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READ: Hinduism

The Hindu belief system developed over hundreds of years through the intellectual work of Brahmins and the practices and ideas of millions of practitioners. About a billion people follow this faith today, mostly in South Asia.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How did Hinduism emerge in South Asia?
  2. How do Hindus believe that a person’s status is determined?
  3. Why did Hinduism spread? What made it appealing to people?
  4. How was the social hierarchy organized under Hinduism?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. You’ve read about Judaism, which spread all around the world, but did not spread to large numbers of people. You’ve also read about Christianity, which spread all around the world to become the world’s largest religion. Hinduism, by contrast, spread to many people but was only widely adopted in South Asia. Can you think of any reasons for this? What role might networks and communities have played in Hinduism’s expansion (and lack of expansion)?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.


Photograph of an incredibly ornate Hindu temple. Figures are carved into stone, as well as many other symbols.
By Merry Wiesner-Hanks
The Hindu belief system developed over hundreds of years through the intellectual work of Brahmins and the practices and ideas of millions of practitioners. About a billion people follow this faith today, mostly in South Asia.


During the millennium from 1500 to 500 BCE, people who called themselves Aryans (from the word for "noble" in Sanskrit, the major language of ancient India) came to dominate northern India politically and culturally. They created a body of sacred works, epics, hymns, philosophical treatises, and ritual texts called the Vedas, which serve as the primary source of information about this era. The traditional view is that the Aryans came into India from the north using the superior military technology of chariots and bronze weaponry, and conquered the indigenous tribal population. (This is why, in the twentieth century, the Nazis glorified the Aryans as a superior race and claimed links with them.) Although archaeological evidence for the Aryan invasion is slim, this is the story told in the Vedas—the oldest of the Hindu religious texts—which present their leaders as heroic figures, aided by priests and warriors.
The Aryans recognized a number of gods and goddesses, who could be approached through the ceremonies of priests called Brahmins. These rituals might allow a person to achieve union with the ultimate unchanging reality that is the source of the universe, called brahman. Originally this was seen as possible only for men who were Brahmins and lived an ascetic life focused on purity rather than pleasure, but in the third century BCE this idea began to widen. The brahmanic religion developed into what was later called Hinduism, a diverse set of practices and beliefs in which individual worshippers could show their devotion to the gods directly, without using priests as intermediaries. Personal gods could be honored through saying prayers, singing hymns, dancing, presenting offerings, and making pilgrimages to holy sites, and also by living an honorable life in one's own situation.

Religious ideas and practices

The high status of Brahmins was affirmed in the Upanishads, cosmological texts composed between 750 and 500 BCE. In these the universe was understood to be an endlessly repeating cycle in which souls were reincarnated through a continual process of rebirth known as samsara. Actions performed in one's life— known as karma—determined one's status in the next life. Good deeds led to higher status and bad deeds to lower. The ultimate goal of life was to escape this relentless cycle of birth and rebirth and achieve moksha, a state of liberation, bliss, and awareness in which one achieved union with brahman.
The quest for brahman involved personal devotion to one or more of the many gods and goddesses who were manifestations of brahman. They were usually represented by images in homes and temples. Devotion to one did not mean denial of the others, and over the centuries new gods, doctrines, beliefs, and rituals were added and incorporated. Reaching brahman also involved living a moral life, what became known as dharma, a Sanskrit word with many shades of meaning, involving piety, moral law, ethics, order, duty, mutual understanding, justice, and peace. The moral and spiritual teachings of Hinduism were widely appealing because they offered direct contact with the gods, often in exuberant rituals, and guidance for everyday life. Following rules of behavior and performing ceremonies associated with one's social group and favored gods might lead to being born in a higher status group in the next life, an attractive idea for most people.
A small, ancient stone temple. The temple rests at the top of a set of stairs.
The sixth century CE Dashavatara Temple to the god Vishnu in north-central India also contains images of various other gods and goddesses. It is one of the oldest surviving Hindu stone temples. By Work2win, CC BY-SA 4.0

Society and family life

Like every ancient society, early Aryan society distinguished among various social groups. Priests and warriors became the two highest social strata (varna in Sanskrit), the Brahmin and the Kshatriya. Merchants formed the third strata (Vaishya) and peasants, laborers, and conquered peoples the fourth and largest strata (Shudra). The Vedas portray this system as created by the gods, who divided the original cosmic being into four parts corresponding to parts of the body; this gave social divisions religious sanctions.
Skin color may have played a role in the origins of these social strata—Aryan epics describe those who opposed them as dark-skinned savages—but societal roles was the key source of differentiations. Thus attitudes toward certain types of work underlay them: memorizing religious texts and engaging in intellectual debates was honored work, while farming or making things with one's hands were demeaning. Over time, occupational and geographic distinctions were elaborated into an increasingly complex system of thousands of hereditary groups known as jati— which literally means "births." Each of these were understood to have a common identity and ancestors, and had roles, rituals, and status prescribed by custom and tradition. They were reinforced by endogamy, that is, marrying within the group. As new occupations developed because of technological change or cultural interactions, or as groups migrated in or invaded, new jati were created for them or older ones redefined, so the system was both stable and flexible. When Portuguese traders came to India in the late fifteenth century, they called these groups casta from their own word for hereditary social divisions. This became the English word "caste," now used widely to describe the Indian social hierarchy.
Certain tasks were regarded as beneath the dignity of even the lowest shudras, and those who did them were viewed as outside of the caste system, a social classification that developed into the notion that certain groups were "untouchable" because they were impure. That designation became a circular one: untouchables were scorned because their occupations polluted them, but certain occupations polluted all who did them.
Scholars debate many aspects of the caste system. Some argue that British rule in India in the nineteenth century made the system far more rigid than it had been earlier because it codified the system in writing, while others stress that unwritten norms can be just as authoritative as written law. The power of caste in contemporary Indian society is a sharply disputed political issue.
There is little debate that, whatever one's social group, the family was where one was to observe dharma. All men and women were expected to marry, with sexual pleasure, fulfilling religious obligations, and having children regarded as the three purposes of marriage. Hindu deities include powerful female gods, but only male Brahmins could go through the most important religious ceremonies and study sacred texts. While her brothers were off studying, a Brahmin girl learned housekeeping and domestic religious rituals. After her husband's death, a widow was regarded as unlucky, so not welcome at family festivities. But like the male members of her family, after death she could hope for a favorable rebirth, which might include being reborn as a man.

Political developments and the spread of Hinduism

The Aryans established small kingdoms in northern India, and priests supported the expanding power of rulers, who in return confirmed the superior status of the priests. The Persians and the Greeks under Alexander conquered parts of northwest India, but at times Indian rulers also created larger empires, some of which favored Buddhism and some Hinduism.
Religious and social practices associated with Hinduism spread into Nepal and Sri Lanka, where they blended with local religious and social systems. They also spread into Southeast Asia, carried across the Indian Ocean by merchants and sailors on ships. After about 100 CE, Indian priests and officials travelled to Southeast Asia as well, where they married into powerful families and were appointed as advisers by rulers attempting to build up their authority on the Indian model. In these Indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia, imported traditions fused with local ones. Some groups understood themselves to be members of specific Indian castes, especially lineages within the Kshatriyas warrior caste. Huge stone temples were built to Hindu deities, but rituals also continued to indigenous gods and spirits, who retained their power over the rice harvest, daily life, and cosmic order. Other than among South Asian migrants, the impact of caste was limited, and locally-created social hierarchies remained the most important.
In more recent times, South Asian migrants have taken Hinduism around the world, though it has not spread widely to people from other areas. Today there are about a billion Hindus, about 95 percent of whom live in India.
Birds-eye view of Angkor Wat, a very large and ornate temple. There is a main structure, surrounded by a wall that borders the temple. Around the temple are blue pools, grass, and trees.
Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, the largest religious structure in the world, was built as a Hindu temple by the rulers of the Khmer Empire in the twelfth century. When the rulers became Buddhist, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist holy site.

Primary source: The Rig Veda

The Rig Veda, one of the Hindu sacred texts known as the Vedas, is a collection of about 1000 hymns dedicated to specific deities. This is Hymn 10.11, in praise of the heroic god Indra.
  1. All sacred songs have magnified Indra expansive as the sea, The best of warriors borne on carts, the Lord, the very Lord of strength.
  2. Strong in thy friendship, Indra, Lord of power and might, we have no fear. We glorify with praises thee, the never-conquered conqueror.
  3. The gifts of Indra from of old, his saving succors, never fail, When to the praise-singers he gives the boon of substance rich in kine [cattle].
  4. Crusher of forts, the young, the wise, of strength unmeasured, was he born Sustainer of each sacred rite, Indra, the Thunderer, much-extolled.
Author bio
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and currently the president of the World History Association. She is the author or editor of 30 books that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean.

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