Hinduism: History | 2



In the traditional recording of events in India (called Iti-hāsa, or “thus it has been”), the deeds of gods and goddesses are combined with those of heroic kings, thoughtful and resourceful women, celestial beings (devas), and the wicked demon-like characters known as Dānavas or Āsuras.

The sense of “history” in many of the Hindu texts called Purāṇas (“Ancient Lore”) is a sense of valorous and gracious actions; it involves learning to act with a sense of what is righteous (dharma), compassion, and gratitude.

This sense of “thus it has been” is different from narrating a linear sequence of events, which constitutes a customary understanding of “history” in other parts of the world.

Recording linear history has also been, however, practiced by many Hindu rulers.

It is important to recognize that the well-known markers in the last few millennia are those people, events, and movements that have been privileged by contemporary minds as worthy of being preserved and therefore tell us only some aspects of the history of the Hindu traditions.

Most scholars believe that the earliest civilization in India of which we have records existed from about 3000 to 1750 B.C.E. near the river Indus.

While some city centres were in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (both of which are in modern-day Pakistan, the country that borders India to the Northwest), the civilization seems to have existed in many parts of the subcontinent.

The people of the Harappa civilization were impressive builders and lived in what appears to have been planned urban centres.

At Mohenjo-Daro there is a huge structure, resembling a swimming pool, that archaeologists call “the Great Bath.” Scholars believe that it was meant for religious rituals.

Archaeological evidence also suggests that the people of this culture worshiped a goddess and a god with the characteristics of the later Hindu deity Shiva.

The original homeland of the Indo-European people (who called themselves Ārya, or “noble ones”) is one of the most debated issues in Indian history:

Although many Western scholars maintain that the Indo-Europeans migrated from Central Asia in about 2000 B.C.E., some scholars think that the migration began in about 6000 B.C.E.—and from other regions (possibly the areas near Turkey).

The work of these scholars suggests that it was a peaceful migration, possibly undertaken because of the farming interests of the population.

Others say that the original homeland of these people was the Indian peninsula and that the civilization was continuous with the Harappa civilization.

The dates for the Indo-European occupation of this area could thus be several centuries—if not millennia— earlier than 1500 B.C.E.

The Indo-Europeans spoke a language that developed into the ancient language of Sanskrit. They composed many poems, and eventually manuals, on rituals and philosophy:

For a long time none of these were written down. The traditions were committed to memory and passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Mnemonic devices were used to ensure accurate pronunciation, rhythm, and utterance.

Many Hindus think of their earliest history as being recorded in these Indo-European compositions, called Veda, or “knowledge.”

In the hymns that were composed by about 1000 B.C.E. there is speculation on the origins of the universe and a description of the sacrifice of a primeval man through which creation began. One of the hymns explicitly mentions the beginnings of the social divisions that are today called “caste.”

The sacrificial worldview of the early Vedic age gave way to philosophical inquiry and discussion in the Āraṇyakas and the Upanishads, composed during the 7th – 6th centuries B.C.E.

The sophisticated philosophy of the Upanishads was coeval with the spirit of critical enquiry in many parts of Northern India:

Religious leaders—notably, Gautama Siddhartha (eventually called the Buddha, or the Enlightened One) and Mahāvīra the Jina (the Victorious One)—challenged the notion that the Vedas were revealed and authoritative. They relied on their own spiritual experiences to proclaim a path to liberation that was open to all sections of society. The followers of Mahāvīra are today called Jains.

Early religious texts such as the Upanishads focus on the goal of liberation from the cycle of life and death, but most later Hindu literature in Sanskrit (after about 400 B.C.E.) deals directly or indirectly with dharma or righteous behaviour.

Although Buddhism and Jainism were patronized by many monarchs,

by the 4th century C.E. the Gupta dynasty in Northern India had facilitated the growth of Hinduism by encouraging the building of Hindu temples and the composition of literary works.

Temple construction was taken up enthusiastically by kings and queens as well as citizens in many parts of India after the 6th century.

Bhakti, the expression of devotional fervour, is perhaps most evident after the 7th century C.E. Men and women from different castes poured out their devotion to the gods and goddesses in vernacular languages.

Several features contributed to the spread of bhakti:

One was the use of vernacular languages; the composition after the 6th century C.E. of devotional hymns in the classical (but spoken) language Tamil was an important development in Hinduism:

The songs became popular, appealing both to intellectual commentators and philosophers and to the larger population.

Another factor was bhakti’s appeal across all social classes. A canon was anthologized, with poems drawn from various castes and classes. Many of the most renowned devotional poet-saints were perceived as being from low castes.

The building of temples also promoted devotion; from at least the 4th or 5th centuries Hindu temples have been built in both India and Southeast Asia.

Temples in India became centres for devotion, rituals, poetry, music, dance, scholarship, and economic distribution as well as emblems of power and prestige for patrons.

Many temples were centres for art and, according to many scholars, also for astronomy.

Kings and queens in the Gupta dynasty (4-6th centuries C.E.) in Northern India and the Western Chalukya dynasty in central India (c. 6th – 12th century C.E.) subsidized temples for the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and the various goddesses.

Treatises on healing, surgery, astrology, and architecture that were composed (by authors such as the physician Caraka) in the early centuries of the Common Era are all framed in religious discourses:

These subjects are presented as conversations between Hindu gods and goddesses and holy men. In some cases the texts say that the practice of these arts and sciences will lead to liberation.

There were several forms of healing, including systems such as Ayurveda (“knowledge of a long life”) and Siddha. Ritual prayers, pilgrimage, and exorcism were also used for healing. Descriptions of various hospitals and civic healing centres in India date back to the 5th century.

Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia during the first millennium of the Common Era. It was probably taken there by traders and merchants. By the 4th century there were kings with Indian names in the kingdom of Funan in Cambodia.

The “Indianisation” of Southeast Asia is a significant event in world history:

It is a matter of scholarly debate whether Hindus migrated to Southeast Asia or whether scholars and ritual specialists from Southeast Asia had their training in India and selectively adapted practices to their regions.

The cultural and religious worldviews of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions were selectively adapted by local populations, leading to the construction of some of the greatest temples and monuments in the world:

By the early 9th century Jayavarman II (c. 770–835) was crowned in Cambodia in accordance with rituals specified by Hindu texts.

Men and women in Southeast Asia donated manuscripts, endowed temples, and patronized religious rituals. In Cambodia, Indonesia, and other places large temple complexes were built following precise ritual regulations.

Hindu temples flourished in Java and Bali. Buddhism became the prevalent religion after the 13th century in Cambodia and after the 14-15th centuries in Java and Bali.

Hinduism continued to exist in Bali, but with the eventual dominance of Buddhism and Islam, it died out in many other Southeast Asian countries.

A number of renowned Hindu Saints lived between the 7-15th centuries C.E.:

Many of them, including Shankara (c. 8th century), Rāmānuja (c. 1017–1137), and Mādhva (c. 13th century), interpreted Sanskrit texts that were considered to be canonical.

Sailors and merchants from the Middle East took Islam to Southern India probably in the 7th century C.E. The encounter between Hindus and Muslims in this region seems to have been relatively peaceful.

Almost two centuries later Muslim conquerors went to Northern India, and by the 12th century the first Muslim dynasty had been established in Delhi. In the following centuries another Muslim dynasty, the Mughal empire, came to power. The relationships between the traditions differed in various parts of India.

After the 15th century the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French made their way to India and established settlements there. In time the foreign powers became involved in local politics, and possession of territory became part of their agendas.

The disintegration of the Mughal empire in the 18th century led to the formation of many small kingdoms that invited the military help of European traders.

By the late 18th century the domination of the East India Company and the British had led to a loose unification of large parts of the Indian subcontinent under British control.

While most Hindu and Muslim forms of rule had generally accepted local autonomy, the British, who were Christians, felt a moral and political obligation to govern the entire country:

Many foreign missionaries scrutinized the Hindus’ social and religious practices. Their criticisms were particularly severe regarding “idolatry,” the caste system, and some of the practices applied to women.

In the early 19th century the Hindu theologian Ram Mohan Roy (22 May 1772 – 27 September 1833) founded a reform movement that came to be called the Brāhmo Samaj (society of Brahma).

Later in the century Dayananda Saraswati (12 February 1824 – 30 October 1883) started the Ārya Samaj reform movement. Other significant religious leaders in the 19th century included Rāmakrishna (1836–86) and his disciple Vivekananda (1863–1902).

During the 19th century Sanātana Dharma (eternal dharma)—a term that had been used in the texts on dharma and in the epics to denote virtues that are normative for all human beings— became popular for denoting Hinduism in general.

Some 19th century Hindus, who saw the religion as one rather than many disparate traditions, began to use this term for their faith tradition.

The spread of Hinduism throughout the world has been one of the most significant developments of the 19th and 20th centuries:

After the abolition of slavery, colonial powers from the Western world (principally England) took Indians as workers— sometimes as indentured servants—to many parts of the world, including eastern and Southern Africa, Fiji, and the Caribbean.

Hindu practices in these lands depended on the origin, caste, and class of the Hindu workers who went there. As soon as they were financially and physically able to do so, these Hindus built temples.

Other forms of Hinduism or practices derived from Hindu teachings are also seen in the diaspora:

Some practices, such as ISKCON (the International Society for Kṛṣṇa Consciousness, a group that is more popularly known as the Hare Kṛṣṇas), require a fair amount of “Indianisation”—such as adopting Indian names and clothing.

Other practices, such as Transcendental Meditation and certain forms of yoga, have been separated from their cultural and religious contexts in India and are presented as physical and mental exercises that anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, can practice.

The many traditions that make the tapestry of Hinduism continue to flourish in the diaspora:

Just as the Hindus who migrated to Southeast Asia in the 1st millennium C.E. sought to transmit their culture through the building of the great temples of Cambodia and Java,

Hindu immigrants to England and the United States seek to perpetuate their culture into the next millennium through establishing temples, which serve as the religious and cultural nucleus of a Hindu community.