The term Hinduism was coined in modern times. When scholars compared it with other organised religions, they made an attempt to study its beliefs and institutions systematically. Hinduism passed through a number of reformist movements and evolved with time. In the 6th century BCE, Brahmanism was challenged by two new religions — Jainism and Buddhism. Both criticised the domination of the Brahman caste over the sacred language of Sanskrit and their performance of complex religious rituals which became rather extravagant for ordinary people. However, Brahmanism gradually assimilated teachings from those two religious thoughts. As a result, Buddhism was eliminated from India and Jainism shrank to a small minority. The flexibility of Hinduism helped it in surviving the vicissitude of time.
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In 6th and 7th centuries CE in south India and in 13th century CE in north India, the Bhatia movement emerged which was against the caste system. It appealed to the lower castes to achieve a dignified position in society. Without challenging the basic structure of religion, but in a similar manner like Sufism, it promoted spirituality and the love of God leaving the social structure intact.
During the colonial period when Christianity arrived in India under the umbrella of political power, Hinduism faced a serious threat. It faced accusations of being a backward religion that encouraged women to burn themselves alive through the practice of sati; prohibited remarriage of widows, and permitted child marriage.
In response to these challenges, the first reformist movement began in Bengal under Raja Ram Mohan Roy (d.1833), who decided to reform Hinduism by introducing elements which could make it acceptable to the modern environment. It was a reformist and not a radical or revolutionary movement.
It had no political ambitions and the only concern was to fulfill the aspirations of the educated Bengali class who wanted to readjust their religious beliefs according to the needs of modern day. He condemned idol worship and insisted on oneness of God. The Brahman caste and their role in the performance of elaborate religious rituals was also opposed.
The followers were encouraged to read the holy books and take guidance directly. These books were printed in the printing press which had arrived with the advent of the British so that the holy books were now easily available. This ended the Brahman monolith on religious knowledge.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy also led campaigns against Sati and for the remarriage of widows. He founded schools for girls, attempted reconciliation with other religions and created religious tolerance among his followers. He encouraged social and cultural relations among all castes.
Welfare projects, too, began and orphanages, schools and hospitals were established. Thus the Brahmo Samaj changed the situation of Bengalis through education and religious tolerance.
As a response to Christian missionaries, another religious movement, the Arya Samaj appeared in central Punjab, founded by Diyananda Saraswati (d.1883). It was different from the Brahmo Samaj as it became popular among the lower middle classes while the former had followers belonging to the upper classes.
Unlike Brahmo Samaj which emphasised on the teachings of the Upanishads, the Arya Samaj turned to the teachings of Vedas. It proclaimed that only the Vedas were the true, revealed books while all others were false. Here, it deviated from the Brahmo Samaj policy of reconciliation with other religions.
Since there is no conversion in Hinduism, the Arya Samaj introduced the practice of shudhi which meant that Hindus converted to other religions could be reconverted and brought back to their original faith. Shudhi meant purification, and therefore efforts were made to purify the lower castes which were regarded as unclean so as to make them a part of the Hindu community.
The Diyananda Anglo Vedic Trust was established and schools and colleges were founded to educate and train the young Hindus in accordance with the teachings of the Arya Samaj. It also established schools for girls. It was not only a reformist but also a political movement. The idea was to unite the Hindu community to face modern challenges and preserve religious identity.
The third religious movement to emerge was led by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923, who wanted to unite the Hindus under the ideology of Hindutva. According to his ideology, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism were Hindu religions while Islam and Christianity were not.
From 1915 to 1920, the Hindu Mahasabha, and their militant branch accelerated their efforts to unite the Hindus as a nation — their model being Shivaji who fought against the Mughals. Hindutva recognised the lower classes and declared that there was no need to make them shudhi or purify them as they could join the organisation irrespective of belonging to any caste.
After partition, the Arya Samaj became weak as it lost its centre which was Lahore. In 1980s, the BJP emerged as a strong, Hindu political party whose aim was to capture political power and implement a Hindu raj. Its argument was that liberal and secular parties gave concessions to religious minorities at the cost of the Hindu majority.
Though it came to power, it failed to materialise its agenda. The Indian society which has a diversity of religions and cultures cannot afford to convert into a religious state. As a result, religion and politics in India have not mixed well.
By Mubarak Ali: http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/25/past-present-evolution-of-hinduism.html