna or classes: brahmins or ritual specialists; ksatriya or warriors; vaishyas or merchants; and shudras, made up of laborers, artisans, and farmers. According to this schema many non-Aryans (but almost certainly not all) would have been relegated to the lowest class of shudras. ~~
“The veda provide insight into the religious life and worldview of the Sanskrit-speaking people, a class of ritual specialists or priests (brahmins) who transmitted the texts orally within families or lineages for generations. A key concept found in the Vedic texts is sacrifice, which often involved animals or plants and nonliving materials like spices and cloth. The ritual acts and words of sacrifice were the primary means of communicating with the various deities, gaining their favor, and preventing calamity. The correct ritual action was held to bring about a particular effect if completed correctly. ~~
“Prominent among the gods invoked and assuaged through sacrifice was the warrior god Indra, a testament to the militaristic nature of early Indo-Aryan culture, and Agni, the god of fire. Agni is the primary intermediary between the gods and men through the sacrificial fire. Many of the Vedic gods are no longer prominent in contemporary Hinduism, but the veda are considered to be revelation by many practicing Hindus, and aspects of Vedic practice such as the use of the sacrificial fire persist.” ~~
Mixing of Indus, Aryan and Dravidian Beliefs
Hinduism and Hindu culture is believed to have originated from a intermixing of Aryan and Dravidian beliefs. It is believed that one reason there are so many gods and different customs in Hinduism is that is how the Aryan and Dravidian beliefs accommodated one another.
area where the Nanaghat inscriptions were found
The source of Dravidian culture, is believed to be the ancient Indus Civilization, which flourished around 2000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan. Members of this civilization worshiped an earth goddess, similar to the Hindu goddess Shakti, and revered yogi-like male figures that surrounded themselves with animals and were worshiped with phallic symbols, suggesting Shiva. As is true in Hinduism today certain animals, such as bulls, and certain plants such as pipal trees, were held sacred.
Scores of stone phallic, vulva and bull figures have been found in Indus ruins and some archaeologists and historians present them as evidence this culture may have been the precursor to Hinduism because the bull was mount of the Hindu god Shiva and the phallic symbols' resembled the “lingams” (phallic emblems) used to worship Shiva.
One three sided Indus seal that was unearthed depicts a squatting god surrounded by animals which, some scholars say, may have been a forerunner of Shiva. Some of the most beautifully carved images on seals are of cattle, which suggests a link to cattle worship. Some tokens show humans bowing before a pipal tree shading figures that may be deities. Pipal trees symbolize fertility and protection in Hinduism.
The Mother Goddess did not become a major part of Hinduism until relatively late. It is believed that she existed on the fringe in the early years of Hinduism and became incorporated when the time was right. The Shiva-like practices were absorbed at a much earlier time.
Transition From the Aryan Religion to Hinduism
Indus swastika seal As Aryans spread throughout India, they absorbed legends and beliefs of the people they conquered, including ideas about karma, reincarnation and strict laws that grew into the caste system. The “Brahmanas” or “Priestlies” , written between 1000 and 800 B.C., gave more and more power to Brahma priests at the expense of the old Vedic Gods. The “Upanishads” , written between 800 and 600 B.C., addressed reincarnation and karma and the unity of the soul with the cosmos.
About the same time the idea of reincarnation gained importance the status of religious ascetics was elevated. Ascetics were perceived as people who sought religious holiness by tapping into the forces of the universe and aimed to escape the endless series of deaths and rebirth of reincarnation to attain “moksha” (Hindu nirvana). This idea made religious life accessible to everybody not just the Brahmins.
At the same time this was occurring there was a movement against the power of the Brahmas, the grip of the caste system and the emphasis on sacrifices. Buddhism and Jainism grew out of this movement. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C. Hinduism went into decline and was largely replaced by Buddhism in India. Hinduism itself went through dramatic changes, namely the rise of Shiva and Vishnu and the transformation of their identity and the incorporation of ideas like Tantrism
Development of The Upanishads Around 500 B.C.
Professor Anne Murphy wrote: “By the middle of the last millennium B.C.E., the tribal society associated with Vedic culture was settled and urbanized. Within this society, renunciation became a valid social option among diverse sectors, providing space for shramanas, or ascetics who sought liberation from the world of suffering through austerity. The Upanishads represent these perspectives within orthodox Vedic tradition, without rejecting the authority and primacy of the veda. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]
“The early Upanishads (from mid-first millennium B.C.) deal with sacrifice but focus on individuals and their relationship with the world. Their primary concern is the hidden connections and equivalences among the world at large, the human self or body, and ritual action—the bindings that join all beings, events, and the world into one. It is in this context that the texts explore the equivalency of atman, the self (which can refer both to the spiritual center of a person and the living, breathing person) and Brahman, the cosmos. ~~“Key concepts found in earlier Vedic literature arise in the Upanishadic and other contemporary writings but with profound changes. The cycle of birth and rebirth called samsara is introduced for the first time in the Upanishads, as is an expanded meaning of karma as “action,” which established that all actions have certain effects according to an immutable law and such effects govern the process of rebirth. The possibility of escape from the cycle of birth and death (moksha or enlightenment) was a radically different goal from that encoded into Vedic ritual, which focused on the achievement of certain goals and positive results in this world. ~~
“The paired concepts of renunciation and enlightenment or release came to have a profound influence upon the development of religious and philosophical thought in South Asia for millennia. The focus of the Veda on family and society also continued, many times in contexts that owed little allegiance to Vedic thought. The two ideologies have remained in a tense balance in Indian intellectual and religious thought to this day. ~~
fragment of the Katha Upanishad
“The changing worldview described in the Upanishads is also evident in two other contemporary major movements, those founded by Mahavira (Jainism) and Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (Buddhism). These shramana movements share much of the basic worldview of the Upanishads but propose radical re-evaluations of Vedic practice and ideology. Both reject the ultimate authority of the veda, unlike the Upanishadic tradition. The generally accepted dates for Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, are 563–483 B.C.E.
Epic, Puranic and Classical Age, 500 B.C. – A.D. 500
The Epic, Puranic and Classical Age (c.500 B.C.– A.D. 500), beginning from around the time of Buddha (died c. 400 B.C.), saw the development of the Buddhist and Jain religions and creation of poetic literature and important Hindu texts such a the Dharma Sutras and Shastras, the two Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and subsequently the Puranas, containing many of the stories still popular today. The famous Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata. These texts were composed in Sanskrit, which became the most important element in a shared culture. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]
Professor Flood wrote: “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'. From this period we can recognise many elements in present day Hinduism, such as bhakti (devotion) and temple worship. 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). |::|
Professor Murphy wrote: “There is little doubt that the rejection of Vedic authority by Buddhist and Jain thinkers encouraged the reformulation and strengthening of particular aspects of Vedic traditions and the reassertion of the authority of Brahmins. Literature of the period helped to codify and reassert aspects of Brahminical ideology. The concept of Four Stages of Life (ashramadharma) was articulated here, according to which every person must follow the dharma (or social role) assigned to him or er corresponding to his or her place within the caste (varna/jati) systems, and corresponding to his (the emphasis here on men) stage in life, or ashrama. The system defined appropriate roles and responsibilities for “twice-born” men, those from the upper three castes: brahmins, ksatriyas, and vaishyas. Four stages were identified: celibate student, householder, hermit or forest dwelling (undertaken toward the end of life), and renunciation. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]
“Four possible aims in life were identified: artha (economic and social success), dharma (learning), kama (pleasure), and moksha (enlightenment). Students were to concentrate on dharma, householders to be concerned with artha and kama, and only in the final stage of life, that of a wandering holy man, is moksha a goal. The system did not hold for all—particularly for those excluded due to their gender or low position in the varna and jati systems—and renunciation was never universally embraced, though it remained an ideal. Although somewhat fluid, position in these systems was hereditary.” ~~
Religion in India in the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C.
Lord Vishnu with the goddess Lakshmi at Ajanta Caves
Buddhism originated in northeast India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. at a time when the local religion was Brahmanism, the predecessor of Hinduism. Brahmanism was dominated by Brahman priests who presided over rituals and sometimes practiced asceticism. Many of the ascetic Brahmin believed in a concept of the universe known as brahman and a similar concept of the human mind, known as atman, and thought it was possible to achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth by achieving oneness with the atman. These concepts became cornerstones of Buddhism
The 6th and 5th centuries B.C. in India was also a time of curiosity, tolerance, and experimentation. Religious scholars and intellectuals speculated about things like the existence of other worlds, the finiteness or the infinity of the universe and whether existence was dominated by is or is not. The conditions were ripe for people to throw out traditional beliefs and accept new ones. A number of movements and leaders appeared. Their success often seemed based on their political skill, and their ability to organize and consolidate their followers with a simple, easy-to-embrace message.
There were a great many holy men and women wandering about. Some were hermits who lived in the forest or jungle. Others were ascetics who practiced various forms of austerities and offered sacrifices to things like fire and the moon. There were also charismatic leaders and sects of movements of various kinds and sizes. Early Buddhist texts counted 62 “heretical” sects. Among these were the Jains, the Naked Ascetics, the Eel-Wrigglers, and the Hair-Blanket sect. The Buddha's greatest rivals were Nataputa, leader the Jains, and Makkhali Godla, the leader of the Naked Ascetics.
Buddhism was influenced a great deal by Hinduism and the other sects. It adopted Hindu beliefs about karma and reincarnation; followed Jain and traditional Indian views about not destroying life forms; and copied forms of organization for other sects for monks communities. The Buddha himself was like an ascetic Brahmin but was regarded as a heretic among Hindus because he emphasized the impermanent and transitory nature of things, which contradicted the Hindu belief in Paramatman (the eternal, blissful self).
Development of Popular Hindu Texts and Emergence of Hinduism Gods
The religion that we now call Hinduism began to take a recognizable shape in the A.D. first millennium C.E., drawing upon Vedic roots. Professor Murphy wrote: “In this period, the epics Mahabharata (containing the Bhagavad Gita) and Ramayana were composed, along with the Puranas. The Mahabharata recounts the tragic conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas, while the Ramayana relates the tale of King Rama, who was exiled from his kingdom for 14 years in the company of his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshman. These epics have had a profound influence in Southeast Asia, even when Hinduism waned as a primary religious force. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]
“The Puranas provide stories of the gods who were to take a central place within the developing religion now known as Hinduism: Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess, among others. The cult of Vishnu, as it developed later, is generally accepted to be an amalgam of many smaller traditions; these were absorbed into the overarching Vishnu tradition through the idea of avatara, or incarnation (Vishnu is said to have 10 major incarnations who appeared in our world to save it) and into aspects of one character (such as the various portrayals of Krishna—as a child-god, as the charioteer in the Bhagavad Gita, and as the ruler of Dwarka in his adult life). ~~
“The Goddess takes many forms—some frightening and powerful, some auspicious and gentle. Parvati, Lakshmi, Shri, Kali, and Durga are some of the names she goes by. In all forms, she is devi, “the goddess.” Shiva, the other great deity commonly worshipped, is the ultimate ascetic. His body is white from being smeared with the ashes of the cremation ground—an unclean place that reminds us of the temporary nature of existence. His hair is matted and unkempt, and he is known to possess sometimes frightening and dangerous yogic powers. This same god is also married to Parvati and is intimately tied to the Goddess in her many other forms as well. ~~
“These three divinities—Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess—represent the three main deities worshipped in Hindu practice. Those who worship Vishnu are Vaishnava, those who worship Shiva are Shaiva, and those who worship the Goddess are Shakta (from shakti, or “power,” the feminine force the Goddess is said to possess). Brahma is not often the object of worship. Other deities have gained in popularity, such as Ganesha (the son of Shiva and Parvati) and Hanuman (the monkey god who aided Rama, an avatara, or “incarnation,” of Vishnu, in the Ramayana). It is important to note that although there are many deities represented in the Hindu pantheon, worshippers generally consider their own deity to be central and all-powerful; other deities are subservient to him or her. In addition, all are often seen to be manifestations of one central force in the universe. Many Hindus today (as in the past) therefore see themselves as believing in a single divine presence that takes form in endlessly diverse ways.” ~~
Early Hindu Gods
Varuna is thought of as the creator of the universe. One of Varuna's most important acts was to measure out the 'three worlds'. The three worlds are the earth, the heavens and the air between the earth and the heavens. Varuna provides for humans by bringing the rain to earth and making the rivers flow. He lives in a gold palace in the sky which has a thousand columns and a thousand doors. [Source: British Museum]
Agni is the god of fire. He is shown as a man with red skin, three flaming heads, seven tongues, seven arms and three legs. Agni wears a garland of fruit. Agni is the messenger of the gods and always tells the truth. Agni was an important god in early times. Later on, his brother Indra became more important. Agni is the son of Prithvi and Dyaus.
Ashwins are the twin gods of the morning. Ashwins are young, handsome and athletic. Ashwins are horsemen who are known for their goodwill towards humans. They are also the physicians to the gods
Ganesha is the god of wisdom. He is also a good scribe. Ganesha is always worshipped at the beginning of any project or journey, and before a book is written. Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a human with four arms. Ganesha rides on a tiny mouse who runs very quickly.
Ganesha was created by Parvati to protect her while she was bathing when her husband Shiva was away. When Shiva returned and tried to enter Parvati's bath he was challenged by Ganesha. Shiva became angry and cut off Ganesha's head. When Parvati realised what had happened, she was quite upset. Shiva promised that he would bring Ganesha back to life. He went into the forest vowing to bring back the head of the first being he saw. The first being he met was an elephant. So Shiva cut off the head of the elephant, returned home and placed it on Ganesha's shoulders. This is the reason that Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a child. The sage Vyasa is supposed to have dictated the epic Mahabharata to Ganesha.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications
Last updated September 2020
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