Birth of Hinduism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Hinduism is the name given to the religion of India that developed historically from Brahmanism and Vedism as depicted in surviving Sanskrit texts.

Summary of Event

Hinduism arose out of an earlier religious tradition generally called Vedism, whose oldest representative text is the Rigveda (also known as Ṛgveda, c. 1500-1000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1896-1897), and its later phase, Brahmanism, as exemplified in a class of texts called Brāhmanas (compiled eighth to fifth centuries b.c.e.; commentaries on Brahman, the sacred utterances of the Vedas). The people who produced the Rigveda had a tremendous interest in ritual; religious behavior was important. The word veda means “knowledge,” the sacred knowledge found for the most part in hymns addressed to particular deities and collected in anthologies such as the Rigveda (the oldest of them) related to various schools and priestly functions.

The later period of Brahmanism saw a systemizing of ritual. The religious specialists who produced the Brāhmanas functioned in various priestly roles to conduct sometimes elaborate and lengthy ceremonies, as in the case of the horse sacrifice, which lasted a year. The deities worshiped in this period—Indra, Viṣṇu (or Vishnu), and others—seem impersonal: They gain from the sacrifices offered, and they give in return. Mythological details about their deeds are fuzzy and difficult to reconstruct.

The word “Hindu” was used by Muslim invaders in the eighth century c.e. to describe the people they met in India who worshiped various deities; it is not a term that appears in the texts. Today in India, the preferred term to describe the religion commonly called Hinduism is dharma or sanātana-dharma (eternal dharma). According to Mahatma Gandhi, the essence of Hinduism can be found expressed in the following verse from the Īśa Upaniṣad (c. 300 b.c.e.; literally “the secret teaching concerning the Lord,” translated in Sacred Books of the East, 1879):

All this, whatsoever moves on earth, is to be hidden in the Lord (the Self). When thou hast surrendered all this, then thou mayest enjoy. Do not covet the wealth of any man!

Hindu tradition also cites the sixty-sixth verse from the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Bhagavad Gita, 1785) as an essential teaching:

Go beyond all religious customs [dharmas], come to me as your sole refuge. I will liberate you from evil. Do not fear!

The Sanskrit word dharma, which appears in this stanza, is a key term. Its wide range of meaning is shown by the many English equivalents found in translations of the The Bhagavad Gita: duty, sacred duty, appearance, religious practice, law, and things of law (both lawful and lawless), to name a few.

The transition to Hinduism is found most clearly in a number of texts called Upaniṣads (c. 1000-c. 200 b.c.e.). The word upaniṣad has been taken by some scholars to signify originally “to sit near (reverentially)” and by others to mean “mystical connection.” Later the word clearly came to mean “secret teaching” or “secret doctrine.” Various Upaniṣads were produced that belonged to particular priestly schools. In them one reads of students approaching teachers who instruct their disciples in essential doctrines about religious behavior and the meaning of life and death. The Upaniṣads seem to have been composed in an atmosphere of debate, as if new speculations were circulating in esoteric circles. In the transition to Hinduism there is no sudden change, but rather an increasing tendency to speculate on the meanings of key words and on the ritual itself. In the Upaniṣads, rituals are given a new inner meaning and there is a new stress on an individual realization of that meaning. For example, at the beginning of one of the old Upaniṣads, one finds speculations on the cosmic meaning of the horse that is the ritual victim offered in the important horse sacrifice; in another, speculations on the universal symbolism of the word om, roughly equivalent to the western “amen.”

At this period, new concepts arose, ideas that became central in later Hinduism. Among them were karma (meaningful actions that determine one’s life), rebirth, saṃsāra (the world as a dismaying endless flow of existence), and bhakti (the stylized devotion to a chosen deity). Some scholars have seen the rise of these new ideas, rebirth and saṃsāra especially, as inherited from a prehistoric substratum, a remainder from the religion that Indo-Aryan speakers found when they came to India in the second millennium b.c.e. Other historians of religion deny that view, preferring to see the newer Hinduism as a logical development from Brahmanism. The development of these new concepts is outlined in the following paragraphs.

In the Upaniṣads, the problem of “repeated death” is discussed: the idea that after attaining heaven, one might have to undergo death again. The idea of rebirth is seemingly born from this discussion, so that, in later Hindu texts such as The Bhagavad Gita, one learns that every individual has had many births and will have many more. In these works speculation then turns to a new problem: What sort of knowledge or method will allow one to escape the endless cycle of birth and death?

The Bhagavad Gita is a more recent Upaniṣad that reveals the practical method (yoga) for gaining liberation from the endless cycle of births through an internal realization of ultimate truth. This text also promotes devotion to a particular deity—in this case Kṛṣṇa (or Krishna), who is identified as an incarnation of Viṣṇu. In the eleventh chapter of the The Bhagavad Gita, Kṛṣṇa reveals himself in all his divine forms; the vision of God described there is vivid and powerful. Arjuna, the principal hero of the Mahābhārata (mentioned below) and the questioner of Kṛṣṇa in The Bhagavad Gita, is transformed by his vision; his is an individual realization, though held out as a possibility for others. Clearly the devotees of Kṛṣṇa were interested in an extremely personal and concrete God.

The idea of karma (action) assumes a new meaning also. The term originally meant “ritual action,” but in the transition to Hinduism the term takes on a more generalized significance, as one Upaniṣad states: “As one does a karma, so he is born.” One’s actions determine his or her status in a future birth.

The two epics of India, the Mahābhārata (400 b.c.e.-400 c.e., present form by c. 400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896) and Rāmāyaṇa (c. 550 b.c.e.; English translation, 1870-1889; some material added later; English translation, 1870-1889), are important sources of information for the understanding of early Hinduism. One study, by Alf Hiltebeitel (published in 2001), now narrows the dating of both epics to 150 b.c.e. or later. The Mahābhārata especially contains many discussions of religious topics, both in its long twelfth book, the Śānti-parvan (the book of peace), and in the many digressions from the main heroic tale, the most famous of which is The Bhagavad Gita itself. The Rāmāyaṇa introduces Hanumān, the divine monkey and son of the wind god Vayu, who exemplifies the perfect devotee in his relationship to Rāma, hero of the epic and incarnation of Viṣṇu. Both epics, which were recited at religious festivals, spoke to a more general and popular audience than the Upaniṣads, which were composed by and for those priestly initiates who dedicated much of their life to memorizing the Vedas.

The Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa also contain new myths, sacred stories about the gods that differ in many particulars from the stories scholars can reconstruct from the Vedic period. Pilgrimages and pilgrimage sites are also prominent, such as the section of the Mahābhārata that tells how the main characters took a tour of sacred fords. Religious festivals, day-to-day rituals, and influences from tribal religions appear in the texts as tantalizing glimpses. Much of this religious teaching was clearly oral: A sage comes to the court of a local ruler and is asked to relate tales of ancient gods and heroes, both for entertainment and for edification.

Another development in Hinduism, reflected in the epics, is the change of status of different deities. In the Rigveda, Indra is supreme, the king of the gods. At places the epic worship of Indra is mentioned; for example, a popular ritual or festival connected with an “Indra-pole.” Early Buddhist texts also mention both Indra and Brahma as central gods. Mostly, however, Indra, Brahma, Vayu, and other gods important in the earlier religion become humbler in Hinduism—inferior, for instance, to Viṣṇu, who becomes more important in Hinduism than in Vedism. The Rigveda features a class of minor deities known as Rudras, with a slightly sinister appearance. In Hinduism, one of them, Rudra in the singular, stands out and is renamed Śiva (or Shiva), “the beneficent one.” Two major divisions of the new Hinduism then developed, dedicated to the glorification of one or the other of two great gods, Viṣṇu and Śiva.

The two epics give evidence of one other important feature of Hinduism: the ascetic tradition. The earlier Upaniṣads depicted the ideal sage as a married man, one of whose duties was to produce sons. However, in the epics a new type of wise man appears, the ascetic or “sannyasin” who has abandoned family, married life, and any ordinary occupation to wander the world, seeking knowledge and liberation. This becomes also an ideal in early Buddhism, where monks are advised to “wander free as a rhinoceros.”

Significance

The religious concepts that arose during the birth of Hinduism became pan-Indian in importance. Both Hinduism and Buddhism adopted ideas such as rebirth (saṃsāra) and karma as unquestioned foundational elements of their doctrine. Hinduism never was a unified religion, but was a composite in which many sometimes divergent views were accommodated. Forms of Hinduism traveled outside the Indian subcontinent to southeast Asia, and in the twentieth century throughout the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Basham, A. L. The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. A prominent historian’s final views on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodall, Dominic, ed. and trans. Hindu Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. A useful collection of primary documents in translation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. A recent reinterpretation, which proposes new ideas about the dating and context of composition of the two epics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Barbara Stoler, trans. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam, 1986. A readable translation with an informative introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olivelle, Patrick, trans. Upaniṣads. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A scholarly translation of the principal older texts, with extensive introduction and notes.
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