How Old is Hinduism?

Carving Hinduism, Prambanan

A Wall Carving on Prambanan, a 9th-century Hindu temple, Indonesia

by Jayaram V

Question: Recently there was a controversy that the Chola Kings who built the Brihadisvara Temple in present day Tamil Nādu were not Hindus and did not practice Hinduism. What are your views about it? Do you agree with them?

The argument is logically correct, but logic is not everything in matters of faith. Sometimes, logic is not helpful to make sense of complex truths or categorically respond to a yes-or-no question. Considering the historical compulsions and the development of the belief system which is variously referred to as Hindu Dharma, Sanatana Dharma or simply Hinduism, the very idea is preposterous and pedantically narrow-minded and mischievous. In logical terms it is argumentum ad absurdum (argument which leads to absurdity or contradiction). My brief response is as follows.

  • Yes, the word Hinduism was probably coined in the nineteenth century.
  • Yes, it was done to establish and distinguish the cultural or ethnic identity of India’s native faiths.
  • However, the faiths or the Dharmas which it represents are very ancient.

One may argue that the Sungas, the Satavahanas, the Guptas, Cholas, Chalukyas and Rayas who ruled parts of India in the past were not practicing Hinduism, but the fact is, they followed the Dharmas which it represents. These Dharmas originated and developed independently and had sects and sub sects, but their teachings or doctrines are still alive in Hinduism and are still practiced by Hindus. In this regard, the following points are also worth noting.

  • They worshipped the same gods who are worshipped by present day Hindus and held the same beliefs about rebirth, karma, dharma, sacrifice, heaven and hell, liberation and ethical conduct.
  • They built several temples for the gods who are still worshipped by Hindus (and in some cases make offerings to the same images they installed).
  • They practiced the same rituals, sacraments and sacrifices which we practice today and chanted the same mantras which are still chanted in several temples and households.
  • They went on pligrimages to the same sacred places which are still popular.
  • They studied the same scriptures, which are universally considered Hindu scriptures.
  • They built temples according to the same principles of Vastu, which most Hindus follow today in building and temple construction.
  • They named their children after the same gods whom present day Hindus worship.
  • In most of their temples the same lineage of Brahmanas and their descendants offer daily worship to the chief deities according to the same customs.
  • They preserved the purity of scriptures and the knowledge they contained. When the British scholars were trying to codify Hindu scriptures, they were surprised to find that the manuscripts of the Vedas they secured from different places in India were exactly the same.

Therefore, no one with a discerning mind would argue that the ancient temples such as the Brihadisvara Temple built by Rajaraja Chola or the Madurai Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple of the Pandyas are not Hindu temples, or the people who built them were not Hindus. Certainly, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or atheists do not visit them every day to offer ritual worship. Only Hindus visit them to venerate the deities who reside in their sanctums sanctorum and who are very much an integral part of present-day Hindu pantheon.

If you think that those ancient people who worshipped our gods and followed our scriptures, were not practicing Hinduism, you may feel justified in that absurd, logical extreme, but it does not reflect the truth that the beliefs and practices it represents are as old as India's history and civilization. By the same stretch of logic, one may argue that Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, Yajnavalkya, Veda Vyasa, Chanakya, Adi Shankaracharya, and many other seers and saints who preached and practiced our ancient Dharmas were not Hindus or were not practicing them, just because this label did not exist then. However, nowhere it is said that you cannot retrospectively apply new words, names or labels to preexisting things or phenomena.

In Sanskrit, there is a specific name, vitanda-vadam, for extreme reasoning or logical extreme, with which you can repudiate even the most fundamental truths. Logical extremes do not necessarily reflect truths or their complexity. Those who engage in them are usually those who do it to satisfy their whims or win an argument, but it does not take away the fact that the Dharmas which are now an integral part of what we call Hinduism or Hindu Sanatana Dharma were practiced by our ancestors for a long time. To those who engage in such disputational arguments to garner attention, I have these simple questions to ponder.

  • If a person changes his or her name several years after birth, does that mean that person did not exist before or the person becomes different?
  • Does a thing exist by itself or in itself or because a name has been given to it?

Antecedents of Hindu and Hinduism

The word Hindu is derived from the Persian word Hind or the Arabic al-hind, which was originally meant to refer to the area of the Indus Valley civilization. It was derived from the Indo-Aryan word Sindhu, which meant river or ocean. When Muslims settled in the area in the eight century AD, Persian writers used the word Hindus to distinguish the native people from Muslims. However, native people did not use it to refer to themselves either in speech or in writings, until much later. They referred to themselves either after their caste names, the languages they spoke or the particular Dharma they followed. It is said that Srivara, a Saiva Scholar from Kashmir used it for the first time in his writings in the fifteenth century AD to distinguish the non-Muslims from Muslims. This is according to the available literary evidence. It is possible other people might have used it too around that time or even before it, but we do not have any evidence. In the sixteenth century, Vaishnava scholars of Bengal used it to distinguish those who were not Yavanas (Greeks) or Muslims.

In these early references, the it was used to refer to the native people who engaged in practices such as veneration of cows, image worship or cremation, which were not practiced by Muslims. In the eighteenth century, the British adapted the term Hindoo or Hindu to refer to the people of Hindustan who were not Christians, Muslims, Jains or Sikhs. Around that time, the name ‘Hinduism’ began to appear in some writings to refer to the faith of the Hindus. Raja Rammohun Roy is said to be the first Indian who used it in his writings in 1816.

By the nineteenth century, the word became widely popular in the Indian subcontinent as well as outside. It immensely helped the nationalist leaders of India to establish a distinct national identity for the native people and promote nationalist fervor against the colonial rule of the British. On the downside, the new arrangement rather simplified and generalized several complex and independent faiths of India and reduced them into sectarian traditions. It also stalled their development and further expansion as people began viewing them as aspects of Hinduism rather than independent faiths..

Legal definition

The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 defines a Hindu “as any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms or developments, including a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj; any person who is a Buddhist, Jaina or Sikh by religion, and any other person who is domiciled in the territories to which the Act extends who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion. However, in general usage the word applies only to those who practice Hinduism or any of its Dharmas or sectarian beliefs. The people who are born to them are also considered Hindus, unless they identify themselves differently or convert to other religions. However, since the word Hinduism has not been clearly defined anywhere in the Indian constitution, which is secular and non-religious in character, or in any bill enacted by the Indian Parliament, the courts in India have difficulty in interpreting it or arriving at a definitive conclusion about it, which is often reflected in some court rulings.

Hinduism represents many resilient Dharmas

The idea of Dharma is uniquely Indian. So also, the idea of liberation (moksha or nirvana). For all the faiths which originated in India, Dharma is the means, and liberation is the goal. They are as relevant today to people of all native faiths as they were millenniums ago. Each of these ancient faiths had independent names with dharma as the suffix. Each of them represented a way of life and a set of beliefs, duties and obligations, which one had to practice to achieve moral and mental purity, peace and happiness, here and hereafter. Since their origin, they developed independently as distinct faiths with some shared beliefs and practices, until the British scholars decided to group them together under the distinct label of Hinduism. Each of them can still be practiced independently, and many people still do, but they do not mind if you call them Hindus or their faith Hinduism.

Another important fact is that each of these Dharmas independently and collectively survived centuries of oppression and discrimination. They withstood the ravages of many wars, conquests, natural calamities and foreign invasions. They endured oppression and suppression for centuries in the hands of tyrants and religious bigots who viewed them with antipathy, hostility and animosity. Remnants of that hostility still persists in the minds of many who do not want to see Hinduism emerge as a major world religion.

What they do not understand is that Hinduism has resilience because of its diversity and complexity which are evident when its different Dharmas are viewed independently or together as one holistic faith. For centuries, their survival depended upon the loyalty and devotion of their practitioners rather than any centralized authority, ecclesiastical hierarchy, monarchy or autocracy. For the same reasons, present day Hinduism and its Dharmas will survive even after all these modern, educated critics who question its legitimacy will become a part of earth’s distant memory.

The permanent and impermanent aspects of Hinduism

In all the Dharmas of Hinduism, names and forms (nama and rupa) are considered temporary, because their source is not God, but human speech and perception respectively. They exist in the domain of our mind or consciousness only. Hence, they are neither eternal nor indestructible, while the source of the Dharmas which they represent is the eternal Supreme Being himself. Regarding them the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.6.1 & 2) states thus.

All this (creation) is threefold, name, form and action. Of them, with regard to names, speech is the source because all names arise from speech only. It makes them similar; it, indeed, is the same for all names. For them it is their Brahman because it supports all names. Now, with regard to forms, the eye is the source, for all forms arise from it only. It makes them similar; it, indeed, is the same for all forms. For them it is their Brahman, because it supports all forms.

Hence, in Hinduism we do not give as much importance to names and forms as we give to the Self which resides in them and which is considered eternal, indestructible and unchanging. Similarly, the Dharmas which are now a part of Hinduism may appear in future time cycles under different names and in different formats, but their essential teachings will be the same and the deities they uphold will also be the same although their forms and names may be different.

The soul of Hinduism is indestructible

The soul of Hinduism is its eternal Dharma. The outer aspects of it such as its names, teachers, scriptures, methods, practices and institutions constitute its gross body, while its knowledge and wisdom, its subtle body. Therefore, Hindus should ignore anyone who disparages Hinduism suggesting that it came into existence during the British rule or was not practiced by our ancestors. Hinduism may undergo further changes in future as new teachers emerge, new ideas develop and new knowledge may emerge about its history or antiquity.

The truth is, we practice an eternal Dharma, which comes into existence at the beginning of each time cycle and is withdrawn at the end of it. Just as the sacred River Ganga, its source is in the heavens, while it flows upon earth and in our consciousness through the mediation of the eternal teacher and the Supreme Lord himself whom we revere as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and several other names.

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