The Ancient Origins of Hinduism
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on Hinduism, authored by one of our student interns, Alden Bass, who attends Yale University. Part II is titled “An Investigation of Hindu Scripture.” I asked Alden to spend a sizable portion of his time with us during the summer of 2004, preparing some information on the ancient religion of Hinduism. I hope you enjoy, and profit from, his research efforts. — Bert Thompson]
The word Hindu originated, not as the name of a religion, but as a geographical marker. Hindu derives from the Sanskrit word for river, sindhu, from which the Indus River received its name. Sometime in the first millennium B.C., the Persians, who were then South Asia’s closest neighbors, mispronounced sindhu, and designated the land around the Indus River as hindu. Over a thousand years later, in A.D. 712, the Muslims invaded the Indus Valley. To distinguish themselves, they called all non-Muslims hindus; the name of the land became, by default, the name of the people and their religion (Schoeps, 1966, p. 148). Christians, upon entering Hindustan (as it was then called), committed the same error of reduction. From their perspective, the indigenous people were all idol-worshipping pagans, so they christened the Indians gentoo, a derogatory synchronization of “gentile” and “hindu.” Thus the name hindu originally was given by outsiders to denote a geographic territory, but through the encroachment of various other religious groups it came to encompass all native religions in South East Asia.
As the history of its name demonstrates, unity in Indian religion has been superimposed by outsiders, first by the Muslims, then the Christians, and much later by the British colonialists who through their censuses unintentionally reified the South Asian peoples under that banner. It has only been in the last couple of centuries that the Indian people have embraced the name Hindu as their own, though two Indians rarely use the word with the same meaning. Some scholars suggest that it is more appropriate to speak of “Hinduisms” than to risk giving off a false sense of unity.
The genesis of Hinduism is nearly as elusive as its contemporary definition. Unlike Islam, which began with Mohammed, or Judaism, which began with Moses, Hinduism has no founder, nor any traditional time or place of origin; it emerges from the jungle as a continually evolving religious system. Scholars debate the primary source of what would become the Hindu religion, though all agree that several cultures had an influence. Basham, Buitenen, and Doniger suggest that ancient Hinduism evolved from at least three antecedents: “an early element common to most of the Indo-European tribes; a later element held in common with the early Iranians; and an element acquired in the Indian subcontinent itself ” (Basham, et al., 1997). The oldest of these influences are the symbols and deities indigenous to the Indus valley, part of the ancient and abstruse Dravidian culture. Archaeologists date this magnificent society to the third millennium B.C., making it one of the oldest known civilizations. This early date also places the religion of the Indus over a thousand years before the writing of the Old Testament, in the time of the Patriarchal Age. If the archaeologists’ dating is correct, the Indus civilization was established soon after the Tower of Babel incident. The archaeological sites along the Indus have revealed many terra-cotta figures resembling gods and goddesses in the Vedic literature, some of which are still worshipped. Though religious figurines abound, temples inexplicably are absent from the Indus cities. Because the Indus valley script has yet to be deciphered, much of the Dravidian culture and religion remains a mystery.
The Christian must ask how the Hindu religion fits into the biblical narrative. Islam grew out of Judaism and Christianity, and Buddhism derived from Hinduism; Hinduism is the only major religion lacking an adequate explanation as to its origin. No substantial texts exist beyond 1000 B.C., and the texts after 1000 do not contain narrative. The earliest of these is the Rig Veda, which is nothing but a collection of praise hymns to the gods rather than the record of a people as in the Bible. Unlike western cultures, which tend to view time as a linear progression, the eastern religions generally reckon time to be cyclical. As a result, they emphasize the eternal over the transient and historical. Scholars are able to piece together the earliest Indian religion only through archaeology, clues in the later texts, and by extrapolating from existing traditions. Using these same resources, Christian scholars can reinterpret the available data so that the Hindu religion fits into a biblical scheme of world history. Reconstructing the ancient history of any civilization is tentative, however, and all such projects are educated speculations at best.
Bible believers would expect all civilizations to post-date the universal Flood, which destroyed every human save the family of Noah (Genesis 7). The peoples that sprang from Noah’s sons then spread over the Earth, though the Bible is silent as to when and how. Though it is possible that some colonies were established, the text indicates that most of the people stayed together in the land of Shinar (Genesis 11:2), where they began construction on that fateful tower. The hubris of Noah’s descendents kindled the wrath of God, Who, after He had confused their languages, “He scattered them abroad over the face of all the Earth” (Genesis 11:9). Josephus wrote that “each colony took possession of that land which they lighted upon and unto which God led them; so that the whole continent was filled with them, both the inland and maritime countries” (Antiquities I.v.1). From this point the Old Testament records the history of the children of Abraham; the events of the rest of the world can be known only through secular history. We must try to trace the origin of Hinduism back to an original belief in the true God—a belief passed down from the progeny of Noah. In a passage particularly descriptive of the Indian religion, Paul argues that the ancient Gentiles knew God, but they did not “retain their knowledge of God,” instead changing “the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:28,23).
Evidence for the historical digression from the worship of Jehovah God to the worship of nature and nature-gods is found in the ancient texts and myths of South Asia. The earliest Hindu literature, the Rig Veda, speaks often of “the Creator,” of “the One,” a Great God over all the other gods. He is called Varuna, and is closely related to the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazdā (“Wise Lord”) and the Greek god Uranus (Ourania). Though an insignificant sea god in the current pantheon, Varuna was a prominent god in the ancient system, and the subject of many hymns in the Rig Veda. Zwemer writes that Varuna is “the most impressive of the Vedic gods. He is the prehistoric Sky-god whose nature and attributes point to a very early monotheistic conception” (1945, p. 86). This god is an ethical god, capable of great wrath or merciful forgiveness of sins. Note this passage from the Vedas:
I do not wish, King Varuna,
To go down to the home of clay,
Be gracious, mighty lord, and spare.
Whatever wrong we men commit against the race
Of heavenly ones, O Varuna, whatever law
Of thine we here have broken through thoughtlessness,
For that transgression do not punish us, O god (Rig Veda VII.lxxxix.1-3).
Varuna is already on the decline by the time the Vedas were committed to writing; Indra, a warrior god, takes prominence in the later Vedic period. Yet even then, Varuna is qualitatively different from Indra and all the other gods that follow him in the Vedic literature; he is less anthropomorphic and more majestic (cf. Zwemer, p. 88). Other Hindu deities act like humans in the same way as the Greek gods, yet Varuna is above that. It would seem that this god embodies many of the qualities of Jehovah, albeit diluted and removed by many hundreds of miles and years.
The myths of ancient Hinduism likewise contain echoes of the distant past similar of Genesis. There are several different, though not exclusive, creation myths in the Vedas (and even more in later literature), but in one of the earliest writings, Indra is the maker of all. “Who made firm the shaking earth, who brought to rest the mountains when they were disturbed, who measured out the wide atmosphere, who fixed the heaven, he, O folk, is Indra” (Rig Veda II.xii.2). This version of creation by a personal god is more similar to the Old Testament account than to later Hindu formulations. Hammer remarks, “In the early creation myth Indra was seen as the personal agent in creation, bringing existence out of non-existence. In later speculation the ‘One God’, described in personal terms, gives way to ‘That One’—the impersonal force of creation” (1982, p. 175). As time passed and the true God was forgotten, the creation myths became more fantastic, involving giant snakes and four-mouthed gods growing out of lotus flowers (Basham, et al., 1997).
In addition to the creation myths, a story persists in the epic tradition (written between 300 B.C.-A.D. 300) of a great flood. It was so great that “there was water everywhere and the waters covered the heaven and the firmament also” (Mahabharata III.clxxxvi). The hero of the story is Manu, who is analogous to Noah in the Hebrew story. One day a fish approached Manu and asked him for protection in exchange for a blessing (later tradition identifies the fish as the god Vishnu). Manu helped the fish, who gives him this warning:
The time for the purging of this world is now ripe. Therefore do I now explain what is good for thee! The mobile and immobile divisions of the creation, those that have the power of locomotion, and those that have it not, of all these the terrible doom hath now approached. Thou shall build a strong massive ark and have it furnished with a long rope. On that must thou ascend, O great Muni, with the seven Rishis and take with thee all the different seeds which were enumerated by regenerate Brahmanas in days of yore, and separately and carefully must thou preserve them therein (Mahabharata III.clxxxvi).
Manu alone survived the great flood, and from him the world was repopulated. The connection between the Hindu story and the Genesis account is strengthened by etymological ties between the name “Noah” and “Manu” (Sage, 2004).
The evidence from India’s earliest literary traditions reveals that Hinduism is a corruption of true religion. Though for most of its existence Hinduism has been an extremely pluralistic religion—being influenced by several cultures originally, and later by surrounding religions (Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity)—it appears to have grown out of monotheism. The renowned Sanskritist of Oxford, Max Müller, wrote: “There is a monotheism that precedes the polytheism of the Veda; and even in the invocations of the innumerable gods the remembrance of a God, one and infinite, breaks through the mist of idolatrous phraseology like the blue sky that is hidden by passing clouds” (as quoted in Zwemer, p. 87).
Basham, Arthur, J.A.B van Buitenen, and Wendy Doniger (1997), “Hinduism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 20:519-558.
Hammer, Raymond (1982), “Roots: The Development of Hindu Religion,” Eerdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Sage, Bengt (2004), “Noah and Human Etymology,” [On-line], URL: http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-083.htm.
Schoeps, Hans-Jachim (1966), The Religions of Mankind (Garden City, NY: Doubleday).
Zwemer, Samuel (1945), The Origin of Religion (New York: Loizeaux Brothers).