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Religion Library: Hinduism


Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

Regardless of who the Aryans were or where they came from, it is clear that their religious world focused on ritual sacrifice, particularly sacrifice involving fire. They also worshipped a variety of gods, many of them linked to natural forces. These religious rituals and myths were eventually formulated as the Vedas, a genre of orally-transmitted texts that would come to form the foundation of Hinduism.

In the 6th (or 5th) century B.C.E., two important veins of religion emerged in India that had a tremendous influence on the formation of Hinduism: Jainism and Buddhism. Although these did not necessarily begin as "new" religions, they formulated new ideas that significantly challenged the religious status quo. In particular, both Buddhism and Jainism challenged the religious efficacy of sacrifice, rejecting it as too materialistic. They instead advocated detachment from the physical world—renunciation—as the ultimate religious path. Classical Hinduism absorbs the ideals of renunciation and asceticism, not supplanting but supplementing the Vedic practices and ideals of sacrifice.

     Sufi ascetics     


Hinduism has also been influenced by two distinctly foreign religions: Islam, which arrived in India sometime around the 8th century C.E. and dominated substantial parts of India with the rise of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century; and Christianity, which arrived in India with the Portuguese in the 15th century—although there had been small Christian communities in South India even before the Portuguese—and held considerable sway with the rise of the British Raj in the 18th century.

One way in which Islam was particularly influential as Hinduism developed was through the Sufi orders of wandering ascetics, particularly their devotional singing and poetry. Hindus adopted many of their images and methods, and the Hindu veneration of saints—humans who, through their piety and purity ascend to a semi-divine state—was particularly influenced by the Sufis.

Christian missionary practices in India, and the fundamentally Christian orientation of the British Raj, had and continue to have a profound and complex influence on Hinduism. In the late 19th century, many Hindu intellectuals, responding to attacks on the so-called idolatry of Hinduism, emphasized the rational, intellectual, meditative schools of Vedanta, leading some Hindu intellectuals to denounce popular devotion as not genuine Hinduism.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Hinduism has been its ability to absorb and adopt an array of cultural and religious influences, in the process transforming seemingly non-Hindu ideas and practices into distinctly Hindu ones.

Study Questions:
1.     What cultures are believed to have merged to create Hinduism?
2.     What is significant about the archaeological findings of figurines?
3.     Why is the role of the Aryans contested?
4.     How has Hinduism been shaped by other religions?


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