The Rise of Hinduism

Hinduism evolved as a synthesis of cultures and traditions, including the Indo-Aryan Vedic religion.

LEARNING OBJECTIVE

Explain the evolution of hinduism

Key Points

  • The Vedic religion was influenced by local cultures and traditions adopted by Indo- Aryans  as they spread throughout India. Vedic ritualism heavily influenced the rise of Hinduism, which rose to prominence after c. 400 BCE.
  • The Vedas — the oldest texts of the Hindu religion—describe deities, mythology, and instructions for religious rituals.
  • The  Upanishads  are a collection of Vedic texts particularly important to Hinduism that contain revealed truths concerning the nature of ultimate reality, and describing the character and form of human salvation.
  • During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire served as a barrier against Muslim invasion, fostering a reconstruction of Hindu life and administration. The Hindu Maratha Confederacy rose to power in the 18th century and eventually overthrew Muslim rule in India.

Key Terms

  • moksha: The character and
    form of human salvation, as described in the Upanishads.
  • Sramana: Meaning “seeker,” Sramana refers to several Indian religious movements that existed alongside the Vedic religion, the historical predecessor of modern Hinduism.
  • brahman: The nature of ultimate reality, as described in the Upanishads.
  • Upanishads: A collection of Vedic texts that contain the earliest emergence of some of the central religious concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Hinduism is considered one of the oldest religions in the world. Western scholars regard Hinduism as a synthesis, or fusion, of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no stated founder. This synthesis is believed to have developed after Vedic times, between 500 BCE and 300 CE. However, Vedic ritualism, a composite of Indo-Aryan and Harappan culture, contributed to the deities and traditions of Hinduism. The Indo-Aryan Vedas remain the oldest scriptures of the Hindu religion, which has grown culturally and geographically through modern times to become one of the world’s four major religions.

The Vedas

Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” were written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE in the northwestern region of the Indian Subcontinent. There are four Indo-Aryan Vedas: the Rig Veda contains hymns about mythology; the Sama Veda consists mainly of hymns about religious rituals; the Yajur Veda contains instructions for religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers and diseases. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Sama Veda or Samaveda.) The Rig Veda is the largest and considered the most important of the collection, containing 1,028 hymns divided into ten books, called mandalas.

The Aryan pantheon of gods is described in great detail in the Rig Veda. However, the religious practices and deities are not uniformly consistent in these sacred texts, probably because the Aryans themselves were not a homogenous group. While spreading through the Indian subcontinent, it is probable their initial religious beliefs and practices were shaped by the absorption of local religious traditions.

According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, the most important deities were Agni, the god of Fire, and the intermediary between the gods and humans; Indra, the god of Heavens and War, protector of the Aryans against their enemies; Surya, the Sun god; Vayu, the god of Wind; and Prthivi, the goddess of Earth.

Agni, god of fire, is shown riding a ram.
Modern Hindu representation of Agni, god of fire: The Rig Veda describes the varied deities of Vedic religion. These gods persisted as Vedic religion was assimilated into Hinduism.

The Upanishads

The Upanishads are a collection of Vedic texts that contain the earliest emergence of some of the central religious concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Also known as Vedanta, “the end of the Veda,” the collection is one of the sacred texts of Hinduism thought to contain revealed truths concerning the nature of ultimate reality, or brahman, and describing the character and form of human salvation, called moksha. The Upanishads are found in the conclusion of the commentaries on the Vedas, and have been passed down by oral tradition.

Hindu Synthesis

Sramana, meaning “seeker,” refers to several Indian religious movements, including Buddhism and Jainism, that existed alongside the Vedic religion—the historical predecessor of modern Hinduism. The Sramana traditions drove the so-called Hindu synthesis after the Vedic period that spread to southern Indian and parts of Southeast Asia. As it spread, this new Hinduism assimilated popular non-Vedic gods and other traditions from local cultures, and integrated societal divisions, called the caste system. It is also thought to have included both Buddhist and Sramana influences.

Splinter and Rise of Hinduism

During the reign of the Gupta Empire (between 320-550 CE), which included the period known as the Golden Age of India, the first known stone and cave temples dedicated to Hindu deities were built. After the Gupta period, central power disintegrated and religion became regionalized to an extent, with variants arising within Hinduism and competing with each other, as well as sects of Buddhism and Jainism. Over time, Buddhism declined but some of its practices were integrated into Hinduism, with large Hindu temples being built in South and Southeast Asia.

image
The Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple in Delhi, the world’s largest Hindu temple: Hinduism evolved as a combination of various cultures and traditions, including Vedic religion and the Upanishads.

The Hindu religion maintained its presence and continued to grow despite a long period of Muslim rule in India, from 1200-1750 CE, during which Hindus endured violence as Islam grew to become what is now the second largest religion in India, behind Hinduism. Akbar I, emperor of the ruling Mughal Dynasty in India from 1556-1605 CE, ended official persecution of non-Muslims and recognized Hinduism, protected Hindu temples, and abolished discriminatory taxes against Hindus.

Hindu Prominence

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire had arisen and served as a barrier against invasion by Muslim rulers to the north, fostering a reconstruction of Hindu life and administration. Vidyaranya, a minister and mentor to three generations of kings in the Vijayanagar Empire beginning around 1336, helped spread the historical and cultural influence of Shankara—an Indian philosopher of the 8th century CE credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism.

The Hindu Maratha Confederacy rose to power in the 18th century and eventually overthrew Muslim rule in India. In the 19th century, the Indian subcontinent became a western colony during the period of the British Raj (the name of the British ruling government) beginning in 1858.

Through the period of the Raj, until its end in 1947, there was a Hindu resurgence, known as the Bengali Renaissance, in the Bengal region of India. It included a cultural, social, intellectual, and artistic movement. Indology, an academic study of Indian culture, was also established in the 19th century, and spread knowledge of Vedic philosophy and literature and promoted western interest in Hinduism.

In the 20th century, Hinduism gained prominence as a political force and source of national identity in India. According to the 2011 census, Hindus account for almost 80% of India’s population of 1.21 billion people, with 960 million practitioners. Other nations with large Hindu populations include Nepal, with 23 million followers, and Bangladesh, with 15 million. Hinduism counts over 1 billion adherents across the globe, or approximately 15% of the world’s population.

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Singapore Diwali Decorations: Diwali decorations in Little India are part of an annual Hindu celebration in Singapore, where there are over 260,000 Hindus.
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Text adapted from Boundless World History. Revisions and additions by History Guild.
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