In the post-Mauryan phase, people followed Vedic Sanantanadharma, Buddhism and Jainism.
The rulers, in spite of their personal affiliation to a particular religion or deity never appear to have made that particular religion the state religion.
It is misleading to speak of either ‘Hindu India’ or ‘Muslim India’ though it is true that religion played a very crucial role in the life pattern.
Nevertheless, no religion dominated the socio-cultural milieu sufficient to ascribe the name of Hindu or Muslim to the entire society. The rulers generally do not refer to their caste or Varnain this period. Except the Sungas and the Kanvas, the Varna of other power structures cannot be mentioned definitely.
It is not easy to identify the Varna of the Satavahanas, though they are thought to be Brahmans. The performance of sacrifice by some rulers made them to be considered as champions of Vedic ritualism and later Vedic devotionalism. The Nanaghat epigraph of Naganika records that Satakarni I performed two Asvamedha sacrifices and one Rajasuya besides Agniyadhaya, Anarambhaniya, Gavamayana, Angirasatiratra, Aptoryama, Angirasamayana, Gangatiratha, Trayodasaratra, Dasarati, etc. Along with Yajna or sacrifice as the main component of Vedic ritualism, Bhagavatism or devotion to Vasudeva Krishna cult also was popular in this period. Further, only in this phase did the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, attain the status of sacred literature. In due course of time, Bhagavatism transformed itself as Vishnavism.
The Nasik epigraph of Pulomavi I, clearly states that Gautamiputra upheld the Puranic theism and coins and Gathasaptasati corroborate the epigraphic evidence of change from Vedic ritualism based on Yagna to Vedic theism based on devotion to personal gods Siva, Vishnu, Rama, Pasupati, Ganesh, Vasudeva, Samkarshana, Indra, Hari and Trivikrama. The worship of the Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara also developed in the Vedic theology. Vedic theism assimilated worship of popular cults of animals, trees and village deities.
Along with Vedic ritualism and Vedic theism, Vasudeva cult or Bhagavatism and Buddhism also flourished during this period. The Buddhist caves and epigraphs at Pitalkhora, Nasik, Bhaja, Bedsa, Kondone and Kuda and the Buddhist stupas at Bhattiprolu, Amaravati, Goli, Ghantasala, Gummididurru, Sanchi, Barhat, Nagarjunakonda, Karle, and many more places in the subcontinent show how Buddhism became popular. There was also emergence of different sects among the followers of Buddhism.
The Bhadrayaniyas ofNasik and Kanheri, the Mahasanghikas of Karle, the Dhammottariyas of Sopara, Cheitikiya, Pubbasila, Aparasilia, Utayipabhati and Mahavinayasura are some of the well-known sects of Buddhism. The followers of Hinayana or the lesser vehicle claimed that their doctrine was the pure and original teaching of the Buddha and it became very popular in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar) and the countries of South-East Asia. The followers of Mahayana or the greater vehicle became dominant in India, Central Asia, Tibet, China and Japan. One of the outstanding exponents of the doctrine of Mahayanism was Nagarjuna who is said to have converted into Buddhism from Brahmanism.
The most important tenet of Mahayanism was the doctrine of Bodhisatva, considered the logical development of the earlier Buddhist ideas. While Hinayana Buddhism stood for individual salvation, Mahayanism had for its goal the salvation of all beings. This concept of Bodhisattva was conceived as a series of previous incarnations of the Buddha and it tells that spiritual merit can be accumulated through births and it can be transferred to another person. Bodhisattva of Mahayanism was also a being of compassion and suffering who redeemed humanity through his own suffering.
The Mahayanists elevated the Buddha from a religious teacher to a saviour god and introduced the image worship of the Buddha with elaborate rituals, formulae and charms. The earliest practice of worshipping the symbols of the Buddha continued along with image worship. During this period, the Buddha thus became a personal god and devotion to the Buddha became characteristic of the Mahayana Buddhism. Thus, we notice a transition from early Buddhism to the Mahayana Buddhism.
Like the Vedic Dharma or Sanatana Dharma and Buddhism, Jainism too underwent transformation. It split into Digambaras and Swetambaras by the 1st century AD. Digambaras claim to be pure and original Jainas and Swetambaras claim to be liberal. Jainism slowly moved from Magadha to Madhura and from there to Ujjain and finally reached Saurashtra on the west coast as well as Kalinga in the east and became prominent under Kharavela of Kalinga.
We can postulate that Jains also developed image worship, as Kharavela in his Hathigumpha epigraph refers to the removal of an image of Jaina to Pataliputra from Kalinga and its recovery by him. Many well-carved Jaina images and votive tablets with Jaina figures are discovered at Madhura, which substantiates the view of the development of image worship by the Jains, like the Buddhists and the devotees of Sanatanadharma. An offshoot of this new development of Bhakti cult or devotion to a personal deity in all the existing religions led to the growth of new cultural symbols – Stupa, Chaitya and Vihara of the Buddhists, Jaina Basadis and temples of the Sanathanadharma or Puranic theism.
Cultural symbols as reflected in the contemporary architecture can be broadly divided into:
(a) Secular symbols or structures and
(b) Religious structures.
The evidence on secular structures is scanty as it appears to have been built of wood, a perishable material. Literary texts like Milindapanho describes a city with ramparts, moats and gate homes, well laid out streets, markets, tanks, lakes and places of worship and also houses of several storeys. The dwellings of the rural people appear to be of perishable material.
Much significant evidence has not come from excavations regarding the earliest temple specimens. The temple at Jhandial (Taxila), the Sankarshana temple at Nagari (Rajasthan) the temple at Besanagar (Madhya Pradesh) and an apsidal temple at Nagarjunakonda (Andhra Pradesh) happen to be the earliest known examples of temples of this particular period. Fahien, a Chinese traveller of the Gupta times records the existence of a tower of 13 storeys with an iron column with imposing umbrellas of the time of Kanishka.
The practice of preserving the remains of holy persons below the earth has been in vogue for a long time. Buddhists adopted and followed this practice and the structure built over such a site was known as a ‘stupa’. Buddhist tradition records that the sacred remains of the Buddha’s body were divided into many parts and placed under various Stupas.
The places where Stupas are built are known as the Buddhist sacred places and this led to a specific type of architecture for the construction of the stupas. In general, the Stupas have the shape of a bowl turned upside down. The top portion that is a little bit flat is known as harmika or the abode of the gods.
In this harmika only, the urns containing the sacred relics are kept in a gold or silver casket. We also notice a wooden pole or Yasti in the middle and the bottom of the rod that was fixed on the top of the stupa. We also notice on the top of this pole three small umbrella type discs symbolic of respect, veneration and magnanimity.
Most prominent stupas venerated by the Buddhists are located at Bodhgaya (Bihar), Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh), Barhut, Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh and in Taxila. Besides Stupas, the Buddhists and the Jains built Chaityas and Viharas as places of worship. A ‘chiatya’ is a shrine cell where a votive stupa is placed in the centre.
Viharas are places where the monks resided. These chaityas and viharas are generally of rock-cut architecture, and we notice them at Bhaja, Karle, Kondane, Nasik, Chitaldo, Ajanta and Kanheri of the western region and at Udayagiri in the eastern region. Every chaitya has the following features: a long rectangular hall ending in a semicircle at the rear end that is internally divided into a nave and apse and two-side aisles and the aisles are separated from the nave by two rows of pillars. These pillars cover the votive stupa placed in the centre of the apsidal part of the nave. The hall has a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The doorway is generally placed facing the votive stupa. The facade had horseshoe shaped windows called the chaitya windows.
The vihara has the following features: a square or oblong hall in the centre and proceeded by a pillared verandah. A number of small square cells and halls are provided with raised benches for the use of monks.Bhaja, Bedsa, Ajanta, Pitalkora, Nasik and Karle are the earliest viharas of western India. Udayagiri and Khandagiri are Jaina viharas built by Kharavela. The double storeyed Ranigumpha cave on the Udayagiri hills is the largest of all these.
A knowledge of the sculptural art is necessary as sculpture forms an essential part of a total sacred complex like stupa or chaitya. We notice an interesting phenomenon of blend of regional or local styles such as Gandhara and Mathura styles of the north and Amaravati School of art in the Krishna-Godavari Valley in Andhra Pradesh. While the earlier Mauryan Art was palace-based, the later art had a wider social base. Relief sculptures and images of the Buddha reflect the skill of the artists of this age as seen in the stupa railings, gateways and plinths and on the facades and walls of the viharas and the chaityas. Compared to the Buddhist sculptures, Brahmanical sculptures of this period are fewer.
It is not easy to point out who influenced whom in the making of the images. There is a view that the different Brahmanical gods and goddesses were conceived following the Buddhists and the Jains. Interestingly, the Yakshas and theYakshinis occupy an important place among the sculptures of this period. Worship of icons is to be noticed from the Sunga period among the Jains and became popular by the 1st century AD. The Mahayana sect of the Buddhists advocated and propagated image worship. We come across seated and standing images of the Buddha in the style of the schools of Mathura and Gandhara.