Versions of Hindu History
To construct a reliable chronology of Hinduism is challenging, for the following reasons:
- Hinduism claims no identifiable human founder, nor a specific origin in history.
- It is so old that its past recedes into pre-history. Furthermore, the tradition itself claims to be eternal.
- Hinduism is extremely diverse, and only recently conceived of as a single, distinct religion. Hindus did not feel compelled to unify their many traditions, or define the common ground that distinguished them from “other faiths” — not, at least, until these “others” threatened to impose their own doctrines.
- Hindu people were little concerned with recording “mere facts”; they were interested in the meaning behind events, not a resume of the past. First-hand records are therefore relatively rare.
- Within the accounts that are available, there is no clear divide between history and myth; written narratives span many eras of time and planes of existence. They are not limited to descriptions or eulogies of a single country, race or religion.
Nonetheless, researchers have drawn up a timeline for Hinduism, as they do for other religions. Most textbooks identify the roots of Hinduism with the Aryan migration into India, around 1500 BCE, and the subsequent composition of the Rig Veda. European scholars proposed this theory in the late 19th century. It was controversial from the start and some academics, especially from India, now consider it an example of colonial-missionary interpretation — a predominant culture projecting it own ideas, values, and biases onto the politically dependent.
Europeans considered India backward, thinking that anything valuable found there must have been imported from the “civilised” West. Significantly, within ancient Indian texts there is no mention of any Aryan migration. The term Aryan (see glossary) was used, but not to refer to a specific race of people. As scholars continue to debate the theory, a new chronology is emerging, often reversing the paradigm by proposing India as the cradle of civilisation, and pushing dates further back. This is more consistent with Hindu versions of history, with their much earlier dates, and numerous textual references to Vedic societies migrating westward.
The table below, although not completely consistent with the tradition’s view, is a commonly presented picture. It has been simplified to include only more relevant elements and modified to accommodate results of more recent research. Naturally, all dates are somewhat tentative. The seven periods shown below are discussed in the Ancient History, and Medieval and Modern History sections.
A Hindu Chronology
3,000–1500 BCE: Indus Valley Civilisation (Old Chronology), or
6,000–1900 BCE: Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation (New Chronology)
1500–500 BCE: Vedic Period (some say, beginning with the Aryan migration)
500 BCE–500 CE: Epic, Puranic and Classical Ages
500 CE–1200 CE: Early and Middle Medieval Period
Early development of bhakti (esp. in South India).
Formation of sampradayas contesting internally and externally
Theological establishment of Vedanta.
1200–1757 CE: Muslim Period
Bhakti saints and the cultivation of personal piety
Development of the theistic traditions
1757–1947 CE: British Period
The reform movements and birth of neo-Hinduism
1947 CE–present: Independent India
Migration to Britain
Hinduism established as a world religion.
“In Hinduism, the momentous event of a foundation at one point in time, the initial splash in the water, from which concentric circles expand to cover an ever-wider part of the total surface, is absent. The waves that carried Hinduism to a great many shores are not connected to a central historical fact or to a common historic movement.”
Prof K. Klostermaier: Hinduism – A Short History