One of the most frequently asked questions about Hinduism (or any other religion), is who was its founder? Who was the founder of Hinduism? Who started this religious tradition that today has around one billion followers?
Although in other major world religions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam we can trace the origin of the tradition to a single man, Hinduism is so ancient and complex that it is impossible to find that historical person. In fact, it is unlikely that such an individual even existed.
What we can do, however, is to trace the origin of Hinduism to various historical and cultural sources. There are two main sources which influenced the emergence of Hinduism as we know it today: the culture of the Indus Valley civilization and the culture of the Aryan civilization.
The Indus Valley Influence
The Indus Valley civilization 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.
One of the most important aspects that Hinduism inherited from this great civilization is its sense of purity and pollution. Great concern with cleanliness is evidenced throughout the Indus Valley civilization. Large cities had large central baths with public access. These baths were not only build with hygiene in mind, but specially to maintain ritual purity.
In these baths, people came to restore the pristine order that may have been disrupted by inappropriate behavior or simply by coming into contact with a person that is seen as unclean. This tradition is still present today in Hinduism, as many people regard certain things and persons as unclean, as we see with the caste system.
The Aryan Influence
The second important source that influenced Hinduism is the Aryan civilization. The Aryans were very different from what we know about the Indus Valley dwellers. The Aryans were nomads rather than settled down agriculturalists. They didn’t build great cities like the Indus Valley civilization.
Since the Aryans were migratory, they left in the way of archeological evidence. Almost everything we know about them is based in what is now a collection of writings called the Vedas. These writings are considered Hinduism’s holy book.
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. It includes hundreds of hymns addressed to various deities, as well as myths, some spells and a bit of philosophical speculation.
According to the beliefs of most Hindus today, the Vedas existed prior to this world and embodies an eternal law that transcends even the gods. The words of the Vedas, according to traditional conviction, were revealed to ancient sages called Rishis in a distant past.
Today, the Veda is regarded as the most authoritative and sacred Hindu scripture. So important is the Veda that Hinduism is sometimes called Vedic Dharma: the religion of the Veda. Acceptance of the authority of the Veda has been a criterion for determining which schools of Indian thought are orthodox and which are heterodox.