Hinduism is often seen as the primary religion of India, like Christianity in Europe or Islam in the Middle East. But — as with both Europe and the Middle East — the spiritual history and reality of India is far more complex and diverse than is sometimes thought.

Lacking written texts, it is impossible to gain much understanding of the Stone Age and prehistoric religions of India. The earliest surviving religious texts from India are the Vedas, which we discussed in an earlier column (see "What is India's very ancient 'Rigveda'?" published Aug. 31 on deseretnews.com). The Rigveda represents the spiritual worldview of semi-nomadic Indo-Europeans who migrated into the Indus and Ganges river valleys in the late second and early first millennia B.C.

Students of Shri Swami Narottamanand Giri Ved Vidyalaya, a school of Hindu religious teaching, study at Jhoosi, on the outskirts of Allahabad, India, in this file photo from Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007. Vedic schools are based on the Hindu Gurukul system of
Students of Shri Swami Narottamanand Giri Ved Vidyalaya, a school of Hindu religious teaching, study at Jhoosi, on the outskirts of Allahabad, India, in this file photo from Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007. Vedic schools are based on the Hindu Gurukul system of learning, where young Brahmacharis, or students, stay with the Guru, or teacher, and learn the scriptures. Vedic scriptures are recited at Hindu prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions. | RAJESH KUMAR SINGH, Associated Press

By the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., however, many of the beliefs and sacrificial practices of the Vedic religion seemed no longer relevant to lives and spiritual questions of the Indians of the Ganges Valley. The warlike gods of the Vedic people seemed unrelated to the daily concerns of the people in the cities and farms of north India, now living in a settled rather than nomadic society. At that time India underwent what is sometimes called an axial age — that is, an age of radical social, intellectual and religious transformation.

Based on their archaic traditions, most Indians agreed that the soul was immortal, and that it could be reincarnated into many different forms throughout vast eons of time. The good and bad deeds or actions (“karma”) of an individual clung to his soul throughout these various incarnations. Good deeds guaranteed a blessed reincarnation. Bad deeds led to inferior reincarnations of the soul, perhaps even as an animal or insect. This cycle of birth and rebirth could continue through many lifetimes. Salvation involved release (“moksha,” “nirvana”/extinction) from this cycle of rebirths. The question debated in the sixth century was how to attain that blessed state.

One group believed that salvation came about through the performance of rigorous sacred ritual and the practice of the social and religious duty (“dharma”) of one’s caste (“varna”). Vedic wisdom and sacrifice were foundational to this worldview, but were often allegorically interpreted. The teachings of the leaders of this movement were eventually collected into books known as the Upanishads, and eventually further developed into what is now often called Hinduism.

Other ancient teachers, rather than allegorizing Vedic teachings and rituals, rejected them entirely — most notably Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (“Enlightened One”). Rather than the soul enduring a series of lifetimes of obedience to complex ritual, sacrifices and religious law and caste duty (dharma), the Buddha maintained, liberation from the cycle of rebirth could be achieved through inner spiritual enlightenment and transformation.

The sixth-century Indian sage Mahavira (“great hero”), on the other hand, believed that salvation could be attained only through rigorous asceticism, involving the rejection of those things that most people hold dear, but which bind us to the cycle of rebirth. Mahavira believed in absolute non-violence (“ahimsa”), that we should harm no living thing. For Mahavira, this meant eventual death by starvation, since all human food sources contain the spark of life. We live only by consuming the life force of other living things.

Thus, despite many modern claims, Hinduism is not the primordial religion of India. Rather there were many primordial forms of polytheism in India, with many regional gods, precisely as we find among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ancient political unification in India, though often partial, led to the merging of many forms of Indian polytheisms into a more systematized religion. Just as Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter merged into a single deity in the Roman Empire, so Vedic gods merged eventually with other indigenous gods of South Asia into the gods of Hinduism. New and differing interpretations of the Vedic scriptures eventually developed into entirely distinct religions.

It is sometimes said that Jainism and Buddhism both emerged from Hinduism in the sixth century B.C. But it is more accurate to conceive of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism all emerging from different interpretations of the earlier Vedic religion, and from other traditional polytheisms of India. The Vedic religion is to India what ancient Israelite religion is to the Middle Eastern monotheisms. They are the archaic root religions that eventually flourished and developed into three branches each: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in India, and Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Middle East.

In future columns we will discuss Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the three great religious traditions of India, in more detail.