Indian History Part 61 The Dance of the Religions Section I: The Assiduous Power of Hinduism

Canberra, 10 December 2017


From the earliest times, Indian civilisation has flourished within the confines of a great social and religious system called Hinduism. Although Hinduism is now equated to a religion, it has always been, and continues to be, a system as old and unique as the civilisation that it nurtured. The initiation, growth and endurance of the Hindu philosophy and thought process was greatly assisted by the geography of the Indian sub-continent that denies ready access to outside influences. The borders of the sub-continent are even completely impenetrable in some places.

There is an on-going debate regarding the historical antecedents of Indian history. Some scholars opine that India becomes truly ‘historic’ only around 700-600 BC with the establishment of the great Maurya Empire in the Gangetic belt, with modern Bihar at its centre. The establishment of the Maurya Empire, which is a recognised and a clearly datable event, is considered by many scholars to be a stake in the sand of time from which the evolution of Hindu philosophy can be measured forward and also speculated backwards. The reason is that there is extremely limited material evidence that have survived and are available to recount the history of ‘Hindu’ development before the establishment of the Maurya Empire. Further, even the scant records available are not of undoubted authenticity, leading to history of the period being of the speculative kind.

The only information available are to be gleaned from the great body of scared literature, now known as the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads. The difficulty in using these as sources for historical research is that no definitive dates can be ascribed to any one of the treatises contained in the three groups. However, they do provide a genuine understanding of the prevalent religious thought and its development in the pre-historic times. They also give authentic accounts of the social norms of the time and, in a limited manner, even the political process of the unchartered times of the Indus Valley Civilisation, as well as the establishment of the Maurya Empire.

The Vedas

The Vedas are the oldest writings of Hindu philosophical thought and provides details of the growth of religious beliefs in the sub-continent. The initial religious thought is founded on nature-worship, which is in consonance with religious developments in other ancient civilisations. The gradual transformation of the religion into a polytheistic and pantheistic concept of the universe and the changing norms of worship can be traced in these writings. These changed conditions and thought process contained the essence of Hinduism as practised today.

The Vedic hymns extol the virtue of Nature that is considered divine and the pantheon of Gods deified the forces of nature. Fire, was worshipped as Agni; the elixir of life as Soma; and the God of heaven as Indra, while other gods took on abstract forms like that of Prajapati. In the early days Varuna was the pre-eminent and all-absorbing divinity. There was a plethora of gods in the pantheon, each with his or her own characteristics, likes, dislikes and powers. They also intermingled while an individual god’s importance and power waxed and waned over time. This very large number of gods, both male and female, merged their identities with each other in infinite processes, both material and meta-physical. These processes produced a continuous evolution of altered gods, belief systems and philosophical thoughts. When interactions started with the Western civilisations in early medieval times, it became clear that the Western mind could not fully comprehend the intricacies and nuances of the development of this ancient thought process. This inability led to the development and publication of a large number of ill-formed ideas regarding Hindu philosophy and religious thought.

The variations and numbers in the combining process were only restricted by the inspiration of the Brahmin priests, who alone were considered well-versed in understanding the ways and vagaries of the gods. By this time Brahmins were already established in a position wherein they alone were considered competent enough to propitiate the gods, through intricate sacrificial rites and rigidly formed prayers. They became the keepers of the Vedas.

The Brahmanas

The Brahmanas demonstrate the gradual departure of theological belief within Hinduism from the purity of the Vedas. The old gods either disappeared or evolved into new identities with new characteristics, at times totally opposed to the Vedic concept of that god. For example, the God Varuna who was considered benevolent and all-absorbing in Vedic concept, was transformed into the God of night who had to be placated to avoid his cruelty. Around the same time, the Brahmins obtained overwhelming authority as being at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy, not based on individual theological knowledge but through the connection of blood, passed from father to son. The Vedic concept of Brahmin being the most learned of the people and the idea of anyone being able to attain the status of a Brahmin based on an individual’s qualities were lost in this transition. Brahminical authority henceforth would be derived from the more esoteric connection of blood. Castes within the Hindu religion lapsed into being hereditary and rigid.

The Brahmins were assisted in reaching this pre-eminent position by the changes that took place in the common language of the people. The hymns of the Vedas were written in the ‘old’ language, which was not well understood by the lay person. Gradually the hymns and other written elements of the religion started to be understood only by the Brahmins, becoming the monopoly of these families. It was only a matter of time before this monopoly was used by those who enjoyed it for self-aggrandisement. The language of the prayers became sacred—only known to and used by the Brahmins.

The Brahmanas became the foundation for the growth of a complex theology that was almost incomprehensible to the common public. The theology was based on formidable and complicated rituals, of which only the Brahmin had full and exclusive knowledge and the power to exercise their usage. The religion was now separated from the commoner who practised it by an artificially created layer of self-promoting individuals, the Brahmins, who would not permit the knowledge to be made openly available.

The Upanishads

Compared to the Vedas and the Brahmanas, the Upanishads are relatively later-day chronicles that provide information and explanations provided by acclaimed thinkers of the more abstract interpretations of the Hindu philosophy. The importance of these treatises is that the thinkers who expounded their ideas were not always Brahmins. The Upanishads contain the thread of evolving and esoteric philosophical thought that have exercised an abiding influence on Indian spirituality and way of life. There are no exact dates attributed to the Upanishads, but it is generally agreed that only the earlier ones were written before the establishment of the Maurya Empire that has been taken as the point of historic reference for this narrative. In their totality, the entire set represents the progressive evolution of Hinduism from the seeds sown from the Vedas. Perhaps because of their common origin, the Upanishads also contain equal number, and at times the same, contradictions and complexities that are visibly present in Hindu theology and philosophy.

Through the influence of the thinkers and the ancient manuscripts, Hinduism developed two opposing thought processes: the Sankhya Darshana and the Vedantic System. The Sankhya Darshana is a philosophical conception of atheistic belief, whereas the Vedantic System advocates the Law of Karma that promotes fusion with God rather than the belief in a person’s non-existence. Considering that both these concepts exist within the fold of Hinduism, it is not surprising that both accept the belief of the Universe, and all that exists in it, as well as life itself as a finite illusion. The Law of Karma, which is the basis of the Vedantic System, is the philosophy of a long succession of births and re-births before a person can reach the ultimate goal—either non-existence or of absorption into the Divine Essence.

The Influence of ‘Karma’

The Law of Karma has been an enduring influence on Hinduism and Indian society. While explaining the concept of birth and re-birth, the Law states that re-birth is determined by the sum total of a person’s deeds, both good and bad, taking all previous existences into account. This concept goes completely against basic Hindu thought that professes to be ruled by the sternest logic. The influence of the Law of Karma is visible even today in the Hindu society in a number of areas. First, the Law perpetuated the patriarchal principle, initially within a tribal family and later in the concept of a ‘joint’ family. Even though the legality of Hindu inheritance have been changed through the enactment of new laws, the concept of a patriarchal joint family exists to this day in Indian society, at least in principle and spirit.

Second, is the belief that only a son could perform the appropriate and elaborate rites and sacrifices required to propitiate the felicity of the dead. From ancient times this brought about a reverence for the dead that has become entrenched as an instinctive worship of the dead, especially one’s own ancestors. From this worship springs a critical influence, that of the need to have a ‘son’ in order to ensure that a male progeny is available to do the last rites of a person on his/her death. The Indian social clamour, apparent even today, to have a son emanates from this archaic requirement. Third, the need to have a male progeny led to early marriages to ensure that a man does not die before begetting a son, especially since life expectancy was at best in the early forties during the time of this evolution. The need for a son also led to the enshrinement of the concept of ‘adoption’, where an adopted son was given exactly the same position and power of a real son.

The fourth factor that influenced society profoundly flowed from the need to conduct early marriages for the man. Early marriages meant that the bride would be very young at the time of the marriage and therefore almost completely dependent on the husband for the fulfilment of all her needs. This led to the women being given an inferior position and to their complete subjugation by the male members of the family. They were only valued as potential ‘breeders’ of sons. Women who could not bear sons, were shunned as unlucky and even cursed, although the sex of the child in any union is a function of the man’s chromosomes. All through life and death man was exalted while women were maintained at a lower plane. In this hierarchy, brought about by the belief in Karma, a woman’s position was mitigated only when she bore a son, or even better, many sons. Then she was revered at home and a woman’s force of character and virtue often propelled her to be elevated to a powerful matriarchal position.

Although many social ills came to be perpetuated because of the indirect effects of the influence of the Law of Karma, the same laws also made, and continues to make, the Hindu family a living organism. The family maintains a direct connection to a person who has passed on as well as to the future through the implicit belief in re-birth. This is perhaps the most exalted aspect of Hinduism and demonstrates its best character.

The Codes of Law

The traditional norms of society were recorded in what are called the ‘Smritis’. These customs and traditions were ultimately embodied in several codes of law, of which the most famous one is that of Manu. Over the years, the codes of law have been disfigured by narrow and biased social influences. Originally they set lofty standards of morality based on a high concept of duty to be followed by everyone. They are narrow in some of their outlook, but practical and strong, having stood the test of time. The codes of law, in combination with the older works such as the Vedas as well as other works on scientific matters, provides an account and shows a clear path regarding the progress of the society and religious thought up to the establishment of the Magadha Empire—considered as the point at which India arrived on the ‘historical’ map in a definitive manner.

The initial division of society into ‘varnas’, meaning colours, is attributed to the Laws of Manu. In later years, the same concept degenerated into the much-maligned caste system because of a number of disparate influences. However, these codes of laws still constitute the framework of the Hindu society. Some very precise and elaborate laws safeguarded the authority of the king and priest, with the priest being always sub-servient to the king. These laws were the foundations of all ancient Hindu kingdoms. The ancient kingdoms were organised and functioned within the stipulations of these complicated religious and societal laws.

Hinduism – A Chronology of Development

Hinduism is one of the great religions of the world. However, it differs from other great religions in a fundamental manner, which distinguish it and its philosophy—the origin of Hinduism is not associated with a single great prophet or teacher. Its tenets, philosophy and principles are not derived from the personal beliefs conceptualised by an individual like Moses, Christ, Confucius, Buddha or the Prophet Muhammad. Buddhism that evolved from the teachings of a single individual and Jainism which developed in a similar manner, flourished as off-shoots of Hinduism, nurtured by a spirit of revolt against orthodox Brahmanism that had a stranglehold over Hinduism.

Both the religious orders, Buddhism and Jainism, were open to all and even included women as nuns along with the order of monks that propagated them. Buddhism reached the zenith of its power under Asoka the Maurya who is considered the greatest king to have ruled the Maurya Empire, but declined in the sub-continent soon after. Although the religion went through a phase of revival during the reign of Kanishka it never again reached the level of purity and exalted state that it had during Asoka’s rule.

The impact of the popularity of these off-shoot religions was almost devastating for Hinduism, which declined into a diminished state. However, the religion adapted fairly quickly to the changing religious needs of the population. The first noticeable change was that the ancient, impenetrable rituals and impersonal gods of the Vedas were imperceptibly replaced by a group of more approachable and personalised set of gods. Shiva and Vishnu and their feminine counterparts, Kali and Lakshmi made their appearance in the Hindu pantheon.  These gods further evolved into perennially popular ones such as Skanda and Ganesha, associated with Shiva and Rama and Krishna, considered to be avatars or incarnations of Vishnu.

Hinduism also absorbed the native tribes into itself, at times directly adopting their primitive deities into mainstream religious worship. The earlier incarnations of Vishnu, depicted as a fish and a wild boar, are examples of this absorption process. Further, Hinduism stood apart from Buddhism through the populist spread of its two epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both are nationalistic in their approach as opposed to the broad cosmopolitan approach and outlook adopted by Buddhism. The Mahabharata contains the Bhagavad-Gita whereas the Ramayana is the story of Rama, who displays the quintessential essence of uncorrupted dedication to duty or dharma. [For a detailed analysis of the Vedic Age, please see Chapter 4 of Volume I: ‘Prehistory to the Fall of the Mauryas’ (pp. 27-48) of this series ‘From Indus to Independence’]

Throughout its long history of development, Hinduism retained an inherent flexibility that was necessary to incorporate the political ambitions of both Hindu and non-Hindu conquerors and races, adapting and accommodating to the changing circumstances. Hinduism came into conflict with Buddhism not because of some insurmountable differences in theological beliefs, but because of irreconcilable differences in the social systems that each propagated. Hinduism then adapted the cloak of nationalism and imbibed a new sense of patriotism.

From the time of the short-lived Kushan Empire, the evolution of Hinduism had gone through a period of ‘darkness’, with hardly any progress being made either in its philosophical journey or in the overarching development of its doctrine. In the history of Hinduism it emerges further into ‘light’ during the splendour of the reign of the great Gupta dynasty in Ujjain in the 4th and 5th century, which is referred to as ‘the golden age of Hinduism’. The power of the Gupta dynasty was such that their reign is today considered to symbolise the great revival of Hindu nationalism.

This period was the age of Brahminical ascendancy. The Gupta emperors had great zeal for Hinduism and is the dynasty that is extolled in India more than any other. India has always suffered from internecine wars for religious and political supremacy and these conflicts often came down to battles for the supremacy of one language over others. This is the case even today. Today the battle for supremacy is between Urdu and Hindi and between Hindi and various other local or regional languages. During the Gupta period of the revival of Hindu religion, the contest was between Sanskrit and the more ‘vulgar’ common language of the people.

Under the rule of the Gupta dynasty, Sanskrit—essentially the language of the Brahmins—resumed its pre-eminent position. It superimposed itself on literature, art, science, astronomy, logic, philosophy and theology. It came to pass that these disciplines, thriving under the umbrella of Sanskrit, adapted efficiently to the glory of Brahmanism and achieved great successes. This period could be justifiably called the finest hour of Hinduism. At the height of its power, Hinduism remained indifferently tolerant of other ‘religions’, mainly Buddhism and Jainism, and philosophies, supremely confident in its position of power and influence. Whether due to a sense of superiority or some other equally compelling ones, it remains a fact that all purely Indian philosophies remain tolerant in their fundamental beliefs.

Although it was in a revived and ascendant status during the Gupta reign, it did not take long for the religion to fall back into a languished state at the fall of the Guptas. The loss of position was hastened by the arrival of the White Huns, under the ferocious Mihiragula, into the sub-continent. Hinduism fell into decline once again under the ruthless suppression imposed by the White Huns. This decline was stemmed by Harsha Vardhana (ruled 606-648). Harsha was a mystic and a dreamer and distributed his favours equally to Hinduism and Buddhism. The moribund Hinduism was revived through his rule, even though in the later years of his rule he distinctly favoured Buddhism.

In the post-Harsha Vardhana period, the history of Hinduism passes almost completely to the Rajput kingdoms in central and western India. The Rajputs were descendants of relatively recent invaders into the sub-continent who had been very rapidly ‘Hinduised’ and then with equal dexterity become ferocious champions of the religion. They traced their ancestry through Hindu Brahmanism to the Sun and the Moon. Although the Rajputs were the epitome of chivalry and fighting prowess, fierce clan jealousies and intense dynastic pride made them incapable of initiating unified action even against common enemies. Because of this fundamental flaw in their collective character, even with their formidable warfighting skills, they were unable to withstand the imminent invasion of militant Islam an event even Harsh must have foreseen.

Abiding Factors

Harsha Vardhana was the last great Hindu emperor who successfully ruled the entire North India. The fact remains that religion and social order represent the real and paramount power in India, irrespective of the form of temporal power that is exercised at any given time. This fundamental truth has been visible in India over the centuries. Even in prehistoric times the subtle and flexible forces exerted by Hinduism had succeeded in bringing together disparate beliefs and customs to create a socio-religious fabric with sufficient elasticity that could withstand repeated and strong onslaughts to its being. Tenacity and the inherent power to absorb foreign ideas provided Hinduism with the wherewithal to become an enduring entity.

Even as Hinduism emerged from its early days as a social amalgam of great resilience, neither did it generate any enduring politically constructive force nor did it become a politically durable entity. Its political importance was limited to the reign and the immediate aftermath of few gifted conquerors and monarchs. This is one of the major reasons for all Hindu Empires finally succumbing to the continuous and tenacious pull of forces exerted by much smaller states. The story was the same in the great and long-lasting empires like those of the Mauryas and the Guptas as well as in the more ephemeral kingdoms like the ones ruled by Kanishka and Harsha. At their demise, all the great Hindu empires and large kingdoms broke up into many states of varying power under the weight of the differences in race, language, culture and climate. In medieval India, the state as an entity was constantly changing its individual, and at times collective, identities. As soon as the large kingdoms balkanised, they entered into a period of constant and continuous strife of one kind or the other. In these circumstances, positive religious developments were impossible.

Although the conditions were not conducive for religious or philosophical developments, Hinduism survived, based on its subtle and nuanced philosophies; flexible concept of ‘rigid’ worship as espoused by Brahmanical liturgy; and the doctrine of infinite reincarnation for all until the self was immersed as one with the sublime divinity.

The caste system has been the bane of Hinduism, as has been explained, rationalised, expounded and vilified over the years. Even though it is gradually giving way in modern India, the concept continues to be vigorous in subtle but obtrusive ways. It divides the contemporary Indian society into watertight compartments, with each caste organised under laws of their own that make them independent and traditional. A Hindu is born into a caste, lives in it his entire life and dies within it. This is the absolute truth of life for a Hindu. The arbitrary nature of this rigid notion creates an insurmountable social cleavage in modern India. The society in India does not have a reasonable chance of intermingling and thereby creating a healthy fusion of different people, a process that is vital for the creation of viable political power. India suffers from this social division, which is fatally critical to the development of a robust political system that is commonly acceptable and supported.

The rigidity of the caste system left Hinduism bereft of any political force to defend itself. This one flaw opened the Hindu states with their superior culture and civilisation to all external races and ethnicities that took the opportunity to invade the sub-continent, throughout its history. The Hindu states, almost artificial in establishing their entities and independence, were easily swept aside by the extreme and focused force of militant Islam.

The concept of Hinduism, unperturbed and safe within its water-tight compartments of caste, would be battered repeatedly by forces beyond its control, but would survive without being smashed to bits, retaining a recognisable semblance to its original state.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2017]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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