Hinduism in the World

c. 2500-1500 BCE Indus Valley Civilization

An advanced, urban society emerged from the agrarian village culture of the Indus River Valley and declined, for unknown reasons, within a thousand years. The remains of the two cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa reveal aspects of the religion of the Indus Valley Civilization that may have influenced the later Hindu tradition: bathing tanks, “goddess” worship, yoga-like meditation, and a Shiva-like figure.

c. 1500-1000 BCE Aryan migration 

The highly mobile, warrior tribes of the Aryans moved into Northwest India in successive waves, encountering the remnants of the Indus Valley civilization. The Aryans brought their own religion, termed Vedism, which featured a pantheon of deities, fire offerings, and a rudimentary caste system.

c. 1400-900 BCE Composition of the Vedas

The earliest sacred literature of Hinduism, the four Vedas were composed orally in Sanskrit, the language of the Indo-European Aryans. The oldest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda, is a collection of hymns to the Vedic deities. The Sama Veda and Yajur Veda contain melodies for chanting the hymns and sacrificial formulas. The Atharva Veda is a more miscellaneous compilation, a large part of which is magical charms.

c. 1000-600 BCE Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Early Upanishads Composed

Each of the four Vedas accumulated a tradition of secondary scriptures: the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. The Brahmanas elaborated on the sacrificial rites, while the Aranyakas and the Upanishads took up the philosophical questioning first seen in the Vedas. The world-renouncer ideal also emerged in these texts.

c. 600-200 BCE Composition of the Later Upanishads

The later Upanishads continued to mine the philosophical vein, but emphasized devotion to a personal god (theism) and the practice of yoga rather than renunciation and knowledge of the Brahman-Atman identity.

500 BCE-500 CE The Consolidation of the Hindu Tradition

As empires alternately rose and fell in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism and Jainism emerged and Hindu traditions of thought, ethics, ritual, and theism became more distinctly formulated. The epics, early puranas, law codes, and philosophical systems such as Vedanta all stem from this period.

500 BCE-400 CE Mahabharata Composed

India’s great epic began as a mythico-historical poem of a great war. Over centuries of oral retellings and elaborations, the Sanskrit poem grew into a vast, encyclopedic work, said to be 100,000 verses long and encompassing all of Hindu religious law. The poem is generally attributed to Vyasa, and as the Mahabharata says of itself, “Whatever is written here, may also be found elsewhere; but what is not found here, will not be found anywhere.” 

400 BCE-200 CE Ramayana Composed

Although much shorter and more unified than the Mahabharata, India’s second epic, the Ramayana, underwent the same process of a lengthy period of composition in which it was reworked several times. Therefore, like the Mahabharata, it contains a wealth of Hindu lore. It is generally attributed to Valmiki. Immensely popular, it has received numerous vernacular retellings over the centuries.

c. 300-100 BCE First Evidence of Temple Worship

Inscriptions and literary sources dating from the third to first centuries BCE indicate that temples to Krishna, Vishnu, and other deities existed by this time.

c. 200 BCE-100 CE Composition of the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita was composed as a synthesis of all the different strands of Hindu religiosity that existed by the time of the era of consolidation–brahmanic ritual, upanishadic wisdom, yoga, and devotionalism–uniting them all under the rubric of devotion to God (bhakti).

c. 100-500 CE Expansion to Southeast Asia 

The Hindu tradition spread to Southeast Asia through trade, conquest, and colonization. Hindu communities began to develop in the areas that are today Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand.

c. 320-550 CE Gupta Dynasty—India’s Golden Age

The last period of Hindu empire in North India was a golden age of Indian civilization. By the beginning of this period, temple building in North India got underway. This was also the age of Kalidasa, India’s great Sanskrit dramatist, and the period when many significant scholarly advances were made under the auspices of the empire.

c. 400 CE The Spread of Vaishnavism

Vaishnavism, especially the Krishna cult, began to spread throughout India. Tantrism began to emerge in Bengal, Assam, Andhra, and the Northwest. 

c. 500-900 CE Nayanmars: Tamil Shaiva Poets of South India

The bhakti movement began in South India with the Tamil poet-saints the Nayanmars, who addressed their devotions to Shiva. The poems of the sixty-three saints, plus those of Manikkavacakar, were later collected and included in the Shaiva Siddhanta canon, particularly in the twelve-volume devotional text known as the Tirumurai.

c. 500-1300 CE Temple Building in South India

Contemporary with the rise and spread of the bhakti movement in South India, temples became important as religious centers, conceived of as the dwelling places of the gods on earth. A wave of temple construction took place over several centuries.

c. 600-930 CE Alvars: Tamil Vaishnava Poets of South India

The twelve alvars offered poetry of praise to Vishnu in all the particular forms he takes in the great South Indian temples. Their poems were collected in the ninth century and entered the liturgy of the Shri Vaishnava community, in a collection of hymns known as the Divya Prabhandha.

c. 788-820 CE Shankara

Shankara sought to unify and revive Hinduism in the face of challenges from Buddhism and Jainism from without and divisiveness from within. Propounding the Advaita (nondualist) interpretation of the Vedanta, Shankara traveled throughout India setting up monasteries at the four compass points and establishing the lineage of Shankaracharyas at each location.

c. 848-1279 CE Chola Dynasty in Tamilnadu

The Cholas emerged from a long history of feudal status to establish a kingdom in Tamilnadu, which was later extended to Kerala and Sri Lanka. The Chola period saw the art of bronze casting reach its peak, leaving many beautiful temple images as a legacy. Many monuments of temple architecture were built under the Cholas.

c. 1056-1137 CE Ramanuja

Ramanuja developed the Vishishtadvaita (qualified non-dualist/monist) Vedanta as a theistic repudiation of Shankara’s Advaita philosophy. A Shri Vaishnava acharya and resident head of the temple and monastery at Srirangam in South India, Ramanuja was the greatest of the Vaishnava philosophers. 

c. 1150 CE Tamil Ramavataram Written by Kampan 

Kampan, a disciple of the Sri Vaisnava saint Nammalvar, wrote a Tamil version of the Rama story, in which the bhakti motif predominates. This version of the Ramayana influenced later Telugu and Malayalam Ramayanas, as well as Tulsidas’s Hindi Ramcharitmanas and Southeast Asian versions of the epic.

1200s-1600s Indo-Muslim Kingdoms and Culture

Muslim dynasties of kings ruled much of North India from Delhi beginning in the early 1200s. The most extensive and influential kings were the Mughals in the 1500s and 1600s, whose court became synonymous with the refinement of Indo-Muslim art and architecture. 

1336-1646 CE Vijayanagara Empire

The last Hindu empire in India had its capital at today’s Hampi in northern Karnataka. Its holdings extended as far as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. After a major defeat in 1565 to the Deccan sultanates, the empire declined until 1646. 

1300s-1500s Bhakti Movement Spreads through North India

Following the spread of bhakti from South India through the western and central regions, the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries saw the flowering of Hindi and Bengali devotional poetry in North India. Poet-saints such as Kabir, Guru Nanak, Surdas, and Mirabai became the focus of devotional movements, most often Vaishnava.

1479-1531 CE Vallabha

Vallabha founded the Pushti Marga, or way of grace, emphasizing that devotion to God is an end in itself and not a means to something else. Its followers now number in the millions, especially in North India, and the movement has also spread to the West. 

1500s CE Portuguese in India 

In the decade that Columbus sailed West to the “Indies,” the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the horn of Africa to India, landing on Malabar coast of India in 1498. This was the beginning of Portuguese presence. The colonization of Goa began with Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1510. St. Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuit order, arrived in Goa in 1542. 

1486-1533 CE Chaitanya

Chaitanya revitalized Krishna worship in Bengal, spurring the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement. He popularized the practice of public kirtan, or chanting in praise to Krishna. Through the agency of the Gosvami clan, he also revitalized Krishna worship in Vrindavan.

c. 1532-1623 CE Tulsidas 

Tulsidas, a Benarsi Brahman, authored the Ramcharitmanas, the famous and beloved Hindi-language epic on the life of Rama. The story is enacted each fall at Ram Lila. 

1600s CE British in India

In the decades when the British colonies were being established in New England and Virginia, British trading posts were also being established in India. In 1608, the first British ship landed at Surat on the west coast. Fort St. George, which would become the city of Madras, was established on the southeastern coast in 1644. Fort William, which would become Calcutta, was established on the Bay of Bengal in 1696.

1765-1947 CE British Raj

In Bengal in 1765, the mercantile East India Company began collecting revenues. Until 1858, the territories under British control were actually ruled on behalf of the Crown by this trading company. After his defeat in the American revolution, Lord Cornwallis became its governor general in 1786. In 1858, the British crown took over the direct rule of India, which it held until 1947.

1772-1833 CE Ram Mohan Roy 

The first of the leading modern Hindu reformers, Ram Mohan Roy ushered in the Hindu Renaissance. He founded the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, which blended Hindu teachings and those of the three monotheistic faiths. A champion of modernization and western scientific and educational methods, he led the campaign to abolish sati.

1830s CE Emigration as Indentured Laborers

In the wake of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, Indians emigrated to points throughout the empire as indentured laborers. The process accelerated in the 1870s as India faced population pressures and rising poverty. Indian settlements grew up in Mauritius, Fiji, Malaysia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, South Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guyana. 

1836-1886 CE Ramakrishna of Bengal 

A reclusive temple priest at Daksineswar who was a devotee of Kali, Paramahamsa Ramakrishna was recognized as a saint by Bengalis. Sought out by hundreds, he offered them his advice and blessings, and was guru to a circle of disciples. After his death he became the central figure in the Ramakrishna movement started by his disciple, Vivekananda.

1863-1902 CE Swami Vivekananda 

Sent by his guru, Ramakrishna, to address the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Vivekananda brought back to India a sense of social mission. He established the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897, working for social uplift in India through relief organizations, hospitals, and schools.

1869-1948 CE Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi 

Employing the forms of active nonviolent resistance that he had honed in the Indian civil rights campaign in South Africa, Gandhi led the struggle in India to gain independence from British rule. He also worked to eliminate untouchability, to develop economic self-sufficiency, and to reconcile Hindus and Muslims. His faithful adherence to ahimsa, or “non-violence,” and his dedication to serving others have earned him the name “Mahatma,” or “great soul.”

1861-1941 CE Rabindranath Tagore

A Bengali poet, novelist, and playwright, Tagore won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature for his Gitanjali, a collection of religious poems. He began a school at Shantiniketan in Bengal and he lectured tirelessly on the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism he observed in the West.

1893 CE Vivekananda to Chicago Parliament

His speeches at the World’s Parliament of Religions electrified the Chicago audience. Following the Parliament, Vivekananda spent two years traveling in the U.S., speaking, and establishing Vedanta societies. He promoted nonsectarian Hinduism and religious universalism, seeking to spread Hindu values in the West, but also welcoming expressions of other religious cultures in the Vedanta centers.

1947 CE India’s Independence and Partition

The Indian freedom movement was unable to reconcile the competing claims of the secular Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. As independence from Britain came, India was partitioned into India and Pakistan.

1896-1977 CE Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada

Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), a mission to spread Gaudiya Vaishnavism in India and throughout the world. Sent by his teacher to spread Krishna worship in the West, Bhaktivedanta arrived in New York in 1965 and quickly established the first American Krishna temple in Manhattan. 

1960s CE Indian Gurus to the West 

In the 1960s and 1970s, many gurus came to the U.S. to attract Western students. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Bhaktivedanta, Swami Satchidananda, and Swami Muktananda are some examples. Soon some Americans, students of Indian gurus, became gurus in their own right.

1964 CE Vishwa Hindu Parishad

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or “World Hindu Organization,” was organized in 1964, with the purpose of arousing consciousness and knowledge of the Hindu tradition among Hindus and strengthening Hindu society. It also aimed to cultivate contacts with Hindus living outside India, especially in the West. In 1966, it held the first of what would become a series of World Hindu Conferences. In the 1980s and 1990s, the VHP has become associated with “Hindu nationalist” politics in India.

1970s CE Hindus Begin Constructing Temples in the U.S.

Following a change in American immigration policy, South Asian students and professionals began coming to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s. As they became settled in American cities and towns, the new immigrants began, in the 1970s, to construct temples. The Hindu Temple Society of North America was founded in 1970.

1993 CE Vivekananda Centennial

Hindus throughout the world observed the centennial of Vivekananda’s journey to the West. Hindu leaders from both India and America attended the centennial of the Parliament in Chicago. The Ramakrishna Mission in India and the Vedanta Societies of America had gala observances. And the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America held a Global Vision 2000 conference in Washington D.C., with many VHP speakers from India.

1998 CE BJP Elected to Lead India’s National Government 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Indian People’s Party, the major opposition to the Indian National Congress, soared to political prominence with the election of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister of India, a position he maintained until 2004. The BJP is generally considered to be a right-wing conservative party, with a political platform that tends to support and advocate for the Hindu nationalist cause. As the political voice for the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir movement that called for the construction of a Hindu temple on what some believe to be the birthplace of Lord Rama on the site of a mosque in Ayodhya, the BJP has maintained the support of many Hindu nationalists. The issue became explosive in the early 1990s, when the mosque was razed to the ground in December 1992, causing massive outbreaks of communal violence that resulted in over a thousand dead.

2007 CE Debate on Yoga in Indian Public Schools

A debate was sparked in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh over the constitutionality of teaching yoga at public schools. Advocates noted the health benefits, while some suggested that only the chanting was problematic, and critics opposed yoga education as a whole in public school settings because of its Hindu origins. Similar debates would be taken up around the world, including in the U.S.

2012 CE World Hindu Economic Forum 

The first World Hindu Economic Forum (WHEF) was held in Hong Kong with a mission to “make society prosperous through the generation of surplus wealth and sharing of such material wealth” by promoting development through entrepreneurship support and by addressing some of the world’s larger economic challenges. The first international WHEF conference spearheaded what will include regular regional, national, and international events and research initiatives.