Missions and Expansion
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Hinduism was not originally a unified religious tradition. Rather, it consisted of a wide range of practices and beliefs that were only loosely linked. There was from the beginning wide regional variation. Local traditions existed almost independently, linked by some basic principles—karma, say, or samsara—or a basic understanding of the power of the divine. But the Indian subcontinent is a huge and diverse landmass, and the people who inhabit India differ sometimes quite radically depending on where they live. There are hundreds of languages, and thousands of local cults and local traditions that may be unknown outside of a particular region or even a particular village.
Early western scholars posited a geographical and ideological divide in Hinduism, one that was characterized as a split between the north and the south. The north, these orientalist scholars argued, was characterized by the religious ideas of the Vedas, which were brought from outside of India by ancient Europeans, the Aryans. These outsiders invaded northern India and pushed the indigenous peoples to the south. The northerners spoke variations of Sanskrit. The southerners, this theory held, were known as Dravidians, and spoke variations of Tamil. The southerners were said to be darker than their light-skinned Aryan neighbors, and were also less educated, less pure, and their religious traditions less evolved.
This is a typically slanted and perniciously biased colonialist history. In fact, pre-Vedic religious traditions mixed with Vedic ideas and practices from the beginning, and what emerged as "classical" Hinduism is a complex intermingling of a whole range of local and pan-Indian traditions. Some aspects of Hinduism are truly pan-Indian: the Vedas, for instance, are the basic underlying foundation for virtually all forms of Hinduism; the great epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, are mostly pan-Indian, although even they—particularly the Ramayana—have regional variations. The great gods and goddesses—Shiva, Vishnu, Devi—are worshipped everywhere, but regional variations are the norm rather than the exception.