Change and continuity: historical and geographical distribution

Histories of Hinduism used to begin with the Aryans as the custodians of the Vedic texts, conceived as invaders who conquered the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent. However, in the 1920s, archaeological excavations revealed the existence of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a sophisticated literate urban culture, predating the postulated arrival of the Aryans to whom its destruction was initially attributed. The discoveries made were then seized upon as possible sources of later Hindu belief and practice such as Goddess worship and ritual purity and pollution that were without obvious Vedic origins. Many aspects of this account are questionable: the Aryan invasion thesis has been criticised as reflecting a colonial outlook (that the sacred texts and practices of Hindu tradition were brought in by invading lighter-skinned outsiders rather than originating with the darker-skinned indigenous people of India); the relationship between the Indus Valley Civilisation and Vedic culture has been redefined in terms of continuity rather than change (that the Indus Valley Civilisation was actually an earlier form of Vedic culture); and the speculative nature of the interpretation of artefacts (figures with exaggerated female characteristics, the Great Bath, etc.) without having deciphered the Indus Valley script has been underlined. Dating has also proved contentious but many scholars believe that the Indus Valley Civilisation was flourishing in the mid third millennium BCE with the Vedic period starting around the mid second millennium BCE.

The dominance of the Veda and its ritual worldview was challenged in the mid first millennium BCE by the shramanas, ascetics who renounced the world in search of spiritual insight and fulfilment. This included criticism of traditional values and practices such as ritual sacrifices and the importance of family life and having children, to be replaced by practices such as ascetic penances, yoga and meditation and following the new ideas of a variety of shramana teachers. Both what are now called Jainism and Buddhism emerged from this background, as did the Upanishads which embodied radical shramanic values in spite of becoming included in the Vedic texts. A concerted effort was required by the orthodox to counter the attraction of new movements and perspectives, for example, by accommodating renunciation as a vocation into traditional patterns rather than as a radical alternative. In the famous scheme of the Laws of Manu, renunciation was integrated into a series of life stages conditional on the individual having first performed the duties of a student of the Vedic texts and then the duties of a householder, ensuring that the three debts owed to the ancestors, sages and gods were discharged by fathering sons, completing Vedic studies and offering sacrifices. This ability to absorb new ideas and practices within existing traditions has enabled Hinduism to weave together change and continuity over the centuries and contain massive diversity within what can still be perceived as related.

Another significant development was the rise of the bhakti (devotion) movement in the mid first millennium CE, characterised by the personal relationship between deity and devotee and centred on major Gods and Goddesses of the post-Vedic pantheon such as Vishnu, Shiva and Mahadevi (the Goddess). Some bhakti groups retained a broadly orthodox stance though others were more radical. The Islamic presence on the subcontinent seems to have played some part in the emergence in medieval North India of a distinctive type of bhakti, nirguna bhakti (devotion to the formless divine), also known as the Sant tradition, with adherents from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. This type of devotion, rejecting the outer and institutionalised forms of religiosity of Hinduism and Islam alike and focussing upon direct experience of the divine through meditation on Name or Word, has been compared with the teachings of Guru Nanak as the context of early Sikhism.

British rule prompted further developments as numerous societies were formed with agendas of reform and revival such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj. Similar societies, concerned to achieve religious and social change and thereby defend the interests of the community, were founded by members of other religions. The interplay of these organisations, including the Singh Sabhas founded by leading Sikhs, contributed towards the process of defining religions and communities as separate, if not also antagonistic, and thus helped to reshape the religious landscape of India. This led to the growing insistence on Sikhism as separate from Hinduism at least at the level of formal or official discourse though the situation remains more fluid and ambiguous on the ground.

Contrasting trends in modern and contemporary Hinduism feature the advocacy of a universalist spirituality represented by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission/Vedanta Societies and the assertion of a Hindu nationalism represented by the Sangh Parivar/Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Exchange and encounter with the West have been important factors. The Theosophical Society, particularly under the leadership of Annie Besant (1847-1933), did much to promote Hindu beliefs and values in the West while advancing educational, social and political causes in India. ISKCON was established by Swami Bhaktivedanta in New York in 1966 at the height of the counterculture where his preaching of Chaitanya’s message of Krishna bhakti won over disaffected young Americans before spreading worldwide, attracting devotees from the Hindu community as well as those from other backgrounds.

The history of Hinduism is thus complex and multifaceted, with beliefs and practices old and new co-existing and interacting in a huge variety of ways, in relation to other religions and in response to changing circumstances. Its geographical spread has also been significant. Within the subcontinent, there are notable regional differences evident in the temple architecture of North (Nagara) and South (Dravida) India, while some tribal communities living in marginal areas have been subject to proselytization by Hindu missionaries. Hindus live in present-day Nepal, proclaimed ‘the world’s only Hindu state’ from 1962 to 2006 (whereas the contemporary Indian state is officially secular). Hindus also live in what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh after the subdivision of British India at Partition in 1947 and Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971. Hindus have lived in Sri Lanka for thousands of years though their numbers have been swelled by a series of migrations from South India, including the settlement of Tamils to work on plantations under British imperial rule.

Although, traditionally, leaving the Indian subcontinent (‘crossing the black waters’) was viewed negatively and meant losing status as a member of a Hindu caste, from ancient times, trade between India and other parts of Asia led to migration across the continent and the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas. As Buddhism was taken to other countries, it took with it much of the general Indian worldview, including what would now be labelled Hindu deities, customs and ideas. In the modern era, under British rule, Hindus travelled to other parts of the British Empire including other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Pacific islands such as Fiji, Caribbean islands such as Trinidad, and South and East Africa, often as indentured labourers though also as merchants and professionals. In the post-war and postcolonial period, there has been large-scale migration to the UK, and Hindus have also migrated to Australasia and North America, and in smaller numbers to continental European nations. The process of decolonisation meant that some Hindus have become ‘twice migrants’ as members of expatriate communities relocating for a second time, notably those who had lived in East Africa but were displaced by Africanisation policies, bringing with them the experience of practising Hinduism in a diasporic setting.

The variety of Hinduism is reproduced in the diaspora. For example, in the UK, the predominantly Shaivite nature of Sri Lankan Hinduism is reflected in the foundation of the Community of the Many Names of God/Skanda Vale, a multi-faith ashram in rural Wales, alongside many other groups such as the Swaminarayan Sampradaya which originated in Gujarat, the region with which the majority of British Hindus are associated. Living as minorities in countries outside India has involved Hindus in innovative solutions, such as Sanatana Dharma temple communities worshipping deities from a range of different Hindu traditions in the same temple (whereas in India temples tend to be dedicated to a particular deity or group of related deities), temples functioning as community centres as well as shrines for worship, and creative interactions with aspects of local non-Hindu culture.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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