By Jayaram V
How old is Hinduism, its true nature, how it is different
from other religions, what and who contributed to its diversity,
why it survived attacks from foreign religions, contributions
by folk traditions.
How old is Hinduism ?
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions of the world. It
is undoubtedly the oldest of the living
religions. Hidden in its layers are traces of many ancient practices
that have been erased completely over time from the memories
of the earth. Many scholars north of the equator may not agree
with these statements because most of them read or believe that
the history of the world began in Greece, meandered through
medieval Europe and then moved on through the imperialism of
Europe and the industrialization of the new world. For them
the world beyond the Mediterranean in ancient times was mostly
barbaric and where it was civilized was but a poor imitation
of the Greek and Roman traditions. While ancient people believed
that the earth was flat and lived in little worlds of their
own, many educated people in the western world presently think
and speak as if the world begins in Europe and ends in America!
The European historians of early 20th century grudgingly accepted
the period of Indian history as beginning around 2500 B.C. with
the supposed origin of its predecessor, the Vedic religion.
But this is not true. Hinduism is a much older religion, whose
antiquity is difficult to fathom. It is a tradition that evolved
out of the amalgamation of numerous cultures and practices,
not just Vedic religion. Just as it is very difficult to trace
the origin of mankind itself, it is difficult to measure the
antiquity of Hinduism.
The antiquity of Hinduism can be better estimated from the
astronomical evidence available in the Hindu Scriptures, the
folk-traditions and anthropological studies peculiar to the
Indian sub-continent, and some geographical and etymological
references mentioned in the Vedic
literature. These evidences suggest that what we understand
as Hinduism today, has a long and checkered
history of at least 6000 years
Whatever be the truth, the Rig Vedic people did not start
a new religion in the sub-continent when they inhabited the
area where the Indus
Valley civilization thrived before them. They were practicing a religion that was already
older perhaps by centuries. Many hymns and rituals of the Rigveda stand testimony
to the fact that the Vedic religion was much older than the
history of the Vedic people of India. Where they originated
we cannot speculate without disturbing many view points and
the feelings of pride and nationalism associated with them. Like the Celic people who went to Ireland and
Scotland, the Vedic people probably came to the subcontinent not on
the strength of the sword, but as settlers and peaceful
immigrants, bringing with them their families,
rich traditions and wealth of horses, cattle and religious
knowledge. To the new
inhabitants of the land of the five rivers, the Vedic hymns
were products of a very ancient wisdom, received by them through
oral tradition and generations of scholars and seers
starting from the time of Manu, the first man on earth. They
used their religious knowledge wisely, to their best
advantage, attracting new adherents through royal patronage
and the appeal of magical rituals. They also integrated some
native rival traditions of the subcontinent, either under
pressure from the native rulers or on their own, so as to
broaden their appeal and attract a wider following.
Hinduism is as old as the primitive man!
If we accept this as a religious truth, for there seems to
be no reason why we should not, then the Vedic religion, which
is a precursor of the present day Hinduism, should have its
antecedents rooted in the prehistoric times, when the aboriginal
men were slowly stretching their minds to understand the mysteries
of their own existence and the mysteries of the world around
Is Hinduism a Religion ?
Truly speaking, when we talk of Hinduism, we do not know
whether we are talking about a religion, or a group of religions,
or a group of beliefs and traditions, some of which are diametrically
opposed to each other. This some times gives rise to the argument
that Hinduism cannot be considered as a religion in the strictest
sense of the word, but as a complex theology that incorporates into itself
many religious thoughts, practices, doctrines and world views.
What do we mean by the word "Hindu" and "Hinduism"?
Hinduism differs from other organized religions in the following
- It is not based upon a particular founder.
- It is not based upon a particular book.
- It is not controlled by a central institution or authority
such as a church or a sangha or association.
- It is not averse to examine and assimilate fundamentally
diverse thoughts and beliefs into its system.
- It accepts other religions as various paths to salvation
and does not favor organized attempts to proselytize people.
- It has been evolving continuously, through internal
reforms and as a reaction to the threats and challenges
Hinduism is continuation of traditions
That Hinduism is not a religion in the strictest sense of
the word, but an ancient tradition in continuity and in perpetual
evolution is an unquestionable fact. To try to define Hinduism
is like trying to put the waters of an unfathomable ocean into
a small vessel, or to capture the essence of human life in a
single word or phrase.
Hinduism is an Asvaththa Tree
With a structured definition we may be able to capture the
essential elements of Hinduism and satisfy our intellectual
curiosity. But it is highly doubtful if that would justify the
significance of a tradition that began in prehistoric times
and eventually grew into a complex system of religious thought
and beliefs, which we recognize today under the generic name
of "Hinduism". And which has been still growing!
Hinduism can be truly called an Asvaththa tree whose roots
are above and whose branches are spread throughout below. The
roots are the traditions that we inherited from the Rigvedic
Aryans or their ancestors. The branches are the various new
schools of thought and practices that were incorporated into
it during the subsequent periods in history. The trunk is belief
in the eternal nature of soul and of supreme God who are central
Hinduism is a way of life
Hinduism, we are told, is not a religion at all, but a
way of life. In a way this is quite
true. According to the tenets of Hinduism, life and religion
are inseparable. Religion is there every where, like the omnipresent
dominating and regulating every aspect of human life, infusing
it with divine presence and making life more meaningful and
purposeful to its followers.
It virtually controls every action of a devout Hindu. Though
he has immense freedom to follow a path of his own choice, the
invisible hands of religion mould his thinking at every step,
making him almost slavish in his mentality towards his or her
gods. Beneath his mind religion remains, like a substratum or
the bed of a flowing river, influencing all his decisions and
To understand the true nature and significance of Hinduism
it is essential to examine the roots of the so called modern
Hinduism and at the historical process from which it has emerged
in its present shape.
An examination of the historical process
Throughout its entire history, Hinduism was never static.
It evolved continuously from stage to stage and went on transforming
itself continuously. This was due to the self less and extraordinary
contribution by many scholars, seers, sages, institutions, kings
and emperors, over a vast period of time.
By correcting, moulding, modifying, and integrating various
aspects of the religion to suit the social, political, material,
intellectual and spiritual requirements of the times, these
great souls kept the religious lamp shining and vibrating. They
provided knowledge and guidance to the multitude of beings,
while barbarism and savagery still ruled many parts of the world.
Hinduism is like an ocean
It was they who gave the religion the depth and complexity
for which it is known today,
making it, as far as possible, acceptable to a great majority
of the Indian people. Because of them Hinduism became more or
less like an ocean that would absorb every thing that flowed
into it from all directions.
Like an ocean it remained stable and firmly entrenched in
its place and went on absorbing new knowledge and religious
insights from all directions, without losing in the process,
its moorings and its original character. It did not compromise
on its basic ideals, nor suffered unduly from the process of
assimilation and adaptation.
Instead, it grew in strength and capacity, to illuminate
and enlighten the ignorant minds, absorbing new thoughts and
concepts, without discarding the old, without rejecting what
it has already gathered. It integrated both the old and the
new in a very peaceful and harmonious way.
Why Hinduism is incomprehensible to outsiders
This flexible approach helped it to survive against the onslaught
of new religious movements and invasion of foreign ideas. But
in the process it also amassed a great body of inner contradictions
, which today stand out prominently, making it incomprehensible
to many outsiders.
The reaction against ritualism and caste system
Some later day developments like the caste system and excessive
ritualism, excluded a large and important segment of Hindu society
from religious privileges and exposed the inherent weaknesses
of the religion. They made it vulnerable to counter reaction
and internal dissention and contributed to the birth of many
new movements and schools of thought. With each new movement
and organized reaction, the Vedic religion lost a little bit
of its shine and glory. But, interestingly and almost miraculously,
its traditions survived and continued to exert influence.
Lord Krishna was a great Reformer and philosopher
The Buddha was not the first social or religious reformer
of ancient India. Prior to him there were many and Lord Krishna
himself was one of the most prominent. To a careful reader of
the Bhagavad-Gita it becomes self-evident that the scripture
was a reaction against religious conditions of those times.
It was definitely a new line of thought that tried to discard
meaningless and superficial ideas and integrate divergent and
relevant ideas into one meaningful whole. It tried to resolve
the contradictions inherent in following the path of devotion,
the path of knowledge, the path of renunciation by a Vedic householder
leading an active and normal life.
The six darsanas or the six schools of Hindu thought, the
emergence of Charvakas or Lokayatas, Parivrajakas, Ajivakas
and Nirgaranthas, apart from the raise of Buddhism and Jainism,
were also products of similar reaction only. They were, some
times vehemently, almost fanatically, against the attempts of
the Vedic priests to monopolize religious authority through
the clever manipulation of their scriptural knowledge and social
The Upanishads, the end part of the Vedas, were also products
of scholarly reaction against the tyranny of the vedic ritualism
sanctioned by the Samhitas and Brahmanas.
Similar was the case with the Bhakti movement, which originally
started in the south in the first or the second century A.D.,
and culminated in the subsequent rise and popularity of Saivism
The rise of the Tantrism and other movements, at a time when
Buddhism and Jainism were on the ascendance and gaining ground,
added complexity and depth to the ancient Indian religious thought
and provided it the much needed diversity for which it is famous
The schools of Monism (Advaita), Dualism (Dualism) and Qualified
Dualism (Vishishtadvaita) were the internal reactions, which
attracted the attention of many seekers of truth and encouraged
them to explore the true nature of the reality of the world
in which they lived.
It is said that competition amongst these divergent sampradayas
(traditions) was very intense, some times resulting in religious
intolerance, infrequent wars and quarrels, religious debate
and mutual abuse.
But some how, out of this tumultuous situation, the Vedic
religion emerged, a little bit battered and bruised, but surviving
in spirit and dignity, gaining depth and complexity. It was
still able to wield influence over large sections of society,
and attracted new adherents into its fold, despite of the debacle
of the varna system and the attitude of the upper castes.
Contact with Islam and Christianity
This diversity and complexity of the religion so acquired
during the post vedic and pre-medieval periods, saved it subsequently
from complete destruction from the onslaught of modern and organized
religions like Islam and Christianity.
When these two religions made their entry into the country
they had immense political clout and vast resources at their
disposal. They had the ability and the depth of religious fervor
to overwhelm and win over people of any faith to their folds.
But interestingly they succeeded little in their efforts.
They could neither comprehend the true nature of the native
traditions of the land nor work out a suitable strategy to deal
with them. The very flexibility of the native religion, the
devotion, and commitment of the natives to their religious traditions,
without any church like central institution at the helm of affairs,
were the major obstacles for them to overcome.
Left with only a few options, like the use of force and money
or the temptation of official favors, they had to remain satisfied
with a few victories, leaving a vast majority of the Hindus
impervious to what was happening all around them. Though the
religion was bruised and shaken in parts, it remained largely
It is also pertinent to mention here that vastly unknown
to the Vedic scholars and even to the kings and the ordinary
people there were in ancient India a great many tribes, who
lived amidst deep forests away from civilized society, practicing
different traditions of their own and speaking innumerable languages.
Equally interesting were the people living in remote villages,
especially the working classes, the illiterate peasants and
laborers who, having been denied the knowledge of the Vedas
and the privileges of the upper castes, worshipped various demi-gods,
spirits, plants, snakes, lakes and rivers, some times indulging
in animal and human sacrifices, which would definitely not make
the average Hindu of today feel proud of.
But these practices existed and they too slowly became integrated
into Hindu Society. It is an undeniable fact of history that
despite of the persistent effort of the Muslim theologians and
Christian missionaries, the followers of Hinduism largely remained
loyal to their ancient gods and the traditions of the country.
These practices which are today described by some as folk religion
also added in due course of time to the richness, variety and
diversity of Hindu religion.
Thus we can see that what we today understand as Hinduism
originally started as Vedic religion but during the course of
millenniums acquired and added to itself a vast mass of traditions,
beliefs, practices and approaches to Truth by which today it
is identified as a separate religion.