Recently when I was doing some reading about India and Hinduism, I came across an article giving a very plausible explanation of how the process of evolution of Hinduism as we know it today took place. This is very interesting and answers many of the questions that a layman like myself may have. I have tried to summarise what I read below. Unfortunately I do not know the author, but I thought I should share it with you all.
The beauty of being a Hindu lies in your freedom to be who
you want to be. Nobody can tell you what to do, or what not
to do. There is no central authority, no single leader of
the faith. No one can pass an order to excommunicate you, or
like in some countries, pass a decree that orders your death
by stoning for walking with a strange man.
We don't appreciate our freedom because we can't feel the
plight of others who aren't free. Many religions have a
central authority with awesome power over the individual.
They have a clear chain of command, from the lowliest local
priest to the highest central leader. Hinduism somehow
escaped from such central authority, and the Hindu has
miraculously managed to hold on to his freedom through the
ages. How did this happen?
Vedanta is the answer. When the writers of Vedanta emerged,
around 1500 BC, they faced an organised religion of orthodox Hinduism. This was the post Vedic age, where ritualism was practised, and the masses had no choice but to follow. It was a coercive atmosphere. The writers of Vedanta rebelled against this authority and moved away from society into forests. This was how the 'Aranyakas' - 'writings fromthe forest' - were written, literally meaning. These later paved the way for the Upanishads, and Vedanta eventually caught the imagination of the masses.
It emerged triumphant, bearing with it the clear voice of personal freedom.
This democracy of religious thought, so intrinsic to
Vedantic intelligence, sank into the mindset of every
Indian. Most couldn't fathom the deep wisdom it contained,
but this much was very clear: they understood that faith
was an expression of personal freedom, and one could
believe at will. That's why Hinduism saw an explosion of
Gods. There was a God for every need and every creed. If you
wanted to build your muscles, you worshiped a God with
fabulous muscles; if you wanted to pursue education, there
was a Goddess of Learning; if it was wealth you were looking
for, then you looked up to the Goddess of wealth — with
gold coins coming out of her hands. If you wanted to live
happily as a family, you worshiped Gods who specially
blessed families. When you grew old and faced oncoming death, you spent time in contemplating a God whose business
it was to dissolve everything — from an individual to the entire Universe.
Everywhere, divinity appeared in the manner and form you
wanted it to appear, and when its use was over, you quietly
discarded that form of divinity and looked at new forms of
the divine that were currently of use to you. 'Yad Bhavam,
tad Bhavati'… what you choose to believe becomes your
personal truth, and freedom to believe is always more
important than belief itself.
Behind all this — was the silent Vedantic wisdom that
Gods are for our better visualisation. As the Kena
Upanishad says, "Brahma ha devebhyo vijigye…" — All Gods
are mere subjects of the Self. It implies that it is far
better that God serves Man than Man serves God. Because Man
never really serves God — he only obeys the dictates of a
religious head who speaks for that God, who can turn him
into a slave in God's name.
Hindus have therefore never tried to convert anyone. Never
waged war in the name of religion. The average Hindu
happily makes Gods serve him as per his needs. He discards
Gods when he has no use for them. And new Gods emerge all
the time — in response to market needs. In this tumult, no
central authority could survive. No single prophet could
emerge and hold away, no chain of command could be
Vedanta had injected an organised chaos into Hinduism, and
that's the way it has been from the last thirty five
centuries. Vedanta is also responsible, by default, for
sustaining democracy. When the British left India, it was
assumed that the nation would soon break up. Nothing of that
kind has happened. The pundits of doom forgot that the
Indian had been used to religious freedom for thousands of
years. When he got political freedom, he grabbed it
naturally. After all, when you can discard Gods why can't
you discard leaders? Leaders like Gods are completely
expendable to the Indian mindset. They are tolerated as long
as they serve the people, and are replaced when needs
change. It's the triumph of people over their leaders, and
in this tumult, no dictator can ever take over and rule
us. Strange how the thoughts of a few men living in
forests, thirty five centuries ago, can echo inside the
heart of every Indian. That's a tribute to the resurgent
power of India, and the fearlessness of its free thinking people.