Since the beginning of time humans have attempted to solve the mysteries of creation and attempted to find out how we all came to this earth. Since early man didn't have the scientific knowledge to answer the question they created an imaginary race of beings more powerful than humans and gave them supernatural powers capable of creating the world. These Deities were blamed for all the problems in the world and were worshiped to prevent the problems. Thus the most ancient and basic form of religion was born. Not a lot is known about these early religions as they faded away with the passage of time or morphed into new religions that we see today.
Hinduism was founded over 5000 years ago on the sacred banks of the river Indus. This makes it one of the oldest religions in the world, which is still widely practiced. It is best summarized by the following quote:
"Hinduism.....gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the God ward endeavor of the human spirit. An immense many-sided and many staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, Santana Dharma...."
Hinduism is not a religion in the sense other religions are known, its one of the only religions which has no known founder. It is more of a way of life based on ancient teachings. This makes it a tolerant and peace loving religion. The root of the Hindu dharma lies in the Indian subcontinent near the Indus valley, which was then known as the Sindhu valley. The Indus valley was home to an advanced civilization as early as 5000 BC. At its peak this civilization stretched across the whole of Sindh, Baluchistan, Punjab, the northern Rajisthan and Gujrat. The civilization is also known as the Harrapan civilization as the first major city of the civilization was discovered at Harappa. The experts believe that the Harappan cities were settled by a race called the Dravidians.
Not much is known about this civilization, as their writing has not yet been deciphered. According to experts the Harappan religion appears to be Polytheistic. The Harappans apparently represented their God?s and Goddesses as animals like cattle, elephants, unicorn etc. The Harappans also worshiped natural forces like wind and fire. The religion was a major part of the Harappan life.
Around 1500 BC the Harappan started declining due to unknown causes. At the same time nomadic invaders from central Europe started arriving. These invaders called themselves ?The Nobel ones? or the ?Superior Ones?. In Sanskrit they were called Arya?s which is derived from the Indo-European root word ?ar? meaning noble.
The Aryans were a fierce warlike people and in a short period of time the occupied most of the northern plains of India by pushing the Dravidian?s who were the native population south. During this period of extended contact with the Dravidians the Aryans started settling down in one place and in the process also incorporated a lot of the Dravidian religious practices into the Aryan religion. This new religion called the Vedic religion is regarded as an early version of Hinduism. Vedic is the oldest religion in India for which there exist written materials. These texts are collectively knows as the Veda's. The term Veda is derived from the root 'vid', to know. Thus the term Veda means knowledge and the Veda?s represent the spiritual experiences of the Rishi's (Teachers) of yore. The following words of Dr. Jean LeMee adeptly describe the depth of the Veda's:
"The Rig Veda is a glorious song of praise to the Gods, the cosmic powers at work in Nature and in Man. Its hymns record the struggles, the battles, and victories, the wonder, the fears, the hopes, and the wisdom of the Ancient Path Makers."
These Vedas are four: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Out of these the Rigveda has been conceded to be the most ancient work. According to B.G. Tilak and some other scholars who base their findings on the astronomical data available in the Rigveda itself, it was composed at least about 8000 years ago.
The Rigveda is primarily a collection of prayer hymns. The Yajurveda deals mainly with sacrificial rites and rituals. The Samaveda has set to music a selected number of hymns from the Rigveda, prescribing their chanting at appropriate stages in certain sacrifices. Incidentally, the origins of our classical music can be discovered in the Samaveda. The Atharvaveda is mostly a compendium of ethical principle as also some branches of science like Ayurveda (the science of health and longevity).
Traditionally, each of the four Vedas has been divided into four parts: Mantra or Samhita,Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. The Samhitas are collections of prayers addressed to various Vedic deities like Indra, Varuna, and Vishnu. The Brahmanas this word should not be confused with the Brahmana caste describe the modes and methods of performing Yajnas and Yagas (Vedic sacrifices and other connected rites). The Aranyakas describe various meditations based on the sacrificial rites and to be practised in the forest (aranya= forest). The Upanishads are philosophical works dealing with such topics as the Truth behind the universe, the true nature of human beings, the goal of life and the means of achieving it.
The Vedic Aryans invoked gods, especially Indra, Varuna, Agni, Vayu, Mitra, Aditya, Pushan, Asvins, Usha etc, performed yagnas and other rituals to supplicate them, invoke them, and seek their approval, guidance and help for their material comforts, personal gains, general welfare, appeasement of nature and victory over hostile tribes.
The religion subsequently faced a stiff competition from other religions like Buddhism and Jainism and underwent great transformation in line with the new thinking and the new religions. simultaneously a great reform movement was born with the Vedic religious fold through the rise of Shaivism and Bhagavatism. They emphasized the need for bhakti or devotion to God as the best way to attain salvation. Bhagavatism started with the teachings of the great teacher, Sri Krishna-Vasudeva of the satvata or Vrisni tribe, and became very popular during the later periods as Vaishnavism. Saivism with Shiva as the principal deity came into existence during the later Vedic period and became equally popular throughout India.
During the post Mauryan and Pre Gupta period, the religion witnessed the further popularity of Vaishnavism, Saivism. Tantrism or the worship of Shakti, also became widely prevalent during this period. While Vaisnavism was gaining ground in the north under the rule of the Guptas who were renowned devotees of Lord Vishnu and built many temples in his honor, Saivism became a well established sect with the composition of the Agamas, and the works of Nayanmars from south, which is today available to us as Periya Puranam. The worship of Sun was also prevalent during this period.
Between the Sixth Century A.D., and Ten Century A.D., the subcontinent witnessed the birth of many great religious teachers, who provided new insights into the religion through their works and commentaries and added richness of thought and content to it. Prominent among them was Shri Adishankaracharya, who not only provided the required inspiration for the revival of the religion through his teachings and tours, but also wrote commentaries on several Upanishads and also on the Gita. He traveled across the length and breadth of the country preaching the basic doctrines of the religion and spreading his message of monism far and wide.
Another great religious personality who needs mention during this period was Shri Ramanujacharya who preached devotion to Lord Vishnu as the best way to attain salvation.
During the middle ages India was invaded again by plunderers from plains of central Asia and Persia. The invaders carried the flag of Islam and proceeded to occupy vast territories in northern India, plundering and destroying many temples, traditions, practices and native kingdoms. These rulers succeeded in establishing large empires in the subcontinent on the lines of Islamic traditions, in establishing their own system of political administration, taxation and jurisprudence, and in forcibly converting many to Islam either through the fear of punishment or the lure of royal patronage or elevation of their social status. But despite all the suffering and cruel treatment, despite all the temptations of joining the new creed, despite their losing power prestige and status majority of the Hindus clung to the religion of their ancestors and remained steadfast in their devotion to the gods of their ancestral land.
The Muslim rulers who ruled the country during the medieval period were largely unaware that what they were dealing here were not the people but a tradition and faith that were much more stronger, sturdier and steadier than their own political power. Even those who accepted Islam as their new religion either under some political or economic compulsion, or willingly on their own, could not completely align themselves with the alien thought and culture because of their old mindsets and the deep rooted influence of their former religion. Into the new religion they marched willingly or unwillingly with a new faith, but with a mind set that was peculiarly Indian and traditional.
From the time Islam entered the country it was inevitable that the two religions would clash and challenge each other. While the two religions weighed and watched each other suspiciously as well as curiously, the broadminded as well the enlightened among both sections of society tried to find similarities among the two religions and worked for religious harmony.
They were probably more successful than the Delhi Sultans or the Mughals in fulfilling their objective. Many ancient Indian scriptures were translated into Persian and Urdu, the new language of the land slowly became a popular native language in its own right.
The Islamic art and architecture, music and cuisine, modes of dressing etc, found their way into the Indian milieu, while Hindu art and architecture found ready patrons among the Muslim nobility. The Sufi saints found acceptance among the Hindus, while many of the native traditions were continued to be followed by the new converts to Islam.
During this period, Hinduism witnessed a great and silent revival through the rise of bhakti movement. Bhakti or devotion to a particular God became the central theme of many social and religious reform movements of this period. This movement laid particular emphasis on devotion and surrender to God as the best way to attain salvation. It set aside knowledge and asceticism as the means for salvation and took up devotion as the best and the easiest path to achieve the same.
The rise of bhakti was very timely and momentous in the religious history of Hinduism because it not only protected the religion from degeneration but also enabled the masses to participate in it. In all fairness we must say that instead of destroying Hinduism, Islam strengthened it. It helped Hindus to come together and regroup themselves silently and religiously. By challenging its tenets, it helped Hindus to look at their religion afresh and strengthen its weaker aspects.
Bhakti movement also contributed to the rise of devotional literature. Many of the scriptures and epics were translated into native languages, as Sanskrit was slowly losing ground to other languages due to absence of royal patronage. Tulsidas translated the epic Ramayana into Ramacharitmanas. Shri Surdas composed the Sursagar containing devotional hymns depicting the childhood exploits of Lord Krishna. Many famous literary figures from the south translated the epics into vernacular languages.
In south, Hinduism found great patronage among some strong and powerful rulers like the Rayas of Hampi and Gajapatis of Orissa. These rulers aware of the political situation in the north, did their best to prevent the Muslim rulers from entering deep into the south and also worked for the welfare of Hinduism. Themselves great devotees, they encouraged religious activity among their subjects and were responsible for the construction of many temples in their kingdoms. The Maratha kings in the north were also great partons and followers of Hinduism. They contained the spread of Islam deep into the south by combining their powers against the Mughals in the north and the Deccan rulers in the south. They adhered to orthodox Hindu traditions and helped the revival of the religion which had suffered tremendously in the hands of selfish Muslim rulers whose approach to religion was more a matter of political expedience rather than a spiritual exercise. The country also witnessed the birth of many great saints during this period who preached the path of devotion to their followers and their by brought the religion closer to the hearts and minds of common people.
In the middle of the 17th century the British slowly started replacing the local rulers and started establishing their own political power. During this time many Christan missionaries came to India with the specific goal of converting the so called "native heathens" to Christianity and supposedly saving them from certain damnation. But while their concerns were understandable to some extent as sincere, which were naturally and expectantly based on their convictions and beliefs, their approach to the native religion was insulting and hurtful to the native pride. They were unaware that the native religion had a deeper as well as a wider aspect, unknown even to many Hindus, that would satisfy the spiritual yearnings of any and provide all the required answers. This was indeed the most unfortunate aspect of their missionary activity.
In this sordid drama, the relief came from the role played by the British rulers. They had the sagacity and political acumen to keep themselves overtly aloof from the activities of the biased and zealous missionaries in order to remain focused on their business activity and political ambitions. They knew in their hearts that if they wanted to continue on the Indian soil and build an empire as large as India, they should rather confine themselves purely and exclusively to temporal matters than aligning themselves officially or otherwise openly with any particular religious policy. Some of them did provide some help occasionally and covertly to their missionary friends, but never in a manner that would damage their own interests.
It appeared for some time that Hinduism would give in, since it had no church like institution that could withstand this new challenge and since the Hindu rulers were busy with their own survival in the changing political scenario. Besides Hinduism of those days had become weak, with many social practices such as widow burning called sati, child marriages, untouchability, and the division of society on the basis of castes. By exposing these weaknesses, in a way, Christianity challenged the educated Hindus to resolve these issues. And the latter did respond positively and comprehensively. Many prominent persons like Rajaram Mohan Ray, Swami Dayananda Saraswathi, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Shri Ram Krishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekanand, Shri Aurobindo, Lokmanya Balagangadhar Tilak, Mahatama Gandhi, brought to the fore the positive and hidden aspects of Hinduism. They encouraged the people to work for the removal of social evils and revival of the religion.
They rightly appealed to the people to consider the dangers inherent in continuing the social evils and exhorted them to work for the removal of such evils. By their sincere and incessant efforts they laid foundation for the resurgence of Hinduism. They brought to light its positive qualities that would appeal to the intellectual minds. Because of their efforts, Hinduism caught the attention of many scholars not only in India but elsewhere in the world, whose works would later make the religion a true world religion.
Due credit must also be given to the many western scholars and British officers of this period who made Hinduism and Hindu philosophy popular in the west. Partly out of their academic interest and partly driven by their own curiosity about the oriental cultures, they unearthed the hitherto unknown history of ancient India and declared to the world its great antiquity and unique philosophy. They were responsible for the translation of many rare and ancient Hindu manuscripts from Sanskrit into various European languages. In the process, they brought to light the deeper and hidden aspects of Hindu philosophy and religious thought. If today Hinduism is accepted as one of the greatest religions of the world, the credit must first go them.
Today Hinduism is growing from strength to strength. Many of its features and practices are appealing to the intellectual minds of the modern age who are in search of true answers to the problems of mental balance, peace and inner harmony amidst the increasing pressures of hectic modern life. Many in the western worlds are attracted to its concepts of karma and reincarnation, as well as its emphasis on inner purity, detachment, devotion and surrender to God as the means to attain inner peace.
That Hinduism has a long history and a much greater future, there is no doubt.
This article was originaly written as a research paper for a class at NJIT in 2005.