Kesheva Temple

Hinduism is regarded by some scholars as the oldest surviving religion. It originated around the Indus Valley near the River Indus in modern day Pakistan. Some elements date back as far as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The earliest form of Hinduism was essentially nature worship. Based on study of its earliest scriptures, scholars say it “was full of childhood's simple faith" and was "not yet burdened with intellectual brooding." Under the Aryans Hinduism and the caste system evolved together.

The earliest forms of Hinduism arose from prehistoric faiths. The true beginnings of the faith began around 4000 B.C.with the combined practices of several tribal religions, which makes it the oldest still-practiced religion in the world. [Source: Jonathan H. Kantor, Listverse, July 31, 2016]

The Hindu synthesis began to develop between 500–300 B.C. as various forms of Hindu study coalesced into the practices we see today. The earliest records of Hindu gods, goddesses and Hindu beliefs were first written down in about the fourth century A.D. However, by this time, there was already a strong oral tradition which supported these beliefs. The early Hindu epics and myths help us to understand the evolution of the gods and goddesses and the development of beliefs which form the basis of the modern Hindu religion. [Source: British Museum]

Professor Gavin Flood wrote: “Hinduism's early history is the subject of much debate for a number of reasons. Firstly, in a strict sense there was no 'Hinduism' before modern times, although the sources of Hindu traditions are very ancient. Secondly, Hinduism is not a single religion but embraces many traditions. Thirdly, Hinduism has no definite starting point. The traditions which flow into Hinduism may go back several thousand years and some practitioners claim that the Hindu revelation is eternal. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

Although the early history of Hinduism is difficult to date with certainty, the following list presents a rough chronology: 1) Before 2000 B.C.: The Indus Valley Civilization; 2) 1500–500 B.C.: The Vedic Period; 3) 500 B.C.– A.D. 500; The Epic, Puranic and Classical Age; 4) A.D. 500–1500: Medieval Period; 5) 1500–1757: Pre-Modern Period; 6) 1757–1947: British Period; 7) 1947–the present: Independent India

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Hindu Texts: Clay Sanskrit Library claysanskritlibrary.org ; Sacred-Texts: Hinduism sacred-texts.com ; Sanskrit Documents Collection: Documents in ITX format of Upanishads, Stotras etc. sanskritdocuments.org ; Ramayana and Mahabharata condensed verse translation by Romesh Chunder Dutt libertyfund.org ; Ramayana as a Monomyth from UC Berkeley web.archive.org ; Ramayana at Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Mahabharata holybooks.com/mahabharata-all-volumes ; Mahabharata Reading Suggestions, J. L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University brown.edu/Departments/Sanskrit_in_Classics ; Mahabharata Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Bhagavad Gita (Arnold translation) wikisource.org/wiki/The_Bhagavad_Gita ; Bhagavad Gita at Sacred Texts sacred-texts.com ; Bhagavad Gita gutenberg.org gutenberg.org

Evolution of Hinduism

Mulabandha from the Indus Valley

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “There is no single founder or doctrine of Hinduism. It has evolved over the centuries, incorporating previous doctrines and deities, for instance, maintaining reverence for the ancient Vedic texts and adopting some of the Vedic deities but in new guises, and responding to non-Vedic religious movements such as Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism as we know it seems to have coalesced at the beginning of the first millenniumA.D.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

Hinduism has a history of amalgamating everything that has come in its path. As it expanded it absorbed rather than conquered or drove out the religions, beliefs and gods that it encountered. Buddhism grew out Hindu. It developed in the 6th century B.C. partly as a rejection of the caste system. Hinduism and Buddhism still have many similarities and shared beliefs.

Hinduism was never organized and did not spread beyond India and Nepal very much until recently. It never has had a particular leader and it has never been powered by any sort of empire. Thus it evolved into a list of teachings and guiding principles without the political influence as has been the case with other major faiths. There is no founder of Hinduism and no specific origin date.

Gavin Flood, a professor of Theology at Oxford, wrote in a BBC article: “Although there is an emphasis on personal spirituality, Hinduism's history is closely linked with social and political developments, such as the rise and fall of different kingdoms and empires. The early history of Hinduism is difficult to date and Hindus themselves tend to be more concerned with the substance of a story or text rather than its date. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

Hinduism and the Indus Valley Religion

The beginnings of Hinduism can be traced from the Indus Valley civilization (3200-1600 B.C.) to the composition of the Vedas, which began around 1500 B.C. The Indus Valley culture, known to the modern world through its archaeological remains (including impressive urban structures, pottery, inscriptions, and other artifacts), represents one of the most advanced civilizations in the world from these early times. [Source: Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

We know as little about the Indus religion and philosophy as we do about their language. The Indus people left behind no large monuments to their religions. Most of what is known is derived from small miniatures described as "small, modest, even humble expressions of human sentiment."

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

Vedic Period Religion, 1500–500 B.C.

Hindu fire ritual
There have been two major theories about the early development of early south Asian traditions: 1)The Aryan migration thesis: that the Indus Valley groups calling themselves 'Aryans' (noble ones) migrated into the sub-continent and became the dominant cultural force; and 2)The cultural transformation thesis: that Aryan culture is a development of the Indus Valley culture. According to the The Aryan migration thesis there were no Aryan migrations (or invasion) and the Indus valley culture was an Aryan or Vedic culture. According to the cultural transformation thesis Hinduism derives from their religion recorded in the Veda along with elements of the indigenous traditions they encountered. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

Professor Flood wrote: “If we take 'Vedic Period' to refer to the period when the Vedas were composed, we can say that early vedic religion centred around the sacrifice and sharing the sacrificial meal with each other and with the many gods (devas). The term 'sacrifice' (homa, yajna) is not confined to offering animals but refers more widely to any offering into the sacred fire (such as milk and clarified butter). |::|

“Some of the vedic rituals were very elaborate and continue to the present day. Sacrifice was offered to different vedic gods (devas) who lived in different realms of a hierarchical universe divided into three broad realms: earth, atmosphere and sky. Earth contains the plant god Soma, the fire god Agni, and the god of priestly power, Brhaspati. The Atmosphere contains the warrior Indra, the wind Vayu, the storm gods or Maruts and the terrible Rudra. The Sky contains the sky god Dyaus (from the same root as Zeus), the Lord of cosmic law (or rta) Varuna, his friend the god of night Mitra, the nourisher Pushan, and the pervader Vishnu.” |::]

The religion of the Rigveda is essentially simple, though it has many gods. This is natural, as the hymns are the product of a long period of priestly effort, and represent the deities of the various tribes. Most of the objects of devotion are the personifications of natural phenomena. They may be broadly classed as 1) Terrestrial gods, like Prithvi, Soma, Agni; 2) Atmospheric gods, like Indra, Vayu, Maruts, Parjanya; 3) Heavenly gods, like Varuna, Dyaus, ASvins, Surya, Savitri, Mitra, Pushan, and Visnu — the latter five forms being all associated with the different phases of the sun’s glory. Among these deities, Varuna occupies the place of honour, and is extolled in many a sublime hymn. He is god of the sky, and with him is bound up the conception of rita, first indicative of the cosmic and then of moral order. Next comes Indra, the god of thunder-storm, whose majesty is another favourite subject of praise. He causes the rain to fall and thus relieves the dryness of the earth. His importance grew with the advance of the Aryans to regions noted for storm and seasonal rainfall. It must not, however, be supposed that any kind of hierarchy among the gods was in the course of formation. The Rigveda also refers to some minor deities like the Ribhus (aerial elfs) and Apsaras (water-nymphs). [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The poets at different times ascribed pre-eminence to different gods, as they had to serve many masters and needs. The Rigveda also mentions abstract deities, such as Sraddha (faith) and Manyu (anger); and among goddesses Usas (goddess of Dawn) inspires much noble poetry. To propitiate these gods, prayers and sacrifices or oblations of milk, ghee, grain, fish, etc. were offered. The utmost stress was laid on the performance of the latter in order that the worshippers may enjoy all happiness and prosperity. There is also a tendency in a few hymns of the Rigveda to identify one god with others, or to group them in pairs (e. g., dyavd-prithvi), and carrying it further the composers arrive at the great monotheistic doctrine that “the gods are one and the same, only sages describe them differently.”

Development of The Vedas

The main Hindu texts are the Vedas and their supplements (books based on the Vedas). Veda is a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge” or “sacred knowledge”. These scriptures do not mention the word 'Hindu' but many scriptures discuss dharma, which can be rendered as 'code of conduct', 'law', or 'duty' Hindus believe that the Vedas texts were received by scholars direct from God and passed on to the next generations by word of mouth.[Source: BBC |::|]

Vedas dated to 1500-1200 BC

The Vedas are Hinduism's oldest and most sacred texts, and compiled by Vyasa Krishna Dwaipayana. They are considered divine revelation or sruti ("that which has been heard") as opposed to texts of human origin, smrti ("that which is remembered"). Brahmin priests methodically memorized the content of the Vedas to ensure their consistent transmission to subsequent generations. The Vedas also provide early records of astronomy and mathematics in India that came out of Vedic ritual and temple construction. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]

The Vedas are the most ancient religious texts which define truth for Hindus. They got their present form between 1200-200 B.C. and were introduced to India by the Aryans. Hindus believe that the texts were received by scholars direct from God and passed on to the next generations by word of mouth. Vedic texts are sometimes called shruti, which means hearing. For hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, the texts were passed on orally. |::|

“Interactions between the arya and other local peoples are to a degree reflected in a late hymn from the Rig Veda (the earliest of the Vedic texts), which describes a hierarchical division of society into four varna or classes: brahmins or ritual specialists; ksatriya or warriors; vaishyas or merchants; and shudras, made up of laborers, artisans, and farmers. According to this schema many non-Aryans (but almost certainly not all) would have been relegated to the lowest class of shudras. ~~

“The veda provide insight into the religious life and worldview of the Sanskrit-speaking people, a class of ritual specialists or priests (brahmins) who transmitted the texts orally within families or lineages for generations. A key concept found in the Vedic texts is sacrifice, which often involved animals or plants and nonliving materials like spices and cloth. The ritual acts and words of sacrifice were the primary means of communicating with the various deities, gaining their favor, and preventing calamity. The correct ritual action was held to bring about a particular effect if completed correctly. ~~

“Prominent among the gods invoked and assuaged through sacrifice was the warrior god Indra, a testament to the militaristic nature of early Indo-Aryan culture, and Agni, the god of fire. Agni is the primary intermediary between the gods and men through the sacrificial fire. Many of the Vedic gods are no longer prominent in contemporary Hinduism, but the veda are considered to be revelation by many practicing Hindus, and aspects of Vedic practice such as the use of the sacrificial fire persist.” ~~

2nd century BC Nanaghat Sanskrit inscriptions from Maharashtra, India

Transition From the Aryan Religion to Hinduism

As Aryans spread throughout India, they absorbed legends and beliefs of the people they conquered, including ideas about karma, reincarnation and strict laws that grew into the caste system. The “Brahmanas” or “Priestlies” , written between 1000 and 800 B.C., gave more and more power to Brahma priests at the expense of the old Vedic Gods. The “Upanishads” , written between 800 and 600 B.C., addressed reincarnation and karma and the unity of the soul with the cosmos.

About the same time the idea of reincarnation gained importance the status of religious ascetics was elevated. Ascetics were perceived as people who sought religious holiness by tapping into the forces of the universe and aimed to escape the endless series of deaths and rebirth of reincarnation to attain “moksha” (Hindu nirvana). This idea made religious life accessible to everybody not just the Brahmins.

At the same time this was occurring there was a movement against the power of the Brahmas, the grip of the caste system and the emphasis on sacrifices. Buddhism and Jainism grew out of this movement. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C. Hinduism went into decline and was largely replaced by Buddhism in India. Hinduism itself went through dramatic changes, namely the rise of Shiva and Vishnu and the transformation of their identity and the incorporation of ideas like Tantrism

Development of The Upanishads Around 500 B.C.

By the time of the Buddha, around the 6th century B.C., intellectual speculations gave rise to philosophical concepts that still influence all of South Asia. These speculations became books called Upanishads, originally written as commentaries on the Vedas but later viewed as sacred works in their own right. The Upanishads discuss brahman, an impersonal, eternal force that embodies all good and all knowledge. The individual "soul," or atman, partakes of the same qualities as brahman but remains immersed in ignorance. Action (karma) is the cause of its ignorance; reason continually searches for meaning in the material world and in its own mental creations, instead of concentrating on brahman, the one true reality. The individual soul, immersed in action, migrates from life to life, until it achieves identity with brahman and is released. There is a close relationship between the Buddha's understanding of suffering and enlightenment, and the ideas of atman, karma, and brahman that became basic to Hindu philosophy. The Buddha, however, claimed that even the idea of the soul was a mental construct of no value, whereas Hindu thought has generally preserved a belief in the soul. [Source: Library of Congress]

Professor Anne Murphy wrote: “By the middle of the last millennium B.C.E., the tribal society associated with Vedic culture was settled and urbanized. Within this society, renunciation became a valid social option among diverse sectors, providing space for shramanas, or ascetics who sought liberation from the world of suffering through austerity. The Upanishads represent these perspectives within orthodox Vedic tradition, without rejecting the authority and primacy of the veda. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“The early Upanishads (from mid-first millennium B.C.) deal with sacrifice but focus on individuals and their relationship with the world. Their primary concern is the hidden connections and equivalences among the world at large, the human self or body, and ritual action—the bindings that join all beings, events, and the world into one. It is in this context that the texts explore the equivalency of atman, the self (which can refer both to the spiritual center of a person and the living, breathing person) and Brahman, the cosmos. ~~

“Key concepts found in earlier Vedic literature arise in the Upanishadic and other contemporary writings but with profound changes. The cycle of birth and rebirth called samsara is introduced for the first time in the Upanishads, as is an expanded meaning of karma as “action,” which established that all actions have certain effects according to an immutable law and such effects govern the process of rebirth. The possibility of escape from the cycle of birth and death (moksha or enlightenment) was a radically different goal from that encoded into Vedic ritual, which focused on the achievement of certain goals and positive results in this world. ~~

“The paired concepts of renunciation and enlightenment or release came to have a profound influence upon the development of religious and philosophical thought in South Asia for millennia. The focus of the Veda on family and society also continued, many times in contexts that owed little allegiance to Vedic thought. The two ideologies have remained in a tense balance in Indian intellectual and religious thought to this day. ~~

fragment of the Katha Upanishad

“The changing worldview described in the Upanishads is also evident in two other contemporary major movements, those founded by Mahavira (Jainism) and Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (Buddhism). These shramana movements share much of the basic worldview of the Upanishads but propose radical re-evaluations of Vedic practice and ideology. Both reject the ultimate authority of the veda, unlike the Upanishadic tradition. The generally accepted dates for Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, are 563–483 B.C.E.

Epic, Puranic and Classical Age, 500 B.C. – A.D. 500

The Epic, Puranic and Classical Age (c.500 B.C.– A.D. 500), which also began from around the time of Buddha (died 483 B.C.), saw the development of the Buddhist and Jain religions and creation of poetic literature and important Hindu texts such a the Dharma Sutras and Shastras, the two Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and subsequently the Puranas, containing many of the stories still popular today. The famous Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata. These texts were composed in Sanskrit, which became the most important element in a shared culture. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

Professor Flood wrote: “The idea of dharma (law, duty, truth) which is central to Hinduism was expressed in a genre of texts known as Dharma Sutras and Shastras. The Dharma Sutras recognise three sources of dharma: revelation (i.e. the Veda), tradition (smrti), and good custom. The Laws of Manu adds 'what is pleasing to oneself'. From this period we can recognise many elements in present day Hinduism, such as bhakti (devotion) and temple worship. During this period the vedic fire sacrifice became minimised with the development of devotional worship (puja) to images of deities in temples. The rise of the Gupta Empire (320-500 CE) saw the development of the great traditions of Vaishnavism (focussed on Vishnu), Shaivism (focussed on Shiva) and Shaktism (focussed on Devi). |::|

Professor Murphy wrote: “There is little doubt that the rejection of Vedic authority by Buddhist and Jain thinkers encouraged the reformulation and strengthening of particular aspects of Vedic traditions and the reassertion of the authority of Brahmins. Literature of the period helped to codify and reassert aspects of Brahminical ideology. The concept of Four Stages of Life (ashramadharma) was articulated here, according to which every person must follow the dharma (or social role) assigned to him or er corresponding to his or her place within the caste (varna/jati) systems, and corresponding to his (the emphasis here on men) stage in life, or ashrama. The system defined appropriate roles and responsibilities for “twice-born” men, those from the upper three castes: brahmins, ksatriyas, and vaishyas. Four stages were identified: celibate student, householder, hermit or forest dwelling (undertaken toward the end of life), and renunciation. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“Four possible aims in life were identified: artha (economic and social success), dharma (learning), kama (pleasure), and moksha (enlightenment). Students were to concentrate on dharma, householders to be concerned with artha and kama, and only in the final stage of life, that of a wandering holy man, is moksha a goal. The system did not hold for all—particularly for those excluded due to their gender or low position in the varna and jati systems—and renunciation was never universally embraced, though it remained an ideal. Although somewhat fluid, position in these systems was hereditary.” ~~

Religion in India in the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C.

Lord Vishnu with the goddess Lakshmi at Ajanta Caves

Buddhism originated in northeast India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. at a time when the local religion was Brahmanism, the predecessor of Hinduism. Brahmanism was dominated by Brahman priests who presided over rituals and sometimes practiced asceticism. Many of the ascetic Brahmin believed in a concept of the universe known as brahman and a similar concept of the human mind, known as atman, and thought it was possible to achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth by achieving oneness with the atman. These concepts became cornerstones of Buddhism

The 6th and 5th centuries B.C. in India was also a time of curiosity, tolerance, and experimentation. Religious scholars and intellectuals speculated about things like the existence of other worlds, the finiteness or the infinity of the universe and whether existence was dominated by is or is not. The conditions were ripe for people to throw out traditional beliefs and accept new ones. A number of movements and leaders appeared. Their success often seemed based on their political skill, and their ability to organize and consolidate their followers with a simple, easy-to-embrace message.

There were a great many holy men and women wandering about. Some were hermits who lived in the forest or jungle. Others were ascetics who practiced various forms of austerities and offered sacrifices to things like fire and the moon. There were also charismatic leaders and sects of movements of various kinds and sizes. Early Buddhist texts counted 62 “heretical” sects. Among these were the Jains, the Naked Ascetics, the Eel-Wrigglers, and the Hair-Blanket sect. The Buddha's greatest rivals were Nataputa, leader the Jains, and Makkhali Godla, the leader of the Naked Ascetics.

Buddhism was influenced a great deal by Hinduism and the other sects. It adopted Hindu beliefs about karma and reincarnation; followed Jain and traditional Indian views about not destroying life forms; and copied forms of organization for other sects for monks communities. The Buddha himself was like an ascetic Brahmin but was regarded as a heretic among Hindus because he emphasized the impermanent and transitory nature of things, which contradicted the Hindu belief in Paramatman (the eternal, blissful self).

Development of Popular Hindu Texts

Major figures form the ancient Veda period that continue to have an impact upon Hindu thought include the sages 1)Valmiki, who composed the Ramayana; 2) Vyasa, who composed or compiled the Mahabharata; 3) Panini, the Sanskrit grammarian; 4) Patanjali, who wrote the Yogasutras; Manu, to whom is attributed the Laws of Manu; and the prolific and prominent fifth-century poet and dramatist Kalidasa. [Source: Leona Anderson, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

The religion that we now call Hinduism began to take a recognizable shape in the A.D. first millennium C.E., drawing upon Vedic roots. Professor Murphy wrote: “In this period, the epics Mahabharata (containing the Bhagavad Gita) and Ramayana were composed, along with the Puranas. The Mahabharata recounts the tragic conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas, while the Ramayana relates the tale of King Rama, who was exiled from his kingdom for 14 years in the company of his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshman. These epics have had a profound influence in Southeast Asia, even when Hinduism waned as a primary religious force. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

The Vedic texts were authored by Indo-Aryans who developed the Brahmanic religion, an early form of Hinduism. During this period, several philosophical schools of thought and practices, such as yoga, meditation, and asceticism, also emerged. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two major Hindu epics, draw on early periods in the development of Hinduism and demonstrate the significance of narrative in transmitting traditional and religious knowledge. The Bhagavad Gita gave Hinduism a distinctive flavor by articulating the three paths of religiosity: action, knowledge, and devotion. [Source: Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Emergence of Popular Major Hindu Gods

Professor Murphy wrote: “The Puranas provide stories of the gods who were to take a central place within the developing religion now known as Hinduism: Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess, among others. The cult of Vishnu, as it developed later, is generally accepted to be an amalgam of many smaller traditions; these were absorbed into the overarching Vishnu tradition through the idea of avatara, or incarnation (Vishnu is said to have 10 major incarnations who appeared in our world to save it) and into aspects of one character (such as the various portrayals of Krishna—as a child-god, as the charioteer in the Bhagavad Gita, and as the ruler of Dwarka in his adult life). [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“The Goddess takes many forms—some frightening and powerful, some auspicious and gentle. Parvati, Lakshmi, Shri, Kali, and Durga are some of the names she goes by. In all forms, she is devi, “the goddess.” Shiva, the other great deity commonly worshipped, is the ultimate ascetic. His body is white from being smeared with the ashes of the cremation ground—an unclean place that reminds us of the temporary nature of existence. His hair is matted and unkempt, and he is known to possess sometimes frightening and dangerous yogic powers. This same god is also married to Parvati and is intimately tied to the Goddess in her many other forms as well. ~~

“These three divinities—Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess—represent the three main deities worshipped in Hindu practice. Those who worship Vishnu are Vaishnava, those who worship Shiva are Shaiva, and those who worship the Goddess are Shakta (from shakti, or “power,” the feminine force the Goddess is said to possess). Brahma is not often the object of worship. Other deities have gained in popularity, such as Ganesha (the son of Shiva and Parvati) and Hanuman (the monkey god who aided Rama, an avatara, or “incarnation,” of Vishnu, in the Ramayana). It is important to note that although there are many deities represented in the Hindu pantheon, worshippers generally consider their own deity to be central and all-powerful; other deities are subservient to him or her. In addition, all are often seen to be manifestations of one central force in the universe. Many Hindus today (as in the past) therefore see themselves as believing in a single divine presence that takes form in endlessly diverse ways.” ~~

Early Hindu Gods

Varuna is thought of as the creator of the universe. One of Varuna's most important acts was to measure out the 'three worlds'. The three worlds are the earth, the heavens and the air between the earth and the heavens. Varuna provides for humans by bringing the rain to earth and making the rivers flow. He lives in a gold palace in the sky which has a thousand columns and a thousand doors. [Source: British Museum]

Agni is the god of fire. He is shown as a man with red skin, three flaming heads, seven tongues, seven arms and three legs. Agni wears a garland of fruit. Agni is the messenger of the gods and always tells the truth. Agni was an important god in early times. Later on, his brother Indra became more important. Agni is the son of Prithvi and Dyaus.

Ashwins are the twin gods of the morning. Ashwins are young, handsome and athletic. Ashwins are horsemen who are known for their goodwill towards humans. They are also the physicians to the gods

Ganesha is the god of wisdom. He is also a good scribe. Ganesha is always worshipped at the beginning of any project or journey, and before a book is written. Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a human with four arms. Ganesha rides on a tiny mouse who runs very quickly.

Ganesha was created by Parvati to protect her while she was bathing when her husband Shiva was away. When Shiva returned and tried to enter Parvati's bath he was challenged by Ganesha. Shiva became angry and cut off Ganesha's head. When Parvati realised what had happened, she was quite upset. Shiva promised that he would bring Ganesha back to life. He went into the forest vowing to bring back the head of the first being he saw. The first being he met was an elephant. So Shiva cut off the head of the elephant, returned home and placed it on Ganesha's shoulders. This is the reason that Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a child. The sage Vyasa is supposed to have dictated the epic Mahabharata to Ganesha.


Sometimes the early forms of what became Hinduism are called Brahmanism. The tenets of Brahmanism are found in the philosophical system of Vedanta, which is based on the Vedas. Brahmins played a crucial role in the development of the post-Vedic Hindu synthesis. They disseminated Vedic culture to local communities and integrated local religiosity into the trans-regional Brahmanic culture. Vedanta developed in southern India during the post-Gupta period, where orthodox Brahmanic culture and Hindu culture were preserved. Vedanta built on ancient Vedic traditions while accommodating the diverse demands of Hinduism. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology: Brahmanism is a system originated by the Brahmans, the sacerdotal caste of the Hindus, at a comparatively early date. It is the mystical religion of India par excellence, and represents the older beliefs of its peoples. It states that the numerous individual existences of animate nature are only so many manifestations of the one eternal spirit towards which they tend as their final goal of supreme bliss. The object of life is to prevent oneself sinking lower in the scale, and by degrees to raise oneself in it, or if possible to attain the ultimate goal immediately from such state of existence as one happens to be in. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The socio-religious Code of Manu concludes "He who in his own soul perceives the supreme soul in all beings and acquires equanimity towards them all attains the highest state of bliss." Mortification of animal instincts, absolute purity and perfection of spirit, were the moral ideals of the Brahman class. But it was necessary to pass through a succession of four orders or states of existence before any hope of union with the deity could be held out. These were: that of brahmacharin, or student of religious matters; grihastha, or householder; varnaprastha or hermit; and sannyasin or bhikshu, religious mendicant.

“Virtually every man of the higher castes practiced at least the first two of these stages, while the priestly class took the entire course. Later, this was by no means the rule, as the scope of study was intensely exacting, often lasting as long as forty-eight years. The neophyte had to support himself by begging from door to door.

“He was most often guided by a spiritual preceptor. After several years of his tuition he was married. It was considered absolutely essential that he should leave a son behind him to offer food to his spirit and to those of his ancestors. He was then said to have become a "house-holder" and was required to maintain the fire perpetually that he brought into his house upon his marriage day.

“Upon growing older, the time arrived for him to enter the third stage of life. Having fulfilled his dharma (social and religious obligations) he now became aware of the transitory nature of the material life and found it necessary to become preoccupied with more eternal spiritual truth. He consequently cut himself off from family ties except (if she wished) his wife, who might accompany him, and went into retirement in a lonely place, carrying with him his sacred fire, and the instruments necessary for his daily sacrifices. Scantily clothed, the anchorite lived entirely on food growing wild in the forest—roots, herbs, wild grain, and similar primitive nourishment. He was not permitted to accept gifts unless absolutely necessary. His time was spent in studying the metaphysical portions of the Vedas under the guidance of a guru, in making offerings, and in practicing austerities with the object of producing entire indifference to worldly desires.

“In this way he fitted himself for the final and most exalted order, that of religious mendicant or bhikshu. This consisted solely of meditation. He took up his abode at the foot of a tree in entire solitude and only once a day at the end of his labors might he go near the dwellings of men to beg a little food. In this way he waited for death, neither desiring extinction nor existence, until at length it reached him, and was absorbed in the eternal Brahma.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications

Last updated December 2023

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