1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hinduism
HINDUISM, a term generally employed to comprehend the social institutions, past and present, of the Hindus who form the great majority of the people of India; as well as the multitudinous crop of their religious beliefs which has grown up, in the course of many centuries, on the foundation of the Brahmanical scriptures. The actual proportion of the total population of India (294 millions) included under the name of “Hindus” has been computed in the census report for 1901 at something like 70% (206 millions); the remaining 30% being made up partly of the followers of foreign creeds, such as Mahommedans, Parsees, Christians and Jews, partly of the votaries of indigenous forms of belief which have at various times separated from the main stock, and developed into independent systems, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism; and partly of isolated hill and jungle tribes, such as the Santals, Bhils (Bhilla) and Kols, whose crude animistic tendencies have hitherto kept them, either wholly or for the most part, outside the pale of the Brahmanical community. The name “Hindu” itself is of foreign origin, being derived from the Persians, by whom the river Sindhu was called Hindhu, a name subsequently applied to the inhabitants of that frontier district, and gradually extended over the upper and middle reaches of the Gangetic valley, whence this whole tract of country between the Himalaya and the Vindhya mountains, west of Bengal, came to be called by the foreign conquerors “Hindustan,” or the abode of the Hindus; whilst the native writers called it “Aryavarta,” or the abode of the Aryas.
But whilst, in its more comprehensive acceptation, the term Hinduism would thus range over the entire historical development of Brahmanical India, it is also not infrequently used in a narrower sense, as denoting more especially the modern phase of Indian social and religious institutions—from the earlier centuries of the Christian era down to our own days—as distinguished from the period dominated by the authoritative doctrine of pantheistic belief, formulated by the speculative theologians during the centuries immediately succeeding the Vedic period (see Brahmanism). In this its more restricted sense the term may thus practically be taken to apply to the later bewildering variety of popular sectarian forms of belief, with its social concomitant, the fully developed caste-system. But, though one may at times find it convenient to speak of “Brahmanism and Hinduism,” it must be clearly understood that the distinction implied in the combination of these terms is an extremely vague one, especially from the chronological point of view. The following considerations will probably make this clear.
The characteristic tenet of orthodox Brahmanism consists in the conception of an absolute, all-embracing spirit, the Brahma (neutr.), being the one and only reality, itself unconditioned, and the original cause and ultimate Connexion with Brahmanism. goal of all individual souls (jīva, i.e. living things). Coupled with this abstract conception are two other doctrines, viz. first, the transmigration of souls (saṁsāra), regarded by Indian thinkers as the necessary complement of a belief in the essential sameness of all the various spiritual units, however contaminated, to a greater or less degree, they may be by their material embodiment; and in their ultimate re-union with the Paramātman, or Supreme Self; and second, the assumption of a triple manifestation of the ceaseless working of that Absolute Spirit as a creative, conservative and destructive principle, represented respectively by the divine personalities of Brahma (masc.), Vishṇu and Śiva, forming the Trimūrti or Triad. As regards this latter, purely exoteric, doctrine, there can be little doubt of its owing its origin to considerations of theological expediency, as being calculated to supply a sufficiently wide formula of belief for general acceptance; and the very fact of this divine triad including the two principal deities of the later sectarian worship, Vishṇu and Śiva, goes far to show that these two gods at all events must have been already in those early days favourite objects of popular adoration to an extent sufficient to preclude their being ignored by a diplomatic priesthood bent upon the formulation of a common creed. Thus, so far from sectarianism being a mere modern development of Brahmanism, it actually goes back to beyond the formulation of the Brahmanical creed. Nay, when, on analysing the functions and attributes of those two divine figures, each of them is found to be but a compound of several previously recognized deities, sectarian worship may well be traced right up to the Vedic age. That the theory of the triple manifestation of the deity was indeed only a compromise between Brahmanical aspirations and popular worship, probably largely influenced by the traditional sanctity of the number three, is sufficiently clear from the fact that, whilst Brahma, the creator, and at the same time the very embodiment of Brahmanical class pride, has practically remained a mere figurehead in the actual worship of the people, Śiva, on the other hand, so far from being merely the destroyer, is also the unmistakable representative of generative and reproductive power in nature. In fact, Brahma, having performed his legitimate part in the mundane evolution by his original creation of the universe, has retired into the background, being, as it were, looked upon as functus officio, like a venerable figure of a former generation, whence in epic poetry he is commonly styled pitāmaha, “the grandsire.” But despite the artificial character of the Trimūrti, it has retained to this day at least its theoretical validity in orthodox Hinduism, whilst it has also undoubtedly exercised considerable influence in shaping sectarian belief, in promoting feelings of toleration towards the claims of rival deities; and in a tendency towards identifying divine figures newly sprung into popular favour with one or other of the principal deities, and thus helping to bring into vogue that notion of avatars, or periodical descents or incarnations of the deity, which has become so prominent a feature of the later sectarian belief.
Under more favourable political conditions, the sacerdotal class might perhaps, in course of time, have succeeded in imposing something like an effective common creed on the heterogeneous medley of races and tribes scattered over the peninsula, just as they certainly did succeed in establishing the social prerogative of their own order over the length and breadth of India. They were, however, fated to fall far short of such a consummation; and at all times orthodox Brahmanism has had to wink at, or ignore, all manner of gross superstitions and repulsive practices, along with the popular worship of countless hosts of godlings, demons, spirits and ghosts, and mystic objects and symbols of every description. Indeed, according to a recent account by a close observer of the religious practices prevalent in southern India, fully four-fifths of the people of the Dravidian race, whilst nominally acknowledging the spiritual guidance of the Brahmans, are to this day practically given over to the worship of their nondescript local village deities (grāma-devatā), usually attended by animal sacrifices frequently involving the slaughter, under revolting circumstances, of thousands of victims. Curiously enough these local deities are nearly all of the female, not the male sex. In the estimation of these people “Siva and Vishnu may be more dignified beings, but the village deity is regarded as a more present help in trouble, and more intimately concerned with the happiness and prosperity of the villagers. The origin of this form of Hinduism is lost in antiquity, but it is probable that it represents a pre-Aryan religion, more or less modified in various parts of south India by Brahmanical influence. At the same time, many of the deities themselves are of quite recent origin, and it is easy to observe a deity in making even at the present day.” It is a significant fact that, whilst in the worship of Siva and Vishnu, at which no animal sacrifices are offered, the officiating priests are almost invariably Brahmans, this is practically never the case at the popular performance of those “gloomy and weird rites for the propitiation of angry deities, or the driving away of evil spirits, when the pujaris (or ministrants) are drawn from all other castes, even from the Pariahs, the out-caste section of Indian society.”
As from the point of view of religious belief, so also from that of social organization no clear line of demarcation can be drawn between Brahmanism and Hinduism. Though it was not till later times that the network of class Caste. divisions and subdivisions attained anything like the degree of intricacy which it shows in these latter days, still in its origin the caste-system is undoubtedly coincident with the rise of Brahmanism, and may even be said to be of the very essence of it. The cardinal principle which underlies the system of caste is the preservation of purity of descent, and purity of religious belief and ceremonial usage. Now, that same principle had been operative from the very dawn of the history of Aryanized India. The social organism of the Aryan tribe did not probably differ essentially from that of most communities at that primitive stage of civilization; whilst the body of the people—the Viś (or aggregate of Vaiśyas)—would be mainly occupied with agricultural and pastoral pursuits, two professional classes—those of the warrior and the priest—had already made good their claim to social distinction. As yet, however, the tribal community would still feel one in race and traditional usage. But when the fair-coloured Aryan immigrants first came in contact with, and drove back or subdued the dark-skinned race that occupied the northern plains—doubtless the ancestors of the modern Dravidian people—the preservation of their racial type and traditionary order of things would naturally become to them a matter of serious concern. In the extreme north-western districts—the Punjab and Rajputana, judging from the fairly uniform physical features of the present population of these parts—they seem to have been signally successful in their endeavour to preserve their racial purity, probably by being able to clear a sufficiently extensive area of the original occupants for themselves with their wives and children to settle upon. The case was, however, very different in the adjoining valley of the Jumna and Ganges, the sacred Madhyadesa or Middle-land of classical India. Here the Aryan immigrants were not allowed to establish themselves without undergoing a considerable admixture of foreign blood. It must remain uncertain whether it was that the thickly-populated character of the land scarcely admitted of complete occupation, but only of a conquest by an army of fighting men, starting from the Aryanized region—who might, however, subsequently draw women of their own kin after them—or whether, as has been suggested, a second Aryan invasion of India took place at that time through the mountainous tracts of the upper Indus and northern Kashmir, where the nature of the road would render it impracticable for the invading bands to be accompanied by women and children. Be this as it may, the physical appearance of the population of this central region of northern India—Hindustan and Behar—clearly points to an intermixture of the tall, fair-coloured, fine-nosed Aryan with the short-sized, dark-skinned, broad-nosed Dravidian; the latter type becoming more pronounced towards the lower strata of the social order. Now, it was precisely in this part of India that mainly arose the body of literature which records the gradual rise of the Brahmanical hierarchy and the early development of the caste-system.
The problem that now lay before the successful invaders was how to deal with the indigenous people, probably vastly outnumbering them, without losing their own racial identity. They dealt with them in the way the white race usually deals with the coloured race—they kept them socially apart. The land being appropriated by the conquerors, husbandry, as the most respectable industrial occupation, became the legitimate calling of the Aryan settler, the Vaiśya; whilst handicrafts, gradually multiplying with advancing civilization and menial service, were assigned to the subject race. The generic name applied to the latter was Śūdra, originally probably the name of one of the subjected tribes. So far the social development proceeded on lines hardly differing from those with which one is familiar in the history of other nations. The Indo-Aryans, however, went a step farther. What they did was not only to keep the native race apart from social intercourse with themselves, but to shut them out from all participation in their own higher aims, and especially in their own religious convictions and ceremonial practices. So far from attempting to raise their standard of spiritual life, or even leaving it to ordinary intercourse to gradually bring about a certain community of intellectual culture and religious sentiment, they deliberately set up artificial barriers in order to prevent their own traditional modes of worship from being contaminated with the obnoxious practices of the servile race. The serf, the Śūdra, was not to worship the gods of the Aryan freemen. The result was the system of four castes (varṇa, i.e. “colour”; or jāti, “gens”). Though the Brahman, who by this time had firmly secured his supremacy over the kshatriya, or noble, in matters spiritual as well as in legislative and administrative functions, would naturally be the prime mover in this regulation of the social order, there seems no reason to believe that the other two upper classes were not equally interested in seeing their hereditary privileges thus perpetuated by divine sanction. Nothing, indeed, is more remarkable in the whole development of the caste-system than the jealous pride which every caste, from the highest to the lowest, takes in its own peculiar occupation and sphere of life. The distinctive badge of a member of the three upper castes was the sacred triple cord or thread (sūtra)—made of cotton, hemp or wool, according to the respective caste—with which he was invested at the upanayana ceremony, or initiation into the use of the sacred sāvitri, or prayer to the sun (also called gāyatrī), constituting his second birth. Whilst the Arya was thus a dvi-ja, or twice-born, the Sudra remained unregenerate during his lifetime, his consolation being the hope that, on the faithful performance of his duties in this life, he might hereafter be born again into a higher grade of life. In later times, the strict adherence to caste duties would naturally receive considerable support from the belief in the transmigration of souls, already prevalent before Buddha’s time, and from the very general acceptance of the doctrine of karma (“deed”), or retribution, according to which a man’s present station and manner of life are the result of the sum-total of his actions and thoughts in his former existence; as his actions here will again, by the same automatic process of retribution, determine his status and condition in his next existence. Though this doctrine is especially insisted upon in Buddhism, and its designation as a specific term (Pali, Kamma) may be due to that creed, the notion itself was doubtless already prevalent in pre-Buddhist times. It would even seem to be necessarily and naturally implied in Brahmanical belief in metempsychosis; whilst in the doctrine of Buddha, who admits no soul, the theory of the net result or fruit of a man’s actions serving hereafter to form or condition the existence of some new individual who will have no conscious identity with himself, seems of a peculiarly artificial and mystic character. But, be this as it may, “the doctrine of karma is certainly one of the firmest beliefs of all classes of Hindus, and the fear that a man shall reap as he has sown is an appreciable element in the average morality ... the idea of forgiveness is absolutely wanting; evil done may indeed be outweighed by meritorious deeds so far as to ensure a better existence in the future, but it is not effaced, and must be atoned for” (Census Report, i. 364).
In spite, however, of the artificial restrictions placed on the intermarrying of the castes, the mingling of the two races seems to have proceeded at a tolerably rapid rate. Indeed, the paucity of women of the Aryan stock would probably render these mixed unions almost a necessity from the very outset; and the vaunted purity of blood which the caste rules were calculated to perpetuate can scarcely have remained of more than a relative degree even in the case of the Brahman caste. Certain it is that mixed castes are found referred to at a comparatively early period; and at the time of Buddha—some five or six centuries before the Christian era—the social organization would seem to have presented an appearance not so very unlike that of modern times. It must be confessed, however, that our information regarding the development of the caste-system is far from complete, especially in its earlier stages. Thus, we are almost entirely left to conjecture on the important point as to the original social organization of the subject race. Though doubtless divided into different tribes scattered over an extensive tract of land, the subjected aborigines were slumped together under the designation of Sudras, whose duty it was to serve the upper classes in all the various departments of manual labour, save those of a downright sordid and degrading character which it was left to vratyas or outcasts to perform. How, then, was the distribution of crafts and habitual occupations of all kinds brought about? Was the process one of spontaneous growth adapting an already existing social organization to a new order of things; or was it originated and perpetuated by regulation from above? Or was it rather that the status and duties of existing offices and trades came to be determined and made hereditary by some such artificial system as that by which the Theodosian Code succeeded for a time in organizing the Roman society in the 5th century of our era? “It is well known” (says Professor Dill) “that the tendency of the later Empire was to stereotype society, by compelling men to follow the occupation of their fathers, and preventing a free circulation among different callings and grades of life. The man who brought the grain from Africa to the public stores at Ostia, the baker who made it into loaves for distribution, the butchers who brought pigs from Samnium, Lucania or Bruttium, the purveyors of wine and oil, the men who fed the furnaces of the public baths, were bound to their callings from one generation to another. It was the principle of rural serfdom applied to social functions. Every avenue of escape was closed. A man was bound to his calling not only by his father’s but also by his mother’s condition. Men were not permitted to marry out of their gild. If the daughter of one of the baker caste married a man not belonging to it, her husband was bound to her father’s calling. Not even a dispensation obtained by some means from the imperial chancery, not even the power of the Church could avail to break the chain of servitude.” It can hardly be gainsaid that these artificial arrangements bear a very striking analogy to those of the Indian caste-system; and if these class restrictions were comparatively short-lived on Italian ground, it was not perhaps so much that so strange a plant found there an ethnic soil less congenial to its permanent growth, but because it was not allowed sufficient time to become firmly rooted; for already great political events were impending which within a few decades were to lay the mighty empire in ruins. In India, on the other hand, the institution of caste—even if artificially contrived and imposed by the Indo-Aryan priest and ruler—had at least ample time allowed it to become firmly established in the social habits, and even in the affections, of the people. At the same time, one could more easily understand how such a system could have found general acceptance all over the Dravidian region of southern India, with its merest sprinkling of Aryan blood, if it were possible to assume that class arrangements of a similar kind must have already been prevalent amongst the aboriginal tribes prior to the advent of the Aryan. Whether a more intimate acquaintance with the manners and customs of those rude tribes that have hitherto kept themselves comparatively free from Hindu influences may yet throw some light on this question, remains to be seen. But, by this as it may, the institution of caste, when once established, certainly appears to have gone on steadily developing; and not even the long period of Buddhist ascendancy, with its uncompromising resistance to the Brahman’s claim to being the sole arbiter in matters of faith, seems to have had any very appreciable retardant effect upon the progress of the movement. It was not only by the formation of ever new endogamous castes and sub-castes that the system gained in extent and intricacy, but even more so by the constant subdivision of the castes into numerous exogamous groups or septs, themselves often involving gradations of social status important enough to seriously affect the possibility of intermarriage, already hampered by various other restrictions. Thus a man wishing to marry his son or daughter had to look for a suitable match outside his sept, but within his caste. But whilst for his son he might choose a wife from a lower sept than his own, for his daughter, on the other hand, the law of hypergamy compelled him, if at all possible, to find a husband in a higher sept. This would naturally lead to an excess of women over men in the higher septs, and would render it difficult for a man to get his daughter respectably married without paying a high price for a suitable bridegroom and incurring other heavy marriage expenses. It can hardly be doubted that this custom has been largely responsible for the crime of female infanticide, formerly so prevalent in India; as it also probably is to some extent for infant marriages, still too common in some parts of India, especially Bengal; and even for the all but universal repugnance to the re-marriage of widows, even when these had been married in early childhood and had never joined their husbands. Yet violations of these rules are jealously watched by the other members of the sept, and are liable—in accordance with the general custom in which communal matters are regulated in India—to be brought before a special council (panchāyat), originally consisting of five (pancha), but now no longer limited to that number, since it is chiefly the greater or less strictness in the observance of caste rules and the orthodox ceremonial generally that determine the status of the sept in the social scale of the caste. Whilst community of occupation was an important factor in the original formation of non-tribal castes, the practical exigencies of life have led to considerable laxity in this respect—not least so in the case of Brahmans who have often had to take to callings which would seem altogether incompatible with the proper spiritual functions of their caste. Thus, “the prejudice against eating cooked food that has been touched by a man of an inferior caste is so strong that, although the Shastras do not prohibit the eating of food cooked by a Kshatriya or Vaiśya, yet the Brahmans, in most parts of the country, would not eat such food. For these reasons, every Hindu household—whether Brahman, Kshatriya or Sudra—that can afford to keep a paid cook generally entertains the services of a Brahman for the performance of its cuisine—the result being that in the larger towns the very name of Brahman has suffered a strange degradation of late, so as to mean only a cook” (Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, Hindu Castes and Sects). In this caste, however, as in all others, there are certain kinds of occupation to which a member could not turn for a livelihood without incurring serious defilement. In fact, adherence to the traditional ceremonial and respectability of occupation go very much hand-in-hand. Thus, amongst agricultural castes, those engaged in vegetable-growing or market-gardening are inferior to the genuine peasant or yeoman, such as the Jat and Rajput; whilst of these the Jat who practises widow-marriage ranks below the Rajput who prides himself on his tradition of ceremonial orthodoxy—though racially there seems little, if any, difference between the two; and the Rajput, again, is looked down upon by the Babhan of Behar because he does not, like himself, scruple to handle the plough, instead of invariably employing low-caste men for this manual labour. So also when members of the Baidya, or physician, caste of Bengal, ranging next to that of the Brahman, farm land on tenure, “they will on no account hold the plough, or engage in any form of manual labour, and thus necessarily carry on their cultivation by means of hired servants” (H. H. Risley, Census Report).
The scale of social precedence as recognized by native public opinion is concisely reviewed (ib.) as revealing itself “in the facts that particular castes are supposed to be modern representatives of one or other of the original castes of the theoretical Hindu system; that Brahmans will take water from certain castes; that Brahmans of high standing will serve particular castes; that certain castes, though not served by the best Brahmans, have nevertheless got Brahmans of their own whose rank varies according to circumstances; that certain castes are not served by Brahmans at all but have priests of their own; that the status of certain castes has been raised by their taking to infant-marriage or abandoning the re-marriage of widows; that the status of others has been modified by their pursuing some occupations in a special or peculiar way; that some can claim the services of the village barber, the village palanquin-bearer, the village midwife, &c., while others cannot; that some castes may not enter the courtyards of certain temples; that some castes are subject to special taboos, such as that they must not use the village well, or may draw water only with their own vessels, that they must live outside the village or in a separate quarter, that they must leave the road on the approach of a high-caste man and must call out to give warning of their approach.” . . . “The first point to observe is the predominance throughout India of the influence of the traditional system of four original castes. In every scheme of grouping the Brahman heads the list. Then come the castes whom popular opinion accepts as the modern representatives of the Kshatriyas; and these are followed by the mercantile groups supposed to be akin to the Vaiśyas. When we leave the higher circles of the twice-born, the difficulty of finding a uniform basis of classification becomes apparent. The ancient designation Sudra finds no great favour in modern times, and we can point to no group that is generally recognized as representing it. The term is used in Bombay, Madras and Bengal to denote a considerable number of castes of moderate respectability, the higher of whom are considered ‘clean’ Sudras, while the precise status of the lower is a question which lends itself to endless controversy.” . . . In northern and north-western India, on the other hand, “the grade next below the twice-born rank is occupied by a number of castes from whose hands Brahmans and members of the higher castes will take water and certain kinds of sweetmeats. Below these again is rather an indeterminate group from whom water is taken by some of the higher castes, not by others. Further down, where the test of water no longer applies, the status of the caste depends on the nature of its occupation and its habits in respect of diet. There are castes whose touch defiles the twice-born, but who do not commit the crowning enormity of eating beef. . . . In western and southern India the idea that the social state of a caste depends on whether Brahmans will take water and sweetmeats from its members is unknown, for the higher castes will as a rule take water only from persons of their own caste and sub-caste. In Madras especially the idea of ceremonial pollution by the proximity of an unclean caste has been developed with much elaboration. Thus the table of social precedence attached to the Cochin report shows that while a Nayar can pollute a man of a higher caste only by touching him, people of the Kammalan group, including masons, blacksmiths, carpenters and workers in leather, pollute at a distance of 24 ft., toddy-drawers at 36 ft., Pulayan or Cheruman cultivators at 48 ft., while in the case of the Paraiyan (Pariahs) who eat beef the range of pollution is no less than 64 ft.”
In this bewildering maze of social grades and class distinctions, the Brahman, as will have been seen, continues to hold the dominant position, being respected and even worshipped by all the others. “The more orthodox Sudras carry their veneration for the priestly class to such a degree that they will not cross the shadow of a Brahman, and it is not unusual for them to be under a vow not to eat any food in the morning, before drinking Bipracharanamrita, i.e. water in which the toe of a Brahman has been dipped. On the other hand, the pride of the Brahmans is such that they do not bow to even the images of the gods worshipped in a Sudra’s house by Brahman priests” (Jog. Nath Bh.). There are, however, not a few classes of Brahmans who, for various reasons, have become degraded from their high station, and formed separate castes with whom respectable Brahmans refuse to intermarry and consort. Chief amongst these are the Brahmans who minister for “unclean” Sudras and lower castes, including the makers and dealers in spirituous liquors; as well as those who officiate at the great public shrines or places of pilgrimage where they might be liable to accept forbidden gifts, and, as a matter of fact, often amass considerable wealth; and those who officiate as paid priests at cremations and funeral rites, when the wearing apparel and bedding of the deceased are not unfrequently claimed by them as their perquisites.
As regards the other two “twice-born” castes, several modern groups do indeed claim to be their direct descendants, and in vindication of their title make it a point to perform the upanayana ceremony and to wear the sacred thread. But though the Brahmans, too, will often acquiesce in the reasonableness of such claims, it is probably only as a matter of policy that they do so, whilst in reality they regard the other two higher castes as having long since disappeared and been merged by miscegenation in the Sudra mass. Hence, in the later classical Sanskrit literature, the term dvija, or twice-born, is used simply as a synonym for a Brahman. As regards the numerous groups included under the term of Sudras, the distinction between “clean” and “unclean” Sudras is of especial importance for the upper classes, inasmuch as only the former—of whom nine distinct castes are usually recognized—are as a rule considered fit for employment in household service.
The picture thus presented by Hindu society—as made up of a confused congeries of social groups of the most varied standing, each held together and kept separate from others by a traditional body of ceremonial rules and by the Theology. notion of social gradations being due to a divinely instituted order of things—finds something like a counterpart in the religious life of the people. As in the social sphere, so also in the sphere of religious belief, we find the whole scale of types represented from the lowest to the highest; and here as there, we meet with the same failure of welding the confused mass into a well-ordered whole. In their theory of a triple manifestation of an impersonal deity, the Brahmanical theologians, as we have seen, had indeed elaborated a doctrine which might have seemed to form a reasonable, authoritative creed for a community already strongly imbued with pantheistic notions; yet, at best, that creed could only appeal to the sympathies of a comparatively limited portion of the people. Indeed, the sacerdotal class themselves had made its universal acceptance an impossibility, seeing that their laws, by which the relations of the classes were to be regulated, aimed at permanently excluding the entire body of aboriginal tribes from the religious life of their Aryan masters. They were to be left for all time coming to their own traditional idolatrous notions and practices. However, the two races could not, in the nature of things, be permanently kept separate from each other. Indeed, even prior to the definite establishment of the caste-system, the mingling of the lower race with the upper classes, especially with the aristocratic landowners and still more so with the yeomanry, had probably been going on to such an extent as to have resulted in two fairly well-defined intermediate types of colour between the priestly order and the servile race and to have facilitated the ultimate division into four “colours” (varna). In course of time the process of intermingling, as we have seen, assumed such proportions that the priestly class, in their pride of blood, felt naturally tempted to recognize, as of old, only two “colours,” the Aryan Brahman and the non-Aryan Sudra. Under these conditions the religious practices of the lower race could hardly have failed in the long run to tell seriously upon the spiritual life of the lay body of the Brahmanical community. To what extent this may have been the case, our limited knowledge of the early phases of the sectarian worship of the people does not enable us to determine. But, on the other hand, the same process of racial intermixture also tended to gradually draw the lower race more or less under the influence of the Brahmanical forms of worship, and thus contributed towards the shaping of the religious system of modern Hinduism. The grossly idolatrous practices, however, still so largely prevalent in the Dravidian South, show how superficial, after all, that influence has been in those parts of India where the admixture of Aryan blood has been so slight as to have practically had no effect on the racial characteristics of the people. These present-day practices, and the attitude of the Brahman towards them, help at all events to explain the aversion with which the strange rites of the subjected tribes were looked upon by the worshippers of the Vedic pantheon. At the same time, in judging the apparently inhuman way in which the Sudras were treated in the caste rules, one has always to bear in mind the fact that the belief in metempsychosis was already universal at the time, and seemed to afford the only rational explanation of the apparent injustice involved in the unequal distribution of the good things in this world; and that, if the Sudra was strictly excluded from the religious rites and beliefs of the superior classes, this exclusion in no way involved the question of his ultimate emancipation and his union with the Infinite Spirit, which were as certain in his case as in that of any other sentient being. What it did make impossible for him was to attain that union immediately on the cessation of his present life, as he would first have to pass through higher and purer stages of mundane existence before reaching that goal; but in this respect he only shared the lot of all but a very few of the saintliest in the higher spheres of life, since the ordinary twice-born would be liable to sink, after his present life, to grades yet lower than that of the Sudra.
To what extent the changes, which the religious belief of the Aryan classes underwent in post-Vedic times, may have been due to aboriginal influences is a question not easily answered, though the later creeds offer only too many features in which one might feel inclined to suspect influences of that kind. The literary documents, both in Sanskrit and Pali, dating from about the time of Buddha onwards—particularly the two epic poems, the Mahabharata and Ramayana—still show us in the main the personnel of the old pantheon; but the character of the gods has changed; they have become anthropomorphized and almost purely mythological figures. A number of the chief gods, sometimes four, but generally eight of them, now appear as lokapalas or world-guardians, having definite quarters or intermediate quarters of the compass assigned to them as their special domains. One of them, Kubera, the god of wealth, is a new figure; whilst another, Varuna, the most spiritual and ethical of Vedic deities—the king of the gods and the universe; the nightly, star-spangled firmament—has become the Indian Neptune, the god of waters. Indra, their chief, is virtually a kind of superior raja, residing in svarga, and as such is on visiting terms with earthly kings, driving about in mid-air with his charioteer Matali. As might happen to any earth-lord, Indra is actually defeated in battle by the son of the demon-king of Lanka (Ceylon), and kept there a prisoner till ransomed by Brahma and the gods conferring immortality on his conqueror. A quaint figure in the pantheon of the heroic age is Hanuman, the deified chief of monkeys—probably meant to represent the aboriginal tribes of southern India—whose wonderful exploits as Rama’s ally on the expedition to Lanka Indian audiences will never weary of hearing recounted. The Gandharvas figure already in the Veda, either as a single divinity, or as a class of genii, conceived of as the body-guard of Soma and as connected with the moon. In the later Vedic times they are represented as being fond of, and dangerous to, women; the Apsaras, apparently originally water-nymphs, being closely associated with them. In the heroic age the Gandharvas have become the heavenly minstrels plying their art at Indra’s court, with the Apsaras as their wives or mistresses. These fair damsels play, however, yet another part, and one far from complimentary to the dignity of the gods. In the epics considerable merit is attached to a life of seclusion and ascetic practices by means of which man is considered capable of acquiring supernatural powers equal or even superior to those of the gods—a notion perhaps not unnaturally springing from the pantheistic conception. Now, in cases of danger being threatened to their own ascendancy by such practices, the gods as a rule proceed to employ the usually successful expedient of despatching some lovely nymph to lure the saintly men back to worldly pleasures. Seeing that the epic poems, as repeated by professional reciters, either in their original Sanskrit text, or in their vernacular versions, as well as dramatic compositions based on them, form to this day the chief source of intellectual enjoyment for most Hindus, the legendary matter contained in these heroic poems, however marvellous and incredible it may appear, still enters largely into the religious convictions of the people. “These popular recitals from the Ramayan are done into Gujarati in easy, flowing narrative verse . . . by Premanand, the sweetest of our bards. They are read out by an intelligent Brahman to a mixed audience of all classes and both sexes. It has a perceptible influence on the Hindu character. I believe the remarkable freedom from infidelity which is to be seen in most Hindu families, in spite of their strange gregarious habits, can be traced to that influence; and little wonder” (B. M. Malabari, Gujarat and the Gujaratis). Hence also the universal reverence paid to serpents (naga) since those early days; though whether it simply arose from the superstitious dread inspired by the insidious reptile so fatal to man in India, or whether the verbal coincidence with the name of the once-powerful non-Aryan tribe of Nagas had something to do with it must remain doubtful. Indian myth represents them as a race of demons sprung from Kadru, the wife of the sage Kasyapa, with a jewel in their heads which gives them their sparkling look; and inhabiting one of the seven beautiful worlds below the earth (and above the hells), where they are ruled over by three chiefs or kings, Sesha, Vasuki and Takshaka; their fair daughters often entering into matrimonial alliances with men, like the mermaids of western legend.
In addition to such essentially mythological conceptions, we meet in the religious life of this period with an element of more serious aspect in the two gods, on one or other of whom the religious fervour of the large majority of Hindus has ever since concentrated itself, viz. Vishnu and Siva. Both these divine figures have grown out of Vedic conceptions—the genial Vishnu mainly out of a not very prominent solar deity of the same name; whilst the stern Siva, i.e. the kind or gracious one—doubtless a euphemistic name—has his prototype in the old fierce storm-god Rudra, the “Roarer,” with certain additional features derived from other deities, especially Pushan, the guardian of flocks and bestower of prosperity, worked up therewith. The exact process of the evolution of the two deities and their advance in popular favour are still somewhat obscure. In the epic poems which may be assumed to have taken their final shape in the early centuries before and after the Christian era, their popular character, so strikingly illustrated by their inclusion in the Brahmanical triad, appears in full force; whilst their cult is likewise attested by the coins and inscriptions of the early centuries of our era. The co-ordination of the two gods in the Trimurti does not by any means exclude a certain rivalry between them; but, on the contrary, a supreme position as the true embodiment of the Divine Spirit is claimed for each of them by their respective votaries, without, however, an honourable, if subordinate, place being refused to the rival deity, wherever the latter, as is not infrequently the case, is not actually represented as merely another form of the favoured god. Whilst at times a truly monotheistic fervour manifests itself in the adoration of these two gods, the polytheistic instincts of the people did not fail to extend the pantheon by groups of new deities in connexion with them. Two of such new gods actually pass as the sons of Siva and his consort Parvati, viz. Skanda—also called Kumara (the youth), Karttikeya, or Subrahmanya (in the south)—the six-headed war-lord of the gods; and Ganese, the lord (or leader) of Siva’s troupes of attendants, being at the same time the elephant-headed, paunch-bellied god of wisdom; whilst a third, Kama (Kamadeva) or Kandarpa, the god of love, gets his popular epithet of Ananga, “the bodiless,” from his having once, in frolicsome play, tried the power of his arrows upon Siva, whilst engaged in austere practices, when a single glance from the third (forehead) eye of the angry god reduced the mischievous urchin to ashes. For his chief attendant, the great god (Mahadeva, Maheśvara) has already with him the “holy” Nandi—presumably, though his shape is not specified, identical in form as in name with Siva’s sacred bull of later times, the appropriate symbol of the god’s reproductive power. But, in this repect, we also meet in the epics with the first clear evidence of what in after time became the prominent feature of the worship of Siva and his consort all over India, viz. the feature represented by the linga, or phallic symbol.
As regards Vishnu, the epic poems, including the supplement to the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, supply practically the entire framework of legendary matter on which the later Vaishnava creeds are based. The theory of Avataras which makes the deity—also variously called Narayana, Purushottama, or Vasudeva—periodically assume some material form in order to rescue the world from some great calamity, is fully developed; the ten universally recognized “descents” being enumerated in the larger poem. Though Siva, too, assumes various forms, the incarnation theory is peculiarly characteristic of Vaishnavism; and the fact that the principal hero of the Ramayana (Rama), and one of the prominent warriors of the Mahabharata (Krishna) become in this way identified with the supreme god, and remain to this day the chief objects of the adoration of Vaishnava sectaries, naturally imparts to these creeds a human interest and sympathetic aspect which is wholly wanting in the worship of Siva. It is, however, unfortunately but too true that in some of these creeds the devotional ardour has developed features of a highly objectionable character.
Even granting the reasonableness of the triple manifestation of the Divine Spirit, how is one to reconcile all these idolatrous practices, this worship of countless gods and godlings, demons and spirits indwelling in every imaginable object round about us, with the pantheistic doctrine of the Ekam Advitiyam, “the One without a Second”? The Indian theosophist would doubtless have little difficulty in answering that question. For him there is only the One Absolute Being, the one reality that is all in all; whilst all the phenomenal existences and occurrences that crowd upon our senses are nothing more than an illusion of the individual soul estranged for a time from its divine source—an illusion only to be dispelled in the end by the soul’s fuller knowledge of its own true nature and its being one with the eternal fountain of blissful being. But to the man of ordinary understanding, unused to the rarefied atmosphere of abstract thought, this conception of a transcendental, impersonal Spirit and the unreality of the phenomenal world can have no meaning: what he requires is a deity that stands in intimate relation to things material and to all that affects man’s life. Hence the exoteric theory of manifestations of the Supreme Spirit; and that not only the manifestations implied in the triad of gods representing the cardinal processes of mundane existence—creation, preservation, and destruction or regeneration—but even such as would tend to supply a rational explanation for superstitious imaginings of every kind. For “the Indian philosophy does not ignore or hold aloof from the religion of the masses: it underlies, supports and interprets their polytheism. This may be accounted the keystone of the fabric of Brahmanism, which accepts and even encourages the rudest forms of idolatry, explaining everything by giving it a higher meaning. It treats all the worships as outward, visible signs of some spiritual truth, and is ready to show how each particular image or rite is the symbol of some aspect of universal divinity. The Hindus, like the pagans of antiquity, adore natural objects and forces—a mountain, a river or an animal. The Brahman holds all nature to be the vesture or cloak of indwelling, divine energy, which inspires everything that produces awe or passes man’s understanding” (Sir Alfred C. Lyall, Brahminism).
During the early centuries of our era, whilst Buddhism, where countenanced by the political rulers, was still holding its own by the side of Brahmanism, sectarian belief in the Hindu gods seems to have made steady progress. The caste-system, Sectarianism. always calculated to favour unity of religious practice within its social groups, must naturally have contributed to the advance of sectarianism. Even greater was the support it received later on from the Puranas, a class of poetical works of a partly legendary, partly discursive and controversial character, mainly composed in the interest of special deities, of which eighteen principal (maha-purana) and as many secondary ones (upa-purana) are recognized, the oldest of which may go back to about the 4th century of our era. It was probably also during this period that the female element was first definitely admitted to a prominent place amongst the divine objects of sectarian worship, in the shape of the wives of the principal gods viewed as their sakti, or female energy, theoretically identified with the Maya, or cosmic Illusion, of the idealistic Vedanta, and the Prakriti, or plastic matter, of the materialistic Sankhya philosophy, as the primary source of mundane things. The connubial relations of the deities may thus be considered “to typify the mystical union of the two eternal principles, spirit and matter, for the production and reproduction of the universe.” But whilst this privilege of divine worship was claimed for the consorts of all the gods, it is principally to Siva’s consort, in one or other of her numerous forms, that adoration on an extensive scale came to be offered by a special sect of votaries, the Saktas.
In the midst of these conflicting tendencies, an attempt was made, about the latter part of the 8th century, by the distinguished Malabar theologian and philosopher Sankara Acharya to restore the Brahmanical creed to Sankara. something like its pristine purity, and thus once more to bring about a uniform system of orthodox Hindu belief. Though himself, like most Brahmans, apparently by predilection a follower of Siva, his aim was the revival of the doctrine of the Brahma as the one self-existent Being and the sole cause of the universe; coupled with the recognition of the practical worship of the orthodox pantheon, especially the gods of the Trimurti, as manifestations of the supreme deity. The practical result of his labours was the foundation of a new sect, the Smartas, i.e. adherents of the smriti or tradition, which has a numerous following amongst southern Brahmans, and, whilst professing Sankara’s doctrines, is usually classed as one of the Saiva sects, its members adopting the horizontal sectarial mark peculiar to Saivas, consisting in their case of a triple line, the tripundra, prepared from the ashes of burnt cow-dung and painted on the forehead. Sankara also founded four Maths, or convents, for Brahmans; the chief one being that of Sringeri in Mysore, the spiritual head (Guru) of which wields considerable power, even that of excommunication, over the Saivas of southern India. In northern India, the professed followers of Sankara are mainly limited to certain classes of mendicants and ascetics, although the tenets of this great Vedanta teacher may be said virtually to constitute the creed of intelligent Brahmans generally.
Whilst Sankara’s chief title to fame rests on his philosophical works, as the upholder of the strict monistic theory of Vedanta, he doubtless played an important part in the partial remodelling of the Hindu system of belief at a time when Buddhism was rapidly losing ground in India. Not that there is any evidence of Buddhists ever having been actually persecuted by the Brahmans, or still less of Sankara himself ever having done so; but the traditional belief in some personal god, as the principal representative of an invisible, all-pervading deity, would doubtless appeal more directly to the minds and hearts of the people than the colourless ethical system promulgated by the Sakya saint. Nor do Buddhist places of worship appear as a rule to have been destroyed by Hindu sectaries, but they seem rather to have been taken over by them for their own religious uses; at any rate there are to this day not a few Hindu shrines, especially in Bengal, dedicated to Dharmaraj, “the prince of righteousness,” as the Buddha is commonly styled. That the tenets and practices of so characteristic a faith as Buddhism, so long prevalent in India, cannot but have left their marks on Hindu life and belief may readily be assumed, though it is not so easy to lay one’s finger on the precise features that might seem to betray such an influence. If the general tenderness towards animals, based on the principle of ahimsa, or inflicting no injury on sentient beings, be due to Buddhist teaching, that influence must have made itself felt at a comparatively early period, seeing that sentiments of a similar nature are repeatedly urged in the Code of Manu. Thus, in v. 46-48, “He who does not willingly cause the pain of confinement and death to living beings, but desires the good of all, obtains endless bliss. He who injures no creature obtains without effort what he thinks of, what he strives for, and what he fixes his mind on. Flesh-meat cannot be procured without injury to animals, and the slaughter of animals is not conducive to heavenly bliss: from flesh-meat, therefore, let man abstain.” Moreover, in view of the fact that Jainism, which originated about the same time as Buddhism, inculcates the same principle, even to an extravagant degree, it seems by no means improbable that the spirit of kindliness towards living beings generally was already widely diffused among the people when these new doctrines were promulgated. To the same tendency doubtless is due the gradual decline and ultimate discontinuance of animal sacrifices by all sects except the extreme branch of Sakti-worshippers. In this respect, the veneration shown to serpents and monkeys has, however, to be viewed in a somewhat different light, as having a mythical background; whilst quite a special significance attaches to the sacred character assigned to the cow by all classes of Hindus, even those who are not prepared to admit the claim of the Brahman to the exalted position of the earthly god usually conceded to him. In the Veda no tendency shows itself as yet towards rendering divine honour to the cow; and though the importance assigned her in an agricultural community is easily understood, still the exact process of her deification and her identification with the mother earth in the time of Manu and the epics requires further elucidation. An idealized type of the useful quadruped—likewise often identified with the earth—presents itself in the mythical Cow of Plenty, or “wish-cow” (Kamadhenu, or Kamadugha, i.e. wish-milker), already appearing in the Atharvaveda, and in epic times assigned to Indra, or identified with Surabhi, “the fragrant,” the sacred cow of the sage Vasishtha. Possibly the growth of the legend of Krishna—his being reared at Gokula (cow-station); his tender relations to the gopis, or cow-herdesses, of Vrindavana; his epithets Gopala, “the cowherd,” and Govinda, “cow-finder,” actually explained as “recoverer of the earth” in the great epic, and the go-loka, or “cow-world,” assigned to him as his heavenly abode—may have some connexion with the sacred character ascribed to the cow from early times.
Since the time of Sankara, or for more than a thousand years, the gods Vishnu and Siva, or Hari and Hara as they are also commonly called—with their wives, especially that of the latter god—have shared between them the Worship. practical worship of the vast majority of Hindus. But, though the people have thus been divided between two different religious camps, sectarian animosity has upon the whole kept within reasonable limits. In fact, the respectable Hindu, whilst owning special allegiance to one of the two gods as his ishṭā devatā (favourite deity), will not withhold his tribute of adoration from the other gods of the pantheon. The high-caste Brahman will probably keep at his home a śālagrām stone, the favourite symbol of Vishnu, as well as the characteristic emblems of Siva and his consort, to both of which he will do reverence in the morning; and when he visits some holy place of pilgrimage, he will not fail to pay his homage at both the Saiva and the Vaishnava shrines there. Indeed, “sectarian bigotry and exclusiveness are to be found chiefly among the professional leaders of the modern brotherhoods and their low-caste followers, who are taught to believe that theirs are the only true gods, and that the rest do not deserve any reverence whatever” (Jog. Nath). The same spirit of toleration shows itself in the celebration of the numerous religious festivals. Whilst some of these—e.g. the Sankranti (called Pongal, i.e. “boiled rice,” in the south), which marks the entrance of the sun into the sign of Capricorn and the beginning of its northward course (uttarāyana) on the 1st day of the month Māgha (c. Jan. 12); the Gaṇeśa-caturthī, or 4th day of the light fortnight of Bhadra (August-September), considered the birthday of Ganesa, the god of wisdom; and the Holi, the Indian Saturnalia in the month of Phālgunḁ (February to March)—have nothing of a sectarian tendency about them; others again, which are of a distinctly sectarian character—such as the Krishna-janmāshṭamī, the birthday of Krishna on the 8th day of the dark half of Bhadra, or (in the south) of Śrāvaṇa (July-August), the Durga-puja and the Dipavali, or lamp feast, celebrating Krishna’s victory over the demon Narakasura, on the last two days of Aśvina (September-October)—are likewise observed and heartily joined in by the whole community irrespective of sect. Widely different, however, as is the character of the two leading gods are also the modes of worship practised by their votaries.
Siva has at all times been the favourite god of the Brahmans, and his worship is accordingly more widely extended than that of his rival, especially in southern India. Indeed there is hardly a village in India which cannot boast of a shrine dedicated to Siva, and containing the emblem of his reproductive power; for almost the only form in which the “Great God” is adored is the Linga, consisting usually of an upright cylindrical block of marble or other stone, mostly resting on a circular perforated slab. The mystic nature of these emblems seems, however, to be but little understood by the common people; and, as H. H. Wilson remarks, “notwithstanding the acknowledged purport of this worship, it is but justice to state that it is unattended in Upper India by any indecent or indelicate ceremonies, and it requires a rather lively imagination to trace any resemblance in its symbols to the objects they are supposed to represent.” In spite, however, of its wide diffusion, and the vast number of shrines dedicated to it, the worship of Siva has never assumed a really popular character, especially in northern India, being attended with scarcely any solemnity or display of emotional spirit. The temple, which usually stands in the middle of a court, is as a rule a building of very moderate dimensions, consisting either of a single square chamber, surmounted by a pyramidal structure, or of a chamber for the linga and a small vestibule. The worshipper, having first circumambulated the shrine as often as he pleases, keeping it at his right-hand side, steps up to the threshold of the sanctum, and presents his offering of flowers or fruit, which the officiating priest receives; he then prostrates himself, or merely lifts his hands—joined so as to leave a hollow space between the palms—to his forehead, muttering a short prayer, and takes his departure. Amongst the many thousands of Lingas, twelve are usually regarded as of especial sanctity, one of which, that of Somnath in Gujarat, where Siva is worshipped as “the lord of Soma,” was, however, shattered by Mahmud of Ghazni; whilst another, representing Siva as Visvesvara, or “Lord of the Universe,” is the chief object of adoration at Benares, the great centre of Siva-worship. The Saivas of southern India, on the other hand, single out as peculiarly sacred five of their temples which are supposed to enshrine as many characteristic aspects (linga) of the god in the form of the five elements, the most holy of these being the shrine of Chidambaram (i.e. “thought-ether”) in S. Arcot, supposed to contain the ether-linga. According to Pandit S. M. Natesa (Hindu Feasts, Fasts and Ceremonies), “the several forms of the god Siva in these sacred shrines are considered to be the bodies or casements of the soul whose natural bases are the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether. The apprehension of God in the last of these five as ether is, according to the Saiva school of philosophy, the highest form of worship, for it is not the worship of God in a tangible form, but the worship of what, to ordinary minds, is vacuum, which nevertheless leads to the attainment of a knowledge of the all-pervading without physical accessories in the shape of any linga, which is, after all, an emblem. That this is the case at Chidambaram is known to every Hindu, for if he ever asks the priests to show him the God in the temple he is pointed to an empty space in the holy of holies, which has been termed the Akasa, or ether-linga.” But, however congenial this refined symbolism may be to the worshipper of a speculative turn of mind, it is difficult to see how it could ever satisfy the religious wants of the common man little given to abstract conceptions of this kind.
From early times, detachment from the world and the practice of austerities have been regarded in India as peculiarly conducive to a spirit of godliness, and ultimately to a state of ecstatic communion with the deity. On these Mendicant orders. grounds it was actually laid down as a rule for a man solicitous for his spiritual welfare to pass the last two of the four stages (āśrama) of his life in such conditions of renunciation and self-restraint. Though there is hardly a sect which has not contributed its share to the element of religious mendicancy and asceticism so prevalent in India, it is in connexion with the Siva-cult that these tendencies have been most extensively cultivated. Indeed, the personality of the stern God himself exhibits this feature in a very marked degree, whence the term mahāyogī or “great ascetic” is often applied to him.
Of Saiva mendicant and ascetic orders, the members of which are considered more or less followers of Sankara Acharya, the following may be mentioned: (1) Daṇḍīs, or staff-bearers, who carry a wand with a piece of red cloth, containing the sacred cord, attached to it, and also wear one or more pieces of cloth of the same colour. They worship Siva in his form of Bhairava, the “terrible.” A sub-section of this order are the Dandi Dasnamis, or Dandi of ten names, so called from their assuming one of the names of Sankara’s four disciples, and six of their pupils. (2) Yogis (or popularly, Jogis), i.e. adherents of the Yoga philosophy and the system of ascetic practices enjoined by it with the view of mental abstraction and the supposed attainment of superhuman powers—practices which, when not merely pretended, but rigidly carried out, are only too apt to produce vacuity of mind and wild fits of frenzy. In these degenerate days their supernatural powers consist chiefly in conjuring, sooth-saying, and feats of jugglery, by which they seldom fail in imposing upon a credulous public. (3) Sannyasis, devotees who “renounce” earthly concerns, an order not confined either to the Brahmanical caste or to the Saiva persuasion. Those of the latter are in the habit of smearing their bodies with ashes, and wearing a tiger-skin and a necklace or rosary of rudraksha berries (Elaeocarpus Ganitrus, lit. “Rudra’s eye”), sacred to Siva, and allowing their hair to grow till it becomes matted and filthy. (4) Parama-hamsas, i.e. “supreme geese (or swans),” a term applied to the world-soul with which they claim to be identical. This is the highest order of asceticism, members of which are supposed to be solely engaged in meditating on the Brahma, and to be “equally indifferent to pleasure or pain, insensible of heat or cold, and incapable of satiety or want.” Some of them go about naked, but the majority are clad like the Dandis. (5) Aghora Panthis, a vile and disreputable class of mendicants, now rarely met with. Their filthy habits and disgusting practices of gross promiscuous feeding, even to the extent of eating offal and dead men’s flesh, look almost like a direct repudiation of the strict Brahmanical code of ceremonial purity and cleanliness, and of the rules regulating the matter and manner of eating and drinking; and they certainly make them objects of loathing and terror wherever they are seen.
On the general effect of the manner of life led by Sadhus or “holy men,” a recent observer (J. C. Oman, Mystics, Ascetics and Saints of India, p. 273) remarks: “Sadhuism, whether perpetuating the peculiar idea of the efficiency of austerities for the acquisition of far-reaching powers over natural phenomena, or bearing its testimony to the belief in the indispensableness of detachment from the world as a preparation for the ineffable joy of ecstatic communion with the Divine Being, has undoubtedly tended to keep before men’s eyes, as the highest ideal, a life of purity, self-restraint, and contempt of the world and human affairs. It has also necessarily maintained amongst the laity a sense of the righteous claims of the poor upon the charity of the more affluent members of the community. Moreover, sadhuism, by the multiplicity of the independent sects which have arisen in India, has engendered and favoured a spirit of tolerance which cannot escape the notice of the most superficial observer.”
An independent Saiva sect, or, indeed, the only strictly
Saiva sect, are the Vīra Śaivas, more commonly called Lingayats
(popularly Lingaits) or Lingavats, from their
practice of wearing on their person a phallic emblem
of Siva, made of copper or silver, and usually enclosed
in a case suspended from the neck by a string. Apparently from
the movable nature of their badge, their Gurus are called Jangamas
(“movable”). This sect counts numerous adherents in
southern India; the Census Report of 1901 recording nearly
a million and a half, including some 70 or 80 different, mostly
endogamous, castes. The reputed founder, or rather reformer,
of the sect was Basava (or Basaba), a Brahman of the Belgaum
district who seems to have lived in the 11th or 12th century.
According to the Basava-purana he early in life renounced his
caste and went to reside at Kalyana, then the capital of the
Chalukya kingdom, and later on at Sangamesvara near Ratnagiri,
where he was initiated into the Vīra Śaiva faith which he
subsequently made it his life’s work to propagate. His doctrine,
which may be said to constitute a kind of reaction against the
severe sacerdotalism of Sankara, has spread over all classes of
the southern community, most of the priests of Saiva temples
there being adherents of it; whilst in northern India its votaries
are only occasionally met with, and then mostly as mendicants,
leading about a neatly caparisoned bull as representing Siva’s
sacred bull Nandi. Though the Lingayats still show a certain
animosity towards the Brahmans, and in the Census lists are
s as an independent group beside the Hindus,
still they can hardly be excluded from the Hindu community,
and are sure sooner or later to find their way back to the
Vishnu, whilst less popular with Brahmans than his rival, has from early times proved to the lay mind a more attractive object of adoration on account of the genial and, so to speak, romantic character of his mythical personality. Avatars. It is not, however, so much the original figure of the god himself that enlists the sympathies of his adherents as the additional elements it has received through the theory of periodical “descents” (avatāra) or incarnations applied to this deity. Whilst the Saiva philosophers do not approve of the notion of incarnations, as being derogatory to the dignity of the deity, the Brahmans have nevertheless thought fit to adopt it as apparently a convenient expedient for bringing certain tendencies of popular worship within the pale of their system, and probably also for counteracting the Buddhist doctrines; and for this purpose Vishnu would obviously offer himself as the most attractive figure in the Brahmanical trinity. Whether the incarnation theory started from the original solar nature of the god suggestive of regular visits to the world of men, or in what other way it may have originated, must remain doubtful. Certain, however, it is that at least one of his Avatars is clearly based on the Vedic conception of the sun-god, viz. that of the dwarf who claims as much ground as he can cover by three steps, and then gains the whole universe by his three mighty strides. Of the ten or more Avatars, assumed by different authorities, only two have entered to any considerable extent into the religious worship of the people, viz. those of Rama (or Ramachandra) and Krishna, the favourite heroes of epic romance. That these two figures would appeal far more strongly to the hearts and feelings of the people, especially the warlike Kshatriyas, than the austere Siva is only what might have been expected; and, indeed, since the time of the epics their cult seems never to have lacked numerous adherents. But, on the other hand, the essentially human nature of these two gods would naturally tend to modify the character of the relations between worshipper and worshipped, and to impart to the modes and forms of adoration features of a more popular and more human kind. And accordingly it is exactly in connexion with these two incarnations of Vishnu, especially that of Krishna, that a new spirit was infused into the religious life of the people by the sentiment of fervent devotion to the deity, as it found expression in certain portions of the epic poems, especially the Bhagavadgita, and in the Bhagavata-purana (as against the more orthodox Vaishnava works of this class such as the Vishnu-purana), and was formulated into a regular doctrine of faith in the Sandilya-sutra, and ultimately translated into practice by the Vaishnava reformers.
The first successful Vaishnava reaction against Sankara’s reconstructed creed was led by Ramanuja, a southern Brahman of the 12th century. His followers, the Ramanujas, or Sri-Vaishnavas as they are usually called, worship Ramanujas. Vishnu (Narayana) with his consort Sri or Lakshmi (the goddess of beauty and fortune), or their incarnations Rama with Sita and Krishna with Rukmini. Ramanuja’s doctrine, which is especially directed against the Linga-worship, is essentially based on the tenets of an old Vaishnava sect, the Bhagavatas or Pancharatras, who worshipped the Supreme Being under the name of Vasudeva (subsequently identified with Krishna, as the son of Vasudeva, who indeed is credited by some scholars with the foundation of that monotheistic creed). The sectarial mark of the Ramanujas resembles a capital U (or, in the case of another division, a Y), painted with a white clay called gopi-chandana, between the hair and the root of the nose, with a red or yellow vertical stroke (representing the female element) between the two white lines. They also usually wear, like all Vaishnavas, a necklace of tulasī, or basil wood, and a rosary of seeds of the same shrub or of the lotus. Their most important shrines are those of Srirangam near Trichinopoly, Mailkote in Mysore, Dvaraka (the city of Krishna) on the Kathiawar coast, and Jagannath in Orissa; all of them decorated with Vishnu’s emblems, the tulasi plant and salagram stone. The Ramanuja Brahmans are most punctilious in the preparation of their food and in regard to the privacy of their meals, before taking which they have to bathe and put on woollen or silk garments. Whilst Sankara’s mendicant followers were prohibited to touch fire and had to subsist entirely on the charity of Brahman householders, Ramanuja, on the contrary, not only allowed his followers to use fire, but strictly forbade their eating any food cooked, or even seen, by a stranger. On the speculative side, Ramanuja also met Sankara’s strictly monistic theory by another recognizing Vishnu as identical with Brahma as the Supreme Spirit animating the material world as well as the individual souls which have become estranged from God through unbelief, and can only attain again conscious union with him through devotion or love (bhakti). His tenets are expounded in various works, especially in his commentaries on the Vedanta-sutras and the Bhagavadgita. The followers of Ramanuja have split into two sects, a northern one, recognizing the Vedas as their chief authority, and a southern one, basing their tenets on the Nalayir, a Tamil work of the Upanishad order. In point of doctrine, they differ in their view of the relation between God Vishnu and the human soul; whilst the former sect define it by the ape theory, which makes the soul cling to God as the young ape does to its mother, the latter explain it by the cat theory, by which Vishnu himself seizes and rescues the souls as the mother cat does her young ones.
Madhva Acharya, another distinguished Vedanta teacher and founder of a Vaishnava sect, born in Kanara in A.D. 1199, was less intolerant of the Linga cult than Ramanuja, but seems rather to have aimed at a reconciliation of Madhvas. the Saiva and Vaishnava forms of worship. The Madhvas or Madhvacharis favour Krishna and his consort as their special objects of adoration, whilst images of Siva, Parvati, and their son Ganesa are, however, likewise admitted and worshipped in some of their temples, the most important of which is at Udipi in South Kanara, with eight monasteries connected with it. This shrine contains an image of Krishna which is said to have been rescued from the wreck of a ship which brought it from Dvaraka, where it was supposed to have been set up of old by no other than Krishna’s friend Arjuna, one of the five Pandava princes. Followers of the Madhva creed are but rarely met with in Upper India. Their sectarial mark is like the U of the Sri-Vaishnavas, except that their central line is black instead of red or yellow. Madhva—who after his initiation assumed the name Anandatirtha—composed numerous Sanskrit works, including commentaries on the Brahma sutras (i.e. the Vedanta aphorisms), the Gita, the Rigveda and many Upanishads. His philosophical theory was a dualistic one, postulating distinctness of nature for the divine and the human soul, and hence independent existence, instead of absorption, after the completion of mundane existence.
The Ramanandis or Ramavats (popularly Ramats) are a numerous northern sect of similar tenets to those of the Ramanujas. Indeed its founder, Ramananda, who probably flourished in the latter part of the 14th century, Ramats. according to the traditional account, was originally a Sri-Vaishnava monk, and, having come under the suspicion of laxity in observing the strict rules of food during his peregrinations, and been ordered by his superior (Mahant) to take his meals apart from his brethren, left the monastery in a huff and set up a schismatic math of his own at Benares. The sectarial mark of his sect differs but slightly from that of the parent stock. The distinctive features of their creed consist in their making Rama and Sita, either singly or conjointly, the chief objects of their adoration, instead of Vishnu and Lakshmi, and their attaching little or no importance to the observance of privacy in the cooking and eating of their food. Their mendicant members, usually known as Vairagis, are, like the general body of the sect, drawn from all castes without distinction. Thus, the founder’s twelve chief disciples include, besides Brahmans, a weaver, a currier, a Rajput, a Jat and a barber—for, they argue, seeing that Bhagavan, the Holy One (Vishnu), became incarnate even in animal form, a Bhakta (believer) may be born even in the lowest of castes. Ramananda’s teaching was thus of a distinctly levelling and popular character; and, in accordance therewith, the Bhakta-malā and other authoritative writings of the sect are composed, not in Sanskrit, but in the popular dialects. A follower of this creed was the distinguished poet Tulsidas, the composer of the beautiful Hindi version of the Ramayana and other works which “exercise more influence upon the great body of Hindu population than the whole voluminous series of Sanskrit composition” (H. H. Wilson).
The traditional list of Ramananda’s immediate disciples includes the name of Kabir, the weaver, a remarkable man who would accordingly have lived in the latter part of the 15th century, and who is claimed by both Hindus Kabir. and Moslems as having been born within their fold. The story goes that, having been deeply impressed by Ramananda’s teaching, he sought to attach himself to him; and, one day at Benares, in stepping down the ghat at daybreak to bathe in the Ganges, and putting himself in the way of the teacher, the latter, having inadvertently struck him with his foot, uttered his customary exclamation “Ram Ram,” which, being also the initiatory formula of the sect, was claimed by Kabir as such, making him Ramananda’s disciple. Be this as it may, Kabir’s own reformatory activity lay in the direction of a compromise between the Hindu and the Mahommedan creeds, the religious practices of both of which he criticized with equal severity. His followers, the Kabir Panthis (“those following Kabir’s path”), though neither worshipping the gods of the pantheon, nor observing the rites and ceremonial of the Hindus, are nevertheless in close touch with the Vaishnava sects, especially the Ramavats, and generally worship Rama as the supreme deity, when they do not rather address their homage, in hymns and otherwise, to the founder of their creed himself. Whilst very numerous, particularly amongst the low-caste population, in western, central and northern India, resident adherents of Kabir’s doctrine are rare in Bengal and the south; although “there is hardly a town in India where strolling beggars may not be found singing songs of Kabir in the original or as translated into the local dialects.” The mendicants of this creed, however, never actually solicit alms; and, indeed, “the quaker-like spirit of the sect, their abhorrence of all violence, their regard for truth and the inobtrusiveness of their opinions render them very inoffensive members of the state” (H. H. Wilson). The doctrines of Kabir are taught, mostly in the form of dialogues, in numerous Hindi works, composed by his disciples and adherents, who, however, usually profess to give the teacher’s own words.
The peculiar conciliatory tendencies of Kabir were carried on with even greater zeal from the latter part of the 15th century by one of his followers, Nanak Shah, the promulgator of the creed of the Nanak Shahis or Sikhs—i.e. (Sanskr.) sishya, disciples, whose guru, or teacher, he called himself—a peaceful sect at first until, in consequence of Mahommedan persecution, a martial spirit was infused into it by the tenth, and last, guru, Govind Shah, changing it into a political organization. Whilst originally more akin in its principles to the Moslem faith, the sect seems latterly to have shown tendencies towards drifting back to the Hindu pale.
Of Ramananda’s disciples and successors several others, besides Kabir, have established schismatic divisions of their own, which do not, however, offer any very marked differences of creed. The most important of these, the Dadu Panthi sect, founded by Dadu about the year 1600, has a numerous following in Ajmir and Marwar, one section of whom, the Nagas, engage largely in military service, whilst the others are either householders or mendicants. The followers of this creed wear no distinctive sectarial mark or badge, except a skull-cap; nor do they worship any visible image of any deity, the repetition (japa) of the name of Rama being the only kind of adoration practised by them.
Although the Vaishnava sects hitherto noticed, in their adoration of Vishnu and his incarnations, Krishna and Ramachandra, usually associate with these gods their wives, as their saktis, or female energies, the sexual Eroticism and Krishna worship. element is, as a rule, only just allowed sufficient scope to enhance the emotional character of the rites of worship. In some of the later Vaishnava creeds, on the other hand, this element is far from being kept within the bounds of moderation and decency. The favourite object of adoration with adherents of these sects is Krishna with his mate—but not the devoted friend and counsellor of the Pandavas and deified hero of epic song, nor the ruler of Dvaraka and wedded lord of Rukmini, but the juvenile Krishna, Govinda or Bala Gopala, “the cowherd lad,” the foster son of the cowherd Nanda of Gokula, taken up with his amorous sports with the Gopis, or wives of the cowherds of Vrindavana (Brindaban, near Mathura on the Yamuna), especially his favourite mistress Radha or Radhika. This episode in the legendary life of Krishna has every appearance of being a later accretion. After barely a few allusions to it in the epics, it bursts forth full-blown in the Harivansa, the Vishnu-purana, the Narada-Pancharatra and the Bhagavata-purana, the tenth canto of which, dealing with the life of Krishna, has become, through vernacular versions, especially the Hindi Prem-sagar, or “ocean of love,” a favourite romance all over India, and has doubtless helped largely to popularize the cult of Krishna. Strange to say, however, no mention is as yet made by any of these works of Krishna’s favourite Radha; it is only in another Purana—though scarcely deserving that designation—that she makes her appearance, viz. in the Brahma-vaivarta, in which Krishna’s amours in Nanda’s cow-station are dwelt upon in fulsome and wearisome detail; whilst the poet Jayadeva, in the 12th century, made her love for the gay and inconstant boy the theme of his beautiful, if highly voluptuous, lyrical drama, Gita-govinda.
The earliest of the sects which associate Radha with Krishna in their worship is that of the Nimavats, founded by Nimbaditya or Nimbarka (i.e. “the sun of the Nimba tree”), a teacher of uncertain date, said to have been a Telugu Brahman who subsequently established himself at Mathura (Muttra) on the Yamuna, where the headquarters of his sect have remained ever since. The Mahant of their monastery at Dhruva Kshetra near Mathura, who claims direct descent from Nimbarka, is said to place the foundation of that establishment as far back as the 5th century—doubtless an exaggerated claim; but if Jayadeva, as is alleged, and seems by no means improbable, was really a follower of Nimbarka, this teacher must have flourished, at latest, in the early part of the 12th century. He is indeed taken by some authorities to be identical with the mathematician Bhaskara Acharya, who is known to have completed his chief work in A.D. 1150. It is worthy of remark, in this respect, that—in accordance with Ramanuja’s and Nimbarka’s philosophical theories—Jayadeva’s presentation of Krishna’s fickle love for Radha is usually interpreted in a mystical sense, as allegorically depicting the human soul’s striving, through love, for reunion with God, and its ultimate attainment, after many backslidings, of the longed-for goal. As the chief authority of their tenets, the Nimavats recognize the Bhagavata-purana; though several works, ascribed to Nimbarka—partly of a devotional character and partly expository of Vedanta topics—are still extant. Adherents of this sect are fairly numerous in northern India, their frontal mark consisting of the usual two perpendicular white lines, with, however, a circular black spot between them.
Of greater importance than the sect just noticed, because of their far larger following, are the two sects founded early in the 16th century by Vallabha (Ballabha) Acharya and Chaitanya. In the forms of worship favoured by votaries of these creeds the emotional and erotic elements are allowed yet freer scope than in those that preceded them; and, as an effective auxiliary to these tendencies, the use of the vernacular dialects in prayers and hymns of praise takes an important part in the religious service. The Vallabhacharis, or, as they are usually called, from the title of their spiritual heads, the Gokulastha Gosains, i.e. “the cow-lords (gosvamin) residing in Gokula,” are very numerous in western and central India. Vallabha, the son of a Telinga Brahman, after extensive journeyings all over India, settled at Gokula near Mathura, and set up a shrine with an image of Krishna Gopala. About the year 1673, in consequence of the fanatical persecutions of the Mogul emperor, this image was transferred to Nathdvara in Udaipur (Mewar), where the shrine of Srinatha (“the lord of Sri,” i.e. Vishnu) continues to be the chief centre of worship for adherents of this creed; whilst seven other images, transferred from Mathura at the same time, are located at different places in Rajputana. Vallabha himself went subsequently to reside at Benares, where he died. In the doctrine of this Vaishnava prophet, the adualistic theory of Sankara is resorted to as justifying a joyful and voluptuous cult of the deity. For, if the human soul is identical with God, the practice of austerities must be discarded as directed against God, and it is rather by a free indulgence of the natural appetites and the pleasures of life that man’s love for God will best be shown. The followers of his creed, amongst whom there are many wealthy merchants and bankers, direct their worship chiefly to Gopal Lal, the boyish Krishna of Vrindavana, whose image is sedulously attended like a revered living person eight times a day—from its early rising from its couch up to its retiring to repose at night. The sectarial mark of the adherents consists of two red perpendicular lines, meeting in a semicircle at the root of the nose, and having a round red spot painted between them. Their principal doctrinal authority is the Bhagavata-purana, as commented upon by Vallabha himself, who was also the author of several other Sanskrit works highly esteemed by his followers. In this sect, children are solemnly admitted to full membership at the early age of four, and even two, years of age, when a rosary, or necklace, of 108 beads of basil (tulsi) wood is passed round their necks, and they are taught the use of the octo-syllabic formula Sri-Krishnah saranam mama, “Holy Krishna is my refuge.” Another special feature of this sect is that their spiritual heads, the Gosains, also called Maharajas, so far from submitting themselves to self-discipline and austere practices, adorn themselves in splendid garments, and allow themselves to be habitually regaled by their adherents with choice kinds of food; and being regarded as the living representatives of the “lord of the Gopis” himself, they claim and receive in their own persons all acts of attachment and worship due to the deity, even, it is alleged, to the extent of complete self-surrender. In the final judgment of the famous libel case of the Bombay Maharajas, before the Supreme Court of Bombay, in January 1862, these improprieties were severely commented upon; and though so unsparing a critic of Indian sects as Jogendra Nath seems not to believe in actual immoral practices on the part of the Maharajas, still he admits that “the corrupting influence of a religion, that can make its female votaries address amorous songs to their spiritual guides, must be very great.”
A modern offshoot of Vallabha’s creed, formed with the avowed object of purging it of its objectionable features, was started, in the early years of the 19th century, by Sahajananda, a Brahman of the Oudh country, who subsequently assumed the name of Svami Narayana. Having entered on his missionary labours at Ahmadabad, and afterwards removed to Jetalpur, where he had a meeting with Bishop Heber, he subsequently settled at the village of Wartal, to the north-west of Baroda, and erected a temple to Lakshmi-Narayana, which, with another at Ahmadabad, forms the two chief centres of the sect, each being presided over by a Maharaja. Their worship is addressed to Narayana, i.e. Vishnu, as the Supreme Being, together with Lakshmi, as well as to Krishna and Radha. The sect is said to be gaining ground in Gujarat. Chaitanya, the founder of the great Vaishnava sect of Bengal, was the son of a high-caste Brahman of Nadiya, the famous Bengal seat of Sanskrit learning, where he was born in 1485, two years after the birth of Martin Luther, the German reformer. Having married in due time, and a second time after the death of his first wife, he lived as a “householder” (grihastha) till the age of 24, when he renounced his family ties and set out as a religious mendicant (vairagin), visiting during the next six years the principal places of pilgrimage in northern India, and preaching with remarkable success his doctrine of Bhakti, or passionate devotion to Krishna, as the Supreme Deity. He subsequently made over to his principal disciples the task of consolidating his community, and passed the last twelve years of his life at Puri in Orissa, the great centre of the worship of Vishnu as Jagannatha, or “lord of the world,” which he remodelled in accordance with his doctrine, causing the mystic songs of Jayadeva to be recited before the images in the morning and evening as part of the daily service; and, in fact, as in the other Vaishnava creeds, seeking to humanize divine adoration by bringing it into accord with the experience of human love. To this end, music, dancing, singing-parties (sankirtan), theatricals—in short anything calculated to produce the desired impression—would prove welcome to him. His doctrine of Bhakti distinguishes five grades of devotional feeling in the Bhaktas, or faithful adherents: viz. (santi) calm contemplation of the deity; (dasya) active servitude; (sakhya) friendship or personal regard; (vatsalya) tender affection as between parents and children; (madhurya) love or passionate attachment, like that which the Gopis felt for Krishna. Chaitanya also seems to have done much to promote the celebration on an imposing scale of the great Puri festival of the Ratha-yatra, or “car-procession,” in the month of Ashadha, when, amidst multitudes of pilgrims, the image of Krishna, together with those of his brother Balarama and his sister Subhadra, is drawn along, in a huge car, by the devotees. Just as this festival was, and continues to be, attended by people from all parts of India, without distinction of caste or sex, so also were all classes, even Mahommedans, admitted by Chaitanya as members of his sect. Whilst numerous observances are recommended as more or less meritorious, the ordinary form of worship is a very simple one, consisting as it does mainly of the constant repetition of names of Krishna, or Krishna and Radha, which of itself is considered sufficient to ensure future bliss. The partaking of flesh food and spirituous liquor is strictly prohibited. By the followers of this sect, also, an extravagant degree of reverence is habitually paid to their gurus or spiritual heads. Indeed, Chaitanya himself, as well as his immediate disciples, have come to be regarded as complete or partial incarnations of the deity to whom adoration is due, as to Krishna himself; and their modern successors, the Gosains, share to the fullest extent in the devout attentions of the worshippers. Chaitanya’s movement, being chiefly directed against the vile practices of the Saktas, then very prevalent in Bengal, was doubtless prompted by the best and purest of intentions; but his own doctrine of divine, though all too human, love was, like that of Vallabha, by no means free from corruptive tendencies,—yet, how far these tendencies have worked their way, who would say? On this point, Dr W. W. Hunter—who is of opinion that “the death of the reformer marks the beginning of the spiritual decline of Vishnu-worship,” observes (Orissa, i. 111), “The most deplorable corruption of Vishnu-worship at the present day is that which has covered the temple walls with indecent sculptures, and filled its innermost sanctuaries with licentious rites” . . . yet . . . “it is difficult for a person not a Hindu to pronounce upon the real extent of the evil. None but a Hindu can enter any of the larger temples, and none but a Hindu priest really knows the truth about their inner mysteries”; whilst the well-known native scholar Babu Rajendralal Mitra points out (Antiquities of Orissa, i. 111) that “such as they are, these sculptures date from centuries before the birth of Chaitanya, and cannot, therefore, be attributed to his doctrines or to his followers. As a Hindu by birth, and a Vaishnava by family religion, I have had the freest access to the innermost sanctuaries and to the most secret of scriptures. I have studied the subject most extensively, and have had opportunities of judging which no European can have, and I have no hesitation in saying that, ‘the mystic songs’ of Jayadeva and the ‘ocean of love’ notwithstanding, there is nothing in the rituals of Jagannatha which can be called licentious.” Whilst in Chaitanya’s creed, Krishna, in his relations to Radha, remains at least theoretically the chief partner, an almost inevitable step was taken by some minor sects in attaching the greater importance to the female element, and making Krishna’s love for his mistress the guiding sentiment of their faith. Of these sects, it will suffice to mention that of the Radha-Vallabhis, started in the latter part of the 16th century, who worship Krishna as Radha-vallabha, “the darling of Radha.” The doctrines and practices of these sects clearly verge upon those obtaining in the third principal division of Indian sectarians which will now be considered.
The Saktas, as we have seen, are worshippers of the sakti, or the female principle as a primary factor in the creation and reproduction of the universe. And as each of the principal gods is supposed to have associated with him his own Saktas. particular sakti, as an indispensable complement enabling him to properly perform his cosmic functions, adherents of this persuasion might be expected to be recruited from all sects. To a certain extent this is indeed the case; but though Vaishnavism, and especially the Krishna creed, with its luxuriant growth of erotic legends, might have seemed peculiarly favourable to a development in this direction, it is practically only in connexion with the Saiva system that an independent cult of the female principle has been developed; whilst in other sects—and, indeed, in the ordinary Saiva cult as well—such worship, even where it is at all prominent, is combined with, and subordinated to, that of the male principle. What has made this cult attach itself more especially to the Saiva creed is doubtless the character of Siva as the type of reproductive power, in addition to his function as destroyer which, as we shall see, is likewise reflected in some of the forms of his Sakti. The theory of the god and his Sakti as cosmic principles is perhaps already foreshadowed in the Vedic couple of Heaven and Earth, whilst in the speculative treatises of the later Vedic period, as well as in the post-Vedic Brahmanical writings, the assumption of the self-existent being dividing himself into a male and a female half usually forms the starting-point of cosmic evolution. In the later Saiva mythology this theory finds its artistic representation in Siva’s androgynous form of Ardha-narisa, or “half-woman-lord,” typifying the union of the male and female energies; the male half in this form of the deity occupying the right-hand, and the female the left-hand side. In accordance with this type of productive energy, the Saktas divide themselves into two distinct groups, according to whether they attach the greater importance to the male or to the female principle; viz. the Dakshinacharis, or “right-hand-observers” (also called Dak-shina-margis, or followers “of the right-hand path”), and the Vamacharis, or “left-hand-observers” (or Vama-margis, followers “of the left path”). Though some of the Puranas, the chief repositories of sectarian doctrines, enter largely into Sakta topics, it is only in the numerous Tantras that these are fully and systematically developed. In these works, almost invariably composed in the form of a colloquy, Siva, as a rule, in answer to questions asked by his consort Parvati, unfolds the mysteries of this occult creed.
The principal seat of Sakta worship is the north-eastern part of India—Bengal, Assam and Behar. The great majority of its adherents profess to follow the right-hand practice; and apart from the implied purport and the emblems of the cult, their mode of adoration does not seem to offer any very objectionable features. And even amongst the adherents of the left-hand mode of worship, many of these are said to follow it as a matter of family tradition rather than of religious conviction, and to practise it in a sober and temperate manner; whilst only an extreme section—the so-called Kaulas or Kulinas, who appeal to a spurious Upanishad, the Kaulopanishad, as the divine authority of their tenets—persist in carrying on the mystic and licentious rites taught in many of the Tantras. But strict secrecy being enjoined in the performance of these rites, it is not easy to check any statements made on this point. The Sakta cult is, however, known to be especially prevalent—though apparently not in a very extreme form—amongst members of the very respectable Kayastha or writer caste of Bengal, and as these are largely employed as clerks and accountants in Upper India, there is reason to fear that their vicious practices are gradually being disseminated through them.
The divine object of the adoration of the Saktas, then, is Siva’s wife—the Devi (goddess), Mahadevi (great goddess), or Jagan-mata (mother of the world)—in one or other of her numerous forms, benign or terrible. The forms in which she is worshipped in Bengal are of the latter category, viz. Durga, “the unapproachable,” and Kali, “the black one,” or, as some take it, the wife of Kala, “time,” or death the great dissolver, viz. Siva. In honour of the former, the Durga-puja is celebrated during ten days at the time of the autumnal equinox, in commemoration of her victory over the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura; when the image of the ten-armed goddess, holding a weapon in each hand, is worshipped for nine days, and cast into the water on the tenth day, called the Dasahara, whence the festival itself is commonly called Dasara in western India. Kali, on the other hand, the most terrible of the goddess’s forms, has a special service performed to her, at the Kali-puja, during the darkest night of the succeeding month; when she is represented as a naked black woman, four-armed, wearing a garland of heads of giants slain by her, and a string of skulls round her neck, dancing on the breast of her husband (Mahakala), with gaping mouth and protruding tongue; and when she has to be propitiated by the slaughter of goats, sheep and buffaloes. On other occasions also Vamacharis commonly offer animal sacrifices, usually one or more kids; the head of the victim, which has to be severed by a single stroke, being always placed in front of the image of the goddess as a blood-offering (bali), with an earthen lamp fed with ghee burning above it, whilst the flesh is cooked and served to the guests attending the ceremony, except that of buffaloes, which is given to the low-caste musicians who perform during the service. Even some adherents of this class have, however, discontinued animal sacrifices, and use certain kinds of fruit, such as coco-nuts or pumpkins, instead. The use of wine, which at one time was very common on these occasions, seems also to have become much more restricted; and only members of the extreme section would still seem to adhere to the practice of the so-called five m’s prescribed by some of the Tantras, viz. mamsa (flesh), matsya (fish), madya (wine), maithuna (sexual union), and mudra (mystical finger signs)—probably the most degrading cult ever practised under the pretext of religious worship.
In connexion with the principal object of this cult, Tantric theory has devised an elaborate system of female figures representing either special forms and personifications or attendants of the “Great Goddess.” They are generally arranged in groups, the most important of which are the Mahavidyas (great sciences), the 8 (or 9) Mataras (mothers) or Mahamataras (great mothers), consisting of the wives of the principal gods; the 8 Nayikas or mistresses; and different classes of sorceresses and ogresses, called Yoginis, Dakinis and Sakinis. A special feature of the Sakti cult is the use of obscure Vedic mantras, often changed so as to be quite meaningless and on that very account deemed the more efficacious for the acquisition of superhuman powers; as well as of mystic letters and syllables called bija (germ), of magic circles (chakra) and diagrams (yantra), and of amulets of various materials inscribed with formulae of fancied mysterious import.
This survey of the Indian sects will have shown how little the character of their divine objects of worship is calculated to exert that elevating and spiritualizing influence, so characteristic of true religious devotion. In all General conclusions. but a few of the minor groups religious fervour is only too apt to degenerate into that very state of sexual excitation which devotional exercises should surely tend to repress. If the worship of Siva, despite the purport of his chief symbol, seems on the whole less liable to produce these undesirable effects than that of the rival deity, it is doubtless due partly to the real nature of that emblem being little realized by the common people, and partly to the somewhat repellent character of the “great god,” more favourable to evoking feelings of awe and terror than a spirit of fervid devotion. All the more are, however, the gross stimulants, connected with the adoration of his consort, calculated to work up the carnal instincts of the devotees to an extreme degree of sensual frenzy. In the Vaishnava camp, on the other hand, the cult of Krishna, and more especially that of the youthful Krishna, can scarcely fail to exert an influence which, if of a subtler and more insinuating, is not on that account of a less demoralizing kind. Indeed, it would be hard to find anything less consonant with godliness and divine perfection than the pranks of this juvenile god; and if poets and thinkers try to explain them away by dint of allegorical interpretation, the plain man will not for all their refinements take these amusing adventures any the less au pied de la lettre. No fault, in this respect, can assuredly be found with the legendary Rama, a very paragon of knightly honour and virtue, even as his consort Sita is the very model of a noble and faithful wife; and yet this cult has perhaps retained even more of the character of mere hero-worship than that of Krishna. Since by the universally accepted doctrine of karman (deed) or karmavipaka (“the maturing of deeds”) man himself—either in his present, or some future, existence—enjoys the fruit of, or has to atone for, his former good and bad actions, there could hardly be room in Hindu pantheism for a belief in the remission of sin by divine grace or vicarious substitution. And accordingly the “descents” or incarnations of the deity have for their object, not so much the spiritual regeneration of man as the deliverance of the world from some material calamity threatening to overwhelm it. The generally recognized principal Avatars do not, however, by any means constitute the only occasions of a direct intercession of the deity in worldly affairs, but—in the same way as to this day the eclipses of the sun and moon are ascribed by the ordinary Hindu to these luminaries being temporarily swallowed by the dragon Rahu (or Graha, “the seizer”)—so any uncommon occurrence would be apt to be set down as a special manifestation of divine power; and any man credited with exceptional merit or achievement, or even remarkable for some strange incident connected with his life or death, might ultimately come to be looked upon as a veritable incarnation of the deity, capable of influencing the destinies of man, and might become an object of local adoration or superstitious awe and propitiatory rites to multitudes of people. That the transmigration theory, which makes the spirit of the departed hover about for a time in quest of a new corporeal abode, would naturally lend itself to superstitious notions of this kind can scarcely be doubted. Of peculiar importance in this respect is the worship of the Pitris (“fathers”) or deceased ancestors, as entering largely into the everyday life and family relations of the Hindus. At stated intervals to offer reverential homage and oblations of food to the forefathers up to the third degree is one of the most sacred duties the devout Hindu has to discharge. The periodical performance of the commemorative rite of obsequies called Sraddha—i.e. an oblation “made in faith” (sraddha, Lat. credo)—is the duty and privilege of the eldest son of the deceased, or, failing him, of the nearest relative who thereby establishes his right as next of kin in respect of inheritance; and those other relatives who have the right to take part in the ceremony are called sapinda, i.e. sharing in the pindas (or balls of cooked rice, constituting along with libations of water the usual offering to the Manes)—such relationship being held a bar to intermarriage. The first Sraddha takes place as soon as possible after the antyeshti (“final offering”) or funeral ceremony proper, usually spread over ten days; being afterwards repeated once a month for a year, and subsequently at every anniversary and otherwise voluntarily on special occasions. Moreover, a simple libation of water should be offered to the Fathers twice daily at the morning and evening devotion called sandhya (“twilight”). It is doubtless a sense of filial obligation coupled with sentiments of piety and reverence that gave rise to this practice of offering gifts of food and drink to the deceased ancestors. Hence also frequent allusion is made by poets to the anxious care caused to the Fathers by the possibility of the living head of the family being afflicted with failure of offspring; this dire prospect compelling them to use but sparingly their little store of provisions, in case the supply should shortly cease altogether. At the same time one also meets with frank avowals of a superstitious fear lest any irregularity in the performance of the obsequial rites should cause the Fathers to haunt their old home and trouble the peace of their undutiful descendant, or even prematurely draw him after them to the Pitri-loka or world of the Fathers, supposed to be located in the southern region. Terminating as it usually does with the feeding and feeing of a greater or less number of Brahmans and the feasting of members of the performers’ own caste, the Sraddha, especially its first performance, is often a matter of very considerable expense; and more than ordinary benefit to the deceased is supposed to accrue from it when it takes place at a spot of recognized sanctity, such as one of the great places of pilgrimage like Prayaga (Allahabad, where the three sacred rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati, meet), Mathura, and especially Gaya and Kasi (Benares). But indeed the tirtha-yatra, or pilgrimage to holy bathing-places, is in itself considered an act of piety conferring religious merit in proportion to the time and trouble expended upon it. The number of such places is legion and is constantly increasing. The banks of the great rivers such as the Ganga (Ganges), the Yamuna (Jumna), the Narbada, the Krishna (Kistna), are studded with them, and the water of these rivers is supposed to be imbued with the essence of sanctity capable of cleansing the pious bather of all sin and moral taint. To follow the entire course of one of the sacred rivers from the mouth to the source on one side and back again on the other in the sun-wise (pradakshina) direction—that is, always keeping the stream on one’s right-hand side—is held to be a highly meritorious undertaking which it requires years to carry through. No wonder that water from these rivers, especially the Ganges, is sent and taken in bottles to all parts of India to be used on occasion as healing medicine or for sacramental purposes. In Vedic times, at the Rajasuya, or inauguration of a king, some water from the holy river Sarasvati was mixed with the sprinkling water used for consecrating the king. Hence also sick persons are frequently conveyed long distances to a sacred river to heal them of their maladies; and for a dying man to breathe his last at the side of the Ganges is devoutly believed to be the surest way of securing for him salvation and eternal bliss.
Such probably was the belief of the ordinary Hindu two thousand years ago, and such it remains to this day. In the light of facts such as these, who could venture to say what the future of Hinduism is likely to be? Is the regeneration of India to be brought about by the modern theistic movements, such as the Brahma-samaj and Arya-samaj, as so close and sympathetic an observer of Hindu life and thought as Sir A. Lyall seems to think? “The Hindu mind,” he remarks, “is essentially speculative and transcendental; it will never consent to be shut up in the prison of sensual experience, for it has grasped and holds firmly the central idea that all things are manifestations of some power outside phenomena. And the tendency of contemporary religious discussion in India, so far as it can be followed from a distance, is towards an ethical reform on the old foundations, towards searching for some method of reconciling their Vedic theology with the practices of religion taken as a rule of conduct and a system of moral government. One can already discern a movement in various quarters towards a recognition of impersonal theism, and towards fixing the teaching of the philosophical schools upon some definitely authorized system of faith and morals, which may satisfy a rising ethical standard, and may thus permanently embody that tendency to substitute spiritual devotion for external forms and caste rules which is the characteristic of the sects that have from time to time dissented from orthodox Brahminism.”
Authorities.—Census of India (1901), vol. i. part i.; India, by H. H. Risley and E. A. Gait; vol. i. Ethnographical Appendices, by H. H. Risley; The Indian Empire, vol. i. (new ed., Oxford, 1907); J. Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts (2nd ed., 5 vols., London, 1873); Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India (London, 1883); Modern India and the Indians (London, 1878, 3rd ed. 1879); Hinduism (London, 1877); Sir Alfred C. Lyall, Asiatic Studies (2 series, London, 1899); “Hinduism” in Religious Systems of the World (London, 1904); “Brahminism” in Great Religions of the World (New York and London, 1902); W. J. Wilkins, Modern Hinduism (London, 1887); J. C. Oman, Indian Life, Religious and Social (London, 1879); The Mystics, Ascetics and Saints of India (London, 1903); The Brahmans, Theists and Muslims of India (London, 1907); S. C. Bose, The Hindus as they are (2nd ed., Calcutta, 1883); J. Robson, Hinduism and Christianity (Edinburgh and London, 3rd ed., 1905); J. Murray Mitchell, Hinduism Past and Present (2nd ed., London, 1897); Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, Hindu Castes and Sects (Calcutta, 1896); A. Barth, The Religions of India (London, 1882); E. W. Hopkins, The Religions of India (London, 1896).
- (J. E.)
- “It is, perhaps, by surveying India that we at this day can best represent to ourselves and appreciate the vast external reform worked upon the heathen world by Christianity, as it was organized and executed throughout Europe by the combined authority of the Holy Roman Empire and the Church Apostolic.” Sir Alfred C. Lyall, Asiatic Studies, i. 2.
- Henry Whitehead, D. D., bishop of Madras, The Village Deities of Southern India (Madras, 1907).
- “The effect of caste is to give all Hindu society a religious basis.” Sir A. C. Lyall, Brahmanism.
- Thus, in Berar, “there is a strong non-Aryan leaven in the dregs of the agricultural class, derived from the primitive races which have gradually melted down into settled life, and thus become fused with the general community, while these same races are still distinct tribes in the wild tracts of hill and jungle.” Sir Alfred C. Lyall, As. St., i. 6.
- Siva is said to have first appeared in the beginning of the present age as Sveta, the White, for the purpose of benefiting the Brahmans, and he is invariably painted white; whilst Vishnu, when pictured, is always of a dark-blue colour.
- As in the case of Siva’s traditional white complexion, it may not be without significance, from a racial point of view, that Vishnu, Rama and Krishna have various darker shades of colour attributed to them, viz. blue, hyacinthine, and dark azure or dark brown respectively. The names of the two heroes meaning simply “black” or “dark,” the blue tint may originally have belonged to Vishnu, who is also called pītavasas, dressed in yellow garment, i.e. the colours of sky and sun combined.
- This notion not improbably took its origin in the mystic cosmogonic hymn, Rigv. x. 129, where it is said that—“that one (existent, neutr.) breathed breathless by (or with) its svadha (? inherent power, or nature), beyond that there was nothing whatever . . . that one live (germ) which was enclosed in the void was generated by the power of heat (or fervour); desire then first came upon it, which was the first seed of the mind . . . fertilizing forces there were, svadha below, prayati (? will) above.”