Origin & Evolution of Hinduism – In simple layman terms

It all started a few months back. As we were studying History my daughter wanted to know who was the founder of Hinduism? My initial response was the common answer – Hinduism is a way of life.  But I realized there is more to it.

I consider myself quite religious – What is the concept of Hindu Religion to me ? –  Visiting a temple once a week  (and visiting old ancient temples both for history and grace regularly) , doing a small puja at home on every traditional occasion and chanting the slokas I learnt from my mother when I was 6 ,  calling a Vadyar  for any function – Griha Pravesh, Upanayanam etc , lots of rituals , lots of superstition, listening to Vishnu Sahasranam on the way to office – in short my concept of Religion is what I have learnt from Amar Chitra Katha , TV Serials, Stories told to us as kids. And thats exactly the manner in which I am propagating religion to my kids.

I have not read the Vedas, The Upanishads, The Bhagvad Gita, The Puranas ( But I plan to do so) – and I am not sure how many of my 600+ friends & relatives in FB & Linked In  would have read them. Fortunately the religion does not mandate that I read them – but I ask myself am I true Hindu without understanding what is written in these books ?

Basis a bunch of books I read ( thanks to Flipkart and its excellent collection) , a visit to the Ramana Maharishi & Aurobindo Ashram recently and finally a sitting with a wonderful couple in our complex I slowly started connecting the dots. This journey can be very very exciting and it can take years to get deeper & deeper. Most people start this exercise when they are 60+, but that is futile as you cannot practise the learnings when 80% of life is over. So this blog is an attempt to share some simple information and hopefully some may get interested to dwell deeper.

The first step in starting this exercise is to try  map and the different stages of evolution – a sort of an index that can help one in getting started. Here is my attempt at drawing up a time map. What is interesting to see how the journey moves with time  from Priests – Rishis  – Cult Leaders and finally to Scholars. Along the journey you will see that History , Religion & Spirituality are entwined together.

Phases of Evolution 

1. The Indus Valley Civilization ends around 1800 – 1900 BC. They were highly evolved builders and excavations show large man made structures, figurines of what could be deities, Lingams etc. Nobody know what caused their disintegration – but their decline mirrors the decline of other civilizations like Sumerian & Mesopotamian.

2. Distance from Iran (Persia) to Indus Valley is as close as Mumbai is to Bangalore – so migration to fertile pastures could have easily happened as the nomadic Aryans moved around. In the Rig veda we see many similiarities with Persia & the area around it – Fire God, Sacred Thread , use of Horses , Hymns praising Nature, Ahura the God ( who later probably became Asura)

3. The Vedic Aryans believed in Nature Gods. Fire (Agni) , Wind (Vayu) , Dawn (Usha) , Thunder (Rudra) , Lightning (Indra)  etc – very similar to what we see in Greek Mythology. The mode of prayer was the Yagna – hymns being chanted in praise of Gods and a lot of  animal sacrifice. The Hymns that we see in the initial part of the Rig Veda were mainly in praise of Nature Gods – they were like songs ( Easy to remember Vs prose) – the sanskrit used is very archaic. The Initial part of the Rigveda or the Samhita almost entirely comprises  of these hymns. There is no spiritual meaning here

2. As the travelers started settling down in Tribes they created their own “Gothrams” or Clans and the most knowledgeable person of the Clan was made the Chief. (The word Gorthram is linked to Cows and it could well have been the the Chief – the most intelligent of the clan had the task of sorting out infiights amongst the tribe when the cattle got mixed up)

3. These Chiefs then became the Priests to the Tribal Kings. In addition to the Samhitas now came the Brahmanas around 1000 BC. These talked of different rituals and how they were to be conducted. It talks about how the Altar for the Yagnas has to be set up. The Samhita & The Brahmanas together called the Karmakanda may rightly be called the Phase – 1 of  Rig Veda and the Vedic Religion or the Origin of Hinduism. They were merely chantings with no spiritual meaning as yet.

Unlike the Harappan culture – hardly any construction activity was unearthed from the ancient Aryans. So the fancy Palaces and Towns we read about in Mahabharata & Ramayana may just be imagination. Bull & Horse Sacrifice was common – and meat eating across all was prevalent. (There is more to the Aswamedha Yagna – than just a lovely white horse roaming around !!)

4. The next phase is that of the Aranyakas – or Forest Literature. This is the phase when the Rishis went to the forests & mountains and meditated. Many of them attained self actualization and developed Siddhis or supernatural powers. The knowledge they gained were considered as inputs  directly from God.  This repository of knowledge evolved over nearly 1000 years and was completed around 200 BC. This is called Vedanta or the Spiritual Literature and is a fountainhead of knowledge. 

5. Mahabharata , Ramayana & Gita.  There is reference in the Vedas to a major war that was fought around 900 BC. There is also mention to the Kuru Clan of Tribes. So it is indeed true that a big war was fought and it does find mention in many texts – but a lot of the wonderful stories woven around this war may well be the work of an excellent imaginative writer. Even the Gita may have been written over a 500 year period and reached its final shape around 200 – 300 AD.  The Ramayana is probably dated around 3rd Century BC.

6. Around 500 BC the Buddhist & Jain eras begin. ( Not many know that there was a 3rd religion called Ajinkayas – whose founder broke away from Mahavira).  Contrary to most beliefs Buddha and the Buddhists were meat eaters while the Jains were pure vegetarians. .This continued for nearly a 1000 years and by 500 AD a large part of India was under the sway of these religions, there was a need to Re establish Hinduism.

It was under the Gupta era that the concept of large temples started to develop. These become community centers for social & religious events. Some say that some of the Temples were actually built on top of Buddhist temples.  The concept of deities & temples was unknown to the Vedic Aryans. The original inhabitants of the country (Dasyus – the word Das or servant probably originates from here) had a practise of  praying to Rocks , Figurines , Devis , Shiva Lingams etc. Gods like Mariamman , Ayyappa and Muruga were prevalent in S India as early as 500 BC or earlier.

The oldest Hindu temple functioning today, and  not  in ruins, would be the Ma Mundeshwari  Temple in Kaimur District of Bihar. It has been  restored by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and its construction date is ascribed to . 108 A D. Since then rituals and worship have been taking place at this temple without a break. Thus making it the oldest functional Hindu  temple. So the history of temples in India is just about 2000 years old. 

By 500 BC  the 4 vedas were established – the original Rig Veda , The Sama Veda containing songs in praise of the gods & the Yajur Veda with ritual practise and finally the Atharva  Veda & The Tantras wilth magic spells.   Tantric cult spread to the east and is prevalent in some cults to this day. The Vedas were never written till about 100 AD, it was always passed on from generation to generation by memorizing . When it was recorded it was observed that there was no difference between what was produced in Kashmir or S india. This is indeed fascinating. Caste system which has been prevalent since the ancient Vedic Era became more stronger and sub castes started to develop.

This was also the time when the other Shastras namely Manusmriti, Arthashastra, Kamasutra ,  Brahmashastra & Grihashastra were written. The writing of Megasthenes also helped us to get an insight into life in those days.

7. The Puranas were started around 4th & 5th century AD. They continued to evolve till the 13th century.  The Concept of Bhakti Yoga started evolving from T Nadu after 300 AD. Two sects Vaishnavites & Shaivities slowly emerged – the Vishnu Purana & The Shiva Purana was written. All the existing Gods were bracketed under the two sects. The concept of the Avatars of Vishnu emerged and in some cases even Buddha was incorporated as an avatar of Vishnu. This was in a way a merger of the Aryan Vedic Religion and the Old Religion of the existing inhabitants. An attempt to make Religion easy to understand to the masses.

Between the  7th Century & 10th Century AD the 63 Nayannars wrote passionately in praise about Shiva.

And then there were the 33 Alvars from the Vaishnavite  sect. The alvars came from a variety of social strata; their ranks include shudras and one woman. The intense devotionalism of their poetry and insistence that caste and sex are no barrier to a relationship with the Divine is uncharacteristic of classical Vedic thought, which laid a strong emphasis on the performance of the social and religious duties proper to one’s place in the social structure. Some of these were collected into a definitive canon known as the Nālāyira Divya Prabandha (“divine composition of 4000 verses”), by Nathamuni in the 10th century, and came to be seen as a source of revelation equal in authority to the Vedas in the Śrīvaiṣṇava community.

Around 800 AD Shankara played a crucial role of rejuvenating Hinduism and setting up centres across the country – following in a way the monastic traditions of Buddhism. he played a crucial role in linking the 6 Major Indian Philosophies. he summarized the ten main Upanishads explained the concept of Advaitham & Hinduism.

By 1100 AD  Ramanujam gave a fillip to Vaishnavism & Hindu revival – in the midst of muslim domination. Many gods were merged to be called forms of Vishnu, this  includes Venkata – of the famous Tirupathi hills at his time. A temple that came to prominence during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya.

There have been other famous seers and philosophers who have heard the voice of the inner self & God and reached self actualisation – Raghavendra Swamy , Madhavacharya,  Ramana Maharishi , Ramakrishna , Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo and many spiritual leaders of today. Each one has evolved their own road to self actualisation. There are but 4 paths to choose from  Gyana Yoga , Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga (As explained in the Gita)  & Raja Yoga. A common link across  all these is the Pathanjali Yoga – Yoga as a form of mediation is said to be as ancient as the origin of the Vedic Religion.

Each area mentioned above is a wealth of information in itself and as I mentioned in the beginning the true meaning of Hindu Religion and its interpretation can be unique to every individual. There is a wealth of knowledge sitting there – and fortunately many Indians & Europeans have done extensive research in this area and created abridged versions – so it is possible to get all the insight you need without knowing Sanskrit.

As I continue to read some of these books will try and share the insights as best as I can. But I hope this relatively long blog has helped answer some questions and create a base foundation for each one of you  to start their own journey in search of  Truth.

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03 comments on “Origin & Evolution of Hinduism – In simple layman terms

    • mnvrk , Direct link to comment

      This is based on aryan invasion theory, that is now being found to be highly biased and incorrect ma. I am not sure what books are the basis for your analysis. The time lines you have given are definitely not correct. Please update your research.

      • vak1969 , Direct link to comment

        I agree – I was reading Durant’s pitch on how the Aryan invasion theory is a nice story created by British in the 1850’s

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