History of Hinduism

The word Hindu comes from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu," a historical name for a river in the northwest of India. Hinduism originated in the Indus Valley near modern day Pakistan. It is currently the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam, and boasts of over one billion followers.

Hinduism is unique from other religions, in that there is no one founder, no one scripture, and no strictly agreed-upon set of instructions and rules. Hinduism is sometimes regarded more as a way of life or as a group of combined beliefs rather than a religion in the rigid sense.

Scholars agree that many elements of Hinduism's early history is unclear, due to the fact that many of the oldest documents have yet to be decoded. Assumptions about the origins have been based on archeological finds from a dig in 1921 along the Indus River. Many believed that the community of the Indus Valley began to decline around 1800 BC, when the Aryans invaded India and Iran. The influence of the Aryan Sanskrit and Vedic religion both played foundational roles in Hinduism. However, in recent years this theory has proven unlikely, and the facts about Hinduism's origin remain enshrouded in mystery.

Though many dates are contested, the most widely accepted belief about Hinduism's origins, categorizes the history into a different period of development, beginning with the Bronze Age in the Indus Valley civilization and what was known as a "Vedic Religion." This gathering era was the foundational time for Hinduism which carried on through the Iron Age or the Vedic Period between 1800-1500 BC. Thereafter, during 800-200 BC, Hinduism became distinguished from the Vedic religion of the time, in an era known as the Second Urbanization. The religion solidified around the same time as Jainism and Buddhism were established, both of which influenced Hinduism through the adoption of meditative practices and self-help ideals in connection to the universe. This establishment period was followed by what is referred to as "The Golden Age" or the Epic and Puranic Period of Hinduism, from 200 BC to 500 AD. This was a time when the main branches of Hinduism were instituted: Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Vedenta. The religion expanded through increased trade routes, from India into Southeast Asia. Through this expansion, Hinduism was impacted by this convergence of cultures, language, religious texts and literature.

The Golden Age was followed by the Classic Period or Medieval and Late Puranic Period of Hinduism, which occurred during the Middle Ages from about 600 AD to 1500 AD. During this era, partial incorporation of Buddhist teachings caused Hinduism to take on a more idealistic than realistic philosophy dealing with questions about the natural world and existence. A number of movements created distinctions and preferred methods of practicing Hinduism among the followers. The Bhakti movement inspired followers to serve and worship the gods Vishnu, Shakti and Shiva; the Brahmin and Smriti traditions were influenced by philosophies from Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka beliefs. Puranic Hinduism became the mainstream faith which resulted from these beliefs.

In the midst of the Medieval Period, the 8th century brought Islam through India, infiltrating the religion amongst the native Indians. This era is often referred to as The Muslim Period, which saw the establishment of the Mughal Empire. Over the centuries, the Hindus and Muslims have experienced varied times of peace and conflict, though during the Mughal Empire, Hinduism was under particular strain since the state religion was Islam. The empire was brought to an end only on the arrival of the Great Britain. The British Colonization era followed the Muslim Period, beginning in 1757when the Battle of Plassey brought India under British rule.

Though Portuguese missionaries had already arrived in India in the 16th century, it was not until the British Colonization that many Hindus began converting to Christianity. By the 1800's, missionaries and proselytes had become well- established in the country. In an effort to retain their traditions and beliefs, many Hindus sought to adapt to the western ideas, while holding to their Hindu identity in small divided states.

Aside from exterior reforms during the Muslim Period and the British rule, several notable reforms occurred within the Hindu religion. One such reform was the Brahmo Samaj movement in 1828. The reformer Ram Mohan Roy traveled to Europe and adopted the belief that superstition and Hindu rituals were not based on the doctrinal writings of the Upanishads, which emphasize the universal spirit and permeating force of the world, Brahman. He believed the actual essence of Hinduism extended beyond the caste systems, practices and worship, and was more about the concepts and rationale of the Upanishads.

Other reformers responded to this preference to Upanishads by claiming that the Vedas (also a sacred text of Hinduism) foundational to Hinduism, and would not let the religious practices and rituals be disregarded. In 1875, the Arya Samaj movement led by Swami Dayananda in Bombay, guided Hindus away from practicing rituals such as idol praise, child marriages, caste systems, animal sacrifices, etc.

The Neo-Vedanta movement was also developed by Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century, whose teachings influenced men like Mahatma Ghandi, a sage of his time. Ghandi encouraged similar reforms in the Hindu faith during the British Colonization period, where he emphasized civil rights and non-violent resolutions in the face of every conflict, no matter how severe.

Hinduism has evolved over the years, being influenced by other religions as well as being the an inspiration for religious and social perspectives over the past few centuries. For example, the classic Aryan-Vedic focus of self-conquest inspired philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer whose work was instrumental for Friedrich Nietzsche. And in the 20th century, a group of Western occultists adopted the Sanskrit sign for continuing life, the swastika, as a sign of good luck. It also was associated with those who supported Aryan and the German Faith Movement. When National Socialists of Germany (the Nazi Party) came to power, they chose the swastika as their trademark emblem.

The New Age movement in the 20th century also traces its roots back to Hinduism, and pantheism and the world view of the connectivity of all beings, and an impending enlightenment in human consciousness. Elements of the New Age movement have been linked to Contemporary Paganism, which also has roots in Hindu ideology.