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Early Hinduism

From Academic Kids

Early Hinduism is a term used to designate the religious development of India before the historical period. Two kinds of evidence are available: literary and archeological.

Literary Evidence

The earliest literature of Hinduism is made up of the Vedas. Many Hindus believe that the Vedas were transmitted, via an oral tradition, for perhaps 8000 years (Fisher). Many Western and other Indian commentators see this as an exaggeration, dating the earliest part of the Veda, the Rig-Veda Samhita, to around 1800-1500 BCE. In any case, it is acknowledged by most that the Vedas did indeed have a long oral tradition and were passed on from teacher to disciple for at least many centuries before first being written down, which has led to some estimates that the earliest parts of the Vedas' may date back to 2500 - 2000 BCE.

The earliest stage of the Vedas is the Rig-Veda, a collection of poetic hymns used in the sacrificial rites of the Aryan priests. Most of the Rig-Veda concerns the offering of Soma - which is both an intoxicant and a god itself - to the gods.

The gods in the Rig-Veda are mostly personified concepts, who fall into two categories:

  • The devas: gods of nature, such as the weather deity Indra, Agni ("fire"), and Ushas ("dawn").
  • The asuras: gods of moral concepts, such as Mitra ("contract" or "friend"), Bhaga (guardian of marriage) and Varuna ("the coverer").

A rivalry between these two families is already apparent. Asura will come to mean something like "demon" in later Hinduism, and it is already associated with mischief if not actual malice in the Rig-Veda. Compare this with Iranian Aryan religion, where ahura (asura) came to mean "god" and daewa (deva) came to mean "evil demon".

The emerging deprecation of the asuras led to the creation of new categories of gods, such as the adityas.

Indra is the king of the gods in the Rig-Veda, although some of the hymns (perhaps representing an older stage) have Varuna as the chief.

Archeological Evidence

Early Hinduism comprises a period that is hazy in the eyes of archeologists. The Vedic Aryans, although they left a rich body of hymns, left little material culture behind.

The excavations of the Indus Valley Civilization, also referred to as the Sindhu-Sarasvat tradition, have not yielded much evidence of communal temples. However, there is sufficient evidence that the civilization was certainly not purely secular. Only one Indus civilisation graveyard has been found and excavated, and has yielded no elaborate royal burials, but the personal possessions buried with the bodies may indicate that these people believed in an afterlife in which they would need these things.

Water seems to have played an important part in their social, and possibly their religious, life, judging by the large number of public baths that were constructed. The modern Hindu custom of bathing at the beginning of the day and before the main meals may well have started here.

Many figurines of female deities have been discovered. These most probably signified creativity and the origin and continuity of life, and they may have been worshipped as symbolic embodiments of the female principle of creative Energy and Power. In modern Hinduism, the counterpart of these symbols is called Shakti. These "mother Goddess" figurines may have been worshipped in the home rather than in any major state cult, but reputed scholars have seen ancient Dravidian feminine divinity sculptures in groups of seven that date back to the Harappan era which mirror the Hindu belief in a Mother Goddess (Devi) being represented in seven modes.

Figures of a male deity with elaborate horns (or horned headgear) have also been uncovered. He is typically seen surrounded by cattle and is called Pashupati, (the Protector of Animals), and is acknowledged to be the prototype of Hinduism's ascetic God of Destruction, Shiva. Indeed, the modern-day Shiva has absorbed the names, stories and attributes of not only the non-Aryan Pashupati, by which name he is still commonly known, but also the Vedic 'Rudra.' Pashupati is seen sitting in the meditative posture of yogis, suggesting that yoga or inner contemplation was one of their modes of discovering the secrets of life and creation. To this day, the Tantric schools of Hinduism know Shiva to be Yogeshwara, Lord of Yoga, and he is said to be the master of Self-knowledge, meditating for centuries at a time.

It is noted by many that the Pashupati figure is similar to sculptures, paintings and bas-reliefs of horned gods in Europe, stretching as far back as the Paleolithic painting of the "sorcerer" in the cave of Les Trois Frères in France. There exist, in addition, three-headed Pashupati-statues that seem to resemble the Trimurti (Triple Form) of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva (Generator-Sustainer-Destroyer) in contemporary Hinduism, and if nothing else, intimate the continuity of religious traditions that have morphed into Hinduism as we know it today from periods as far back as five thousand years ago.

Topics in Hinduism
Shruti (primary Scriptures): Vedas | Upanishads | Bhagavad Gita | Itihasa (Ramayana & Mahabharata) | Agamas
Smriti (other texts): Tantras | Sutras | Puranas | Brahma Sutras | Hatha Yoga Pradipika | Smritis | Tirukural | Yoga Sutra
Concepts: Avatar | Brahman | Dharma | Karma | Moksha | Maya | Ishta-Deva | Murti | Reincarnation | Samsara | Trimurti | Turiya
Schools & Systems: Schools of Hinduism | Early Hinduism | Samkhya | Nyaya | Vaisheshika | Yoga | Mimamsa | Vedanta | Tantra | Bhakti
Traditional Practices: Jyotish | Ayurveda
Rituals: Aarti | Bhajans | Darshan | Diksha | Mantras | Puja | Satsang | Stotras | Yajna
Gurus and Saints: Shankara | Ramanuja | Madhvacharya | Ramakrishna | Vivekananda | Sree Narayana Guru | Aurobindo | Ramana Maharshi | Sivananda | Chinmayananda | Sivaya Subramuniyaswami | Swaminarayan | A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Denominations: List of Hindu denominations
Vaishnavism | Saivism | Shaktism | Smartism | Agama Hindu Dharma | Contemporary Hindu movements | Survey of Hindu organisations
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