The basic beliefs and practices of Hinduism
cannot be understood outside their historical context. Although
the early texts and events are impossible to date with precision,
the general chronological development is clear.
About 2000 BC, a highly developed civilization flourished
in the Indus Valley, around the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
By about 1500 BC, when the Indo-Aryan tribes invaded India,
this civilization was in a serious decline. It is therefore
impossible to know, on present evidence, whether or not
the two civilizations had any significant contact.
elements of Hinduism that were not present in Vedic civilization
(such as worship of the phallus and of goddesses, bathing
in temple tanks, and the postures of yoga) may have been
derived from the Indus civilization, however.
about 1500 BC, the Indo-Aryans had settled in the Punjab,
bringing with them their predominantly male Indo-European
pantheon of gods and a simple warrior ethic that was vigorous
and worldly, yet also profoundly religious. Gods of the
Vedic pantheon survive in later Hinduism, but no longer
as objects of worship: Indra, king of the gods and
god of the storm and of fertility; Agni, god of fire;
and Soma, god of the sacred, intoxicating Soma plant
and the drink made from it.
900 BC the use of iron allowed the Indo-Aryans to move down
into the lush Ganges Valley, where they developed a far
more elaborate civilization and social system. By the 6th
century BC, Buddhism had begun to make its mark on
India and what was to be more than a millennium of fruitful
interaction with Hinduism.
Classical Hindu Civilization
From about 200 BC to AD 500 India was invaded by many northern
powers, of which the Shakas (Scythians) and Kushanas had
the greatest impact. This was a time of great flux, growth,
syncretism, and definition for Hinduism and is the period
in which the epics, the Dharmashastras, and the Dharmasutras
took final form.
the Gupta Empire (320-550?), when most of northern India
was under a single power, classical Hinduism found its most
consistent expression: the sacred laws were codified, the
great temples began to be built, and myths and rituals were
preserved in the Puranas.
Rise of Devotional Movements
In the post-Gupta period, a less rigid and more eclectic
form of Hinduism emerged, with more dissident sects and
this time, too, the great devotional movements arose. Many
of the sects that emerged during the period from 800 to
1800 are still active in India today.
of the bhakti movements are said to have been founded by
saints—the gurus by whom the tradition has been handed down
in unbroken lineage, from guru to disciple (chela). This
lineage, in addition to a written canon, is the basis for
the authority of the bhakti sect.
traditions are based on the teachings of such philosophers
as Shankara and Ramanuja. Shankara was the
exponent of pure monism, or nondualism (Advaita Vedanta),
and of the doctrine that all that appears to be real is
merely illusion. Ramanuja espoused the philosophy of qualified
nondualism (Vishishta-Advaita), an attempt to reconcile
belief in a godhead without attributes (nirguna) with devotion
to a god with attributes (saguna), and to solve the paradox
of loving a god with whom one is identical.
philosophies of Shankara and Ramanuja were developed in
the context of the six great classical philosophies (darshanas)
of India: the Karma Mimamsa (“action
investigation”); the Vedanta (“end
of the Vedas”), in which tradition
the work of Shankara and Ramanuja should be placed; the
Sankhya system, which describes the opposition between an
inert male spiritual principle (purusha) and an active
female principle of matter or nature (prakriti),
subdivided into the three qualities (gunas) of goodness
(sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas);
the Yoga system; and the highly metaphysical systems of
Vaisheshika (a kind of atomic realism) and Nyaya (logic,
but of an extremely theistic nature).
Parallel with these complex Sanskrit philosophical investigations,
vernacular songs were composed, transmitted orally, and
preserved locally throughout India. They were composed during
the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries in Tamil and Kannada by
the Alvars, Nayanars, and Virashaivas and during the 15th
century by the Rajasthani poet Mira Bai, in the Braj dialect.
In the 16th century in Bengal, Chaitanya founded a sect
of erotic mysticism, celebrating the union of Krishna and
Radha in a Tantric theology heavily influenced by Tantric
Buddhism. Chaitanya believed that both Krishna and Radha
were incarnate within him, and he believed that the village
of Vrindaban, where Krishna grew up, had become manifest
once again in Bengal. The school of the Gosvamins, who were
disciples of Chaitanya, developed an elegant theology of
aesthetic participation in the ritual enactment of Krishna's
ritual dramas also developed around the village of Vrindaban
itself during the 16th century, and they were celebrated
by Hindi poets. The first great Hindi mystic poet was Kabir,
who was said to be the child of a Muslim and was strongly
influenced by Islam, particularly by Sufism. His poems challenge
the canonical dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam, praising
Rama and promising salvation by the
chanting of the holy name of Rama. He was followed by Tulsidas,
who wrote a beloved Hindi version of the Ramayana. A contemporary
of Tulsidas was Surdas, whose poems on Krishna's life in
Vrindaban formed the basis of the ras lilas, local dramatizations
of myths of the childhood of Krishna, which still play an
important part in the worship of Krishna in northern India.
19th and 20th Centuries
In the 19th century, important reforms took place under
the auspices of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the sects
of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj. These movements
attempted to reconcile traditional Hinduism with the social
reforms and political ideals of the day. So, too, the nationalist
leaders Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Mohandas Gandhi
attempted to draw from Hinduism those elements that would
best serve their political and social aims.
Gandhi, for example, used his own brand of ahimsa, transformed
into passive resistance, to obtain reforms for the Untouchables
and to remove the British from India. Similarly, Bhimrao
Ramji Ambedkar revived the myth of the Brahmans who
fell from their caste and the tradition that Buddhism and
Hinduism were once one, in order to enable Untouchables
to gain self-respect by “reconverting” to Buddhism
more recent times, numerous self-proclaimed Indian religious
teachers have migrated to Europe and the United States,
where they have inspired large followings. Some, such as
the Hare Krishna sect founded by Bhaktivedanta,
claim to base themselves on classical Hindu practices.
India, Hinduism thrives despite numerous reforms and shortcuts
necessitated by the gradual modernization and urbanization
of Indian life. The myths endure in the Hindi cinema, and
the rituals survive not only in the temples but also in
the rites of passage. Thus, Hinduism, which sustained India
through centuries of foreign occupation and internal disruption,
continues to serve a vital function by giving passionate
meaning and supportive form to the lives of Hindus today.
return to page 1,
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By: Wendy Doniger, M.A., Ph.D., D.Phil. Mircea Eliade Professor
of History of Religions and Indian Studies, University of
Chicago. Author of The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology,
Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, and Dreams, Illusion, and Other
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