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종교 탐방

IV. Sacred texts

성스런 경전들



1) Importance of the Vedas.

The Veda, meaning "Knowledge," is a collective term for the sacred scriptures of the Hindus. Since about the 5th century BC, the Veda has been considered to be the creation of neither human nor god; rather, it is regarded as the eternal Truth that was in ancient times directly revealed to or "heard" by gifted and inspired seers (rishis) who transcribed it into the most perfect human language, Sanskrit. Although most of the religion of the Vedic texts, which revolves around rituals of fire sacrifice, has been eclipsed by Hindu doctrines and practices, the absolute authority and sacredness of the Veda remains a central tenet of virtually all Hindu sects and traditions. Even today, as it has been for several millennia, parts of the Veda are memorized and recited as a religious act of great merit. (see also Index: Indian literature)

2) The components of the Veda.

The Veda is the product of the Aryan invaders of the Indian subcontinent and their descendants, although the original inhabitants (disdainfully called dásyus, or "slaves," in the Veda) may very well have exerted an influence on the final product. The Veda represents the particular interests of two classes of Aryan society, the priests (Brahmans) and the warrior-kings (Ksatriyas), who together ruled over the far more numerous peasants (Vaishyas).

Vedic literature ranges from the Rigveda (Rgveda; c. 1400 BC) to the Upanishads (Upanisads; c. 1000-500 BC). This literature provides the sole documentation for all Indian religion before Buddhism and the early texts of classical Hinduism. Because it is the literature of a ruling class, it probably does not represent all the myths and cults of the early Indo-Aryans, let alone those of the non-Aryans.

The most important texts are the four collections (Samhitas) known as the Veda or Vedas (i.e., "Book[s] of Knowledge"): the Rigveda ("Wisdom of the Verses"), the Yajurveda ("Wisdom of the Sacrificial Formulas"), the Samaveda ("Wisdom of the Chants"), and the Atharvaveda ("Wisdom of the Atharvan Priests"). Of these, the Rigveda is the oldest.

In the Vedic texts following these earliest compilations, the Brahmanas (discussions of the ritual), Aranyakas (books studied in the forest), and Upanishads (secret teachings concerning cosmic equations), the interest in the early Rigvedic gods wanes, and they become little more than accessories to the Vedic rite. Polytheism begins to be replaced by a sacrificial pantheism of Prajapati ("Lord of Creatures"), who is the All. In the Upanishads Prajapati merges with the concept of brahman the supreme reality and substance of the universe (not to be confused with the Hindu god Brahma), replacing any specific personification, thus transforming the mythology into abstract philosophy.

Together, the components of each of the four Vedas--the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads--constitute the revealed scripture of Hinduism, or the Sruti (Shruti "Heard"). All other works--in which the actual doctrines and practices of Hindus are encoded--are recognized as having been composed by human authors and are thus classed as Smriti (Smrti "Remembered"). The categorization of Veda, however, is capable of elasticity. First, the Sruti is not exactly closed; Upanishads, for example, have been composed until recent times. Second, the texts categorized as Smriti inevitably claim to be in accord with the authoritative Sruti, and thus worthy of the same respect and sacredness. For Hindus, the Veda is a symbol of unchallenged authority and tradition.

3) The Rigveda.

The religion reflected in the Rigveda is a polytheism mainly concerned with the propitiation of divinities associated with the sky and the atmosphere. Of these, the Indo-European sky father Dyaus was by then little regarded. More important were such gods as Indra, Varuna (guardian of the cosmic order), Agni (the sacrificial fire), and Surya (the Sun).

The main ritual activity referred to in the Rigveda is the soma sacrifice. Soma was a hallucinogenic beverage prepared from a now-unknown plant; recently it has been suggested that the plant was a mushroom and that later another plant was substituted for the agaric fungus, which had become difficult to obtain. The Rigveda contains a few clear references to animal sacrifice, which probably became more widespread later. There is some doubt whether the priests formed a separate class of society at the beginning of the Rigvedic period. If they did so, the prevailingly loose boundaries of class made it possible for a man of nonpriestly parentage to become a priest. By the end of the period, however, they had become a separate class of specialists, the Brahmans (Brahmanas), who claimed superiority over all the other social classes, including the Rajanyas (later Ksatriyas), the warrior-kings.

The Rigveda contains little about birth rituals, but the rites of marriage and disposal of the dead were basically the same as in later Hinduism. Marriage was an indissoluble bond cemented by a lengthy and solemn ritual centring on the domestic hearth. The funeral rites of the rich included cremation, although other funeral forms were also practiced. An interesting reference in one hymn shows that the wife of the dead man lay down beside him on the funeral pyre but was called upon to return to the land of the living before it was lighted. This may have been a survival from an earlier period when the wife was actually cremated with the husband, a custom that was revived in later times.

Among other features of Rigvedic religious life that were important for later generations were the munis. The muni was apparently a sort of shaman (a religious personage having healing and psychic transformation powers), trained in various magic arts and believed to be capable of supernatural feats, such as levitation. He was particularly associated with the god Rudra, a deity connected with mountains and storm and more feared than loved. Rudra developed into the Hindu god Shiva, and his prestige increased steadily. The same is true of Vishnu, a minor solar deity in the Rigveda, who later became one of the most important and popular divinities of Hinduism.

One of the favourite myths of the Aryans was one that attributed the origin of the cosmos to the god Indra, after he had slain the great dragon Vrtra, a myth very similar to one known in early Mesopotamia. With time, such tales were replaced by more abstract theories that are reflected in several hymns of the late 10th book of the Rigveda. These speculative tendencies were the beginnings of the persistent effort of Indian philosophers to reduce all things to a single basic principle.

4) Elaborations of text and ritual: the later Vedas.

The chronology of later Vedic developments is extremely vague, but it probably encompasses the period from 1000 to 500 BC, which are the dates of the Painted Grayware strata in the archaeological sites of the western Ganges Valley. These excavations reflect a culture still without writing but showing considerable advances in civilization. Nothing, however, has been discovered from sites of this period that throws much light on the religious situation, and historians still must rely on the following texts to describe this phase of the religion.

i) The Yajurveda and Samaveda.

The Yajurveda and Samaveda are completely subordinate to the liturgy. The Yajurveda contains the lines, usually in brief prose, with which the executive priest (adhvaryu) accompanies his ritual manipulations, addressing the implements he handles and the offering he pours and admonishing other priests to do their invocations. The Samaveda is a collection of verses from the Rigveda (and a few new ones) that were chanted with certain fixed melodies.

ii) The Atharvaveda.

The Atharvaveda stands apart from other Vedic texts. It contains both hymns and prose passages and is divided into 20 books. Books 1-7 contain magical prayers for precise purposes: spells for a long life, cures, curses, love charms, prayers for prosperity, charms for kingship and Brahmanhood, and expiations for evil committed. They reflect the magical-religious concerns of everyday life and are on a different level than the Rigveda, which glorifies the great gods and their liturgy. Books 8-12 contain similar texts but also include cosmological hymns that continue those of the Rigveda and provide a transition to the more complex speculations of the Upanishads. Books 13-20 celebrate the cosmic principle (book 13) and present marriage prayers (book 14), funeral formulas (book 18), and other magical and ritual formulas. This text is an extremely important source of knowledge of practical religion and magic, particularly where it complements the one-sided picture of the Rigveda. Many rites are also laid down in the "Kaushikasutra" (manual of the Kaushika family of priests) of the Atharvaveda.

5) The Brahmanas and Aranyakas.

Attached to each Samhita was a collection of explanations of the rituals, called a Brahmana, which often relied on mythology to trace the origins and importance of individual ritual acts. Although they were not manuals or handbooks in the manner of the later Shrauta Sutras, the Brahmanas do contain some detail about the performance and meaning of Vedic sacrificial rituals and are invaluable sources of information about the Vedic religion.

In these texts the sacrifice is the very centre of cosmic processes, all human concerns, and religious desires and goals. It is through the sacrifice that the cosmos continues in its cycles and that human beings obtain the goods of life and a birth in heaven in the next world. The ritual was thought to have such effects on the visible and invisible worlds because of homologies, or connections (bandhus), that were said to lie between the components and phases of the ritual and corresponding parts of the universe. The universalization of the dynamics of the ritual into the dynamics of the cosmos was depicted as the sacrifice of the primordial deity, Prajapati ("Lord of Creatures"), who was perpetually regenerated by the sacrifice.

The lengthy series of rituals of the royal consecration, the rajasuya, emphasized royal power and endowed the king with a divine charisma, raising him, at least for the duration of the ceremony, to the status of a god. Typical of this period was the elaborate ashvamedhathe horse sacrifice, in which a consecrated horse was freed and allowed to wander at will for a year; it was always followed by the king's troops, who defended it from all attack until it was brought back to the royal capital and sacrificed in a very complicated ritual.

Vedic cosmic-sacrificial speculations continued in the Aranyakas (forest books), which contain materials of two kinds: Brahmana-like discussions of rites not believed to be suitable for the village (hence the name "forest") and continuing visions of the relationship between sacrifice, universe, and man. The word brahman--the creative power of the ritual utterances, which is used to denote the creativeness of the sacrifice and which underlies ritual and therefore cosmic order--is prominent in these texts.

6) Vedic religion.

i) Cosmogony and cosmology.

In the Vedic literature there are different but not exclusive accounts of the origin of the universe. The simplest is that the creator built the universe with timber, as a carpenter builds a house. Hence there are many references to gods measuring the different worlds as parts of one edifice, atmosphere upon Earth, heaven upon atmosphere. Creation may be viewed as procreation: the personified Heaven, Dyaus (the word is related to the Greek Zeus), impregnates the Earth goddess, Prthivi, with rain, causing crops to grow on her. Quite another myth is recorded in the last (10th) book of the Rigveda: in the "Hymn of the Cosmic Man" ("Purusasukta") it is said that the universe was created out of the parts of the body of a single cosmic man (Purusa) when his body was immolated and dismembered at the primordial sacrifice. There the four classes (varnas) of Indian society are referred to: the priest (Brahman) emerging from the mouth, the warrior (Rajanya) from the arms, the peasant (Vaishya) from the thighs, and the servant (Shudra) from the legs of the primeval victim. The "Purusasukta" represents the beginning of a new phase, in which the sacrifice became more important and elaborate as cosmological and social philosophies were constructed around it. (see also Index: creation myth)

In the same book of the Rigveda, mythology begins to be transformed into philosophy; for example, "in the beginning was the nonexistent, from which the existent arose" (Rigveda 10.72.2). Even the reality of the nonexistent is questioned: "then there was neither the nonexistent nor the existent" (Rigveda 10.129). Such cosmogonic speculations continue, particularly in the older Upanishads. Originally there was nothing at all, or Hunger, which then, to sate itself, creates the world as its food. Alternatively, the creator creates himself in the universe by an act of self-recognition, self-formulation, or self-formation. Or the one creator grows "as big as a man and a woman embracing" (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad I.4.3) and splits into man and woman, and in various transformations the couple create other creatures. In one of the last stages of this line of thought (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2), the following account became fundamental to the ontology of the philosophical schools of Vedanta: in the beginning was the Existent, or brahman, which through heaven, Earth, and atmosphere (the triadic space) and the three seasons of summer, rains, and harvest (the triadic time) produced the entire universe.

The Vedic texts generally regarded the universe as three layers of "worlds" (loka): heaven, atmosphere, and Earth. Heaven is that part of the universe where the sun shines and is correlated with sun, fire, and ether; the atmosphere is that part of the sky between heaven and Earth where the clouds insert themselves in the rainy season and is correlated with water and wind; Earth, a flat disk, like a wheel, is here below as the "holder of treasure" (vasumdhara) and giver of food. In addition to this tripartite pattern, there is also an ancient notion of duality, in which heaven is masculine and father and Earth is feminine and mother. Later texts present the conception that combinations and permutations of five elements (ether-space [akasha], wind [vayu], fire [agni], water [apas], and earth [bhumi]) formed the universe.

ii) Theology.

Generally speaking, Vedic gods share many characteristics: several of them (Indra, Varuna, Vishnu) are said to have created the universe, set the Sun in the sky, and propped apart heaven and Earth. All of them are bright and shining, and all are susceptible to human praise. Some major gods were clearly personifications of natural phenomena, and for these deities no clearly delineated divine personalities were perceived.

The three most frequently invoked gods are Indra, Agni, and Soma. Indra, the foremost god of the Vedic pantheon, is a god of war and rain. Agni (a cognate of the Latin ignis) is the deified fire, particularly the fire of sacrifice, and Soma is the intoxicating or hallucinogenic drink of the sacrifice, or the plant from which it is pressed; neither is greatly personified.

The principal focus of Vedic literature is the sacrifice, which in its simplest form can be viewed as a ritualized banquet to which a god is invited to partake of a meal shared by the sacrificer and his priest. The invocations mention, often casually, the past exploits of the deity. The offered meal gives strength to the deity to repeat his feat and to aid the sacrificer.

The myth of Indra killing the dragon Vrtra has many levels of meaning. Vrtra prevents the monsoon rains from breaking. Because the monsoon is the greatest single factor in Indian agriculture, the event celebrated in this myth impinges on everyone's life. In the social circles represented in the Rigveda, however, the myth is cast in a warrior mold and the breaking of the monsoon is viewed as a cosmic battle. The entire monsoon complex is involved: Indra is the Lord of the Winds, the gales that accompany the monsoon; his weapons are lightning and thunderbolt, with which he lays Vrtra low. To accomplish this feat he must be strengthened with soma. Simultaneously, he is the god of war and is invoked to defeat the non-Aryan dásyus, the indigenous peoples referred to in the Vedas. These important concerns--the promptness and abundance of the rains, success in warfare, and the Aryan conquest of the land--all find their focus in Indra.

Because the Vedic gods were not fully anthropomorphic, their functions were subject to various applications and interpretations. Thus Indra, the greatest and most anthropomorphic god of the early Veda, was, in the view of the noble patrons of the Vedic poets, primarily a fighter and a warrior god invoked to bring booty and victory. Agriculturalists and hunters emphasized Indra's fecundity, celebrating his festivals to produce fertility, welfare, and happiness. Indra, however, was essentially a representative of useful force in nature and the cosmos and therefore was the great champion of an ordered and habitable world. His repeated victories over the snake-demon Vrtra, the representative of obstruction and chaos, resulted in the separation of heaven and Earth (the support of the former and the stabilization of the latter), the rise of the Sun, and the release of the waters: in short, in the organization of the universe.

Although morality is not an issue in Indra's myth, it is in those of the other principal Vedic deities. Central to ancient morality was the notion of rita (rta), the basic meaning of which appears to have been the truthfulness with which the alliance between humans (and between humans and gods) was observed--a quality necessary to maintain the physical and moral order of the universe. Varuna is an older sovereign god, who with Mitra (related to the Persian god Mithra) presides over the observance of the rita. Thus Varuna is a judge before whom a mortal may stand guilty, while Indra is a king who may support a mortal king. Typical requests that are made of Varuna are for forgiveness, for deliverance from evil committed by oneself or others, and for protection; Indra is prayed to for bounty, for aid against enemies, and for leadership against demons and dásyus.

Distinct from both is Agni, the fire, who is observed in all his multifarious manifestations: in the sacrificial fire, in lightning, or hidden in the logs from which fire can be drilled. As the fire of sacrifice, he is the mouth of the gods and the carrier of the oblation, the mediator between the human and the divine orders. Agni is above all the good friend of the Aryans and is prayed to to strike down and to burn their enemies and to mediate between gods and men.

Among other Vedic gods, only a few stand out. One is Vishnu, important perhaps more in retrospect than in fact. He is famous for his "three strides," with which he traversed the universe, thus creating and possessing it. In his later mythology this pervasiveness, which invites identification with other gods, remains characteristic. His function as helper to the conqueror-god Indra is important.

Impersonality is increased by the prevalence of pairs and groups of gods. Thus Varuna and Mitra are members of the group of Adityas (sons of Aditi, an old progenitrix), who generally are celestial gods. They are also combined in the double god Mitra-Varuna. Indra and Vishnu are combined as Indra-Vishnu. There is also Rudra, an ambivalent god who is dreaded for his unpredictable attacks but is simultaneously benign insofar as he can restrain his attacks. Although there are many demons (rakshasas), no one god embodies the evil spirit; rather, many gods have their devil within, inspiring fear as well as trust. Among the perpetually beneficent gods are the Ashvins (horsemen), who are helpers and healers and often visit the needy. Almost otiose is the personified heaven, Dyaus, who most often appears literally as the sky, and often as day. As a person, he is coupled with Earth (in the god pair Dyava-Prthivi) as a father; Earth by herself is more predominantly known as Mother (Matr). Apart from Earth, the other goddess of importance in the text of the Rigveda is Usas (Dawn), who brings in the day and thus is said to bring forth the Sun.

In the later Vedic period the significance of the Rigvedic gods and their myths began to wane. The peculiar theism of the Rigveda, in which any one of several different gods might be hailed as supreme and attributes of one god could be transferred to another (called kathenotheism by the Vedic scholar F. Max Müller), stressed godhead more than individual gods. In the end this led to a pantheism of Prajapati, the deified sacrifice or ritualized deity; with his consort Vac (i.e., the speech of ritual recitation), he is said to have begotten the world.

In the course of the Vedic period Purusa fused with the figure Narayana ("Scion of Man") and with Prajapati ("Lord of Creatures"), the patron of procreation in popular belief. In the speculative thought of the ritualists, Prajapati came to the fore as the creator god and in many respects as the highest divinity, the immortal father even of the gods, whom he transcends, encompasses, and molds into one complex. As the One, the concentrated All, or Totality, Prajapati was identified with the highest and most general categories. By a process of emanation and self-differentiation (by dividing himself), he created all beings and the universe. After this "creation," Prajapati became the disintegrated and differentiated All of the phenomenal world and was exhausted. By means of a rite, he then reintegrated himself to prepare for a new phase of creativity. Because the purpose of the sacred act is the restitution of the organic structural norm, which ensures the ordered functioning of the universe, Prajapati was identified with the rite. Thus, by identifying himself with Prajapati, a sacrificer may temporarily reintegrate within himself what has been disintegrated, thereby restoring oneness and totality in himself and the universe.

iii) Ethical and social doctrines.

In Vedic times, "sin" (énas) or evil (papmán) was put on a par with illness, enmity, distress, or malediction: it was conceived of as a sort of pollution that could be neutralized by ritual or devices for averting evil. A man might incur "sin" by any incorrect or improper behaviour, especially improper speech, and thus be guilty of anrta (i.e., any infidelity to fact or departure from what is true, real, and constitutes the established order) whether or not he had deliberately committed a crime. Other transgressions included making mistakes in sacrifices and coming into contact with corpses, ritually impure persons, or persons belonging to the lower classes of society. These acts were only rarely considered to be misdeeds against a god or violations of moral principles of divine origin, and the consciousness of guilt was much rarer than the fear of the evil consequences of sin, such as disease or untimely death. Sometimes, however, a god (Agni, the evil-devouring fire, or Varuna, the god of order, whose role included punishing and fettering the "sinner") was invoked to forgive the neglect or transgression or to release a man from their concrete results. More usually, however, these results were abrogated by means of purifications, such as the ceremonial use of water, and a variety of expiatory rites.

To the pure who earned ritual merits, the prospect of a safe "world" (loka) or condition was held out. The meticulous effort to purify oneself from every kind of evil also involved the observance of various customs regarding the avoidance of inauspicious occurrences--an endeavour called shanti. Ritual purity was the principal concern of the compilers of the manuals of dharma (religious law) that, belonging to the sacred tradition (Smriti; i.e., remembered by human teachers), have contributed much to the special character of Hinduism. According to the authorities on dharma, ritual purity is: the first approach to dharma, the resting place of the Veda (brahman), the abode of prosperity (shri), the favourite of the gods, and the means of clearing (soothing) the mind and of seeing (realizing) the atman in the body.

iv) The sacred: nature, man, and God.

The contact with the unseen or sacred included humankind's contributions by ritual acts to the maintenance of the universe--of which Vedic thinkers felt themselves an indissoluble part--and to the periodic regeneration, through sacrificial practices, of both the powers for good and the cosmic processes that make earthly life and welfare possible. The Vedic poets were deeply convinced that the world is an organized cosmos governed by order and truth (rita) and that it is always in danger of being damaged or destroyed by the powers of chaos (asat). This conviction found mythological expression in the continual conflict between gods (devas) and demoniac antigods (asuras). (see also Index: sacred and profane)

Gods were conceived as presiding over certain provinces of the universe or as responsible for important cosmic or social phenomena. Their deeds are timeless and exemplary presentations of mythic events replete with power and universal, eternal significance. To reproduce themselves in time and thus retain their vitality and efficacy, mythical events need to be repeated--that is, celebrated and confirmed by means of the spoken word and ritual acts.

v) Vedic and Brahmanic rites.

Vedic religion is primarily a liturgy differentiated in various types of ritual designed for almost any conceivable purpose. These rites are described in the texts in minute detail; theoretically, no operation, no gesture, no formula is meaningless or left to an officiant's discretion. On the basis of a complicated speculative system, all are explained and shown to be effective in the Brahmanas. The often complicated ritual technique was devised mainly to safeguard human life and survival, to enable people to face the many risks and dangers of existence, to thwart the designs of human and superhuman enemies that cannot be counteracted by ordinary means, to control the unseen powers, and to establish and maintain beneficial relations with the supramundane sacred order. Belief in the efficacy of the rites is the natural consequence of the belief that all things and events are connected with or participate in one another. Hence it is also believed that a close correspondence exists between a sacred place--such as the sacrificial place of many Vedic rites, a place of pilgrimage, or a consecrated area (mandala, "circle")--and a province of the universe or even the universe itself. These places represent, within the reach of the officiants, the universe or as much of it as is relevant. In such places, direct communication with other cosmic regions (heaven or underworld) is possible because they are said to be at the point of contact between this world and the "pillar of the universe," "the navel of the earth." The sacred place is (by virtue of a system of connections) identical with the universe in its various states of emanation from, reabsorption into, integration with, and disintegration from the sacred. This idea has as its corollary the possibility of ritually enacting the cosmic drama and, thus, of influencing, through the same system of connections, those events in the cosmos that continuously affect human weal and woe.

The Vedic ritual system is organized into three main forms. The simplest, and hierarchically inferior, type of Vedic ritualism is the grhya, or domestic ritual, in which the householder himself offers modest oblations into the one sacred household fire. The more ambitious, wealthy, and powerful married householder sets three or five fires and, with the help of professional officiants, engages in the more complex shrauta sacrifices. These require oblations of vegetable substances and, in some instances, of parts of ritually killed animals (mostly goats, but also sheep, cows, horses, and perhaps at one time human beings as well). Finally, at the highest level of Vedic ritualism are the sacrifices of soma, which can continue for days or even years and whose intricacies and complexities are truly stunning. (see also Index: soma sacrifice)

In the major shrauta rites, requiring three fires and 16 priests or more, "the man who knows"--he who has an insight into the correspondences (bándhu) between the mundane and cosmic phenomena and the eternal transcendent reality beyond them and who knows the meaning of the ritual words and acts--may set great cosmic processes in motion for the sake of human interests. In these rites, Brahman officiants repeat the mythic drama for the benefit of their patron, the "sacrificer," who temporarily becomes its centre and realizes through ritual symbolism his identity with the universe. Whatever magical elements may be involved in this ritual technique, its aim in establishing an efficacious contact with a transcendental order that is the source of all life and power is based on an essentially religious conception. Such officiants are firmly convinced of the efficacy of their rites: "the sun would not rise, were he [the officiant] not to make that offering; this is why he performs it" (Shatapatha Brahmana The oblations should not be used to propitiate the gods or to thank them for favours bestowed, since the efficacy of the rites, some of which are still occasionally performed, does not depend on the will of the gods.

7) The Upanishads.

With the last component of the Veda, the mystically oriented and originally esoteric texts known as the Upanishads, Vedic ritualism and the doctrine of the interconnectedness of separate phenomena was superseded by a new emphasis on knowledge alone--primarily knowledge of the ultimate identity of all phenomena, which merely appeared to be separate. The phase of Indian religious life roughly between 700 and 500 BC was the period of the beginnings of philosophy and mysticism marked by the Upanishads ("Sittings Near a Teacher"). Historically, the most important of these are the two oldest, the Brhadaranyaka ("Great Forest Text") and the Chandogya (pertaining to the Chandogas, a class of priests who intone hymns at sacrifices), both of which are compilations that record the traditions of sages (rishis) of the period, notably Yajñavalkya, who was a pioneer of new religious ideas.

The primary motive of the Upanishads is a desire for mystical knowledge that would ensure freedom from "re-death." Throughout the later Vedic period, the idea that the world of heaven was not the end--and that even in heaven death was inevitable--had been growing. For Vedic thinkers, the fear of the impermanence of religious merit and its loss in the hereafter, as well as the fear-provoking anticipation of the transience of any form of existence after death, culminating in the much-feared repeated death (punarmrtyu), assumed the character of an obsession. The means of escaping and conquering death and of attaining integral life devised in the Brahmanas were of a ritual nature, but in one of the oldest Upanishads, the Brhadaranyaka (c. 10th-5th century BC), more emphasis was placed on the knowledge of the cosmic connection underlying ritual. When the doctrine of the identity of atman (the Self) and brahman was established in the Upanishads, the true knowledge of the Self and the realization of this identity was (by those sages who were inclined to meditative thought) substituted for the ritual method.

In the following centuries, the main theories connected with the divine essence underlying the world were harmonized and synthetically combined, and the tendency was to extol one god as the supreme Lord and Originator (Ishvara), who is at the same time Purusa and Prajapati and brahman and the inner Self (atman) of all beings. For those who worshiped him, he became the goal of identificatory meditation, which leads to complete cessation of phenomenal existence and becomes the refuge of those who seek eternal peace.

The period during which the Upanishads were composed was one of much social, political, and economic upheaval. Rural tribal society was disappearing, and the adjustments of the people to urban living under a monarchy probably provoked many psychological and religious responses. During this period many groups of mystics, world-renouncers, and forest-dwellers appeared in India, and these included the authors of the Upanishads. Among the more important practices and doctrines of these world-renouncers were asceticism and the concept of rebirth or transmigration.

The Rigveda shows few examples of asceticism, except among the munis (shamans). The Atharvaveda describes another class of religious adepts, or specialists, the vratyas, particularly associated with the region of Magadha (west central Bihar). The vratya was a wandering hierophant (one who manifested the Holy) who remained outside the regular system of Vedic religion. He traveled from place to place in a bullock cart with an apprentice and with a woman who appears to have been used for ritual prostitution. Flagellation and other forms of self-mortification seem to have been part of his routine. Efforts were made by the orthodox to bring the vratyas into the Vedic system by special rituals of conversion, and it may be that these people helped to introduce non-Aryan beliefs and practices into Vedic religion. At the same time, the more complex sacrifices of the later Vedic period demanded purificatory rituals, such as fasting and vigil, as part of the preparations for the ceremony. Thus there was a growing tendency toward the mortification of the flesh.

The origin and the development of the belief in the transmigration of souls are very obscure. A few passages suggest that this doctrine was known even in the days of the Rigveda, but it was first clearly propounded in the earliest Upanishad--the Brhadaranyaka. There it is stated that normally the soul returns to Earth and is reborn in human or animal form. This doctrine of samsara (reincarnation) is attributed to the sage Uddalaka Aruni, who is said to have learned it from a Ksatriya chief. In the same text, the doctrine of karma (actions), according to which the soul achieves a happy or unhappy rebirth according to its works in the previous life, also occurs for the first time, attributed to Yajñavalkya. Both doctrines appear to have been new and strange ones, circulating among small groups of ascetics who were disinclined to make them public, perhaps for fear of the orthodox priests. These doctrines must have spread rapidly, for in the later Upanishads and in the earliest Buddhist and Jain scriptures they are common knowledge.


1) The Vedangas.

Toward the end of the Vedic period, and more or less simultaneously with the production of the principal Upanishads, concise, technical, and usually aphoristic texts were composed about various subjects relating to the proper and timely performance of the Vedic sacrificial rituals. These were eventually labeled as Vedangas ("Studies Accessory to the Veda"). (see also Index: Smrti)

The intense preoccupation with the liturgy gave rise to scholarly disciplines that were part of the Vedic erudition. There were six such fields: (1) shiksa (instruction), which explains the proper articulation and pronunciation of the Vedic texts. Different branches had different ways of pronouncing the texts, and these variations were recorded in pratishakhyas (literally, "Instructions for the shakhas"--branches), four of which are extant; (2) chandas (metre), of which there remains only one late representative; (3) vyakarana (analysis and derivation), in which the language is grammatically described--Panini's famous grammar (c. 400 BC) and the pratishakhyas are the oldest examples of this discipline; (4) nirukta (lexicon), which discusses and gives meanings for difficult words, represented by the Nirukta of Yaska (c. 600 BC); (5) jyotisa (luminaries), a system of astronomy and astrology used to determine the right times for rituals; and (6) kalpa (mode of performance), which studies the correct ways of performing the ritual.

Of special importance are the texts constituting the Kalpa Sutras (collections of aphorisms on the mode of ritual performance). The composition of these texts was begun around 600 BC by Brahmans belonging to the ritual schools (shakhas), each of which was attached to a particular recension of one of the four Vedas. A complete Kalpa Sutra contains four principal components: (1) a Shrauta Sutra, which establishes the rules for performing the more complex rituals of the Vedic repertoire; (2) a Shulba Sutra, which shows how to make the geometric calculations necessary for the proper construction of the ritual arena; (3) a Grhya Sutra, which explains the rules for performing the domestic rites, including the life-cycle rituals (called the samskaras); and (4) a Dharma Sutra, which provides the rules for the conduct of life. (see also Index: Kalpa-sutra, Shrauta-sutra, Grhya-sutra, dharmasutra)

Society was ritually stratified in the four classes, each of which had its own dharma (law), or eternal norm of conduct. The ideal life was constructed through sacraments in the course of numerous ceremonies, performed by the upper classes, that carried the individual from conception to cremation in a series of complex rites. The Grhya Sutras show that in the popular religion of the time there were many minor divinities who are rarely mentioned in the literature of the large-scale sacrifices but who were probably far more influential on the lives of most people than were the great gods of Vedism.

2) Dharma Sutra and Dharma Shastra.

Among the texts inspired by the Veda are the Dharma Sutras, or manuals on dharma, which contain rules of conduct and rites as they were practiced in a number of branches of the Vedic schools. Their principal contents address the duties of people at various stages of life or ashramas (studenthood, householdership, retirement, and asceticism); dietary regulations; offenses and expiations; and the rights and duties of kings. They also discuss purification rites, funerary ceremonies, forms of hospitality, and daily oblations. Finally, they even mention juridical matters. The more important of these texts are the sutras of Gautama, Baudhayana, and Apastamba. Although the direct relationship is not clear, the contents of these works were further elaborated in the more systematic Dharma Shastras, which in turn became the basis of Hindu law.

First among them stands the Dharma Shastra of Manu, also known as the Manu-smrti ("Tradition of Manu"; c. AD 200), with 2,694 stanzas divided into 12 chapters. It deals with various topics such as cosmogony, definition of dharma, the sacraments, initiation and Vedic study, the eight forms of marriage, hospitality and funerary rites, dietary laws, pollution and purification, rules for women and wives, royal law, 18 categories of juridical matters, and finally more religious matters, including donations, rites of reparation, the doctrine of karma, the soul, and punishment in hell. Law in the juridical sense is thus completely embedded in religious law and practice. The framework is provided by the model of the four-class society. The influence of the Dharma Shastra of Manu has been enormous, as it provided Hindu society with its practical morality. For large parts of the Indian subcontinent, Manu's text--mediated by its commentaries, notably that of Medhatithi (9th century)--has been the law.

Second only to Manu is the Dharma Shastra of Yajñavalkya; its 1,013 stanzas are distributed under the three headings of good conduct, law, and expiation. Its commentary, Mitaksara of Vijñaneshvara (11th century), has extended its influence.

3) Smriti texts.

The shastras are a part of the Smriti ("Remembered," or traditional) literature which, like the sutra literature that preceded it, stresses the religious merit of gifts to Brahmans. Because kings often transferred the revenues of villages or groups of villages to Brahmans, either singly or in corporate groups, the status and wealth of the priestly class rose steadily. In the agraharas, as the settlements of Brahmans were called, they were encouraged to devote themselves to the study of the Vedas and the subsidiary studies associated with them; but many Brahmans also developed the sciences of the period, such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, while others cultivated literature.

The Smriti texts are binding to this day on orthodox Hindus, and until quite recently Hindu family law was based on them. Although there is evidence of divorce in early Indian history, by the Gupta period marriage was solemnized by lengthy sacred rites and was virtually indissoluble. Intercaste marriage was becoming rarer and more difficult, and child marriage and the rite of suttee were already in existence, although less frequent than they later became. One of the earliest definite records of a widow burning herself on her husband's pyre is found in an inscription from Eran, Madhya Pradesh, dated 510, but the custom had been followed sporadically long before this. From the 6th century AD onward, such occurrences became frequent in certain parts of India, particularly in Rajasthan.


During the centuries immediately preceding and following the beginning of the Christian era, the recension of the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, took shape out of existing material such as heroic epic stories, mythology, philosophy, and above all the discussion of the problem of dharma. Much of the material of which the epics are composed dates far back into the Vedic period, while the rest continued to be added until well into the medieval period. It is conventional, however, to date the recension of the Sanskrit texts to the period from 300 BC to AD 300 for the Mahabharata and to the period from 200 BC to AD 200 for the Ramayana. (see also Index: Indian literature)

1) The Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata ("Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty"), a text of some 100,000 verses attributed to the sage Vyasa, was preserved both orally and in manuscript form for centuries. The central plot concerns a great battle between the five sons of Pandu, called the Pandavas (Arjuna, Yudhisthira, Bhima, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva), and the sons of Pandu's brother Dhrtarastra. The battle eventually leads to the destruction of the entire race, save for one survivor who continues the dynasty. As each of the heroes is the son of a god (Indra, Dharma, Vayu, and the Ashvins, respectively), the epic is deeply infused with religious implications. There are, moreover, many passages in which dharma is systematically treated, so that Hindus regard the Mahabharata as one of the Dharma Shastras. Religious practice takes the form of Vedic ritual on official occasions, pilgrimage, and, to some extent, adoration of gods. Apart from the Bhagavadgita (part of book 6) much of the didactic material is found in the Book of the Forest (book 3), in which sages teach the exiled heroes, and in the Book of Peace (book 12), in which the wise Bhisma expounds on religious and moral matters.

The Vedic gods have lost importance and survive as figures of folklore. Prajapati of the Upanishads is popularly personified as the god Brahma, who creates all classes of beings and dispenses boons. Of far greater importance is Krishna. In the epic he is a hero, a leader of his people, and an active helper of his friends. His biography as it is known later is not worked out; still, the text is the source of early Krishnaism. Not everywhere, and certainly not by everyone, is Krishna considered a god, and even as god his stature is superhuman rather than divine. He is occasionally, but not significantly, identified with Vishnu. Later, as one of the most important of the incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna undergoes a complex development as an incarnate god. In the Mahabharata he is primarily a hero, a chieftain of a tribe, and an ally of the Pandavas, the heroes of the Mahabharata. He accomplishes heroic feats with the Pandava prince Arjuna. Typically he helps the Pandava brothers to settle in their kingdom and, when the kingdom is taken from them, to regain it. In the process he emerges as a great teacher who reveals the Bhagavadgita the most important religious text of Hinduism. In the further development of the Krishna myth, this dharmic aspect recedes and makes way for an idyllic myth about Krishna's boyhood, when he plays with and loves young cowherd women (gopis) in the village while hiding from an uncle who threatens to kill him. The influence of this theme on art has been profound. But there is a shadow side to this idyll. Even in the Mahabharata, where it is often said that Krishna becomes incarnate in order to sustain dharma when it wanes and to combat adharma (forces contrary to dharma), he himself commits a number of deeds in direct violation of the warrior ethic and is indirectly responsible for the destruction of his entire family. This adharmic shadow is also cast in the Puranic idyll because the gopis that he woos are the wives of other men.

Far remoter than the instantly accessible Krishna is Shiva, who also is hailed as the supreme god in several myths recounted of him, notably the Story of the Five Indras, Arjuna's battle with him, and his destruction of the sacrifice of Daksha. The epic is rich in information about sacred places, and it is clear that making pilgrimages and bathing in sacred rivers constituted an important part of religious life. Occasionally these sacred places are associated with sanctuaries of gods. More frequent are accounts of mythical events concerning the particular place and enriching its sanctity. Numerous descriptions of pilgrimages (tirthayatra) give the authors opportunities to detail local myths and legends. In addition to these, countless edifying stories shed light on the religious and moral concerns of the age. Almost divine are the towering ascetics capable of fantastic feats, whose benevolence is sought and whose curses are feared.

2) The Ramayana.

The classical narrative of Rama is recounted in the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana by the sage Valmiki, who is the traditional author of the epic. Rama is deprived of the kingdom to which he is heir and is exiled to the forest with his wife Sita and his brother Laksmana. While there, Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. In their search for Sita, the brothers ally themselves with a monkey king whose general, Hanuman (who later became a monkey deity), finds Sita in Lanka. In a cosmic battle, Ravana is defeated and Sita rescued. When Rama is restored to his kingdom, the populace casts doubt on Sita's chastity while a captive. To reassure them, Rama banishes Sita to a hermitage, where she bears him two sons and eventually dies by reentering the earth from which she had been born. Rama's reign becomes the prototype of the harmonious and just kingdom, to which all kings should aspire. Rama and Sita set the ideal of conjugal love; Rama's relationship to his father is the ideal of filial love; and Rama and Laksmana represent perfect fraternal love. Everything in the myth is designed for harmony, which after being disrupted is at last regained.

In all but its oldest form, the Ramayana identifies Rama with Vishnu as another incarnation and remains the principal source for Ramaism (worship of Rama). Though not as long as the Mahabharata, the text contains a great deal of comparable religious material in the form of myths, stories of great sages, and accounts of exemplary human behaviour.

Rama also has a shadow side. His killing of the monkey king Valin (or Balin) in violation of all rules of combat and his banishment of the innocent Sita are troublesome to subsequent tradition. These problems of the "subtlety" of dharma and the inevitability of its violation, central themes in both epics, remained the locus of philosophical argument throughout Indian history. Apart from their influence as Sanskrit texts, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana have made an impact in southern and Southeast Asia, where their stories have been continually retold in vernacular and oral versions, and their influence on Indian and Southeast Asian art has been profound. Even today, the epic stories and tales are part of the early education of all Hindus; a continuous reading of the Ramayana is an act of great merit, and a popular enactment of one version is an annual event across northern India.

3) The Bhagavadgita.

The Bhagavadgita ("Song of the Lord") is the most influential Indian religious text, although it is not strictly Sruti, or revelation. It is a brief text, 700 verses divided into 18 chapters, in quasi-dialogue form. When the opposing parties in the Mahabharata war stand ready to begin battle, Arjuna, the hero of the favoured party, despairs at the thought of having to kill his kinsmen and lays down his arms. Krishna, his charioteer, friend, and adviser, thereupon argues against Arjuna's failure to do his duty as a noble. The argument soon becomes elevated into a general discourse on religious and philosophical matters. The text is typical of Hinduism in that it is able to reconcile different viewpoints, however incompatible they seem to be, and yet emerge with an undeniable character of its own. Three different ways of releasing the self from transmigration are set forth. There is the discipline of action (karma-yoga): against the views held by Buddhism, Jainism, and Samkhya philosophy, which hold that all acts bind and that therefore abstention from action is a precondition of release, Krishna argues that it is not the acts that bind but the selfish intentions with which they are performed. He argues for a self-discipline in which a person does his duties according to the dictates of prescribed tasks (dharma), but without any self-interest in the personal consequences of the acts. On the other hand, he does not deny the relevance of the discipline of knowledge (jnana-yoga), in which one seeks release in a yogic (ascetic) course of withdrawal and concentration. Then the tone changes and becomes intensely religious: Krishna reveals himself as the Supreme God and grants Arjuna a vision of himself. The third, and perhaps superior, way of release is through a discipline of devotion to God (bhakti-yoga) in which the self humbly worships the loving God and in release hopes not so much for personal liberation from transmigration but for an eternal vision of God. In response to this devotion, God will extend his grace to his votaries, enabling them to overcome the bonds of this world.

The Bhagavadgita is not a systematic theological treatise, and it combines many different elements from Samkhya and Vedanta philosophy. In matters of religion, its important contribution was the new emphasis placed on devotion, which has since remained a central path in Hinduism. In addition, the popular theism evidenced elsewhere in the Mahabharata and the transcendentalism of the Upanishads converge, and a God of personal characteristics is identified with the brahman of the Vedic tradition. In its three disciplines the Bhagavadgita gives a typology of the three dominant trends of Indian religion: dharma-based Brahmanism, enlightenment-based asceticism, and devotion-based theism.

The influence of the Bhagavadgita has been profound. It was a popular text, open to all who would listen, and it was fundamental for all later Hinduism. Vedanta philosophy recognizes it, with the Upanishads and the Brahmasutras (brief doctrinal rules concerning brahman), as the third authoritative text, so that all philosophers wrote commentaries on it. Even in the 20th century, as is evident from the lives of such diverse personalities as the Indian freedom fighters Tilak and Gandhi, who acknowledged its influence, it has continued to shape the attitudes of Hindus.

The Bhagavadgita, by demanding that God's worshipers fulfill their duties--"better one's own duty ill-done than another's well-performed" (3.35)--and observe the rules of moral conduct, bridged the chasm between ascetic disciplines and the search for emancipation, on the one hand, and the exigencies of daily life, on the other. For those who must lead a normal life in this world, the Bhagavadgita gave a moral code and a prospect of final liberation. Thus, the work founded, on the basis of the Vaishnava tradition, what may be called a social ethic. Because God is in all beings as their physical and psychical substratum--and as he exists collectively in human society--the wise should not see any difference between their fellow creatures and should love God in them equally. Like God himself, the devotee should be impartial--the same to friend as to foe. The serious endeavour of realizing God's presence in human beings requires humility and a complete unconsciousness of oneself as a corollary of the consciousness of the Presence. It demands the selfless dedication of all actions, duties, and ceremonies to the Lord and obliges a person to promote both individual and social uplift and welfare. Yet, by emphasizing that all humans have not only different propensities for each of the three disciplines of release but also different responsibilities arising out of their births in different castes, the Bhagavadgita also provided a powerful justification for the caste system.

4) The Puranas.

The period of the Guptas saw the production of the first of the series (traditionally 18) of often voluminous texts that treat in encyclopaedic manner the myths, legends, and genealogies of gods, heroes, and saints. The usual list of the Puranas is as follows: the Brahma-, Brahmanda-, Brahmavaivarta-, Markandeya-, Bhavisya-, and Vamana-Puranas; the Visnu-, Bhagavata-, Naradiya-, Garuda-, Padma-, and Varaha-Puranas; and the Shiva-, Linga-, Skanda-, Agni- (or Vayu-), Matsya-, and Kurma-Puranas. Many deal with the same or similar materials.

With the epics, with which they are closely linked in origin, the Puranas became the scriptures of the common people; they were available to everybody, including women and members of the lowest order of society (Shudras), and were not, like the Vedas, restricted to initiated men of the three higher orders. The origin of much of their contents may be non-Brahmanic, but they were accepted and adapted by the Brahmans, who thus brought new elements into their orthodox religion.

At first sight the discontinuity between Vedic and Puranic mythology appears to be so sharp that they might be considered as being of altogether different traditions. Yet it soon becomes clear that they are in part continuous and that what appears to be discrepancy is merely a difference between the liturgical emphasis of the Vedas and the more eclectic genres of the epics and Puranas. For example, the great god of the Rigveda is Indra, the god of war and monsoon, prototype of the warrior; but for the population as a whole he was more important as the rain god than the war god, and it is as such that he survives in early Puranic mythology. Little is learned in the Veda of goddesses, yet they rose steadily in recognition in Puranic mythology.

Although in the Puranas some of the Vedic gods have an afterlife in which their importance is reduced, other gods, previously of less official significance, arise. The two principal gods of Puranic Hinduism are Vishnu and Rudra- Shiva. Both are known in the Vedas, though they play only minor roles: Vishnu is the strider who, with his three strides, established the three worlds (heaven, atmosphere, and Earth) and thus is present in all three orders; and Rudra-Shiva is a mysterious god who must be propitiated.

Puranic literature documents the stages of the rise of the two gods as they eventually attract to themselves the identities of other popular gods and heroes: Vishnu assumes the powers of those gods who protect the world and its order, Shiva the powers that are outside and beyond Vishnu's. To these two is often added Brahma, creator of the world and teacher of the gods. Although still a cosmic figure, Brahma appears in the Puranas primarily to appease over-powerful sages and demons by granting them boons.

In the Puranic literature of AD 500 to 1000, sectarianism creeps into mythology, and one god is extolled above the others. Of prime interest are cosmology, myths of the great ascetics (who in some respects eclipse the old gods), and myths of sacred places, usually rivers and fords, whose powers to reward the pilgrim are often cited and related to local legends.

i) Cosmogony.

Puranic cosmogony greatly expands upon the already complex cosmogonies of the Brahmanas, Upanishads, and epics. According to one of many versions of the story of the origin of the universe, in the beginning the god Narayana (identified with Vishnu) floated on the snake Ananta ("Endless") on the primeval waters. From his navel grew a lotus, in which the god Brahma was born reciting the four Vedas with his four mouths and creating the "Egg of Brahma," which contains all the worlds. There are numerous other accounts that refer to other demiurges, or creators, like Manu (the primordial ancestor of humankind).

Although the Vedas do not seem to conceive of an end to the world, Puranic cosmogony accounts for the periodic destruction of the world at the close of an eon, when the Fire of Time will put an end to the universe. Elsewhere the destruction is specifically attributed to the god Shiva, who dances the tandava dance of doomsday and destroys the world. Yet this end is not an absolute end but a temporary suspension (pralaya), after which creation begins again in the same fashion.

ii) Cosmology.

The Purana texts present an elaborate mythical cosmography. The old tripartite universe persists, but it is modified. There are three levels--heaven, Earth, and the netherworld--but the first and last are further subdivided into vertical layers. Earth consists of seven circular continents, the central one surrounded by the salty ocean and each of the other concentric continents by oceans of other liquids. In the centre of the central mainland stands the cosmic mountain Meru; the southernmost portion of this mainland is Bharatavarsa, the old name for India. Above Earth there are seven layers in heaven, at the summit of which is the world of Brahma (brahma-loka); there are also seven layers below Earth, the location of hells inhabited by serpents and demons of various kinds.

5) Myths of time and eternity.

The oldest texts speak little of time and eternity. It is taken for granted that the gods, though born, are immortal; they are called "sons of Immortality." In the Atharvaveda, Time appears personified as creator and ruler of everything. In the Brahmanas and later Vedic texts there are repeated esoteric speculations concerning the year, which is the unit of creation and thus is identified with the creative and regenerative sacrifice and with Prajapati ("Lord of Creatures"), the god of the sacrifice. Time is an endless repetition of the year, and thus of creation; this is the starting point of later notions of repeated creations.

Puranic myths develop around the notion of yuga (world age), of which there are four. These four yugas, Krta, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali--they are named after the four throws, from best to worst, in a dice game -- constitute a mahayuga (large yuga), and, like the comparable ages of the world depicted by the Greek poet Hesiod, are periods of increasing deterioration. Time itself also deteriorates, for the ages are successively shorter. Each yuga is preceded by an intermediate "dawn" and "dusk." The Krta Yuga lasts 4,000 years, with a dawn and dusk of 400 years each, or a total of 4,800 years; Treta a total of 3,600 years; Dvapara 2,400 years; and Kali (the current one), 1,200 years. A mahayuga thus lasts 12,000 years and observes the usual coefficient of 12, derived from the 12-month year, the unit of creation. These years are "years of the gods," each lasting 360 human years, 360 being the days in a year. Two thousand mahayugas form one kalpa (eon), which is itself but one day in the life of Brahma, whose full life lasts 100 years; the present is the midpoint of his life. Each kalpa is followed by an equally long period of abeyance (pralaya), in which the universe is asleep. Seemingly the universe will come to an end at the end of Brahma's life, but Brahmas too are innumerable, and a new universe is reborn with each new Brahma. (see also Index: Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, Kali Yuga)

Another myth lays particular stress on the destructive aspect of time. Everything dies in time: "Time ripens the creatures, Time rots them" (Mahabharata 1.1.188). "Time" (kala) is thus another name for the god of death, Yama. The name is associated especially with Shiva in his destructive aspect as Mahakala and is extended to his consort, who may be known as the goddess Kali or Mahakali. On a mythological level the speculations on time reflect the doctrine of the eternal return in the philosophy of transmigration. The universe returns just as, after death, a soul returns to be born again. In the oldest description of the process (Chandogya Upanishad 5.3.1.-5.3.10), the account is still mythic, but with tendencies to naturalism. The soul on departing may go either of two ways: the Way of the Gods, which brings it through days, bright fortnights, the half year of the northern course of the Sun, to the full year, and eventually to brahman; or the Way of the Ancestors, through nights, dark fortnights, the half year of the southern course of the Sun, and, failing to reach the full year, eventually back to Earth clinging to raindrops. If the soul happens to light on a plant that is subsequently eaten by a man, the man may impregnate a woman and thus the soul is reborn. Once more the significance of the year as a symbol of complete time is clear.

6) Myths of the gods.

According to the epic Mahabharata (1.1.39), there are 33,333 Hindu deities. In other, later sources, that number is multiplied a thousandfold. Usually, however, the gods are referred to as "The Thirty-Three."

The tendency toward pantheism increased in Puranic Hinduism and led to a kind of theism that exalted several supreme gods who were not prominently represented in the Vedic corpus, while many of the Vedic gods disappeared or were greatly diminished in stature. New patterns became apparent: the notion of rita, the basis of the conception of cosmic order, was reshaped into that of dharma, or the religious-social tasks and obligations of humans in society that maintain order in the universe. There also was a broader vision of the universe and the place of divinity.

Three principal moments are envisioned in the life of the cosmos: creation, maintenance, and destruction. Important myths about the gods are tied to these moments. Traditionally, Brahma is the creator, emanating the universe and simultaneously promulgating the four Vedas from his four mouths. The conception of time as almost endlessly repeating itself in kalpas detracts, however, from the uniqueness of the first creation, and Brahma becomes little more than a demiurge. Far more attention is given to the maintenance and to the destruction of the universe.

Maintenance and destruction are symptomatic of order and disorder, and order and disorder in turn are closely associated with society and the realm outside society. The god Vishnu, who became the god of maintenance, is thus also the social god par excellence, while Shiva, partly established as the agent of destruction, is in many respects an asocial god. Vishnu is the saviour from lawlessness, destroyer of those who threaten the good order, and king of the harmonious realm. Shiva represents untamed wildness; he is the lone hunter and dancer, the yogi (the accomplished practitioner of yoga) withdrawn from society, and the ash-covered ascetic. The distinction between the gods is not between good and evil but rather between two ways in which the divine manifests itself in this world--as both benevolent and fearful, both harmonious and disharmonious.

i) Bhagavata-Purana.

South Indian devotionalism produced many works in Sanskrit; the most important was the Bhagavata-Purana which soon became known throughout India. Its 10th book is devoted entirely to Krishna, and there, for the first time, his adventures as a lovable child and as a youth are recounted in great detail. The Bhagavata-Purana may have been written in the 10th century and is certainly a product of the Dravidian south. The doctrine of the avatars of Vishnu was by now in full force, and the Bhagavata recognizes 22 of them.

While all Puranas have exerted influence on Hinduism--and are in turn reflections of trends in Hinduism--none can compare in popularity with the Bhagavata-Purana ("The Purana of the Devotees of the Blessed Lord Krishna"), the Purana of the god Krishna par excellence. It differs from the other Puranas in that it is planned as a unit and that far greater care is taken with both metre and style. Its nearly 18,000 stanzas are divided into 12 books. The most popular part of the Purana is the description of the life of Krishna, for which it has since remained the principal authority. In this work far greater emphasis than in other texts is placed on the youth of Krishna: the threats against his life by the tyrant Kamsa, his flight and life among the cowherds at Gokula, and especially his adventures and pranks with the cowherd girls. This treatment has remained classic, and the popularity of the text has led to the survival of many manuscripts, some beautifully illustrated. Much of medieval Indian painting and an enormous amount of vernacular literature draw upon the Bhagavata-Purana for their themes.

The Bhagavata-Purana teaches a quite representative Vaishnava theology: God is transcendent and beyond human understanding; he is the universal causality, creator and substratum; he is time and the bearer of all possibilities that are susceptible of actualization; through his incomprehensible creative ability (maya) or specific power (atmashakti) he expands himself into the universe, which he pervades and which is his outward appearance (his immanence). Thus he is the All and everything and the inner Self of all beings. When God is conceived of as brahman, he is immutable and therefore must be the Purusa (cosmic Person) who is not the universe; if, however, his creation is thought to be in him, he is the world.

Accepting the Bhagavata-Purana as a high scriptural authority, Vaishnavism considers God the ground and subsistence of whatever exists, from whom all objects have come, by whom they continue to be, toward whom they move, and into whom they enter at the final dissolution at the end of this world, unless they already came to him in the state of emancipation (moksha). Between God and the world there is a relation of inconceivable difference in identity and identity in difference (acintyabhedabheda; literally, "unthinkable difference and nondifference"). The Lord creates the world merely because he wills to do so. Creation, or rather the process of differentiation and integration, is his sport (lila). The world is real, but reality has two aspects: the transcendent and eternally real and the reality that is progressively realized and, in the process, bound up with the eternal aspect.

One of the chief purposes of the Bhagavata-Purana is the glorification of an intensely personal and passionate bhakti that gradually develops into a decidedly erotic mysticism, independent of all alternative means of salvation. According to this text, there are nine characteristics of bhakti: listening to the sin-destroying sacred histories; praising God's name; remembering and meditating on his nature and salutary endeavour (resulting in a spiritual fusion of devotee and God); serving his image; adoring him; respectful salutation; servitude; friendship; and self-surrender. Meritorious works are also an element of bhakti.

According to the Bhagavata-Purana, the highest Bhagavata--worshiper of the Bhagavat (God: "the Adorable One")--sees himself in all beings and all beings in the Bhagavat; free from hatred and prejudice and knowing God to be present in all beings, he loves him by loving them. Those who cannot reach this level can at least have friendly relations with coreligionists, irrespective of their birth or social status, and take compassion upon the infatuated. The true Vaishnava should worship Vishnu or one of his avatars, construct temples, bathe in holy rivers, study religious texts, serve superiors, and honour cows. In social intercourse with the adherents of other religions he tends to be passively intolerant, avoiding direct contact, without injuring them or prejudicing their rights. He should not neglect other gods but must avoid following the rituals of their followers. Misuse of the advantages of birth is severely condemned, and those who apply themselves mainly to the acquisition and enjoyment of wealth are not well qualified for bhakti. The concept of class divisions is accepted, but the idea that possession of the characteristics of a particular class is the inevitable result of birth is decidedly rejected. Because sin is antithetical to bhakti, a Brahman who is not free from falsehood, hypocrisy, envy, aggression, and pride cannot be the highest of men, and many persons of low social status may have some advantage over him in moral attitude and behaviour. The most desirable behaviour is compatible with bhakti but independent of class.

In establishing bhakti religion against any form of opposition and defending the devout irrespective of birth, the Bhagavata religion did not actively propagate social reform; but the attempts to make religion an efficient vehicle of new spiritual and social ideas, especially Caitanya's movement, contributed, to a certain extent, to the emancipation of lowborn followers of Vishnu.


1) Vaishnavism.

Vaishnavism is the worship of Vishnu and his various incarnations. During a long and complex development from Vedic times, there arose many Vaishnava groups with differing beliefs and aims. Some of the major Vaishnava groups include the Shrivaisnavas and Dvaitins ("philosophical or religious dualists") of South India, the followers of the teachings of Vallabha in western India, and several Vaishnava groups in Bengal in eastern India, who follow teachings derived from those of the saint Caitanya. The majority of Vaishnava believers, however, take what they like from the various traditions and blend it with various local practices. (see also Index: Shaivism)

In the Veda, Vishnu is the god of far-extending motion and pervasiveness who, for humans in distress, particularly through constrictions, penetrates and traverses the triple spaces to make their existence possible. All beings are said to dwell in his three strides or footsteps (tri-vikrama): his highest step, or abode, is beyond mortal ken in his dear and highest resort, the realm of heaven. So Vishnu is also the god of the pillar of the universe and is identified with the sacrifice. He imparts his all-pervading power to the sacrificer who imitates his strides and so identifies himself with the god, thus conquering the universe and attaining "the goal, the safe foundation, the highest light" (Shatapatha Brahmana).

In the centuries preceding the beginning of the Christian era, Vishnu became the Ishvara (immanent deity) of his special worshipers, fusing with the Purusa-Prajapati figure; with Narayana, whose cult discloses a prominent influence of ascetics; with Krishna, who in the Bhagavadgita revealed a popular and universal religion, open to everybody desiring to lead a socially normal life while having a prospect of final liberation; and with Vasudeva, adored by a group known as the Pañcaratras.

Vishnu with his 10 avatars (incarnations): Fish, Tortoise, Boar,
By courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The extensive mythology attached to Vishnu consists largely of the mythology of his incarnations (avatars). Although the notion of "incarnation" is found elsewhere in Hinduism, it is basic to Vaishnavism. The concept is particularly geared to the social role of Vishnu; whenever dharma (universal law and order) is in danger, Vishnu departs from his heaven, Vaikuntha, and incarnates himself in an earthly form to restore the good order. Each of his incarnations has a particular mythology. The classical number of these incarnations is 10, ascending from theriomorphic (animal form) to fully anthropomorphic manifestations. These are: Fish (Matsya), Tortoise (Kurma), Boar (Varaha), Man-Lion (Narasimha), Dwarf (Vamana), Rama-with-the-Ax (Parashurama), King Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and the future incarnation, Kalkin.

A god thus active for the good of society and the individual inspires love. Vishnu has indeed been the object of devotional religion (bhakti) to a marked degree, but mainly in his incarnations, and among them specially as Krishna and Rama. The god rewards devotion with his grace, through which the votary may be lifted from transmigration to release. Like most other gods, Vishnu has his especial entourage: his wife is Laksmi or Shri, the lotus goddess, granter of beauty, wealth, and good luck. She came forth from the ocean when gods and demons churned it in order to recover from its depths the ambrosia or elixir of immortality, amrtaAt the beginning of the commercial year special worship is paid to her for success in personal affairs. Vishnu's mount is the bird Garuda, archenemy of snakes, and his emblems are the lotus, club, discus (as a weapon), and a conch shell, which he carries in his four hands. (see also Index: Laksmi)

Whatever justification the different Vaishnava groups (e.g., the Shrivaisnavas of South India or the worshipers of Vishnu Vithoba in Maharashtra) offer for their philosophical position, all Vaishnavas believe in God as a person with distinctively high qualities and worship him through his manifestations and representations. Vaishnava faith is essentially monotheistic, whether the object of adoration be Vishnu Narayana or one of his avatars such as Rama or Krishna. Preference for any one of these manifestations is largely a matter of tradition. Thus, most South Indian Shrivaisnavas prefer Vishnu, Rama, or Shri (Vishnu's consort); the North Indian groups prefer Krishna. The avatar doctrine, by accommodating the cults of various divine or heroic figures within a monotheistic framework, proved to be a powerful integrating force. Whenever the dharma declines and evil and general disaster threaten, God, the protector and preserver of the world, emanates himself and assumes an earthly form to guard the good, to destroy the wicked, and to confirm the dharma. The benevolence and beneficial activity of these figures (Rama, Krishna, et al.) is, however, occasionally in doubt. In many mythical tales, Vishnu is depicted as a versatile figure of great adaptability, able, for instance, to disguise himself as a fascinating young woman in order to trick the asuras (antigods) out of the possession of the newly produced amrta. His absorbing, many-sided character was a source of inspiration for various stories in which he often acts deceitfully, selfishly, or helplessly. The scene of his great deeds is usually laid in this world, especially India, in places often mentioned by name. The narratives are full of the miraculous, but their central figures give the impression of human, sometimes all too human, characters whose actions and reactions are within the limits of ordinary understanding.

A pronounced feature of Vaishnavism is the strong tendency to devotion (bhakti), which is generally considered to be "the heart of worship," the sole true religious attitude toward a personal God, and the very foundation of the realization of man's relationship with him. Characterized by a continual consciousness of participating in God's essence, bhakti is the disinterested performance of all deeds for him, a passionate love and adoration of God, and a complete surrender to him. The widespread bhakti movement is a corollary of the Vaishnava ideal of a loving personal God and aversion to a conception of salvation that puts an end to all consciousness or individuality. Attesting to the superiority of a mystic and emotional attitude to the meditative or preponderantly ritualistic means to the highest goal, the practical and theoretical development of the bhakti idea constitutes one of the main points of difference among the several Vaishnava schools. The belief expressed in the Bhagavadgita--that those who seek refuge in God with all their being will, by his benevolence and grace (prasada), win peace supreme, the eternal abode--was generally accepted: bhakti will result in divine intercession with regard to the consequences of one's deeds. Among many followers of Ramanuja, however, complete self-surrender (prapatti) came to be distinguished from bhakti as a superior means of spiritual realization.

2) Saivism.

The character and position of the Vedic god Rudra--called Shiva, "the Mild or Auspicious One," when this aspect of his ambivalent nature is emphasized--remain clearly perceptible in some of the important features of the great god Shiva, who together with Vishnu came to dominate Hinduism.

During a complex development from ancient, possibly in part from pre-Vedic, times, many different Shaiva groups arose. Major groups such as the Lingayats of southern India and the Kashmir Shaivas contributed the theological principles of Shaivism, and Shaiva worship became a complex amalgam of pan-Indian Shaiva philosophy and local or folk worship.

In the minds of the ancient Indians Shiva must have been primarily the divine representative of the uncultivated, dangerous, unreliable, and much-to-be-feared aspects of nature. Shiva's character lent itself to being split into partial manifestations--each said to represent only an aspect of him--as well as to assimilating divine or demoniac powers of a similar nature from other deities. Already in the Rigveda, appeals to him for help in case of disaster--of which he might be the originator--were combined with the confirmation of his great power. In the course of the Vedic period, Shiva--originally a ritual and conceptual outsider, yet a mighty god whose benevolent aspects were readily emphasized--gradually gained access to the circle of respectable gods who preside over various spheres of human interest. Many characteristics of the Vedic Prajapati, the creator, of Indra, the god of the phallus, and of the great Vedic god of fire, Agni, have been integrated into the figure of Shiva.

In those circles that produced the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (c. 400 BC), Shiva rose to the highest rank. Its author uses grandiose terms to show a way of escape from samsara, to proclaim Shiva the sole eternal Lord, and to establish Shiva's existence. In this description of Shiva's nature, some of the most salient features of the later Shiva, the Ishvara (immanent deity), are clearly discernible: he is the ultimate foundation of all existence and the source and ruler of all life, who, while emanating and withdrawing the universe, is the goal of that identificatory meditation that leads to complete cessation from phenomenal existence. While Vishnu became a friend nearer to man, Rudra-Shiva developed into an ambivalent and many-sided lord and master. His "doubles" or partial manifestations, however, were active among mankind: as Pashupati ("Lord of Cattle"), he took over the fetters of the Vedic Varuna; as Aghora ("To Whom Nothing Is Horrible"), he showed the uncanny traits of his nature (evil, death, punishment) and also their opposites.

It is not always clear in particular cases whether Shiva is invoked as a great deva (god) of frightful aspect, capable of conquering demoniac power, or as the boon-giving Lord and protector. The Ishvara idea of a Highest Being demonstrably beyond contingency is rather abstract; hence its propagators needed to use imagery, popular belief, and mythical thought. Shiva might be the sole Principle above change and variation, yet he did not sever his connections with innumerable local deities and much-feared powers worshiped by most Hindus, who still continue to invoke him in magical rites. Whereas Vishnu champions the cause of the gods, Shiva sometimes sides with the demons.

Shiva is a typical example of polarity within the Highest Being because he reconciles in his person semantically opposite though complementary aspects: he is both terrible and mild, creator and agent of reabsorption, eternal rest and ceaseless activity. These seeming contradictions make him a paradoxical figure, transcending humanity and assuming a mysterious sublimity of his own. His character is so complicated and his interests are so widely divergent as to lead him in mythical narratives into conflicting situations. Yet, although Brahman philosophers like to emphasize his ascetic aspects and the ritualists of the Tantric tradition his sexuality, the seemingly opposite strands of his nature are generally accepted as two sides of one character.

Shiva interrupts his austerity and asceticism (tapas), which is sometimes described as continuous, to marry Parvati--he is even said to perform ascetic acts in order to win her love--and he combines the roles of lover and ascetic to such a degree that his wife must be an ascetic (yogi) when he devotes himself to austerities and a lustful mistress when he is in his erotic mode. This dual character finds its explanation in the ancient double conviction that unrestrained sexual intercourse is conducive to the fertility of nature and that the chastity and continence of the ascetic produce marvelous events and have an uncommon influence upon the unseen. By his very chastity, an ascetic accumulates (sexual) power that can be discharged suddenly and completely so as to produce marvelous results such as the fecundation of the soil. From various mythical tales it is seen that both chastity and the loss of chastity are necessary for fertility and the intermittent process of regeneration in nature. Ascetics engaging in erotic and creative experiences are a familiar feature in Hinduism, and the element of teeming sexuality in mythological thought counterbalances the Hindu bent for asceticism. Such sexuality, while rather idyllic in Krishna, assumes a mystical aspect in Shiva, which is why the devotee can see in him the realization of the possibilities of both asceticism and the householder state. His marriage with Parvati is, then, a model of conjugal love, the divine prototype of human marriage, sanctifying the forces that carry on the human race.

Shiva's myths tend to depict him as the absolutely mighty unique One, who is not responsible to anybody or for anything. His many poses express aspects of his nature: as a dancer, he is the originator of the eternal rhythm of the universe; he also catches the waters of the heavenly Ganges River, which destroy all sin; and he wears in his headdress the crescent moon, which drips the nectar of everlasting life.

Shiva represents the unpredictability of divinity. In him the Vedic Rudra is partly continued, but his mythology has become exceedingly complex. He is the hunter who slays and skins his prey and dances a wild dance while covered with the bloody hide. Far from society and the ordered world, he sits on the inaccessible Himalayan plateau of Mount Kailasa, an austere ascetic, averse to love, who burns Kama, the god of love, to ashes with a glance from the third eye--the eye of insight beyond duality--in the middle of his forehead. Yet another epiphany is that of the lingam, an upright rounded post, usually of stone, a formalized phallic symbol, in which form he is worshiped throughout India. And at the end of the eon, he will dance the universe to destruction. He is, nevertheless, invoked as Shiva, Shambhu, Shankara (meaning: "the Auspicious One" or "the Peaceful One"), for the god that can strike down can also spare. Snakes seek his company and twine themselves around his body. He wears a necklace of skulls. He sits in meditation, with his hair braided like a hermit's, his body smeared white with ashes. These ashes recall the burning pyres on which the sannyasis (renouncers) take leave of the social order of the world and set out on a lonely course toward release, carrying with them a human skull.

Like so many ascetics--often irascible and dangerous--Shiva demands to be seduced. His consort is Parvati ("Daughter of the Mountain"), a goddess most unlike the consorts of Vishnu in his various incarnations. She is also personified as the Goddess (Devi "goddess"), Mother (Amba), black and destructive (Kali), fierce (Candika), and well-nigh inaccessible (Durga). As Shiva's female counterpart, she inherits some of Shiva's more fearful aspects. She comes to be regarded as the power (shakti) of Shiva, without which Shiva is literally powerless. Shakti is in turn personified in the form of many different goddesses, often said to be aspects of her.

Thus the spheres of the Vishnu complex and the Shiva complex are very different ones. In important respects they represent the two different ethics of Hinduism: the dharma ethic, which aims at upholding the dharma and the cosmic and social order based on it, and the moksha (liberation) ethic, which searches for release from an order that perpetuates transmigration.

3) Myths of culture heroes.

A culture hero can easily be assimilated to a god by identifying him with an incarnation of a god. Thus great religious teachers are considered manifestations of the god of their devotional preaching, and their lives become part of mythology. The mythology concerning great ascetics is very rich. Practically gods on Earth, these ascetics have amassed tremendous powers that they do not hesitate to use. The sage Kapila, meditating in the netherworld, burned to ashes 60,000 princes who had dug their way to him. Another sage, Bhagiratha, brought the Ganges River down from heaven to sanctify their ashes and, in the process, created the ocean. Agastya, revered as the Brahman who brought Sanskrit civilization to South India, drank and digested the ocean. When the Vindhya mountain range would not stop growing, Agastya crossed it to the south and commanded it to cease growing until his return; he still has not returned. Vishvamitra, a king who became a Brahman, created a new universe with its own galaxies to spite the gods. It is in such myths that the mythopoeic imagination exults in its sensitivity to the awesome, mysterious, and marvelous.

In myths concerning kings and princes, a prevailing theme is the trial of the son by the father. For example, the ancient king Yayati had five sons to whom he wanted to transfer his own senescence for a stipulated period. All refused except the youngest, Puru. As a reward he became his father's successor, and his descendants became the Pauravas, the line of succession or dynasty in which the heroes of the Mahabharata were later born. The latter heroes also underwent a trial when they were exiled from their newly won kingdom; similarly, Rama underwent his ordeal in exile. Heroines undergo their own trials, which usually challenge their chastity, as in the case of Sita in the Ramayana and Draupadi, the one wife of all five Pandava brothers, whose sari became endless when a lustful villain attempted to pull it off.

Moving from myth to legend, there are also stories told of the great teachers, and every founder of a sect is soon deified as an incarnation of a god: the philosopher Shankara (c. 788-820) as an incarnation of Shiva, the religious leader Ramanuja (d. AD 1137) as that of Narayana-Vishnu, and the Bengal teacher Caitanya (1485-1533) simultaneously as that of Krishna and his beloved Radha.

4) Myths of holy rivers and places.

Of particular sanctity in India are the perennial rivers, among which the Ganges stands first. This river, personified as a goddess, originally flowed only in heaven until she was brought down by Bhagiratha to purify the ashes of his ancestors. She came down reluctantly, cascading first on the head of Shiva, in order to break her fall, which would have shattered the Earth. Confluences are particularly holy, and the Ganges' confluence with the Yamuna at Allahabad is the most sacred spot in India. Another river of importance is the Sarasvati, which loses itself in desert; it was personified as a goddess of eloquence and learning. (see also Index: sacred place)

Every major and many minor temples and sanctuaries have their own myths of how they were founded and what miracles were wrought there. The same is true of famous places of pilgrimage, usually at sacred spots near and in rivers; important among these are Vrindavana (Brindaban) on the Yamuna, which is held to be the scene of the youthful adventures of Krishna and the cowherd wives. Another such centre with its own myths is Gaya, especially sacred for the funerary rites that are held there. And there is no spot in Varanasi (Benares) along the Ganges that is without its own mythical history.


Although the details of Indian philosophy, as it was developed by professional philosophers, may be treated as a subject separate from Hinduism (see INDIAN PHILOSOPHY ), certain broad philosophical concepts were absorbed into the myths and rituals of Hindus and are best viewed as a component of the religious tradition.

1) Mysticism.

One of the major trends of Indian religious philosophy is a kind of mysticism: the desire for union of the self with something greater than the self, whether that be defined as a principle that pervades the universe or as a personal God. Hindu mysticism includes both these forms and a great many that lie in between. At one extreme is the realization of the identity of the individual self with the impersonal principle called brahman the position of the Vedanta school of Indian philosophy; and at the other is the intensive devotionalism to a personal God, called by a variety of names, that is found in the bhakti (devotional) sects.

There are four things common to most Hindu mystical thought. First, it is based on experience: the state of realization, whatever it is called, is both knowable and communicable, and the systems are all designed to teach people how to reach it. It is not, in other words, pure speculation. Second, it has as its goal the release of the spirit-substance of the individual from its prison in matter, whether matter be considered real or illusory. Matter is the cause of the suffering of which Buddhism speaks. Third, all the systems recognize the importance or the necessity of the control of the mind and body as a means of realization; sometimes this takes the form of extreme asceticism and mortification, and sometimes, at the other extreme, it takes the form of the cultivation of mind and body in order that their energies may be properly channeled. And, finally, at the core of Hindu mystical thought is the functional principle that knowing is being. Thus, knowledge is something more than analytical categorizing: it is total understanding. This understanding can be purely intellectual, and some schools equate the final goal with omniscience, as does yoga. Knowing can also mean total transformation: if one truly knows something, he is that thing. Thus, in the devotional schools, the goal of the devotee is to transform himself into a being who, in eternity, is in immediate and loving relationship to the deity. But despite the fact that these are both ways of knowing, the difference between them is significant. In the first instance, the individual has the responsibility to train and use his own intellect. The love relationship of the second, on the other hand, is one of dependence, and the deity assists the devotee through grace. The distinction is generally made by the analogy of the cat and the monkey: the cat carries her young in her mouth, and thus the kitten has no responsibility. But the young monkey must cling by its own strength to its mother's back.

It is usual for writers on the subject, following Surendranath Dasgupta, a historian of Indian philosophy, to list five major varieties of Hindu mysticism, the five having arisen in historical order as follows:

1. The sacrificial, based on the Vedas and Brahmanas.

2. The Upanishadic, in which are found the beginnings of both monistic (concerned with a unitary principle of reality, immanent in the world) and theistic (concerned with a personal or suprapersonal God) systems.

3. The yogic, relating to physical and mental discipline; the earliest known text of this school is the Yoga-sutraof Patañjali, dated variously between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD. According to yogic mysticism, man realizes union by means of physical and mental control of himself, which in turn leads to control of both natural and divine forces.

4. The Buddhistic, in which enlightenment is the realization of the four Truths--the fact of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the means of arriving at these three truths: the Eightfold Path. The ultimate state, the culmination of one path of the Eightfold Path, is nirvana, "the blowing out," the extinction of desire (see BUDDHISM, THE BUDDHA AND ).

5. The devotional, or bhakti, type of mysticism comprises a range of theistic systems, with a conception of absolute dualism between man and God on the one extreme, and a conception of qualified nondualism on the other. Although there are traces of this devotionalism throughout the history of Indian religion, it began to develop in earnest in South India in the 7th through 10th century AD with the hymns of the poet saints called Alvars.

2) Philosophical sutras and the rise of the six schools of philosophy.

From about the beginning of the Christian era through the period of the Gupta empire, the systems of the Six Schools (Saddarshana) of orthodox philosophy were formulated in terse sutras.

The most important of the Six Schools is the Vedanta ("End of the Vedas"), also called Uttara-Mimamsa, or later Mimamsa. The most renowned philosopher of this school and, indeed, of all Hinduism was Shankara (traditionally dated c. 788-820, but he probably died about 20 years later). He was born at Kaladi in Kerala and is said to have spent most of his life traveling through India debating with members of other sects. The Shankaran system has sounded the keynote of intellectual Hinduism down to the present, but later teachers founded sub-schools of Vedanta, which are perhaps equally important.

Shankara was also responsible for the growth of Hindu monasticism, which had been in existence for more than a millennium in the form of hermit colonies. Inscriptions from Gupta times onward also refer to monklike orders of Shaiva ascetics, apparently living according to distinctive disciplines and with distinguishing garments and emblems. Shankara founded a closely disciplined Shaiva order, perhaps partly modeled on the Buddhist sangha, or order, known as dashnami, which is still the most influential orthodox Hindu ascetic group. The order is composed of 10 brotherhoods and hence called dashnamis ("those with 10 names"). Orders became an established institution with wider geographic affiliations. Some of these admitted Brahmans only; others were open to all four classes or even to women; some made a practice of nudity. These Shaiva communities are more inclined to individual asceticism and are less closely organized than the Vaishnava vairagins ("the dispassionate") or gosvamins ("the masters"). Shankara is also said to have founded the four main monasteries (matha) at the four corners of India: Sringeri in Karnataka, Badrinath in the Himalayas, Dwarka in Gujarat, and Puri in Orissa. The abbots of these monasteries control the spiritual lives of many millions of devout Shaiva laymen throughout India, and their establishments strive to maintain the traditional philosophical Hinduism of the strict Vedanta. In modern times, certain dashnami leaders have incurred criticism for their firm opposition to social change. (see also Index: dashnami sannyasin)

The theologians had to assume the task of explaining the relation between God, as the unaffected and unchanging cause of all things, and the universe. According to Ramanuja (c. 1017-1137), a great South Indian thinker of Shrivaisnava persuasion, brahman (i.e., God) is a Person with high attributes, the object of an individual's search for the higher knowledge that is the only entrance to salvation. Because an absolute creation is denied, God is viewed as the sole cause of his own modifications; namely, the emanation, existence, and absorption of the universe. Although unlimitedly expansive, God is conceived to be essentially different from everything material, the absolute opposite of any evil, free from any imperfection, omniscient, omnipotent, possessed of all positive qualities (such as knowledge, bliss, beauty, and truth), of incomparable majesty, the inner soul of all beings, and the ultimate goal of every religious effort. The universe is considered a real transformation of brahman, whose "body" consists of the conscious souls and everything unconscious in their subtle and gross states. The karma doctrine is modified as follows: the Lord, having determined good and bad deeds, provides all individual souls with a body in which they perform deeds, reveals to them the scriptures from which they may learn the dharma, and enters into them as their internal regulator. The individual acts at his own discretion but needs the Lord's assent. If the devotee wishes to please him, God induces him, with infallible justice and loving regard, to intentions and effort to perform good deeds by which the devotee will attain to him; if not, God keeps him from that goal.

The influence of the bhakti movement had earlier led Ramanuja to admit a twofold possibility of emancipation: in addition to the meditative method of the highest insight (jnana) into the oneness of soul and God, which destroys the residues of karma and propitiates God to win his grace, there is the way of bhakti. Those who prefer the former way will reach a state of isolation, the others an infinitely blissful eternal life in, through, and for God, with whom they are one in nature but not identical. They do not lose their individuality and may even meet Vishnu in his Vaikuntha heaven and enjoy delight beyond description.

An interesting development of Ramanuja's doctrine of qualified monism is found in the philosophy of Madhva (died c. 1276). This Kanarese Brahman taught a doctrine of dualism according to which God and the soul are eternally distinct.

Authors of Shaiva Puranas established two ingenious and complementary doctrines to explain the nature and omnipotence of God (the force that rules, absorbs, and reproduces the world and that in performing any one of these acts necessarily performs the other two as well), the existence of the world, and the identity of God and the world. A theory of five "faces," or manifestations--each of which is given mythological names and related mantras--is of great ritual significance. It associates Shiva's so-called creative function, by which he provokes the evolution of the material cause of the universe, with his first face, or aspect; its maintenance and reabsorption with his second and third faces; his power of obscuration, by which he conceals the souls in the phenomena of samsara, with his fourth face; and his ability to bestow his grace, which leads to final emancipation, with his fifth face. The five functions are an emanation of the unmanifested Shiva who is the transcendent brahman. (see also Index: Shaivism)

The faces became the central elements of a comprehensive classification system. They were identified with parts of God's body, regions of the universe, various ontological principles, organs of sense and action, and the elements. The system was used to explain how Shiva's being is the All and how the universe is exclusively composed of aspects or manifestations of Shiva. In his fivefold nature, Shiva was shown to be identical with the 25 (five times five) elements or principles assumed by the prominent Samkhya school of Indian philosophy. The special significance of the number five in Shaivism can be understood as a philosophical elaboration of the time-honoured fourfold organization of the universe. (The four quarters of the sky also play a prominent part in religious practice.) According to this conception, a fifth aspect, when added to the four, is considered the most important aspect of the group because it represents each of the four and collectively unites all of their functions in itself. The system finds its complement in the doctrine of the five Sadakhyas (five items that bear the name sat, "is" or "being") representing the five aspects of that state, which may be spoken of as the experience of "there is" (sat) and which have evolved from God's fivefold creative energy (shakti). In these, God "dwells" in his aspect called Sadashiva ("the Eternal Shiva"), which is regarded sometimes as a manifestation of and sometimes as identical with the Supreme Being.

Another Shaiva doctrine posits eight "embodiments" of Shiva as the elements of nature (ether, wind, fire, water, earth), Sun, Moon, and the sacrificer, or consecrated worshiper (also called Atman). To each of these eight elements corresponds one of Shiva's traditional names or aspects--to the last one, usually Pashupati. The world is a product of these eight forms, consists of them, and can only exist and fulfill its task because the eight embodiments cooperate. Because each individual is also composed of the same eight realities (e.g., the light of man's eyes corresponds to that of the Sun), Shiva constitutes the corporeal frame and the psychical organism of every living being. The eighth constituent is the indispensable performer of the rites that sustain the gods who preside over the cosmic processes and are really Shiva's faculties.

Although Shaivism is a much more coherent whole than Vaishnavism, there evolved, in different parts of India, some branches with peculiarities of their own. According to the pronouncedly idealist monism of Kashmir Shaivism, an important religiophilosophic school, Shiva manifests himself through a special power as the first cause of creation, and he also manifests himself through a second power as the innumerable individual souls who, because of a veil of impurity, forget that they are the embodiment of the Highest. This veil can be torn off by intense faith and constant meditation on God, by which the soul transmutes itself into a universal soul and eventually attains liberation through a lightninglike, intuitive insight into its own nature. Those Hindus who adhere to this group consider their doctrine a manifestation of the highest Reality, Knowing Consciousness, neither personal nor impersonal; as Shiva in the form of the transcendent Word, which is his unspoken Thought, the content of which is the universe.

The Shaiva-siddhanta, a prominent religiophilosophic school of Tamil-speaking South India, assumes three eternal principles: God (who is independent existence, unqualified intelligence, and absolute bliss), the universe, and the souls. The world, because it is created by God (efficient cause) through his conscious power (instrumental cause) and maya (material cause), is no illusion. The main purpose of its creation is the liberation of the beginningless souls, which are conceived as "cattle" (pashu) bound by the noose (pasha) of impurity (mala) or spiritual ignorance, which forces them to produce karma. However, they see the karma process as a benefit, for as soon as the soul has sufficiently ripened and reached a state of purity enabling it to strive after the highest insight, God graciously intervenes, appearing in the shape of a fully qualified and liberated spiritual guide (guru), through whose words God permits himself to be realized by the individual soul.


1) Tantric traditions and Shaktism.

Toward the end of the 5th century, the cult of the Mother Goddess began to achieve a significant place in religious life. Shaktism, the worship of the Shakti, the active power of the godhead conceived in feminine terms, should be distinguished from Tantrism, the search for spiritual power and ultimate release by means of the repetition of sacred syllables and phrases (mantras), symbolic drawings (mandalas), and other secret rites elaborated in the texts known as tantras ("looms"). (see also Index: Tantric Hinduism)

In many respects the tantras are similar to the Puranas. Theoretically a tantra deals with (1) knowledge, or philosophy, (2) yoga, or concentration techniques, (3) ritual, which includes the formation of icons and the building of temples, and (4) conduct in religious worship and social practice. In general the last two subjects preponderate, while yoga tends to centre on the mystique of certain sound-symbols (mantras) that sum up esoteric doctrines. The philosophy tends to be a syncretistic mixture of Samkhya and Vedanta philosophical thought, with special and at times exclusive emphasis on the god's power, or shakti. The Tantric texts can be divided into three classes: (1) Shaiva Agamas (traditions of the followers of Shiva), (2) Vaishnava Samhitas ("Collections of the Vaishnavas," a name borrowed from the Vedic Samhitas), and (3) Shakta Tantras ("Looms of the Followers of the Goddess Shakti"). However, they all have the common bond of venerating the Goddess.

Surviving Hindu tantras were written much later than many of those of Tantric Buddhism, and it may be that the Hindus derived much from the Buddhists in this respect. Although there is early evidence of Tantrism and Shaktism in other parts of India, the chief centres of both were modern Bengal, Bihar, and Assam. (See also BUDDHISM, THE BUDDHA AND: Vajrayana Buddhism in India .)

i) Shaiva Agamas.

Like much other Hindu sacred literature, this literature is neither well-cataloged nor thoroughly studied. It is only possible here to summarize classes of texts within the various traditions.

The sects of Agamic Shaivas (Shiva worshipers who follow their own Agama--"traditional"--texts) encompass both the Sanskritic Shaiva-siddhanta--i.e., those who accept the philosophical premises and conclusions of Shaivas in the north--and the southern Lingayats or Virashaivas (from vira, literally "hero"; a lingam is the Shiva emblem that is worshiped in lieu of images). The Shaiva-siddhanta traditionally has 28 Agamas and 150 sub-Agamas. Their principal texts are hard to date; most probably they do not antedate the 8th century. Their doctrine states that Shiva is the conscious principle of the universe, while matter is unconscious. Shiva's power, or shakti, personified as a goddess, causes bondage and release. She is also the magic Word, and thus her nature can be sought out and meditated upon in mantras.

Kashmir Shaivism begins with the Shivasutra or "Lines of Doctrine Concerning Shiva" (c. 850) as a new revelation of Shiva. The system embraces the Shivadrsti ("A Vision of Shiva") of Somananda (950), in which emphasis is placed on the continuous recognition of Shiva; the world is a manifestation of Shiva brought about by his shakti. The system is called trika ("triad"), because it recognizes the three principles of Shiva, Shakti, and the individual soul. Virashaiva texts begin at about 1150 with the Vacanams ("Sayings") of Basava. The sect is puritanical, worships Shiva exclusively, rejects the caste system in favour of its own social organization, and is highly structured with monasteries and gurus.

ii) Vaishnava Samhitas.

These consist of two groups of texts: Vaikhanasa Samhitas and Pañcaratra Samhitas. The latter group is the prevailing one; more than 200 titles are known, though the official number is 108. Vaikhanasa Samhitas (collections of the Vaishnava school of Vaikhanasas, who were originally ascetics) seem to have embodied the original temple manuals for the Bhagavatas (devotees), which by the 11th or 12th century had become supplanted by the Pañcaratra Samhitas (collections of the Vaishnava school of Pañcaratra--"the System of the Five Nights"). The philosophy of the latter is largely a matter of cosmogony, greatly inspired by both the Samkhya and yoga philosophies.

Apart from their theology, in which for the first time the notion of shakti is introduced into Vaishnavism, they are important because they give an exposition of Vaishnava temple and cult practices. On the philosophical side it is maintained that the supreme god Krishna Vasudeva manifests himself in four coequal "divisions" (vyuhas), representing levels in creation. These gods emanate as supramundane patrons before the primary creation is started by their shakti (power). In the primary creation Shakti manifests herself as a female creative force inspired by the Samkhya philosophy's cosmogony. Practically, stress is laid on a type of incarnation--"iconic incarnation"--in which the god is actually present with a portion of himself in a stone or statue, which thus becomes an icon; therefore the icon can be worshiped as God himself.

iii) Shakta Tantras.

Shaktism in one form or the other has been known since Bana (c. 650) wrote his Hundred Couplets to Candi (Candi-shataka) and Bhavabhuti his play Malati Madhava (725), both of which refer to Tantric practices. There is no traditional authoritative list of texts, but many texts are extant.

Shaktism is an amalgam of Shaivism and folk mother-goddess cults. The Shaiva notion that not Shiva himself but his shakti (sexual, creative power) is active is taken to the extreme--that, without Shakti, Shiva is a corpse, and simultaneously that Shakti is the creator as well as creation. In yoga, great importance is ascribed to mantras, which conjure up the realities with which they are identified. Another important notion (partly derived from yoga philosophy) is that through the body run subtle canals that carry esoteric powers connected with the spinal cord, at the bottom of which the Goddess is coiled around the lingam as Kundalini; she can be made to rise through the body to the top, whereupon release from samsara takes place. Important among the Shakta Tantras are the Kularnava Tantra("Ocean of Tantrism"), which gives details on the "left-handed" cult forms of ritual copulation; the Kulacudamani ("Crown Jewel of Tantrism"), which embroiders on ritual; and the Sharadatilaka ("Beauty Mark of the Goddess Sharada") of Laksmanadeshika (11th century), which discusses magic.

A temple was erected in honour of the mother goddesses at Gangdhar, Rajasthan, in AD 423. There, magical rites of a terrifying kind were practiced, for the temple is described as "loud with the shouts of demonesses, crying in the thick darkness," by the playwright Bhavabhuti, whose drama Malati Madhava (about the adventures of the hero Madhava and his beloved Malati) contains a scene depicting secret rites with human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. The goddess cults eventually centred around Durga, the consort of Shiva, in her fiercer aspect.

2) Nature of Tantric tradition.

Tantrism, which appears both in Buddhism and in Hinduism, is an important component of religion that, though primarily meant for esoteric circles, also influenced, from the 5th century AD, many religious trends and movements. Opinions of what Tantrism is are quite diverse. Generally, Tantrism claims to show in times of religious decadence a new way to the highest goal and bases itself upon mystic speculations concerning divine creative energy (shakti). Tantrism is a method of conquering transcendent powers and realizing oneness with the highest principle by yogic and ritual means--in part magical and orgiastic--which are also supposed to achieve other supranormal goals.

Tantrists take for granted that all factors in both the macrocosm and the microcosm are closely connected. The adept (sadhaka) has to perform the relevant rites on his own body, transforming its normal, chaotic state into a "cosmos." The macrocosm is conceived as a complex system of powers that by means of ritual-psychological techniques can be activated and organized within the individual body of the adept. Contrary to the ascetic emancipation methods of other groups, the Tantrists emphasize the activation and sublimation of the possibilities of their own body, without which salvation is believed to be beyond reach.

The Tantrists of the Vamacara ("the left-hand practice") sought to intensify their own sense impressions by making enjoyment, or sensuality (bhoga), their principal concern: the adept pursued his spiritual objective through his natural functions and inclinations, which were sublimated and then gratified in rituals in order to disintegrate his normal personality. This implies that cultic life was also largely interiorized and that the whole world, because it became completely ritualized, was given a new and esoteric meaning.

Tantric worship (puja) is complicated and in many respects different from the conventional ceremonies that it has often influenced. Tantric devotees distinguish between an "external" and an esoteric meaning of their texts and interpret their texts by means of an ambiguous "twilight" language. Tantrists describe states of consciousness with erotic terminology and describe physiological processes with cosmological terminology. They proceed from "external" to "internal" worship and adore the Goddess mentally, offering their hearts as her throne and their self-renunciation as "flowers."

According to Tantrism, concentration is intended to evoke an internal image of the deity and to resuscitate the powers inherent in it so that the symbol changes into mental experience. This "symbolic ambiguity" is also much in evidence in the esoteric interpretation of ritual acts performed in connection with images, flowers, and other cult objects and is intended to bring about a transfiguration in the mind of the adept.

The mantras (sacred utterances, such as hum, hrim, and klam) are an indispensable means of entering into contact with the power they bear and of transcending normal mundane existence. Most potent are the monosyllabic, fundamental, so-called bija ("seed") mantras, which constitute the main element of longer formulas and embody the essence of divine power as the eternal, indestructible prototypes from which anything phenomenal derives its existence. The cosmos itself owes its very structure and harmony to them. Also important is the introduction of spiritual qualities or divine power into the body (nyasa) by placing a finger on the relevant spot (accompanied by a mantra).

Those Tantrists who follow the "right-hand path" attach much value to the yoga that developed under their influence and to bhakti and aspire to union with the Supreme by emotional-dynamic means, their yoga being a self-abnegation in order to reach a state of ecstatic blissfulness in which the passive soul is lifted up by divine grace.

There is also a Tantric mantra yoga (discipline through spells), which operates with formulas, and a hatha-yoga, (Sanskrit: "union of force"). In addition to normal yogic practices--abstinences, observances, bodily postures, breath control that requires intensive training, withdrawal of the mind from external objects, concentration, contemplation, and identification that are technically helped by mudras (i.e., ritual intertwining of fingers or gestures expressing the metaphysical aspect of the ceremonies or the transformation effected by the mantras) and muscular contractions--hatha-yoga consists of internal purifications (e.g., washing out stomach and bowels), shaking the abdomen, and some forms of self-torture. The whole process is intended to "control the 'gross body' in order to free the 'subtle body.' "

Some Tantrists also employ laya yoga ("reintegration by mergence"), in which the female nature-energy (representing the shakti), which is said to remain dormant and coiled in the form of a serpent (kundalini) representing the uncreated, is awakened and made to rise through the six centres (chakras) of the body, which are located along the central artery of the subtle body, from the root centre to the lotus of a thousand petals at the top of the head, where it merges into the Purusa, the male Supreme Being. As soon as the union of shakti and Purusa has become permanent, according to this doctrine, wonderful visions and powers come to the adept, who then is emancipated. Some of the Tantric texts also pursue worldly objectives involving magic or medicine.

3) Tantric and Shakta views of nature, man, and the sacred.

The Tantric movement is sometimes inextricably interwoven with Shaktism. Shaktism consists of doctrines and practices that assume the existence of one or more shaktis. These are "creative energies" that are inherent in and proceed from God and are also capable of being imagined as female deities. Shakti is the deciding factor in the salvation of the individual and in the processes of the universe because God acts only through his energy, which, personified as a goddess, is his spouse. Her role is very different in the various systems: she may be considered the central figure in a philosophically established doctrine, the dynamic aspect of brahman, producing the universe through her maya, or mysterious power of illusion; a capricious demoniac ruler of nature in its destructive aspects; a benign mother goddess; or the queen of a celestial court. There is a comprehensive Shaktism that identifies the goddess (usually Durga) with brahman and worships her as the ruler of the universe by virtue of whom even Shiva exists. As Mahayogini ("Great Mistress of Yoga"), she produces, maintains, and reabsorbs the world. As the eternal Mother, she is exalted in the Devimahatmya ("Glorification of the Goddess") section of the Markandeya-Purana (an important medieval Shakta encyclopaedic text). In the Bengal cult of the goddess Kali, she demands bloody sacrifices from her worshipers lest her creative potency fail her; this cult propounds the belief that birth and death are inseparable, that joy and grief spring from the same source, and that the frightening manifestations of the divine should be faced calmly.

The Vedic goddess Vac (her name means "Word") was then already the energetic and productive partner of Prajapati. As Ardhanarishvara (the "Lord Who Is Half Female"), Shiva presides over procreation. The Shaktas--often markedly associated with Shaivism--drew the following conclusions: creation is the result of the eternal lust of the divine couple; the man who is blissfully embraced by a beloved woman who is Parvati's counterpart assumes Shiva's wonderful personality and, liberated, will continue the joy of amorous sport.

In all of his incarnations Vishnu is united with his consort, Laksmi. The sacred tales of his various relations with her manifestations led his worshipers to view human devotion as parallel to the divine love and hence as universal, eternal, and sanctified. In Vaishnava Tantrism, Laksmi plays an important part as God's shakti--that is, as a central metaphysical principle. In his supreme state, Vishnu and his shakti are indissolubly associated with one another so as to constitute the personal manifestation of the supreme brahman also called Laksmi-Narayana. In mythical imagery, Laksmi never leaves Vishnu's bosom. In the first stage of creation, she awakens in her dual aspect of action-and-becoming, in which she is the instrumental and material cause of the universe; Vishnu himself is the efficient cause. In the second stage, her "becoming" aspect is manifested in the grosser forms of the souls and the power of maya, which is the immaterial source of the universe. In displaying her power she takes into consideration the accumulated karma of the beings, judging mundane existence as merit and demerit. Presented in myth as God's wife and the queen of the universe, she is always intent on liberating, by her favour and compassion, the incarnated souls of the devout; that is, she allows them to reenter into herself because they are really "parts," or rather "contractions," of her own essence. After entering her, the liberated soul takes part in the perfect embrace of the divine couple. Pañcaratra Vaishnavism emphasizes that Laksmi--who in the mythological sphere intercedes with her husband for the preservation of the world--spontaneously and by virtue of her own power differentiates herself from Vishnu because she has in view the liberation of the souls. This current of thought complicated its explanation of the relation between God and the universe--which was at the same time an attempt at assigning to God's manifestations a place in a harmonious theological and cosmological system--with an evolutionist theory of successive creations. God is assumed to manifest himself also in three other figures, mythologically his brothers, who, each with his own responsibility, have not only a creative but also an ethical function, by which they assist those who seek to attain to final emancipation.

4) Tantric ritual and magical practices.

The ritual of the left-hand Tantrists consisted of a kind of black mass in which all of the taboos of conventional Hinduism were conscientiously violated. Thus, in place of the traditional five elements (tattvas) of the Hindu cosmos, these Tantrists used the five "m"s: mamsa (flesh, meat), matsya (fish), madya (fermented grapes, wine), mudra (frumentum, cereal, parched grain, or gestures), and maithuna (fornication). This latter element was made particularly antinomian through the involvement of forbidden women, such as one's sister, mother, the wife of another man, or a low-caste woman, who was identified with the Goddess. Menstrual blood, strictly taboo in conventional Hinduism, was also used at times. Such rituals, which are described in Tantric texts and in tracts against Tantrists, made the Tantrists notorious. It is likely, however, that the rituals were not regularly performed except by a relatively small group of highly trained adepts; the usual Tantric ceremony was purely symbolic and even more fastidious than the pujas in Hindu temples. (see also Index: sexual intercourse)

The cult of the Shaktas is based on the principle of the ritual sublimation of natural impulses to maintain and reproduce life. Shakta adepts are trained to direct all their energies toward the conquest of the Eternal. The ritual satisfaction of lust and the consumption of consecrated meat or liquor are esoterically significant means of realizing the unity of flesh and spirit, of the human and the divine. They are not considered sinful acts but, on the contrary, effective means of salvation. Ritual copulation--which may also be accomplished symbolically--is, for both partners, a form of sacralization, the act being a participation in cosmic and divine processes. The experience of transcending space and time, of surpassing the phenomenal duality of spirit and matter, of recovering the primeval unity, the realization of the identity of God and his Shakti, and of the manifested and unmanifested aspects of the All, constitute the very mystery of Shaktism. The interpretation--metaphorical or literal--of the doctrines is, however, largely a matter of opinion and practice. Ritual practice is indeed as varied as the doctrines. Extreme Shakta communities perform the secret nocturnal rites of the shricakra("wheel of radiance," described in the Kularnava Tantra), in which they avail themselves of the natural and esoteric symbolic properties of colours, sounds, and perfumes to intensify their sexual experiences. Most Tantrists, however, eliminate all but the verbal ritual.

Individual and collective yoga and worship, conducted daily, fortnightly, and monthly "for the delectation of the deity," are of special importance. After elaborate purifications, the worshipers--who must be initiated, full of devotion toward the guru and God, have control over themselves, be well prepared and pure of heart, know the mysteries of the scriptures, and look forward to the adoration with eagerness--make the prescribed offerings, worship the mighty puissance of the Divine Mother, and recite the relevant mantras. Once they have become aware of their own state of divinity, they are qualified to unite sexually with the Goddess. If a woman is, in certain rituals, made the object of sexual worship, the Goddess is first invoked into her; the worshiper is not to cohabit with her until his mind is free from impurity and he has risen to divine status. Copulation with a low-caste woman helps to transcend all opposites; union with a woman who belongs to another man is often preferred because it is harder to obtain, nothing is certain in it, and the longing stemming from the separation of lover and beloved is more intense--it is pure preman (agape, or divine love); adoration of a girl of 16 aims at securing the completeness and perfection of which this number is said to be the expression. However, the texts reiterate how dangerous these rites are for those who are not initiated; those who perform such ritual acts without merging their minds in the Supreme are likely to go to one of the hells.

The esoteric Vaishnava-Sahajiya cult, which arose in Bengal in the 16th century, was another emotional attempt at reconciling the spirit and the flesh. Displaying contempt for social opinion, its adherents, using the natural (sahaja) qualities of the senses and stressing the sexual symbolism of Bengal Vaishnavism, reinterpreted the Radha-Krishna legend and sought for the perpetual experience of divine joy: because Krishna's nature is love and the giving of love and because man is identical with Krishna, the realization of love can, after an arduous training, be experienced in man's nature. Women, being a ritual necessity as well as the embodiment of a theological principle, could even become spiritual guides, like Radha, conducting the worshiper in his search for realization. After reaching this state, he remains in eternal bliss, can dispense with guru and ritual, and be completely indifferent to the world, "steadfast amidst the dance of maya."

5) Tantric and Shakta ethical and social doctrines.

These ethical and social principles, though fundamentally the same as those promulgated in the classical dharma works, breathe a spirit of liberality: much value is set upon family life and respect for women (the image of the Goddess); no ban is placed on traveling (conventionally regarded as bringing about ritual pollution) or on the remarriage of widows. Although Tantric and Shakta traditions did not oblige their followers to deviate in a socially visible way from the established order, they provided a ritual and a way of life for those who, because of sex or caste, could not participate satisfyingly in the conventional rites.

The ancient Tantric tradition, based on the esoteric tantra literature, has become, through time, so interwoven with more orthodox Hinduism that it is difficult to define precisely. Although it sees an identity between the soul and the cosmos, it speaks of the internalization of the cosmos rather than of the release of the soul to its natural state of unity. The body is the microcosm, and the ultimate state is not only omniscience but total realization of all universal and eternal forces. The body is real, not because it is the function or creation of a real deity but because it contains the deity, together with the rest of the universe. The individual soul does not unite with the One--it is the One, and the body is its function.

Tantrism, though not always in its full esoteric form, is a feature of much modern mystical thought. In Tantrism the consciousness is spoken of as moving--driven by repetition of the mantra and by other disciplines--from gross awareness of the material world to realization of the ultimate unity. The image is of a serpent, coiled and dormant, awakened and driven upward in the body through various stages of enlightenment until it reaches the brain, the highest awareness. The modern mystic Ramakrishna describes the process, which also describes the experience that all Hindu mystical processes seek:

When [the serpent] is awakened, it passes gradually through [various stages], and comes to rest in the heart. Then the mind moves away from [the gross physical senses]; there is perception, and a great brilliance is seen. The worshiper, when he sees this brilliance, is struck with wonder. The [serpent] moves thus through six stages, and coming to [the highest one], is united with it. Then there is samadhi . . . When [the serpent] rises to the sixth stage, the form of God is seen. But a slight veil remains; it is as if one sees a light within a lantern, and thinks that the light itself can be touched, but the glass intervenes. . . . In samadhi, nothing external remains. One cannot even take care of his body any more; if milk is put into his mouth, he cannot swallow. If he remains for twenty-one days in this condition, he is dead. The ship puts out to sea, and returns no more. (Translation by Edward C. Dimock, Jr. Source is Shrishriramakrsna-kathamrta; Calcutta: Ramakrsna Mission.)


Most of the texts cited in this survey are Sanskrit texts, which constitute the oldest layer of preserved Hindu literature. But the sacred literature of India is by no means as monolithic as these texts might suggest. Several other essential elements exist: independent sacred literatures in languages other than Sanskrit and material in other languages related to the Sanskrit texts either as sources of material now preserved only in Sanskrit or as new texts originating as translations of Sanskrit texts. Because Sanskrit has been in intimate contact with the "mother tongues" of India for such a long time, it is often impossible to determine in which of these categories a particular vernacular text belongs. (see also Index: Indian literature, Sanskrit literature)

Indologists usually emphasize the influence of Sanskritic (often called "Aryan") culture on Dravidian culture, and indeed this influence was considerable. Sanskritic influence was already in evidence in the earliest Tamil (a principal Dravidian language) literature, perhaps dating from the 1st century AD. At this time in South India the orthodox cults were aristocratic in character and were supported by kings and chiefs who gained in prestige by patronizing Brahmans and adopting Aryan ways. The Tamils were still primarily devoted to the old cults, some of which, however, were taking on an Aryan complexion. The pastoral god Murugan was identified with Skanda and his mother, the fierce war goddess Korravai, with Durga. Varunan, a sea god who had adopted the name of the old Vedic god but otherwise had few Aryan features, and Mayon, a black god who was a rural divinity with many of the characteristics of Krishna in his pastoral aspect, also are depicted in Tamil literature. The final Sanskritization of the Tamils was brought about through the patronage of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram, who began to rule in the 4th century AD and who financed the making of many temples and fine religious sculptures. Similar processes were taking place in the Deccan, Bengal, and other regions.

Sanskritization is a term that refers to a style of text that imitates the customs and manners of the Brahmans. But, although most sacred texts in Sanskrit were composed by Brahmans, many were also composed by lower-class authors. Likewise, although some sacred texts in vernacular languages were written by authors of lower castes, many others were written by Brahmans. In addition, because Sanskrit ceased to be spoken as a primary language soon after the Vedas were composed, it is likely that most of the thoughts underlying all subsequent Sanskrit literature were first thought in some other language. Yet Indologists tend to be Sanskritists, and Sanskritists tend to assume that all texts originated in Sanskrit. Indeed, even the counterbalancing tendency to acknowledge the flow from non-Sanskrit to Sanskrit sources has often misfired; far too often it is merely asserted that anything that appears in post-Vedic Hinduism and is not attested in the Vedas is "Dravidian," or, even worse, from the Indus civilization (about whose religion virtually nothing is known).

The issue is further clouded by the fact that, though Sanskrit texts tend to be written and vernacular traditions are primarily oral, there are important oral traditions in Sanskrit, too (including the traditions of the two great Sanskrit epics), and there are important manuscript traditions in some of the non-Sanskritic languages (such as Bengali and Tamil). Indeed, written and oral versions of the epics and Puranas have been, from the very start, in constant symbiosis.

Little relevance, therefore, attaches to a distinction between "written" and "oral" traditions. A myth is essentially told or narrated, a process that is designated in Sanskrit by such words as purana (ancient story) and akhyana (illustrative narrative). In the oldest source, the Rigveda, myths are not so much told as alluded to; it is in the later Vedic literature of the Brahmanas that narratives are found, and these are often prejudiced by liturgical concerns of the authors. (see also Index: oral literature)

The recitation of certain myths was prescribed for specific rituals. The epic Mahabharata states that Vedic stories were narrated "in the pauses of the ritual," probably by Brahmans. The warrior class (Ksatriyas) had their own mythographers in their sutas (charioteers and panegyrists), who celebrated the feats of great rulers. These sutas, who became popular narrators of myth and legend, had their own bardic repertoire, which soon was extended to higher mythology. They--and other wanderers who found ready audiences at sacrifices or places of pilgrimage--disseminated the lore.

Such narrators still continue to repeat and embroider their ancient stories of gods, sages, and kings. At an early stage their narratives were dramatized and gave rise to the Sanskrit theatre, in which epic mythic themes preponderate, and to the closely related dance, which survives in the now largely South Indian schools of bharata natya (traditional dance) and the kathakali (narrative dance) of Kerala. Thus, even in Sanskrit literature, oral performance was an essential component, which further facilitated the assimilation of oral vernacular elements.

When the Indo-Europeans, who spoke Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, entered India in around 1500 BC, most of the people they encountered spoke languages that belonged to a major non-Indo-European linguistic group called Dravidian. These two language groups interacted from a very early period, and although the earliest preserved specimens of Sanskrit (themselves dating from a period long after the Indo-Aryan invasions) far antedate examples of any other languages, there is good reason to believe that the other languages also produced texts, although unrecorded, at a very early period. When the devotional aspect of Hinduism came into full flower, the vernacular traditions both in Dravidian language groups and in languages derived from Sanskrit began to record their texts and to have a more discernible influence upon the Sanskrit tradition.

Of the four primary Dravidian literatures--Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam--the oldest and best-known is Tamil. The earliest preserved Tamil literature, the so-called Cankam or Shangam poetry anthologies, dates from the 1st century BC. These poems are classified by theme into akam ("interior," primarily love poetry) and puram ("exterior," primarily about war, the poverty of poets, and the deaths of kings). The bhakti movement has been traced to Tamil poetry, beginning with the poems of the devotees of Shiva called Nayanars and the devotees of Vishnu called Alvars. The Nayanars, who date from about AD 800, composed intensely personal and devout hymns addressed to the local manifestations of Shiva. (see also Index: cankam literature)

The most famous Nayanar lyricists are Appar, Sambandar, and Cuntarar, whose hymns are collected in the Tevaram (c. 11th century). More or less contemporary were their Vaishnava counterparts, the Alvars Poykai, Putan, Peyar, and Tirumankaiyal-var, and in the 8th century the poetess Andal, Periyalvar, Kulacekarar, Tiruppanalvar, and notably Nammalvar, who is held to be the greatest. The devotion of which they sing exemplifies the new bhakti movement that seeks a more direct contact between man and God, carried by a passionate love for the deity, who reciprocates by extending his grace to man. These saints also became the inspiration of theistic systematic religion: the Shaivas for the Shaiva-siddhanta, the Vaishnavas for Vishistadvaita. In Kannada the same movement was exemplified by Basava, whose vacanams ("sayings" or "talks") achieved great popularity. His religion, that of Virashaivism, was perhaps the most "protestant" of the bhakti religions.

New Dravidian genres continued to evolve into the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Tamil Cittars (from the Sanskrit siddhas, "perfected ones"), who were eclectic mystics, composed poems noted for the power of their naturalistic diction. The Tamil sense and style of these poems belied the Sanskrit-derived title of their authors, a phenomenon that could stand as a symbol of the complex relationship between Dravidian and Sanskrit religious texts.

The main languages derived from Sanskrit are Bengali, Hindi (with its many dialects, of which Maithili is the oldest and Urdu, heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic and written in a Perso-Arabic script, is the most important), Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Assamese, Nepali, Rajasthani, and Sinhalese. Most of these languages began to develop literary traditions around AD 1000. The earliest texts in Hindi are those attributed to the 13th-14th-century Muslim poet Amir Khosrow. (see also Index: Hindi literature)

Hindi literature produced its own great religious lyricists beginning with the disciples of Ramananda (c. 1450), who was a follower of the philosopher Ramanuja. Among them the most famous is Kabir, whose bhakti was nonsectarian. Tulsidas, apart from his Ramcaritmanas, composed Ramaite lyrics. Surdas (1483-1563), a follower of the Vallabha school of Vedanta, is famous for his Sursagar ("Ocean of the Poems of Sur"), a collection of poems based on the childhood of Krishna, following the account of the Bhagavata-Purana. In the Marathi tradition, Namdev (c. 1300) celebrated Vishnu, particularly in his manifestation as Vitthoba at the Pandharpur temple; and in the 17th century Tukaram, the greatest poet of this literature, sang of the god of love in numerous hymns. (see also Index: Marathi literature)

A small sect, the Kabirpanthis, acknowledges Kabir as its founder, but its importance is less than that of the vigorous new religion (Sikhism) founded by one of Kabir's disciples, Nanak. In its final form, Sikhism contains elements taken from Islam (equality in the faith, opposition to iconolatry, extreme reverence for the sacred book) and probably also from Christianity (the Sikh baptism and communion meal), but its theology is still essentially Hindu.

Although the earliest Hindu text in Bengali is a mid-15th-century poem about Radha and Krishna, medieval texts in praise of gods and goddesses, known as mangal-kavyas, must have existed in oral versions long before that. In later Bengal Vaishnavism, the emphasis shifts from service and surrender to mutual attachment and attraction between God (i.e., Krishna) and humankind: God is said to yearn for the worshiper's identification with himself, which is his gift to the wholly purified devotee. The mystical and devotional possibilities of the Krishna legend are made subservient to religious practice; the divine sport and wonderful feats of this youthful hero are interpreted symbolically and allegorically. Thus, the highest fruition of bhakti is admission to the eternal sport of Krishna and his beloved Radha, whose sacred love story is explained as the mutual love between God and the human soul. Various gradations of bhakti are distinguished, such as awe, subservience, and parental affection. These are correlated with the persons of the Krishna legend; the highest and most intimate emotion is said to be the love of Radha and her girlfriends for Krishna. (see also Index: Bengali literature)

A particularly rich tradition centred in Bengal concentrated on the love of Radha, who symbolizes the human soul, for Krishna, the supreme God. In this tradition are Candidas and the Maithili poet Vidyapati (c. 1400). The greatest single influence was Caitanya, who in the 16th century renewed Krishnaism. He left no writings but inspired many hagiographies, among the more important of which is the Caitanya-caritamrta ("Nectar of Caitanya's Life") by Krishna Das (born 1517).

Caitanya had a profound and continuing effect on the religious sentiments of his Bengali countrymen and propagated the community celebration (samkirtana) of Krishna as the most powerful means of bringing about the proper bhakti attitude. Caitanya also introduced the worship of God, the director of man's senses, through the very activity of man's senses, which must be free from all egoism and completely filled with the intense desire (preman) for the satisfaction of the beloved (i.e., Krishna).

The religious lyric continues in the so-called padas (verses); one of the greatest poets in this bhakti genre in which divine love is symbolized by human love is Govinda Das (1537-1612). The songs of Ramprasad Sen (1718-75) similarly honour Shakti as mother of the universe and are still in wide devotional use. The most famous religious lyrics in Gujarati are the poems of the saint Mira Bai (1503-73), who wrote passionate love poems to Krishna, whom she regarded as her husband and lover. (see also Index: Gujarati language)

The complex interaction between Sanskrit and non-Sanskrit religious classics may be seen in the development of the epics. Parts of the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and many Puranas (especially the Bhagavata-Purana) were translated into various vernaculars. Technically, these works were not literal translations, but free versions in which the authors placed their own emphases, different from the original and from one another. The oldest of the vernacular versions of the Ramayanais the Tamil one of Kampan (c. 12th century), a work suffused with devotion (bhakti) and of high literary distinction. Another famous translation in Tamil, written by Villiputturar, exists from the 18th century. A Telugu rendering was made by Ranganatha about 1300. In Bengali several translations were made, with some interesting and probably authentic variations from the "official" Rama story by Valmiki, the best-known one by Krttibas Ojha (1450). Equally, if not more, famous is the Hindi version by Tulsidas (c. 1550), entitled Ramcaritmanas ("Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama").

The Mahabharatawas translated into Bengali about 1600 and into Telugu by Nannaya and Tikkana in the 13th century. The Bhagavata-Puranawhich was translated frequently (e.g., into Bengali by Maladhar Vasu, 1480), was popular both as a text and because it gave the canonical account of Krishna's life and especially his boyhood, which is the perennial inspiration of the bhakti poets.

In Marathi the teacher Jñanadeva (also known as Jñaneshvara; c. 1275-96) composed a commentary on the Bhagavadgita that remains a classic in that literature. His work was continued by Eknath (c. 1600), who also composed bhakti poetry. In the 16th century the Kannada poet Gadugu produced his own highly individual version of the Mahabharata. In addition to the above literal or not-so-literal translations of the Sanskrit epics, the Tamils composed their own epics, notably Ilanko Atikal's Cilappatikaram ("The Lay of the Anklet") and its sequel, the Manimekhalai ("Jeweled Girdle"). In Telugu there is the great Palnadu Epic; Rajasthani has an entire epic cycle about the hero Pabuji. The remaining vernaculars have produced many other works of the epic genre. (see also Index: "Bhagavadgita")

1) Hindu mythology in contemporary India.

Much of the classical mythology persists today, and Hindus are exposed to it year-round. Meanwhile, the mass media have made their contributions: the type of motion picture called "mythological" is extremely popular, perpetuating the ancient stories to the village level, and so are "devotionals," in which an example of bhakti is illustrated. The radio regularly carries bhajans (devotional songs) and classical South Indian songs, the themes of which are often mythic. Every orthodox Hindu's home has at least one corner set aside as a domestic sanctuary where representations of a chosen deity are placed, and puja (worship) is done with prayers, hymns, flowers, and incense. Richer establishments set aside entire rooms as shrines. Mythic illustrations are favourites in Indian calendar art.

Mythology has adjusted itself effortlessly to modernity. The ashram of the 20th-century mystic and religious leader Shri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, dedicated to the Mother Goddess (personified by this group as a single principle), is an extremely modern establishment complete with tennis courts. New temples are constructed with modern techniques; one temple in Varanasi contains mirrors onto which are etched the entire Ramcaritmanas This same poem is the basis of the annual celebration of Ram Lila (the play of Rama) in northern India, in which the entire community participates. The Rama story was evoked by Mahatma Gandhi when he set the Ram Raj ("Kingdom of Rama") as India's governmental ideal. On occasion, social protesters arm themselves with myth to make a point. For example, the personality of Karna, an antagonist in the Mahabharatawho is berated for his low birth, is extolled in intellectual circles as a truer champion than the aristocratic heroes. A Kannada-language play of the 1960s based on the life of King Yayati enjoyed great popular and critical success. Anti-northern groups in Tamil Nadu revised the story of Rama, whose expedition against the demon Ravana is believed by some to be the Aryan invasion of South India, by reversing it to abuse Rama and to glorify Ravana. (see also Index: Aurobindo Ashram)

On a popular level, people at temples and fairs are continually reacquainted with their mythological heritage by pauranikas, tellers of the ancient stories, heirs of the sutas of 3,000 years ago, and no festival ground is complete without tents where the religious are reminded of their myths by pious speakers, modestly compensated by fees but richly rewarded by the honour in which they are held.


Despite the impact of the West, the propaganda of modern reform movements, and the spread of education and secularist modernization, Hinduism has changed only slowly. For ordinary Hindus, religion primarily consists of the manual and verbal performance of rites to promote their private interests. The innumerable ceremonies, observances, fasts, feasts, pilgrimages, and visits to nearby temples constitute the essence of religion.

1) General characteristics of folk traditions.

For millions, the main motive of religious practices is still the fear of ambivalent powerful beings. Most Hindus propitiate the meat-eating, sometimes benevolent but largely malevolent deities concerned with man's daily events, their ancestors or the founder of their community, and those various spirits that have no permanent residence and cause evil and misfortune. Hindus strive to escape the powers of the evil eye; to manipulate those spirits dwelling in wells, trees, stones, water, and ground; to counteract curses, witchcraft, plague, and cholera; and to worship village godlings who may give rain or a bountiful harvest. They make use of astrology, divination, and the reading of omens and auspicious moments. A large variety of purifications and ritual prohibitions, charms, and amulets to ward off any kind of misfortune (including bad luck in lawsuits and examinations) are, in the eyes of the majority, of greater importance than the atman-brahman doctrine. Even the hope of heaven or the fear of hell has little vogue in various regions, except among the higher castes. (see also Index: folk religion)

It is difficult to draw a sharp line of distinction between popular Hinduism, the beliefs and practices of more or less Hinduized "external" groups, and Indian tribal religion. Many elements of tribal culture that in a particular region have not been adopted by those recognized as belonging to the Hindu fold are in fact similar to what has been adopted by Hindus in other areas. Tribal people and outcaste groups are, on the other hand, always willing to worship a few more gods or to imitate the rituals of lower-caste Hindus. Age-long processes of interpenetration and fusion have led to an adoption of many local and popular cults into general Hinduism--or, because it expressed itself mainly in Sanskrit, into the Great, or Sanskritic, tradition--and to the identification of regional gods with the great figures of the Hindu pantheon. Popular belief is integrated rather than discounted or discarded. This process is facilitated by a tendency toward the assimilation of local beliefs by pan-Indian Hinduism and by an unwillingness to deny gods and cults (the worship of a local river deity, for example, may be identified with that of the Ganges). The inheritors of the Little, or regional, traditions accepted, as a result of continual and complicated Hinduizing influences, vegetarianism, regular fasts, and food restrictions; they also began to object to the remarriage of widows, to observe Hindu festivals, to sing Hindu religious songs, to perform funeral and other ceremonious worship and, most importantly, to imbibe the ideas embodied in religious and mythological narratives. Thus, various tribal or outcaste groups have a religion with some affinities to a simple Shaivism without sacred books or regular liturgy.

While many Hindus pursue their approach to the divine individually, corporate worship in families, villages, and sects is far more common in some castes. These groups exhibit the utmost variation in beliefs and practices. As a rule, each community practices only a small segment of the whole spectrum of religious behaviour as the expression of its own religious life. As to the relation between religion and social structure, there are in many communities differently structured systems, each with its own religious behaviour, in which their members may be involved. As members of a joint family, they take part in the domestic cult and ritually express family solidarity at such critical points as mourning or marriage; as members of a village community, they take part in its particular cult, which is a collective action of that community. Different castes, however, establish their own rituals in order to foster unity and to differentiate themselves from others. There is, on the other hand, ritual cooperation between different villages of the same region.

For many communities, spiritual reality is complex: while many women may address local spirits, family ancestors, and goddesses of disease, some of the men may embrace monotheistic ideas. The village's guardian spirit and the saint of a Muslim shrine may also be worshiped, Rama's name is invoked in prayers, and the major deities are honoured chiefly during their periodic festivals. Marriage and other ceremonies combine ancient Sanskritic rites with popular and local features, and even members of the higher classes may accept the entire range of belief. In many regions, each caste has both general Hindu and "parochial" rituals and beliefs, but the proportions in which the two are found together vary from caste to caste and from locality to locality. The upper castes everywhere, however, have a certain amount of Sanskritic ritual in common; but even those who are more or less exclusively devoted to Shiva, for example, do not necessarily constitute a Shaiva community.

The bhakti movements have long influenced the religious feelings of their followers, and religious problems are discussed by people of all professions and intellectual levels. Divine assistance is implored on every imaginable occasion; ancient Vedic rites have even been used as a defense against atomic danger.

2) Regional varieties of folk religion.

In the hilly and mountainous regions of North India, Shaivism, aligned with Shaktism, is prevalent. The awe and mystery of the jungle and mountains are, there and elsewhere, personified as forest "Mothers" or mountain deities, represented by piles of stones or branches of trees to which every passerby contributes an offering. Mother Earth is a great goddess whose marriage (with the Earth god or the Sun) is festively celebrated and whose annual period of impurity is observed by a cessation of all agricultural activities. During the harvest season she is propitiated with wild orgies. In secluded parts of central India she is identified with Devi, a goddess mostly worshiped in North India. Very often, however, she shows herself in her malevolent form, as Mother Death (Mari) or as Kali. There are also many lower caste groups that have adopted a Vaishnava way of life either in order to raise their social status or to have a prospect of salvation. (see also Index: mother goddess)

In the east and northeast, where, broadly speaking, Shaktism is dominant, though Vaishnavism is also common, popular belief has modified the transmigration doctrine by the assumption that the soul of the deceased reappears in a child born in the same family within a year after the person's death. Among the female deities, there are tutelary goddesses of young children and women in childbed: Sasthi, "the Sixth," is worshiped on the sixth day after birth and is represented by a compost pile of cow dung or earth that is placed in the birth room; and Candi, a form of the goddess Durga, lives in trees and is propitiated by lumps of earth. The snake goddess Manasa is personified in a plant of the same name or in a stone carved into the shape of a female seated on a snake; a day in the rainy season, when reptiles are most dangerous, is devoted to her priestless and unpretentious worship. In literary works she is eulogized as the Great Mother who is expected to give a prosperous journey through life and, to a certain extent, is also Sanskritized by being identified with epic snake demons. Another example of fusion of general and local Hindu institutions is the conviction that ghosts and demons are warded off by performing a ceremony in honour of the deceased at Gaya in modern Bihar state.

In many regions--especially in western India, where Vaishnavism is dominant--believers admit that virtue will improve their lot in a subsequent existence, but they do not seem to strive for final union with the Supreme. Here, and elsewhere, a workaday religion meant to meet the requirements of everyday life exists alongside a higher religion understood only by the Brahmans, who are called on to officiate on important occasions. In order to discover the divine will, exorcists and mediums, possessed by mother goddesses and submitting themselves to self-torture, are called upon to prophesy about future events. In these regions the worship of snakes is more prominent, and some temples are even dedicated to them. Practices based on the belief in scapegoats, ritual nudity, and black magic are also widespread.

The whole of peninsular India is mainly devoted to Shaivism, devotional forms of Vaishnavism, and the worship of the goddess in her many forms. A striking feature in the religion of South India is the propitiation of usually local female village deities of varied and ambivalent character, to whom in almost every settlement a simple shrine or other sacred place is dedicated. These deities are thought to be particularly competent for dealing with the facts of village life, such as diseases of the inhabitants and their cattle. Special cholera and smallpox goddesses are the subject of elaborate stories. In a few cases--e.g., that of Mariyamma, the smallpox goddess of South India--such a goddess is known to a large region. These mothers, from whom all good and bad luck emanate, are almost universally worshiped with animal sacrifices, and the priestly ministrants (pujari) officiating in their cult belong to the non-Brahman groups. The goddesses may be represented by various symbols (stone pillars, sticks, clay figures) that need not be permanent. Most of their shrines are simple, small brick buildings or rough stone platforms under a tree. Offerings of rice, fruit, and flowers may be made every day or on fixed days; although there often is a fixed annual festival, it is not uniformly celebrated and no calendar of festivals is established. An exception to this is the male deity Aiyanar, who in the countryside of Tamil Nadu state is worshiped as the watchman and patron of the villages but also is implored to grant children and other blessings. He is a vegetarian and therefore ranks as socially superior to the female village goddess with whom he has entered into a complementary relation. Aiyanar is worshiped either as a village deity or in a temple dedicated to Shiva, where he is given the rank of a son of that god. In these Shiva temples he is legitimated by higher Hinduism and fulfills the function of a double of Shiva representing "All-India" or general Hinduism in the village, which does not regard him as an outsider. Shiva himself is also worshiped and given a consort, who, though considered a manifestation of Durga, has various names according to the tradition of temple or village.

Sacred snakes, especially cobras, are also given offerings--partly to avert danger from these reptiles, partly to propitiate them with the aim of obtaining rain, fertility, or children; to that end women worship snake stones (nagalkals) or erect stone figures of cobras. Every joint family of the Coorgs in Karnataka state and most other peoples have a snake deity of their own that is said to embody their welfare. Here and there, Brahmans officiate in this cult, which usually takes place in small sanctuaries in private gardens. Although also known in other parts of India, the methods of exorcising evil spirits known as devil-dancing are most fully developed in South India. The notorious hook-swinging festival, Cadak-puja, held for propitiatory purposes in cases of famine or other calamities--a man was suspended by hooks at the end of a long pole and swung around--though strictly prohibited, survived to the 20th century. Greater festivals are, generally speaking, either celebrated at the chief agricultural seasons or connected with the expulsion of malign powers.

3) Folk and tribal myths.

There is a great diversity in folk mythology throughout the entire Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, but these myths have neither been fully collected nor systematically studied. Among locally important deities, Manasa, a snake goddess, worshiped in Assam and Bengal to ward off snakebites and secure prosperity, has an enormous mythology of her own. In South India one finds popular cobra cults with a variety of myths and lore. In Maharashtra, a form of Vishnu, known as Vitthal or Vitthoba, has also spawned a rich mythology.

The sources of folk and tribal mythology are vernacular literature, oral tradition, folklore, and folk and tribal arts. Folk mythology derives from the most ancient times and has influenced both Vedic and classical mythology. Classical mythology became what it is by continuously assimilating myths not previously known or accepted, so that the line between classical and folk (and tribal) mythology is apt to be arbitrary. The Great (Sanskrit) tradition of classical mythology (as contrasted with the local, or Little, traditions of folk mythology) may include within its scheme a god who continues to have an independent existence on a folk level. Sacred manifestations of purely local interest are associated with the higher mythology by becoming a Little manifestation of a Great god, such as the footstep of Rama and the bathing place of Sita (Rama's wife). Conversely, an incident of the Great tradition may be adopted and adapted on the folk level. For example, the local Maharashtrian god Vitthoba is identified with a manifestation of Vishnu and thus assured a place in the Great tradition; on the other hand, in North India, the widely celebrated festival of Navaratri ("Nine Nights") is associated with the village goddess Naurtha.

Certain concepts that evolved in Puranic mythology have facilitated the absorption of folk elements; two of these should be singled out: avatar (avatara, incarnation), and vahana (vehicle).

The concept of avatar (literally "descent") issues from the belief that in times of trouble a god, notably Vishnu, incarnates himself as a man or hero to set matters right. Such a concept provides the opportunity for identifying a local deity (like Vitthoba, above) with an all-Indian god like Vishnu. The concept may also extend to the worship of very local hierophanies (manifestations of the sacred; e.g., South Indian Vaishnavism accepts "icon-incarnation" [arcavatara], in which Vishnu "descends" in a local icon).

According to the concept of a vahana(literally "mount"), every god has an entourage of his own, which includes a favourite riding animal; this facilitates many folk associations. Vishnu's mount is the bird Garuda, an old solar symbol; Shiva's is the bull Nandi, whose worship may go back to the ancient Harappan civilization. There are other mythological patterns, such as adoption in a family; thus the folk god Ganesha, an elephant-headed god, is made the son of Shiva, as is Kumara Karttikeya, the war god, who arose from the South Indian war god Murugan. Hanuman, the monkey god, becomes an all-Indian god as a helper of Rama, who is an avatar of Vishnu.

Other spirits and godlings of folk provenance are not absorbed to the same degree and thus retain their folk character. Important are the snakes (nagas), to which great power is attributed; the yakshas, koboldlike keepers of wealth, whose king is Kubera; vetalas, ghoulish pranksters who haunt corpses; and spirits of the restless dead (bhuts, pretas), who must be warded off. Though the existence of these spirits is fully recognized in the classical mythology, they operate primarily on the folk level.

It is therefore difficult to find folk myths and cults that are not in one form or another elevated into the Sanskrit tradition by a specific association with a major god. Only where there has been no appreciable cultural contact between Indian tribal people and Hindus (or "Hinduized" folk groups) can a significant distinction be drawn between classical Hindu mythology and "folk" mythology. The myths of the tribes of Chota Nagpur (Bihar state), the Santal (West Bengal and Bihar states), the Toda in the Nilgiri Hills (Tamil Nadu state), and others are examples of such mythology. Much religious material lies hidden in folktales.


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