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Essentials of Hinduism: History of Hinduism


It has been pointed out by Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee, in A Study of History, that the principal civilizations of the world lay different degrees of emphasis on specific lines of activity. Hellenic civilisation, for instance, displays a manifest tendency towards a prominently aesthetic outlook on life as a whole. Indian civilisation, on the other hand, shows an equally manifest tendency towards a predominantly religious outlook. Dr. Toynbee's remark sums up what has been observed by many other scholars. Indeed, the study of Hinduism has to be, in a large measure, a study of the general Hindu outlook on life.

Receptivity and all-comprehensiveness, it has been aptly stated, are the main characteristics of Hinduism. Since it has had no difficulty in bringing diverse faiths within its ever-widening fold, it has something to offer to almost all minds. The strength of Hinduism, lies in its infinite adaptability to the infinite diversity of human character and human tendencies. It has its highly spiritual and abstract side suited to the philosopher; its practical and concrete side congenial to the man of the world; its aesthetic and ceremonial side attuned to the man of the poetic feeling and imagination; and its quiescent contemplative aspect that has its appeal for the man of peace and the lover of seclusion. The Hindus are Spinozists more than 2,000 years before the advent of Spinoza, Darwinians many centuries before Darwin, and Evolutionists many centuries before the doctrine of Evolution was accepted by scientists of the present age. No civilisation anywhere in the world, with the probable exception of China, has been as continuous as that of India. While the civilizations of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria have disappeared, in India the ideas emanating from the Vedic times continue to be a living force.

European scholars of Sanskrit noted similarities in the languages, terminology and substances of Indian scriptures with those of Greece and Rome. Even a superficial study convinced them that, while the language of the Vedas is a great critical instrument in the construction of the science of philology, the Vedic hymns constitute a compilation of most Indo-European myths in their primitive form. Max Muller went so far as to say that the Vedas are the real theogony of the Aryan races, Homer and others having given a distorted picture of the original image.

The excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro and those in Saurashtra have disclosed the existence of a highly evolved culture long before the Aryan immigration, perhaps dating back to 3000 B.C. or later. Among the remains discovered are three-faced prototypes of Siva seated in a yogic posture, representations of the Linga, and a horned goddess associated with the pipal tree. These symbols, evolved by a very ancient civilisation, were assimilated by the Aryan immigrants in slow stages-their earliest literary work, the Rig-Veda, almost overlooks these aspects. The Vedic Aryans, it has been suggested, partly assimilated and partly destroyed the earlier culture.

Vedic Aryans and Zoroastrianism

It seems clear from the hymns of the Rig-Veda and the Persian Gathas and Avesta that the Vedic Aryans and the Zoroastrians had a common origin. The languages in which Zoroaster preached and the Rsis sang their hymns are almost identical, and Vedic meters are re-produced in the Avesta. Evidently, the two groups of Aryans separated after a violent quarrel, so that several deities of one group - Indra or Jindra, Sarva and Nasatya - were transformed in the other into evil spirits. It is, however, to be noticed that Mitra, Aryama, Vayu and Vrtraghna are divine in both the systems. A period of unity was probably followed by civil war, as envisaged in the fight between Asuras and Devas.

The Vedic Aryans were warlike, while the Avesta reflects an abhorrence of war. In the period when the ancestors of the Iranians and the Hindus had lived together, Asura had been a term of honour; and the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda was Asura Mahat, the great Asura. The .Rig-Veda (III-55-11 & 15) cites several Asura qualities of the Divinities. Varuna, Mitra and several other gods were called Asuras. Later, when differences were accentuated between the two communities, Asura became equivalent to a spirit of evil and Sura came to signify a good spirit.

The undivided Indo-Iranians must have passed a long time in their Central Asian home. The Indo-Iranian culture and religion have been reconstructed, at least in part, by comparing the Vedas with the Avesta. Before the occupation of Iranian high lands by tribes from the Indo-Iranian original home, the plateau was the seat of a culture that was probably matriarchal, and the people worshipped snake-gods in the manner of India's primitive non-Aryans. It is likely that the pre-Aryan cultures of North- western India and Iran were alike in origin and spirit.

This ancient cultural link between pre-Aryan Iran and pre- Aryan India, instead of getting strengthened by Aryan migration into the two countries, as could be normally expected, was to all appearances completely severed. Also, there is nothing to show that the Vedic Aryans of India maintained an active cultural relation with their brethren in Iran.

In the earliest days, while the Aryans of India must have been connected with the Aryans of Iran as friends or as foes, actual historical contact cannot be asserted with any degree of probability. The two peoples turned their backs upon each other, as it were, and developed their distinctive civilizations apparently without the least mutual influence, although in language, culture and religion their similarity in the earliest period had been little short of identity. When, later in history, under the Achaemenids, Greeks, Bactrians and Sakas, the Iranians and the Indians were forced to meet as citizens of the same empire, they met as complete strangers, not as cousins or as scions from the same stock.

The earliest literary productions of the Aryan settlers in India were the Rig-Veda, Sama Veda (consisting of chants), Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda (a composite religious and magical compilation) The Vedas comprise Mantras (hymns ), Brahmanas (ritual and ceremonies), Aranyakas (forest speculations) and the philosophical Upanishads. In the context of this commonly accepted interpretation of the Vedas, it may be recalled that European Orientalists have too often considered them mainly from the theological, anthropological and sociological points of view. A study of the material in its religious aspect is difficult, since even the great commentary of Sayana is in terms of the ideas of his own age. On the presumption that the Vedas originated in primitive times, the Rig-Veda hymns were regarded as the outpourings of child-like nature worship. John Dawson in his Hindu Classical Dictionary observed: "The Aryan settlers were a pastoral and agricultural people, and they were keenly alive to those influences which affected their prosperity and comfort. They knew the effects of heat and cold, rain and drought, upon their crops and herds, and they marked the influence of warmth and cold, sunshine and rain, wind and storm, upon their own personal comfort. They invested these benign and evil influences with a personality; and behind the fire, the sun, the cloud, and the other powers of nature, they saw beings who directed them in their beneficent and evil operations. To these imaginary beings they addressed their praises, and to them they put up their prayers for temporal blessings. They observed also the movements of the sun and moon, the constant succession of day and night, the intervening periods of morning and evening, and to these also they gave personalities, which they invested with poetical clothing and attributes. Thus observant of nature in its various changes and operations, alive to its influences upon themselves, and perceptive of its beauties, they formed for themselves deities in whose glory and honour they exerted their poetic faculty."

Vedic Concepts

On a careful analysis of the Vedas it would be apparent that the Vedic view is more subtle and deeper in concept. The One Being whom the sages call by many names (Ekam-sat) is referred to in the neuter gender, signifying divine existence and not a divine individual. The monotheistic God stands in relation to man as a father and a patriarch, while in a Rig-Veda hymn to Agni he is called "my father, my kinsman, my brother and my friend". Monotheism, it has been aptly stated "contemplates the Divine in heaven and polytheism contemplates the Divine in the universe. Polytheism believes in the assembly of gods, each possessing a character of his own. Max Muller coined the word henotheism for indicating the tendency of the Vedic seers to magnify the importance of the particular deity they are praising in a hymn at the expense of the other Gods. This has been described as "opportunist monotheism''. One deity is identified with another or different deities are identified with one Divine entity, indifferently described as Ekam (one) and Tat Sat (the reality).

Apart from the above concepts there are two basic ideas underlying the Vedas - Satya (truth) and Rta (eternal order); and every God or Goddess exemplifies and represents these two ideas. Vedic theism is based on moral values which (also in the case of Buddhism) may be upheld in a non-theistic way. In India it is not the atheist who is denounced but the person who repudiates Dharma, moral law. The Rig-Veda states that the earth is sustained not by the will of God but by truth, and of This truth God is the supreme exponent, revealing Himself through Rta or eternal order. Examining the Vedic hymns as a whole, one discovers a doctrine, not of oneness, but of one divine substance pervading all. It is stated that the One Being is contemplated by the sages in many forms: Ekam santam bahudha kalpayanti. It may also be observed that the Vedic ritual or Yajna is a uniform ceremonial; whatever deity is worshipped the ritual is the same.

The universality of the Vedas is not often realized. The Rig Veda asserts that God is the God of Dasa as well as of Arya - "Lord God is he to whom both Arya and Dasa belong". There is a special prayer for the forgiveness of sins against the foreigner (Rig-Veda). According to the Atharva Veda, God is of the foreigner (Videsya) no less than of our own land (Samdesya). There are mantras which extend This principle to all living beings (sarvani bhutani) so that we come to a grand conception of universal peace and serenity - the harmony with Nature (sarvam santhi)

Many schools of thought

Panini is one of the worlds’ earliest as well as the greatest of scientific grammarians. The consensus of opinion fixed his date not later than the 5th century B.C. At that period Yajna or sacrifice and the worship of various deities were current and popular, and theistic devotion to particular divinities, generally expressed by the term Bhakti, had become prevalent. Panini refers to Vasudev as the object of devotion, and Paramatma Devata Visesa, a form of the One Supreme Divinity. The doctrine which assumed great importance later - that custom has the force of law - is also exemplified by the twofold meaning, in Panini's Astadhyayi, attached to Dharma. Dharma is not only equivalent to Rta, primordial law, but also denotes custom (achara) as in the later Dharma Sutras.

Already in Panini's days different schools of thought had arisen, both theistic and non-theistic. A non-theistic doctrine, which is described in Buddhist philosophy as the doctrine of non-causation and also as the doctrine of Yadrccha, or Adrshta- (fortuitous accident), was current in Panini's time. That all existence was the result of chance was the doctrine of the Ahetuvadins. The Svetasvatara Upanishad which advocates the doctrine of the supreme spirit refers to other varieties of thought like those of the advocates of Svabhava or materialistic philosophy. Orthodox thought was later developed in the Samkhya philosophy and attained its climax in the Vedanta Sutras. Panini refers to Parasara Sutra, one of the earliest of the Vedanta treatises, and also to the atheistic school, known later as the Lokayata. There is mention also of Nihsreyasa which, in the Upanishads, denoted supreme bliss as also of Nirvana , possibly associated with Buddhism. From all these examples it is clear that, in the times of the Buddha and Panini, practically all the varieties of speculation which have flourished in India had already evolved.( that is by 500 B.C.)

Philosophical discourses and pursuits were at first specially developed by the Ksatriyas, but they soon became the prerogatives of the Brahmins. The Chandogya and Kausitaki Upanishads illustrate these successive stages. A solution of the ultimate problems of life is outlined in the early Upanishads, and it takes the form of Monism, absolute (according to Sankaracharya) or modified (according to Ramanuja).

Filled with zeal for ‘This doctrine of the Unity’ or Interdependence of all life, a social order was founded. It is the considered opinion of historians that the great Epics represented the desired social order as having actually existed in the golden past; they put into the mouths of their heroes not only the philosophy but the theory of its application in practice. This is evident, above all, in the long discourse of the dying Bhisma in the Santiparva of the Mahabharata. The heroes themselves made ideal types of character for the guidance of all subsequent generations; for the education of India has been accomplished deliberately through hero-worship. In the Dharmashastra of Manu and the Arthashastra of Chanakya(perhaps the most remarkable sociological documents the world possesses) they set forth the picture of the ideal society, defined from the stand point of law. By these and other means they accomplished what has not yet been effected in any other country, in making religious philosophy the essential and intelligible basis of popular culture and national polity.

The view of life of the Hindu may be explained as the inseparable unity of the material and spiritual world. It is the foundation of Indian culture and that determines the whole character of Indian social ideals. Later Hindu thought is founded on the rhythmic nature of the world process, including evolution and involution, birth, death and rebirth, srsti and samhara. Every individual life, mineral, vegetable, animal and human has a beginning and an end. This creation and destruction, appearance and disappearance, are of the essence of the world process and equally originate in the past, present and future. According to this view, every individual ego (jivatman) or separate expression of the general will to life (icchatrsna), must be regarded as having reached a certain stage of its own cycle. This is also true of the collective life of a nation, a planet or a cosmic system. It is further considered that the turning- point of this curve is reached in man and hence the immeasurable value which Hindus (and Buddhists) attach to birth in human form. This would enable us to conclude that Indian philosophic thought developed in several stages during the Vedic period which is generally placed between 2500 B.C. and 600 B.C.

The Upanishads

The Upanishads are diverse in character and outlook. They recognize intuition rather than reason as a path to ultimate truth. They also represent a strong reaction against the merely ritual and sacrificial duties on which stress had been laid earlier. The Upanishads are supposed to be 108 or more in number. Twelve of them are generally recognized as the principal units.

The Isa Upanishad begins with the statement that whatever exists in this world is enveloped by the Supreme. It is by renunciation and absence of possessiveness that the soul is saved.

In the Kena Upanishad, the Goddess Uma Haimavati in the form of Supreme Knowledge expounds the doctrine of the Brahman or Supreme Entity.

The Katha Upanishad embodies the aspiration of Nachiketas, who declined his father's offer of property and went into exile, making his way to the region of Yama, the God of Death. Nachiketas, in his dialogue with Yama, declines all the worldly possessions and dignities offered by Yama and asserts that all enjoyments are transient and the boon he asks for is the secret of immortality. In this Upanishad occurs the famous saying "The knowledge of the Supreme is not gained by argument but by the teaching of one who possesses intuition"

In the Mundaka Upanishad occurs the verse which is the germ of the Bhagavad-Gita. People who perform actions and are attached to the world are pursuing a futile path, and this Upanishad accordingly declares: "Let the wise man, having examined the world and perceived the motives and the results of actions, realize that as from a blazing fire sparks proceed, living souls originate from the indestructible Brahman and return to Him. All doubts disappear and the attachment to work subsides when the Supreme Being is cognized."

These basic doctrines are further expounded in the Taitiriya Upanishad, which contains this famous verse repeated in other Upanishads: "May we both (teacher and disciple) be protected; may we both obtain sustenance; !et both of us at the same time apply (our) energies (for the acquirement of knowledge); may our reading be illustrious; may there be no hatred (amongst us). Peace, peace, peace.

In the more recent Svetasvatara Upanishad is found a summary of the main Upanishadic doctrines, and the idea of devotion to a personal God is also developed.

The Chandogya Upanishad, one of the earliest, states that the main doctrines of the Upanishads were first expounded by the Kshatriyas and not by the Brahmins.

Later, as is evident from the Kausitaki Upanishad, the Brahmins took up the intensive study of philosophy. The contrast which is often drawn between Brahmanism and Hinduism is therefore not based on a right appraisal of the facts.

The Epics

The period of the Epics succeeded the period of the Upanishads. In the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, philosophical doctrines were presented in the form of stories and parables. In these poems of the heroic age recounting the qualities and exploits of exalted individuals the Vedic gods are no longer supreme. Some have disappeared altogether. Indra retains a place of some dignity; but Brahma, Siva and Vishnu have risen to pre-eminence. Even of these three, the first becomes subordinate. Vishnu and Siva become the out-standing entities and are alternately elevated to supreme dignity and very often their ultimate oneness is proclaimed. Vishnu in the Vedas was the friend and companion of Indra and strode over the universe in three paces; in the Epics he often becomes the great deity of destruction as well as of renovation. Each of these two gods in his turn contends with and subdues the other; now one, now the other, receives the homage of his rival; and each in turn is lauded and honored as the greatest of gods.

The Avatars

The Avatars, incarnations of Vishnu, assume a prominent place in the Epics, and more so in the Puranas. The first three, Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise) and Varaha (boar) of the Puranas have a cosmic character and are foreshadowed in the hymns of the Vedas. The fourth incarnation, Nrsimha (man-lion), seems to belong to a later age, when the worship of Vishnu had become established. The fifth, Vamana (dwarf), whose three strides deprived the Asuras of the domination of heaven and earth, is in character anterior to the fourth Avatara and the three strides are attributed to Vishnu in the Vedic text as Urukrama. The sixth, seventh and eighth avatars Parasurama, Ramchandra and Krishna, are mortal heroes whose exploits are celebrated in these poems so fervently as to raise the heroes to the rank of gods. The ninth Avatara, the Buddha, is the deification of a great teacher. The tenth, Kalki, is yet to come.

The system of religious thought propounded in the Vedas and the Epics and especially in the Bhagavad-Gita (a part of the Mahabharata) survived the Buddhist impact which led to a renunciation of much ritual and metaphysics on the part of a sizable proportion of the population. Buddhism was absorbed into the parent religion within a few centuries and Hinduism, as the Vedic religion had come to be called, adopted the theory of the Avataras or incarnations according to which the Buddha himself was accepted as Avatara. Jainism also became, in essence, a doctrinal modification and adaptation of the Vedic religion. Thus we find that in response to an ever more insistent craving in Indic souls to apprehend the unity of God, the myriad divinities gradually dissolved and coalesced into one or other of the two mighty figures of Siva and Vishnu. Historians are agreed that this stage on the road towards the establishment of the unity of god was attained at least 2000 years ago.

Buddhist Influence on Hindu thought

We now come to the greatest contribution made by the Buddha to Indian thought and world culture. Dr. Radhakrishnan, in his edition of 'Dhammapada" (which embodies Buddhist teachings), has stated that, judged by intellectual integrity, moral earnestness and spiritual insight, the Buddha is undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in history. The same scholar pointed out that, although there were different streams of thought operating on men's minds in the 6th century B.C. philosophic thought was agreed at that time on certain fundamentals. Life does not begin at birth or end at death; it is a link in an infinite series of lives: each of which is conditioned and determined by acts done in previous existences. Relief from the round of births, resulting in life in eternity is the goal, indicated by such terms as Moksha (deliverance) and Nirvana (union with the Brahman). The means of attainment are prayer and worship; ritual and sacrifice; and Vidya (realization by knowledge).

Even though the Buddha accepted the doctrines of Karma and rebirth and the non-reality of the empirical universe, he declined to speculate on Moksha and on the doctrine of the Atman and Paramatman . He laid stress on the supremacy of the ethical aspect, and his outlook was definitely practical and empirical. In fact, the Buddha did not tolerate any doctrines which, he thought, diverted the mind from the central problem of suffering, the cause of suffering and its removal, and the urgency of the moral task.

He rejected the doctrine of the Vedanta that the ego is permanent and unchanging. At the same time, he did not countenance the view that, at death, it is destroyed. As Dr. Radhakrishnan says, the Buddha came to the conclusion that interest in the super- natural diverts attention and energy from the ethical values and the exploration of actual conditions: Karma builds the world and Dharma is an organic part of all existence.

The Bhagavad-Gita

Every variety of Hindu philosophy has its source in the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana or Vyasa and the Bhagavad-Gita which forms a part of the Mahabharata. It was as a reaction to the tendencies exhibited by Buddhism and Jainism that the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy (Indian Philosophy is broadly classified as Orthodox and Heterodox. The Six darshanas are all Orthodox while Buddhism, Jainism and Charvakas are Heterodox) had their origin and the Bhagavad-Gita is their epitome.

This work contains the essence of Indian teaching about the duties of life as well as spiritual obligations. Everyone has his allotted duties of various kinds. Sin arises not from the nature of the work itself but from the disposition with which the work is performed. When it is performed without attachment to the result, it cannot tarnish the soul and impede its quest. True Yoga consists in the acquisition of experience and the passage through life in harmony with the ultimate laws of equanimity, non-attachment to the fruits of action, and faith in the pervasiveness of the Supreme Spirit. Absorption in that Spirit can be attained along several paths; and no path is to be preferred exclusively and none to be dismissed as useless. These doctrines have been interpreted as marking a movement which lays stress on the personality of God and His accessibility to devotion. While following the Hindu ideal of the Ashramas, the Gita emphasizes the importance of knowledge, charity, penance and worship, and does not decry life as evil. It states that the embodied beings cannot completely relinquish action and says that he, who relinquishes the fruit of action, is a true relinquisher.

The Dharma Sastras

Treatises on ethical and social philosophy known as the Dharma Sastras were compiled about the same period. They deal systematically with the proper conduct of life and describe social, ethical and religious obligations. The Sutras, of which the Brahma Sutra is the chief, are brief aphorisms or maxims. They contain interpretations of philosophic systems and refutations of opposing beliefs. It is remarkable that all philosophical systems in India are known as Darshanas, literally meaning calling insights or points of view. In the well known Sarvadarsanasangraha compiled by Madhavacharya, a great successor of Sankaracharya , the Charvakas or atheistic school, Buddhism, Jainism, the Vaishnavism philosophy of Ramanuja and Madhva, the Saiva system and several other doctrinal variants, are all described as Darsanas and as legitimate developments of Hindu thought. There are Sutras dealing with the Logical Realism of Nyaya, the Atomistic Pluralism of Vaiseshika, the Evolutionism of Samkhya, the technique of Mind-control or Yoga, the ritualistic philosophy of Purva-Mimamsa and the metaphysics of Vedanta.

The Puranas

The Puranas cast in the form of parables and narratives, became the scripture for the common people. Apart from their religious and often sectarian significance, they furnish a picture of social, political and cultural life and comprise an astonishingly varied repertory of folklore and information regarding diverse topics including philosophy, ethics, legal institutions, popular festivals, and several arts; they deal even with subjects like grammar, prosody, rhetoric, archery and care of horses and elephants; many of them also describe places of pilgrimage. At one time their historical value was discounted but it is now being gradually appreciated.

Fusion with non-Aryans

The Aryans marched en masse, guided by a leader who was often a poet, and came into contact with the Dasas and the Dasyus. The point to be noted is the speedy fusion of the Aryans with the non-Aryans. The process had three phases: (I) The elevation of non-Aryans and aboriginals by intermarriages with Aryans. (2) The incorporation of non-Aryans into Aryan society in various other ways. (3) Social reactions by which forms of life and modes of thought of the two groups under went a kind of osmosis, intensified by the Buddhist reformation.

The Aitareya Brahmanas gives an example of the manner in which progressive leaders of the Aryans facilitated the assimilation of other communities. A Rsi was performing a sacrifice on the banks of the Saraswathi; and to this sacrifice was admitted one Kesava, a Shudra, whose learning is stated to have put all the Brahmins to shame. The Vajasaneyi Samhita condemned intercommunal marriage, but it is narrated in that work that a Sudra was the lover of an Arya woman. By the time of the Mahabharata such great personages as Vyasa and Vidura were described as the offspring of the connection of the Aryans with other groups. The story of Santanu and Satyavati, the vow of Bhisma as well as the story of Ambika and Ambalika and the birth of Vidura, also illustrate the above process.

Again, in the Mahabharata, it is narrated that Bhima married Hidimbi, a non-Aryan woman, and Arjuna married a Naga girl, Uloopi. A new class of Aryans called Utkrsta came into existence, and was admitted to the privileges of sacrifice. By the time of the Satapathabrahmana Shudras became incorporated in the polity - a notable instance being the Nisadas. lt is a curious fact that we find in the Panini's Grammar, there is mention of non-Aryan Brahmins as well.

Parasara, one of the great sages of India, married Satyavati, a fisher girl, who became the mother of Vyasa, the compiler of the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Such intermarriages or unions were frequent all through Indian history. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya who belonged to a lower caste, married Kumara Devi of the Licchavi clan, who was either a Brahmin or a Kshatriya, and she was the grandmother of Asoka.

It should be remembered that the groups which crystallized later into the Indian castes were initially not based on any gradation of superiority, the difference being functional rather than racial or communal. These groups, moreover, had their analogues in the Avesta, and the Iranian names do not suggest the idea of colour or superiority. Co-operation of all the classes was needed for administration, and a passage in the Mahabharata indicates that the King's Council included representatives of all classes of the people.

The current rigidity of the rules relating to intermarriage as also inter-dining among the Indian castes is a comparatively recent innovation. The Puranas state that the great sage Vasishta was born of a divine courtesan, but by austerity and penance he made himself recognized as a Brahmin. The transforming process was attained by self-improvement. Also they say, Vyasa was by birth a fisherman, Parasara was born in a dog-eating tribe, and we find that many born non-dvijas have attained Brahmanhood by their merit. The Bhagavad-Gita affirms: "Castes developed according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma", i.e., disposition or temperament and inherited instincts or aptitudes.

Both among the Old Iranians and the Aryans of India the original caste system of three classes based on the practical distribution of functions was in existence. The Iranians, however, did not develop another class as the Hindus did - the Shudra. Clearly, the three Hindu caste divisions were not unalterably rigid.

Cultural synthesis

In their great trek to India the colonizing groups of Aryans encountered races who professed a firm belief in the doctrine of transmigration. It has indeed been suggested that this doctrine of metempsychosis itself, the cult of serpent worship, the worship of Ganesa, of Uma or Durga, of Skanda or Subrahmanya (the hunter-god) were all adopted by the Aryans from earlier settlers in India. Even the incarnation of Krishna, it has been said, was an adaptation from an aboriginal deity; his life is an instance of the mingling of the Aryans and the Yadavas. In any case, it seems clear that there was a good measure of synthesis of the thoughts and beliefs of the Aryan and pre-Aryan races.

There are widespread traditions of the southern migration of the Vedic sage, Agastya, the reputed author of several hymns of the Rig-Veda. His ashrama was located south of the Vindhyas; and he is said to have introduced the Vedic religion and literature in the South in his capacity as a unifying factor between the Sanskritic and Dravidian tongues and ideals. When the Aryan colonizers in the wake of Agastya penetrated to the South, they found an advanced civilisation. The Ramayana describes Madurai as adorned with golden jewels. The grammarian Katyayana mentions the Pandyas and the Cholas. Asoka’s Buddhist missions were sent to the Pandya and Chola countries as far as Tamraparni River in the Tirunelveli District. An extensive commercial and cultural inter course grew up between the Aryans and the Dravidians, as also between the Dravidians and countries to the east and west of India.

The close contact between the Aryan and Dravidian elements continued all through history and manifested itself in every aspect of life. There is strong ground for the supposition that the importance of Siva, Shakti and Skanda was due largely to Dravidian influence, since the cult of An (Siva), Amma (Shakti) and Anil (Muruga or Skanda) was a cardinal belief from the beginning of Dravidian history.

These facts illustrate the composite character of Hindu civilisation. The Sama Veda spoke at length of the Vratyastoma (a particular sacrifice or ritual) by which non-Aryan Vratyas were admitted into Aryan society. The equalization of castes and communities was, of course, brought to a head by Gautama Buddha, though he was no opponent of the Brahminical civilisation. Both he and Mahavira, the expounder of Jainism, while admitting that the Brahmin ideal is the right one, led a crusade against certain aspects of Brahmin culture. Hindu civilisation itself adapted for its use many ideals and precepts of Buddhism and Jainism. For instance, among many communities, offerings of rice and ghee took the place of animal sacrifice, a compromise with the Vedic ritualism. The early Aryans had, of course, been meat-eaters, but probably under the influence of Buddhist and Jain ideas many groups of Brahmins as well as non-Brahmins became vegetarian.

Vaishnavism in the South

At a later period arose the fully organized Bhakti movement leading to Vaishnavism and Saivism. The ancient Vaisnava mystics and saints in the South were known as Alwars, and the Vaishnavism teachers as Acaryas. They had a powerful exponent of these views in Ramanuja, who attacked the Advaita interpretation of the Upanishads and gave recognition to three ultimate realities, God, Soul and Matter, the last two being dependent on the first.

As early as the 2nd century B. C. the renowned Besnagar Column had been erected by a Greek named Heliodorous, who had been converted to the Bhagavata or Vaisnava faith of which the Pancharatra doctrines then formed an integral part; its scriptures were Satvata Samhita, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas. The origin of the Pancharatra doctrines which form the basis of Srivaishnavite culture has been traced further back to the well known Purushasukta of the Rig-Veda. The Satapatha Brahmana refers to the Pancharatra sacrifices performed by the primeval Narayana, the idea of Nara and Narayana (Primordial man and the deity Vishnu) being an integral part of ancient Indian thought. There are more than a dozen Vaishnava Upanishads. It was in the period from the 10th century up to the 17th that many Vaishnava works were produced. The Vaisnavas regard the Pancharatra literature as equal to the Vedas.

The Vaishnava Samhitas and other works insist on knowledge of and devotion to, the supreme Godhead rather than on Vedic studies or sacrifices. It is worthy of note that in the Bhagavata Purana (11th Skanda) the Alwars were prefigured or adverted to; several great devotees of Vishnu, the Purana states, would appear on the banks of the Tamraparni, Krtamala (Vaigai), Payasvin (Palar), Kaveri, and Mahanadi (Periyar).

The Alwars lived between the 5th and the 12th centuries. The first group included Saroyogi or Poygaiyalwar, Bhattayogi or Bhutattalwar, Mahadyogi or Peyalwar and Bhaktisara or Tirumalisai-Piran. Nammalwar or Satakopa, who came in the next group, was perhaps the greatest of the Alwars. Others in this group included Madhurakaviyalwar, Kulasekhara Perumal, Vishnuchitta (or Periyalwar) and Andal, his adopted daughter. In the last of the groups were Bhaktanghrirenu (Tondaradippodiy Alwar), Yogivahana (Tiruppanalwar) and Parakala (Tirumangaiyalwar). The Divya Prabhandha constitutes the collection of the Alwars' compositions in the Tamil language.

The advent of Sankara

The next important milestone is the advent of Sankara. In his short but marvellously active life, he travelled all through the country, refuting atheistic and materialistic systems of thought, wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, on the Brahma Sutra and on the Gita. He interpreted these scriptures and built up his thesis with wonderful clarity and depth of exposition. He remoulded Indian thought and destroyed many dogmas. His great capacity for deep feeling and emotional expression was combined with relentless logic. Sankara’s contribution to philosophy is his blending of the doctrines of Karma and Maya, which culminated in a logical exposition of the idea of non-dualism. The entire universe consisting of Namarupa, names and forms, is but an appearance; Brahman, infinite consciousness, is the sole reality. Its attainment and the annihilation of the great illusion of the universe called Maya, by a process of realization, were the objects of Sankara’s quest. He revivified the doctrines of the Upanishads. His Advaita doctrine is still a living force in India. Sankaracharya established several mutts in India to propagate the Vedantic or Advaita doctrine and the successive heads of these mutts as well as later scholars like Madhusudana Saraswathi and the great Appayya Diksitar have produced important treatises, elucidating the Vedanta as propounded by Sankaracharya.

Sankara’s outlook was based strictly on philosophical thought and logic; but even he has, in numerous compositions, described the supreme entity in a personal aspect as savior, helper, friend and guide. He wrote poems dedicated to Nrsimha, Sri Krishna, Laksmi, and Annapurna, and there is his celebrated lyrical homage to Parvati or Durga - the Soundaryalahari.

Sankara was followed by Ramanuja, Madhva and others who called themselves commentators but were indeed creators of new systems. Ramanuja's philosophy was termed qualified monism and Madhva's was a dualistic system. The three major forms of Vedanta developed respectively by Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva are distinct philosophies, although each professes to have stemmed from the same three sources – the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra and the Gita.


Ramanuja, of course, was concerned much more with the personal aspect. His teachings may be regarded as a reaction against the tendency to view religion on the intellectual rather than the emotional plane. He assimilated many beliefs of the Dravidian civilisation and helped to encourage and promote temple worship and public festivals. Born early in the 11th century, Ramanuja was deeply influenced by the Tamil saints and Alwars - their ideas coloured his interpretation of the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra. He put forward a theistic view of the Vedas as against the rigid Advaita point of view of Sankara. Basing his thoughts on Bodhayana and the theistic Upanishads, the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad-Gita), Vishnu Purana as well as the compositions of the Alwars and Acharyas, Ramanuja produced a number of works culminating in the Sribhasya. He proclaimed the doctrine of salvation through Bhakti or faith. His earlier followers came to be known as Vadagalais. About two centuries later the Tengalais appeared; they, unlike the Vadagalais, did not concentrate on Sanskrit scriptures and traditions and regarded Tamil scriptures as equally canonical.

There were several points of difference between Ramanuja and early Vaishnava teachers like Nadamuni and Yamunacharya. One was the importance attached to Swami Krpa, Grace of God. According to one school, this is spontaneous, not depending on any effort or merit of the devotee. The other school asserts that Grace also depends on the devotee's virtuous action. The religious approach of Ramanuja was mainly based on self-surrender, which must result in universal charity and sympathy, and friendliness even to an enemy. He insisted that the performance of scriptural duties alone was not enough for salvation. Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga, according to the Ramanuja School, only purify the mind in preparation for Bhakti Yoga or devotion. Ramanuja's Saranagati Gadya is a notable contribution to the gospel of self-surrender, but it does not rule out caste functions and duties, and the doctrine of Karma.

Vedanta Desika, the greatest successor of Ramanuja, and a strong opponent of Sankara’s Advaita doctrine, wrote a very controversial work, Satadushani. Pillai Lokacharya, the famous exponent of the Tengalai School, advocated passive surrender (Prapatti) in preference to active faith (Bhakti), and the guidance of a spiritual preceptor. Manavala Maha Muni is the chief Saint of the Tengalais. This school built up a remarkable Tamil literature to which it ascribed an importance equal to that of the Vedas - it was called the Tamil Tirumurai or the Tamil Veda. In essence, however, there was no fundamental doctrinal divergence between the two sects. Differences in certain features such as caste marks on the forehead and temple ceremonials and usage became accentuated in later years.

Successors of Ramanuja

As the ideas of Ramanuja spread through India, men like Madhvacharya, Vallabhacharya, Chaitanya, Ramananda, Kabir and Nanak came under their spell. Ramanuja and his followers opposed the doctrine of Maya and the interpretation of the world as purely phenomenal or illusory. They emphasized the distinction between the individual soul and the supreme Godhead and based their philosophy on man's conviction of sin, his responsibility for sin and the importance of grace emanating from the divine. In other words, they believed that salvation comes not specially through Jnana (knowledge) or karma (action), but through Bhakti (faith) and Prasada (grace). The Bhagavata doctrine of complete resignation to God was one of the articles of their faith. God was viewed alternately as father, mother, child, teacher and friend, and even as the beloved. Ramanuja declared that caste had nothing to do with the soul's quality; some of the Alwars were in fact non-Brahmins. Ramanuja admitted even Harijans to the temple at Melkote. One of his later followers, Ramananda, who lived in the 13th century, not only protested against caste distinctions but enjoined that no man should ask any devotee about his caste or sect, whoever worships God is God's own.

Later followers of Ramanuja included a number of scholars who sustained his philosophic system through the centuries. While accepting the set rituals of initiation and worship, they admitted Jains, Buddhists, Shudras and Harijans into their fold. A celebrated successor of Ramanuja was Nimbarka, who lived about the same time as Madhvacharya. According to his philosophy, which is a type of Bhedabhedavada, that is, the theory of the Absolute as Unity-in-difference, Brahman or the Absolute has transformed itself into the world of matter and spirit. As the Life-force, Prana manifests itself in the various cognitive sense functions, and yet keeps its own independence, integrity and difference, so the Brahman also manifests itself through the numberless spirits and matter, without losing itself in them. As the spider spins its web out of itself and yet remains independent of the web, so the Brahman splits itself up into numberless spirits and matter but retains its fullness and purity.

The reaction against Sankara’s Advaitism reached its climax in Madhvacharya's dualistic philosophy. It resembles Ramanuja's doctrine to some extent but stands for unqualified dualism. Madhva, also known as Purnaprajna and Anandatirtha, was born near Udipi in South Kanara in the 12th century. He draws a clear distinction between God and the individual soul, God and matter, individual soul and matter, one soul and another and one variety of matter and another. Large groups in India follow this doctrine which bases itself on the feeling of absolute dependence on God and love for Him.

Madhvacharya attacked Sankara vehemently on the ground that his philosophy was a disguised variety of Buddhism. It is well known that Sankara was strongly influenced by Gaudapada, who had great regard for the Buddhist philosophy, and it is unquestionable that, while Sankara was opposed to Buddhist thought in general, he was perhaps unconsciously influenced by some of its tenets. Madhva, on the other hand, objected to Advaita. It seemed to him presumptuous for the individual soul to claim identity with Brahman. According to his doctrine, Vishnu is the only Supreme Being and Bhakti is the primary essential for liberation. Among his great disciples was Purandaradasa, reputed as a social reformer and one of the creators of the Karnataka system of music. Vadiraja, a renowned writer, was another Madhva philosopher.

Vaishnavism in the North

One of the most influential Vaisnava cults was founded by Vallabhacharya, a Telugu Brahmin who lived in the 15th century. He migrated to the North and in his numerous works in the North he gave an interpretation of the Vedanta differing from that of Ramanuja, as also of Sankara. He called his doctrine Suddha Advaita, pure non- dualism. The world is real, and not an illusion. God is Nimitta Karana, the causative being. Discarding the Maya theory Vallabhacharya asserts that God cannot be described by negatives but only by his holy and gracious attributes, and is personified in Krishna. He is not only karta, creator, but also bhokta, enjoyer. Though he has no need to assume a bodily form, he often does so to please his devotees. Regarding Bhakti as the chief means of salvation and superior to Jnana (knowledge), Vallabha opposed all kinds of asceticism. The body is the temple of God, he said. The famous Upanishadic precept Tatvamasi was by an ingenious interpretation, modified by Vallabha as Atatvamasi, "That thou art not". Vallabhacharya doctrines were fully interpreted and expounded by his son Vittala.

Later in Northern India, there arose the Chaitanya movement. Nimbarka had already elevated Radha, the consort of Krishna, to the highest position. Jayadeva, the author of Gita-Govinda, and other poets like Vidyapati, Umapati and Chandidas, adopted the Radha-Krishna cult. Chaitanya, the great Vaisnava teacher of the 15th century transformed the Vaishnava faith and extended his influence in most parts of Northern India. He accepted converts from Islam, the foremost among them being Haridas, Rupa and Sanatana. Salvation, according to his doctrine, consists in the eternal experience of God's love. Chaitanya exercised great influence over later Indian thought.


The cult of Shakti or the mother aspect of Godhead had its roots in the Vedas. The Rig-Veda describes Shakti as the embodiment of power and the upholder of the universe. Shakti is represented as the sister of Krishna and the wife of Siva. She is worshipped as Devi, who is one with Brahman. The literature of Shaktism, called the Tantra, gives a high place to women and reacts strongly against caste distinctions. According to the doctrines of the Shakta cult (embodied in 77 Agamas), Siva or the supreme entity is impersonal and beyond activity. Sankara in his Saundarya1ahari stated that, Siva is able to function when united with Shakti, otherwise he is inert. The Shakta cult and philosophy has had great influence in Bengal and Assam, as well as in Malabar.

A variant of the Saivite philosophy, which developed in Kashmir, is known as the Pratyabhijna system. Here, Siva is the subject as well as the object, the experiencer as well as the experienced. As the consciousness on which all this resultant world is established from where it issues is free in its nature, it cannot be restricted anywhere. As it moves in the differentiated states of waking, sleeping, etc., identifying itself with them, it never falls from its true nature as the knower.

Saivite sects

The development of Vaishnavism saw a parallel development of the Saiva theism. A distinctive philosophy of Saiva Siddhanta was evolved about the 11th century. The Saiva Agamas were based on the Vedic concept of Rudra. A large number of inspired writers in the Tamil country were headed by Manikkavasagar. All their works have been collected and are venerated by the South Indian Saivites. The first part of this collection, Tevaram, contains the hymns of Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar. The second part mainly comprises Manikkavasagar's Tiruvasakam. Sixty three Saiva saints are recognized and their lives are recounted in the Periya Puranam.

Saiva Siddhanta is one of the most influential and intrinsically valuable of the religious writings in India.

The Saiva Siddhanta recognizes three entities: God, the Soul or the aggregate of souls, and bondage (Pati, Pasu and Pasa). The expression Bondage denotes the aggregate of the elements which fetter the soul and hold it back from union with God. In one of its aspects it is Malam, the taint clinging to the soul. In another aspect it is Maya, the material cause of the world. The peculiarity of the Saiva Siddhanta doctrine which calls itself Suddhadvaita is its difference from the Vedanta Monism. God pervades and energizes all souls and, nevertheless, stands apart. This concept of the absolute is clear from the Tamil word for God, Kadavul, meaning that which transcends (kada) all things and is yet the heart (ul) of all things. When the absolute becomes manifest, it is as Force (Shakti) of which the universe is the product. The Dvaita system, on the other hand, insists on a radical pluralism, and at the same time relies on the complete dependence of the souls and the world on God.

One of the important Saivite sects known as Virasaiva was founded by a Brahmin named Basava, who was for some time the minister of a ruler in Kalyan. The Basava Purana outlines Basava's life. There are Basava's own writings in Kannada, describing the fundamentals of a doctrine based on rigid monotheism. Siva is regarded as the supreme, limitless and transcendent entity. Brahman is the identity of "being", "bliss" and "consciousness", and devoid of any form of differentiation. It is limitless and beyond all ways of knowledge. It is self-luminous and absolutely without any barrier of knowledge, passion or power. It is in Him that the whole world of the conscious and the unconscious remains, in a potential form untraceable by our senses, and it is from Him that the whole world becomes expressed or manifest of itself, without the operation of any other instrument.

The Virasaivas, often called Lingayats, are distinguished by the Sivalinga and rudraksa on their person and they smear their bodies with ashes. They are strict vegetarians and abstain from drink. The Virasaiva doctrine has four schools, but the differences are of a minor kind. All believe in the efficacy of a Guru or preceptor. All assert the reality of the Universe and unity with Siva, the only ultimate reality. The Virasaiva doctrine is prevalent in Mysore and in the southern regions of Maharashtra.

Cultural fusions in the South

Early Indian history cannot be viewed in its true perspective unless the institutions of the South receive adequate treatment. The unity of India transcends the diversities of blood, fusions in colour, language, dress, manners and sects. It is seen in the fusion of Brahminical ideas and institutions with Dravidian cults. This unity, however, has been limited by the later developments of the caste system in a manner different from the original conception which was functional in character and elastic in scope.

A typical South Indian village almost invariably has a temple dedicated to Ayyanar or Hariharaputra or Hanuman or Anjaneya, or Ganesa. On many hill-tops there are shrines dedicated to the Devi (Chandi) or Kartikeya also named Subrahmanya. These exemplify the tolerant and assimilative outlook of the Aryans. In the context mention has already been made of the Vratyastoma (a particular sacrifice or ritual) by means of which masses of non-Aryans (Vratyas) were admitted into the Aryan society.

According to South Indian tradition, Tamil was first developed by the sage Agastya, to whom a grammar, a treatise on philosophy and many other works are ascribed. The oldest Tamil grammar now extant, the Tolkappiyam, is said to have been the work of one of his disciples. The Saivite and Vaishnavite revival due to the Brahmins in Southern India, since the 8th century, brought about a counter movement among the Jains. Early Buddhism in Northern India adopted the Prakrit or vernacular speech for its religious treatises. On the same analogy, Buddhism and Jainism in the South created works in the dialects of the people. The Dravidian Buddhists and Jains created a Tamil literature which was anti-Brahminical in sentiment and covered the period between the 9th and 13th centuries.

The Kural of Tiruvalluvar, dating not later than the 10th century A.D. is said to have been the work of a poet belonging to one of the depressed classes. It enforces the Samkhya philosophy in 1,330 poetical aphorisms based on three subjects: wealth, pleasure and virtue. To the sister of its author, the poetess Avvaiyar, are ascribed many compositions of the highest moral tone, and they have enjoyed perennial popularity in Southern India. The Jain period of Tamil literature includes works on ethics. In the same period a celebrated adaptation of the Ramayana was composed in Tamil by Kambar. This is a Tamil paraphrase rather than a literal translation of the ancient Sanskrit Epic.

Between this period and the 16th century, two encyclopedic collections of Tamil hymns, deeply religious in spirit, were gradually formed. One collection was the work of Saivite devotees and their disciples who sought to uproot Jainism. Vaisnavite apostles of the same period were equally prolific in Tamil religious songs. Their Book of Four Thousand Psalms, Nalayira Prabhandha, constitutes a hymnology dating from the early Christian era.