The geographical distinction of South Asia as one unified region often overshadows the huge diversity that prevails among its inhabitants. Comprising of countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Maldives Islands and Sri Lanka, South Asia has multiple religio-cultural traditions with vibrant past and rich heritage. Today, South Asia is home to multiple languages, races and ethnicities. Different religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam and Sikhism are found practiced in various parts of the region and have had significant spillovers in other parts of the world as well.Today, South Asia may very well be seen as a region where different civilizations flourish, each with distinctive identities. However a reflection into the past may present a rather homogenous beginning.

The intent of this paper is to explore the diversity in the form of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam etc. that is prevalent in South Asia today. Emphasis will be placed on examining the sources of these cultures in an attempt to determine whether these cultures have a shared origin or otherwise.The main thrust of this essay is to understand the underlining commonality that runs across cultures and societies in South Asia by inquiring into their historical constitution and developments. The earliest evidence of human civilization in South Asia is seen in the form of the glorious Indus Valley Civilization which dates back to 2600 BCE and flourished till1800 BCE. Established on the north western part of South Asia along the river Sindh, Indus Valley Civilization spanned from Baluchistan in northwest Pakistan on the west to Delhi in northern India on the east and Gujarat, India on the south.

Characterized by highly efficient town planning and architecture, the Indus valley civilization also is traced to be the origin of religious consciousness in South Asia. The earliest religious thought in India is deduced from archeological evidences gathered in the form of seals, figurines, tablets and other artifacts from major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization. Materials uncovered in Harappa, for instance, indicate the preoccupation of the Indus people with fertility symbols in the form of terracotta figurines of pregnant females, stone phallic symbols etc. , and the worship of a divinity similar to the god Shiva (Barry et. l 3).

The fertility symbols are significant in that they imply the existence of a Mother or Earth Goddess cult, which later became a very central theme in Vedic civilizations. Much of these practices have found their way into modern day Hinduism. Another source of India religious ideas was introduced by the Aryans who invaded India from the northwest about 1500 BCE. These Aryans brought with them religious ideas and concepts consisting mainly of a pantheon of naturalistic or functional gods, a ritualistic cult involving the sacrificial use of fire and rudiments of social order (Barry et.

l. 4).Much of the religious traditions that became established in South Asia therefore are found to have mythological counterparts in Indo-European traditions such as Iran, Greece, and, Rome and thus indicate a common origin of such practices in antiquity. The religion so developed by the Aryans from the time of invasion until roughly 500 BCE was embodied in a collection of hymns, ritual texts and philosophical treatises called the Vedas which till date remains the body of eternal scriptures for the Hindus (Barry et. al.

4).The Vedas consists of four metrical hymnals known as the samhitas which are named the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. Rig Veda is the earliest of these texts and this is a collection of hymns which constitutes the earliest source of knowledge concerning the Aryan religion. The metrical hymns and chants of these texts gave rise to elaborate ritualistic prose interpretations called the Brahmanas and Aranyakas meaning ‘forest books’.

Later on there developed various philosophical schools in treatises collectively called Upanishads that embodied speculations and interpretations of the Vedas (Barry et. l. 5).Vedic literature thus includes the four Vedas, several expository ritual texts to each of the Vedas called Brahmanas, and mystical interpretation of Vedic ritual and its relation to man and the universe in the form of the Upanishads.

The Vedic civilization does appear to have extolled numerous deities and gods, each supreme in their own ways. However, Indra, often referred to as ‘One God’ stands out as pre-eminent and the core myth of Rig Veda recounts his deeds.Creation is supposed to have proceeded when Indra, the champion of celestial gods slew a serpent demon, Vritra, who enclosed the waters and the sun necessary for human life. When Indra split open the belly of this demon the essentials of creation such as moisture, heat and light were released and there was the establishment of cosmic order known as rita under the governance of the god Varuna (Barry et.

al. 5). The Vedic Aryans also developed a kind of fire worship, which was regarded as a liaison between gods and men. Sun worship came to be a prominent feature in Vedic ritual and is an aspect of fire worship.Thus the most important gods of the Vedic period are Indra (king of the Gods), Agni (fire god), Varuna (water or river god), Surya (Sun god), and Dawn. Perhaps an important aspect of the Vedic tradition is the birth of social orders which later came to be known as the caste system, a social order that is akin to the Hindu society till date.

The Rig Veda contains accounts to the primeval sacrifice of the Purusha, who was a secondary blend of characteristics derived from the Vedic deities Agni, Surya, and Vishnu – a solar deity who embraces the earth, atmosphere and, sky.Purusha, the sacrificial victim was ritualistically divided into four parts, from each of which were born the different castes. His mouth is said to become the Brahman, his two arms were made into the rajanya later called the kshatriyas, his two thighs the Vaishyas and from his two feet the Shudra was born (Barry et. al, 17). The Brahmanas formed the highest social order, the literate intelligentsia which gave India its priests, thinkers, law givers, judges and ministers of state. The Kshatriyas were the second social order who fromed the feudal nobility.

Vaishyas formed a class of merchants, landowners and money-lenders while the lowest rung of the social order called the Shudras were originally those peoples conquered by the Aryans and they comprised of chiefly artisans, workers or serfs (Barry et. al. 16). The society thus established was based on the domination of the Kshtriya-Brahmana class; where as the lower social orders were subject to repression in all respects.

An important fact of the Vedic civilization that needs to be underlined is that in this Bramanical system so established by the Aryans lies the origin of Hinduism.Bramanism in its transformed manner as the Hindu religion became much patronized by the Gupta rulers and flourishes till today with most of its ritualistic practices and mythological beliefs intact. The Brahmanical tradition of Vedic Civilization remained the leading religious thoughts for a long time until there emerged in the 7th century BCE and later, some new order or religious thoughts in the form of Jainism and Buddhism. Significantly, both Jainism and Buddhism formed their base on those subjugated classes under the Ksatriya-Brahmana domination.These were chiefly the Vaisya classes comprised mainly of merchants, peasants and artisans, who supported the new heterodox teachings by granting consent to their rule and material offerings as well. The heterodox nature of both Jainism and Buddhism lies in the fact that they were against and challenged the ritualistic and hierarchical social organization.

More specifically, they were both opposed to social practices such as sacrifice-cults, rigid differentiation along lines of caste and most importantly, the ritual supremacy of the Brahman classes.Jainism and Buddhism refused to recognize the metaphysical legitimacy of the Vedas as intrinsically sacred or valid as espoused by the Brahmanic and Upanisadic traditions. Vardhamana Mahavira (The Great Hero), who is heralded as the great teacher is believed by the Jains to be the 24th prophet or Tirthankar. It is him who is generally thought to have systematized the Jain thought and is considered to be the last prophet. Mahavira, who was a contemporary of Gotama Buddha died in 468 BCE (Barry et.

al. 46). Jainism began to flourish in the days of the Mauryas.A very strong Jain tradition maintains that the first Mayrya emperor Chandraupta was a patron of Jainism and ultimately became a Jain monk. Jainism was divided into two great sections, although this division may have existed in germ in the days of Mahavira himself.

On the one hand were the Digambaras, the “space clad,” who insisted on the total nudity of their monks and who did not admit the full authenticity of the eleven Limbs, and on the other hand, the Shvetambaras, the “white clad,” whose monks wore with robes and accepted the Limbs (Barry et. l. 47). The major doctrines of Jain teachings are the materialistic view of life, the Doctrine of Respect for all life, the vision of the world and life as misery, the concept of Karma, or law of causation and the principle of Ahimsa. Jainism is grounded in atheism, anti-monistic and epistemological way of understanding human beings.

The Jains, regardless of the sectarian divisions, however maintained the same religious teachings although there have been interferences and superficial compromises with Hinduism over a period of two thousand years.Buddhism, a contemporary of Jainism which found its beginnings in the same social-political conditions of the Aryan Brahmanical traditions is yet another religion that offered an alternative way of life. Evolved historically out of an interaction and conflict with Vedic religions, Buddhism was mostly resentful with the yagna or sacrifice at the center of Bramanism which established a society based on hierarchy with the ruling elites (the ksatriyas) and the priestly elites (the brahmanas) dominating the working classes (the vaisyas and the sudras).Gotama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism after having renounced and becoming an ascetic emerged as a leader of a band of followers who pursued the “middle way” between extreme asceticism and worldly life (Barry et. al.

93). Quite early in the history of Buddhism sectarian differences appeared such as Theravada (Teaching of Elders) prominent in Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, and Mahayana (Great Vehicle) in East Asian regions and Vajrayana (thunderbolt) – flourishing in Tibet today. Ashoka’s patronage to Buddhism gave great impetus to its development and growth.It was during his reign that the message of Buddhism was first carried forward over the whole of India by missionaries with the purpose of purifying the doctrine of heresy (Barry et. al. 95).

Buddhist doctrine is composed of various principles such as the four noble truths contained in the Dhamma which explains the nature of human life and the reasons for misery, the concept of Nirvana or salvation attained by following the eight fold path, and Vedanta with its concept of the Atma or soul.Buddhism holds that the “Middle Path,” the path that lies between the path of hedonism and path of asceticism is the correct path to choose and follow. It stresses fellowship of community rather than duty for individuals and is against the birth-based Brahmanical ordering of caste. The significance of Buddhism lies in the contributions it made to Indian philosophy, moral and ethical sociology. It offered an alternative way of life to the oppressed to live with dignity and respect away from inhuman domination under the brahmanical order. Yet another religion that grew roots in India is Hinduism.

The term ‘hindu’ was first used in the Zend Avesta which speaks of Hapta Hindu referring to what is found in the Rgveda as Saptasindhava or land of seven rivers of the Sindhu. The first use of the term “Hindu” in religious sense is in the Kitab-ul-Hind of the famous historian Alberuni in 1030 CE. Hinduism is a direct offshoot of the brahmanical system. This is seen from the fact that the sacred texts of Hinduism are inherited from the Aryan civilization. The Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads comprise of the Shrutis in Hindu literature.

Social organization on the basis of birth is a central part of the Hindu tradition as well. The chief principles of Hinduism are Dharma, the ascribed righteous duty; Artha, the pursuit of material gains; Kama, the pursuit of pleasure and Moksha, salvation. Thus, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, the three major religious groups that grew roots in South Asia can be said to have a shared origin in the Brahmanical system established under the Aryan Civilization. Islam is yet another religion that has had a long history in the India subcontinent. The arrival of Islam may be traced back to the conquest of Sind by Arabs.

This was followed by the dynastic conquest and rule of Turkish invaders, Ghaznavids and Ghorids who came mostly for loot, and the subsequent establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi for 300 years by immigrants from Turkey and Afghanistan. The establishment of the Mughal Empire for about 200 years finally further entrenched Islam in South Asia. Sikhism as a religion is a fairly recent development established in the fifteenth century onwards right into the eighteenth century and developed its own doctrines, rituals and organization distinct from the larger and more dominant religions of Hinduism and Islam.However, Sikhism is closely related to the very popular version of Hinduism that is characterized by devotionalism or bhakti. Founded by Guru Nanak, Sikhism is yet another religion that grew out of discontent among a particular community. The Sikhism evolved into an organized religion drawing from its experience of persecution by some Mughal rulers.

Thus, South Asia is home to many different religious traditions and cultures. However, it may be said that there are common underlining historical experiences as seen in the preceding pages. All different religions present today have inter-linkages with its predecessor.Buddhism and Jainism were outcomes of the Brahmanical order, where as Hinduism owes much of its central themes if not all to the Aryan tradition. Also, Sikhism has certain commonalities with Hinduism and even as Islam was a religion which came from abroad, there were certain amount of assimilations and interactions with the other prevailing systems of the time. Thus the South Asian civilization, diverse and vibrant as it is today has a long history of common past.

What is seen today is a product of years of interaction and development among its people in a bid to find better ways of understanding the meaning of life and human existence.