Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hinduism - A brief history

Some say Hinduism is not a religion. They say it's a way of life. 

Religion simply means a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman involving devotional and ritual observances.

At its face value, this definition denotes Hinduism as a religion.

Sanathana Dharma, is the Sanskrit word  for "The eternal Law".

That same word also means Hinduism. So now, Hinduism could be defined as the religion of Eternal Law.

How and where did all this begin? 

No one really knows. No date was stated but it is believed and taken as a fact that Hinduism is the oldest prehistoric religion in this world ( among others include the religions of the Mesopotamian and Egypt civilizasation) and the only one of its kind to still LIVE untill today. A radiocarbon test by the Americans Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the Kalpa Vigraha, a  crude brass idol of an ancient Hindu God Shiva revealed that it was an artifact that could only be found in the period around 26,000BCE (something like 28,000 years old today). Untill today, Hinduism still has no founder but many scholars and research have been don to widely debate the origins of Hinduism. Below are some theories associated with the beginnings of Hinduism.

Aryan Invasion Theory (AVT)

The Vedas and Agamas, the oldest literary monument of the Indian people, are a collection of hymns composed in archaic Sanskrit language which has been universally accepted as the foundation scripture of Hinduism. It was said that God whispered these scriptures to the illumined sages centuries and millenia ago. Elsewhere in the internet through various search result, I also found another source that said the author of the Vedas called themselves Aryans, "Noble People". How did they came about writing it, the source did not mention. In fact, the date of composition of the Vedas and the original habitat of the Aryans have become one of the most contested issue in Indian studies. 

If you look up Aryan, you'll see that Aryan is actually  derived from the Sanskrit word (arya)- noble. It is believed that the Aryans speak the Indo-European languages, a conglomeration of languages from North, West and Central India and also includes Spanish, English, Portugese, German, French, Russian and Italian.

This still remains as a theory without much archaeological evidences to support it. A group of European Sanskritists suggested that the best explaination for the existence of common features in Sanskrit and the Indo-European languages was the assumption of an invasion of a band of Aryan warriors, who had been living somewhere between Central Asia and Western Europe into India. Hence, the point to note here is that Hinduism did not originate from India, according to this theory. It was the fair skinned, blonde, blue-eyed, sharp nosed Aryans who brought it on horse chariots and fought against the black-skninned, snub-nosed indegenous Dravidian Indians.

With this affinity between European languages and Sanskrit became a commonly accepted notion, scholars elsewhere besides India concluded that the Sanskrit- speaking ancestors of the present day Indians had to be found halfway between India and the western borders of Europe. When the ruins of Mohenjo Daro & Harrapa were discovered in the early twentieth century, it was assumed that these were the cities the Aryan invadors destroyed. 

On the other hand, great scholars like Max Muller (who was a proponent of the AVT himself) and many other Western scholars were postulating the time frame for Indian history and the birth of Vedas. One of  Muller's original theory of the birth of the first Veda, The Rigveda was said to  be around the year 1200BCE. However finally before his death, he concluded through his last work  and admitted that " Whatever may be the date of the Vedic hyms, whether 1500 or 15000 BCE, they have their own unique place and  stand in the literature of the world.

Meanwhile the scholars in India, mainly Bal Gandahar Tilak pointed out an earlier birth date of the Vedas and that there was no reference in the Veda to a migration of the Aryans from outside India and that all geographical features mentioned in Rigveda were those of northwestern India. This was strengthen by the fact that there were no archaelogical evidence for the Aryan invasion theory. On the other side, there were constellations in Vedic works whose time frame can be reestablished by the commonly accepted astronomical calculations.

The contemporary Indian scholars vehemently reject the AVT calling it the " colonial- missionary theory". They accused this invasion as a purpose and process of the colonial conquest of India by the Western powers in modern times onto the beginnings of Indian civilization. The Europeans who came to India deemed themselves to be the bearers of a supposedly superior civilization and a higher religion. The original Aryans were assumed to have invaded a country, imposed their culture and religion perhaps even adopting the existing culture and tradition before claiming it to be their own. 

The defenders of the Aryan theory has continued to believe on their theory while their opponents have come with reasons to deem the former theory as obsolete and did not take place based on this reasons.

Indus Valley Civilization or Saraswati Civilization Culture??

In the Rigveda, it was said that the Saraswati River was praised as the mightiest of all river flowing pure from the mountains to the ocean. Recent satellite photography and geological investigations helped to reconstruct the ancient riverbed of the Saraswati and established that it had completely dried out by the year 1900 due to tectonic shifts. It is believed that the earliest evidence of prehistoric religion in India dated as far back as to the late Neolithic era during the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). Some 2600 archaeological sites have been discovered that were connected to the IVC and over 1500 sites were found to be located on the Sarasvati River basin.  The IVC was found in the Indian subcontinent which is now where Pakistan and north west India is. This civilization was said the be the largest ancient civilization in the world with Mohenjo-Dara and Harrappa being its two most developed cities,flourished around the Indus river  and extended into the Ghaggar-Hakra and Ganges-Yamuna river. According to one of the opponents of the AVT, it was said it is hardly meaningful to assume that the invading Vedic Aryans established thousands of settlements on its bank four centuries after the Saraswati River had dried out.  Mohenjo-Daro is now situated in Pakistan and recognized as one of UNESCO's world heritage site after it was discovered in the year 1920's and it emerged that nobody had distroyed these cities and no evidence of wars of conquest came to light as claimed in the AVT  but rather flood and droughts had made it impossible to sustain large population in the area. Hence people migrated. Ongoing archaeological research extended the area of IVC to that of the Gangetic culture. 
Satellite imaging of Indus & Saraswati River

Indus river- Blue line on the left, Saraswati River- Green line on the right 
With this evidence coming to light, a new theory of the origins of Hinduism emerged. This theory suggested that the IVC as a late Vedic phenomenon and traced the beginnings of the Vedic age back to several thousands of years. It gave birth to the ancient cultural term of Saraswati-Sindhu civilization. One of the reasons the IVC was coined closely with "Vedic" was because of the evidence of town planning and architectural design that was made based on highly advanced algebraic geometry- a type that was well preserved in the Sulva Sutras, the Vedic mathematic scriptures. 

In fact, the very name of India is said to be derived from the Indus river itself. In ancient times, "India" initially referred to the region of Pakistan along the eastern banks of the Indus river. The term Indus, believed to have been derived from the Rigveda's Sanskrit word Sindhu which was also used in the book Indica which was an account of the voyage of Alexander the Great, the Greek King of the Babylonian city of ancient Mesopotamia to conquer the Indus Civilization. Judging from the name Hinduism, it could be logically interpreted as a group of ancient people living along the Indus valley practicing a set of beliefs, rituals and traditions according to ancient scriptures. The followers of this extraordinary tradition would then be referred to as Sanatana Dharma, the "Eternal Faith" or the "Eternal Way of Conduct" and would be spread throughout the whole world and embraced by more than a billion people as Hinduism. Raimon Pannikar- Alemany, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest who was also a scholar of inter-religious dialogue, through his book the Vedic Experience ( one of the finest English translation of the Vedas), reduced the major religions in the world to proportionate human years, with each 100 years of history to represent one year of human life. Viewed this way, Sikhism, the youngest faith, is just five years old. Islam, the only teenager is fourteen. Christianity just turned twenty. Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism are twenty-five. Shintoism, is in its late twenties. Judaism is a mature thirty-seven. Hinduism, whose birthday remains unknown, is at least eighty years old- the white bearded grandfather of living spirituality in this planet. 

Perhaps something worth mentioning here although no religious interpretations were made would be the discovery of prehistoric cave paintings at Bhimbetka, India which was discovered in 1967 but were confirmed by archaeologist as something created by man somewhere between 30,000 to 100,000 years ago. 

Cave paintings found in Bhimbetka, India

Going to the war perhaps??? 
Even after reading all this, one could never be a 100% certain if Hinduism is indeed the oldest religion in the world ; perhaps the oldest surviving one would be more apt. It would be worthy to note that the cradle of civilization probably began simultaneously in many parts of the world along large river banks most notably Tigris Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus and the Yellow River in China. Almost logically, it would be pertinent to mention that any form of cultural or archaeological documentation would represent its worth and value. 

Perhaps a bigger question worth pondering is that what if documentation of civilization has nothing to do with the religion at all. By that I mean, somethings made known to man were existent long before it was made known to man and attaching value in terms of time does not do any justice to it neither does it do anything to settle the claim of mysticism attached to Hinduism. 

1 comment:

  1. This is by far one of the best posts I have read on the roots of Hinduism. The narration is accurately brilliant. Not a dull moment between which kept my eyes glued all through.