History and Sources

What does the term “Hinduism” mean?

As a standard term in religious studies, Hinduism refers to a whole family of religious traditions deeply rooted in the Indian subcontinent. “Hinduism” derives from an ancient linguistic root that means “to flow,” and rivers have been a central feature in the religious life of nearly a billion Indians. A bit of river imagery here will help to explain how many diverse traditions have come together to form the “greater Hinduism” of our day. Imagine an extensive network of rivers of belief stretching across the whole of the Indian subcontinent beginning perhaps six thousand years ago. One major river flows from the northwest down toward the Indian heartland. Another originates in the south. Each grows as dozens of tributaries flow into it along its course. In the center of the subcontinent the two broad streams come together into one vast waterway. As it nears the sea, the great river opens again into a broad delta. The northern river, representing the Aryan ethnic and cultural elements, carries a system of religious beliefs that came together from tributaries to the northwest of India as long as five or six millennia ago (even longer according to some scholars).

Deities of the Aryan tradition seem to have much in common with those of the classical Greek and Roman pantheons with their lords of wind, weather, and sky. A river of Dravidian ethnic and cultural elements to the south represents ancient indigenous traditions surrounding the forces that rule earth and fertility, mountain and valley, powers of life and death. This vast “river system” of religious families, commonly referred to as “Hinduism” is in reality not a single “religion” but a complex blend of many diverse religious traditions.


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