Globally, one of the most important religions is Hinduism. It has a huge and ever growing number of followers not only in its native country of India, but also, recently, in the West as well. At the same time, it is subjected to a series of debates for different reasons.
Firstly, although traditional Hindu sources are very old, Hinduism did not exist before modern times. Furthermore, it is not considered a singular religion, but a mix of traditions. Also, it does not have a clear starting point. Hindu traditions are millennia old and some of its followers believe that the Hindu revelation is eternal.
Although the personal spirituality is important, the history of Hinduism has a strong connection to the socio-political evolutions and the rise and fall of certain empires and kingdoms. Even though it is reasonably hard to date such an age-old religion, Hindus are not interested too much in it, but are focused on their texts and stories.
Hindu Notions of Time
By and large, Hindus believe that the time is cyclical like the four seasons and they think of it as eternal rather than limited and linear. Sacred texts mention successive eras – “yuga” – which are of gold, silver, copper and iron. For instance, pious people lived during the gold époque, because they followed the dharma (law, tax, truth), but, in time, the power gradually diminished until divine intervention invigorated it. When time gets to the Iron Era – Kali Yuga-positive characteristics are almost extinct and this gives way to cruelty, hypocrisy and materialism. Thus, this kind of philosophy has the role to contest the linear perception of the progress of human evolution.
Main Historic Eras
Before 2000 BCE:The Indus Valley Civilisation
1500 – 500 BCE:Vedic Period/ Vedic Age
500 BCE – 500 CE:Epic, Puranic and Classic Era
500 – 1500:Medieval Period
1500 – 1757:Pre-Modern Period
1757 – 1947:British Period
1947 – Present:Independent India
Religion in the Indus Valley and during the Vedic Age
In the Indus Valley, it appears that religion meant temple rituals such as bathing in the Great Bath of the Mohenjo-Daro archaeological site. There are also indications from Kalibangan that confirm there might have been rituals of animal sacrifices as well.
Also, a number of terracotta figurines have been found which, presumably, represent a certain goddess. There was too a seal in the shape of a sitting person with animals which some of the researchers attribute to a prototype statue of the god Shiva. Others are of the opinion that it resembles very much the Elamite seals with sitting bulls. Another image engraved on soapstone depicts a figure fighting with lions which is similar to the Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh.
There is the distinct possibility of continuity between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the later Hinduism, because of the bathing rituals, offerings and the deification of deities. At the same time, ritual purity, sacrifice and the importance of fertility are common with other Ancient religions.
According to the Vedas, the early Vedic religion is centred on the value of sacrifice and on sharing the sacrifice meal between people, but also with the gods (deva). Sacrifice is not limited specifically to animals, but it includes all types of offerings which could be thrown in the sacred fire – for instance, milk or butter.
Some of the Vedic rituals have been elaborated and continued into the present day as well. Sacrifice is offered to the Vedic deities who lived in different realms of the hierarchical universe made of Earth, Atmosphere and Sky.
The plant-god Soma, the god of fire and priesthood power Agni and Brhaspati live on Earth. The warrior Indra, god of wind Vayu and gods of storm Maruts and Rudra inhabit the Atmosphere. The realm of the sky is home to the god of the Cosmic law (or rta) Dyaus (the word has the same root as Zeus) and Varuna, the god of night Mitra, the one who feeds-Pushan and Vishnu.
Epic, Puranic and Classic Period
This period began in the time of Buddha (he died at around 400 BCE) and saw the creation of additional texts such as Sutra Dharma and Shastras, the two Epics – Mahabharata and Ramayana and later on, the Puranas. These include a number of stories popular even today. The famous Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata.
The idea of Dharma is central to Hinduism – it can be found in texts known as Dharma Sutra and Shatras. According to the Dharma Sutra, there are three sources of dharma:the Apocalypse, for instance Veda, the tradition and good customs. The laws of Manu added “what is agreeable to the self.”
The period is very important, because the Vedic sacrifice of fire became non-important once the religious cult (puja) and images of deities in temples appeared. The great traditions of the Vaishanavism (centred on Vishnu), Shaivism (centred on Shiva) and Shaktism (the central figure of Devi) were developed during the ascension of the Gupta Empire (320 – 500 CE).
Bhakti (Devotion) and praying in the temple are present in nowadays Hinduism and they date back to this period. Also, this époque saw the evolution of literature – the texts were written in Sanskrit and thus, the language became the single most important element in the common culture.
Starting with 500 CE, the Devotion (Bhakti) evolves into major deities such as Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. The fall of the Gupta Empire made the regional kingdoms choose different religions. For example, the Cholas Kingdom in the South followed Shaivism. Yet, when major regional temples were built, they became political and religious power centres. Such temples include the one in Jagganatha in Puri, in Odisha, Shiva’s temples in Cidambaram and Tanjavur in Tamilnadu.
The Poet Saints and Guru
This period is not only favourable to the Sanskrit religious literature, but also to the evolution of vernacular languages such as Tamil. This way, between the 6thand 9thcentury, the poet-saints wrote down their most important feelings of devotion in the twelve Alvar Vaishanava. The poet-saints include the woman Andal and the sixty-three Shaiva Nayanars of 8thand 10thcenturies. Furthermore, great thinkers and professors – charyas or guru – consolidated these teachings and came up with new theologies which were kept alive by their own disciples known as sampradaya.
Shankara lived between 780 and 820 and travelled tirelessly to win over thinkers of the unorthodox movements such as Buddhism and Jainism which, at the end of the millennium, had established important learning places on the Indian soil. Shankara restored the authority of the Vedic canon through the Advaita and began the tradition known as Vedanta.
Evolution of Vaishnavism and Shaivism
The philosophers Viashnava Ramanuja (1017-1137) and Madhva (13thcentury) wrote their own religious commentaries and proposed alternative theologies and new successions. Ramanuja thought of Shankara’s philosophy as impersonal and Madhva proposed the existence of a personal God.
Similarly, Shaivism developed too during this time. Important philosophers such as Abhinavagupta (975-1025) wrote about an alternative revelation to the Vedas called Tantras.
The Tantras were venerated as a revelation which adds to or replaces the Vedas. Some of these texts pleaded for polluting rituals such as alcohol and meat offerings, but also for sexual ceremonies dedicated to the most terrifying deities. However, most of the Tantras texts are related to the daily and occasional rituals as well as temple building.
Pre-Modern and British Period
Hindu traditions evolved especially in the Indian South while in the North, the rise of Islam made it a religious and political power. The new religion of Islam arrived at the Indian shores during the 8thcentury. It was brought by the merchants travelling on the Arabian Sea and the Muslim armies who conquered the Indian North-West.
The Muslim political power began at around 1200 CE during the Turkish Sultanate and it reached its peak in the time of the Mughal Empire of 1526. Akbar (1542-1605) was a liberal emperor who allowed the Hindus to follow freely their religion. However, his grandson, Aurangzeb (1618-1707) destroyed many Hindu temples and limited their religious practices. In this new political context, the religion of devotion (Bhakti) registered a new evolution:the Northern „Sant” tradition from Maharashtra and Punjab expressed devotion through poems dedicated to a god wihout qualities-Nirguna-and one with qualities – Shaguna. The „Sant” tradition combines elements of Bhakti meditation, yoga and Islamic mysticism. Nowadays, the poem of princess Mirabai and other saints such as Tukaram, Surdas and Dadu are very popular.
Initially, the British did not interfere with the Indian religion and culture, therefore allowing them to freely follow their religious practices. At a later date, however, Christian missionaries arrived and also scientists who by-passed their role of observers and Europeanised the local population.
12 Hindu Reformists
A „Hindu Renaissance” took place in the 19thcentury through the work of reformists such as Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) and Dayananda Sarasvasti (1824-1883). Roy founded Brahmo Samaj in order to present Hinduism as a rational and ethic religion. Saravasti pleaded for a revival of the Vedic religion of an eternal, almighty and impersonal god. Through his Samaj Arya society, he wanted a return to the Hindu eternal law or “sanatana dharma”, before the Epic and Puranic Period.
Both reformists desired to rid Hinduism of what they called “superstitions”. These groups were very important not only to the Indian religion system, but also to the political sphere, since they “planted the seeds” of the Indian nationalism and the missionary Hindu movement to the West.
Another important philosopher was Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886) who declared the unity of all religions. His disciple – Vivekananda (1863-1902) – further developed his ideas into a political vision of a united India.
Gandhi (1869-1948) was a saint and a politician, one of the most important fighters for Indian independence and probably the most famous Indian of the 20thcentury. He made use of these ideas and took part in the negotiations for the independence of India. However, Ghandi was dissatisfied with the partition of the country and was eventually assassinated in 1948.
Thus, Hinduism is not only a religion, but maybe a lifestyle which greatly influenced not only the history of India, but also the world’s evolution. Without doubt, a good example in this sense is Ghandi who inspired the world with his way of thinking and problem analysis. Another example is the Mahabharata which is the longest and most complex epic ever written. The most interesting thing about the history of this religion is that it seems to be in a continuous evolution.