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Religion Library: Hinduism


Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

title: contemporary Brahmins source: ritual priests of the Vedas were a group known as the Brahmins. They were entrusted with the sacred texts and with the performance of the rituals. Sometime after 1000 B.C.E., some of these priests began to ask whether there might not be more than this ritual world of exchange in which the "payoff" of religious action was largely material wellbeing. title: Rigveda manuscriptSome began to reject the rituals and their material trappings. They renounced the material and social world, and focused instead on asceticism and meditation. Gradually a new body of philosophically-oriented texts, the Upanishads—sometimes referred to as Vedanta, the end (or completion) of the Vedas—began to emerge.

Unlike the Vedic world of ritual exchange between humans and gods, the Upanishads present a philosophically speculative worldview. They put forward the idea that the material world is not, in fact, "real," but only an illusion that is created by ignorance. What is real is an abstract divine principle, Brahman. The Upanishads focused on how to free oneself from the bonds of material attachments, and thereby attain a state of oneness with Brahman.

List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
  1. Aitareya
  2. Brhadaranyaka
  3. Taittiriya
  4. Chandogya
  5. Kena
  6. Isa
  1. Svetasvatara      
  2. Katha
  3. Mundaka
  4. Mandukya
  5. Prasna

What is sometimes called "classical" (or "Epic") Hinduism emerges sometime after the Upanishads. In this period, which begins around 500 B.C.E., the major gods and goddesses of Hinduism—Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Parvati, Lakshmi—develop their "personalities" through a vast corpus of myths. Innumerable new gods and goddesses emerge, as do a multitude of ritual— many based on the earlier Vedas—and forms of veneration. Devotional traditions also emerge, in which the strictly ordered world of sacrifice is supplanted by loving devotion to individual gods and goddesses.

Early periods of Hinduism
Indus Valley Civilization    
Vedic Civilization
      Rigvedic period
Epic period after
2500-1500 BCE      
1500-500 BCE
1500-1000 BCE
1000-500 BCE
500 BCE

Hinduism is a perpetually evolving collection of an astounding array of philosophical and ritual and devotional traditions. There is no founder, and although historians may attempt to assign an historical "beginning," really there is no moment of origin. Indeed, Hindus often refer to their religion as "sanatana dharma"—the timeless, eternal truth.

Study Questions:
1.      Why is hard to pinpoint the start and founders of Hinduism?
2.     What are some possible explanations of its origin?
3.     Who were the devas?
4.     What are the Vedas, and what is their purpose?
5.     What is the relationship of the Upanishads to the Vedas?


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