The basic beliefs and practices of Hinduism cannot be understood outside their historical context. Although the early texts and events are impossible to date with precision, the general chronological development is clear.
A. Vedic Civilization
About 2000 BC, a highly developed civilization flourished in the Indus Valley, around the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. By about 1500 BC, when the Indo-Aryan tribes invaded India, this civilization was in a serious decline. It is therefore impossible to know, on present evidence, whether or not the two civilizations had any significant contact. Many elements of Hinduism that were not present in Vedic civilization (such as worship of the phallus and of goddesses, bathing in temple tanks, and the postures of yoga) may have been derived from the Indus civilization, however. See Indus Valley Civilization.
By about 1500 BC, the Indo-Aryans had settled in the Punjab, bringing with them their predominantly male Indo-European pantheon of gods and a simple warrior ethic that was vigorous and worldly, yet also profoundly religious. Gods of the Vedic pantheon survive in later Hinduism, but no longer as objects of worship: Indra, king of the gods and god of the storm and of fertility; Agni, god of fire; and Soma, god of the sacred, intoxicating Soma plant and the drink made from it. By 900 BC the use of iron allowed the Indo-Aryans to move down into the lush Ganges Valley, where they developed a far more elaborate civilization and social system. By the 6th century BC, Buddhism had begun to make its mark on India and what was to be more than a millennium of fruitful interaction with Hinduism.
B. Classical Hindu Civilization
From about 200 BC to AD 500 India was invaded by many northern powers, of which the Shakas (Scythians) and Kushanas had the greatest impact. This was a time of great flux, growth, syncretism, and definition for Hinduism and is the period in which the epics, the Dharmashastras, and the Dharmasutras took final form. Under the Gupta Empire (320-550?), when most of northern India was under a single power, classical Hinduism found its most consistent expression: the sacred laws were codified, the great temples began to be built, and myths and rituals were preserved in the Puranas.
C. Rise of Devotional Movements
In the post-Gupta period, a less rigid and more eclectic form of Hinduism emerged, with more dissident sects and vernacular movements. At this time, too, the great devotional movements arose. Many of the sects that emerged during the period from 800 to 1800 are still active in India today.
Most of the bhakti movements are said to have been founded by saints—the gurus by whom the tradition has been handed down in unbroken lineage, from guru to disciple (chela). This lineage, in addition to a written canon, is the basis for the authority of the bhakti sect. Other traditions are based on the teachings of such philosophers as Shankara and Ramanuja. Shankara was the exponent of pure monism, or nondualism (Advaita Vedanta), and of the doctrine that all that appears to be real is merely illusion. Ramanuja espoused the philosophy of qualified nondualism (Vishishta-Advaita), an attempt to reconcile belief in a godhead without attributes (nirguna) with devotion to a god with attributes (saguna), and to solve the paradox of loving a god with whom one is identical.
The philosophies of Shankara and Ramanuja were developed in the context of the six great classical philosophies (darshanas) of India: the Karma Mimamsa (“action investigation”); the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”), in which tradition the work of Shankara and Ramanuja should be placed; the Sankhya system, which describes the opposition between an inert male spiritual principle (purusha) and an active female principle of matter or nature (prakriti), subdivided into the three qualities (gunas) of goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas); the Yoga system; and the highly metaphysical systems of Vaisheshika (a kind of atomic realism) and Nyaya (logic, but of an extremely theistic nature).
D. Medieval Hinduism
Parallel with these complex Sanskrit philosophical investigations, vernacular songs were composed, transmitted orally, and preserved locally throughout India. They were composed during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries in Tamil and Kannada by the Alvars, Nayanars, and Virashaivas and during the 15th century by the Rajasthani poet Mira Bai, in the Braj dialect. In the 16th century in Bengal, Chaitanya founded a sect of erotic mysticism, celebrating the union of Krishna and Radha in a Tantric theology heavily influenced by Tantric Buddhism. Chaitanya believed that both Krishna and Radha were incarnate within him, and he believed that the village of Vrindaban, where Krishna grew up, had become manifest once again in Bengal. The school of the Gosvamins, who were disciples of Chaitanya, developed an elegant theology of aesthetic participation in the ritual enactment of Krishna’s life.
These ritual dramas also developed around the village of Vrindaban itself during the 16th century, and they were celebrated by Hindi poets. The first great Hindi mystic poet was Kabir, who was said to be the child of a Muslim and was strongly influenced by Islam, particularly by Sufism. His poems challenge the canonical dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam, praising Rama and promising salvation by the chanting of the holy name of Rama. He was followed by Tulsidas, who wrote a beloved Hindi version of the Ramayana. A contemporary of Tulsidas was Surdas, whose poems on Krishna’s life in Vrindaban formed the basis of the ras lilas, local dramatizations of myths of the childhood of Krishna, which still play an important part in the worship of Krishna in northern India.
E. 19th and 20th Centuries
In the 19th century, important reforms took place under the auspices of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the sects of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj. These movements attempted to reconcile traditional Hinduism with the social reforms and political ideals of the day. So, too, the nationalist leaders Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Mohandas Gandhi attempted to draw from Hinduism those elements that would best serve their political and social aims. Gandhi, for example, used his own brand of ahimsa,transformed into passive resistance, to obtain reforms for the Untouchables and to remove the British from India. Similarly, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar revived the myth of the Brahmans who fell from their caste and the tradition that Buddhism and Hinduism were once one, in order to enable Untouchables to gain self-respect by “reconverting” to Buddhism.
In more recent times, numerous self-proclaimed Indian religious teachers have migrated to Europe and the United States, where they have inspired large followings. Some, such as the Hare Krishna sect founded by Bhaktivedanta, claim to base themselves on classical Hindu practices. In India, Hinduism thrives despite numerous reforms and shortcuts necessitated by the gradual modernization and urbanization of Indian life. The myths endure in the Hindi cinema, and the rituals survive not only in the temples but also in the rites of passage. Thus, Hinduism, which sustained India through centuries of foreign occupation and internal disruption, continues to serve a vital function by giving passionate meaning and supportive form to the lives of Hindus today. For information on religious violence in India, See India.