India & Religion
The etymological meaning of the word religion is ‘to bind together’. Indian civilization is one of the longest in world’s history and its mythology traces back into the depth dives. The clues to our knowledge of social and political change clues with the Hindu scholars being least interested in history as such, mythology and sacred lore constitute the sole record. Indians lives with a pride of being rich in their culture, traditions & religion.
Indians have always tried to retain their beliefs and change them from time to time. Over the millennia invaders with superior military powers have approached the Indian subcontinent, mostly from the north-west, and with the exception of Muslims from the eleventh century onwards have been assimilated into but at the same time have influenced the more advanced and deep rooted culture of the peoples they conquered. Deities and the myths attached with them have thus multiplied. The major synthesis of the Aryan or Vedic gods and the native Dravidian deities took shape as the roots of Hinduism. Because this happened under the guidance of the hereditary class of priests and philosophers, the Brahmins, it reinforced the status of priests, stressing the value of their prerogative, the performance of sacrifice, in men’s relations with the gods.
Buddhism was a reform movement rejecting some of the extremes of the Brahmins’ practice. It arose in the fifth century B.C. and held sway among the educated and powerful in northern India from the time of the Maurya emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C. until it’s waning in India in seventh century A.D. By the ninth century A.D. Hinduism was showing a tendency to monotheism by putting far greater emphasis on Shiva and Vishnu as high gods of universal cosmic significance, with worship by bhakti (devotion to god) rather than by sacrifice performed by priests.
At times the influence exerted by the priesthood in India has succeeded, at least among the educated, in transforming the pattern of beliefs. In some cases the changes advocated were no more than a response to the natural evolution of India’s mythology as a consequence of historical circumstances: dynastic changes, invasions, economic conditions and the resultant social setting of the Indian people. Thus, for example, the name ‘asura’, originally applied to Aryan deities such as Varuna, came by the Brahmanic age to refer to demons, albeit powerful ones. Such changes were particularly apt to Alter mythological beliefs, for Indian myths as well as the religions around which they have grown up are closely tied to the social structure. It might be said that this is true of all mythologies but Indian mythology, through its persistence beyond the primitive levels of civilization and into a highly developed and stratified culture, has been able, for instance, to reinforce the doctrines of caste, so that even government disapproval cannot banish it from society.
Muslims incursions into northern India had begun in the early eleventh century and Mahmud of Ghazni ordered the destruction of Hindu and Jain temple art. Although effective Muslim rule was not to come until the early thirteenth century and many shrines were rebuilt, enormous damage was done. Nevertheless, Hindu traditions, with the appeal of syncretistic deities, were all enough established thanks to the Brahmins to survive both in the north in the north and in the south of India, where Muslim influence reached on much later. Jainism survived too, largely in Gujrat and Southern Rajasthan, where its appeal was to artisans and wealthy merchants with the means to patronise it generously; where necessary it became an underground cult whose artists, turning to easily concealed manuscript painting, maintained iconographic traditions despite Muslim rule. Paradoxically Muslim persecution also prompted Hindus to set down their scriptural traditions in more permanent form. Whereas before they had valued and relied chiefly on oral tradition- a factor which in itself encouraged the proliferation of mythology – now they set down the scriptures in illustrated manuscripts. The language used was Sanskrit, the classical Aryan language of the Brahmins (whereas Buddhist texts were also written in a range of vernacular languages). This reinforced the myths contained within the scriptures.
This shows that no one trend was completely dominant is attested by the extreme complexity of Hindu mythology as it exist today, and even more by the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies in the stories concerning practically every deity in the Indian pantheon. There is also a thread of overt anti-Brahminism that runs through some myths. It mirrors the reaction voiced in the Upanishads of the fifth century B.C. and brought to a head b the reform movements of Buddhism and Jainism – against the self-proclaimed superior position of Brahmins, against caste, deities, ritual, sacrifice, and the doctrine which the Brahmins put forward as Samsara, the transmigration of souls, implying endless rebirth into a harsh life. Instead of a religious life based on sacrifice that sought riches, health and long life from the divine power, asceticism or meditation was advocated, with the aim of detachment from the illusions of worldly life and union from the cosmic spirit. Some of the contradictions and in part the great differences that today exist between the beliefs held by the educated and the common people may be traced to the overcomplicated systems evolved.