Visual History of the World

(CONTENTS)
 

 


HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION & CULTURE

From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Photography
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
Prehistory
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists

 




Key Ideas:

The Religions of India, China, and Japan




 


Hinduism

Buddhism

Daoism

Confucianism

Shinto

 

 




A 13th century Cambodian statue of Vishnu
 

 


 



Key Ideas:

The Religions of India, China, and Japan


 

 


All present-day world religions originated in Asia. The three major monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originated in the Near East, and Hinduism and Buddhism, both polytheistic religions, find their roots in India. While  Buddhism has also become popular in the Western world today, religions such as Hinduism in India, Confucianism in China, and Shinto in Japan are closely tied to, and have also significantly influenced, the cultures and social structures of their respective countries and regions.
 


1 Shakyamuni Buddha with Confucius and Lao-tzu,
the three teachers



Hinduism


 

Hinduism is a religion of India that has diversified into many forms. It resulted from the merging of the Vcdic religion, which was introduced by the Aryans, and the religion of the native peoples, but had no known founder. It is difficult to comprehend for members of other religions as it has neither a standardized canon of scripture nor a fixed pantheon of gods, nor an organizational structure that can be compared to that of a church, for instance. Hinduism has no uniform philosophy, and the forms of belief and cult are extremely multifarious.

The polytheistic belief in gods such as 3 Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti is only one of its manifestations. Coexistent with these are, for example, monotheistic tendencies alongside philosophical speculations that completely reject a personified cosmic guiding force. The one conviction common to all variations is the belief in an all-encompassing world order (dharma) that structures human life and its environment, which Buddhism also adopted. Another characteristic is the belief in the eternal cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation, based on the assumption that the conduct and deeds in each life influence the form of existence in the next. Hinduism developed complicated sacrificial rituals, and the priest caste of Brahmans' exact knowledge thereof ensured their considerable influence in Indian society.

The caste system is one of the pillars of 4 Hindu society. It possibly originated from the partition of immigrants from the indigenous population. The individual castes differentiate themselves through specific customs and responsibilities in society. Although social differences between the castes were officially abolished with India's independence in 1947, in effect they continue to exist. Today, Hinduism once again plays a significant role in the national identity of India.
 


3 Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, and another deity with the goddess Devi


4 Hindus doing their ritual washings in the Ganges River in Benares (Varanasi), India


 

 


Temple carving at Hoysaleswara temple representing the Trimurti: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.




Krishna (left), the eighth incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu or svayam bhagavan,
with his consort Radha, worshiped as Radha Krishna across
 a number of traditions - traditional painting from the 1700s.




Akshardham Temple in Delhi.




A view of Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu





A large Ganesha murti from a Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai






Four-armed Vishnu, Pandya Dynasty, 8-9th century CE.






Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, depicts his Vishvarupa (Universal Form)
to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.





Vishnu with Lakshmi (Lakshmi-Narayana) at Halebidu.





Vishnu and Lakshmi riding on Vishnu's Vahana Garuda
Painting in LACMA from Rajasthan, Bundi, c.1730






Vishnu and Lakshmi on Shesha Naga, ca 1870






Vishnu sahasranama manuscript, ca1690






A statue of Shiva near Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi





Three-headed Shiva, Gandhara, 2nd century CE





Shiva with Parvati.
Shiva is depicted three-eyed, with crescent moon on his head,
the Ganga flowing through his matted hair, wearing ornaments of serpents and a skull necklace,
covered in ashes and Trisula and Damaru are seen in the background.





Shiva Bearing the Descent of the Ganges River as Parvati and Bhagiratha,
and the bull Nandi look, folio from a Hindi manuscript by the saint Narayan, circa 1740





An illustration of the family of Shiva, consisting of Shiva,
Parvati, Ganesha and Skanda (Kartikeya)






Bronze Chola Statue depicting Shiva dancing as Nataraja.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.






Shiva in the form of Ardhanarisvara.
Chola bronze from the 11th century.





Vishnu (left half - blue) and Shiva (right half - white)






 Lakshmi
 

 



Hinduism

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)
 



Introduction » The term Hinduism
The English term Hinduism was coined by British writers in the first decades of the 19th century and became familiar as a designator of religious ideas and practices distinctive to India with the publication of books such as Hinduism (1877) by Sir Monier Monier-Williams, the notable Oxford scholar and author of an influential Sanskrit dictionary. Initially it was an outsiders’ term, building on centuries-old usages of the word Hindu. Early travelers to the Indus valley, beginning with the Greeks and Persians, spoke of its inhabitants as “Hindu” (Greek: ‘indoi), and, in the 16th century, residents of India themselves began very slowly to employ the term to distinguish themselves from the Turks. Gradually the distinction became primarily religious rather than ethnic, geographic, or cultural.

Since the late 19th century, Hindus have reacted to the term Hinduism in several ways. Some have rejected it in favour of indigenous formulations. Those preferring Veda or Vedic religion want to embrace an ancient textual core and the tradition of Brahman learning that preserved and interpreted it. Those preferring sanatana dharma (“eternal law”) emphasize a broader tradition of belief and practice (such as worship through images, dietary codes, and the veneration of the cow) that is not necessarily mediated by Brahmans (members of the highest social class who are usually priests). Still others, perhaps the majority, have simply accepted the term Hinduism or its analogues, especially hindu dharma (Hindu moral and religious law), in various Indic languages.

Since the early 20th century, textbooks on Hinduism have been written by Hindus themselves, often under the rubric of sanatana dharma. These efforts at self-explanation have been intended to set Hinduism on a par with other religious traditions and to teach it systematically to Hindu youths. They add a new layer to an elaborate tradition of explaining practice and doctrine that dates to the 1st millennium bce. The roots of this tradition can be traced back much farther—textually, to the schools of commentary and debate preserved in epic and Vedic writings from the 2nd millennium bce; and visually, through artistic representations of yakshas (luminous spirits associated with specific locales and natural phenomena) and nagas (cobralike divinities), which were worshipped from about 400 bce. The roots of the tradition are also sometimes traced back to the female terra-cotta figurines found ubiquitously in excavations of sites associated with the Indus valley civilization (3rd–2nd millennium bce) and sometimes interpreted as goddesses. In recognition of this ancient tradition of self-explanation, present-day Hindus often assert that theirs is the world’s oldest religion.


Introduction » General nature of Hinduism
More strikingly than any other major religious community, Hindus accept—and indeed celebrate—the organic, multileveled, and sometimes internally inconsistent nature of their tradition. This expansiveness is made possible by the widely shared Hindu view that truth or reality cannot be encapsulated in any creedal formulation, a perspective expressed in the Hindu prayer “May good thoughts come to us from all sides.” Thus, Hinduism maintains that truth must be sought in multiple sources, not dogmatically proclaimed.

Anyone’s view of the truth—even that of a guru regarded as possessing superior authority—is fundamentally conditioned by the specifics of time, age, gender, state of consciousness, social and geographic location, and stage of attainment. These multiple perspectives enhance a broad view of religious truth rather than diminish it; hence, there is a strong tendency for contemporary Hindus to affirm that tolerance is the foremost religious virtue. On the other hand, even cosmopolitan Hindus living in a global environment recognize and value the fact that their religion has developed in the specific context of the Indian subcontinent. Such a tension between universalist and particularist impulses has long animated the Hindu tradition. When Hindus speak of their religious identity as sanatana dharma, a formulation made popular late in the 19th century, they emphasize its continuous, seemingly eternal (sanatana) existence and the fact that it describes a web of customs, obligations, traditions, and ideals (dharma) that far exceeds the Western tendency to think of religion primarily as a system of beliefs. A common way in which English-speaking Hindus often distance themselves from that frame of mind is to insist that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life.


Introduction » The five tensile strands
Across the sweep of Indian religious history, at least five elements have given shape to the Hindu religious tradition: doctrine, practice, society, story, and devotion. These five elements, to adopt a typical Hindu metaphor, are understood as relating to one another as strands in an elaborate braid. Moreover, each strand develops out of a history of conversation, elaboration, and challenge. Hence, in looking for what makes the tradition cohere, it is sometimes better to locate central points of tension than to expect clear agreements on Hindu thought and practice.


Introduction » The five tensile strands » Doctrine
The first of the five strands of Hinduism is doctrine, as expressed in a vast textual tradition anchored to the Veda (“Knowledge”), the oldest core of Hindu religious utterance, and organized through the centuries primarily by members of the learned Brahman class. Here several characteristic tensions appear. One concerns the status of the One in relation to the Many—issues of polytheism, monotheism, and monism. Another tension concerns the disparity between the world-preserving ideal of dharma and that of moksha (release from an inherently flawed world). A third tension exists between individual destiny, as shaped by karma (the influence of one’s actions on one’s present and future lives), and the individual’s deep bonds to family, society, and the divinities associated with these concepts.


Introduction » The five tensile strands » Practice
The second strand in the fabric of Hinduism is practice. Many Hindus, in fact, would place this first. Despite India’s enormous diversity, a common grammar of ritual behaviour connects various places, strata, and periods of Hindu life. While it is true that various elements of Vedic ritual survive in modern practice and thereby serve a unifying function, much more influential commonalities appear in the worship of icons or images (pratima, murti, or arca). Broadly, this is called puja (“honouring [the deity]”). It echoes conventions of hospitality that might be performed for an honoured guest, especially the giving and sharing of food. Such food is called prasada (Hindi, prasad: “grace”), reflecting the recognition that when human beings make offerings to deities, the initiative is not really theirs. They are actually responding to the generosity that bore them into a world fecund with life and possibility. The divine personality installed as a home or temple image receives prasada, tasting it (Hindus differ as to whether this is a real or symbolic act, gross or subtle) and offering the remains to worshipers. Consuming these leftovers, worshipers accept their status as beings inferior to and dependent upon the divine. An element of tension arises because the logic of puja and prasada seems to accord all humans an equal status with respect to God, yet exclusionary rules have often been sanctified rather than challenged by prasada-based ritual. Specifically, lower-caste people and those perceived as outsiders or carriers of pollution have historically been forbidden to enter certain Hindu temples, a practice that continues even today.


Introduction » The five tensile strands » Society
The third strand that has served to organize Hindu life is society. Early visitors to India from Greece and China and, later, others such as the Persian scholar and scientist al-Bīrūnī, who traveled to India in the early 11th century, were struck by the highly stratified (if locally variant) social structure that has come to be called familiarly the caste system. While it is true that there is a vast disparity between the ancient vision of society as divided into four ideal classes (varnas) and the contemporary reality of thousands of endogamous birth-groups (jatis, literally “births”), few would deny that Indian society is notably plural and hierarchical. This fact has much to do with an understanding of truth or reality as being similarly plural and multilayered—though it is not clear whether the influence has proceeded chiefly from religious doctrine to society or vice versa. Seeking its own answer to this conundrum, a well-known Vedic hymn (Rigveda 10.90) describes how, at the beginning of time, a primordial person underwent a process of sacrifice that produced a four-part cosmos and its human counterpart, a four-part social order comprising Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (nobles), Vaishyas (commoners), and Sudras (servants).

The social domain, like the realms of religious practice and doctrine, is marked by a characteristic tension. There is the view that each person or group approaches truth in a way that is necessarily distinct, reflecting its own perspective. Only by allowing each to speak and act in such terms can a society constitute itself as a proper representation of truth or reality. Yet this context-sensitive habit of thought can too easily be used to legitimate social systems based on privilege and prejudice. If it is believed that no standards apply universally, one group can too easily justify its dominance over another. Historically, therefore, certain Hindus, while espousing tolerance at the level of doctrine, have practiced intolerance—i.e., caste discrimination—in the social realm. Responding to such oppression, especially when justified by allegedly Hindu norms, lower-caste groups have sometimes insisted, “We are not Hindus!” Yet their own communities may enact similar inequities, and their religious practices and beliefs often continue to tie them to the greater Hindu fold.


Introduction » The five tensile strands » Story
Another dimension drawing Hindus into a single community of discourse is narrative. For at least two millennia, people in almost all corners of India—and now well beyond—have responded to stories of divine play and of interactions between gods and humans. These stories concern major figures in the Hindu pantheon: Krishna and his lover Radha, Rama and his wife Sita and brother Lakamana, Shiva and his consort Parvati (or, in a different birth, Sati), and the Great Goddess Durga, or Devi as a slayer of the buffalo demon Mahisasura. Often such narratives illustrate the interpenetration of the divine and human spheres, with deities such as Krishna and Rama entering entirely into the human drama. Many tales focus in different degrees on genealogies of human experience, forms of love, and the struggle between order and chaos or between duty and play. In generating, performing, and listening to these stories, Hindus have often experienced themselves as members of a single imagined family.

Yet, simultaneously, these narratives serve to articulate tensions. Thus, the Ramayana, traditionally a testament of Rama’s righteous victories, is sometimes told by women performers as the story of Sita’s travails at Rama’s hands. South Indian performances may emphasize the virtues of Rama’s enemy Ravana as equal to or even surpassing those of Rama himself. And in North India lower-caste musicians present religious epics such as Alha or Dhola in terms that reflect their own experience of the world rather than the upper-caste milieu of the great Sanskrit religious epic the Mahabharata, which these epics nonetheless echo. To the broadly known pan-Hindu, male-centred narrative traditions, these variants provide both resonance and challenge.


Introduction » The five tensile strands » Devotion
There is a fifth strand that contributes to the unity of Hindu experience through time: bhakti (“sharing” or “devotion”), a broad tradition of a loving God that is especially associated with the lives and words of vernacular poet-saints throughout India. Devotional poems attributed to these inspired figures, who represent both genders and all social classes, have elaborated a store of images and moods to which access can be had in a score of languages; bhakti verse first appeared in Tamil in South India and moved northward into other regions with different languages. Individual poems are sometimes strikingly similar from one language or century to another, without there being any trace of mediation through the pan-Indian, distinctly upper-caste language Sanskrit. Often, individual motifs in the lives of bhakti poet-saints also bear strong family resemblances. With its central affirmation that religious enthusiasm is more fundamental than rigidities of practice or doctrine, bhakti provides a common challenge to other aspects of Hindu life. At the same time, it contributes to a common Hindu heritage—even a common heritage of protest. Yet certain expressions of bhakti are far more confrontational than others in their criticism of caste, image worship, and the performance of vows, pilgrimages, and acts of self-mortification.


Introduction » Central conceptions
In the following sections, various aspects of this complex whole will be addressed, relying primarily on a historical perspective of the development of the Hindu tradition. This approach has its costs, for it may seem to give priority to aspects of the tradition that appear in its earliest extant texts. These texts owe their preservation mainly to the labours of upper-caste men, especially Brahmans, and often reveal far too little about the perspectives of others. They should be read, therefore, both with and against the grain, with due attention paid to silences and absent rebuttals on behalf of women, regional communities, and people of low status—all of whom nowadays call themselves Hindus or identify with groups that can sensibly be placed within the broad Hindu span.


Introduction » Central conceptions » Veda, Brahmans, and issues of religious authority
For members of the upper castes, a principal characteristic of Hinduism has traditionally been a recognition of the Veda, the most ancient body of Indian religious literature, as an absolute authority revealing fundamental and unassailable truth. The Veda is also regarded as the basis of all the later shastra texts, which stressed the religious merits of the Brahmans—including, for example, the medical corpus known as the Ayur Veda. Parts of the Veda are quoted in essential Hindu rituals (such as the wedding ceremony), and it is the source of many enduring patterns of Hindu thought, yet its contents are practically unknown to most Hindus. Still, most Hindus venerate it from a distance, and groups who reject its authority outright (such as Buddhists and Jains) are regarded by Hindus as deviating from their common tradition.

Another characteristic of much Hindu thought is its special regard for Brahmans as a priestly class possessing spiritual supremacy by birth. As special manifestations of religious power and as bearers and teachers of the Veda, Brahmans have often been thought to represent an ideal of ritual purity and social prestige. Yet this has also been challenged, either by competing claims to religious authority—especially from kings and other rulers—or by the view that Brahmanhood is a status attained by depth of learning, not birth. Evidence of both these challenges can be found in Vedic literature itself, especially the Upanishads (speculative religious texts that provide commentary on the Vedas), and bhakti literature is full of vignettes in which the small-mindedness of Brahmans is contrasted with true depth of religious experience, as exemplified by poet-saints such as Kabir and Ravidas.


Introduction » Central conceptions » Doctrine of atman-brahman
Most Hindus believe in brahman, an uncreated, eternal, infinite, transcendent, and all-embracing principle. Brahman contains in itself both being and nonbeing, and it is the sole reality—the ultimate cause, foundation, source, and goal of all existence. As the All, brahman either causes the universe and all beings to emanate from itself, transforms itself into the universe, or assumes the appearance of the universe. Brahman is in all things and is the self (atman) of all living beings. Brahman is the creator, preserver, or transformer and reabsorber of everything. Hindus differ, however, as to whether this ultimate reality is best conceived as lacking attributes and qualities—the impersonal brahman—or as a personal God, especially Vishnu, Shiva, or Shakti (these being the preferences of adherents called Vaishnavas, Shaivas, and Shaktas, respectively). Belief in the importance of the search for a One that is the All has been a characteristic feature of India’s spiritual life for more than 3,000 years.


Introduction » Central conceptions » Karma, samsara, and moksha
Hindus generally accept the doctrine of transmigration and rebirth and the complementary belief in karma. The whole process of rebirth, called samsara, is cyclic, with no clear beginning or end, and encompasses lives of perpetual, serial attachments. Actions generated by desire and appetite bind one’s spirit (jiva) to an endless series of births and deaths. Desire motivates any social interaction (particularly when involving sex or food), resulting in the mutual exchange of good and bad karma. In one prevalent view, the very meaning of salvation is emancipation (moksha) from this morass, an escape from the impermanence that is an inherent feature of mundane existence. In this view the only goal is the one permanent and eternal principle: the One, God, brahman, which is totally opposite to phenomenal existence. People who have not fully realized that their being is identical with brahman are thus seen as deluded. Fortunately, the very structure of human experience teaches the ultimate identity between brahman and atman. One may learn this lesson by different means: by realizing one’s essential sameness with all living beings, by responding in love to a personal expression of the divine, or by coming to appreciate that the competing attentions and moods of one’s waking consciousness are grounded in a transcendental unity—one has a taste of this unity in the daily experience of deep, dreamless sleep.


Introduction » Central conceptions » Dharma and the three paths
Hindus disagree about the best way (marga) to attain such release. The Bhagavadgita (“Song of the Lord”; c. 100 ce), an extremely influential Hindu text, presents three paths to salvation: the karma-marga (“path of duties”), the disinterested discharge of ritual and social obligations; the jnana-marga (“path of knowledge”), the use of meditative concentration preceded by long and systematic ethical and contemplative training (Yoga) to gain a supraintellectual insight into one’s identity with brahman; and the bhakti-marga (“path of devotion”), love for a personal God. These ways are regarded as suited to various types of people, but they are interactive and potentially available to all.

Although the pursuit of moksha is institutionalized in Hindu life through ascetic practice and the ideal of withdrawing from the world at the conclusion of one’s life, many Hindus ignore such practices. The Bhagavadgita states that because action is inescapable, the three paths are better thought of as simultaneously achieving the goals of world maintenance (dharma) and world release (moksha). Through the suspension of desire and ambition and through a taste for the fruits (phala) of one’s actions, one is enabled to float free of life while engaging it fully. This matches the actual goals of most Hindus, which include executing properly one’s social and ritual duties; supporting one’s caste, family, and profession; and working to achieve a broader stability in the cosmos, nature, and society. The designation of Hinduism as sanatana dharma emphasizes this goal of maintaining personal and universal equilibrium, while at the same time calling attention to the important role played by the performance of traditional religious practices in achieving that goal. Because no one person can occupy all the social, occupational, and age-defined roles that are requisite to maintaining the health of the life-organism as a whole, universal maxims (e.g., ahimsa, the desire not to harm) are qualified by the more-particular dharmas that are appropriate to each of the four major varnas: Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), Vaishyas (the common people), and Sudras (servants). These four categories are superseded by the more practically applicable dharmas appropriate to each of the thousands of particular castes (jatis). And these, in turn, are crosscut by the obligations appropriate to one’s gender and stage of life (ashrama). In principle then, Hindu ethics is exquisitely context-sensitive, and Hindus expect and celebrate a wide variety of individual behaviours.


Introduction » Central conceptions » Ashramas: the four stages of life
European and American scholars have often overemphasized the so-called “life-negating” aspects of Hinduism—the rigorous disciplines of Yoga, for example. The polarity of asceticism and sensuality, which assumes the form of a conflict between the aspiration for liberation and the heartfelt desire to have descendants and continue earthly life, manifests itself in Hindu social life as the tension between the different goals and stages of life. For many centuries the relative value of an active life and the performance of meritorious works (pravritti), as opposed to the renunciation of all worldly interests and activity (nivriti), has been a much-debated issue. While philosophical works such as the Upanishads emphasized renunciation, the dharma texts argued that the householder who maintains his sacred fire, begets children, and performs his ritual duties well also earns religious merit. Nearly 2,000 years ago these dharma texts elaborated the social doctrine of the four ashramas (“abodes”). This concept was an attempt to harmonize the conflicting tendencies of Hinduism into one system. It held that a male member of any of the three higher classes should first become a chaste student (brahmacharin); then become a married householder (grihastha), discharging his debts to his ancestors by begetting sons and to the gods by sacrificing; then retire (as a vanaprastha), with or without his wife, to the forest to devote himself to spiritual contemplation; and finally, but not mandatorily, become a homeless wandering ascetic (sannyasin). The situation of the forest dweller was always a delicate compromise that remained problematic on the mythological level and was often omitted or rejected in practical life.

Although the householder was often extolled—some authorities, regarding studentship a mere preparation for this ashrama, went so far as to brand all other stages inferior—there were always people who became wandering ascetics immediately after studentship. Theorists were inclined to reconcile the divergent views and practices by allowing the ascetic way of life to those who were entirely free from worldly desire (owing to the effects of restrained conduct in former lives), even if they had not gone through the traditional prior stages.

The texts describing such life stages were written by men for men; they paid scant attention to stages appropriate for women. The Manu-smriti (200 bce–300 ce; Laws of Manu), for example, was content to regard marriage as the female equivalent of initiation into the life of a student, thereby effectively denying the student stage of life to girls. Furthermore, in the householder stage, a woman’s purpose was summarized under the heading of service to her husband. What we know of actual practice, however, challenges the idea that these patriarchal norms were ever perfectly enacted or that women entirely accepted the values they presupposed. While some women became ascetics, many more focused their religious lives on realizing a state of blessedness that was understood to be at once this-worldly and expressive of a larger cosmic well-being. Women have often directed the cultivation of the auspicious life-giving force (shakti) they possess to the benefit of their husbands and families, but, as an ideal, this force has independent status.


The history of Hinduism

The history of Hinduism in India can be traced to about 1500 bce. Evidence of Hinduism’s early antecedents is derived from archaeology, comparative philology, and comparative religion.


The history of Hinduism » Sources of Hinduism » Indo-European sources
The earliest literary source for the history of Hinduism is the Rigveda, consisting of hymns that were composed chiefly during the last two or three centuries of the 2nd millennium bce. The religious life reflected in this text is not that of Hinduism but of an earlier sacrificial religious system, generally known as Brahmanism or Vedism, which developed in India among Indo-European-speaking peoples. This branch of a related group of nomadic and seminomadic tribal peoples, originally inhabiting the steppe country of southern Russia and Central Asia, brought with them the horse and chariot and the Sanskrit language. Other branches of these peoples penetrated into Europe, bringing with them the Indo-European languages that developed into the chief language groups now spoken there.

Before they entered the Indian subcontinent (c. 1500 bce), the Vedic people were in close contact with the ancestors of the Iranians, as evidenced by similarities between Sanskrit and the earliest surviving Iranian languages. Thus, the religion of the Rigveda contains elements from three evolutionary strata: an early element common to most of the Indo-European tribes, a later element held in common with the early Iranians, and an element acquired in the Indian subcontinent itself after the main Vedic migrations. Hinduism arose from the continued accretion of further elements derived from the original non-Vedic inhabitants, from outside sources, and from the geniuses of individual reformers in all periods.

Present-day Hinduism contains few direct survivals from its Indo-European heritage. Some of the elements of the Hindu wedding ceremony, notably the circumambulation of the sacred fire and the cult of the domestic fire itself, are rooted in the remote Indo-European past. The same is probably true of some aspects of the ancestor cult. The Rigveda contains many other Indo-European elements, such as ritual sacrifices and the worship of male sky gods, including the old sky god Dyaus, whose name is cognate with those of Zeus of ancient Greece and Jupiter of Rome (“Father Jove”). The Vedic heaven, the “world of the fathers,” resembles the Germanic Valhalla and seems also to be an Indo-European inheritance.

The history of Hinduism » Sources of Hinduism » Indo-European sources » Indo-Iranian sources
The Indo-Iranian element in later Hinduism is chiefly found in the ceremony of initiation, or “second birth” (upanayana), a rite also found in Zoroastrianism. Performed by boys of the three “twice-born” upper classes, it involves the tying of a sacred cord. Another example of Indo-Iranian influence is the Vedic god Varuna. Although now an unimportant sea god, Varuna, as portrayed in the Rigveda, possesses many features of the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazdā (“Wise Lord”). Indo-Iranian influence can also be seen in the hallucinogenic sacred drink soma, which corresponds to the sacred haoma of Zoroastrianism.

The history of Hinduism » Sources of Hinduism » Indo-European sources » Indigenous sources
Even in the earlier parts of the Rigveda, however, the religion displays numerous specifically Indian features. Some of the chief gods, for example, have no clear Indo-European or Indo-Iranian counterparts. Although some of the new features may have evolved entirely within the Vedic framework, it is generally presumed that many of them stem from the influence of the indigenous inhabitants. The Vedic people may never have been in direct contact with the civilization of the Indus valley in its prime, but the religion of the valley’s culture undoubtedly influenced them.


The history of Hinduism » Sources of Hinduism » Non-Indo-European sources » The Dravidian hypothesis
Features of Hinduism that cannot be traced to the Rigveda are sometimes ascribed to the influence of the original inhabitants, who are often vaguely and incorrectly referred to as “Dravidians,” a term that refers to a family of languages and not an ethnic group. Some scholars have argued that the ruling classes of the Harappa culture (c. 2500–1700 bce), or the Indus civilization, spoke a Dravidian language and have tentatively identified their script with that of a Dravidian language. But there is little supporting evidence for this claim, and the presence of Dravidian speakers throughout the whole subcontinent at any time in history is not attested. Thus, although many aspects of Hinduism are traceable to non-Vedic influence, not all of these aspects are borrowed from “Dravidians.”

The history of Hinduism » Sources of Hinduism » Non-Indo-European sources » Other sources
The Central Asian nomads who entered India in the two centuries before and after the beginning of the Common Era might have influenced the growth of devotional Hinduism out of Vedic religion. The Classical Western world directly affected Hindu religious art, and several features of Hinduism can be traced to Zoroastrianism. In more recent centuries, the influence of Islam and Christianity on Hinduism can be seen.

The history of Hinduism » Sources of Hinduism » Non-Indo-European sources » The process of “Sanskritization”
The development of Hinduism can be interpreted as a constant interaction between the religion of the upper social groups, represented by the Brahmans, and the religion of other groups. From the time of the Vedas (c. 1500 bce) the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent tended to adapt their religious and social life to Brahmanic norms. This development resulted from the desire of lower-class groups to rise on the social ladder by adopting the ways and beliefs of the higher castes. The process, sometimes called “Sanskritization,” began in Vedic times, when non-Vedic chieftains accepted the ministrations of Brahmans and thus achieved social status for themselves and their subjects. It was probably the principal method by which Hinduism spread through the subcontinent and into Southeast Asia. Sanskritization still continues in the form of the conversion of tribal groups, and it is reflected by the persistent tendency of low-caste Hindus to try to raise their status by adopting high-caste customs, such as wearing the sacred cord and becoming vegetarians, even though the castes have been officially abolished.

If Sanskritization has been the main means of spreading Hinduism throughout the subcontinent, the converse process, which has no convenient label, has been one of the means whereby Hinduism has changed and developed over the centuries. The Vedic people lived side by side with the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent. The phallic emblem of the god Shiva arose from a combination of the phallic aspects of the Vedic god Indra and a non-Vedic icon of early popular fertility cults. Many features of Hindu mythology and several of the lesser gods—such as Ganesha, an elephant-headed god, and Hanuman, the monkey god—were incorporated into Hinduism and assimilated into the appropriate Vedic gods by this means. Similarly, the worship of many goddesses who are now regarded as the consorts of the great male Hindu gods, as well as the worship of individual unmarried goddesses, may have originally incorporated the worship of non-Vedic local goddesses. Unorthodox circles on the fringes of Brahmanic culture (probably in southern India) were one of the important sources of the system of ecstatic devotional religion known as bhakti. Thus, the history of Hinduism can be interpreted as the imposition of orthoprax custom upon wider and wider ranges of people and, complementarily, as the survival of features of non-Vedic religions that gained strength steadily until they were adapted by the Brahmans.


The history of Hinduism » The prehistoric period (3rd and 2nd millennia bce) » Indigenous prehistoric religion
The prehistoric culture of the Indus valley arose in the latter centuries of the 3rd millennium bce from the metal-using village cultures of the region. There is considerable evidence of the material life of the Indus people, but its interpretation remains a matter of speculation until their writing is deciphered. Enough evidence exists, however, to show that several features of later Hinduism may have had prehistoric origins.

In most of the village cultures, small terra-cotta figurines of women, found in large quantities, have been interpreted as icons of a fertility deity whose cult was widespread in the Mediterranean area and in western Asia from Neolithic times (c. 5000 bce) onward. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the goddess was apparently associated with the bull—a feature also found in the ancient religions farther west.


The history of Hinduism » The prehistoric period (3rd and 2nd millennia bce) » Religion in the Indus valley civilization
The Harappa culture, located in what is now Pakistan, has produced much evidence of what may have been a cult of a goddess and a bull. Figurines of both occur, female figures being more common, while the bull appears more frequently on the many steatite seals. A horned figure, possibly with three faces, occurs on a few seals, and on one seal he is surrounded by animals. A few male figurines, one apparently in a dancing posture, may represent deities. No building has been discovered at any Harappan site that can be positively identified as a temple, but the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro may have been used for ritual purposes, as were the ghats (bathing steps on riverbanks) attached to later Hindu temples. The presence of bathrooms in most of the houses and the remarkable system of covered drains indicate a strong concern for cleanliness that may have been related to concepts of ritual purity but perhaps merely to ideas of hygiene.

Many seals show what may be religious and legendary themes that cannot be interpreted with certainty, such as seals depicting trees next to figures who may be divinities believed to reside in them. The bull is often depicted standing before a sort of altar, and the horned figure has been interpreted overconfidently as a prototype of the Hindu god Shiva. Small conical objects have been interpreted as phallic emblems like those that are also connected with Shiva in later Hinduism, though they may have been pieces used in board games. Other interpretations of the remains of the Harappa culture are even more speculative and, if accepted, would indicate that many features of later Hinduism were already in existence 4,000 years ago. The fact that Harappans buried their dead with grave deposits, a practice not followed by the later Hindus, suggests that they had some belief in an afterlife.


The history of Hinduism » The prehistoric period (3rd and 2nd millennia bce) » Survival of archaic religious practices
Some elements of the religious life of current and past folk religions—notably sacred animals, sacred trees (especially the pipal, Ficus religiosa), and the use of small figurines for cult purposes—are found in all parts of India and may have been borrowed from pre-Vedic civilizations. On the other hand, these things are also commonly encountered outside India, and therefore they may have originated independently in Hinduism as well.


The history of Hinduism » The Vedic period (2nd millennium–7th century bce)
The people of the early Vedic period left few material remains, but they did leave a very important literary record called the Rigveda. Its 1,028 hymns are distributed throughout 10 books, of which the first and the last are the most recent. A hymn usually consists of three sections: an exhortation; a main part comprising praise of the deity, prayers, and petition, with frequent references to the deity’s mythology; and a specific request.

The Rigveda is not a unitary work, and its composition may have taken several centuries. In its form at the time of its final edition, it reflected a well-developed religious system. The date commonly given for the final recension of the Rigveda is 1200 bce. During the next two or three centuries it was supplemented by three other Vedas and still later by Vedic texts called the Brahmanas and the Upanishads (see below Vedas).


The history of Hinduism » Challenges to Brahmanism (6th–2nd century bce)
Indian religious life underwent great changes during the period 550–450 bce. This century was marked by the rise of breakaway sects of ascetics who rejected traditional religion, denying the authority of the Vedas and of the Brahmans and following teachers who claimed to have discovered the secret of obtaining release from transmigration. By far the most important of these figures were Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, and Vardhamana, called Mahavira (“Great Hero”), the founder of Jainism. There were many other heterodox teachers who organized bands of ascetic followers, and each group adopted a specific code of conduct. They gained considerable support from ruling families and merchants. The latter were growing in wealth and influence, and many of them were searching for alternative forms of religious activity that would give them a more significant role than did orthodox Brahmanism or that would be less expensive to support.

The scriptures of the new religious movements throw some light on the popular religious life of the period. The god Prajapati was widely believed to be the highest god and the creator of the universe; Indra, known chiefly as Shakra (“The Mighty One”), was second to him in importance. The Brahmans were very influential, but there was opposition to their large-scale animal sacrifices—on both philosophical and economic grounds—and to their pretensions to superiority by virtue of their birth. The doctrine of transmigration was by then generally accepted, though a group of outright materialists—the Carvakas, or Lokayatas—denied the survival of the soul after death. The ancestor cult, part of the Indo-European heritage, was retained almost universally, at least by the higher castes. Popular religious life largely centred around the worship of local fertility divinities (yakshas), cobra spirits (nagas), and other minor spirits in sacred places such as groves. Although these sacred places were the main centres of popular religious life, there is no evidence of any buildings or images associated with them, and it appears that neither temples nor large icons existed at the time.

About 500 bce asceticism became widespread, and increasing numbers of intelligent young men “gave up the world” to search for release from transmigration by achieving a state of psychic security. The orthodox Brahmanical teachers reacted to these tendencies by devising the doctrine of the four ashramas, which divided the life of the twice-born after initiation into four stages: the brahmacharin (celibate religious student); the grihastha (married householder); the vanaprastha (forest dweller); and the sannyasin (wandering ascetic). This attempt to keep asceticism in check by confining it to men of late middle age was not wholly successful. Thereafter Hindu social theory centred on the concept of varnashrama dharma, or the duties of the four classes (varnas) and the four ashramas, which constituted the ideal that Hindus were encouraged to follow.

The first great empire of India, the Mauryan empire, arose in the 3rd century bce. Its early rulers were heterodox; Ashoka (reigned c. 265–238 bce), the third and most famous of the Mauryan emperors, was a professed Buddhist. Although there is no doubt that Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism did much to spread that religion, his inscriptions recognize the Brahmans as worthy of respect. Sentiments in favour of nonviolence (ahimsa) and vegetarianism, much encouraged by the heterodox sects, spread during the Mauryan period and were greatly encouraged by Ashoka. A Brahmanic revival appears to have occurred with the fall of the Mauryas. The orthodox religion itself, however, was undergoing change at this time, as theistic tendencies developed around the gods Vishnu and Shiva.

Inscriptions, iconographic evidence, and literary references reveal the emergence of devotional theism in the 2nd century bce. Several brief votive inscriptions refer to the god Vasudeva, who by this time was widely worshipped in western India. At the end of the 2nd century, Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador of King Antialcidas of Taxila (in Pakistan), erected a large column in honour of Vasudeva at Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh and recorded that he was a Bhagavata, a term used specifically for the devotees of Vishnu. The identification of Vasudeva with the old Vedic god Vishnu and, later, with Vishnu’s incarnation, Krishna, was quickly accepted.

Near the end of the Mauryan period, the first surviving stone images of Hinduism appear. Several large, simply carved figures survive, representing not any of the great gods but rather yakshas, or local chthonic divinities connected with water, fertility, and magic. The original locations of these images are uncertain, but they were probably erected in the open air in sacred enclosures. Temples are not clearly attested in this period by either archaeology or literature. A few fragmentary images thought to be those of Vasudeva and Shiva, the latter in anthropomorphic form and in the form of a linga, or phallic emblem, are found on coins of the 2nd and 1st centuries bce.


The history of Hinduism » Early Hinduism (2nd century bce–4th century ce)
The centuries immediately preceding and following the dawn of the Common Era were marked by the recension of the two great Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (the latter incorporating into it the Bhagavadgita). The worship of Vishnu, incarnate as Krishna in the Mahabharata and as Rama in the Ramayana, developed significantly during this period (see below Epics and Puranas), as did the cult of Shiva, who plays an active role in the Mahabharata.


The history of Hinduism » Early Hinduism (2nd century bce–4th century ce) » The rise of the major sects: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism
The Vedic god Rudra gained importance from the end of the Rigvedic period. In the Svetashvatara Upanishad, Rudra is for the first time called Shiva and is described as the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. His followers are called on to worship him with devotion (bhakti). The tendency for the laity to form themselves into religious guilds or societies—evident in the case of the yaksha cults, Buddhism, and Jainism—promoted the growth of devotional Vaishnavism and Shaivism. These local associations of worshipers appear to have been a principal factor in the spread of the new cults. Theistic ascetics are less in evidence at this time, though a community of Shaivite monks, the Pashupatas, existed by the 2nd or 3rd century ce.

The period between the fall of the Mauryan empire (c. 185 bce) and the rise of the Gupta dynasty (c. 320 ce) was one of great change, including the conquest of most of the area of Pakistan and parts of western India by a succession of invaders. India was opened to influence from the West as never before, not only by invaders but also through flourishing maritime trade with the Roman Empire. The effects of the new contacts were most obvious in art and architecture. The oldest freestanding stone temple in the subcontinent has been excavated at Taxila, near Rawalpindi, Pak. During the 1st century bce the Gandhara school of sculpture arose in the same region and made use of Hellenistic and Roman prototypes, mainly in the service of Buddhism. Hindu temples of the period probably were made of wood, because no remains of them have survived; however, literary evidence shows that they must have existed.

By the time of the early Gupta empire the new theism had been harmonized with the old Vedic religion, and two of the main branches of Hinduism were fully recognized. The Vaishnavas had the support of the Gupta emperors, who took the title paramabhagavata (“supreme devotee of Vishnu”). Vishnu temples were numerous, and the doctrine of Vishnu’s avatars (incarnations) was widely accepted. Of the 10 incarnations of later Vaishnavism, however, only two seem to have been much worshipped in the Gupta period (4th–6th century). These were Krishna, the hero of the Mahabharata, who also begins to appear in his pastoral aspect as the cowherd and flute player, and Varaha, the divine boar, of whom several impressive images survive from the Gupta period.

The Shaivites were also a growing force in the religious life of India. The sect of Pashupata ascetics, founded by Lakulisha (or Nahulisha), who lived in the 2nd century ce, is attested by inscriptions from the 5th century; it is among the earliest of the sectarian religious orders of Hinduism. Representations of the son of Shiva, Skanda (also called Karttikeya, the war god), appeared as early as 100 bce on coins from the Kushan dynasty, which ruled northern India, Afghanistan, and Central Asia in the first three centuries of the Common Era. Shiva’s other son, the elephant-headed Ganesha, patron deity of commercial and literary enterprises, did not appear until the 5th century. Very important in this period was Surya, the sun god, in whose honour temples were built, though in modern times he is little regarded by most Hindus. The solar cult had Vedic roots but later may have expanded under Iranian influence.

Several goddesses gained importance in this period. Although goddesses had always been worshipped in local and popular cults, they play comparatively minor roles in Vedic religion. Lakshmi, or Shri, goddess of fortune and consort of Vishnu, was worshipped before the beginning of the Common Era, and several lesser goddesses are attested from the Gupta period. But the cult of Durga, the consort of Shiva, began to gain importance only in the 4th century, and the large-scale development of Shaktism (devotion to the active, creative principle personified as the mother goddess) did not take place until medieval times.


The history of Hinduism » Early Hinduism (2nd century bce–4th century ce) » The development of temples
The Gupta period was marked by the rapid development of temple architecture. Earlier temples were made of wood, but freestanding stone and brick temples soon appeared in many parts of India. By the 7th century, stone temples, some of considerable dimensions, were found in parts of the country. Originally, the design of the Hindu temples may have borrowed from the Buddhist precedent, for in some of the oldest temples the image was placed in the centre of the shrine, which was surrounded by an ambulatory path resembling the path around a stupa (a religious building containing a Buddhist relic). Nearly all surviving Gupta temples are comparatively small; they consist of a small cella (central chamber), constructed of thick and solid masonry, with a veranda either at the entrance or on all sides of the building. The earliest Gupta temples, such as the Buddhist temples at Sanchi, have flat roofs; however, the sikhara (spire), typical of the North Indian temple, was developed in this period and with time was steadily made taller. The massive and tall tower of the Buddhist temple of Bodh Gaya, which was in existence in the 7th century, represents the culmination of Gupta temple architecture.

The Buddhists and Jains had made use of artificial caves for religious purposes, and these were adapted by the Hindus. Hindu cave-temples, however, are comparatively rare, and none have been discovered from earlier than the Gupta period. In the Pallava site of Mahabalipuram, south of Chennai (Madras), a number of small temples were carved in the 7th century from outcroppings of rock; they represent some of the oldest religious buildings in the Tamil country.


The history of Hinduism » Early Hinduism (2nd century bce–4th century ce) » The spread of Hinduism in Southeast Asia and the Pacific
Hinduism and Buddhism exerted an enormous influence on the civilizations of Southeast Asia and contributed greatly to the development of a written tradition in that area. About the beginning of the Common Era, Indian merchants in comparatively large numbers settled there, bringing Brahmans and Buddhist monks with them. These religious men were patronized by local chiefs, who converted to Hinduism or Buddhism. The earliest material evidence of Hinduism in Southeast Asia comes from Borneo, where late 4th-century Sanskrit inscriptions testify to the performance of Vedic sacrifices by Brahmans at the behest of local chiefs. Chinese chronicles attest an Indianized kingdom in Vietnam two centuries earlier. The dominant form of Hinduism exported to Southeast Asia was Shaivism, though some Vaishnavism was also known there. Later, from the 9th century onward, Tantrism, both Hindu and Buddhist, spread throughout the region.

The civilizations of Southeast Asia developed forms of Hinduism and Buddhism that incorporated distinctive local features and in other respects reflected local cultures, but the framework of their religious life was essentially Indian. Stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata became widely known in Southeast Asia and are still popular there in local versions. The people of Bali (in Indonesia) still follow a form of Hinduism adapted to their own genius. Versions of the Manu-smriti were taken to Southeast Asia and were translated and adapted to indigenous cultures until they lost most of their original content.

Claims of early Hindu contacts farther east are more doubtful. There is little evidence of the influence of Hinduism on China and Japan, which were primarily affected by Buddhism.


The history of Hinduism » Early Hinduism (2nd century bce–4th century ce) » Indian religious influence in the Mediterranean world
Nearly as dubious as the question of Hindu influence on the religious life of East Asia is its influence on that of the ancient Mediterranean world. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 bce) may have obtained his doctrine of metempsychosis (transmigration, or passage of the soul from one body to another; see reincarnation) from India, mediated by Achaemenian (6th–4th century bce) Persia, but similar ideas were known in Egypt and were certainly present in Greece before the time of Pythagoras. The Pythagorean doctrine of a cyclic universe may also be derived from India, but the Indian theory of cosmic cycles is not attested in the 6th century bce. Nevertheless, it is known that Hindu ascetics occasionally visited Greece. The most striking similarity between Greek and Indian thought is the resemblance between the system of mystical gnosis (esoteric knowledge) described in the Enneads of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (205–270) and that of the Yoga-sutras attributed to Patanjali, an Indian religious teacher sometimes dated in the 2nd century ce. The Patanjali text is the older, and influence must be suspected, though the problem of mediation remains difficult because Plotinus gives no direct evidence of having known anything about Indian mysticism. Several Greek and Latin writers (an example of the former being Clement of Alexandria) show considerable knowledge of the externals of Indian religions, but none gives any intimation of understanding their more recondite aspects.


The history of Hinduism » The rise of devotional Hinduism (4th–11th century)
The medieval period was characterized by the growth of new devotional religious movements centred on hymnodists who taught in the popular languages of the time. The new movements probably began with the appearance of hymns in Tamil associated with two groups of poets: the Nayanars, worshipers of Shiva, and the Alvars, devotees of Vishnu. The oldest of these date from the early 7th century, though passages of devotional character can be found in earlier Tamil literature.

The term bhakti, in the sense of devotion to a personal god, appears in the Bhagavadgita and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. In these early sources it represents a devotion still somewhat restrained and unemotional. The new form of bhakti, associated with singing in the languages of the common people, was highly charged with emotion and mystical fervour, and the relationship between worshiper and divinity was often described as analogous to that between lover and beloved. The Tamil saints, South Indian devotees of Vishnu or Shiva from the 6th to the 9th century, felt an intense love (Tamil: anbu) toward their god. They experienced overwhelming joy in his presence and deep sorrow when he did not reveal himself. Some of them felt a profound sense of guilt or inadequacy in the face of the divine. But the dominant emotion in these poems is one of joy, often expressing itself in song and dance. The poems have a strong ethical content and encourage the virtues of love, humility, and brotherhood. The ideas of these poets, spreading northward, probably were the origin of bhakti in northern India.

The devotional cults further weakened Buddhism, which had long been on the decline. From time to time Hindus, especially Shaivites, took aggressive action against Buddhism. At least two Shaivite kings—the Hephthalite invader Mihirakula (early 6th century) and the Bengal king Sasanka (early 7th century)—are reported to have destroyed monasteries and killed monks. The philosophers Kumarila and Shankara were also strongly opposed to Buddhism. In their journeys throughout India, their biographies claim, they vehemently debated with Buddhists and tried to persuade kings and other influential people to withdraw their support from Buddhist monasteries. Only in Bihar and Bengal, because of the patronage of the Pala dynasty and some lesser kings and chiefs, did Buddhist monasteries continue to flourish. Buddhism in eastern India, however, was well on the way to being reabsorbed into Hinduism when the Muslims invaded the Ganges valley in the 12th century. The great Buddhist shrine of Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, became a Hindu temple and remained as such until recent times.

At the end of its existence in India, Buddhism developed in a way that had some effect on Hinduism. Among the Buddhist Tantrists appeared a new school of preachers, often known as Siddhas (“Those Who Have Achieved”), who sang their verses in the contemporary languages, early Maithili and Bengali. They taught that giving up the world was not necessary for release from transmigration and that one could achieve the highest state by living a life of simplicity in one’s own home. This system, known as Sahajayana (“Vehicle of the Natural” or “Easy Vehicle”), influenced both Bengali devotional Vaishnavism, which produced a sect called Vaisnava-Sahajiya with similar doctrines, and the Natha yogis (mentioned below), whose teachings influenced Kabir and other later bhakti masters.


The history of Hinduism » Hinduism under Islam (11th–19th century) » The challenge of Islam and popular religion
The advent of Islam in the Ganges basin at the end of the 12th century resulted in the withdrawal of royal patronage from Hinduism in much of the area. The attitude of the Muslim rulers toward Hinduism varied. Some, like Fīrūz Tughluq (ruled 1351–88) and Aurangzeb (ruled 1658–1707), were strongly anti-Hindu and enforced payment of jizya, a poll tax on unbelievers. Others, like the Bengali sultan Ḥusayn Shāh ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn (reigned 1493–1519) and the great Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), were well-disposed toward their Hindu subjects. Many temples, however, were destroyed by the more fanatical rulers. Conversion to Islam was more common in areas where Buddhism had once been strongest—Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kashmir.

On the eve of the Muslim occupation, Hinduism was by no means sterile in northern India, but its vitality was centred in the southern, Dravidian-speaking areas. Throughout the centuries, the system of class and caste had become more rigid; in each region there was a complex hierarchy of castes strictly forbidden to intermarry or dine together, controlled and regulated by secular powers who acted on the advice of the court Brahmans. The large-scale Vedic sacrifices had practically vanished, but simple domestic Vedic sacrifices continued, and new forms of animal, and sometimes vegetable, sacrifice had appeared, especially connected with the cult of the mother goddess.

By that time, the main divinities of later Hinduism were worshipped. Rama, the hero of the epic poem, had become the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and his cult was growing, though it was not yet as prominent as it later became. Similarly, Rama’s monkey helper, Hanuman, now one of the most popular divinities of India and the most ready helper in time of need, was rising in importance. Krishna was worshipped with his adulterous consort, Radha. Strange syncretic gods had appeared, such as Harihara, a combination of Vishnu and Shiva, and Ardhanarishvara, a synthesis of Shiva and his consort Shakti.


The history of Hinduism » Hinduism under Islam (11th–19th century) » Temple complexes
From the Gupta period onward, Hindu temples became larger and more prominent, and their architecture developed in distinctive regional styles. In northern India the best remaining Hindu temples are found in the Orissa region and in the town of Khajuraho in northern Madhya Pradesh. The best example of Orissan temple architecture is the Lingaraja temple of Bhubaneswar, built about 1000. The largest temple of the region, however, is the famous Black Pagoda, the Sun Temple (Surya Deula) of Konarak, built in the mid-13th century. Its tower has long since collapsed, and only the assembly hall remains. The most important Khajuraho temples were built during the 11th century. Individual architectural styles also arose in Gujarat and Rajasthan, but their surviving products are less impressive than those of Orissa and Khajuraho. By the end of the 1st millennium ce the South Indian style had reached its apogee in the great Rajarajeshvara temple of Thanjavur (Tanjore).

In the temple the god was worshipped by the rites of puja (reverencing a sacred being or object) as though the worshipers were serving a great king. In the important temples a large staff of trained officiants waited on the god. He was awakened in the morning along with his goddess; washed, clothed, and fed; placed in his shrine to give audience to his subjects; praised and entertained throughout the day; and ceremoniously fed, undressed, and put to bed at night. Worshipers sang, burned lamps, waved lights before the divine image, and performed other acts of homage. The god’s handmaidens (devadasis) performed before him at regular intervals, watched by the officiants and lay worshipers, who were his courtiers. These women, either the daughters of devadasis or girls dedicated in childhood, may have also served as prostitutes. The association of dedicated prostitutes with certain Hindu shrines can be traced back to before the Christian era. It became more widespread in post-Gupta times, especially in South India, and aroused the reprobation of 19th-century Europeans. Through the efforts of Hindu reformers, the office of the devadasis was discontinued. The role of devadasis is best understood in the context of the analogy between the temple and the royal court, for the Hindu king also had his dancing girls, who bestowed their favours on his courtiers.

Parallels between the temple and the royal palace also were in evidence in the Rathayatras (Chariot Festivals). On festival days, when the king issued from his palace and paraded around his city, escorted by courtiers, troops, and musicians, the god also was paraded in a splendid procession, together with the lesser gods of the minor shrines. The god rode on a tremendous and ornate moving shrine (ratha), which was often pulled by large bands of devotees. Rathayatras still take place in many cities of India. The best-known is the annual procession of Jagannatha (“Juggernaut”), a form of Vishnu, at Puri, Orissa.

The great temples were (and still are) wealthy institutions. They were supported by the transfer of the taxes levied by kings on specific areas of the nearby countryside, by donations of the pious, and by the fees of worshipers. Their immense wealth was one of the factors that encouraged the Ghaznavid and Ghūrid Turks to invade India after the 11th century. The temples were controlled by self-perpetuating committees—whose membership was usually a hereditary privilege—and by a large staff of priests and temple servants under a high priest who wielded tremendous power and influence.

In keeping with their wealth, the great walled temple complexes of South India were (and still are) small cities, containing the central and numerous lesser shrines, bathing tanks, administrative offices, homes of the temple employees, workshops, bazaars, and public buildings of many kinds. As some of the largest employers and greatest landowners in their areas, the temples played an important part in the economy. They also performed valuable social functions, serving as schools, dispensaries, poorhouses, banks, and concert halls.

The temple complexes suffered during the Muslim occupation. In the sacred cities of Varanasi (Benares) and Mathura, no large temple from any period before the 17th century has survived. The same is true of most of the main religious centres of northern India but not of the regions where the Muslim hold was less firm, such as Orissa, Rajasthan, and South India. Despite the widespread destruction of the temples, Hinduism endured, in part because of the absence of a centralized authority; rituals and sacrifices were performed in places other than temples. The purohitas, or family priests who performed the domestic rituals and personal sacraments for the laypeople, continued to function, as did the thousands of ascetics.


The history of Hinduism » The modern period (19th–21st century) » The struggle for independence
The Hindu revival and reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries were closely linked with the growth of Indian nationalism and the struggle for independence. The Arya Samaj strongly encouraged nationalism, and, even though Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Mission were always uncompromisingly nonpolitical, their effect in promoting the movement for self-government is quite evident.

Religion and politics were joined in the career of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, an orthodox Maharashtrian Brahman who believed that the people of India could be aroused only by appeals couched in religious terms. Tilak used the annual festival of the god Ganesha for nationalist propaganda. His interpretation of the Bhagavadgita as a call to action was also a reflection of his nationalism, and through his mediation the scripture inspired later leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi.

Hindu religious concepts were also enlisted in the nationalist cause in Bengal. In his historical novel Anandamath (1882), the Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee described a band of martial ascetics who were pledged to free India from Muslim domination under the Mughal empire. They took as their anthem a stirring devotional song written in simple Sanskrit— "Bande Mataram" (“I Revere the Mother”)—whose title referred both to the fierce demon-destroying goddess Kali and to India itself. This song was soon adopted by other nationalists. Vivekananda emphasized the need to turn the emotion of bhakti toward the suffering poor of India. During his short career as a revolutionary, Shri Aurobindo made much use of "Bande Mataram," and he called on his countrymen to strive for the freedom of India in a spirit of devotion. The bhakti of the medieval poets was thus enlisted in the cause of modern independence.

The history of Hinduism » The modern period (19th–21st century) » The struggle for independence » Mahatma Gandhi
Much influenced by the bhakti of his native Gujarat and fortified by similar attitudes in Christianity and Jainism, Mahatma Gandhi, the most important leader in the movement for independence, appeared to his followers as the quintessence of the Hindu tradition. His austere celibate life was one that the Indian laity had learned to respect implicitly. Gandhi’s message reached a wider public than that of any of the earlier reformers.

Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence can be found in many Hindu sources, although his beliefs were much strengthened by Christian ethical literature and especially by the later writings of Leo Tolstoy. His political technique of passive resistance, satyagraha, also has Indian precedents, but here again he was influenced by Western writers such as the American Henry David Thoreau. The chief innovations in Gandhi’s philosophy were his belief in the dignity of manual labour and in the equality of women. Precedents for both of these can be found in the writings of some 19th-century reformers, but they have little basis in earlier Indian thought. In many ways Gandhi was a traditionalist. His respect for the cow—which he and other educated Indians understood as the representative of Mother Earth—was a factor in the failure of his movement to attract large-scale Muslim support. His insistence on strict vegetarianism and celibacy among his disciples, in keeping with the traditions of Vaishnava asceticism, also caused difficulty among some of his followers. Still, Gandhi’s success represented a political culmination of the movement of popular bhakti begun in South India early in the Christian era.

Gandhi’s mantle fell on Vinoba Bhave, one of the Mahatma’s most devoted Maharashtrian supporters. For some years after independence, Vinoba led a campaign of social service that culminated in the Bhudan Yanja, a land-giving movement, which persuaded many landowners and wealthy peasants to give fields to landless labourers. This movement had some success in rural areas but gradually lost momentum. Although the memory of Gandhi continues to be revered by most Indians, his policies and principles carry little weight. The great bulk of social service is performed by government agencies rather than by voluntary bodies, whether Gandhian or other.

The history of Hinduism » The modern period (19th–21st century) » The struggle for independence » The religious situation after independence
Increasing nationalism, especially after the division of India into India and Pakistan in 1947, led to a widening of the gulf between Hindus and Muslims. In the early 1970s Indian scholars painted the relations of the two religions in earlier centuries as friendly, blaming alien rule for the division of India. In Pakistan the tendency has been to insist that Hindus and Muslims have always been “two nations” and that the Hindus nevertheless were happy under their Muslim rulers. Neither position is correct. In earlier times there was much mutual influence. But the conservative element in Indian Islam gained the upper hand long before British power was consolidated in India.

One of the pioneers of nationalism, Tilak, glorified the Maharashtrian hero Shivaji as the liberator of India from the alien yoke of the Mughals; and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s militant ascetics, who pledged to conquer and expel the Muslims, sang a battle hymn that no orthodox Muslim could repeat. British rulers of India did little or nothing to lessen Hindu-Muslim tension, and their policy of separate electorates for the two communities worsened the situation. Many leaders of the Indian National Congress movement, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, carried their Hinduism lightly and favoured a secular approach to politics; the majority, however, followed the lead of Gandhi. Although to the right of the Congress politically, the Hindu Mahasabha, a nationalist group formed to give Hindus a stronger voice in politics, did not oppose nonviolence in its drive to establish a Hindu state in India.

The transfer of power in 1947 was accompanied by slaughter and pillage of huge proportions. Millions of Hindus left their homes in Pakistan for India, and millions of Muslims migrated in the opposite direction. The tension culminated in the assassination of Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic in January 1948.

The policy of the new Indian government was to establish a secular state, and the successive governments have broadly kept to this policy. The governments of the Indian states, however, have not been so restricted by constitutional niceties. Some state governments have introduced legislation of a specifically Hindu character. On the other hand, the Congress governments have passed legislation more offensive to Hindu traditional prejudices than anything the British Indian government would have dared to enact. For example, all forms of discrimination against “untouchables” (now usually referred to by euphemisms such as “Harijans,” or “people of God,” instead of the British euphemism “scheduled castes”) are forbidden, although it has been impossible to enforce the law in every case. A great blow to conservatism was dealt by legislation in 1955 and 1956 that gave full rights of inheritance to widows and daughters, enforced monogamy, and permitted divorce on quite easy terms. The 1961 law forbidding dowries further undermined traditional Hinduism. Although the dowry has long been a tremendous burden to the parents of daughters, the strength of social custom is such that the law cannot be fully enforced.

The social structure of traditional Hinduism is slowly crumbling in the cities. Intercaste and interreligious marriages are becoming more frequent among the educated, although some aspects of the caste system show remarkable vitality, especially in the matter of appointments and elections. The bonds of the tightly knit Hindu joint family are also weakening, a process helped by legislation and the emancipation of women. The professional priests, who perform rituals for laypeople in homes or at temples and sacred sites, complain of the lack of custom, and their numbers are diminishing.

Nevertheless, Hinduism is far from dying. Mythological films, once the most popular form of entertainment, are enjoying a renaissance. Organizations such as the Ramakrishna Mission flourish and expand their activities. New teachers appear from time to time and attract considerable followings. Militant fundamentalist Hindu organizations such as the Society for the Self-Service of the Nation (Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh; RSS) are steadily growing. Such movements can be seen as the cause or the result, or both, of persistent outbreaks of communal religious violence between Hindus and Sikhs in North India, between Tamil Hindus and Sri Lankan Buddhists in Sri Lanka, between Tamil extremists and moderates in Tamil Nadu, and between Hindus and Muslims everywhere.

The adaptability of Hinduism to changing conditions is illustrated by the appearance in the Hindu pantheon of a new divinity, of special utility in an acquisitive society. This is the goddess Santosi Mata, first worshipped widely by women in many cities of Uttar Pradesh and now worshipped throughout India, largely as the result of a popular mythological film about her birth and the origin of her worship. The new goddess was unheard-of a few years ago and has no basis in any Puranic myth. Propitiated by comparatively simple and inexpensive rites performed in the home without the intervention of a priest, Santosi, it is believed, grants practical and obvious blessings, such as a promotion for an overworked husband or a new household appliance. News of Santosi’s blessings is passed from housewife to housewife, and even moderately well-educated women have become her devotees.

On both the intellectual and the popular level, Hinduism is thus in the process of adapting itself to new values and new conditions brought about by mass education and industrialization. In these respects it is responding to 21st-century challenges.


The history of Hinduism » The modern period (19th–21st century) » Hinduism outside India
Since the latter part of the 19th century, large Hindu communities have been established in East Africa, Malaysia, the islands of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, and some islands of the West Indies. Members of these communities have adhered to their religion faithfully for several generations. In the late 20th century they were aided by Hindu missionaries, chiefly from the Arya Samaj or the Ramakrishna Mission. Since World War II many Hindus have also settled in the United Kingdom, and after 1965 many began settling in the United States. Although the earliest migrants were comparatively uneducated, many of the émigrés of the late 20th century were highly skilled and well-educated professionals.

Contemporary Western culture is ready to accept Eastern religious ideas in a way that is unprecedented since the days of the Roman Empire. A recent manifestation of the spread of Indian religious attitudes in the Western world is the Hare Krishna movement, officially known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), with its principal office in Los Angeles. This is essentially a bhakti movement, broadly following the precedents of Caitanya (1485–1533), a mystic poet and worshipper of Krishna whose practices have influenced devotional Hinduism. Since its foundation by a Hindu sannyasin (wandering ascetic), A.C. Bhaktivedanta (Prabhupada), in 1965, its growth has been surprising, and sankirtana (devotional singing and dancing) can be seen in the streets of New York City and London, performed by young men and women from Christian or Jewish homes wearing dhotis and saris. These manifestations are part of a process that began in 1784 with the first English translation of a Hindu religious text, Charles Wilkins’s version of the Bhagavadgita.

Hinduism is not by nature a proselytizing religion, however, in part because of its inextricable roots in the social system and the land of India. In the late 20th century many new gurus, such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Satya Sai Baba, were successful in making converts in Europe and the United States. The very success of these gurus, however, has produced material profits that many people regard as incompatible with the ascetic attitude appropriate to a Hindu spiritual leader; in some cases, the profits have led to notoriety and even legal prosecution. That Hinduism is flourishing in India is obvious; that it has made, and can continue to make, a genuine contribution to Western religious thought is undeniable; that the invasion of the gurus is a part of that contribution is highly debatable.

In the early 21st century the Hindu diaspora in the United States has greatly increased in a number of cities, and wealthy Hindu communities have built large temples and endowed chairs in South Asian studies at major universities. Local Hindu organizations have brought pressure on schools to change the presentation of Hinduism in history textbooks. Internet listserves and blogs have forged ties between Hindus throughout the country, and globalization, which once meant the influence of American culture on Hindus in India, has now reversed its flow, with Yoga teachers, Bollywood movies, and a new generation of gurus such as Anandamayi Ma bringing a particular brand of Hinduism to the United States.

Arthur Llewellyn Basham
J.A.B. van Buitenen
Wendy Doniger

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)
 

 

 

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