A History of Ancient India Before the Aryan Migration

Perhaps because Hinduism traces the beginning of some of its religious themes and forms to the third millennium B.C.E., it has drawn in and adopted many influences. As a result, no religion can claim to be as diverse and varied as Hinduism. Its scope ranges from a simple animism — the belief that every living creature, inanimate object, and wishful thought has a spirit — to some of the most elaborate philosophical systems. Hinduism's diversity is such that it allows for literally millions of major and minor gods, their temples, and their priests. As a consequence of this openness, the possible religious views for Hindus are virtually infinite.

Where and when did Hinduism begin? Did it have a founder like Jesus or Mohammad or Buddha? Unlike most of the other major religions of the world, Hinduism has no identifiable founder. However, there was a mythological founder, Brahma, of the Vedic religion, a denomination of Hinduism.

The word “Hindu” is as much geographical as anything else. It comes from the Sanskrit name for the river Indus, which flows through northern India. The word “Hinduism” is a generic term and did not come into popular use until the eighteenth century, coined by the British to simplify the work of the census takers.

In ancient times, the Indus river was called the Sindhu, but the Persians who eventually migrated to India called the river Hindu. They also came to call the land Hindustan and its inhabitants Hindus. So, the term applies generally to the religion of the people of India.

The British wanted to classify those who were not Christians, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, or Buddhists as Hindus. Historically, this term is a Persian word referring to the people living around the Sindhu or Indus River. The Rig Veda mentions the land of the Indo-Aryans as Sapta Sindhu (the land of seven rivers in northwestern South Asia, one of them being the Indus River).

There are different denominations of Hinduism, such as Vedism, Brahmanism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Smartism, Tantrism, Lingayatism, and many other variations of local religious traditions. Some proponents of the religion take the source to mythological ages. Historically speaking, the Vedic religion evolved from 1500 B.C.E. Shaivite religion was practiced by the Dravidians from 2000 B.C.E.

Hinduism is most likely a synthesis of the religion that came into India with the migratory wave of Aryans in the second millennium B.C.E. and the indigenous religion of the native people. The resulting culture became classical Hinduism.

The first task is to describe pre-Aryan Indians. The problem is that it is not easy to know much about them. Prior to the 1920s, the only source that spoke of the pre-Aryan people was the Vedic literature of early Hinduism. Since this was the religious literature of the Aryans, it is decidedly biased, with negative references to India and its religions. The Indian people themselves were portrayed as uncivilized and barbaric.

The new evidence of the 1920s told a different story. It was then that excavations in northwestern India revealed complexes of cities along the Indus River. Indeed, as early as 2500 B.C.E., there were signs of an advanced civilization in the Indus Valley. This civilization — including smaller villages and cities — sprawled over 100 square miles of the region. By some estimates, it may be the largest political community prior to the Roman Empire. Cities were elaborate, laid out in rectangular blocks, with drainage systems, and some 40,000 people per city.

The advancement of the region was impressive. Homes, constructed of firebrick, were often two stories high and included bathrooms with running water. Adjacent to the cities were agricultural communities with irrigation systems. Further evidence of modern amenities is evident from the large granaries that existed for the storage and distribution of food.

Archaeological evidence reveals that pre-Aryan Indians of the third and second millennium B.C.E. had a written language. Unfortunately, their language has not been translated. As a result, much information about the everyday lives and religion of the native people remains hidden.

Other physical evidence — especially in the form of statues and amulets — reveals the images of fertility gods and goddesses. Some of the figures sit cross-legged, in the familiar lotus position of the practice of yoga and other forms of meditation. In sum, the picture that emerges of pre-Aryan India is not one of a primitive people living in an ancient backwater; rather, the pre-Aryans were urban and technologically advanced, and they furnished some of the religious content for latter-day Hinduism.

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