HISTORY OF RELIGION IN INDIA

EARLY RELIGIOUS PRACTICES IN INDIA


priest-king in Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“Only fragmentary information can be pieced together about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Horned animals, trees, many female figurines (probably mother goddesses), and phallic sculptures suggest that the people practiced some kind of fertility worship. Depictions of figures in yogic postures suggest that meditation was used. These images relate to those of later Indian religions, and some may be prototypes of later Indian deities.

“Some time after the collapse of the Indus civilization, Aryans migrated down to the subcontinent from Central Asian steppes, bringing with them beliefs in gods, predominantly male, who personified forces and nature and were worshipped in elaborate sacrifices performed by Brahmins, the priestly class. The Aryans composed religious texts beginning with the Rig Veda, Soma Veda, and Athar Veda (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), which contained hymns to the gods and descriptions of the customs, behavior, and traditions of Aryan life. The Upanishads, composed later (700–500 B.C.), contain profound philosophical speculations about the “One who lies behind.” This “One,” called Brahman, is eternal, formless, all encompassing, and the origin and essence of all things.”

Religion in the Indus Valley: Before 2000 B.C.

An examination of South Asian religious life begins with the Indus Valley civilisation located in the basin of the river Indus, which flows through present-day Pakistan. Embracing two cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, with about 40,000 people, it had developed by about 2500 B.C., although its origins reach back to the Neolithic period, and largely disappeared by 1500 B.C. The Indus Valley was a developed urban culture similar to the civilisations of Mesopotamia. Its people enjoyed quite a high standard of living with sophisticated water systems. Most houses had drainage systems, wells, and trash chutes. Grain was the basis of the economy and large grain stores collected grain as tax. Indus Valley civilisation was extensive, extending from the eastern foothills of the Himalayas, to Lothar on the Gujarat coast, and to Sutgagen Dor near the Iranian border. The Indus civilisation did not develop as a result of contact with other civilisations such as Sumer or Egypt but was an indigenous development growing out of earlier, local cultures.


Indus Valley Seal

Professor Gavin Flood of Oxford University wrote: “ We know little of the religion, social structure or politics of this early civilisation and we do not know the language, but seals have been found with what looks like a script inscribed on them. This has not been deciphered successfully and some scholars now question whether it is in fact a script, although this is contentious. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

“Religion in the Indus valley seems to have involved temple rituals and ritual bathing in the 'great bath' found at Mohenjo-Daro. There is some evidence of animal sacrifice at Kalibangan. A number of terracotta figurines have been found, perhaps goddess images, and a seal depicting a seated figure surrounded by animals that some scholars thought to be a prototype of the god Shiva. Others have disputed this, pointing out that it bears a close resemblance to Elamite seals depicting seated bulls. One image, carved on soapstone (steatite), depicts a figure battling with lions which is reminiscent of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh myth. |::|

“There may be continuities between the Indus Valley civilisation and later Hinduism as suggested by the apparent emphasis on ritual bathing, sacrifice, and goddess worship. But ritual purity, sacrifice and an emphasis on fertility are common to other ancient religions.” |::|

Indus Valley Religion

We know as little about the Indus religion and philosophy as we do about their language. The Indus people left behind no large monuments to their religions. Most of what is known is derived from small miniatures described as "small, modest, even humble expressions of human sentiment."

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“Only fragmentary information can be pieced together about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Horned animals, trees, many female figurines (probably mother goddesses), and phallic sculptures suggest that the people practiced some kind of fertility worship. Depictions of figures in yogic postures suggest that meditation was used. These images relate to those of later Indian religions, and some may be prototypes of later Indian deities.

“Some time after the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization, Aryans migrated down to the subcontinent from Central Asian steppes, bringing with them beliefs in gods, predominantly male, who personified forces and nature and were worshipped in elaborate sacrifices performed by Brahmins, the priestly class. The Aryans composed religious texts beginning with the Rig Veda, Soma Veda, and Athar Veda (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), which contained hymns to the gods and descriptions of the customs, behavior, and traditions of Aryan life. The Upanishads, composed later (700–500 B.C.), contain profound philosophical speculations about the “One who lies behind.” This “One,” called Brahman, is eternal, formless, all encompassing, and the origin and essence of all things.”


rock paintings in Bhimbetka, rock shelters that date back to 100,000 years ago


Indus Phallic Symbols and Animal Cults

Religious life may have revolved around fertility cults. Miniatures of decorated, pregnant females with high collars and headdresses, collected from Mohenjo-Daro seem to suggest the Indus Valley civilization worshipped mother-goddess figures. Terra cotta figures, often heavily adorned with jewelry and wearing elaborate headdresses, have been excavated from a number of sites. As a balance some scholars also believe the Indus people paid homage to phallic gods as well. The miniatures may have been offerings brought by people who hoped their wishes would be granted.

A figure with a human face, the trunk of elephant, the hind quarters of a tiger and the hind legs of bull has been found on seals. Humans with the horns of bulls or water buffaloes have been found on tokens. These discoveries have led some scholars to conclude the Indus people were members of animal cults.

Among the other animals depicted on tokens and seals are rhinos, crocodiles and elephants. Images of unicorns are particularly common. The unicorn symbol disappeared from the subcontinent after the Indus Valley civilization collapsed. Another token shows a human head set before a horned figure like an offering.

Scores of stone phallic, vulva and bull figures have been found that are similar to iconic symbols in Hinduism. Some archaeologists and historians present this as evidence that Indus religion may have been the precursor to Hinduism. The bull was mount of the Hindu god Shiva. Indus phallic symbols' resembled the lingams (phallic emblems) used in the worship of Shiva. Some tokens show humans bowing before a pipal tree shading figures that may be deities. Pipal trees symbolize fertility and protection in Hinduism.

One three-sided seal that was unearthed depicts a squatting god surrounded by animals which, some scholars say, may have been a forerunner of Shiva. Some of the most beautifully carved images on seals are of cattle, which suggests a link to cattle worship.

Vedic Period Religion, 1500–500 B.C.


Vedas from 1200-1000 BC

There have been two major theories about the early development of early south Asian traditions: 1)The Aryan migration thesis: that the Indus Valley groups calling themselves 'Aryans' (noble ones) migrated into the sub-continent and became the dominant cultural force; and 2)The cultural transformation thesis: that Aryan culture is a development of the Indus Valley culture. According to the The Aryan migration thesis there were no Aryan migrations (or invasion) and the Indus valley culture was an Aryan or Vedic culture. According to the cultural transformation thesis Hinduism derives from their religion recorded in the Veda along with elements of the indigenous traditions they encountered. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

Professor Flood wrote: “If we take 'Vedic Period' to refer to the period when the Vedas were composed, we can say that early vedic religion centred around the sacrifice and sharing the sacrificial meal with each other and with the many gods (devas). The term 'sacrifice' (homa, yajna) is not confined to offering animals but refers more widely to any offering into the sacred fire (such as milk and clarified butter). |::|

“Some of the vedic rituals were very elaborate and continue to the present day. Sacrifice was offered to different vedic gods (devas) who lived in different realms of a hierarchical universe divided into three broad realms: earth, atmosphere and sky. Earth contains the plant god Soma, the fire god Agni, and the god of priestly power, Brhaspati. The Atmosphere contains the warrior Indra, the wind Vayu, the storm gods or Maruts and the terrible Rudra. The Sky contains the sky god Dyaus (from the same root as Zeus), the Lord of cosmic law (or rta) Varuna, his friend the god of night Mitra, the nourisher Pushan, and the pervader Vishnu.” |::]

Epic, Puranic and Classical Age, 500 B.C. – A.D. 500

The Epic, Puranic and Classical Age (c.500 B.C.– A.D. 500), beginning from around the time of Buddha (died c. 400 B.C.), saw the development of the Buddhist and Jain religions and creation of poetic literature and important Hindu texts such a the Dharma Sutras and Shastras, the two Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and subsequently the Puranas, containing many of the stories still popular today. The famous Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata. These texts were composed in Sanskrit, which became the most important element in a shared culture. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]


Shiva statue form Ellora's Kailash Temple

Professor Flood wrote: “The idea of dharma (law, duty, truth) which is central to Hinduism was expressed in a genre of texts known as Dharma Sutras and Shastras. The Dharma Sutras recognise three sources of dharma: revelation (i.e. the Veda), tradition (smrti), and good custom. The Laws of Manu adds 'what is pleasing to oneself'. From this period we can recognise many elements in present day Hinduism, such as bhakti (devotion) and temple worship. During this period the vedic fire sacrifice became minimised with the development of devotional worship (puja) to images of deities in temples. The rise of the Gupta Empire (320-500 CE) saw the development of the great traditions of Vaishnavism (focussed on Vishnu), Shaivism (focussed on Shiva) and Shaktism (focussed on Devi). |::|

Professor Murphy wrote: “There is little doubt that the rejection of Vedic authority by Buddhist and Jain thinkers encouraged the reformulation and strengthening of particular aspects of Vedic traditions and the reassertion of the authority of Brahmins. Literature of the period helped to codify and reassert aspects of Brahminical ideology. The concept of Four Stages of Life (ashramadharma) was articulated here, according to which every person must follow the dharma (or social role) assigned to him or er corresponding to his or her place within the caste (varna/jati) systems, and corresponding to his (the emphasis here on men) stage in life, or ashrama. The system defined appropriate roles and responsibilities for “twice-born” men, those from the upper three castes: brahmins, ksatriyas, and vaishyas. Four stages were identified: celibate student, householder, hermit or forest dwelling (undertaken toward the end of life), and renunciation. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“Four possible aims in life were identified: artha (economic and social success), dharma (learning), kama (pleasure), and moksha (enlightenment). Students were to concentrate on dharma, householders to be concerned with artha and kama, and only in the final stage of life, that of a wandering holy man, is moksha a goal. The system did not hold for all—particularly for those excluded due to their gender or low position in the varna and jati systems—and renunciation was never universally embraced, though it remained an ideal. Although somewhat fluid, position in these systems was hereditary.” ~~

Religion in India in the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C.

Buddhism originated in northeast India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. at a time when the local religion was Brahmanism, the predecessor of Hinduism. Brahmanism was dominated by Brahman priests who presided over rituals and sometimes practiced asceticism. Many of the ascetic Brahmin believed in a concept of the universe known as brahman and a similar concept of the human mind, known as atman, and thought it was possible to achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth by achieving oneness with the atman. These concepts became cornerstones of Buddhism.


Jain Bahubali statue

Professor Flood wrote: “The idea of dharma (law, duty, truth) which is central to Hinduism was expressed in a genre of texts known as Dharma Sutras and Shastras. The Dharma Sutras recognise three sources of dharma: revelation (i.e. the Veda), tradition (smrti), and good custom. The Laws of Manu adds 'what is pleasing to oneself'. From this period we can recognise many elements in present day Hinduism, such as bhakti (devotion) and temple worship. During this period the vedic fire sacrifice became minimised with the development of devotional worship (puja) to images of deities in temples. The rise of the Gupta Empire (320-500 CE) saw the development of the great traditions of Vaishnavism (focussed on Vishnu), Shaivism (focussed on Shiva) and Shaktism (focussed on Devi). |::|

Professor Murphy wrote: “There is little doubt that the rejection of Vedic authority by Buddhist and Jain thinkers encouraged the reformulation and strengthening of particular aspects of Vedic traditions and the reassertion of the authority of Brahmins. Literature of the period helped to codify and reassert aspects of Brahminical ideology. The concept of Four Stages of Life (ashramadharma) was articulated here, according to which every person must follow the dharma (or social role) assigned to him or er corresponding to his or her place within the caste (varna/jati) systems, and corresponding to his (the emphasis here on men) stage in life, or ashrama. The system defined appropriate roles and responsibilities for “twice-born” men, those from the upper three castes: brahmins, ksatriyas, and vaishyas. Four stages were identified: celibate student, householder, hermit or forest dwelling (undertaken toward the end of life), and renunciation. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“Four possible aims in life were identified: artha (economic and social success), dharma (learning), kama (pleasure), and moksha (enlightenment). Students were to concentrate on dharma, householders to be concerned with artha and kama, and only in the final stage of life, that of a wandering holy man, is moksha a goal. The system did not hold for all—particularly for those excluded due to their gender or low position in the varna and jati systems—and renunciation was never universally embraced, though it remained an ideal. Although somewhat fluid, position in these systems was hereditary.” ~~

Religion in India in the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C.

Buddhism originated in northeast India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. at a time when the local religion was Brahmanism, the predecessor of Hinduism. Brahmanism was dominated by Brahman priests who presided over rituals and sometimes practiced asceticism. Many of the ascetic Brahmin believed in a concept of the universe known as brahman and a similar concept of the human mind, known as atman, and thought it was possible to achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth by achieving oneness with the atman. These concepts became cornerstones of Buddhism.


Raja Ram Mohan Roy

“The nineteenth century saw the development of the 'Hindu Renaissance' with reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) presenting Hinduism as a rational, ethical religion and founding the Brahmo Samaj to promote these ideas. Another reformer, Dayananda Sarasvati (1824–83), advocated a return to vedic religion which emphasised an eternal, omnipotent and impersonal God. He wanted to return to the 'eternal law' or sanatana dharma of Hinduism before the Puranas and Epics through his society, the Arya Samaj. Both of these reformers wished to rid Hinduism of what they regarded as superstition. These groups were instrumental in sowing the seeds of Indian nationalism and Hindu missionary movements that later journeyed to the West. Another important figure was Paramahamsa Ramakrishna (1836-86), who declared the unity of all religions. His disciple Vivekananda (1863–1902) developed his ideas and linked them to a political vision of a united India. |::|

“These ideas were developed by Gandhi (1869–1948), who was instrumental in establishing an independent India. Gandhi, holy man and politician, is probably the best known Indian of the twentieth century. He helped negotiate independence, but was bitterly disappointed by the partition of his country. He was assassinated in 1948. Gandhi drew much of his strength and conviction from the Hindu teachings, such as the notion of ahimsa (non-violence), and propounded a patriotism that was broad-minded and magnanimous. |::|

“During the resistance to colonial rule, the term 'Hindu' became charged with cultural and political meaning. One central idea was hindutva (hindu-ness), coined by V.D. Savarkar to refer to a socio-political force that could unite Hindus against 'threatening others'. Cultural organisations such as the RSS (Rashtriya Svayam-Sevak Sangh) and VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) have embraced and developed this ideal, which found political expression in the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). These sectarian ideas continued after independence.” |::|

Reform and Reaffirmation of South Asian Religion in the Colonial Period

Professor Murphy of Seton Hall University wrote: “The advent of British power and waning of centralized Mughal power brought about key changes in South Asian religious life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Religions came to be defined in particular ways through the enactment of the census with its discrete categories for “Hindu,” “Muslim,” and for separate castes. In actuality, these categories may have been much more fluid than the census allowed for. Many groups—Sikhs, low-caste people, those who followed syncretic traditions that blended elements of separate religions—were left in the margins and had to fight to be recognized. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]


Gandhi

“The cultural critique and racism associated with the colonial regime also meant that many Indians found themselves in defense of “tradition.” All the movements of the period tended to position themselves in relation to the British challenge, explicitly or not. Thus Ram Mohun Roy, the famous Bengali founder of the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, modeled his vision of religious life along pluralistic and universalist grounds. In the late nineteenth century, Dayanand Saraswati, embracing the Vedic tradition, founded the Arya Samaj and attempted to purge Hinduism of such “impure” elements as image worship (based on an understanding of Vedic traditions as more authentic, as also articulated by Western scholars). This organization was very active in building Hindu consciousness in Punjab and elsewhere. ~~

“Certain organizations, educational institutions, and political movements came to be centered around religion as well as caste and other identities. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded Aligarh University to promote the position of Muslims, many of whom had not benefited from colonial patronage as much as Hindus. Many debates were couched in religious terms. A community sought to gain the patronage and attention of the British administration, and those who could “speak for” a particular group were given the ability to influence government policy. ~~

“In Punjab different communities came to compete with one another for representation on government committees and in fledgling representational institutions. One’s political affiliation and one’s religion became intimately intertwined as groups of people attempted to align themselves in ways that would allow them a voice within the colonial structure—particularly as the promise of independence took shape. These loyalties and communities were reconfigured and politicized in a way that fundamentally transformed both religious identity and how people engaged in political organization. It is within this context that one must understand the formation of the nation-states that succeeded the British colonial state through the partition of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan, and after 1971, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.” ~~

Religion in Modern India

Professor Anne Murphy at the University of British Columbia wrote: “Modern India, the world’s largest democracy, has seen periods of great triumphs in the formation of modern religious identities and practices, as well as great tragedies. Caste continues to exert a profound influence both in individual lives and in regional and national politics (as shown recently in Bihar). However, leaders like Ambedkar, who chose to convert to Buddhism to combat the stigma of untouchability, and others have challenged the status quo like the bhakti poets and Buddhist thinkers of centuries ago. [Source: Anne Murphy, Asia Society ~~]

“Change and continuity still characterize the development of religious traditions in South Asia as they have in the past. Pakistan and Bangladesh have experimented to different degrees with the integration of Islamic legal structures into the running of the nation-state, but in neither nation has conservative Islam exerted a definitive influence on governance. The legal system in India has retained differing systems for Hindu and Muslim personal law (more than 10 percent of the population of India is Muslim). ~~

“The Sikhs have battled for their own homeland, since 1997 a relative peace has returned to the Punjab, but the issue may emerge again. Fundamentalist Hinduism, especially after the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1991, has raised concerns for all religious minorities in the region—Sikh, Muslim, and Christian alike. South Asia’s dynamic religious present is manifested throughout the world, since the South Asian diaspora is a vital and growing community. Religious traditions are transformed by this increasingly small world, influenced by economic and political change, new media, and altering social expectations. Core religious beliefs and practices will continue to change, as living cultures do, in the future.” ~~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2023


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