Origins and Development
Although the English coined the word “Hinduism” around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the name “Hindu” has been in the language ever since Greek times. Some Hindus did not take to the word Hinduism, preferring the ancient name Vedic. The Vedic texts are known as the Vedas, and they provide the only textual source for understanding the religious life of ancient India. “Veda” means “sacred knowledge” or “learning” in Sanskrit, the oldest written language of India. In the beginning, the Vedas were comprised of 1,000 hymns, which served the priestly families. These were followed by the Veda of Chants, with musical notations for the performance of sacred songs. Prose works were added to explain the ceremonial aspects of the text.
Over the years, Vedic rites became so complicated and had so many rules that only highly trained priests could read the texts explaining them. It was from this background and legacy that the practice and belief in Hinduism evolved. The textbooks on Hinduism, composed in the early twentieth century, were written by Hindus to explain the faith so it could be taught to their young.
More than any other major religion, Hinduism celebrates the breadth and depth of its complex, multileveled spectrum of beliefs. Hinduism encompasses all forms of belief and worship. It has been said that no religious idea in India ever dies; it merely combines with the new ideas that arise in response to it.
Vedanta philosophy consists of three propositions. First, that real nature is divine; second, that the aim of human life is to realize this divine nature; and third, that all religions are essentially in agreement. Hinduism has neither a single prophet nor one god to worship; rather, it offers a plethora of ideas — a metaphor for the gods. It has been called a civilization and congregation of religions. Hinduism has no beginning, no founder, no central authority, no hierarchy, and no organization. Every attempt to classify or define Hinduism has proved to be unsatisfactory in one way or another. These efforts are confounded because the scholars of the faith have emphasized different aspects of the whole.