Part One: Vedic Religion: A way of ritual
The earliest stage of Hinduism is usually classified as Vedic religion. This is the religious practice and beliefs reflected in the earliest collections of scripture such as the Rig Veda. In these ancient texts, we see a religion that is centered on fire sacrifice. The general concept is that sacrifice is a ritual that is necessary to keep the world going. Without these sacrifices to the gods, everything would descend into chaos – the social order as well as the natural order. Sacrifices were thought to nourish and please the gods who then maintain order. In fact, sacrifice is so important that one of the stories of the Rig Veda tells us that the world itself along with all the social order or the caste system was created through the sacrifice of a cosmic being, a giant named Purusha.
If sacrifices are the subject of the oldest collection of scriptures, the most important group are the priests who know the right words to say, that is the right mantras or verbal formulae, as well as the correct way to perform the rituals. For this reason, the priests are at the top of the social order.
At this point, Hinduism has very little to say about the afterlife, and it seems to be more focused on maintaining social and cosmic order. In fact, many of the stories in these early collections tell how one of the gods defeated a threat to the natural order of the universe. Interestingly, the prominent gods and goddesses in the older layer of Hinduism are not the ones that are most prominent later.