Hinduism’s Controversial Origins: Primordial or Colonial?

Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world. Yet Hinduism’s origins are highly debated. Is it a timeless way of life or a colonial construction?

Apr 4, 2023By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology
hinduism origins


Hinduism is a way of life for over a billion people and is seen by many as the world’s oldest religion. According to its devotees, Hinduism is primordial, timeless, and divine. Yet the facts of Hinduism’s origins point to India’s encounter with British colonialism and the reaction of Indian elites to colonial domination. The Hindu nationalist project to create a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) in modern-day India is steadily reshaping the meaning of Hinduism further still.


Hinduism’s Origins: Hinduism as a Way of Life 

hinduism origins a way of life kartika purnima
Devotees of the Hindu festival of Kartika Purnima (Varanasi), via Wikimedia Commons


The beliefs and practices that comprise the Hindu religion can be traced back to the Vedic culture of the Indus Valley Civilization. However, there was no single founder of Hinduism, like in many religions. Neither is there a supreme being universally referred to as “God.”


Instead, Hinduism is best understood as a flexible grouping of religious sects made up of various beliefs, customs, and philosophies. The beliefs and practices of Hinduism began as a coming together of different groups and communities — a whole raft of festivals, holy sites, shrines, gods, and pilgrimage routes are ingrained in its culture.


Across the Hindu world, there are four major sects — Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakti, and Smartas. Each sect displays substantial differences and worships different gods. For instance, followers of Lord Vishnu and his incarnations Krishna and Rama (Vaishnavas) believe that Vishnu is God. While devotees of Lord Shiva (Shaivites) hold that Shiva — creator and destroyer of worlds — is the supreme God.


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The Hindu god Brahma, with four heads, Gouache painting by an unknown Indian artist, via the Wellcome Collection

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Vaishnavas are deeply devotional and advocate bhakti (religious devotion) as the highest path in life. While those who rever Shiva tend to embrace a life of asceticism, yoga, and prayer. Shaktism regards female divine cosmic energy — Devi  (literally: the goddess) — as the supreme Brahman (ultimate metaphysical reality). All other forms of divinity are considered to be her manifestations.


On the other hand, the Smarta tradition is Brahmanical and distances itself from theistic sectarianism. Smartas worship five gods equally (Ganesha, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, and Surya) and posit a non-sectarian, universalist view of Hinduism.


Despite its sectarian divisions, it is also true that Hinduism shows a certain unity. In some form, concepts of dharma (duty, morality, or a “way of life”) and karma (the principle of cause and effect); samsara (reincarnation), and moksha (liberation) are shared. That being said, it is also true that customs and practices that are shared and celebrated by some, are relatively unimportant to others.


Hinduism is indeed a way of life for over a billion people and the mythology of the Hindu religion is undoubtedly thousands of years old. Yet curiously, the term “Hindu” itself only appeared in Indian sources around the fourteenth century CE.


The Colonial Invention of Hinduism

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British colonists in India during the Raj, via Wikimedia Commons


The word Hindu did not originally have anything to do with religion at all. It was a geographical concept used by the Mughals to describe the people living beyond the “Sindhu” (the Sanskrit name for the Indus river).


The Mughals were Muslims that ruled over the majority of modern-day India and Pakistan from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The Mughals were not of course the first Muslims in India. Muslim merchants arrived in the subcontinent as early as the 7th century. Nonetheless, by the fourteenth century, the word “Hindu” had come to describe all those living beyond the Indus that were not Muslims.


The idea of a unified Hindu people took a decisive turn with the arrival of the British on the subcontinent. With limited resources and “man power” drawn in from across the Empire, the ability of British forces to gain a hold in India rested on the ability of the colonizers to promote disunity. First under the auspices of the British East India Company and again after 1857, under the guise of the British imperial state.


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Map of the British Raj, 1858-1947, via Wikimedia Commons


British colonialism in India relied in large part on social division and the manufacture of difference around categories of religion and caste in particular. Accordingly, colonial policy set out to exacerbate and crystallize differences between the patchwork of distinct societies that inhabited the subcontinent.


British colonial administrators soon got to work officially classifying caste and religious identities. The consequence was that all those Indians who were not Muslim or Christian became “Hindu” by default. In this regard, Hinduism’s origins are radically modern. Under the British colonial system, the rich beliefs, customs, and mythology of the Hindu way of life were associated with the religious category of Hinduism.


Both colonial administrators and Western-educated Indian elites set off on separate but intertwined paths to bring India’s wide range of non-muslim, non-christian communities and religious sects under one umbrella. Uniformity would be gradually imposed, through the social engineering of a newly minted “Hinduism”.


Imperial Visions of India 

caste system hiduisms origins India
“Pasees: Low Caste Hindoos”, one of many illustrations from The Peoples of India: The Races and Tribes of Hindustan,1868, via Wikimedia Commons


While British imperialists thought of themselves as the heirs to classical Greece and Rome, at the same time, the development of classical ideas was influenced by empire and imperial authority. The British empire itself was informed, inspired, and legitimized through engagement with the classical past.


Accordingly, the colonizers of the British Raj were brought up on stories of classical civilization. Myths and tales of Greece and Rome duly became convenient reference points for the perceived superiority of British Imperial power. For many, the ability of British forces to conquer the Indian subcontinent was seen as evident proof.


While the British were seen as masters of their environment, India was seen as static and unchanging. Take James Mills’s remarks in his imperial classic The History of British India (1817), that Hindu India represented a “hideous state of society.” For Mill and others, the “Hindus” of the present day were seen as little more than relics of antiquity.


British views of authority over the colonial world were drawn from the work of scholar-administrators of the empire on the ground. From assumptions about the “martial skill” of soldiers selected for the Indian army from communities in North India to claims about the innate weakness of the “effeminate” races of south India. Indian society was broadly considered to be timeless and backward. The prevailing feeling among British colonists was that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was ideally qualified to rule. At best Indians were seen as uncivilized and at worst, as Winston Churchill once claimed, “a beastly people with a beastly religion.”


Primordial Indian Visions

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Mahatma Gandhi and leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, hold talks in Bombay, September 1944, via Wikimedia Commons


The British were not the only ones promoting the idea of Indian culture as Hindu. Many Indian thinkers also saw Hinduism through a primordial lens and claimed that Hinduism’s origins stretched back into deepest antiquity. Indian elites were not passive recipients of colonial knowledge. But rather, actively engaged as moral thinkers and social reformers in the debates of the day. Indeed, particular themes of colonial scholarship appear to have struck a chord.


Within Indian academic circles European ideas about a North Indian “Aryan race” as superior to the “wild independence” of aboriginal Indian tribes, and ideas that upper caste Indians were “more evolved” than others were prevalent (see for example the writings of Gannender Mohun Tagore in The Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London). Caste was seen by many to be a “divinely mandated institution” and wholly necessary for the unity of the Hindu people.


Most importantly, despite a long history of social intercourse and cultural exchange, Islam and Hinduism were frequently taken to be entirely separate systems of belief. This is true in the case of both “Hindu” thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi, as well as Muslim thinkers, such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League.


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Mahatma Gandhi, by Elliott and Fry, 1931, via the BBC


Once a Congress moderate who argued for constitutional safeguards for the Muslim minority within a united, independent India, by 1940 Jinnah was openly championing the infamous “two-nations theory.” That is, that Hindus and Muslims were separate, incipient nations within the British empire on the basis of their unrelated identities and history.


Gandhi, meanwhile, never called himself a Hindu nationalist. Nonetheless, from the very beginning of his campaign for Independence, he openly propagated Hindu concepts and called for the “British Raj” to be replaced by “Rām Rajya” (the rule of Lord Rāma).


In this register, “Hindus” were understood as a race of people bound together by a shared (yet hierarchical) conception of primordial belonging. Thus for many of the most influential nation-builders of modern India, the Indian nation was to be built on the social foundations of Hinduism.


Rewriting Hinduism’s Origins in the Present

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi furnishes his Hindu credentials as he offers prayers at Jagganath Temple, Odisha, via Wikimedia Commons


If the unified sense of Hindu identity is a construction of British colonialism, then the question arises of how Hinduism is conceived of in modern-day post-colonial India? Guided by what they consider to be their Sanātan Dharma (eternal duty) today, over 900 million Indians consider themselves to be Hindus. Evidently, Hinduism continues to function as a way of life for the vast majority of Indian citizens. Yet since the rise of the ideology of Hindutva (literally; “Hinduness”) in the 1990s, Hinduism, its gods, scriptures, and practices, have taken on new importance in the politics of the nation. Alongside Hindutva’s rapid ascent to power has been renewed focus on the debate around Hinduism’s origins.


The Hindutva movement emerged in an organized form in 1925 with the formation of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Force). Since its inception, the modus operandi of the RSS has been that “enduring political power can arise only on the basis of a prior cultural transformation and consent”.


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RSS march, by Suyash Dwivedi, via Wikimedia Commons


The RSS has excelled in its organizational practices and has effectively been in power since 2014 through its political front, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Alongside the BJP, the RSS has literally thousands of affiliate organizations. Influential affiliates include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and its paramilitary youth wing Bajrang Dal, as well as the powerful RSS student organization, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The RSS itself is estimated to have a membership of between 5-6 million.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has himself been a member of the RSS since his childhood. Under his premiership, the rewriting of Hinduism’s origins and the challenging of India’s multicultural narrative has picked up pace. School textbooks have been rewritten, and government-appointed scholars have set out to “prove” that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the first indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent. Likewise, there has been a concerted effort to prove that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact, rather than myth.


All in all, the colonial construction of Hinduism has left an indelible mark on modern India. Today, Modi and the RSS enthusiastically embrace the colonial-era view that Muslims and Hindus are entirely separate peoples. For Hindu nationalists, the future of the nation boils down to the question of who is a Hindu and who is not. India’s multicultural diversity is seen as a hindrance rather than a strength. What is clear, is that as Hinduism has become increasingly political, the question of Hinduism’s origins has become more highly charged than ever.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with an interest in physical cultures, far-right movements, and Indian politics. He has a doctorate in political sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.