When did Hinduism begin?
Hinduism is sometimes introduced as the world’s oldest religion, at least 5000 years old on the evidence of ancient texts and archaeological remains, but it is also claimed by others to date from the conditions created by either Muslim or British rule, when arguably the resulting engagement with others ways of thinking and/or living prompted a sense of religious unity on the part of those now called Hindus. Another answer would be to say that, as the Sanatana Dharma (eternal religion), it is timeless and without beginning. However, whether Hinduism as a whole rather than specific expressions can be equated with Sanatana Dharma can be questioned. It could also be argued that as an invented label that does not correspond well with reality, Hinduism does not exist and never did, so cannot be said to have begun.
What is at dispute in determining the origins of Hinduism is not so much the actual word, since there is wide agreement that this was coined by Westerners in the modern era and in general use in the nineteenth century, preceded by references to a Hindu religion (or equivalent) in the eighteenth century. The issue is more whether what Hinduism denotes is also recent in date and Western in derivation. There are broadly three schools of thought.
First, the thesis that Hinduism is the ancient religion of India with deep roots in the subcontinent leading to the declaration that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion. It traces Hinduism back to the Veda or other age-old sources as the fountainhead of an organic course of development extending over millennia.
Second, the thesis that Hinduism is the product of India’s medieval encounter with Islam and Islamic civilisation that prompted a sense of a shared religious identity. It involves the emergence of Hinduism as distinct from other Indian religions as well as from Islam, drawing upon pre-existing common features and unifying factors.
Third, the thesis that Hinduism is the product of the modern West, shaped by imperial rule, Christian missionary activity and Orientalist scholarship but also by indigenous elites both as consultants and campaigners. It portrays the medieval period in terms of the interaction of Islamic and Indian cultures, postponing the separation of Hinduism from other Indian religions to the modern period.
Such disagreements do arise out of contrasting bodies of evidence though they may be attributed in part to differences over the meaning of Hinduism, its earliest beginnings or its current form, and the importance attached to either continuities or changes through time. They also relate to who were regarded as Hindus and what was intended by this.