Paragraphs on Hinduism!
Originally the word Hindu did not have a religious connotation, but merely denoted the people in a geographical area—around the river Indus.
Later the word assumed a religious connotation, to some extent under Mughal rule but more firmly under British rule.
Hinduism derives its basic ideas and tradition from the Vedas, considered as sruti, ‘that which is heard or revealed’. While one school believes that the Vedas are without beginning, another avers that they were revealed to ancient sages—the rishis. The earliest Veda is the Rigveda, which is incidentally the oldest religious composition in the world still looked on as sacred.
It was probably composed between 1500 and 900 BC. It consists of over 1,000 hymns, a collection of prayers to gods like Agni, Vayu, Varuna, Indra, Mitra, Soma, Ushas and others, most of whom were deification of natural forces.
The three later Vedas are more specialised. The Samaveda is a collection of certain verses of the Rigveda for melodic rendering. The Yajuroeda emerged a century or two later than the Rigveda, and contains sacrificial formulae to be pronounced by the priests who performed the manual part of the sacrifice.
The Atharvaveda deals with magical incantations and medicines. Each Veda has a Brahmana appended to it explaining the mantras and rituals. The Aranyakas and Upanishads are appendices to the Brahmanas: while the Aranyakas are mystical teachings meant for meditation in forests, the Upanishads (Vedanta) are speculations on Being and Reality.
The early ‘Brahmanical’ or Vedic religion had no temples or images. Sacrifices were performed on open altars and offerings were made to the gods with meat, fat, milk, butter and soma. This rite of homa (havan) was basic to Vedic religion. Gradually, however, the religion assimilated the practices and ways of other cults and earlier inhabitants.
Thus the ‘puja’ form of worship to an image or symbol of divinity was incorporated. A synthesis of Aryan and non-Aryan ideas took place and this power of assimilation is partly the reason for the ability of Hinduism to survive over time even without it being of a ‘missionary’ nature.
While Hinduism has often been described as a way of life, allowing plenty of flexibility in forms of worship and gods, the fundamental goal of Hindus is to achieve moksha, or liberation from the cycle of existence.
Until the attainment of moksha, human beings are subject to rebirth. The Hindu view of life does not preclude worldly pleasure: Kama (pleasure, including sexual pleasure) and artha (prosperity) are recognised as ends in life, though they are to be subordinated to the higher end of dharma (righteousness).
According to the Upanishads there are four stages in life through which the seeker after truth has to pass. He has to live first as a brahmachari (celibate student), then as a grihasta (a householder), as a vanaprasta (a hermit) and lastly as a sanyasi (an ascetic).
The pilgrim who sets out on the journey of life has to acquire, one by one, all values—knowledge, wealth, love, service—but he should regard them as intermediate stages and pass through each with his mind fixed on the final destination and his feet moving towards it. This destination is the realisation of unity or moksha (salvation).
Karma is the fundamental law of the moral world. Every act, good or bad, performed by humans has an impact on their personality. Conscious acts gradually grow into unconscious habits and become part of their character. Character, in its turn, determines action followed by its” consequences.
This is a vicious circle in which our mind is involved. The only way to get out of it is to elevate the individual mind through renunciation, self-sacrifice and the service of our fellow-beings into the universal mind. At this level, humans become free from the compelling force of karma.
The greatest heritage of the Vedic Hindu age is the idea of unitism in the Upanishads—generally known as the philosophy of the Vedanta. Moreover, the concepts of the four stages of life, and those of karma and sansar, have not only become an important part of the religious faith of the Hindus but have pervaded Indian poetry and literature.
The challenge of Buddhism and Jainism to the Vedic Hindu religion was a stimulating and refreshing inspiration to the minds of Hindu thinkers who now left the beaten track and ventured on new paths of speculation and reasoning.
Philosophical thinkers made their own original speculation on metaphysical problems and founded their own systems known as the six systems of Hindu philosophy. Four of these, Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisheshika, were not influenced by the Vedas, while the Purva Mimamsa and the Uttara Mimamsa were based on the teachings of the Upanishads.
But the highest achievement of the Hindu mind in this age is another philosophy expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the epic Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita is a supplement to the Upanishads. It has tried to make a synthesis of three ways of attaining salvation— the way of knowledge through speculation and ascetic discipline, the way of faith and devotion, and the way of action.
The mainstay of popular Hinduism is the later Vedic literature. The Puranas, which some claim to have been written in the pre-Christian era, were in reality probably written between the third and the seventh centuries AD
The eighteen Puranas include, among others, the Matsya, Markandeya, Naradiya, Garuda, Kurma, Skanda, Vayu and Vishnu Puranas. The itihasa (epic) are two—Ramayana by Valmiki and Mahabharata by Veda Vyasa. These drew their inspiration from the pre- Aryan folklore. The Bhagavad Gita is considered a later interpolation in the Mahabharata.
The important factor that activated new movements was ‘bhakti’, the single souled devotion of the worshipper to a personal god, with the postulation of some moral link. This stimulus led to the evolution of different religious sects like Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, all of which came to be regarded as components of orthodox Brahmanism.
The worship of Yakshas and Nagas and other folk deities constituted the most important part of primitive religious beliefs, in which ‘bhakti’ had a very conspicuous part to play. Early literature as well as archaeology supply, us with ample evidence about the prevalence of this form of worship among the people.
The folk cults centred on the Nagas and the Yakshas appear to have survived in the orthodox brahmanical fold in the garb of the worship of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha, whose hybrid figure was an amalgam of the potbellied Yaksha and the elephantine Naga.
A sutra in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi refers to the horsewhippers of Vasudeva (Krishna), whom epic and Puranic traditions describe as a head of the Sattvata race. The Chandogya Upanishad speaks of Krishna, a pupil of sage Chora Angirasa, who was a sun worshipping priest.
The large number of people who worshipped Vasudeva exclusively as their personal god was at first known as Bhagvatas. The Vasudeva-Bhagvata cult was a steadily growing religious movement absorbing within its fold other Vedic and Brahmanic divinities like Vishnu and Narayana.
The history of the Vaishnava movement from the end of the Gupta period till the first decade of the 13th century AD is concerned mostly with South India. Vaishnava poet-saints know as ‘Alvars’ peached loving adoration for Vishnu and their songs were collectively named prabandhas.
The wave of Vishnu bhakti was supplemented on its doctrinal side by a class of Vaishnava teachers, known as the Sri Vaishnava Acharyas. The most famous of the 12 Alvars were Nammalvar and Tirumalisai Alvar, while those noted among the early Acharyas were Yamunacharya and Ramanuja. The Alvars represented the emotional side of South Indian Vaishnavism and the Acharyas, its intellectual aspect.
Unlike Vaishnavism, Shaivism had it origin in antiquity. Panini, in his sutra on the formation of words like Shaiva, referred to a group of Shiva-worshippers of his time (5th century BC). Patanjali in his commentary on one of the sutras of Panini describes a class of Shiva-worshippers named by him as Shiva-Bhagavatas. He also described briefly the forceful and outlandish ritualism of these worshippers of Shiva. In contrast to the extreme forms of Shaivism, moderate types of the creed appeared in northern and central India in the early medieval period.
The secluded valley of Kashmir became the venue of the Pratyabhijna and Spanda Shastra schools founded respectively by Vasugupta and his pupils Kallata and Somananda (9th century AD).
The Shaiva movement in the south flourished at the beginning through the activities of many of the 63 saints known in Tamil as Nayanars. Their appealing emotional songs in Tamil were called Tevaram stotras, also known as Dravida Veda and ceremonially sung in the local Shiva temples.
The Nayanars hailed from all castes. The Brahmin, Tirujnana Sambandhar, for instance, had the greatest respect for his much older contemporary, Tirunavukkarasu (Appar), another Shiva bhakta but belonging to a low caste.
The emotional Shiva bhakti successfully preached by the Nayanars and other Shaiva-saints was supplemented on the doctrinal side by a large number of Shaiva intellectuals, whose names were associated with several forms of Shaiva movements like Agamanta, Sudha and Vira-Shaivism.
Worship of the female principle (Shakti) and of Surya did not aUain the importance of the other two major brahmanical cults at any time during the period under review. As stated, the mother aspect of the divinity was venerated in the pre- Vedic times.
In the Vedic age, though gods played a more important part in the contemporary mythology, respect was also shown to the female principle as the divine mother, the goddess of abundance and personified energy (Shakti).
The author of the Periplus (c. first century AD) refers to a class of such worshippers of the goddess in her virgin aspect as Kanyakumari in his brief account of Comari, the southernmost port-town of India. But there is no doubt that most of the extant works connected with the Tantric form of Shakti worship were composed in later times.
Modern Hinduism, i.e., what we today regard as Hinduism, may be dated from the days of Shankara (eighth century AD) who expounded the theory of Advaita or monism. He reformed Hinduism of the degeneration that had set in and gave it a new philosophy. He restored Devi worship to its purity and is said to have put down the Kapalikas who indulged in human sacrifice to appease god Bhairava.
In the 12th century AD came Ramanuja with his Visishthadvaita or qualified monism. He laid emphasis on bhaktimarga rather than deliverance through Vedic rites.
Madhva in the thirteenth century propounded the dvaita philosophy or dualism. The renovation begun in the south by these reformers was carried forward by several saints and sages from other regions in what later came to be called the Bhakti Movement. The propounders of bhakti emphasised on the devotion to a personal god as a means of attaining moksha, as against the pathways of action (karma) or knowledge (gyan).
The influence of Islam led to the revival of anti-caste and monotheistic ideas. The famous propounders of the bhakti movement were Ramananda of Allahabad, Vallbhacharya of Varanasi, Namadeva of Maharashtra, Mirabai of Rajasthan, Eknath, Tukaram and Ramdas from Maharashtra, Surdas, and the blind poet from Agra, Lalla of Kashmir, Kabir of Varanasi and Chaitanya of Bengal.
Extreme dependence of people on the priestly class and of the priestly class on irrational practices made religion synonymous with bigotry and orthodoxy. It was an ironical aspect of Hinduism, that while it tolerated all external religions with a fair amount of indifference, it came to be intolerant within its own orbit towards anything which did not conform to established ritualistic details.
It was in this context that social evils like infanticide, child marriage, burning of widows, caste rigidity and untouchability and seclusion of women crept into the Hindu society. And with the advent of Western liberal ideas in the nineteenth century, there followed phase after phase of various reform movements in India to renovate the society and rationalise religious thought.