The following points highlight the seven religions that were practiced during different periods in Ancient India. The religions are: 1. Religion in Rig Vedic Period 2. Buddhism 3. Jainism 4. The Akas 5. Hinduism 6. Saivism 7. Vaishnavism.
1. Religion in Rig Vedic Period:
The religion of the early Aryans from the 1028 hymns of Rig Veda, which is considered as the oldest religious text in the world. It is believed to have been composed between 1500 to 900 B.C. The Rig Vedic religion was very simple and the people worshipped various forces and phenomena of nature.
Thus they worshipped Sky, Surya, Indra, Varuna, Prithvi etc. The people conceived these gods in human forms and bestowed them with human qualities.
The various gods worshipped by the people during the Rig Vedic period can be classified into three categories:
(a) Gods of the Sky or Heavens such as Dyaus (sky), Varuna (sky-god proper), Usha (dawn), Asvins (morning and evening stars) and Surya, Mitra, Savitri, Pushaa and’ Vishnu (all forms of Sun).
(b) Gods of the Atmosphere such as Indra (thunder), Rudra (storm), Maruts (storm-god), Vayu (wind) and Prajanya (rain); and
(c) Gods of the Earth such as Prithvi (earth), Agni (fire) and Soma (the plant of that name).
The temples, images, altars and hereditary priestly classes were conspicuously absent during this period. During this period every householder acted himself as a priest. He kindered the sacred fire and recited the hymns.
With a view to please the various gods the people offered prayers in the form of hymns and sacrifices. The common items offered to the gods included milk, grain, ghee, flesh and soma. These offerings were made with a view to win divine favour or to gain control over gods or nature.
In addition to the offerings people made sacrifices. These sacrifices were both simple and complex. The common householder generally performed a simple sacrifice while the kings and nobles made costly sacrifices.
Though the people worshipped various gods they did not consider any one as Supreme. In fact they believed that all gods were one and the same and only the Sages had described them differently. People believed in the theory of karma and attainment of salvation as well as life after death. We get the first glimpse of the doctrine of transmigration in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad.
It holds that the souls of those who have lived of sacrifice, charity and austerity, after certain obscure peregrinations, pass to the World of the Fathers, the paradise of Yama; thence after a period of bliss, they go to the moon; from the moon they go to empty space, whence they pass to the air, and descend to earth in the rain.
There they become good, and are offered again in the altar fire which is man, to be born again in the fire of woman. The unrighteous on the other hand reincarnated as worms, birds or insects. Thus we find that the theories of transmigration and karma even though in quite primitive form, were known to the people of India even in the earliest period.
Later Vedic Period:
By the later Vedic period though the religious conditions had undergone a change, some of the old beliefs and practices of the Rig-Vedic lie period continued to be in vogue. In fact some of the old religious practices became more complex and stereotyped.
The various ceremonies could not be performed only by a professional class of priests. Some of the sacrifices lasted for a period ranging from 12 days to one year, and could not be performed by a single priest. This necessitated the services of a body of priests.
No wonder, the priests became very important class both for the interpretation of the Vedas and the performance of the sacrifices. In view of the highly complicated nature of the sacrifices to be performed by the priests, they divided themselves into four categories—each specialising in a special type of sacrifice. The Hotri or invoker selected the verses for the particular rite and recited them.
The Udgtari recited the hymns and helped in the preparation and presentation of sacrifices. The Adhvaryu or performer, executed all the sacrificial acts and recitation of hymns. The Brahman or High Priest was responsible for the general supervision and saw to it that no error or deviation was made from the prescribed procedure.
The early Vedic gods also continued to be worshipped, even though their character changed considerably. The natural basis of the gods was completely forgotten and they were also invoked as ‘demon destroyers’. During this period gods like Rudra, Vishnu and Prajapati were given special importance.
Rudra, also known as Mahadeva, came to be known as Siva (benevolent) and Pasupati (lord of animals). The rise of Siva and Pasupati has made certain scholars express the view that the Aryans were influenced by the Indus civilisation.
Another prominent god of this period was Vishnu, who replaced Varuna of the Rig-Veda. Vishnu helped the men and gods in distress. Prajapati, likewise replaced Parusha and was identified with Agni.
Tapas (penance accompanied by physical torture) came to occupy an important place in the religion. Men renounced the world and retired to forests, where they practiced meditation and torture of various types. It was believed that Tapas provided the mystic with extraordinary and super-human power.
It also gave him immeasurable joys. He acquired the power to see the past, present and future of the mortal beings and could mount the heavens.
It was believed that he was received at the courts of gods graciously and the divinities descended to earth and visited him in his hermitage. He could also work miracles like crumble mountains into the sea, burn his enemies with the glance of his eye, could protect or destroy great cities etc. In short the effects which could earlier be achieved through sacrifice could now be achieved through the ascetics.
Another outstanding feature of the religion in the later-Vedic period was the development of philosophic speculation. The complicated religious ceremonies caused much dissatisfaction among the people and gave rise to speculative philosophy. The thinkers devoted themselves to the understanding of the ultimate reality or truth through true knowledge (Jnanamarga).
They expressed deep thoughts on man, soul, god and the universe in the Upanishads (confidential teachings). The Upanishads were usually taught in secret sessions between the teacher and the taught. The Upanishads were not written by Brahmans alone, and many Kshatriyas also contributed to them.
The Upanishads attached very little importance to ceremonies and austerities and advocated principles like Brahma (world soul) and Atma (Individual soul), Maya, Punarjanma (Transmigration of Soul) and Karma (Action) and Moksha (Salvation).
The chief contribution of the Upanishads was that they lifted the religion from the narrow fold of rituals and provided an intellectual conception of God.
They asserted that “The Universe is the Brahma, but the Brahman is the Atma. The Brahma is the power which manifests itself in all existing things, creates, sustains, preserves and receives back again into itself all worlds. This infinite divine power is identified with Atma that which after stripping off everything external we discern in ourselves as our real and most essential being, our individual self, the soul.”
The Upanishads described the material world as Maya or illusion and one should not attach too much importance to it. It advocated the theory of transmigration and action (Punarjanma and Karma). The transmigration theory holds that it is body which perishes and not the soul. The soul migrates or passes from one body to another body and thus continues the cycle of births and deaths.
Yajnavalkya taught Jkanaka that “the soul, after death, goes nowhere where it has not been from the very beginning, nor does it become other than that which has always been, the one eternal omnipotent Atma.” Closely connected with the theory of transmigration was the theory of Karma (action).
According to the theory of Karma, the action of a man determines the nature of his life in the next birth. In other words it emphasises that the soul will be born again because of the action in the present life. This cycle of births can be brought to an end only by the realization of the nature of Brahma and the merger of the Atma into the Brahma.
This is known as Moksha and after the attainment of Moksha there will no rebirths and the man would get rid of the circle of life and death.
It may be noted that Upanishads do not consider asceticism as absolutely necessary to salvation. Even the kings are said to have realized Brahma while still ruling. But it cannot be denied that it is doubly difficult for a person whose mind is full of material cares and desires to obtain salvation. It also laid great emphasis on ethical conduct and attitude and said ‘he who has not ceased from evil conduct will never obtain Brahma’.
Buddhism rose as a revolt against the Brahmanic rituals and the theory of Vedas and insisted on right conduct and projected the human progress in terms of spiritual advancement. The factors which led to the rise of Buddhism and Jainism have been dealt elsewhere in details. Initially Buddhism (as well as Jainism) was merely a reformed form of Brahmanism or Hinduism.
These two religion appealed to the people to give up their vices and follies and to practice that purity of conduct and sincerity of belief which is the essence of very true religion. They neither taught any new dogmas, nor any new rituals or a new philosophy.
While Jainism laid stress on asceticism and self-torture (reference to which are found in Vedas, Arnakyas and Upanishads), Buddha based his teachings on the philosophy of Sankhya and later Upanishads.
According to Prof. J. N. Sarkar ” The eight-fold path enjoined by Buddha for extinguishing the earthly miseries of soul caused by the cycle of birth and death is only a code of general ethics and not the special creed of a newly revealed and distinctive faith.”
Gautama Buddha explained to the people the futility of the rites and rituals and insisted that true piety consisted in leading a life of simplicity and purity. He did not advocated any new principles. Even the principle of Ahimsa, which he stressed so much, was borrowed from the later Vedic text.
Teachings of Lord Buddha:
According to Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerjee, “Buddha’s teaching begins and ends with enlightenment. On the whole he concentrates on moral aim and purpose”. He encouraged the people to attain Nirvan, because according to him “Dharma is supreme in this life as Nirvan can be achieved only in this life” Buddha laid great emphasis on four truths and the eight fold path.
The four noble truths emphasised by him were:
(a) The world is full of sorrows and miseries. Birth, old age, death, separation with beloved and contract with unpleasant is the cause of all sorrows and miseries.
(b) The chief cause of this suffering is desire (trishna) or craving for existence, pleasure and passion.
(c) Person can free himself from sufferings by getting rid of the desires, i.e., renunciation (nirvana).
(d) The remedy for ending the sufferings was the eight fold path. This path, also known as middle path, insisted on avoidance of extremes of excessive attachment and excessive self-mortification.
The eight principles advocated by Buddha included:
i. Right Views,
ii. Right Aspirations,
iii. Right Speech,
iv. Right Action,
v. Right Living,
vi. Right Efforts,
vii. Right Mindfulness and
viii. Right Contemplation.
It may be noted that Buddha tried to avoid the extreme nature of Brahmanism based on pleasure-loving. He attached greater importance to moral life rather than worship. He believed in the theory of Karma and held that the condition of the people in this life and the next rests on his Karma. No person can escape the consequences of his deeds.
Though the doctrine of Karma was known even earlier, Buddha deserves the credit for popularizing it. As a natural corollary to his belief in the theory of Karma, Buddha did not pay any attention to the issue of God. This silence about God has been interpreted by certain scholars as disbelief in the existence of God. In fact, Buddha neither accepts nor rejects the existence of God. He is simply silent about it.
Buddha considered Ahimsa or non-violence as an important part of the practical morality and therefore laid more importance to the spirit of love than good deeds. In Buddha’s teachings there was no place for caste system, because everything depended on the deeds or karma of the individual.
In short we can say that Buddha in his teachings laid great emphasis on purity of thought, speech and action. He was the first rationalist of the world who asserted that one was one’s own saviour and master without reference to any outside power.
Growth of Buddhism:
According to the traditions four councils were held to draw up the canonical texts and the creed in their pure form. The first Council was held at Rajagriha, capital of Magadhan Empire soon after the Parinirvana (death) of Buddha. This Council was presided over by Mahakassapa.
At this Council Upali, one of the chief disciples of Buddha, recited the Vinay Pitaka (rules of the Order), which he had heard from Buddha; Ananda, another disciple of Buddha, recited the Sutta Pitaka, a collection of Buddha’s sermons on matters of doctrine and ethics. It is believed that this Council was attended by 500 Bikshus and gave a definite shape to the teachings of Lord Buddha.
Prof. A.L. Basham, however, holds “Though there may have been a council of some sort, the story as it stands is certainly untrue for it is quite evident that the scriptures of Buddhism grew by a long process ,of development and accretion, perhaps over several centuries.”
The second Council was held at Vaishali, about a century after the passing away of the master. At this Council the Vinay-Pitaka was revised and the daily activities of the monks were settled.
It is also believed that at this Council some sort of schism appeared amongst the disciples of Buddha and it broke into two sections— the orthodox Sthaviravadins or ‘Believers in the teaching of the Elders’, and the Mahasanghikas or ‘Members of the Great Community’.
Scholars like Basham have expressed doubt if this Council was also held. But it is true that some sort of doctrinal differences had appeared by this time and the Order was divided into two sections.
The third Council was held at Patliputra under Ashoka. This Council was convened with a view to establish the purity of the canons which had been imperiled by the rise of different sects and their rival claims, teachings and practices. It removed the vices and restored the true faith.
Tissa acted as the President of this Council. According to V.A. Smith this Council was convened towards the close of Ashoka’s reign, while the Buddhist are of the view that it was convened after 18 years of Ashoka’s accession to the throne. It is held that at the Council of Patliputra last section was added to the ‘Pali scriptures’ the Kathavatthua of the Abhidhamma Pitaka dealing with psychology and metaphysics.
Though Buddha never aimed at setting up an independent religion, within two years of his death, a distinct religion made its appearance. Ashoka classified the religions of his empire into five heads and included Buddhism as one of the chief religions.
Ashoka extended special patronage to Buddhism and spread it not only throughout India but also in foreign countries like Ceylon. By his times the various symbols like the stupa and the tree began to be worshipped. While the Stupa was a symbol of the parinirvana, the Bodhi tree symbolized his enlightenment.
The fourth Council was held under Kanishka. There is controversy amongst scholars regarding the place where this assembly was held. According to some it was held at Jullundur, while the others believe it was held in Kashmir.
This Council was presided by Vasumitra, while Asvaghosa (who wrote a commentary on Tripitakas) acted as the Vice President of the Council. This Council mainly confined itself to the composition of commentaries.
Buddhism suffered a temporary setback after the fall of the Mauryas. The Sungas and Kanvas, who ruled the country had essentially Brahmanical leanings and extended every possible patronage to Brahmanism. Due to the withdrawal of royal patronage Buddhism suffered in popularity.
Buddhism was also greatly influenced by the practices prevailing in foreign lands, as a result of which it underwent remarkable changes. However, certain scholars like Winterinetz are of the opinion that the changes in Buddhism were due mainly due to Bhakti cult.
Changes were introduced in Buddhism chiefly with a view to counterbalance Hinduism. Some of the important changes which took place during the time of Kanishka, the greatest of the Kushana kings, included the adoption of idol worship.
It may be noted that Gautama Buddha was opposed to idol worship. During the times of Kanishka idols of Buddha were made and began to be worshipped. This, according to an English writer was the irony of fate. The person who denounced idol worship was himself being worshipped.
People started believing that they could attain salvation by devotion and fervent prayer to Lord Buddha. According to Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, “It may be therefore, assumed that the evolution of the original atheistic Buddhism into theistic Mahayanism was a result of the religious fervour of its adherents under the dominating influence of theistic Hinduism through the centuries.”
Similarly McGovan has also said “Mahayana became popular and powerful owing to its devotional aspect and perhaps to its tendency to follow many Hindu and possibly Persian ideas, and it succeeded in greatly overshadowing its rival, Hinyanism, although the latter continued to exist as long as Buddhism remained in India.”
Though both Hinyana (the Little Vehicle) and the Mahayana (the Greater Vehicle) claim to be based on the teachings of Buddha, fundamental and striking differences exist between the two. The Hinyana, whose scriptures are Pali, claim to represent the original teachings of Buddha and retains its rationalistic and puritanical features.
On the other hand the Mahayana, whose scriptures are, gives a mystical, theological and devotional twist. It transcends the monastic and self-centred ideal of Hinyana and was essentially theistic and ultraistic. But at the same time it has given rise to a number of popular superstitutions with its ideas of Hell and Heaven.
Buddha began to be considered as an incarnation of the Adi Buddha and his image began to be worshipped.
Mahayanism declared “that with the attainment of Nirvana, man will not return to this earth again and, therefore, he is incapable of doing any work, not even service to humanity. But those individuals who have not yet attained Nirvana, but striving to attain it, can do real good to the suffering world. The Bodhisattva, who is such an individual preparing through several lives to attain the state of Buddha or the completely Enlightened One, is the real benefactor of humanity.”
Some of the prominent exponents of Mahayanism were Nagarjuna’, Vasubandhu, Asanga, Dingnaga, and Dharmkirti. However, subsequently Mahayanism came to be sub-divided into number of sects like Sunyavada, Vijnanvada etc. with each possessing a distinct philosophy of its own.
Mahayana differed from the Hinyana Buddhism in another respect also. Whereas Hinyana Buddhism laid much emphasis on personal efforts and virtuous living as the means for the attainment of salvation, Mahayana attached more importance to devotion and worship of Buddha. In short, faith replaced reason and devotional worship took the place of self-effort.
Buddhism continued to flourish throughout the country up to the seventh century A.D. Chinese travellers like It sing have testified that monasteries like Nalanda were great centres of Buddhism.
Though Buddhism suffered a setback after that due to lack of royal patronage, it continued to flourish in Bengal and Bihar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the Fala Kings extended its patronage. With the coming of the Muslims, Buddhism disappeared from India, although it continued to flourish in foreign countries.
The growth of Mahayana sect of Buddhism greatly affected its popularity in India. This section of Buddhism was very close to Hinduism. The Hindus started treating Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu and the Buddhist in their turn identified Vishnu with Bodhisattva Padmapani called Avalokiteswara.
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan says,
“The Mahayana metaphysics and religion correspond to the Advaita metaphysics and theism. In serving the reed of larger majority of men, it became only a feeble copy of Bhagavad-Gita. A gradual process of intellectual absorption and modification developed to such an extent as to Countenance the theory that Mahayanist was only a sectarian phase of the great Vishnava movement. The Hinyana with its more ascetic character, came to be regarded as a sect of Saivism. Buddhism found that it had nothing distinctive to teach. When the Brahmancial faith inculcated universal love and devotion to God and proclaimed Buddha to be an avatar of Vishnu, the death knell of Buddhism in India was sounded.”
The origin of Jainism is shrouded in obscurity. The followers of Jainism believe that their religion is as old as the Vedic religion. In fact, we have reference to Rishabha and Arishtanemi, two of the Jain Tirthankaras in the Vedic literature. The former is considered to be the founder of Jainism. In the Vishnu and Bhagvata Puranas also Rishabha is depicted as an incarnation of Narayana.
On the basis of these references it has been said that Jain religion is as old as Vedic religion. However, certain scholars hold that these scanty references about the earlier Tirthankaras in the Vedic literature do not possess any historical basis. According to them only Parsva Nath and Mahavira, two of the twenty four Tirthankaras were historical figures. According to Prof. Jacobi, Parsva Nath was the real founder of Jainism.
Parsva Nath was the son of Asvasena, the king of Kashi. He became an ascetic at the age of 30 and was enlightened following a penance for eighty four days He was opposed to Yajnas and worship of Gods and goddesses. He was also opposed to caste system and animal sacrifices. He insisted in the observance of principles like non-injury to living beings, truthfulness, non-stealing and non-possession.
His teachings greatly impressed Mahavira, who devoted his entire life to the popularization of these teachings in Magadha and Anga. Mahavira not only preached the teachings of Parsva Nath but also added certain new principles.
Mahavira did not believe in God nor did he believe that the world was created by Him. According to him the universe was composed of matter and it never comes to an end, it simply changes its form. A man can get rid of his miseries and sorrows by leading a life of austerity and self-mortification. He was against Vedas and the sacrificial rituals.
He laid great emphasis on non-violence or Ahimsa. He held that all creatures, animals, plants, stones, rocks etc. possess life and one should not do any harm to the other in speech, deed or action.
Though the principle of Ahimsa was known earlier, Jainism popularized it and carried it to an extreme. Mahavira (Jainism) believed that soul could be freed from bondage only by getting and of passions, and disintegrating the karmik force.
A soul acquired infinite knowledge, power and bliss only when it becomes Paramatma or pure soul. As the ultimate objective of man according to Jainism is to attain salvation he should, prevent all kinds of fresh karmas and destroy the exist ones.
This could be attained through five vows viz., non-injury ( Ahimsa), speaking truth (Satya), non-stealing (Asteya), non-adultery (Brahmacharya) and non-possession (aparigraha). In addition he also laid emphasis on right conduct, right faith and right knowledge.
It will be evident from the above teachings of Mahavira (Jainism) that it was more of a movement of reform against the existing religion rather than a new faith.
According to A.M. Ghat-age “Jainism is thus a moral code rather than a religion in the modern western sense of the term. It recognised no Supreme Being, but there was a whole galaxy of deified men who had been spiritually great, livery soul possessed the potentiality of becoming as great as they. And if the necessity arose Jainism was not unwilling to admit a god of popular Hinduism to this galaxy. Besides it was also not opposed to the theory of caste. It was thus very much less hostile and more accommodating to Hinduism than the other heterodox systems. It must also be remembered that Jainism did not dogmatise. According to its fundamental logic, no absolute affirmation or denial was possible. When all knowledge is only probable and relative your opponent’s view is as likely to be true as yours. The result of this spirit of accommodation was that Jainism has survived in India till today, whereas, Buddhism, its twin sister, had to look for habitation elsewhere.”
4. The Akas:
Another sect which emerged at the same time as Buddhism and Jainism, was that of the Ajivikas. This sect was founded by Gosala Maskariputra, who hailed from a humble family. It advocated complete nudity and rigorous discipline. Gjiviosala Maskariputra was a contemporary of Buddha and Mahavira and is said to have died around 487 B.C.
After his death his followers joined hands with the followers of other teachers like Purana Kasyapa, and Pakudha Katyayana and formed the Ajivika sect. This sect flourished during the Mauryan period and Ashoka and his successors presented a number of caves to the Ajivikas.
After that it exercised only limited influence and continued to be in practice in Eastern Mysore and the adjacent parts of Madras till the fourteenth century. We have not come across any scriptures of the Ajivikas. Therefore we cannot say for certain about its preaching’s. However we are able to gather some information from the Buddhist and Jain literature.
The Ajivikas did not believe in the principle of Uma and held that the whole universe was conditioned and determined by an impersonal cosmic principle Niyati or destiny and It was impossible to influence the course of transmigration in any way.
“All that have breath, all that are born, all that have life are without power, strength or virtue, but are developed by destiny, chance and nature, and experience joy and sorrow in the six classes (of existence). There are……………… 8,400,000 great aeons (mahakappa) through which fool and wise alike must take their course and make an end of sorrow. There is no (question of) bringing unripe karma to frustration, nor of exhausting karma already ripened, by a virtuous conduct, by vows, by penance, or by chastity. That cannot be done. Samsara is measured as with a bushel, with its joy and sorrow and its appointed end. It can neither be lessened nor increased, nor is there any excess or deficiency of it. Just as a ball of string will, when thrown, unwind to its full length, so fool and wise alike will take their course, and make an end of sorrow.”
In course of time Gosala was also given a divine status like Buddha and began to be worshipped. The doctrine of destiny also developed into a Parmenidean view that all change and movement were illusory and that the world was in reality eternally and immovably at rest.
The spiritual revolt of Jainism and Buddhism and the novelty of their teachings presented a serious challenge to Hinduism and demanded its new orientation. The Brahmans found it necessary to codify its tenets, hitherto unorganized, in finally established system. This period witnessed the production of an enormous amount of sacred literature.
The Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads, theoretically still the most sacred of all India’s religious literature, but they were studied only by those who had undergone the ceremony of initiation and were hence the exclusive preserve of the Brahmans. The scriptures of Hinduism, as distinct from Brahmanism, were available to people of all castes.
These included the Epics, the Puranas, the books of Sacred Laws and numerous hymns and religious poems. Religion was presented in philosophical terms and hence we find that the era of the revival of Hinduism was also an age of the growth of philosophical systems revealing the different facets of the Ultimate Reality in all its splendour.
One of the best philosophical works produced at that time was Bhagavad-Gita, which is described as perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known tongue. It is an allegorical poem which depicts the inner conflict of human beings in a remarkable manner and also suggests the means to resolve it.
In it Arjuna, a typical human-being, experiences the intense inward agony resulting from a crushing spiritual conflict, the battle of Kurukshetra representing the life of the soul, the Kauravas represent the hurdles on the road to the spiritual progress of the soul, and Krishna is the voice of God goading him not to despair but to strive for the ultimate spiritual conquest.
The philosophy contained in Bhagavad-Gita is of perennial interest and emphasises all that is of enduring value in Hinduism. It represents a synthesis of the fundamental ideas of many philosophical schools and religious sects.
It presented an attractive theistic religion based on the idealism of Upanishads. God is represented as the sustainer of all things— omniscient and omnipresent. He is depicted as the embodiment of all excellences and is unaffected by virtue or sin. He protects friends and is a dependable guide and philosopher of all those who cling to Him with fixed mind and devotion.
Lord Krishna assures Arjuna “He who sees Me in all thing and all things in Me, to him I am not lost nor is he lost to Me.” In short, as Dr. Radhakrishnan has observed, “The Yogi and the Dhyani pouring the energy of contemplation into the austerity of action, combining the two things, bringing about the marriage of contemplation and action, of Dhyana and Karma, that is the goal which the Gita has prescribed for us.”
Gita admits that God can be approached through different methods. Lord Krishna declares “All paths lead to me” But whatever method one adopts the actions must be absolutely selfless and completely free from all taint of attachment. In short Gita attempts three fold spiritual advancement through the path of knowledge, the path of action, and the path of faith.
From the earliest times the Hindus have worshipped mainly two gods Siva and Vishnu. In the early Vedic period Siva was invoked as the embodiment of the destructive powers of nature and was propitiated so that he might become benign and auspicious. One of the Vedic hymn says “Do not out of Thy anger injure our children and descendants our cattle, our houses, and do not kill our men. We invoke Thee always with Offerings”.
We also get a mention of the attributors which are predominantly associated with Siva. Siva was identified with Vedic Rudra, the destroyer, and was worshipped in the form of phallic emblem (linga).
According to Prof. Basham “Siva’s character, unlike that of Vishnu, is ambivalent. He lurks in horrible places, such as battlefields, burning-grounds and crossroads, which, in India as in Europe, were looked on as very inauspicious. He wears a garland of skulls and a surrounded by ghosts, evil spirits and demons. He is death and time (Mahakala), which destroys all things.”
Siva is also depicted as a great ascetic sitting on the high slopes of Himalayan Mount Kailasa on a tiger skin, deep in meditation. He is depicted as wearing the long matted hair (jata) in a topknot from which the sacred river Ganga flows.
In the middle of his forehead a third eye, an emblem of superior wisdom and insight, is shown. According to the traditions the neck of Siva was black because he consumed the deadly poison, the last of the objects churned from the cosmic ocean, to save other gods from destruction.
The snakes, of which he is considered a Lord, encircle his neck. He holds trident (trishul) while his wife Parvati and his mount Nandi sit near him, Siva is also shown as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja). He is credited with the invention of 108 different dances—some calm and gentle and others fierce and terrible.
One of the most popular dances of the later category was the tandava in which he is shown in angry mood and beats out a wild rhythm with a view to destroy the world at the end of the cosmic cycle.
The most popular and common form in which Siva is represented was linga or phallic emblem. The discovery of Phalli in the Harappa remains has been interpreted that Siva was known to the people of Indus valley and was probably incorporated into Hinduism around the beginning of the Christian era. The horned ithyphallic god of Mohenjo Daro, surrounded by animals, is considered to be a prototype of Siva.
In this form Siva is known as Pasupati (Lord of Beasts). In South India he is popularly represented as a four armed man, with one hand in an attitude of blessing, the second open as though bestowing a boon, the third yielding an axe and the small deer springing from the fingers of the fourth hand.
The idea of avtaras (incarnations) does not occupy any significant place in the Saivite thought, although it is held that Siva took temporary incarnation to destroy demons or to test the virtue of the warriors or sages. According to the popular tradition his marriage to Parvati was performed mainly with a view to destroy the demon Taraka.
According to the legends the gods were troubled by the demon Taraka, and it was prophesied that he could only be destroyed by the child of Siva and the Daughter of the Mountains. But Siva was continually wrapped in meditation and the prospect of his producing offspring seemed to the other gods to be faint indeed.
However, Parvati, the beautiful daughter of Himalaya, was sent at their behest to wait upon Siva, but though she made many attempts to win the god’s attention he took no notice of her, and in the course of her efforts Kama, the love god was burnt to ashes by the flames from Siva’s third eye.
At last Parvati decided to follow the god in his asceticism. Laying aside her ornaments she became a hermitess on a nearby peak, and in this guise Siva noticed her and fell in love with her. Ultimately they were married at a great ceremony in which all the gods participated. Soon Parvati gave birth to the war-god Skand, who ultimately destroyed the demon Taraka.
A section of Saivism, known as Virasaivism, constituting an extreme and uncompromising group, holds that Siva is the only Reality. Sakti, the ultimate creative force of the universe, resides in Him and is as inseparable as the heat from the fire and light from the Sun.
Through this Sakti, Siva becomes both the material and instrumental cause of the universe and the souls and matters are His Manifestations. The jiva or the individual soul is also an aspect or amsa of Siva and is identical with Him.
However, the jiva is polluted by the samsara and is therefore devoid of the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. Since there is both difference and identity in the ralation between the jiva and Siva, the Virasaivism becomes a type, of Bheda-Abheda philosophy (difference without difference).
Jiva-remains separate from Him because of ignorance and once this ignorance is removed and the jiva regains its consciousness of identity with Siva, it gets united with Him. The most prominent exponent of the Virasiva cult was Basava or Basavanna, who flourished during the twelfth century A.D.
Vaishnsvism glorifies the supreme God Vishnu. In the earliest hymns he is represented as a solar deity associated with light and life. He is considered to be the source of the universe and of all things. He is usually depicted as a four-armed man of dark blue colour, crowned and seated on his throne, bearing in his handlings problems, the conch, discus, mace and lotus.
He wears the holy jewels called Kaustubha round his., neck and has a tuft of curly hair (Srivatsa) on his chest. He rides the great eagle Garuda. , Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi was also an important goddess of Hindu religion.
Unlike Siva, who was ferocious and dangerous, Vishnu is represented as benevolent and continuously works for the welfare of the world. According to the traditions whenever the Sacred Law fails and evil raises its head Vishnu takes on incarnation to establish the Sacred Law. According to the most popular belief Vishnu had ten avtaras or incarnations.
These ten Avtaras of Vishnu were the Fish (Matsya), the Tortoise (Kurma), the Boar (Varaha), The Man-Lion (Narasimha), The Dwarf (Vamana). Parasurama (Rama with the Axe), Rama, Prince of Ayodhya and hero of Ramayana, Krishna of Mahabharta, Buddha and Kalkin, an incarnation yet to come.
It is held that at the end of the Kaliyug (dark age) Vishnu was to appear in the form of a man mounted on a white horse with a flying sword in his hands. He will judge the wicked and reward the good and once again restore the age of gold.
The Mother Goddess:
Though during the earlier period only male gods were worshipped but in course of time the wives of the gods, whose existence had been recognised even earlier, began to be worshipped. The worship of mother goddesses started only in the Gupta period and continued to be in vogue till the wave of devotional Vaishnavism swept Northern Buna with the arrival of the Muslims.
However in certain parts like Bengal and Assam, the mother goddesses continued to be worshipped. The prominent Mother goddesses which were worshipped in ancient India included Parvati, the wife ‘of Siva, Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, Mahadevi (the great goddess), Sati (The virtuous), Gauri (The Fair One), Annapurna (The Bestower of Food), Matta (the mother) in various aspects.
In the grim aspects the mother was known as Durga (inaccessible), Kali (the Black one) and Chandi (The Fierce). In the fierce mood the goddesses are depicted with many arms bearing different weapons, with red tongue lolling from mouth and a garland of skulls around the neck. Lion is represented as the usual mount of the goddess in fierce mood.
In addition to Vishnu, Siva and Mother goddesses the people of India also worshipped lesser gods. The popularity of the different gods differed in different periods. Some of these gods represented the natural phenomena.
The most prominent lesser gods worshipped by the people included Brahma (the Prajapati of later Vedic times), Surya (the Sun), Indra, the Vedic war-god, Varuna, Yama (the death God), Kubera (lord of precious metals, minerals, jewels and wealth), Soma Vayu (the wind god), Agni (fire), Skanda (also known as Kumara, Kartikeya and Subrahmanya), Ganesa or Ganapati (the chief of the Ganas—a class of demigod attendant on Siva), Hanuman (monkey god—the son of Vayu), Kama (Desire) etc.
In addition to the various gods and demigods, the people in ancient India worshipped certain animals and plants. Amongst the animals the cow was given the maximum regard and five products of the cow—milk, curd, butter, urine and dung- were considered significant because they possessed great purifying potency.
The bull was also given honour as the mount of Siva. In most of the Siva temples the image of Nandi (bull) finds a prominent petition and is honoured with offerings. The snake was another animal which was given great reverence by the people of ancient India. The legendary serpents like Sesa and Vasuki were given great regard and worshipped. Offerings were made to the snakes at the beginning of the rainy season.
Amongst the prominent plants and trees which were worshipped by the people mention may be made of pippala or asvattha. The tree of Asoka was worshipped mainly by the women who were keen to have children. The plant of tulsi, which was connected with Vishnu was also worshipped specially in the village side. Kusa and Darbha, two types of grass, were also considered sacred from the Vedic times onwards.
Certain rivers were also considered sacred and were worshipped. Ganga was given the highest regard, which according to the Indian traditions sprang from the foot of the Vishnu, flowed over the sky in the form of the milky way (Mandakini) and then fell to earth from the matted locks (jata) of Siva.
Often Ganga was personified as a goddess and worshipped. The other rivers which were considered sacred included Yamuna, a tributary of Ganga, Sarasvati, Narmada, the Godavari, the Krishna and Kaveri. Certain lakes like the Manasa near Mount Kailasa and Puskara lake near Ajmer, were also considered sacred.
The practice of animal sacrifices which was popular during the Vedic period declined in the subsequent centuries and once again became popular only in the middle age, with certain devotees. These devotees killed the animals without any complicated ritual before the sacred icon and justified it by pointing that the soul of the victim went straight to heaven.
However, by and large it was not approved by the people. The animal which were sacrificed included buffaloes goats, sheep and cockerels. Human sacrifices were also practised. We learn of girls being kidnapped to provide human sacrifices in secret rites.