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Origin and Development of Hinduism, Its Beliefs and Practices



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By Jayaram V

Synopsis

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 Evidence

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 or more.

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 them!

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 aspects:

  • 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 without.

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 to Hinduism.

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 Brahman, 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 actions.

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 advantage.

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 and Vaishnavism.

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 today.

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 intact.

Folk Traditions

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.

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