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The Archaeology of Hinduism  

Namita Sanjay Sugandhi

The term “Hindu” derives from Persian expressions coined in the 4th century bce to define the traditions found east of the Indus River. Thus, a common start to the archaeological examination of Hinduism are the prehistoric cults found in various regions of the Indian subcontinent. Some elements associated with traditions from the urban Indus civilization of the 3rd millennium bce have been connected to later Hindu iconography and ideals, but these links remain tenuous. By the mid-2nd millennium bce, the introduction of new Vedic ideologies, so called because the earliest references are found in the texts of the Vedas, ushered in significant transformations in ritual and spiritual life, but left little material trace. However, migrating groups associated with these traditions have been traced genetically and linguistically to the Western Steppes of Central Asia. Over the next two thousand years, Vedic traditions became more elaborate and heterogeneous, merging with popular customs, and generating heterodox schools of thought that challenged both the spiritual and social order of Brahmanical Hinduism, which also took form during this time. The early centuries of the Common Era were witness to additional transformations and adaptations, and it is after this period that various forms of temple architecture, sculpture, and the epigraphic record become a wider body of evidence for study in both South and Southeast Asia. During the 1st millennium ce, Hinduism took on more familiar contours, partly driven by the rise in extant religious, philosophical, and secular literature. Alongside this textual record, a wealth of architectural and art historical sources became available; studies of these sources increasingly look to continuities from earlier eras that are documented archaeologically. Nevertheless, much of this body of knowledge derives from institutional and elite contexts; household-level details remain slim and much contemporary interpretation of past daily worship continues to be inferred from the ethnographic record. During the modern period, Hinduism came to acquire its formal definition as a world religion, and with this came the attempt to delineate Hindu identity for first colonial, and then national ends, often in tandem with the Orientalist archaeologies of the early and mid-20th century. Though the definition of modern Hinduism may be more clearly circumscribed, it is certainly no less varied. Modernity continues to impact the understanding of Hinduism in many ways. Technologies such as DNA analysis have been applied to the study of early societies, with the goal of understanding ancient migrations and the composition of different regional populations. While our understanding of past human movement has increased considerably because of these studies, genetics do not serve as a proxy of culture. DNA evidence can provide some details about the movement and interaction of different populations in the past, but categories like race, language, and culture are as incommensurable as they are artificial, and they should be understood as such. Instead of a match for the textual or genetic record, the archaeology of Hinduism should be considered the material study of a broad amalgam of dynamic beliefs and practices that date back into the eras of earliest prehistory and continue to transform and evolve around the world.