Hinduism: A brief history


Thought to be one of the world’s oldest religions, Hinduism has a rich history. With Hindus across the world celebrating Holi today, we’re giving you a brief history of the religion and ‘festival of colours’.

What is Hinduism?

Hinduism today is the largest religion practiced in India, and some people also believe is the oldest religion in the world. However, if one were to take a random sample of the population and question them on what they believe Hinduism is, one would get a vibrant mix of answers. For some, it is a way of life or guidelines on how to lead a happy life as a good human being, while for others it might be the adoption of the age-old traditions and how best those can be adapted into modernity.

Today, more than 1.1 billion people all over the world follow Hinduism which is the third-largest religion. The top three countries to have a dominant Hindu population in order are India, Nepal, and Mauritius.

Who or what is a Hindu?

The term Hindu did not have religious connotations but was used to denote a geographical entity of population. It is derived from the Indus River and was used as a generic category to describe people who lived beyond the Indus River. In the Brahmanical texts of ancient India such as the Arthashastra and Manusmṛiti and Sanskrit literature including the two epics – Ramayaṇa and Mahabharata, there is no mention of the term Hind or Hindu anywhere.

Al Biruni, a traveller from Uzbekistan used the word ‘Hind’ in the title of his anthropological travelogue. Tarikh al-Hind, the title of the text is used to refer to the lands he traveled to and observed in the subcontinent and not to the religious affiliation of the people.

So, if the terms such as Hind, Hindu, and Hinduism were not part of the linguistic currency, how did people belonging to different sampradayas or traditions (which today cumulatively form the overarching religious framework for Hinduism) identify themselves? Sampradaya could be understood as a school of thought where a spiritual lineage is formed between the master and the disciple. The master does not necessarily have to be a priest or a saint acting as a middle man between God and devotees. The master could be God himself or herself.

We have three major traditions:

  • Vaishnavism
  • Shaivism
  • Shaktism

To be a Vaishnava simply means to worship Vishnu or one of many forms or avatars such as Rama or Kṛishṇa. Shaiva traditions are those whose focus is the deity, Shiva. Shakta, the worship of Shakti or the divine goddess, is often considered to be the third major Hindu sectarian tradition, following Vaishnavism and Shaivism.

The spiritual side of Hinduism – Bhakti

Bhakti, as a religious strand emerged sometime around the 8th century AD in the Tamil South and over the centuries acquired a mainstay in how the people viewed religion and their interaction with God. Bhakti literally translated means devotion. The saints who emerged from this ‘movement’ had completely immersed themselves in the devotion and love of the Gods they worshipped, which led to cults being developed around these saints as well.

Bhakti is often seen as a social reformist movement that was not limited to any caste, class, or gender and is considered egalitarian when compared to Brahmanical Hinduism. Two of the most popular saints that almost everyone would know of if they know about Bhakti are that of Mira Bai and Kabir. These two aren’t related in any sense and belong to two completely different times and geographies. However, their poetry is something that is sung in Hindu temples and rituals even today.

The word ‘movement’ is often associated with Bhakti. We have to be careful while using that term. The word ‘movement’ denotes that something triggered it and that it happened within a short time frame. However, anyone who has ever had a discussion on bhakti would probably know that the poetry and verses that we have, span a few centuries and not decades.

The festival of Holi

Holi is popularly known as the ‘festival of colours’. It is also a festival that is supposed to usher in the spring season and bless the agricultural produce that would be harvested following suit. While we don’t know the origin of the festival, we find it being mentioned in the ancient texts called Puranas. The festival is also a celebration of the triumph over evil, where one of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu called Narasimha defeated and killed the evil demonic king called Hiranyakashyap.

Holi celebration

The celebrations begin on the eve of Holi with a bonfire. The evening is referred to as ‘Choti Holi’ (Smaller Holi) or ‘Holika Dahan’ (the burning of Holika). For days, people collect wood, leaves, twigs etc for their bonfires. The bonfire represents the burning of the demoness Holika, who was also a very important character in the story of Hiranyakashyap. On the morning of Holi, people visit the homes of their families and smear colour on them. Any Indian festival is incomplete without sweets, and the sweet that is most commonly made and served during Holi is called Gujiya.

Surabhi Sanghi is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, pursuing a master’s degree in South Asian Studies and Intensive Language (which also means she gets to be in London for one whole extra year). She has a background in history and is interested in the religions of South Asia. She is a dog person and her only wish is to be able to pet all the dogs in London.

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