Hinduism, today, is recognized as one of the major religions of the world, that find its origin in the Indian subcontinent. It contains numerous, diverse structures of philosophy, beliefs and rituals. While, the term, ‘Hinduism’ coined by British writers, is fairly recent, pertains to a tradition built on a collection of texts and practices that have been passed down over many generations. If the belief that Hinduism originated with the Indus Valley civilization is true, that suggests that Hinduism might in fact be the oldest religion in the world. Many of the sacred texts of Hinduism used Sanskrit and another vernacular language to increase awareness about the religion. However, rituals, visual arts and performing arts also played a vital part in the spread of Hinduism.
Contrary to other religious disciplines, Hinduism commemorates its organic, multi-layered and pluralistic characteristics. The history of Hinduism can be split into three periods of advancement. The first is the pre-Vedic period which accounts for the Indus Valley civilization as well as other prehistoric religions. This was then followed by the dawn of the Vedic religion and the Indo-Aryan migrations. What follows is often considered the turning point between the Vedic religions and Hinduism. It is known as the formative period of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Then came the Epic and Early Puranic period, considered the ‘Golden Age’ of Hinduism. It is during this period that the six sections of Hindu philosophy were born - Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa and Vedantu. Another pivotal moment in Hindu history was the emergence of monotheistic factions such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism. At its core, Hinduism is built on the concept of Dharma, which represents an individual’s responsibility that is accomplished through the observance of laws and customs.
The five tensile strands
It is believed in Indian religious history that there are at least five elements that gave shape to the Hindu traditions in India. Together, they work metaphorically like a braid, wherein each strand is developed on a vast history of conversation, elaboration and challenge. These elements are:
Doctrine: This is the first of the five tensile strands. This element covers Hindu textual matters that shape the religion, particularly, the Vedas, which stand to be the oldest written matter on the religion that has been put together by the learned class - the Brahmans.
Practice: This second strand is representative of the Hindu rituals that connect different places, strata and periods of Hindu life. It is a well-known fact that many Vedic traditions still exist in Modern-day Hinduism, the most eminent being the worship of icons or images (Pratima, murti or archa). In a broader aspect, this is known as ‘puja’ and when it is performed at a temple in the presence of a priest, it is called Archana. This custom is reminiscent of the warmth with which an honoured guest is treated, specifically the exchange of food. The food is known as ‘Prasada’ which alludes to the offerings that are made to deities.
Society: The third strand is reflective of the layered social structure that existed in Hinduism, which is commonly called, the caste system. Although with time, this notion has evolved into a less oppressive form of societal values, they have taken on a different meaning in today’s world. Ancient India was segregated into four primary classes (varnas), while today there exist numerous interrelated birth groups, otherwise known as jatis.
Story: The fourth strand, story, represents the use of narrative and plays as a tool to portray the interaction between the divine and human realms. This can be seen in the portrayals of Krishna and Radha, Rama and Sita as well as Lakshmana, his brother, Shiva and Parvati and the Goddess Durga as an annihilator of the buffalo demon, Mahisasura. The epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana are a perfect examples of this strand.
Devotion: The fifth strand signifies the universality of the Hindu experience over the course of time, through bhakti (devotion).
The main concepts of Hinduism include the Vedas, Brahmans and disparity of religious authority, the Atman-Brahman doctrines, the beliefs of Karma, Moksha and Samsara, Dharma and its three paths and the Ashramas or the four stages of life.
Q1. Does Hinduism have a founder?
In contrast to other religions of the world, Hinduism does not have a founder. It is a blend of many beliefs and traditions of the Indian subcontinent. It is believed that the migration of the Indo-Aryan community to India, their traditions and culture mixed with that of the Indus Valley civilization, which then resulted in the emergence of Hinduism.
Q2. Have the Hindu gods ever existed on Earth?
Hinduism recounts the power of various Gods and Goddesses and believes in exclusivism, that is, the belief that one’s own deity is real. This is a rare phenomenon occurring only in Hinduism.
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