History of Hinduism

March 17, 2015 · updated January 7, 2024

Hinduism has no founder or date of origin. While many major religions are based on ideas taught by a charismatic leader, Hinduism is the indigenous religion of the people of India, which has gradually developed over four thousand years or more. The origins and authors of its sacred texts are largely unknown.

Although today's Hinduism differs significantly from earlier forms of Indian religion, its roots date back as far as 2000 BCE, making it one of the oldest surviving religions. Because of its age, the early history of Hinduism is unclear. The most ancient writings have yet to be deciphered, so for the earliest periods scholars must rely on educated guesses based on archaeology and contemporary texts.

In the last few decades, the history of India's religion has also become a matter of political controversy. The history of any nation (or individual) is an important part of its self-identity and this is especially true of India, which so recently gained independence after centuries of colonial rule. The controversy over India's history centers on the origin of the Aryan culture, as described in more detail below.

Indus Valley Civilization (c. 7000-1800 BCE)

The Indus Valley civilization (also known as the Harappan civilization for one of its chief cities) was an ancient civilization along the Indus River, which today runs through northwest India into Pakistan. It originated as early as 7000 BCE (during the Neolithic period) and reached is height between 2300 to 2000 BCE, at which point it encompassed over 750,000 square miles and traded with Mesopotamia.

Archeologists have uncovered pottery, architecture, and writings of this civilization dating as far back as 4000 BCE. Unfortunately, there are only a few samples of writings (mostly on soapstone seals and copper plates) and they have not yet been deciphered. So for now, our knowledge of this great civilization is based on physical evidence alone.

Baths have been found that may indicate ritual bathing, which is also a component of modern Hinduism. Some altar-like structures may be evidence of animal sacrifice, and terra cotta figures may represent deities. Some of these are pregnant female figures, indicating an emphasis on fertility. An important seal features a horned figure surrounded by animals, which some conjecture is a prototype of Shiva, but it could be a bull parallel to that found on Mesopotamian seals.

The Indus Valley civilization began to decline around 1800 BCE, possibly because of flooding or drought.

Aryans (c. 1800-1500 BCE)

Until recently, it was commonly accepted that an Indo-European culture known as the Aryans (Sanskrit, "noble ones") invaded or migrated into the area at this time. This group brought the language that would become Sanskrit as well as the Vedic religion, both of which formed the foundations of Hinduism.

"Indo-European" refers to a vast family of languages that contains Albanian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Germanic (including English), Greek, Indo-Iranian (including Sanskrit), and Italic-Romance languages.

Proponents of this "Aryan Invasion" hypothesis point to similarities between Zoroastrianism (the ancient religion of modern-day Iran) and the Vedic religion of ancient India, as well as similar finds in ancient cemeteries in modern-day India, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In addition, no trace of horses or chariots have been found in the remains of the Indus Valley culture, but these were central to Aryan military and ritual life.

In the last few decades, this hypothesis has been strongly challenged as a myth propagated by colonial scholars who sought to reinforce the idea that anything valuable in India must have come from elsewhere. Critics argue that there is lack of evidence of any conquest, among other historical and archaeological problems.

The alternative view is a cultural transformation hypothesis, which claims that the Aryan culture developed directly out of the Indus Valley culture, not from outside influences.

The 19th-century version of the "Aryan Invasion" theory has generally been abandoned as inaccurate, but most western academic sources still accept the idea of the Aryans as an external group bringing influences into the Indus Valley. For example, the Penguin Handbook of the World's Living Religions (2010) speaks of "the arrival of the semi-nomadic Aryan tribes who, by conquest and by settlement and assimilation, spread during these centuries across north India."

BBC Religion & Ethics summarized the matter this way:

Many people argue that there is now evidence to show that Muller [the original proponent of the hypothesis], and those who followed him, were wrong. Others, however, believe that the case against the Aryan invasion theory is far from conclusive.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of World Religions says, "This is a complex matter with evidence on both sides" but notes the evidence about the appearance of horses. The Introduction to World Religions, 3rd ed. says, "What followed [after the Indus Valley civilization] is a matter of considerable controversy" and does not take a position.

One alternative hypothesis is explained by the Encyclopædia Britannica as follows:

Between about 2000 and 1500 BCE not an invasion but a continuing spread of Indo-Aryan speakers occurred, carrying them much farther into India, to the east and south, and coinciding with a growing cultural interaction between the native population and the new arrivals. From these processes a new cultural synthesis emerged, giving rise by the end of the 2nd millennium to the conscious expressions of Aryan ethnicity found in the Rigveda, particularly in the later hymns.

For many Indians, this remains a political issue as well as a historical one, with the original theory regarded as racist and offensive.

Hitler and the Aryans

Speaking of racist and offensive, the word "Aryan" calls to mind the Nazi concept of the pure white race. The terms are actually related.

Hitler appropriated and modified the Aryan hypothesis of Indian history into his own racist beliefs, teaching that the Aryans were white Nordic people who had entered India and mixed with the inferior local people.

This belief arose from 19th-century German scholars who noted similarities between Sanskrit and German; it also led to the Nazis' adoption of the swastika symbol.

In his speeches and writings, Hitler scorned the people of India and their struggle for independence.

Vedic Religion (c. 1500-500 BCE)

However the Aryan culture came to be in India, it was the dominant culture of the Vedic period (c. 1500-500 BCE). This is named for the Vedas, a collection of sacred texts that are still important in Hinduism. These were transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down.

In its early history, Vedic religion was concerned primarily with rituals that brought benefits in this life. It included many gods, the most important of which were Agni (god of fire), Soma (the god of a consciousness-expanding beverage used in rituals), and Indra (warrior god and king).

It also introduced the concept of four social classes (varnas) that are part of the cosmic order of things. At the top of this hierarchy were the Brahmans, or priests.

In later Vedic religion, as recorded in the Upanishads, emphasis moves away from rituals towards mysticism and unity with ultimate reality, known as brahman. The concepts of karma and reincarnation are introduced, and the goal becomes escaping from this cycle.

Classical Hinduism (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE)

This period was a time of great change in Indian religion. The Vedic cult was in decline and popular new sects arose, including Buddhism and Jainism. In response, the priestly class (Brahmans) established an orthodoxy that required allegiance to the Vedas. This allowed for a variety of cults within mainstream Hinduism, but excluded Buddhism and Jainism.

During this period, the Brahmans developed religious law books, the dharma sutras and dharma shastras, which told Hindus how to live according to their social class and stage of life.

Also during this period, gods that were relatively minor in the Vedas became preeminent: Vishnu and Shiva in their many forms, with their female consorts. The great epic texts Ramayana and Mahabharata (which contains the Bhagavadgita) were composed during this time and tell the stories of the gods' exploits through their avatars Rama and Krishna. These gods and texts remain central to Hinduism today.

Middle or Medieval Hinduism (6th-19th cent.)

Most developments within Hinduism during this long period of history took place in the south of India, where sects like Buddhism were in decline and new Hindu kingdoms arose.

Medieval Hinduism saw the rise and establishment of the caste system; the development of the philosophical schools known as the darshanas; and the flourishing of sects devoted to each of the three major Hindu deities: Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), and Shaktism (Shakti).

There also arose the Sant tradition, beginning in the 15th century. Sants were mostly from the lower castes and rejected both the caste system and all external religion, focusing instead on internal love and awareness for a personal God. One of these sects later developed into Sikhism.

Modern Hinduism (20th-21st centuries)

The history of Hinduism in the modern world is characterized by its interaction with the world beyond India. Several Hindu reform and revival movements appeared under British rule and Hinduism played a major role in the Indian independence movement. In addition, many Hindu concepts have made their way into western culture and spirituality, such as yoga, oneness, and karma.