Around 85 percent of the world's people identify with a religion, most of which are thousands upon thousands of years old. Of all the countless religious belief systems globally, Hinduism is most often cited as the oldest surviving major religion. However, there are a number of spiritual belief systems that deserve a mention when exploring this topic.
When did Hinduism begin?
Hinduism is roughly 4,000 years old. The general consensus among scholars is that Hinduism emerged around 2300 BCE and 1500 BCE in the northwestern reaches of the Indian subcontinent. However, it didn’t simply pop up overnight. Its backstory is highly complex and sometimes contentious.
One of the earliest points in time that Hinduism can be firmly pinpointed with hard evidence is the earliest Vedic texts, known as the Vedas, which were composed between 1500 BCE to 500 BCE.
Written in the ancient Sanskrit language, the Vedas are a fundamental text of Hinduism that contain many of the religion’s underpinning views of reality, the self, and much more. Nevertheless, Hinduism and its past are hugely complex. Like any religion, it has changed hugely over the centuries and consists of enormously diverse beliefs and practices.
Most scholars believe Hinduism sprung out of an array of cultural, spiritual, and philosophical traditions that developed for thousands of years around the Indus Valley where you find modern-day Pakistan, northeast Afghanistan, and northwestern India.
One theory is that the traditions in these texts were spread through the Indian subcontinent by a group migrating from the Indus Valley known as the “Aryans” (not to be confused with the pseudo-scientific racial concept co-opted by the Nazis). Their numerous traditions were synthesized in the Vedic texts and formed the cornerstones of Hinduism.
Not everyone agrees with the Aryan Migration Theory of Hinduism's emergence, however. The whole question of when and where Hinduism originated –plus whether the so-called Aryans were related to the Indus Valley – is intertwined with many modern debates about identity, history, and geopolitics. These can be heated and controversial subjects that can cloud the conversation
Are some religious beliefs older than Hinduism?
In the 21st century, Hinduism has approximately 1.03 billion followers, around 15 percent of the world's population. Most of these adherents live in India, the world’s most populous country as of 2023.
Other major world religions include Christianity (32 percent of the world’s population), Islam (23 percent), and Buddhism (7 percent). Other significant groups include Judaism, the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism, to mention just a few.
In addition, there are over 400 million people (6 percent) in the world that practice so-called “folk or traditional religions”. This includes thousands of spiritual belief systems that are extremely diverse, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions, Australian aboriginal religions, and traditional “pagan” European religions.
Unfortunately, the history of folk religions is not as clear-cut as the major religions of the world. Many folk religions are passed through the ages by oral tradition, meaning there’s little physical evidence to study. Some of their histories have even been actively erased through violent persecution or subjugation.
Nevertheless, it wouldn't be hard to make the argument that some of these traditional religions have connections to ideas that have run for millennia, perhaps before the seeds of most major world religions were even sown.