Understanding the Essential Nature of Hinduism

Hinduism Beliefs

by Jayaram V

Synopsis: Understanding the essential nature, character, diversity, origin and historical development of Hinduism from its prehistoric roots, and why Hinduism is unlike any other religion which you may know and why it is difficult to understand it.

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. 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. However, subsequent studies by Indologists suggest that Hinduism is much older. Its antiquity is difficult to fathom because it does not have a founder and does not fit into the western definition of a religion. Hinduism is a complex tradition, which evolved out of the amalgamation of numerous indigenous cultures, subcultures and practices of the Indian subcontinent, not just Vedism or Brahmanism. Just as it is difficult to trace the exact origin of the human civilization, it is difficult to measure the antiquity of Hinduism.

The early synthesis

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 today as Hinduism may have a long and checkered history of at least 6000 years or more. It is true with regard to the folk traditions of the early human settlements of the Indian subcontinent which have now become part of it.

Whatever may be the truth, some of the core beliefs of Hinduism are derived from the Vedic religion, also known as Brahmanism, which thrived in the Indian subcontinent around 2500 BC. It was based upon the knowledge of the Vedas, of the which the Rigveda is considered the oldest. It is a voluminous work, which is divided into ten books, and which may have been composed in its present form over a period of many centuries. The early Vedic people lived in the north western parts of the Indian subcontinent. We do not know whether they had any connection with the Indus Valley Civilization. It appears that Vedism thrived, following the decline of the Indus Valley civilization.

Subsequently, the Vedic people migrated to the plains of the northern and central India. We do not know the reason for the migration. It happened probably because of the drying up of the ancient River Saraswathi and continued drought. The Vedas themselves do not reveal much about these historical events. However, they do throw considerable light upon their customs, beliefs and practices.

The hymns of the Rigveda suggest that the Vedic religion is very ancient. However, we do not know how the true origins of the Vedic community or how they gained importance. It is possible that they were a heterogeneous group. Some of them might have been immigrants from outside. Their society was divided into four distinct groups, which was based upon either color, occupation or birth. At some point, the divisions became rigid, resulting in the emergence of birth based caste system. The knowledge of the Vedas remained confined to the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas. The Brahmanas specialized in ritual knowledge, while the Kshatriyas in the spiritual knowledge.

The Vedic hymns were products of a very ancient wisdom, received by ancient seers in contemplative and intuitive states who claimed as their progenitor, the great Manu, the first man on earth. The Vedic seers used their religious knowledge wisely, to their best advantage, attracting new adherents through royal patronage and the appeal of magical rituals. They also integrated many rival traditions of the subcontinent, either under pressure from the native rulers or on their own, to broaden their appeal and attract a wider following.

Hinduism may have its roots in the prehistoric times

Hinduism is not derived from Vedic religion only. It has also drawn richly from Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Tantra, and several ascetic traditions. Overtime it had also been enriched by numerous folk and tribal traditions. Undoubtedly, some of them had their roots and antecedents in the prehistoric cultures that thrived in the Indian subcontinent. These traditions were not part of the Vedic religion, but in course of time they were integrated into it and became indistinguishable from it. The deities of these traditions became part of the Vedic pantheon while many original gods of the Vedas were relegated to a secondary place.

Is Hinduism a religion?

Truly speaking, when we refer to Hinduism, we do not know whether we should consider it a religion or group of religions. Neither Hinduism nor any of its sects is founded by any particular person nor institution. Numerous seers, sages, saints, scholars, philosophers, kings and common people contributed to its growth. Some of its beliefs and traditions are diametrically opposed to each other. The contradictions of Hinduism lead to the argument that Hinduism cannot be considered a religion in the strict sense of the word, but as a complex theology, which incorporates into its body numerous beliefs, scriptures, philosophies, concepts and practices.

The word Hindu is not a religious term but a geographical one. It is derived from the River Sindhu, which flowed in the north western region of the Indian subcontinent. To the world outside, the people who inhabited the region were known as Hindus. Later their faiths collectively became Hinduism. Some scholars prefer calling it Santana Dharma, meaning the eternal religion, since God, who is said to be its source, is eternal. 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 difficult to define

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.

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 justifies 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." Hinduism is continuing to evolve even now.

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, sects, philosophers and teacher traditions, which were subsequently incorporated into it during its long history. The trunk is the belief in the eternal nature of Self and the Supreme Self who are central to Hinduism.

Hinduism is a way of life

Those who are familiar with Hinduism know that is not a religion, but a way of life. It is very true. Hinduism is not supposed to be practiced on specific occasion or at specific places. You may go to temples and offer worship to gods. You may perform daily rituals. In Hinduism they do not constitute true practice. Hinduism has to be lived in word and deed from the time you wake up and until you go to bed. Your commitment to the Dharma extends even beyond this world into the next world since your karma follows you like your shadow. According to the tenets of Hinduism, life and religion are inseparable. Religion pervades your whole life, like the omnipresent Brahman, dominating and regulating every aspect of your life, and aligning it with the aims of creation and the functions of God. As an aspect of God you have the obligation to manifest the will of God upon earth and play your dutiful role in ensuring the order and regularity of the world. Thus, in living your life upon earth you are never separate from your source from your ordained duties.

Dharma, which is a set of your prescribed duties, controls every action of a devout Hindu. Though he has the freedom to live his life according to his desires and expectations, he cannot yield to them because it will bind him to the cycle of births and deaths. Therefore, if he wants to be free from suffering and escape from rebirth, he has to put God at the center of his life and live it for his sake rather than for himself. Thus, the invisible hands of religion mold the thinking of a devout Hindu at every step, and make him part of the larger vision of God. Beneath his mind, his religion remains, like an undercurrent, influencing his thinking and actions.

The transformative nature of Hinduism

Throughout its history, Hinduism has never been static. It has evolved continuously from stage to stage, adapting and transforming itself to the changing, social and political conditions. While circumstances played a considerable role in its growth and transformation, it also benefited greatly over the ages from the contribution of numerous seers, sages, saints, kings, scholars, devotees, and patrons. By correcting, molding, modifying, and integrating various aspects of the tradition according to the needs and demands of the times, they kept the lamp of Hindu wisdom and spirituality bright and burning. With foresight and wisdom, they provided knowledge and guidance to a multitude of people, while the world still overshadowed by endless wars, violence, barbarism, savagery.

They enriched the tradition, gave it depth and complexity, and imparted to it great flexibility and openness for which it is well known today, making it appealing and acceptable to a wide range of people with different temperaments, beliefs and attitudes. Because of them Hinduism has become like an ocean, allowing into it the flow of diverse streams of thought from all directions. Like an ocean it remained firm and stable, in a world of impermanence and change absorbing new knowledge and traditions, without losing in the process, its moorings and original character. Despite its long history and numerous influences, it did not compromise its basic ideals, nor lose its vitality and core beliefs. Instead, it grew in strength and character, to illuminate and enlighten eager minds, absorbing new thoughts and concepts, without discarding what it has already gathered. Over the centuries, it peacefully and harmoniously integrated the old with the new and broadened its base.

Interaction with other religions

Since Hinduism never existed as a monolithic religion, but lived in parts and in numerous guises, the competing religions which either originated in India or entered India from outside during its long history could not make much difference to it. They influenced it in parts, while they were influenced in turn, thus resulting in a synthetic ethnic culture which currently distinguishes the Indian subcontinent from the rest of the world.

The interaction also resulted in numerous reforms and improvements within Hinduism. For example, Hindu caste system grew from a fourfold system into a complex system consisting of numerous castes and sub castes. Secondly it shifted the attention of its followers from external ritual practices to internal spiritual practices. Thirdly it facilitated the integration of numerous and schools.

We can see traces of early reforms within Hinduism in the epic Mahabharata, several Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. We may reckon Lord Krishna as one of the earliest social and religious reformer of his times. The Buddha was not the first social or religious reformer of ancient India. Before him there were many and among them Lord Krishna 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 his times.

It synthesized many divergent ideas and created a coherent philosophy and spiritual approach to the problem of bondage and karma, and the ideal solutions to achieve liberation. It presented a rational basis to the people to resolve the contradictions that were inherent in the paths of action (karma), knowledge (jnana), intelligence (buddhi), renunciation (sanyasa), contemplation (atma samyama), and devotion (bhakti), the path of knowledge, and put them together to achieve the four chief aims of human life namely dharma, artha (wealth), kama (sexual desire) and moksha (liberation).

The divergent Darshana philosophies of Hinduism, and the emergence of atheistic or renunciant traditions such as the Carvakas, Apart from rise of Buddhism and Jainism, the Lokayatas, Parivrajakas, Ajivikas and Nirgaranthas were also products of a similar development. Although they opposed it and competed with it for followers, in the end they either yielded to its influence or became dissolved in it.

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 with 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, sometimes resulting in religious intolerance, infrequent wars and quarrels, religious debate and mutual abuse.

However, through that commotion and confrontation the Vedic religion somehow emerged as a complex tradition, gaining depth and complexity from numerous sources. It is still the most dominant tradition of India, which wields considerable influence over large sections of society,

Hinduism encounter with Islam and Christianity

Interaction with other religions, coupled with internal reforms and assimilation of numerous sects and traditions, and absence of a distinct identity or monolithic character, helped Hinduism successful cope with Islam and Christianity when they entered the subcontinent through foreign subjugation. When they confronted the native faiths, the two religions had immense political patronage and vast resources to exert themselves. However, they succeeded but little largely because what they dealt with was largely unlike them in organization as well as essential character.

Hinduism, then was not yet a recognized, unified religion. It existed but in name. What they confronted was a large body of distant traditions and practices and a native population of diverse ethnic, social, political, linguistic, regional groups. The very flexibility of the native traditions, the loyalty, devotion and commitment of the native people to their beliefs and practices, despite the absence of centralized religious authority, were the major obstacles which they were unable to overcome.

Therefore, they succeeded but little. With the help of money, power and political coercion, they managed to convert a few groups, but largely they remained ineffective. They did shake Hinduism and left it a little bruised and battered in parts, largely they were unsuccessful to change the native mindset and the loyalty of the people to their ancestral religions.

Folk Traditions of Hinduism

Since the earliest times, India has been home to a diverse group of people. It is now widely believed that the Indus Valley people were heterogeneous and belonged to diverse racial and ethnic groups. The diversity of Indian population remained intact throughout its long history. Vedic community itself was not much different from the rest of India. Apart from urban settlements and organized village communities, there were many tribes and rural folk who lived in different parts of the subcontinent, practicing various faiths and occupations and speaking numerous languages. Most of them lived on the fringes of Vedic society and the civilized world, but enjoyed considerable freedom in practicing their faith. They had no access to the Vedic scriptures or right to worship the Vedic gods. Instead, they worshipped Nature, plants, trees, mountains, rivers, ancestors, spirits, snakes, lakes, oceans, and so on. At times, they also practiced animal and human sacrifices. Today some of their practices have become integrated into Hinduism. In many parts of India people still worship village and local deities, celebrate festivals in their honor, make offerings to the ancient spirits.

Thus, we can see that what we today understand as Hinduism originally started thousands of years ago, and overtime absorbed numerous traditions, beliefs and practices, acquiring in the process a great complexity, depth and character, and catering to the religious and spiritual needs of the educated and enlightened as well as the ignorant and the uninformed.

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