Q: Is there historical evidence for Hinduism?
A: Let me begin to respond to that question by raising a counter-question. Is there historical evidence for the claim that 2+2=4, or for the idea that it is better to tell the truth than to lie? For that matter, does historical evidence support the theory that the universe has an exact mathematical center? Of course the answer to these questions is neither yes nor no. Historical evidence does not apply; in order to find support for these propositions one has to go to other disciplines, specifically arithmetic, ethics, and astrophysics. They are not matters of historical inquiry.
Now, in a somewhat guarded way, I’m going to say the same thing about Hinduism. Obviously, given the great complexity of Hinduism with all of its many branches, what I’m saying will be more obvious for some phases of the religion than for others, but ultimately it all boils down to this point: Since Hinduism does not base itself on historical truth claims, historical evidence cannot support (or, for that matter, deny) the truth of Hinduism.
Before we get too deeply into this suggestion, let me clarify an important distinction. There is a difference between someone telling us of a belief and including historical references and someone telling us that a belief is actually based on certain historical events. For example, I might assert that monogamy is preferable to polygamy and that I have held this belief ever since the day I got married. In this case I have made a claim—the advantage of monogamy—and have made reference to a historical event—my wedding—in the process, but the historical event is not directly relevant if we want to debate which kind of marriage arrangement is actually the best one. It so happened that I came to this belief at that point in time, but whether the belief is true or not has nothing to do with my wedding day. The situation would be different if someone said that getting married has caused me to hold the belief in the benefits of monogamy, perhaps something the pastor said at the altar. In that case the statement would be meaningless if I hadn’t actually gotten married, and the wedding never took place. Then, in a manner of speaking, in the second case the truth or falsehood of the statement would depend on a historical event.
Hinduism fits into the first case rather than the second. It is not that Hinduism, in the course of teaching its beliefs, does not make reference to events, times, and places of the past. Nevertheless, what Hinduism teaches is not directly dependent on these events. Hinduism, in all of its manifold expressions, is a dharma, a complete way of life and culture. The occurrence or non-occurrence of certain events would not affect this teaching one way or the other.
Let me give an example. The Ramayana is considered to be one of the two main epics of Hinduism. It recounts the exploits of Rama as he, along with Hanuman, rescues his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. In the process, the story alludes to real historical places, such as the city of Ayodhya and the island of Sri Lanka, as well as to ancient families that may very well have existed. But that’s not the point of the story. What we see in the epic are the ideals of Hinduism: Rama as the ideal embodiment of the dharma, Sita as the corresponding ideal woman, Hanuman as the ideal devotee, and so forth. Even if it were impossible to find any concrete references to historical events in the story, the teaching would still be the same. We could make a similar case for other great Hindu works; the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita does not stand or fall with whether we can say with certainty that the events recounted in it have a basis in historical fact.
So, as you can see, the answer to the question is pretty ambiguous. And, as a matter of fact, the historical references in Hindu scriptures, such as they are, do not enjoy very strong support. Archaeology has only been of limited help. To be sure, it is not very hard to establish that Hindu beliefs have been prevalent on the Indian subcontinent for a long time (beginning anywhere from 3000 B.C. to 1500 B.C., depending on whom you ask), and there has been some success in identifying historical locations, such as Ayodhya, the supposed hometown of Rama (though even that is controversial). Nevertheless, one cannot really say that this kind of information supports Hinduism, but nor should one say that the lack of this support by itself undermines Hinduism.
By way of contrast, Christianity goes into the opposite direction. The truth of Christianity is dependent on specific historical events: that there was a man named Jesus, that he taught his disciples, that he was crucified, and that he was resurrected. The center of Christianity is that in his crucifixion Jesus Christ provided salvation for us. Thus if there was no crucifixion, there would be no salvation, and Christianity would be false. So, the truth of Christianity does depend on historical events, and, consequently, historical evidence does play an important role in making a case for the truth of Christianity. And the good news for the Christian is that the evidence does support Christianity.
Thus, the answer to this question leaves us with a challenge. On the one hand, we have the teaching of a religion that is immune from historical evidence one way or the other. On the other hand, we have a religion that is firmly grounded in historical events as well as good reason to believe that those events also occurred. Which religion should one believe?