3.2 The Origins of Hinduism and Buddhism

Thousands of years ago, two major religions—Hinduism and Buddhism—emerged in ancient India. The ethical and spiritual messages of these religions profoundly shaped Indian civilization.

Illustration of three ancient Indian men approaching another, with trees in background. Approaching men are shown with their hands together, palm to palm..


Visvamitra visits Vasishtha in ancient India. Both men wrote parts of the Vedas, the sacred texts about Hindu beliefs. How does the artist convey respect between the authors?


  • Describe the origins and central beliefs of Hinduism.
  • Analyze and summarize how the caste system shaped India.
  • Describe the origins and central beliefs of Buddhism.
  • Explore how Buddhism grew and changed as it spread beyond India.

Key Terms

  • atman
  • moksha
  • reincarnation
  • karma
  • dharma
  • ahimsa
  • caste
  • Siddhartha Gautama
  • Four Noble Truths
  • Eightfold Path
  • nirvana
  • sect

Hindu Beliefs Develop

Unlike most major religions, Hinduism has no single founder and no single sacred text. It evolved over 3,500 years and grew out of the overlapping beliefs of the diverse groups who settled India. Later people who migrated into South Asia brought other gods, beliefs, and practices.

As a result, Hinduism became one of the world's most complex religions, with countless gods and goddesses and many forms of worship existing side by side. Despite this diversity, all Hindus share certain basic beliefs.

One Force Unites Everything

“God is one, but wise people know it by many names.” This ancient proverb reflects the Hindu belief that everything in the universe is part of the unchanging, all-powerful spiritual force called Brahman. In Hinduism, Brahman is too complex an idea for most people to understand. So Hindus worship a variety of gods who give concrete form to Brahman.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments