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Indian Religion

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It is impossible to know India without understanding its religious beliefs and practices, which have a large impact on the personal lives of most Indians. On a day-to-day basis, the vast majority of people engage in ritual actions that are motivated by religious systems that owe much to the past but are continuously evolving. Religion, then, is one of the most important facets of Indian history and contemporary life.

A number of world religions originated in India, and others that started elsewhere found fertile ground for growth there.

Buddhism and Jainism, the ancient monastic traditions, have had a major influence on Indian art, philosophy, and society and remain important minority religions. Islam spread from the West throughout South Asia to become the largest minority religion in India. Sikhism, which started in Punjab, has spread throughout India and the world. Christianity, represented by almost all denominations, traces its history in India back to the time of the apostles. Judaism and Zoroastrianism, arriving originally with traders and exiles, are also represented by small populations. A variety of independent tribal religious groups and migrants also are lively carriers of unique ethnic traditions.

The interaction between great traditions and local forms of worship and belief, based on village, caste, tribal, and linguistic differences, creates a range of ritual forms and mythology that varies widely throughout the country. Within this range of differences, Indian religions have demonstrated for many centuries a considerable degree of tolerance for alternate visions of the divine and of salvation.

Indus Valley Civilization:
The Indus Valley Civilization was located in what is today North-West India and Eastern Pakistan and dates back to between 2500 and 1500 B.C.

Relatively little is known about the details of the religious world of the Indus Valley Civilization. Based on archaeological remains, however, it seems that this was a religious world that was particularly focused on ritual bathing and animal sacrifice, elements that may be the source of later Hinduism's attention to the purifying qualities of water and the centrality of sacrifice. A great many female figurines have been discovered in the ruins of the cities that date to this period who seem to have been goddesses, and may have been particularly associated with fertility rituals.

Male figures have also been found on stone and clay seals. Some of these seals depict a seated figure surrounded by a variety of animals, including bulls. These images lead some scholars to label these "proto-Shiva" figures, since the great god Shiva is generally associated with animals (he is sometimes called "Pashupati," the Lord of the animals) and more particularly linked with the bull, which later becomes his special "vehicle."

The Aryan Culture:
The Indus Valley Civilization gave way to the so called Aryan Culture. As the Bronze Age culture of Indus Valley gradually became extinct, they were quickly replaced by migrating Aryans around 1500 B.C.

About 2000 B.C. the great Steppeland which stretches from Poland to Central Asia was inhabited by semi-nomadic barbarians, who were tall, comparatively fair, and mostly long-headed. They had tamed the horse, used solid wheels and shaft-holed axe. These people spoke a group of closely related languages called 'Aryan'. Towards the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C., perhaps due to pressure of population and desiccation of pasturelands, these people were on the move in all direction. A large band of these people, crossing Iraq and Iran, began to infiltrate in Indian subcontinent around 1500 B.C. and laid the foundation of a culture which still is the main culture of India.

Though the Aryan migration into India started around 1500 B.C., it took them almost a thousand years before they could inhabit most of the North Indian plains. This period of thousand years is primarily known through the Sanskrit literature of the Aryans called the Vedic Literature. This Vedic Literature is further divided into two parts, Rig Vedic and Later Vedic, denoting two phases of early Aryan expansion in India.

The Rig Vedic period is the information that we gather about the Aryans from Rig Veda, the earliest of Aryan's work composed between 1500 B.C. and 1000 B.C. Towards 1000 B.C. significant changes had begun in Aryans' material life with far reaching consequences for the history of the region. This period in early Aryans' life is known from the so-called Later Vedic Literature (Yajurveda, Samveda, Atharvaveda, Brahamanas, Upanishads, Aryanyakas) and hence is called Later Vedic Period. The Later Vedic Literature was composed between 1000 B.C and 600 B.C. and hence is a reflection of Aryans' life during that period.

Aryans’ religious world focused on ritual sacrifice, particularly sacrifice involving fire. They also worshipped a variety of gods, many of them linked to natural forces. Most importantly, gradually they came to believe in the infallibility of the Vedas. These religious rituals and myths were to eventually form the foundation of what we today know as ‘Hinduism’; indeed, the religion of early Aryans cannot be referred to as ‘Hinduism’; for easy understanding the scholars refer to their belief system as ‘Brahmanism’.

Here mention may be made to the concept of Hinduism and its historical context.

The word ‘Hindu’ is as much geographical as anything else. In ancient times, the Indus River was called the Sindhu, but the Persians who bordered India on the North-West, called the river Hindu. They also came to call the land beyond the river Hindu as Hindustan and its inhabitants Hindus. Thus in ancient times the term ‘Hindu’ was geo-cultural expressions almost exclusively used by the bordering Persians to describe their neighbours living on the other side of the river Indus. The word ‘Hinduism’ remained a generic term for a very long time and did not come into popular use until the eighteenth century, coined by the British to simplify the work of the census takers. Unlike most of the other major religions of the world, Hinduism has no identifiable founder, nor does it have a ‘holy book’ as a basic scriptural guide. Rather it is the result of a coming together of many systems of beliefs and philosophical schools of thought.

Religion between 6th century BC to Early Christian Eras:
Indian religious life underwent great changes during 6th century BC. This century was marked by the rise of breakaway sects of ascetics who rejected traditional religion, denying the authority of the Vedas and of the Brahmans and following teachers who claimed to have discovered the secret of obtaining release from transmigration. This phase in Indian history is broadly referred to as the ‘period of Heterodox Sects’. By far the most important figures of this period were Siddhartha Gautam, called the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and Vardhaman Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.

Buddha advocated the Middle Path in which he offered a balanced, harmonious way of life, steering between two extremes of self-indulgence and total abstinence. Buddhism rests upon four Noble Truths: (i) suffering is universal, (ii) it is caused by desire and yearning (iii) suffering can be prevented and overcome and (iv) eradication of desires can lead to removal of suffering. To prevent suffering one has to conquer craving and desire and this conquest leads to the attainment of nirvana or complete enlightenment.

Like Buddhism, Jainism rose against the corruption in the interpretation of Brahmanism prevalent at the time. The underlying philosophy of Jainism is that renunciation of worldly desires and self-conquest leads to perfect wisdom. This faith believes in total abstinence and asceticism as practiced by the Jinas and the Tirthankars (meaning crossing-makers). The ‘crossing’ refers to the passage from the material to the spiritual realm, from bondage to freedom. Followers of this faith accept the popular gods of Hinduism but they are placed lower than the jinas.

Whilst Buddhism and Jainism almost broke away from the traditional fold and were regarded as Nastik (non-believer) sects; the mainstream Brahmanism too underwent changes to respond to the new religious movements of the period.

The scriptures of the new religious movements throw some light on the popular religious life of the period. The god Prajapati was widely believed to be the highest god and the creator of the universe; Indra was second to him in importance. The Brahmans were very influential, but there was opposition to their large-scale animal sacrifices — on moral, philosophical, and economic grounds — and to their pretensions to superiority by virtue of their birth. The doctrine of transmigration was by then generally accepted, though a group of outright materialists — the Carvakas or Lokayatas — denied the survival of the soul after death. Popular religious life largely centred around the worship of local divinities. Although sacred places were the main centres of popular religious life, there is no evidence of any buildings or images associated with them, and it appears that neither temples nor large icons existed at the time.

The first great empire of India, the Mauryan Empire, arose in the 3rd century BC. Its early rulers were heterodox; Ashoka, the third and most famous of the Mauryan emperors, was a professed Buddhist. Sentiments in favour of non-violence (ahimsa) and vegetarianism, much encouraged by the heterodox sects, spread during the Mauryan period and were greatly encouraged by Ashoka. The orthodox religion itself, however, was undergoing change at this time, as theistic tendencies developed around the gods Vishnu and Shiva (who were largely insignificant godheads during the Vedic period). Inscriptions, iconographic evidence, and literary references reveal the emergence of devotional theism in the 2nd century BC. Several brief votive inscriptions refer to the god Vasudeva, who by this time was widely worshipped in Central and Western India.

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

The period between the fall of the Mauryan Empire and the rise of the Gupta dynasty was one of great change, including the conquest of most of North-Western India by a succession of invaders. India was opened to influence from the West as never before, not only by invaders but also through flourishing maritime trade with the Roman Empire. The effects of the new contacts were most obvious in art and architecture. One of the oldest freestanding stone temples in the subcontinent has been excavated at Taxila, near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. During the 1st century BC the Gandhara School of sculpture arose in the same region and made use of Hellenistic and Roman prototypes, mainly in the service of Buddhism.

Interestingly enough, early Christian era is also the period when Christianity came into India. Christianity in India is as old as Christianity itself, and it was brought to India by a disciple of Christ himself, long before America was discovered, and even before many European countries adopted Christianity. Extensive trade relations existed between India and the Mediterranean countries even before the Christian era. According to tradition, St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, came to India in 52 A.D., and landed on the Malabar Coast (Kerala). He preached the Gospel to the Brahmin families of Kerala, many of whom received the faith and were called Syrian Christians. He established seven Churches there. He was killed in 72 A.D., his body was brought to Mylapore (near Chennai) and buried there. His tomb is venerated until this day.

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

The Shaivites were also a growing force in the religious life of India. The sect of Pashupata ascetics, founded by Lakulisha, who lived in the 2nd century B.C, is attested by inscriptions from the 5th century; it is among the earliest of the sectarian religious orders of Brahmanism. Representations of the son of Shiva, Skanda (also called Kartikeya, the war god), appeared as early as 100 B.C. on coins from the Kushan dynasty, which ruled northern India, Afghanistan, and Central Asia in the first three centuries of the Common Era. Shiva’s other son, the elephant-headed Ganesha, patron deity of commercial and literary enterprises, did not appear until the 5th century. Very important in this period was Surya, the sun god, in whose honour temples were built.

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

Under the Gupta Empire, when most of Northern India was under a single power, classical Brahamnism found its most consistent expression: the sacred laws were codified, the great temples began to be built, and myths and rituals were preserved in the Puranas. The Gupta period was marked by the rapid development of temple architecture. Earlier temples were made of wood, but freestanding stone and brick temples soon appeared in many parts of India. By the 7th century, stone temples, some of considerable dimensions, were found in many parts of the country.

The Buddhists and Jains had made use of artificial caves for religious purposes, and these were adapted by the Brahmanism. The Udayagiri complex has cave shrines, but some of the best examples are in Badami which contain several carvings of Vishnu, Shiva, and Harihara (an amalgamation of Vishnu and Shiva), as well as depictions of stories connected with Vishnu’s incarnation, Krishna. Near the Badami caves are the sites of Aihole and Pattadakal, which contain some of the oldest temples in the south. For this reason these sites are sometimes referred to as the ‘laboratory’ of Brahmanical temples. Pattadakal, another capital of the Chalukya Empire, was a major site of temple building by Chalukyan monarchs in the 7th and 8th centuries. These temples incorporated styles that eventually became distinctive of north and south Indian architecture.

Early Medieval Times
The early medieval period saw unprecedented growth in agriculture, there was a general decline in trade and commerce and a large number of towns in North India were losing their importance and there was increasing ruralisation of North India. The most significant result of this was the beginning of the practice of land grants as salaries — till now land grants were being made on a very small scale to religious institutions and individuals but now even for secular services the grants were being made. This process began with the Gupta times and acquired massive proportions during the later period and heralded the feudalisation of Indian society in the coming centuries as increased land grants meant decreased royal control as the grantees were made responsible for collecting taxes and hand over the king his share.

As land grants replaced salaries, new lands had to be brought under control so that grants could be made and this land, for obvious reasons, could mainly be in the fringe areas bordering North India...into the hitherto inaccessible lands of tribals. With the land grants came the Brahmanical influence over the tribal communities as the grantees tried to convert the locals to their ‘dominant’ way of life. This process of acculturation is what defined a significant change in the religious life of the period which was marked by assimilation of large tribal population into Brahmanical fold through incorporation of tribal gods and goddesses with the leading Brahanical godheads of Vishnu and Shiva. As a result, during this period, a large number of gods and goddesses with distinct tribal affiliations creep into Brahmanical pantheon.

Early medieval period is not only a period of expansion of Brahmanism into new tribal areas but is also the time of great revival – marked by rise of Shankracharya and most importantly absorption of Buddhism and Jainism as sects of Brahmanism. In fact, Buddhism which was the most powerful challenge that Brahmanism had faced until now was cleverly assimilated by declaring Buddha as one of the incarnations of Vishnu.

During the period, whilst Brahmanism was undergoing a massive process of assimilation and reconciliation and was gradually taking the shape of what is regarded as Hinduism, not far from India’s Western borders was rising another powerful religion, Islam.

Rise of Islam and Sufi/Bhakti Movement:
The initial entry of Islam into South Asia came in the first century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Umayyad caliph in Damascus sent an expedition to Baluchistan and Sindh in 711 led by Muhammad bin Qasim.

Three hundred years after his death Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni led a series of raids against Rajput kingdoms and rich Hindu temples. Muhammad Ghori invaded India in 1175 A.D. whose second attempt succeeded in capturing Delhi and laid the foundations of Muslim rule in Northern India. The period between 1206 A.D. and 1526 A.D. in India's history is known as the Delhi Sultanate period. During this period of over three hundred years, five dynasties ruled in Delhi.

India was rich and fertile as compared with Muslim lands, and with the extension of Muslim political power, many immigrants - soldiers and traders, saints and scholars, political refugees and adventurers, and even musicians, attracted by the ‘abundance of wealth’ began to flock to India. However, conversion of Hindus to Islam was the major factor in rise in Muslim population in India. The conversions were threefold: they were forced to embrace Islam, the needy and indigent converted to take advantage of the mosques, Khanqahs and Sarais, which besides being houses of worship and centres of Islamic learning, provided asylum, or they were simply lured by the state through monetary benefits or favourable tax policies.

At the same time the great devotional movements arose – the Sufi and Bhakti Movement.

During the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., a new emphasis began to develop within the religion of Islam. This emphasis was a reaction against the prevailing impersonal and formal nature of Islam. For many Muslims the shari‘a, while seen as necessary, failed to satisfy their deepest spiritual longings and desires. The search for deeper meaning began with a pietistic asceticism, which in turn led to the development of the popular mystical side of Islam - known as tasawwuf or Sufism.

During the period of Sultanate, these mystics were patronized by the state for spreading Islam among the non-believers with their acclaimed spiritual influences in the mass. The gift and land provided to these mystics were used for hospice and their tombs became places of pilgrimage after their death. The practice has continued all the way down to present day India and all Sufi mausoleums are worshipped by people of all religion to this day.

A rough Hindu version of Sufi movement is the so called Bhakti movement; founded by the gurus by whom the tradition has been handed down in unbroken lineage, from guru to disciple (chela). This lineage, in addition to a written canon, is the basis for the authority of the Bhakti sect. Other traditions are based on the teachings of such philosophers as Shankara and Ramanuja. Parallel with these, vernacular songs were composed, transmitted orally, and preserved locally throughout India.

In the 16th century in Bengal, Chaitanya founded a sect of erotic mysticism, celebrating the union of Krishna and Radha in a Tantric theology heavily influenced by Tantric Buddhism. Chaitanya believed that both Krishna and Radha were incarnate within him, and he believed that the village of Vrindaban, where Krishna grew up, had become manifest once again in Bengal. The school of the Gosvamins, who were disciples of Chaitanya, developed an elegant theology of aesthetic participation in the ritual enactment of Krishna's life.

These ritual dramas also developed around the village of Vrindaban itself during the 16th century, and they were celebrated by Hindi poets. The first great Hindi mystic poet was Kabir, who was said to be the child of a Muslim and was strongly influenced by Islam, particularly by Sufism. His poems challenge the canonical dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam, praising Lord Ram and promising salvation by the chanting of his holy name. He was followed by Tulsidas, who wrote a Hindi version of the Ramayana. A contemporary of Tulsidas was Surdas, whose poems on Krishna's life in Vrindaban formed the basis of the ‘Ras Lilas’, local dramatizations of myths of the childhood of Krishna, which still play an important part in the worship of Krishna in northern India.

The Mughal Period and the Modern Times:
The Mughal Empire, founded in 1526 by Babur, reached its zenith during the reign of his grandson, Akbar, covering almost the entire subcontinent. Although his military pursuits took a great deal of his time and effort, Akbar had particular interest in religion. He was known for his toleration of Hindus and also employed more Hindus in the Mughal civil service than any of his predecessors. He regularly invited representatives from several different religions - including Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity - to come and participare in religious discussions.

These explorations into other faiths often upset Akbar's Muslim subjects, who believed he was drifting from Islam. Indeed, he did take several steps away from orthodox Islam, most notably by proclaiming himself the founder in 1582 of a new religion, Din-i-Ilahi, or "Religion of God." The new religion was vaguely defined, and appears to have centred on Akbar himself as its deity, but he never made any serious attempts to spread it.

Mughals’ was also the period when Western powers began to come to India not only for trade but also in the hope of finding some new converts to their religion. Whilst Christianity in India is as old as Christianity itself, and it was brought to India by a disciple of Christ himself; however, most of the Indians were converted to Christianity by the missionaries who arrived in India with the European powers from 15th century.

The Portuguese, who landed in India first under Vasco da Gama, inspired by the Pope’s order to baptize people around the world not only fought wars against the local Indian rulers, but they even tried to enforce their Roman Catholic prayers on Syrian Christians.

The British who arrived in India in 1600s, unlike the Portuguese, allowed the missionaries to enter their territory and establish different churches only as late as 1813. The missionaries didn’t only spread Christianity they also undertook humanitarian deeds such as providing the needy basic necessities like food, clothes, shelter and education. The British church missionaries succeeded less than the Portuguese in converting Indians to Christianity, but unlike the Portuguese who tried to enforce Christianity, these Protestant converts were largely voluntary.

Today there are about 30 million Christians in India. The main division of Christians in India is like in the Christian world, Protestants and Catholic. There are also different denomination among them, Syrian Church, Armenian Church, Anglican Church and others.

Zoroastrianism was established by Zarathustra in 6th or 7th century BC. The followers of this religion exiled from Iran to India in the 7th century AD because of religious persecutions by the Muslims.

The Parsis, called so as they came from Persia, first settled in Sanjan on the West Coast of India. The account of their arrival in India is found in a poem written in Sanskrit by a Parsi priest Bohman Kaikobad in 1600 A.D. The first 300 years after their arrival is clothed in mystery. However, by the 11th century, Parsis were well established in Gujarat and are frequently mentioned in the travel accounts of Arab, Portuguese, French and English travellers to India.

The Parsis had come to India to preserve the purity of their religion. By 15th century, however, they became conscious of the fact that they were losing their religious knowledge. And so they decided to send messengers to Iran to see how much the observance of their religion differed from that of the Zoroastrians of Iran. Over a period of almost 300 years, from 1478 to 1773, twenty-six messengers took questions to Iran and brought back answers from the Zoroastrian priests there. These discourses between the 26 messengers from India and the Zoroastrian priests in Iran are known as the Revayats.

The religious and ritual life of Parsis revolves around sacred fires. The most important rite for most Parsis is the Navjote which initiates a person between the age of seven and fifteen into their community. The Parsis believe that fire, water, air and earth are pure elements to be preserved and therefore they do not cremate or bury their dead ones but leave them on high towers, specially built for this purpose, to be eaten by hawks and crows.

The Sikh faith began in the 16th century in Punjab region when Guru Nanak began teaching a faith that was quite distinct from Hinduism and Islam. Nine Gurus followed Nanak and developed the Sikh faith and community over the next centuries.

Sikhism was well established by the time of Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru. Guru Arjan completed the establishment of Amritsar as the capital of the Sikh world, and compiled the first authorised book of Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth. However, during Arjan's time Sikhism was seen as a threat by the state and Guru Arjan was eventually executed. The sixth Guru, Hargobind, started to militarise the community so that they would be able to resist any oppression.

The Sikhs lived in relative peace with the political rulers until the time of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, who sometimes used force to make his subjects accept Islam. Aurangzeb had the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, arrested and executed in 1675.

The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, recreated the Sikhs as a military group of men and women called the Khalsa in 1699, with the intention that the Sikhs should forever be able to defend their faith. Guru Gobind Singh established the Sikh rite of initiation (called khandey di pahul) and the 5 Ks which give Sikhs their unique appearance. Gobind Singh was the last human Guru. Sikhs now treat their scriptures as their Guru.

Sikhism is the youngest religion of the world. Guru Nanak spread a simple message of "Ek Ong Kar", meaning we are all one, created by the One Creator of all Creation. This was at a time when India was being torn apart by castes, sectarianism, religious factions, and fanaticism. He aligned with no religion, and respected all religions. He expressed the reality that there is one God and many paths, and the Name of God is Truth, "Sat Nam".

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