The Origin of Hinduism

Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religious tradition. It is unlikely that there was a single founder of Hinduism, but if there were such an individual, he or she is unknown to us today. Although we don’t know the name of individuals, we do know several cultures that contributed to the development of Hinduism.

Of these contributing sources, two are specially important for our understanding of the history of the Hindu tradition. The first is the Indus Valley civilization. The second source is a group called the Aryans, a nomadic group of people who might have migrated to India from Central Asia.

It may be fair to say that Hinduism is not only the world’s oldest religion, it is also the most pluralistic. Its great diversity is what makes the concept of Hinduism problematic. Determining what all Hindus have in common is exceedingly difficult.

This pluralism has produced an attitude that denies the possibility of ever completely knowing the whole truth. It is the viewpoint that maintains that there are many valid viewpoint. Each perspective is partially correct. A famous passage from the oldest Hindu scripture, the Vedas, makes this point: “The truth is one but the sages call it by different names”.

Hinduism is a tradition that honors all seekers after the truth and recognizes that different persons require different ways of relating to divine reality. That’s one of the great strengths of Hinduism: its ability to absorb ideas and practices from different sources without giving up its fundamental orientation.

The Hindu tradition emerged from the confluence of several cultures, the most important of which were the Indus Valley civilization and the Aryans. The relationship between this cultures is not altogether certain but the evidence does suggest that they were quite different from one another.

Each culture seems to have contributed distinctive elements to the emergence of Hinduism. From the Indus Valley, Hinduism may have gained a concern with ritual purity and spiritual discipline. Perhaps also a proclivity towards the worship of the goddess. From the Aryans received its priestly language, Sanskrit; and its most sacred scripture, the Vedas. We shall see in other articles that the Aryans’ contribution was much more than this.

In this series of articles I will try to unravel the origin of what we now call Hinduism:

  • The Indus Valley Civilization: About 150 years ago, a discovery was made that has caused scholars to revise their understanding of the early history of India. The Indus Valley civilization, as it is now known is considered one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although Hindus would not regard the Indus Valley civilization as part of their sacred history, there is evidence that elements from this culture contributed to the great amalgam of Hinduism.

  • The Indus Valley Seals: The excavation of the Indus Valley civilization has revealed many intriguing artifacts. The most interesting of these relics are seals used to stamp designs in soft clay. Anthropologists believe that these seals probably have deep religious significance. 

  • The Aryan Civilization: Who were these Aryans? Most historians believe that the Aryans related to people who migrated into Iran, Irak, Ireland and other parts of Europe. In many ways, the Aryans were different from what we know about the Indus Valley dwellers. It is clear that the Aryans brought with them to India different gods, different rituals and a different language. The Aryan language evolved into Sanskrit, the official language of the Hindu tradition.

  • Hinduism’s Holy Book: The Aryans gave Hinduism its priestly language, Sanskrit; and what could be called Hinduism’s holy book: The Veda. The Veda is a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual.

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