Hinduism is the oldest of the great religions. Its birth has been dated to between 2000 and 1500 B.C., a period of time when Aryans invaded the Indian subcontinent and grafted their religion onto beliefs of the people they conquered, namely the Dravidians. It is thought to have emerged from a kind of animism that predated organized religion and is still alive among some tribal peoples. There is no specific origin date for Hinduism. 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]

Scholars regard Hinduism as a synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no single founder. Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “There is no single 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 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.

Hindus have traditionally believed that time is cyclical, much like the four seasons, and eternal rather than linear and bounded. Texts refer to successive ages (yuga), designated respectively as golden, silver, copper and iron. During the golden age people were pious and adhered to dharma (law, duty, truth) but its power diminishes over time until it has to be reinvigorated through divine intervention. With each successive age, good qualities diminish, until we reach the current iron or dark age (kali yuga) marked by cruelty, hypocrisy, materialism and so on. Such ideas challenge the widespread, linear view that humans are inevitably progressing.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; India Divine ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Development of Hinduism

Hinduism's varied history overlaps or coincides with the development of religion in the Indian subcontinent, with some of its traditions tracing back to prehistoric religions of the 5300-year-old Indus Valley Civilization. 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.

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

The pre-Vedic period, which includes the Indus Valley Civilization and local prehistoric religions, ended about 1750 to 1500 BC. This period was followed in northern India by the Vedic period, which included the introduction of the historical Vedic religion with the Indo-Aryan migrations, which began somewhere between 1900 B.C. and 1400 B.C. The period, between 800 B.C. and 200 B.C., is regarded as a "turning point between the Vedic religion and the Hindu religions" and a formative period for Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. The Epic and Early Puranic period, from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 500 embraces the classical "Golden Age" of Hinduism (about A.D. 320-650), which coincides with the Gupta Empire. During this period, the six branches of Hindu philosophy — Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mima sa, and Vedanta — developed: . Monotheistic sects such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism developed during the same period through the bhakti movement. The period from about 650 to 1100 A.D. constitutes the late classical or early medieval period, in which classical Puranic Hinduism is established and Adi Shankara's influential consolidation of Advaita Vedanta takes place. [Source: Wikipedia]

Under both Hindu and Islamic rulers from c. A.D. 1250–1750, Hinduism became dominated by the Bhakti movement, which remains strong today. The colonial period was characterized by the birth and growth of various Hindu reform movements partly inspired by western movements, such as Unitarianism and Theosophy. The Unification of Nepal by Shah dynasty was accompanied by the Hinduization of the state. Hinduism began spreading around the globe thanks largely to Indians hired as plantation labourers in British colonies such as Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago.

The partition of India in 1947 was along religious lines, with the Republic of India emerging with a Hindu majority. During the 20th century, due to the Indian diaspora, Hindu minorities have formed on all continents, with the largest communities in absolute numbers in the United States and the United Kingdom. In recent decades missionary organizations such as ISKCON, Sathya Sai Organization and the Vedanta Society have been influential in spreading the core culture of Hinduism outside India. There have also been an increase of Hindu identity in politics, mostly in India, Nepal and Bangladesh in the form of Hindutva. The revivalist movement was mainly started and encouraged by Hindu nationalist partiesand organisations such as the RSS, BJP and Sangh Parivar in India and Shivsena Nepal and RPP in Nepal and HINDRAF in Malaysia.

Hindu Revival

20120501-Sanskrit Atashgah-inscription-jackson1911.jpg
ancient Sanskrit inscriptions
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. The Chinese monk Faxian ventured as far west as India around A.D. 400 to study Buddhism. Buddhism all but disappeared from India by the A.D. 6th century.

After Buddhism died out Hinduism returned in the form of a religion called Brahmanism (named after the caste of Hindu priests). Vedic traditions were combined with the worship of a multitude of indigenous gods (seen as manifestations of Vedic gods).

Attempts to reform Hinduism only led to new sects that still follow the basic tenets of the Hindu mainstream. During medieval times, when Hinduism was influenced and threatened by Islam and Christianity, there was a movement toward monotheism and away from idolatry and the caste system. The cults of Rama and Vishnu grew in the 16th century out of this movement, with both deities being regarded as supreme gods. The Krishna cult, known for its devotional chants and song meetings, highlighted Krishna’s erotic adventures as a metaphor for the relationship between mankind and God. [“World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Hinduism During the Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647)

The Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647) was marked by the return of Hinduism as the state religion. The Gupta era is regarded as the classical period of Hindu art, literature and science. The Gupta king was worshiped as a manifestation of Vishnu, and Buddhism gradually disappeared. The caste system was reintroduced. Brahmans held great power and became wealthy landowners, and a great many new-castes were created, in part to incorporate the large number of foreigners that moved into the region.

During the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the Gupta Dynasty dominated the north, the Pallava kings ruled the south, and the Chalukyas controlled the Deccan, India's southern peninsula. Classical Hinduism flourished during this period. In the following centuries, various kingdoms emerged that patronized different sects of Hinduism. From early times, the relationship between politics and religion was intimate, and some locations instituted systems of divine kingship (devaraja). This period was also characterized by traditions of bhakti (devotion) in Hinduism. [Source: Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

During the golden age of Hinduism, which lasted from approximately 380 to 415, Candragupta II and other kings of the Gupta Dynasty supported the arts and founded multiple centers of learning. Additionally, King Harsha, who ruled in the seventh century, was known for his patronage of Hinduism.

Hinduism in the Medieval Period (A.D. 500–1500)

Professor Flood wrote: “From 500 CE we have the rise of devotion (bhakti) to the major deities, particularly Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. With the collapse of the Gupta empire, regional kingdoms developed which patronised different religions. For example, the Cholas in the South supported Shaivism. This period saw the development of the great regional temples such as Jagganatha in Puri in Orissa, the Shiva temple in Cidambaram in Tamilnadu, and the Shiva temple in Tanjavur, also in Tamilnadu. All of these temples had a major deity installed there and were centres of religious and political power. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

copper plate Sanskrit inscription from AD 483 about Shaivism and King Hastin

“During this time not only religious literature in Sanskrit developed but also in vernacular languages, particularly Tamil. Here poet-saints recorded their devotional sentiments. Most notable are the twelve Vaishnava Alvars (6th–9th centuries), including one famous female poet-saint called Andal, and the sixty-three Shaiva Nayanars (8th–10th centuries). Subsequent key thinkers and teachers (acharyas or gurus) consolidated these teachings. They formulated new theologies, perpetuated by their own disciplic successions (sampradaya). |::|

The Tantras became revered as a revelation that fulfilled or superseded the Veda. Some of these texts advocated ritually polluting practices such as offering alcohol, meat and ritualised sex to ferocious deities but most of these texts are simply concerned with daily and occasional rituals, temple building, cosmology and so on.” |::|

Major Hindu Medieval Thinkers and Theologians

Major figures form the medieval period that continue to have an impact upon Hindu thought include 1) Shankara (788–820), the founder of the influential school of Advaita (nondual) Vedanta; 2) Ramanuja (1017–1137), the founder of the Visishtadvaita (qualified nondual) Vedanta; 3) Madhva, the thirteenth-century founder of Dvaita (dual) Vedanta; 4) Abhinavagupta, who is known for his works on aesthetic theory; 5) Tulsidas (died in 1623), the author of the Ramacaritmanas. The 6) Nayanars (Tamil Shaiva poet-saints) and 7) the Alvars (Vaishnava poet-saints) appealed to popular audiences and sparked a religious renewal from the fifth through the tenth centuries. In the devotional tradition 8) Caitanya (1486–1533), 9) Basavanna (1105–1167), 10) Mira Bai (1516–1546), 11) Tukaram (died in 1649), and 12) Jnaneshvar (thirteenth century) are also well known. [Source: Leona Anderson, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Shankara (780–820) travelled widely, defeating scholars of the unorthodox movements, Buddhism and Jainism, which around the turn of the millennium had established prominent seats of learning throughout India. He re-established the authority of the Vedic canon, propagated advaita (monism) and laid foundations for the further development of the tradition known as the Vedanta. |::|

“The Vaishnava philosophers Ramanuja (c. 1017–1137), Madhva (13th cent) and others followed, writing their own scriptural commentaries, propounding new theologies and establishing their own successions. Ramanuja qualified Shankara's impersonal philosophy, and Madhva more strongly propounded the existence of a personal God. Shaivism similarly developed during this period with important philosophers such as Abhinavagupta (c. 975–1025) writing commentaries on the Tantras, an alternative revelation to the Veda, and other texts.

Development of a Hindu Identity

The gathering of a set of faiths, religions and traditions resembling Hinduism further developed from the A.D. 12th century. Lorenzen traces the emergence of a “family resemblance” and what he refers to as the 'beginnings of medieval and modern Hinduism' around A.D. 300-600 with the development of the early Puranas and continuities with the earlier Vedic religion. Lorenzen argues that the formation of a Hindu self-identity occurred through a process of mutual self-definition in contrast to Muslims. He suggests that this “presence of the Other” is essential to recognize the “loose family resemblance” among the various traditions and schools. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Indologist Alexis Sanderson, prior to the arrival of Islam in India, Sanskrit sources distinguished between Vaidika, Vaisnava, Saiva, Sakta, Saura, Buddhist, and Jaina traditions. However, there was no collective name for the first five traditions in contrast to Buddhism and Jainism. Sanderson argues that the absence of a formal name does not imply that the concept of Hinduism did not exist.

By the late 1st millennium A.D., a belief and tradition distinct from Buddhism and Jainism had emerged. This complex tradition encompassed almost all aspects of what is currently known as Hinduism, except for certain antinomian tantric movements. During this time, some conservative thinkers questioned the consistency of certain Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta texts or practices with the Vedas, or whether they were invalid in their entirety. Moderates and most orthodox scholars later agreed that, although there are some variations, the foundation of their beliefs, ritual grammar, spiritual premises, and soteriologies were the same. This sense of greater unity came to be called Hinduism.

According to Nicholson, already between the 12th and the 16th centuries "certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the 'six systems' (saddarsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy."

Development of Bhakti and Temple Hinduism

Professor Murphy wrote: “Temples acted as both religious and social centers in the dynamic urban hubs of the regional kingdoms established in the wake of Gupta power (after 500 C.E.) As regional kings and princes gained power, they often sought legitimacy by granting Brahmins large areas from which to collect taxes to finance temple development. Temples provided homes for the central deity, and the images enshrined within represented the deity and in many cases embodied it. Puja, or “worship,” of the deity, carried out in the home as well in as the temple, became the central focus of religious practice, representing a full transition away from sacrifice as the primary form of practice. Puja remains a central practice in temples all over Hindu South Asia and its diaspora. Home-based rituals have continued to be important; in some contexts, more so than public and congregational forms of worship. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

devotee with offering, AD 600 - 850

“Bhakti, or “devotion,” transformed both temple-based and personal forms of worship. It started in southern India in the eighth century C.E. among saints who sang of their love for god in Tamil rather than in Sanskrit, the language of Vedic orthodoxy. The Puranic deities—Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess—were the foci of radical devotion in Hinduism, but such devotion was central in Buddhist, Jain, and other traditions as well. Devotionalism came to influence and transform Brahminical traditions, just as it gave voice to alternative practices and practitioners such as women and those of lower caste. Bhakti insisted upon the immediate, direct apprehension of the god, whether he/she is contained within a form (such as an image) or unknowable formlessness. The language of intimate relationships was key—poets sang of the god as a devoted lover, parent, or child. Different social positions were represented by bhakti poets such as Ravidas, a chamar (leather worker), and Mirabai, a Rajasthani princess who dared to eschew familial responsibilities in favor of devotion to her lord and god, Krishna. ~~

“Although devotionalism is associated with vernacular languages and texts, it is also found in Sanskrit texts, most notably in the Bhagavad Gita, which became prominent on a popular level in the modern period. The text describes a conversation between the hero of the Pandava clan, Arjuna, and Krishna, incarnation of the great god Vishnu. Arjuna balks at fighting in battle against his mentors and relatives. Krishna discusses with him the religious and philosophical implications of his choice, asserting the necessity for fulfilling one’s dharma (svadharma) and performing right action without attention to the results of such action. Devotion is identified as a viable means to enlightenment, alongside the paths of knowledge and unattached action. At the end of this section of the epic, Krishna reveals himself in all his glory to Arjuna, and the path of devotion (bhakti) is revealed as a primary means to reaching god.” ~~

Islam’s Arrival in India and Its Impact on Hinduism

Islam arrived in the inland of Indian subcontinent in the 7th century when the Arabs conquered Sindh and then arrived later in Punjab and North India in the 12th century via the Ghaznavids and Ghurids conquest. Islam had a significant impact on Hinduism, especially during the period from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries when Muslim empires dominated northern India. Although most Hindus did not convert to Islam, some Islamic traditions, such as Sufism, blended with Hindu traditions, particularly those of devotional Hinduism. [Sources: Wikipedia, Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

According to the BBC: “Alongside the development of Hindu traditions, most widespread in the South, was the rise of Islam in the North as a religious and political force in India. The new religion of Islam reached Indian shores around the 8th century, via traders plying the Arabian Sea and the Muslim armies which conquered the northwest provinces. Muslim political power began with the Turkish Sultanate around 1200 CE and culminated in the Mughul Empire (from 1526). Akbar (1542–1605) was a liberal emperor and allowed Hindus to practice freely. However, his great grandson, Aurangzeb (1618–1707), destroyed many temples and restricted Hindu practice.”

Muslim Hughal Emperor Akbar welcoming Christians and Hindus to his court

Professor Anne Murphy wrote: “ Islam began to shape the culture and history of South Asia from the end of the first millennium C.E., when Arab traders first came to the shores of Gujarat...Although the first interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in South Asia took place through trade, the presence of Islam was also strongly shaped by the military campaigns that first brought large numbers of Muslims into the region, establishing Muslim powers in the north and center. Certain elements of Islamic belief, such as its radical monotheism and eschewal of images in worship, brought about religious conflict in the region. However, although this conflict formed a part of the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims in South Asia, there was great complexity to the interaction among Muslim rulers and their mostly non-Muslim subjects, as well as between those who converted to Islam and those who did not. Indian art of the period, for example, provides vivid testimony to the way in which West Asian influences were integrated with South Asian styles and techniques, giving birth to a vibrant and unique tradition. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“Religiously, the situation was also complex. Law is a central feature of Islamic thought, and Muslim legal representatives became a feature of life in most areas where Islam exerted influence. Scholars of the Islamic tradition wielded considerable influence, but not exclusively; the Mughal emperor Akbar was famous for his interest in all religious traditions, and he encouraged cross-religious dialogue and understanding. Many rulers chose to provide patronage to all religious traditions present within their area of influence. Conversions did not take place on a large scale in all regions, and cannot be attributed to force. Most conversions took place in the outer areas of Bengal and Punjab and were associated with the Muslim mystical movement called Sufism. ~~

Sufis, Saints, and Holy Men and Hinduism’s Impact on Islam

Murphy wrote: “Sufi saints shaped the development of popular Islam, just as bhakti saints shaped religious belief and practice among those we now call by the general term “Hindu.” Like bhakti poets, Sufis (many of them poets as well) spoke of their direct experience of god and the need to get beyond just formal religious observance to a true and immediate religious engagement. Such religious leaders used similar strategies—the establishment of regional centers open to wide audiences, the appeal to direct and unmediated experience of god, and the validation of aspects of local culture through the establishment of local economic and social imagery in poems. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“Popular religious leaders and practices also interacted with more orthodox and established forms as theological speculation and advanced learning in the elite languages of Sanskrit and Arabic continued. Muslim centers—mosques and madrasas (religious schools)—proliferated, but so too did Hindu sites, although great temple centers were for the most part a thing of the past in the north. The cult of Krishna grew enormously in popularity, and its center south of Delhi became an important pilgrimage site even in the shadow of the Mughal capital. In the fifteenth century, the famous poet and holy man Kabir was known for his critique of the hollow religiosity of both the Muslim cleric and Hindu brahmin. He mocked them both and sang of his own direct access to a formless god. It is notable that Kabir’s name is Muslim, but his poetry reveals the influence of Shaivite yogic practices—boundaries between religious groups were not absolute. ~~

Sufi mystics and attendants

“The central role of saints and holy men was closely connected to the relationship between guru (teacher) and sh’isya (student), or in Muslim contexts, pir and murshid. The teacher/student relationship remains important in the religions of South Asia, as well as in life in general, such as in the classical music traditions. ~~

“Building a community around the guru-student relationship was fundamental to the development of the Sikh tradition, one of the world’s newer faiths. Guru Nanak (1469 1539) formed a community of disciples (sikhs) after he had a revelation of the formless and inexplicable nature of god. His songs and those of later gurus were recorded in the text known as the Adi Granth, or “First Collection.” His monotheistic vision of god is seen by many as a compromise between Hindu and Muslim ideas, but such a self-conscious rapprochement between the two traditions was apparently not Nanak’s intention. Like other religious speakers of his time, he experienced a religious vision in keeping with the many cultural influences that formed him, but in his own distinctive and unique mode. The community that grew up around him has become a prominent minority in India and around the world.” ~~

As for what was happening in Hinduism at this time, Professor Flood wrote: “During the Moghul period “we have further developments in devotional religion (bhakti). The Sant tradition in the North, mainly in Maharashtra and the Panjab, expressed devotion in poetry to both a god without qualities (nirguna) and to a god with qualities (saguna) such as parental love of his devotees. The Sant tradition combines elements of bhakti, meditation or yoga, and Islamic mysticism. Even today the poetry of the princess Mirabai, and other saints such as Tukaram, Surdas and Dadu are popular.” [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

Hinduism and Religion During the British Period, 1757–1947 CE

Professor Flood wrote: “Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) heralded the end of the Mughul Empire and the rise of British supremacy in India. At first, the British did not interfere with the religion and culture of the Indian people, allowing Hindus to practice their religion unimpeded. Later, however, missionaries arrived preaching Christianity. Shortly after, the first scholars stepped ashore, and though initially sympathetic, were often motivated by a desire to westernise the local population. Chairs of Indology were established in Oxford and other universities in Europe. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

Raja Ram Mohan Roy

“The nineteenth century saw the development of the 'Hindu Renaissance' with reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) presenting Hinduism as a rational, ethical religion and founding the Brahmo Samaj to promote these ideas. Another reformer, Dayananda Sarasvati (1824–83), advocated a return to vedic religion which emphasised an eternal, omnipotent and impersonal God. He wanted to return to the 'eternal law' or sanatana dharma of Hinduism before the Puranas and Epics through his society, the Arya Samaj. Both of these reformers wished to rid Hinduism of what they regarded as superstition. These groups were instrumental in sowing the seeds of Indian nationalism and Hindu missionary movements that later journeyed to the West. Another important figure was Paramahamsa Ramakrishna (1836-86), who declared the unity of all religions. His disciple Vivekananda (1863–1902) developed his ideas and linked them to a political vision of a united India. |::|

“These ideas were developed by Gandhi (1869–1948), who was instrumental in establishing an independent India. Gandhi, holy man and politician, is probably the best known Indian of the twentieth century. He helped negotiate independence, but was bitterly disappointed by the partition of his country. He was assassinated in 1948. Gandhi drew much of his strength and conviction from the Hindu teachings, such as the notion of ahimsa (non-violence), and propounded a patriotism that was broad-minded and magnanimous. |::|

“During the resistance to colonial rule, the term 'Hindu' became charged with cultural and political meaning. One central idea was hindutva (hindu-ness), coined by V.D. Savarkar to refer to a socio-political force that could unite Hindus against 'threatening others'. Cultural organisations such as the RSS (Rashtriya Svayam-Sevak Sangh) and VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) have embraced and developed this ideal, which found political expression in the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). These sectarian ideas continued after independence.” |::|

Reform and Reaffirmation of South Asian Religion in the Colonial Period

During the period of European domination in India, Hinduism underwent significant reforms. These reforms included the abolition of suttee, which was the practice of a widow sacrificing herself on her husband's funeral pyre, and the lifting of the prohibition against widows remarrying. Additionally, Hinduism was redefined under the leadership of several important reformers, nationalists, and freedom fighters. [Source: Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Professor Murphy wrote: “The advent of British power and waning of centralized Mughal power brought about key changes in South Asian religious life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Religions came to be defined in particular ways through the enactment of the census with its discrete categories for “Hindu,” “Muslim,” and for separate castes. In actuality, these categories may have been much more fluid than the census allowed for. Many groups—Sikhs, low-caste people, those who followed syncretic traditions that blended elements of separate religions—were left in the margins and had to fight to be recognized. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

British officials meeting with a Maharaja

“The cultural critique and racism associated with the colonial regime also meant that many Indians found themselves in defense of “tradition.” All the movements of the period tended to position themselves in relation to the British challenge, explicitly or not. Thus Ram Mohun Roy, the famous Bengali founder of the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, modeled his vision of religious life along pluralistic and universalist grounds. In the late nineteenth century, Dayanand Saraswati, embracing the Vedic tradition, founded the Arya Samaj and attempted to purge Hinduism of such “impure” elements as image worship (based on an understanding of Vedic traditions as more authentic, as also articulated by Western scholars). This organization was very active in building Hindu consciousness in Punjab and elsewhere. ~~

“Certain organizations, educational institutions, and political movements came to be centered around religion as well as caste and other identities. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded Aligarh University to promote the position of Muslims, many of whom had not benefited from colonial patronage as much as Hindus. Many debates were couched in religious terms. A community sought to gain the patronage and attention of the British administration, and those who could “speak for” a particular group were given the ability to influence government policy. ~~

“In Punjab different communities came to compete with one another for representation on government committees and in fledgling representational institutions. One’s political affiliation and one’s religion became intimately intertwined as groups of people attempted to align themselves in ways that would allow them a voice within the colonial structure—particularly as the promise of independence took shape. These loyalties and communities were reconfigured and politicized in a way that fundamentally transformed both religious identity and how people engaged in political organization. It is within this context that one must understand the formation of the nation-states that succeeded the British colonial state through the partition of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan, and after 1971, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.” ~~

Colonial Impact on Perceptions of Hinduism

The concept of Hinduism as a unified religious tradition was popularized by 19th-century proselytizing missionaries and European Indologists. These individuals relied on texts preserved by Brahmins (priests) for their information on Indian religions, as well as animist observations that the missionary Orientalists presumed were part of Hinduism.[Source: Wikipedia]

European reports influenced perceptions about Hinduism. According to scholars such as Pennington, colonial polemical reports led to fabricated stereotypes portraying Hinduism as mere mystic paganism devoted to the service of devils. Other scholars argue that colonial constructions influenced the belief that the Vedas... Bhagavad Gita, Manusmriti, and similar texts are considered essential to Hindu religiosity.

In modern times, the association of 'Hindu doctrine' with schools of Vedanta, particularly Advaita Vedanta, is often cited as an example of Hinduism's mystical nature. Pennington agrees that the study of Hinduism as a world religion began in the colonial era but disagrees that Hinduism is a colonial European era invention. He asserts that the shared theology, common ritual structure, and way of life of those who identify as Hindus can be traced back to ancient times.

The definition of Hinduism in Indian law today is: "Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to Moksha are diverse; and realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large".

British Revulsion of Hinduism

Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, There was “a long line of Britons who felt their notions of order and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural practices. The British Army captain who discovered the erotic temples of Khajuraho in the early 19th century was outraged by how “extremely indecent and offensive” depictions of fornicating couples profaned a “place of worship.” Lord Macaulay thundered against the worship, still widespread in India today, of the Shiva lingam. Even Karl Marx inveighed against how man, “the sovereign of nature,” had degraded himself in India by worshipping Hanuman, the monkey god. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, April 24, 2009 ***]

Spanish Inquisition in Goa

“Repelled by such pagan blasphemies, the first British scholars of India went so far as to invent what we now call “Hinduism,” complete with a mainstream classical tradition consisting entirely of Sanskrit philosophical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. In fact, most Indians in the 18th century knew no Sanskrit, the language exclusive to Brahmins. For centuries, they remained unaware of the hymns of the four Vedas or the idealist monism of the Upanishads that the German Romantics, American Transcendentalists and other early Indophiles solemnly supposed to be the very essence of Indian civilization. (Smoking chillums and chanting “Om,” the Beats were closer to the mark.) ***

“Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, said "the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a “Protestant bias in favor of scripture.” In “privileging” Sanskrit over local languages, she writes, they created what has proved to be an enduring impression of a “unified Hinduism.” And they found keen collaborators among upper-caste Indian scholars and translators. This British-Brahmin version of Hinduism — one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries — has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.” ***

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook “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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