From the book’s chapter on Hinduism
For thousands of years, the Hindu faithful have started the day by greeting the river. Mindful of its history, its symbolism, its life-giving force, the Hindu steps into the cool, fresh water, pressing palms together and uttering an ancient prayer, seeking a state of cleanliness in body, mind, and spirit. That water--an element that can be neither made nor destroyed by human hands--links the Hindu of today back to the beginning of time and the beginning of belief.
Two of the world’s great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, came into being on the Asian subcontinent of India. Of the five major religions, Hinduism is the oldest. Versatile, flexible, and absorbent, it has adapted to people’s needs in different landscapes, times, and cultures.
In so many ways, the Hindu religion is like the land from which it sprang: a massive whole, yet within itself containing many diverse parts. The Indian subcontinent is bounded to the north by an arc of daunting mountains and to the south by one of the great oceans. Two river systems dominate the geography of the interior. Both figure prominently in the history of Hinduism: the Indus River to the west, ancient birthplace of the religion, and the Ganges River to the east, greatest of all rivers to Hindus.
The territory of the Indian subcontinent has been divided many ways over time, into tribal territories, princely states, and empires. The people living in these lands speak hundreds of languages. An age-old caste system divides the population into classes. Caste designations and regional origins are expressed in family names. For millions, though, the Hindu religion unites them.
Of the population of India, estimated at just over one billion people in 2003, more than 800 million practice the many paths of Hinduism--a population representing the vast majority of Hindus worldwide.(1) Hinduism is also practiced in regions near India and in those to which Indians have migrated, such as the southeastern Caribbean, East Africa, Southeast Asia, and the cities of Europe and North America. Through millennia, Hinduism has proved capable of incorporating within itself many divergent beliefs and practices. It has always been a religion of many gods, many colors, many festivals. The soul itself, in the Hindu tradition, cycles through several lives, and the spark of divinity shows itself in many different living beings, from the lowliest insect to a great spiritual leader. Amid all these vectors of diversity, Hinduism has the power to unify believers with each other, the world in which they live, and the divinity found within, around, and beyond them -- called Brahman, the One.
The River Valleys
The story of Hinduism begins along the Indus River. (“Hindu,” or “Sindhu,” was originally a geographical term, meaning Indus River, later extended to mean the land around it and its people.) The Indus flows southwest from the heights of Kashmir through today’s Pakistan and empties, 1,800 miles from its source, into the Arabian Sea. West of the river rises the Sulaiman Range and farther northwest the Hindu Kush. To the east stretches the Great Indian Desert. Nomads gravitated to the hospitable valley of the river, where fertile soil and reliable water sources supported permanent dwellings. Here -- as in the Middle East at about the same time, in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers– one of the world’s first civilizations arose.
In the 1920s archaeologists working in the Indus River Valley unearthed architecture and artifacts that revealed sophisticated cities and a culture dating back 4,500 years. More than 300 sites have since been identified,(2) stretching from Allahdino, at the mouth of the Indus near modern-day Karachi, Pakistan, to Manda, more than 400 miles north on the Chenab River, west to Sutkagen Dor, near Iran, and east to Lothal, at the top of the Gulf of Cambay near the Sabarma River in India. The principal sites are the cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the latter giving its name to this early culture. All indicators suggest that the Harappan culture rose to a level of sophistication equaling that of Sumer and Egypt.
Ruins at Mohenjo Daro date back to the third millennium B.C. There, paved streets are laid out in an organized grid around a central mound, called the Citadel by early discoverers. Designed to stand well above the flood level of the Indus, the complex was built of fired bricks and includes granaries, assembly halls, and a large raised reservoir approached by wide stone walkways—archaeologists dubbed it the Great Bath—that was perhaps used for ritual purposes. The city’s population is estimated to have peaked at 35,000 to 40,000. Wells and a drainage system suggest that the entire city was provided with water. Excavation finds at Harappa, 300 miles north, reveal a similarly complex culture, evolving over two millennia.(3)
Artifacts unearthed at Harappan sites are intriguing. Tools and weapons were fashioned from stone, copper, and bronze.(4) A four-inch bronze figurine of a girl poses on long, slender legs, clad only in a necklace and arm bangles. Other figurines sit with legs crossed and hands touching knees symmetrically, suggesting a pose later formalized in Hindu and Buddhist meditative practice.(5) Most fascinating are the thousands of seals, one to two inches square, made of steatite, or soapstone. Presumably they were used to stamp soft clay as a signature or mark of ownership. The Harappan seals are carved with lettering not yet deciphered by linguists and with images, primarily of animals -- ox, bull, elephant, tiger, rhinoceros -- but occasionally a human figure. No objects or structures that can be unambiguously associated with religion have been discovered in the Harappan sites along the Indus River, but cultural clues lead archaeologists to interpret their finds as precursors to later well-known imagery and beliefs.
Drastic change affected the Harappan cities in the middle of the second millennium B.C. Historians have long believed that invaders decimated the populations or drove them east, but it is also possible that changes in climate caused drought, altered the course of rivers, disturbed irrigation networks, and forced a migration out of the Indus River Valley.(6) Earthquakes may have caused severe upheavals and interrupted the flow of the Indus.(7) Whatever occurred, by 1500 B.C. new waves of people had moved into the region from Central Asia. They called themselves Aryan, the word for “noble” or “pure” in their language, the precursor to Sanskrit.(8) The Aryan culture mingled with the vestiges of existing Harappan civilization and spread east into the valley of India’s other great river, the Ganges. Much of what we know about these people and their way of life has been learned from the Vedas, an ancient canon of hymns and recitations considered the world’s first holy scripture. Flowering throughout central and northern India for most of the first millennium B.C., Vedic civilization forms the underlayer of all Hindu belief and practice.
(1) CIA World Factbook. Numbers for 2003 from CIA Factbook don’t quite work, that’s why the vagueness here. Using the numbers given, there are 838,837,419 Hindus in the world (13.31% of world population of 6,302,309,691), but 853,406,196 in India (81.3% of India’s population of 1,049,700,118).
NGS Mysteries Ancient 86
NGS Mysteries Ancient 87
NGS Wonders 157
Oxford Atlas 37
NGS Mysteries Ancient 92
||Questions and Answers with author Susan Tyler Hitchcock
1. How did it happen that you wrote this book?
I had been working as a book editor for the National Geographic Society for about two years when my executive editor, Barbara Brownell-Grogan, invited me to write the text of a book on geography and religion that was being planned. The book was created by a remarkable team brought together by National Geographic: one veteran Geographic photographer, James P. Blair, and another photographer, Martin Gray, who specializes in visiting, living in or near, and photographing sacred sites. Working closely with me on content was the book’s editor, Karin Kinney, and an overall consultant in religion and history, John L. Esposito, University Professor, Professor of Religion and International Affairs, and Professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. Further, for each chapter we had a consultant representing that religion or phase of religious history.
2. What is your background in the study of religion?
For many years I have been drawn to the study of religion and spiritualism. My doctoral dissertation in English, completed in 1978 and titled Shelley’s Sense of the Human Divine, interpreted the poetry and philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley in light of 20th-century theories of the psychology of religion, in particular those articulated by William James and Rudolph Otto.
3. Are you religious?
I attend Cove Presbyterian Church in a historic little brick building near our home. I consider Christianity to offer one of many paths to spiritual truth, salvation, or enlightenment. I am fascinated by and respectful of all forms of faith, prayer, worship, meditation, observation, and celebration, but I believe that to make religion a living part of my life, it needs to involve me in my surrounding community and culture. Our small church has a membership of about 50, and we are a vibrant group of friends -- an extended family -- that includes a number of freethinkers, including myself.