What do you need to know about Hinduism?

First, let me emphasize the wrong ways of trying to understand Hinduism: Do not view it through the prism of nationalism and concomitant glorification of the past. Do not view it in the false dichotomy of Aryan North and Dravidian South. Do not look at Hinduism as a revealed religion a la Christianity or Islam. Do not view Indian society as a product of the Hindu religion, which it is not. Do not confuse the Hindu concept of varna with race and view Hinduism and Indian society as casteist and racist – this is the Christian view of Hinduism and it is false.

Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism evolved over a period of at least 4000 years through a process coexistence of hundreds of cultures and through close interaction and assimilation of religious ideas. 

The over 6000 Jaties in Hindu society have their own Gods and cultural practices and all of them are willing to co-exist within a framework where all gods are one and the same – a concept that has its roots in the Upanishads. The ten early Upanishads provide the theoretical framework that unites all forms of Hinduism – Vedic, Puranic, and regional, and rural religions. It is a mosaic of loosely woven religious beliefs and practices.

The roots of Hinduism stretch back to about 12000 years, long before the Rigvedic people came to the Upper Indus river basin. In the chapter on roots, I have traced their history and shown that much of what is actually practised in rural India has its roots in the deep past. Near the place where I live, I have given an account of the religions as practised today, but in fact, having a much longer history than Vedic Hinduism. In this area, Vedic Hinduism is confined to a group of Brahmanas who are newcomers and even they have given up Vedic religious practices in favour of Puranic forms of worship.

The Rigvedic people, split into a number of tribal communities, came to the Subcontinent 3500 years ago. They practised a religion that became extinct when the tribal way of life gave way to a peasant society. What happened then? A new religion came up called ‘Mimamsa’. This ritualistic religion was improvised and practised by Brahmanas and they made a living by performing life cycle rituals for the wealthy and extracted a fee from them. Initially, religious services were provided for ‘dakshina’ in kind, later in the form of gold, and still later in the form of land grants; by this time the peasant society gave way to kingdoms and Brahmanas moved to the eastern Ganga plains.

The advent of Buddhism and Jainism and numerous schools of thought competed with Vedic Mimamsa; at the same time, invasions from Northwest and the emergence of Shudras and Mlechas as kings made life difficult for Brahmanas; they moved to newer pastures – first to the valleys of the Narbada and later to the far South – the Chola country, where the Shudra kings welcomed them and gave then generous land grants to establish their own villages known as agraharams. Vedic religion flourished in agraharams in the South. It combined well with southern religious movements involving ‘bhakti’. In course of time bhakti focusing on gods in human form replaced the Vedic religion. This new religion is designated as Puranic religion.

Where do we stand now? 

The Puranic religion dominates the scene today, but it is rather outdated with its emphasis on kings and queens. Can we or should we go back to Vedic religion?

Let us leave the choice to individuals. Religious freedom is a maximum when one does not carry a religious label. The label ‘Hinduism’ came to us only two centuries ago. Before that, we did not carry a religious label for millennia. We can move to a new era where religious labels are irrelevant. This is a solution that everyone in this world can follow.

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd.


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