How Hinduism Was Started

How Hinduism was started? To understand how this religious tradition began, we need to look at its roots, that is the Indus Valley Civilization and the Aryan Civilization. By 600 B.C. the religious system of the Aryan Vedic tradition began to undergo reassessment and criticism. For many, this old religion of rituals and sacrifices seemed no longer to address their deepest spiritual needs. New questions and concerns were emerging and the sacrificial system appeared unable to answer these completely. There seemed a be a widespread dissatisfaction with the elitism of Brahmins.

More than this, there seemed to be doubts about the value of rites and what they can produce. Very fascinating and influential texts called the Upanishads composed at about this time reflect this assessment of the good of Vedic rituals.

In this collection of works, the ways of the Rishis, the seers of old, are favorably contrasted with those who seek only the benefits of Vedic ritual. Quoting the Upanishads:

“Rising above the desire of sons, wealth and the world; they follow the life of the pilgrim. For the desire of sons and wealth is the desire of the world, and this desire is vanity.”

Two related streams of thought appeared to have prompted this reappraisal of the tradition. One we can detect from the texts of this period more interested with the nature of the human than what we see in the Veda, particularly this aspect called the self or soul.

Behind this curiosity about the soul there seems to be a growing anxiety about death. Numerous accounts relate tales about journeys to the Underworld and speculations about what might happen when we die.

Correlated with the concern about the nature of the human was a second stream of thought focused on a deeper understanding of the structures of reality. Increasingly, sages became more suspicious of the world of appearance and speculated about what might lie behind it.

The New Ideas and the Axial Age

Indian thought simultaneously broadened both its interior and exterior horizons, becoming at the same time more meditative and metaphysical. Curiously, this transformation in Indian religion happened at a time when similar developments were occurring in other important cultural centers throughout the world. At roughly the same moment in history we find such pivotal thinkers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece; Confucius and other philosophers in China; Zoroaster in Persia; the Hebrew prophets in Israel; and in India itself the Buddha and Mahavira, the founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively.

The rise of these individuals marked a new an perhaps unprecedented interest in who and what the human was, and a deep concern for understanding appropriate human behavior. So impressive was this era and so influential for subsequent humanity that the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called it the Axial Age.

Jaspers thought the epoch spawning from 800 to 200 B.C. signals the actual emergence of the individual self in human history. Certainly, there seems to be a greater emphasis placed on the individual during this time. It is also during this time that the major world religions are established in their characteristic forms. Confucianism in China, Buddhism and Jainism in India, Judaism begins to take shape in Israel for the later development of Christianity and Islam.

Even more than just the creation of new religions, though, the very function of religion appears to have changed during this time. Before the Axial Age, religions’ main concern was with keeping the world going by ritually renewing the cosmos. After the Axial age, religion functions more as an agent of personal transformation.

Post-Axial Age religions allow individuals to do such things as secure a happy afterlife or learn how to treat other human beings. Often, the religious dynamic is one of personal change. For example, from being a sinner to being holy or from being ignorant to gaining enlightenment.

It is during the Axial age that classical Hinduism emerges from its Aryan and Indus Valley roots. Now we will talk about the two ideas that marked the beginning of classical Hinduism:
  • The Doctrine of Reincarnation: What is reincarnation? What meaning does it have in Hinduism? The belief in reincarnation or transmigration of the soul is a fundamental assumption of virtually all philosophical and religious perspectives that have originated in India. 

  • The Law of Karma: The belief in the reincarnation of the soul is a fundamental assumption of Hinduism. The form that one returns to after death can be almost anything: another human, an animal, perhaps a demon, perhaps a god. What determines one’s status in the next life is simply the way one lives one’s life here and now. The word for this concept has become a familiar one in the West, Karma. Karma is simply action and its consequences.

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