Etymology and History of Hinduism


Hinduism is the predominant religion of India. Among other practices and philosophies, Hinduism includes a wide spectrum of laws and prescriptions of “daily morality” based on karma, dharma, and societal norms. Hinduism is a conglomeration of distinct intellectual or philosophical points of view, rather than a rigid common set of beliefs.

Hinduism is formed of diverse traditions and has no single founder. Among its direct roots is the historical Vedic religion of Iron Age India and, as such, Hinduism is often called the “oldest living religion” or the “oldest living major religion” in the world.

Hinduism, with about one billion followers (950 million estimated in India), is the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. (2)


The word Hindu is derived (through Persian) from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, the historic local appellation for the Indus River in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, which is first mentioned in the Rig Veda.

The word Hindu was borrowed by European languages from the Arabic term al-Hind, referring to the land of the people who live across the River Indus, itself from the Persian term Hindū, which refers to all Indians. By the 13th century, Hindustān emerged as a popular alternative name of India, meaning the “land of Hindus.”

It was only towards the end of the 18th century that European merchants and colonists began to refer to the followers of Indian religions collectively as Hindus. The term Hinduism was introduced into the English language in the 19 th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India. (2)


Hinduism developed over many centuries from a variety of sources: cultural practices, sacred texts, and philosophical movements, as well as local popular beliefs. The combination of these factors is what accounts for the varied and diverse nature of Hindu practices and beliefs. Hinduism developed from several sources.

Prehistoric and Neolithic culture, which left material evidence including abundant rock and cave paintings of bulls and cows, indicating an early interest in the sacred nature of these animals. (3)

Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley civilization , located in what is now Pakistan and northwestern India, flourished between approximately 2500 and 1700 B.C.E., and persisted with some regional presence as late as 800 B.C.E. The civilization reached its high point in the cities of Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro. Although the physical remains of these large urban complexes have not produced a great deal of explicit religious imagery, archaeologists have recovered some intriguing items, including an abundance of seals depicting bulls, among these a few exceptional examples illustrating figures seated in yogic positions; terracotta female figures that suggest fertility; and small anthropomorphic sculptures made of stone and bronze. Material evidence found at these sites also includes prototypes of stone linga (phallic emblems of the Hindu god Shiva).

According to recent theories, Indus Valley peoples migrated to the Gangetic region of India and blended with indigenous cultures, after the decline of civilization in the Indus Valley. A separate group of Indo-European speaking people migrated to the subcontinent from West Asia. These peoples brought with them ritual life including fire sacrifices presided over by priests, and a set of hymns and poems collectively known as the Vedas. (3)


The 9th and 8th centuries BCE witnessed the composition of the earliest Upanishads. Upanishads form the theoretical basis of classical Hinduism and are known as Vedanta (conclusion of the Veda). The older Upanishads launched attacks of increasing intensity on the rituals. The diverse monistic speculations of the Upanishads were synthesized into a theistic framework by the sacred Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita.

The major Sanskrit epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, were compiled over a protracted period during the late centuries BCE and the early centuries CE. They contain mythological stories about the rulers and wars of ancient India, and are interspersed with religious and philosophical treatises. The later Puranas recount tales about devas and devis, their interactions with humans, and their battles against rakshasa.

Increasing urbanization of India in 7 th and 6 th centuries BCE led to the rise of new ascetic or shramana movements, which challenged the orthodoxy of rituals. Mahavira (c. 549—477 BCE), proponent of Jainism, and Buddha (c. 563 — 483), founder of Buddhism were the most prominent icons of this movement. (2)


Persia held dominance in northern India until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 327 BCE. One year later, Alexander had defeated the Achaemenid Empire and firmly conquered the Indian subcontinent. Again, foreign influences were brought to bear on the region, giving rise to the Greco-Buddhist culture, which impacted all areas of culture in northern India from art to religion to dress. Statues and reliefs from this period depict Buddha, and other figures, as distinctly Hellenic in dress and pose (known as the Gandhara School of Art). Following Alexander’s departure from India, the Maurya Empire (322—185 BCE) rose under the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (322—298) until, by the end of the third century BCE, it ruled over almost all of northern India. (2)

Maurya Empire

The Maurya Empire proved short-lived, in large part due to poor financial administration. Following its collapse, the country splintered into many small kingdoms and empires (such as the Kushan Empire) in what has come to be called theMiddle Period . This era saw the increase of trade with Rome (which had begun c. 130 BCE) following Augustus Caesar’s conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE (Egypt had been India’s most constant partner in trade in the past). This was a time of individual and cultural development in the various kingdoms, which finally flourished in what is considered the Golden Age of India under the reign of the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE). The empire declined slowly under a succession of weak rulers until it collapsed around 550 CE. (2)

India’s Independence

In 712 CE the Muslim general Muhammed bin Quasim conquered northern India, establishing himself in the region of modern-day Pakistan. The Muslim invasion saw an end to the indigenous empires of India and, from then on, independent city-states or communities under the control of a city would be the standard model of government. The Islamic Sultanates rose in the region of modern-day Pakistan and spread northwest. The disparate world views of the religions, which now contested each other for acceptance in the region and the diversity of languages spoken, made the unity and cultural advances, such as were seen in the time of the Guptas, difficult to reproduce. Consequently, the Islamic Mughal Empire easily conquered the region. India would then remain subject to various foreign influences and powers (among them the Portuguese, the French, and the British) until finally winning its independence in 1947 CE. (2)