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Hinduism is a remarkably diverse and complex series of religious paths that developed over a long period of time among the peoples of what is modern day India and Pakistan. Interestingly, the followers of these religious paths never referred to their religion as Hinduism.  Rather, they called their religious traditions the Sanatana Dhamra - the eternal religion. "Hindu" was a name applied to their religion by others. It is not certain if the earliest forms of Hinduism were brought to India by Aryan invaders, or if Hinduism originated among the indigenous inhabitants of the Indus valley. 

Until recently, non-Indian scholars believed that the earliest forms of Hinduism were brought to India around 2,500 B.C.E. by the Indo-European people known as Aryans. Recently, archaeological evidence has been interpreted as supporting the possibility that Hinduism originated among the indigenous inhabitants of the Indus valley. Although its origins may be open to debate, it is clear that Hinduism is one of the worlds oldest religions.  


I. The Vedas: The Scriptures of Hinduism

All of the various paths of modern Hinduism honor a collection of ancient scriptures called the Vedas (or "Books of Knowledge"). These texts were composed in sanskrit and written down by the middle of the first millenium BCE. The Vedas are considered by Hindus to be the "breath of the eternal" heard by the sages  (rishis). Consequently the term "shutri" (meaning, "what is heard") is often used to refer to the Vedas. The oldest of the Vedas is the Rig Veda .The Vedas consist of four parts which can be visualized as four "layers" with the oldest layer on the top.

  1. The first "layer" is the Samhitas (also called the Veda). These consist of  hymns of praise in worship of deities referred to as devas. They also contain several creation stories.  The most prominent deities are Agni (god of fire), Indra and Soma.

  2. The Brahmanas are organized to correspond to the four Vedas.  They contain  directions about performances of the ritual sacrifices to the deities. According to the Brahmanas, sacrifices are the power that strengthens the gods, keeps the universe intact and brings blessings to one who sacrifices.

  3. Aranyakas - Writings of those who retired to the forests to meditate. The texts seek to explain the meaning behind the rituals.

  4. Upanishads - Upanishad literally means "sitting near," i.e. a student sitting near his instructor. These consist of philosophical treatises composed 600-400 BCE. The oldest of the Upanishads are the Chandogya and Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishads. A major emphasis of the Upanishads is the search for Brahma as it relates to Atman (see below)


II. Vedic Religion (Brahmanism)

From the Vedas we catch a glimpse of the Hinduism from its earliest times.  We also see its development  from a religion focused on sacrifice to one that includes philosophic speculation. 

A. The Devas

The earliest parts of the Vedas are hymns of praise to various devas. The devas are gods and goddesses or may simply be controlling forces of the universe. The most prominent of these are:

  • Indra (god of thunder/ bringer of rains)

  • Agni (god of fire)

  • Soma (associated with sacred drink)

  • Ushas (goddess of dawn)


B. Fire sacrifices and the cosmic order

Vedic worship centered on fire sacrifice in which the God of fire, Agni, was thought to convey the sacrifice to gods.  These sacrifices were often conducted at confluence of two river and included offerings of grains, butter and soma (a drink made of a plant that grew in mountainous regions). They were conducted by Brahmins (priests) who chanted special formulas ( mantras)  to invoke the breath behind all existence (Brahman - the impersonal ultimate principle). 

The sacrifices were thought to maintain the order of the universe.  In fact, the world had been created by the sacrifice of a cosmic giant known as Purusha. The various parts of Purusha's body were  used to create the cosmos. The sacrifice of Purusha is also considered to be the origin of the caste system. 


From the earliest parts of the Vedas the syllable OM is considered to be the most sacred sound, and may even be considered to be a mantra in itself. OM is thought to be the cosmic vibration that holds together the universe. It was commonly believed that the universe was created through the vibration of sound; OM the sound that brought even the gods into being.  It is commonly used in mantras and meditation.

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