Disclaimer: The methods we follow here are based on the Indian perspective not western. Even though most of Indian history has been written and synced by western historians, still we take the dates given by traditional Indian sources where possible.
Hinduism’s antiquity is a hotly debated topic. People ask all sorts of questions about it. Some of the more prominent ones are:
- Is Hinduism 5000 years old?
- Which is the oldest religion in the world?
- How old are the Vedas?
- What came before Hinduism?
Hinduism, if considered the rightful successor to Vedic heritage, can safely be assumed as the oldest living religion in the world. Vedic religion according to the more modern estimates easily goes back to at least 5500 years old, while other estimates go much beyond that.
In this article, we will be discussing most of the theories and the reasoning behind them. This will help you to understand the reasoning behind different dates given by different people. But like most other questions, the answer is it depends. It depends on the following definitions:
- Definition of Hinduism
- Holy texts
Like everything, religions also evolve. They get influenced and influence others around them. Let’s fix some definitions first and then proceed to answer this question. People answer with all kinds of subjectivity. Here we will try to be as objective as we can. Let’s first look at some of the claims.
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world, with roots that can be traced back to prehistoric times. While there is no definitive answer to the question of how old Hinduism is, it is safe to say that it is a religion with a long and rich history.
Hinduism is a complex religion, with a wide variety of beliefs and practices. It is not possible to date the origins of Hinduism with any precision, as it is not a single, unified faith. Instead, it is a collection of disparate beliefs and traditions that have developed over time.
Some of the earliest Hindu texts, such as the Vedas, date back to around 1500 BCE. However, it is believed that the roots of Hinduism go back even further, to a time when the Indus Valley Civilization was flourishing in what is now Pakistan and northwest India. This was a time of great cultural and religious diversity, and it is thought that the Vedic traditions emerged from this melting pot of ideas.
From its humble beginnings, Hinduism has grown to become one of the largest religions in the world. It is practiced by around 1.3 billion people, making it the third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. Hinduism is also one of the oldest religions still practiced today, and its long history is a testament to its enduring popularity.
Definition of Hinduism
Hinduism is a set of Indian traditions or belief systems that considers Vedas sacred and worship various attributes/forms of God mentioned in Vedas. The qualities or attributes of the God worshipped varies widely from tradition to tradition. But these traditions are held together by Vedas as an invisible thread. You can read our post about Hinduism in detail here.
Timeline of Hinduism
Hinduism due to its antiquity has evolved a lot. Starting with the Vedic age, it passed through many turbulent times. But Mahabharata war was a major turning point in its history. The intellectual vacuum that was created in the aftermath of the war had many negative impacts on it.
The major disruptions in the Indian knowledge system(Gurukul system) had a lasting effect, paving the way for other sects which weren’t on good terms with Hinduism. Slowly, modern-day Hinduism was born.
Hinduism has passed through many phases to attain its current form. The important phases are listed below.
1. Vedic Period
It was the time when Vedas we being followed and things were done according to the Vedas. Yajna(Yagya) was the main form of Upasana, etc. This period is earlier than Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Nilesh Oak, who has done extensive research on the dating of Ramayana, gives the dates of around 14000 years before the present but then there is Yuga theory which states that Ramayana happened in Tretayuga giving dates to around 1.732 million years ago.
But the major loopholes Some problems with this theory have been pointed out in this video titled The Concept of Yuga and its Implications for Indian Chronology by Vedveer Arya.
Summary from the video: Initially Yuga was a five-year lunisolar calendar which evolved with time into higher precision calendar. Take a look at the following picture which details the evolution of Yuga step by step.
Long story short, Ramayana didn’t happen 17 Lakh years ago even according to our traditional dates
Now depending on which theory you subscribe to Mahabharata is usually dated between 5000 – 7500 years before the present with various scholars using various methods. Indian tradition gives the age of around 5000 years while Nilesh Oak in his book gives around 7500 years.
So even if we take the most conservative figures, it is at least 14000 years old provided you consider Vedic religion and present-day Hinduism the same or at least consider Hinduism to be the rightful successor to Vedic religion.
4. Renaissance age
This was the time after Mahabharata. Due to the huge loss of this war, the system broke which gave space for other ideas to expand at the expense of Vedic thought. Due to the huge losses, the intellectual(Gurukul system) and society systems(Varnashrama) got disturbed.
Many distortions happened even in the understanding of Vedic concepts which caused a lot of confusion. This happened mainly because of the disruption in the Guru-Shishya parampara(Gurukula education system). Without the intellectual challenges of Vedic scholars, various Sampradayas(sects) of Jina, Budda, Ajivika, etc arose.
The other famous disruption was in the shastrartha (debating) tradition which helped to purify knowledge. It resulted in closed Sampradayas(sects) that didn’t discuss their concepts with others, creating a divided society.
5. Later period
This is the time when murti puja became prevalent in Hinduism due to the influences and interactions of Jina & Buddhism with other Hinduism sects. Due to its proximity to concepts of Hinduism & state support, Mahayana Buddhism got widely accepted in some parts of India but it spread extensively under Kanishka to central Asia, China, Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. But scholars like Adi Shankara and Kumarila Bhaṭṭa held debates with Buddhist scholars, thereby limiting their influence.
This is one of the reasons why Murti puja is so much prevalent in Hinduism nowadays.
Hinduism is 5000 years old. Some seals obtained from the excavations of the Indus Valley Civilization depict Yoga poses. This makes Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished around 3500 BC, a Vedic civilization.
Aryabhatta gives the dating of the Mahabharata war to 3102 BC. He writes “60 x 60 = 3,600 years of kali Yuga have already elapsed when he is 23 years old.” The media have made this dating quite popular.
This theory considers Itihas(history literature) like Mahabharat & Ramayana as mythology and only considers archaeological findings.
This data is based on Aryan theory which takes the entry of Indo Aryans in 1500 BC i.e. around 3500 years before the present.
If we look at the scholarship of western scholars starting with the establishment of Indology studies in Europe. It is pegged around 1500 BC i.e. 3500 years before the present.
Neo Buddhist Scholars
Many scholars subscribe to the view that Hinduism is a much later construct than Buddhism. More bluntly, Hinduism was derived from Buddhism. Well if we consider the present form of Hinduism, it is certainly influenced by Buddhism. The Mahayana Buddhism under Kanishka the great wasn’t much Buddhist either.
The main reason why Mahayana Buddhism prevailed over Hinayana Buddhism was that it was much closer to the traditions of the majority of the populace. In addition, it also had state patronage.
The word “Hinduism” come into fashion only during colonial times or the 19th century. Constructionist considers the social, economic, and other factors that shaped religion (a construct). They use different stages as different religions altogether.
Hinduism, as it is practiced by the majority, is not older than the colonial period according to this theory. But there are big loopholes in this theory. If we use the same principles then Islam and Christianity constructs will be of much later origin than otherwise thought. Religions evolve and their practices, and terminology changes over time depending on other social factors.
They consider Hinduism to be present since the beginning of time. The Sanatana (eternal) theory falls under this category. The principles can be Sanatan but tradition can never be.
Based on the word “Hindu
The word “Hindu” is about 1500 or more years older. It was used by the Persians for Indians i.e. it was used in geographical sense of the word. But over time it was adapted to describe the traditions or religions of India.
Based on God or the Holy text
If we take various holy texts that were held in high regard at various points in time, then Hinduism’s age varies again. The gods that Hindus worship nowadays are quite different. Various gods were popular at different times.
So during renaissance period, or even earlier than that Pashupati worship was prevalent which slowly morphed into Shaivite sect. Slowly, other sects also took shape like Vaishnavites, shakt, etc. These traditions gave rise to Murti puja or idol worship
Now we have discussed all the credible as well as not-so-credible theories that seek to answer “How old is Hinduism”. I would request you to take an informed decision. If we take the Vedic age to be our precursor, then Hinduism is, without doubt, the oldest religion/tradition in practice.
But if we take the current format, its age depends on the construct we’re using. It gives an age range of 2000 or so.
Read more about Hinduism & Science, Ancient Indian Gurukul System, and Hinduism
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Hinduism older than Judaism?
Yes, Hinduism is much older than Judaism. It is at least 2500 years older than Judaism.
Is Hinduism a religion or a way of life?
“Hinduism is a way of life” was the statement made by the Supreme court in 1995. It was later picked up by most of the media houses and has become prevalent without much scrutiny.