Medieval and Modern History

Early and Middle Medieval Period (500 CE–1200 CE)

A murti of Andal. She was the only woman among the twelve Alvars, the forerunners of Shri Vaishnavism, as later established by Ramanuja. She is still much worshipped in South India.

From 500 CE onwards, several important developments laid the foundations for contemporary Hinduism, particularly the popular theistic and devotional elements. In the South, poet-saints recorded their spontaneous, spiritual outpourings. Most notable are the twelve Vaishnava Alvars (6th–9th centuries) and the 63 Shaivite Nayanars (8th–10th centuries).

Several key thinkers consolidated these teachings by developing new theologies transmitted through sampradayas (disciplic successions), which contested amongst themselves and with outsiders. Shankaracharya (780–812 CE) travelled widely, defeating scholars of the nastika movements, Buddhism and Jainism, which around the turn of the millennium had established prominent seats of learning throughout India. He firmly re-established the authority of the Vedic canon, propagated advaita and laid sturdy foundations for future Vedantic sampradayas.

Abhinavangupta, Ramanuja, Madhva, and others followed, writing their own scriptural commentaries, propounding new theologies and establishing their own successions. During much of this period, Shaivism was the prominent tradition in India, especially in the South.

The Muslim Period (1200–1757 CE)

Emperor Akbar, usually considered the greatest of the Moghul emperors

From the 7th century onwards, Muslim Arabs had begun invading parts of India. Muslim political power began with the Turks during the rule of the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526).The Moghuls subsequently came to power with the reign of Babur (1526–1520). However Akbar (1542– 1605), third Moghul emperor of India (1556–1605), is generally considered the true founder of the Moghul Empire. He was liberal and broad-minded, patronising Hindu scholars and artists. In comparison, his puritanical great-grandson, Aurangzeb, reigning from 1658 until 1705, restricted Hindu practices and demolished many temples. During the entire Moghul period, Hindus were largely excluded from public life, compelling them to develop their spirituality without royal patronage. These restrictions, combined with the rigidity of the caste system, prompted a shift towards spiritual processes that circumvented authoritative religion. Leaders rose from amongst the people, emphasising the importance of personal piety. The bhakti saints flourished during this period, expressing their devotional sentiments through song, music, and poetry, and propounding a theology of spiritual egalitarianism.

The British Period (1757–1948)

British rule in India was often accompanied by much pomp and ceremony

Robert Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 established British supremacy in India and heralded the collapse of the Moghul Empire. At first the British government adopted a lenient, “hands-off” attitude towards Indian culture, drawing up regulations to protect “the natives in the free exercise of their religion.” However, in the early 1800s, missionaries arrived to proselytise and they finally won the right to campaign without government licence. Shortly after, the first scholars arrived and, though initially sympathetic, were often motivated by a desire to “civilise the Hindoo” and save his soul from eternal damnation. Seats of Indology were established in Oxford, and important contributions were made to scholarship, although the research methods are now considered dated.

Attempts to Westernise and Christianise India prompted some Hindus to defend their religion and culture. Others opted for Western values and practices. Most significantly, though, leading Hindu figures realised that India had to be more thoughtful, assertive, and adaptable if she were to retain her identity. The resultant reform movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were effective in transforming Hinduism, not by attracting huge numbers of followers, but in stimulating the tradition to change and adapt. They were instrumental in sowing the seeds of Indian nationalism and a missionary spirit that later brought Hinduism to the West.

Independent India and Modern Hinduism (1948 onwards)

Nehru, first PrimeMinister of independent India

The partition of India in 1947, and the resultant bloodshed, served only to reinforce nationalistic tendencies and notions of India as “a Hindu country.” Subsequently, the large number of Hindu movements imported into the West, and wide migration of Hindus themselves, meant that Hinduism was no longer simply “the religion of India” It was identified as one of the great world religions. As Hindus were increasingly exposed to members of other cultures and religions, at home and abroad, it raised the need for many to examine carefully their heritage. Teachings and practices that had been largely passed down by family tradition, begged for articulation. Hindus were increasingly invited to contribute to inter-faith initiatives and to present their opinions on the complex moral issues of the day. Although many still prefer the concept of sanatana-dharma, Hinduism is a term that is here to stay. Though the tradition is undergoing many transformations, the elements of its ancient past are still evident, as for example through the fire-sacrifice and the continuing popularity of the Epics and Puranas. Although the exact meaning and nature of Hinduism remains a matter of discussion, it remains an overwhelming reality, a live, and dynamic tradition that positively contributes to contemporary life.