As regular readers of fwmd would know, I am an (agnostic) atheist, and am completely irreligious. I was born a Hindu, though, and I like some aspects of Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Protestant Christianity. To be specific, I like the capitalist natures of all these religions (in stark contrast to say, Catholicism, Buddhism, and most Pagan faiths). I also like the non-violence of Jainism (it’s pretty unmatched, even Buddhist king Ashoka ordered the slaughter of some 20,000 Jain monks for one of them having drawn a painting of Buddha bowing down to Mahavira), the tolerance, unity, and more recently the lack of care for authority of Judaism, the creativity, tolerance, and scientific tolerance of Hinduism, the scientific tolerance and relative lack of care for authority in Protestant Christianity. To be clear, I dislike most of the things about these religions, the superstitions, the violence in some of them, the discriminatory practices, the excessive care for authority, and so on. I don’t expect any of this to be used as a justification for religion or religious practices, the only reason for me to highlight them, is because they’ve shaped the societies that have arisen with them.
Now, now – I said “Protestant Christianity” separately, rather than just “Christianity”, while I put all of Hinduism in a single bucket, separating only the Jain and Buddhist faiths. I can already see the fumes arising from the ears of some religious Hindus here. Guess what? I agree with you guys! Our current prime minister, Narendra Modi, in his election campaigns, once endorsed the statement that “Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life”. I’m a Modi supporter, but anyway – he’s only partially right. Hinduism is not a religion, true. But it’s definitely not a way of life, either.
Rather, what it is, is a huge class of religions. Hinduism is as vast as Ancient and modern Judaism, Catholic, Methodist, and Protestant Christianity, all branches of Sunni and Shia Islam, all kinds Pagan faiths, and tribal faiths in Africa, put together.
If you read all the Indological evidences, it’s not too far from obvious how Hinduism evolved.
Jainism and the IVC
I think that an early form of Jainism was practised in the Indus Valley Civilisation. The people of the IVC were those who eventually became the Dravidians – when a massive drought (a massive climate change) arrived in 1300 BCE, which is 2 droughts before Christianity,a and 4 droughts before Islam, and around the same time that Judaism came into being, this Jain civilisation moved away from North-Western India and into Northern India.
Eventually, they moved Southwards too (where there were already some tribes living), but most of their cities were in the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains. This period also saw the emergence of Shaivitism as an alternative religion to Jainism. Shaivitism was, like Jainism, a fairly egalitarian religion, and they worshipped Shiva and Durga with about equal importance.
Vedism and the early Puranas
As the Aryans arrived from Persia, there was an invasion, then cultural intermixing until the Aryans and Dravidians became quite indistinguishable. Religiously, though, they were still quite separate. The Aryans believed in Vedism, which some Dravidians took up. Some Aryans took up Jainism, and a few Shaivitism. Vedism was basically a polytheistic Pagan-like faith where supreme importance was given to natural elements like the sun, rain, the wind, fire, the Earth, some planets, some stars, and so on. India continued to trade with the West, and with trade came a lot of similiar features. The early Puranas were to a large extent highly similiar to Judaism of the West – especially the story of Mathsya and Noah’s ark, Brahma-Saraswati and Abram-Sarai, and so on.
Krishna and Vaishanavitism
Then came Krishna – Krishna was never one person, but one name, assigned to a number of people. Among these people was Jesus Christ from Israel. You can see this in the defiance of Vedism, similiarly to Christianity’s defiance of Paganism, and also very similiar descriptions. It’s not too clear why the Aryans took up Vaishnavitism, perhaps there was some similiar sort of draconian leadership analogous to the pagan Roman empire – not much is known of this era, for it happened between the IVC and the rise of the Hindu empires. A lot of historical figures from the Puranas and otherwise, were considered to be incarnations of their new lord, Vishnu. Unlike Paganism vs Christianity, however, the Aryans continued to embrace the Vedas, which lead to a lot of internal inconsistency, but also less religious tensions. Many Vedic figures, like Indra, Agni, etc. were considered to be manifestations of the new lord Vishnu. Vishnu was named after the Vedic Vishnu, the sun god, who got renamed to Surya afterwards, in practice at least. Vaishnavitism was, like Vedism, a highly patriarchial religion.
This was the time when the matriarchial cultures of the North-East were exposed to the cultures of mainland India. They maintained their matriarchial identity, while their stories and religious structure was influenced by Shaivitism and Vaishanavitism. They worshipped Shakti.
Buddha and Mahavira
Then arose Buddhism, from complete disobedience to Vedic practices. This forms an important milestone in the history of Hinduism, because it threatens the very foundation of Vedic religions, even Vaishnavitism, by calling for egalitarianism. While a number of Vedic or Vaishnavitic traditions such as the caste system and the dowry system had arisen for good reasons, they resulted in a very dangerous and inequal system. Those who were oppressed, or those who felt empathy for the oppressed, decided to join in the Buddhist bandwagon. Buddhism later obtained support from Ashoka, who spread the religion all over the globe. Around the same time, actually a bit before, came Mahavira, who led a resurgence of Jainism, and in two sects – the Svetambaras (those clad in a white cloth) and the Digambaras (those clad in nothing).
Reconcilation and the era of reforms: Smartism
Vaishnavitism and Shaktiism, and even Shaivitism, needed to respond quick. This was done with reformers such as Adi Shankara, who founded Smartism, a faith that reconciled Vaishanavitism, Shaivitism, and Shaktiism, portraying these gods as relatives, and equals who knew to correct one another. This resulted in the two trimurtis of creator-preserver-destroyer (Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva) and knowledge-wealth-power (Saraswati-Lakshmi-Parvati). Parvati, Vishnu’s sister and Shiva’s wife, was the Shaivite Durga/Kaali, and also the Shaktiite Shakti. Hinduism was a polytheistic religion again. Adi Shankara brought with him a ton of religious reforms as well, to make the religion more egalitarian, more non-violent, and so on. This quickly killed the Buddhist movement – while Buddhism was thriving all over the globe, back in India, people preferred to stay with a reformed version of what was familiar. Jainism lost prominence again, but still let the small Jain community thrive, thanks to their better economic policies.
Madhavacharya and the re-emergence of sects
Then came along Madhavacharya from the same town as Shankaracharya (Adi Shankara). He brought with him other reforms, said “no” to orthodoxity, and gave importance to Vishnu again. The reforms and stuff were quickly taken by the Smartites too, and they became even less orthodox than the Madhavites. However, the importance to Vishnu angered the Smartites a bit, especially those who were descendents of the Shaivites, and they began to place more importance to Shiva. Eventually, Madhavism became a reformed Vaishnavitism, and Smartism a reformed Shaivitism. Shakti-ism was weaker, but still present. The re-emergence of Vaishnavitism with Madhavacharya meant that Vaishnavitism, or the “Madhava” sects, penetrated the South more deeply, because Madhavacharya was from a South Indian town (Udupi).
A renaissance period?
There seems to have been a kind of renaissance period after this, with a ton of new schools emerging. You could see some Vaishnavites who believed that Vishnu is nirguna, meaning without qualities, and his incarnations were saguna, meaning with qualities, good or bad – they believed that Kali the demon (not to be confused with Kaali the goddess, who married Shiva) was also himself a manifestation of Vishnu, and so on. At the same time, there were Vaishnavites who couldn’t get along with this, and for good reasons too, so they believed that Vishnu is good, constructing a couple of stories around him. Most important were the nastika (atheistic) schools, such as Carvaka (pronounced Chaar-vaaka), named so because their opponents considered them to be sinners. This was a great era to be a scientist.
North-western invasions and the dark ages
1300 AD, and it’s the fourth episode of large-scale climate change since the residents of the IVC treaded towards mainland India. Invasions came from the North-West as Islam rose. Fighting against them required physical strength. This lead to all the reforms going down the drain, a huge amount of disrespect for women, the re-arisal of patriarchial traditions. All the schools that arose during the renaissance era, died out. There were only three schools now, and they were not too different. This was truly a dark age for India, especially North-West India where all the invasions came from. The Sikhs arose out of defiance to the Islamic rulers. The Mughal era was pretty bad, too. Finally, the Marathas arose and decimated the Mughal empire. Islam in India took reforms, and the Sufi movement was raging. People expected Indian Islam to become a Hindu sect. You could expect huge religious reforms, massive advances in science and technology any time now. And then…
The British invaded. Despite the rising nationalism from Maratha rule, India was still divided on basis of caste, language, kingdom, and with a series of knee-jerk betrayals and India’s ill luck at the hands of nature, India came under the rule of a single corporation – the East India company. A couple of educated Indians did strive and made some religious reforms, but… After the rebellion of 1857, India came under the direct rule of the British crown. Then came along Gandhi, who instigated a number of religious reforms. Post-independenceHinduism is quite reformed again, thanks to the efforts of Gandhi et al, but still is very supersitious and so on. The differences between the three sects, Shaivitism, Shaktiism, Vaishanvitism, is slowly diminishing, and is basically gone in urban India. Buddhism and Jainism are considered separate, but have de facto come under Hinduism. So has Sikhism, to some extent.
The superstitions are dying out, but now, there’s no need for religious reforms anymore. It’s too late for religious reforms. Religion is nearly dead now, atheism is on the rise, thanks to the internet among other things. It would be unfortunate should Hinduism must die unreformed, at least it could have a better reputation before its death (along with all other religions in this world), but well, it’s adherents still have a more glorious era to boast of. It’s also very likely that Hinduism won’t die like the other religions will, with people saying “what the hell is this? Nah, I don’t like this religion of mine any longer”, because all the turbulence has made Hinduism a rather flexible religion. Hinduism will go away with diminishing religiousity, and eventually people saying “wait a minute? what exactly are we doing as religious people? I think we’re atheists actually.”. This is already happening now. So the future’s bright!