History of Hinduism - the Ancient Period

A battle scene

by Jayaram V

We can only make rationale conjectures regarding the ancient history of India, as we have very little chronological or archaeological evidence about subject. When we deal with the origins of Hinduism we have to rely greatly upon the scriptures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and few inscriptions of real merit.

Unlike the Greeks and the Egyptians, the ancient Indian scholars as well as kings had very little sense of history and therefore they left no true historical accounts of their times. The problem is compounded further by followers of different schools of religious thought, who modified and improved the original texts of their teachers and predecessors, without leaving a trace of their own names. Hence this difficulty.

The earliest archaeological evidence of Hinduism was found in the excavations done at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, where, among many other items, were unearthed a number of seals showing the bull and a seated yogi and some icons representing the mother goddess, the phallus symbol and a seated yogi.

According to some historians it is possible to draw some parallels between these and the subsequent iconographic images of Saivism and Shaktism. But it is difficult to say whether the earliest form of Hinduism originated from the people of Indus Valley or whether some of their practices were incorporated into it subsequently by the Vedic people. The religion is definitely much more older than the Indus Valley civilization.

The Vedic people were responsible for the introduction of many practices and beliefs into Hinduism and giving it a distinct identity. According to many  historians of the old European school, the Vedic people, were Aryans who migrated to the Indian subcontinent from outside during the declining phase of the Indus valley civilization. They came to India probably through central Asia and Iran and settled in the area comprising present-day Afghanistan and  Punjab..

However, many Indologists presently do not agree that there was ever an Aryan Invasion. According to them both the Vedic civilization and the Indus civilization were indigenous cultures and were probably inter connected. It is even possible that some migration might have happened in the reverse direction from India to Persia, Mediterranean, central Asia and even beyond.

There are many cultural similarities between the ancient people who lived in Persia and the those who lived in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, including similarities between religious tradition  practiced by the former prior to the emergence of Zoroaster and the Vedic religion practiced by the latter. It is believed that subsequently the two groups fell apart.

Some of the practices of the early tradition became an integral part of Zoroastrianism, including the practice of fire worship and fire sacrifices. At the same time differences developed. The God of Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazda was considered a demon (Asura) by the Vedic people, while the devas of the people became "powers of evil powers (daeva) in the Zoroastrian cosmology.

The language of communication in Vedic society was Sanskrit which is considered a sister language of Latin. Together both represent  two main branches of Indo-European languages. While both have an independent history of their own, most likely they might have originated from a common source.

Whatever may be the truth, the religious tradition practiced by the Vedic people of ancient India became subsequently the basis of modern Hinduism as it is known today. It is incorrect to believe that Hinduism emerged from Vedic religion solely. A number of traditions became an integral part of it, of which Vedic religion was a significant one.

Vedic society witnessed great kings, even philosopher kings, who not only waged wars and expanded their domains but also practiced the Vedic religion with great fervor and contributed greatly to the emergence of Upanishadic thought.

In the later Vedic period, they extended their influence into southern India, where Vedic religion took strong roots due to the contribution of many seers, sages and Brahmana families who migrated to the south and introduced their methods of worship there.

Due to their efforts, an unprecedented synthesis of cultures and religious beliefs happened resulting in the religious unification of the subcontinent and the induction of many gods and goddesses into Hindu pantheon.

The Vedic people invoked many gods such as Indra, Varuna, Agni, Vayu, Mitra, Aditya, Pushan, Asvins, Usha etc., performed yagnas and other rituals to supplicate them, invoke them, and seek their approval, guidance and help for their material comforts, personal gains, general welfare, appeasement of nature and victory over hostile tribes.

The religion subsequently faced a stiff competition from other religions like Buddhism and Jainism and underwent great transformation in line with the new thinking and the new religions. Simultaneously a great reform movement was born within the Vedic tradition with the rise of Shaivism and Bhagavatism.

They emphasized the need for bhakti or devotion to God as the best way to attain salvation. Bhagavatism started with the teachings of the great teacher, Sri Krishna-Vasudeva of the Satvata or Vrisni tribe, and became very popular during the later periods as Vaishnavism. Saivism with Shiva as the principal deity came into existence during the later Vedic period and became equally popular throughout India.

During the post Mauryan and Pre Gupta period, the religion witnessed further popularity of Vaishnavism, Saivism. Tantrism or the worship of Shakti, also became widely prevalent during this period. While Vaisnavism was gaining ground in the North under the rule of the Guptas who were renowned devotees of Lord Vishnu and built many temples in his honor, Saivism became a well established sect with the composition of the Agamas, and the works of Nayanmars from South, which is today available to us as Periya Puranam. The worship of Sun was also prevalent during this period.

Between the sxth century A.D., and the tenth Century A.D. the subcontinent witnessed the birth of many great religious teachers, who provided new insights into the religion through their works and commentaries and added to the richness of Hindu devotional movement.

Prominent among them was Shri Adishankaracharya, who not only provided the required inspiration for the revival of the religion through his teachings and tours, but also wrote commentaries on several Upanishads and also on the Gita. He traveled across the length and breadth of the country preaching the basic doctrines of the religion and spreading his message of monism far and wide.

Another great religious personality of this period was Shri Ramanujacharya who preached devotion to Lord Vishnu as the best way to attain salvation.

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