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The Origins of Hinduism


Hinduism is a remarkably diverse group of religious paths that developed over a long period of time among the peoples of what is modern day India and Pakistan.  The very fact that Hinduism can be described a diverse group of paths suggests that it may have not single historical point of origin. In fact, unlike Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, Hinduism does not identify a historical figure as its founder. In addition, it is impossible to determine exactly when and where the many beliefs, practices, and teachings that characterize Hinduism began.  Text books will often cite two possible foundations upon which Hinduism was built: the ancient Indus river valley civilization and the culture and religion of the Aryans.


The Indus River Civilization


As early as 2,500 BCE, the area around the Indus river was home to a thriving civilization with large urban centers, farming communities, thriving trade, and sophisticated agricultural methods.  Major cities of the Indus river valley include Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.  Archeological findings in these cities may be interpreted to show some connections to religious practices characteristic of Hinduism. Places that were possibly used for ritual baths, numerous statues of deities, and images of individuals sitting in meditation seem to be very similar to practices in later Hinduism.


Unfortunately, we cannot say with certainty what the people of the Indus Valley civilization believed.  The archaeological discovery of the ancient cities occurred less than 100 years ago, and the language of these peoples has not been deciphered. Therefore, it is not yet possible to know who they were and what they believed.


The great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro along with most other cities of the Indus River declined in the first part of the second millennium. At one time, it was believed that this civilization was destroyed by waves of invaders. There were many problems with this theory, however. More recently, evidence has been discovered that suggests that the cities of the Indus River valley declined due to climate change: rivers shifted or dried up entirely as the monsoons dramatically decreased. Today, this seems to be the most logical and likely explanation of why these once great cities were abandoned.

Map showing cities of Indus River Civilization


The Aryans

A second possible foundation of Hinduism has been traced to the Aryans. The Aryans were groups of nomadic people from Eastern Europe and central Asia who are believed to have migrated to Northern India in several waves beginining around 1500 BCE.  These people referred to themselves as "Aryans" a word that simply means "noble ones" or the "civilized ones." They are probably responsible for bringing the ancient Indo-European language, Sanskrit into northern India. It is this language that seems to be the source of a large number of other languages including Greek, Latin, and even English. SIgnificantly, many of the places referenced in the earliest scriptures of Hinduism (for example, the Rig Veda) are far to the north and west of India. Moreover, it is generally believed that the religious beliefs and practices depicted in the earliest scriptures of Hinduism reflect the religion of the Aryans.  We will discuss the religion of the Rig Veda in another section. For now, the important point is that this very ancient scripture seems to reflect a culture and location outside of India.


More information about Sanskrit and the Aryans is available through the video, "The Story of India."


The Debate

The question of which religious elements can be traced to the original inhabitants and which ones were brought by the Aryans is hotly debated. One of the reasons that the debate is so intense has little to do with pure academic research. The critical question for some is whether Hinduism originated in India, or whether it was brought by "outsiders." Considering India's history of repeated coloniolization by foregn powers, it is understandable that some would be suspicious of a theory originally set forth by "outsiders" stating that other "outsiders" are responsible for some or all of the religious heritage of India. It would be a source of national pride if it could be shown that all of Hinduism, including the culture and religious practicies of the Rig Veda, actually originated in India, It cannot be denied, however, that there is a connection with Aryan religion. On the other hand, it seems probable that both outside groups as well as indigenous groups made significant contributions to early Hinduism. Moreover, it should not be overlooked that areas within India that lie well outside of the Indus River civilization had their own unique religious beliefs and practices. It is likely that the new arrivals not only influenced the religion and culture of the area; they were also influenced by the beliefs and practices of the original inhabitants. This ongoing intermixing of ideas, practices, and world views is what makes Indian culture and religion complex and diverse. Indeed, the genius of Hinduism may well lie in its uncanny ability to find unity in an amazing diversity.