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.


Hinduism is one of the oldest world religions. It is undoubtedly the oldest living religion with a long and continuous history which, dates back to prehistoric times. Hidden in its layers are traces of the beliefs and practices of many ancient traditions, which have been long forgotten and erased over a long period from the memories of the earth. European historians of the early 20th century grudgingly accepted the period of Indian history as beginning from around 2500 BCE, 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 an organized religion. Hinduism is a complex tradition, which evolved out of the amalgamation of numerous indigenous cultures, subcultures and religious traditions, beliefs and practices of the Indian subcontinent. It did not emerge out of Vedism or Brahmanism only. Just as it is difficult to trace the exact origin of the human civilization, it is difficult to measure the antiquity of Hinduism or trace its origins.

The early synthesis

The antiquity of Hinduism can be better estimated from the astronomical evidence available in the Hindu scriptures, folk-traditions, anthropological studies which focus upon the sociocultural aspects of the Indian sub-continent and the geographical and etymological references which are mentioned in the Vedic literature. They suggest that the faith which 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 a part of it.

Whatever may be the truth, some core beliefs of Hinduism were derived from the Vedic religion, also known as Brahmanism, which thrived in the Indian subcontinent around 2500 BCE. Its core doctrine was derived from the Vedas and from the derivative knowledge of the Vedas, of the which the Rigveda is considered the oldest. It is a voluminous work, which is divided into ten books or large sections (mandalas), and which may have been composed in its present form over many centuries.

Early Vedic people lived in the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent. We do not know whether they had any connection with the Indus Valley Civilization. It appears that Vedism thrived along with the Indus Valley civilization for some time and continued to thrive following the decline of the latter. We do not know whether there was any interaction or integration between the two. Subsequently, Vedic people migrated from the Sindhu-Saraswathi region (modern Thar desert) to the plains of the northern and central India. We do not know reasons for the migration. It might have happened due to climate change aggravated by desertification, drying up of the ancient River Saraswathi and prolonged drought. The Vedas themselves do not reveal much about these historical events. However, they do throw considerable light upon the people who practiced the faith, their customs, beliefs and practices.

The earliest hymns of the Rigveda suggest that Vedic religion is very ancient. However, we do not know the true origins of the Vedic people who practiced it or how they gained importance. It is possible that they were a heterogeneous group who specialized in various professions. Some of them might have migrated from outside, and some might have joined them subsequently. Their social order consisted of four distinct groups namely priests, warriors, merchants and workers, based upon color, occupation or birth.

At some point, these social 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. Many social and economic privileges were denied to the remaining two groups. Belief in karma and rebirth justified the divisions, upholding the idea that fate and destiny of people were shaped by their own actions.

The Vedas are considered revelatory scriptures by Hindus. Vedic hymns are products of a very ancient wisdom. They were composed in contemplative and intuitive states by ancient seers (rishis) who claimed Manu, allegedly the first man on earth or the ancestor of all humans, as their progenitor. The Vedic seers wisely used their religious knowledge to preserve and promote dharma with the help of a dedicated priestly class and faithful warriors, attracting new adherents through royal patronage and the aura cast by magical rituals and mystic practices. They also integrated many rival traditions of the subcontinent, either to placate new royal patrons or to strengthen the faith and broaden their appeal to attract more followers.

Hinduism may have its roots in prehistoric times

Hinduism is not derived from Vedic religion only. It also drew richly from Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Tantra, and several ascetic and renunciant traditions. Overtime, it was also enriched by numerous tribal, folk and rural traditions. Undoubtedly, some of them had their roots and antecedents in the prehistoric cultures which thrived in the Indian subcontinent. They were not originally a part of the Vedic religion as is evident from the Vedic texts which scorned alien tribes and their faiths.

However, in due course, they seemed to have been integrated into it and became indistinguishable from it. The deities of these traditions also became a part of the Vedic pantheon, while many original gods of the Vedas were relegated to a secondary place. Many secondary and tertiary deities became associated gods and goddesses of the principle divinities, who presently occupy the foremost place in the Hindu pantheon.

Is Hinduism a religion?

Truly speaking, when we refer to Hinduism, we do not know whether we should consider it a religion or a group of religions. Neither Hinduism nor any of its sects is founded by a founder or institution. Numerous seers, sages, saints, scholars, philosophers, kings and common people contributed to its multifarious growth. Some of its beliefs and traditions are diametrically opposed to its core teachings which point to its organic growth and inclusive nature. 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 was born out of the profound human wisdom of ancient seers and 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 was originally derived from the River Sindhu (River Indus), which flowed in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent. To the world outside, the people who inhabited the region south of the river were known as Hindus. Several centuries later, the land became identified as Hindustan and the faiths of its people, although they were numerous and diverse, became known as Hinduism. Some scholars prefer calling it Santana Dharma, meaning the eternal religion, since God, who is said to be its source, is eternal. The constitution of India recognizes the country as Bharat in memory of the legendary king Bharata or the legendary tribe known as Bharatas to which he belonged.

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 religious book.
  • It is not controlled by a central institution or the authority of any brotherhood such as a church or a sangha or association.
  • It is flexible and not averse to admit fundamentally diverse thoughts and beliefs into its system.
  • It accepts other faiths as alternative paths to salvation
  • It does not believe that dharma can be upheld by forced conversions or through organized missionary activity to proselytize people.
  • It believes that human beings should be allowed to practice their faith according to their convictions, karmic past and essential nature
  • It has been evolving continuously, through internal reforms and in response to the threats and challenges posed by rival faiths.

Hinduism is difficult to define

It is an unquestionable fact that Hinduism is not a religion in the strictest sense of the word, but an ancient tradition in continuity and perpetual evolution. It was formed out of political and administrative expediency by the British, who artificially grouped all the native faiths of India under a single label, with little or no knowledge of them. Therefore, trying to define Hinduism is like trying to put the waters of an unfathomable ocean into a small vessel, or trying to capture the essence of human life in a few words or a single phrase.

With a structured definition we may be able to capture the essential elements of Hinduism and satisfy our intellectual curiosity. However, it is doubtful whether it will justify the significance of a tradition which began in prehistoric times and eventually grew into a complex system of religious and philosophical thought, which we recognize today under the generic name of "Hinduism." The faith has still been evolving and adapting to the new challenges and demographic changes caused by globalism, admission of many people from the West and the migration of millions of Hindus to numerous countries in all the continents.

Because of its expansive and comprehensive nature, Hinduism can be truly called an Asvattha tree, which is described in the Upanishads as the tree of creation, whose roots are above in the heaven, and whose branches are spread below in the world. The roots are the traditions that we inherited from the Rigvedic Aryans or their ancestors who laid the foundations of Vedic dharma. 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. God is its founder, nourisher and sustainer.

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 occasions 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.

For Hindus life is a continuous sacrifice, which begins with the sacrifice of semen during conception and ends with the sacrifice of the body during cremation. The intermittent period is marked by a series of other sacrifices. Every action is a sacrifice. Eating, sleeping, drinking, rejoicing, worshipping, marriage, sexual union, rearing children, supporting parents, offering food to gods, humans, etc., all these are sacrifices only which lead to sin if they are done with selfish intent and liberation if they are offered to God.

According to the tenets of Hinduism, life and religion are inseparable. Religion pervades your whole life, just as 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 an 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 as a personification of God, you are never separate from your source and 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 predominate the thinking of a devout Hindu at every step, and make him a 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 stagnant. It has been continuously and incrementally evolving from stage to stage, adapting and transforming itself to the changing, social and political dynamics of India and the world. 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, influencing, 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 was still overshadowed by endless wars, violence, barbarism, savagery.

The seers, sages and enlightened teachers of Hinduism 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. Just as 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 lost its vitality and core beliefs. Instead, it grew in strength and character, radiating its wisdoms to illuminate and enlighten eager minds, and 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 social order into a complex system, consisting of numerous castes and sub castes. Second, it shifted the attention of its followers from external ritual practices to internal spiritual practices. Third, it facilitated the integration of numerous sects and schools of philosophy.

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 reformers 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 of the epic period and created a coherent philosophy and spiritual approach to the problem of bondage and karma, offering ideal solutions to live god-centric or soul-centric life. In the teachings of Lord Krishna you will find a rational basis for pious people to resolve the contradictions that are inherent in various paths of liberations such as the paths of action (karma), of knowledge (jnana), of intelligence (buddhi), of renunciation (sanyasa), of contemplation (atma samyama), and of devotion (bhakti) and integrate them into a coherent system which is ideally suitable for householders. The scripture offers them a convincing approach to pursue the four chief aims of human life namely dharma, artha (wealth), kama (sexual desire) and moksha (liberation), without compromising their ultimate goal, which is liberation.

The divergent Darshana philosophies of Hinduism, and the emergence of atheistic and materialistic traditions such as the Charvakas and Lokayatas, apart from the rise of renunciant traditions such as Buddhism Jainism, the Sramanas, Parivrajakas, Ajivikas and Nirgaranthas, all of them were also products of a similar development. They emerged from the exploratory and inquisitive minds of numerous scholars, thinkers and enlightened masters. Although they opposed the Hindu traditions such as Vedism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism and competed with them for followers, in the end they either yielded to their influence or became dissolved in them.

The Upanishads, which emerged as the end-parts of the Vedas, were also products of scholarly reaction against the tyranny of the Vedic ritualism sanctioned by the Samhitas and Brahmanas. The same 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 Shaivism and Vaishnavism. The rise of Tantrism and other movements, at a time when Buddhism and Jainism were on the ascendance and gaining ground, added further complexity to the prevailing traditions of Hinduism and provided it with the much-needed depth and diversity for which it is known today. The schools of monism or nondualism (Advaita), dualism (Dvaita) and qualified nondualism (Vishistadvaita), they were the internal reactions within its fold, which attracted the attention of many seekers of truth and encouraged them to explore the true nature of their existence, the world and reality.

It is said that the competition among divergent sampradayas (religious traditions) was very intense in ancient times, which often resulted in religious intolerance. It showed up as animosity, disputes and wars between warring kingdoms and rival factions, while scholars from rival traditions vented their feelings through debates and discussions and creative slander. However, through that commotion and confrontation the various traditions of Hinduism emerged unscathed, gaining knowledge and inspiration from numerous sources, which imparted to it richness and diversity. It is still the most dominant tradition of India, which wields considerable influence over a large section of Indians.

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, monolithic character and centralized institutions prepared the native traditions Hinduism to face off successfully with Islam and Christianity when they entered the subcontinent through foreign subjugation. When they confronted the native faiths, these two Abrahamic religions had immense political clout and vast resources at their disposal to exert themselves. However, they succeeded but little, largely because what they confronted was very much unlike them in its composition, temperament, philosophical diversity, organization and essential character.

It was a time when Hinduism, was not yet a fully recognized as a unified religion. It existed but as an idea or in name. What they confronted was a large body of distinct faiths, beliefs and practices which were practiced by the native people who belonged to diverse ethnic, social, political, linguistic and regional groups. Their faith was strong, since it imparted to them a certain identify and nativity against the oppressors. It also gave them a feeling of continuity since the same belief systems were followed by their ancestors for generations.

Thus, their faith defined them and distinguished them and imparted to them self-identity and self-respect. Their entrenched beliefs, respect and devotion to their gods, elders and ancestors, their very ethnicity which inculcated in them a sense of unity and belongingness, and the promise of life, righteousness and liberation which the faiths offered them proved to be a major obstacle for the invaders to enforce their faith upon them, despite the absence of centralized religious authority or a strong political patronage.

Therefore, they succeeded but little in converting native people. With the help of money, power and political coercion, they managed to convert a few vulnerable groups, but overall their methods were ineffective. They did shake Hinduism and left it a little bruised and battered in parts, but they were mostly unsuccessful in their attempts to change the mindset and the loyalty of the native people towards their ancestral faiths.

Folk Traditions of Hinduism

Since the earliest times, India has been home to diverse groups of people. Historically, people from various parts of the world migrated to India in search of good life, riches, farmlands or green pastures. It is now widely accepted that the Indus Valley people were also heterogeneous and belonged to diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. 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 the right to worship Vedic gods. Instead, they worshipped Nature, plants, trees, mountains, rivers, ancestors, spirits, snakes, lakes, oceans, village deities, family deities, and so on. At times, they also practiced animal and human sacrifices. Overtimes, many of their practices became integrated into Hinduism as is evident from the fact that in many parts of India people still worship village and local deities, celebrate festivals in their honor and make offerings to ancient and ancestral spirits, and some very primitive deities.

Thus, we can see that what we understand today as Hinduism originally started thousands of years ago as numerous independent streams. Over the course of time, it absorbed numerous traditions, beliefs and practices, acquiring in the process a great complexity, depth and character, whereby today it caters to the religious and spiritual needs of a wide range of people from the highly educated and enlightened to the ignorant and the uninformed. It is very much like the River Ganges which begins in the Himalayas as a small streamlet and ends up in the Bay of Bengal as a mighty river.

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