Thursday, 3 October 2013

Understanding Hinduism: Part 1: The Emergence...

For a long time, about a month approximately, I have been pondering on whether to write upon Hinduism and it's discourses as I understand it... There were too many hazards to writing this post and if I were to write on it, I would have to jack up my courage...

Firstly, it is a subject that could at once make a pariah out of me... secondly, there have been far greater, far more learned, far more educated and informed people who have propounded upon the subject...  Thirdly, my own belief in God is rather agnostic... that is I believe, that there is a God , I mean a super conscious entity, a cosmic power that definitely exceeds my humble limits of imagination, but I do not believe that whatever that power is, possesses a 'religion', at least, not in the sense that we, now know of it... Therefore I do not believe in any religion... but at the same time, I am a practicing Hindu...  oxymoronic, right? These were exactly the reasons I was so far delaying and pondering upon whether to write this post or not...

 So why did I set out to write this post?

The answer is basically because I believe in Hinduism, not as a religion, but as a way of life.

So what is it that has helped Hinduism survive throughout the ages... the faith has seen the advent of many world religions such as Jainism and Buddhism, Christianity and lastly Islam. Why is Hinduism still the world's third largest religion and why does it still have a billion followers?

I set out to find answers to these questions. I began to study the history of the religion and to study the history of the religion is to study the history of the land where this belief system emerged... Hinduism as a religion or a philosophy, (I like to call it a philosophy), is innately connected with the social and political history of the land, we now called India. Hinduism is one of the world's oldest surviving religions... many other faiths and beliefs which were contemporary to this faith have entirely disappeared.

What is Hinduism ? Emergence

The first proto Hinduism was probably practiced by the natives of the Indus Valley civilization which emerged on the banks of the river Indus from the period 3300-1300 BC... The other civilizations contemporary to the Indus Valley Civilization, were the Nile Valley Civilization and the Mesopotamian Civilization, the beliefs of the people of the two later civilizations having disappeared with the collapse and decline of the civilizations themselves. The religious practices and beliefs of the Harappan people, however endured and after the decline of the Indus Valley civilization were merged in the oncoming Aryan beliefs and re-emerged as the Vedic religion.

It should be noted at this point that the word denoting, the religion, as we know of today, "Hinduism" is essentially a 13th century invention... The Persians or the Arab merchants who had trade relations with India, could not pronounce the alphabet "S" , therefore they called the river "Sindhu" (modern day Indus) "Hindu" and the land beyond this river, Hind... The term 'Hinduism' was later used occasionally in some Sanskrit texts such as the later 'Rajtaranginis' (lore of the kings) of Kashmir. It was only towards the end of 18th century that European merchants and colonists began to refer to the general beliefs of the people living in this land as Hinduism.

It is thus of utmost importance to note, that the religion is named after a mighty river and like a river, has ingrained in itself a plethora of belief, faiths, and cultures.

Thus, our first understanding of Hinduism starts at the understanding of the history of India.

The Harappan Civilization: Proto Hinduism :

The Harappan or the Indus Valley Civilization emerged on the banks of the Indus river basin and was one of the earliest urban civilization to have emerged during the time. The other civilizations which arose approximately around this time frame were the Mesopotamian civilization and the Nile Valley or the Egyptian civilization.

The inhabitants of the Indus Valley civilization, (it is also called the Harappan civilization because one of the largest and the earliest towns to be excavated was called 'Harappa') largely worshiped animals and plants and believed in amulets. The Harappan seals carry many of the animals such as buffaloes and bulls, stamped on them. There is much debate on a symbol on a seal which has been excavated, depicting a three headed God, surrounded by animals, who according to the historian John Marshall depicts a form of proto 'Shiva' or 'Pashupati' (lord of animals). The historian Romila Thapar contends, that Shiva, as a Hindu God emerged only in the later Vedic age some 2000 years later and hence the description of this symbol as proto Shiva or 'Pashupati' is wholly misleading. It might be that there was some kind of 'shaman' or medical man that existed during that time who had the unique characteristic of domesticating animals. Maybe that, the later god Shiva or Pashupati has been designed on this Harappan deity.

Harappans also believed in a number of symbols such as Swastika drawn on their seals. The Swastika symbol has been much maligned because of its heinous and wrongful use as the symbol of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party, but the symbol has roots deep in human civilization. The word 'Swastika' comes from the Sanskrit word 'Shuvastika'  'shuva' meaning good, 'astika' meaning mark, "Shuvastika" meaning "the mark of the good", and represents the peaceful alignment of the four elements of nature, the air, the wind, the earth and the water with the four phrases of Human life, the childhood, the adolescence, the mature age and the old age... It is indeed sad, how a symbol so pure in it's origin was so maligned in it's use.

However, the earliest forms of Swastika's can be found on the Harappan seals.

There does not exist any temple or structures of spiritual endevour among the Harappan people but the early use of fire as a religious symbol has been found in some of the cities that belonged to the Late Harappan phrase.

The language of the Indus Valley, unfortunately still remains a mystery, whatever conclusions have been made regarding the civilization has been based on archaeological finds. If we were to know the language of the Harappan people, more light could have been shed on their religious and spiritual beliefs.

Thus, it is noteworthy that, the first basis of Hinduism lay in naturalistic and animalistic forces. We shall see in the second part, how it developed from a mere scattered belief system into a system of texts and how it began to usher in a more rigid form.

The coming of the Aryans did much to contextualize the religion as well to give it a firmer shape and direction.

Image Courtsey:



Romlia Thapar : Ancient India

Mazumdar,Raychaudhari & Datta : An Advanced History of India

Krishna Reddy: TataMcGraw Hill Publications: Indian History

Indus Civilization: IGNOU Booklet 2