HINDUISM’S ORIGINS

So how and when did Hinduism begin? While there is no shortage of historical scholars, sages, and teachers in Hinduism, there is no historical founder of the religion as a whole, no figure comparable to Jesus, the Buddha, Abraham, or Muhammad. As a consequence, no historical founder means that there is no firm date of origin of Hinduism, either. Scholars agree that Hinduism is the oldest living major religious tradition, but beyond that simple fact there is much debate, since it is clear that what we today call Hinduism is made up of different beliefs and practices that were handed down orally for millennia before they were finally written down. Thus, as the oral transmission of tradition is notoriously difficult to conclusively establish, there are wide variances even among scholars as to when certain texts, specific practices, and key doctrines originated. For example, the earliest known sacred texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, date back to at least 3000 BCE, but some date them back even further, to 8000–6000 BCE; and some Hindus themselves believe these texts to be of divine origin, and therefore timeless. Related to this, it is also worth mentioning here that there is no designated religious hierarchy that determines official Hindu doctrine or practice. Thus there is no one who can speak for Hindus as a whole, and no single authority regarding what is “truly” Hindu or not. This means that many of the natural questions Christians might want ask about Hinduism—“What do Hindus believe about life after death?” “What do Hindus believe about abortion?” “What are the most important practices in Hinduism”—have no simple answer. Hindu belief and practice. This is not to say, however, that there are no recognized general characteristics of Hinduism. For example, here is one list of principles that, by practitioner consensus, characterize one as “Hindu”:

  • Belief in the divinity of the Vedas
  • Belief in one, all-pervasive Supreme Reality
  • Belief in the cyclical nature of time
  • Belief in karma
  • Belief in reincarnation
  • Belief in alternate realities with higher beings
  • Belief in enlightened masters or gurus
  • Belief in non-aggression and non-injury
  • Belief that all revealed religions are essentially correct
  • Belief that the living being is first and foremost a spiritual entity
  • Belief in an organic social system

A similar list comes from the Indian Supreme Court, which produced the following set of workable criteria as to what it means to be a Hindu:

  • The Vedas should be accepted and revered as the foundation of Hindu philosophy.
  • One should have a spirit of tolerance, and recognize that the truth has many sides.
  • One accepts belief in recurring cosmic cycles of creation, preservation, and dissolution.
  • One accepts belief in reincarnation.
  • One recognizes that there are numerous paths to truth and salvation.
  • One recognizes that although the worship of idols may be deemed unnecessary, there may be many deities worthy of worship.
  • In distinction from followers of other religions, one does not believe in a specific set of theological or philosophical conceptions.

As should be clear from the emphasis on tolerating the different beliefs of others, respecting the pluriformity of truth, and recognizing the diversity of belief and practice, any talk of Hinduism as a whole needs to keep this internal multiplicity in mind at all times. All this has led one scholar to suggest the following metaphor: “If the essence of Hinduism could be summarized in a few words, those words might be ‘structured diversity.’ We might think of Hinduism as a

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