The Early synthesis
The antiquity of Hinduism can be better estimated form the astronomical evidence available in the Hindu scriptures, the folk traditions and anthropological studies peculiar to the indian subcontinent, and some geographical and etymological references mentioned in the vedic literature. These evidences suggest that what we understand today as Hinduism may have a long and checkered history of at least 6000 years or more. It is true with regard to the folk traditions of the early human settlements of the indian subcontinent which have now become part of it. Whatever may be the truth, some of the core beliefs of Hinduism are derived from the vedic religion, also known as Brahmanism, which thrived in the indian subcontinent around 2500 bc. It was based upon the knowledge of the vedas, of the which the Rigveda is considered the oldest. It is a voluminous work, which is divided into ten books, and which may have been composed in its present form over a period of many centuries. The early vedic people lived in the north western parts of the indian subcontinent. We do not know whether they had any connection with the indus valley civilization. It appears that vedism thrived, following the decline of the indus valley civilization. Subsequently, the vedic people migrated to the plains of northern and central india. We do not know the reason for the migration. It happened probably because of the drying up of the ancient river saraswati and continued drought. The vedas themselves do not reveal much about these historical events. However, they do throw considerable light upon their customs, beliefs and practices. The hymns of the Rigveda suggest that the vedic religion is very ancient. However, we do not know how the true origins of the vedic community or how they gained importance. It is possible that they were a heterogeneous group. Some of them might have been immigrants from outside. Their society was divided into four distinct groups, which was based upon either color, occupation or birth. At some point, the divisions became rigid, resulting in the emergence of birth based caste system. The knowledge of the vedas remained confined to the brahmanas and the Kshatriyas. The brahmanas specialized in ritual knowledge, while the Kshatriyas in the spiritual knowledge. The vedic hymns were products of a very ancient wisdom, received by ancient seers in contemplative and intuitive states who claimed as their progenitor, the great manu, the first man on earth. The vedic seers used their religious knowledge wisely, to their best advantage, attracting new adherents through royal patronage and the appeal of magical rituals. They also integrated many rival traditions of the subcontinent, either under pressure from the native rulers or on their own, to broaden their appeal and attract a wider following.
Hinduism may have its roots in the prehistoric times
Hinduism is not derived from vedic religion only. It has also drawn richly from Shaivism, Vaishnavism, shaktism, tantra, and several ascetic traditions. Overtime it had also been enriched by numerous folk and tribal traditions. Undoubtedly, some of them had their roots and antecedents in the prehistoric cultures that thrived in the indian subcontinent. These traditions were not part of the vedic religion, but in course of time they were integrated into it. The deities of these traditions became part of the vedic pantheon while many original gods of the vedas were relegated to a secondary place.
Is Hinduism a religion?
Truly speaking, when we refer to Hinduism, we do not know whether we should consider it a religion or group of religions. Neither Hinduism nor any of its sects is founded by any particular person nor institution. Numerous seers, sages, saints, scholars, philosophers, kings and common people contributed to its growth. Some of its beliefs and traditions are diametrically opposed to each other. The contradictions of Hinduism lead to the argument that Hinduism cannot be considered religion in the strict sense of the word, but as a complex theology, which incorporates into its body numerous beliefs, scriptures, philosophies, concepts and practices. The word hindu is not a religious term but a geographical one. It is derived from the river Sindhu, which flowed in the north western region of the indian subcontinent. To the world outside, the people who inhabited the region were known as hindus. Later their faiths collectively became Hinduism. Some scholars prefer calling it sanathan dharma, meaning the eternal religion, since god, who is said to be its source, is eternal. Hinduism differs from other organized religions in the following aspects:
-it is not based upon a particular founder
-it is not based upon a particular book
-it is not controlled by a central institution or authority such as a church or a sangha or association
-it is not averse to examine and assimilate fundamentally diverse thoughts and beliefs into its system
-it accepts other religions as various paths to salvation and does not favor organized attempts to proselytize people
-it has been evolving continuously, through internal reforms and as a reaction to the threats and challenges without