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
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 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
The Brahmanas are organized to
correspond to the four Vedas.
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.
Writings of those who retired to the forests to meditate. The texts
seek to explain the meaning behind the rituals.
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
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
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
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.