Hindu beliefs are diverse, inclusive, and very difficult to define. The origins of these beliefs are both ancient and culturally varied, however, there are a number of common elements that enable believers to self-identify as Hindus.

Reference Library

Reference Library

The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality, as though they are about to take a breath.

A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.

Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.

We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It has been written from our personal perspective and,  just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you read, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.


Reference Library2020-01-30T11:45:14-08:00

The Vedas – That Which was Heard

The Vedas – That Which is Heard

Of the entire body of Hindu sacred texts, The Vedas alone are Sruti, ‘that which was heard.’ Embedded within The Vedas are essential treatises on the nature of Atman, our soul, and its relationship to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.

Tradition tells of forest-dwelling sages (rishis) who developed a level of consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ in their hearts the truths of the universe, hence That Which is Heard. The rishis interpreted these truths to create The Vedas, the core of Hindu belief.

Another origin myth says Brahma created The Vedas whole, spreading them throughout the four directions of the cosmos from the four mouths of his four faces (note 1).

However they came to be, The Vedas are consist of four texts, passed down orally from Brahmin father to son before being transcribed into written Sanskrit some 3500 years ago (notes 2 and 3). As Sruti, The Veda’s four books of hymns, rituals, mantras, theology, are deemed scripture and therefore fixed.

Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and a collection of over 1,000 hymns over 10,000 verses, most of which praise one or another of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, etc. Some of the Rig’s verses remain in use today for rites such as mantras, prayers, funerals and weddings. Some scholars believe some of these prayers and rituals are pre-historic; the Agni fire sacrifice being one (note 4).

Sama Veda is the basis for hymns sung using specific melodies derived from the Rig Veda.

Yajur Veda is a compilation of ritual mantras believed to have psychological and spiritual powers. Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the gods and goddesses.

Athar Veda, sometimes called ‘The Veda of magic formulas,’ a compilation of hymns describing esoteric knowledge of things like the treatment of ailments, the making of and defence against spells, domestic rituals such as rites of passage, as well as more in-depth theosophic treatises.

As documents written by mortals, The Vedas have been subject to endless examination, and these observations are set down as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as early and late Upanishads, and all are deemed sacred by association with The Vedas.

While it is The Vedas, which are the foundation of Hindu belief and practice, it is the early Upanishads which elevate its core values. They were extracted from The Vedas over time and continue to evolve to the present day, where they are widely known as the Vedanta. In turn, the philosophical aspects of the Vedanta are discussed at length in the Brahma Sutra, which delves further into the concept of Brahman and Atman, critiques of other dharmic options such as Buddhism and Jainism, advice on achieving moksha through intense meditation and the benefits of spiritual knowledge.

In south India, The Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge) are known as Marai (Tamil for ‘hidden, secret, mystery’) and the core of Hindu belief interpreted from a uniquely Tamil perspective. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu, in particular, bear the hallmarks of ancient pre-Vedic beliefs, possibly due to Harappan origins. South India was spared the turmoil of successive invasions such as those suffered in the north, so the old Vedic beliefs remain cohesive.

In pre-Vedic south India, the elemental forces affecting people’s lives were little understood. Mysterious natural events, such as monsoon rains and disease, were appeased through ritual sacrifice and over time the supernatural powers which oversaw these events took physical form as the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Deities were believed responsible for almost any event beyond the control of individuals and ritual offerings of prayer, flowers and symbolic food items to the gods and goddesses remain fundamental to the practice of Hinduism.

Over a span of centuries ancient Tamil beliefs, practices and mythology were being absorbed into Vedic beliefs and practices, but that process was interrupted in the 8th century AD when  a devotional revolution took place in south India as the Bhakti movement was born. Wandering Tamil poet-saints singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti ignited a new, intimate, personal mode of worship independent of ritual, gender or caste and its focus on a personal connection between worshipper and deity remains the standard practice throughout Hinduism. Temple worship with priestly intermediaries is common, but Bhakti is the preferred mode of worship for daily puja rituals.

Over 600 years, these hymns and poems were compiled as sacred texts, the Triumurai for those devoted to Shiva, and the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, dedicated to Vishnu. They were composed in the Tamil language rather than the Vedic Sanskrit, and their passionate devotional hymns and poetic descriptions of the deities became a guide and reference, not just for Hindu scholars, musicians and dancers, but to Chola bronzesmiths as well.

Note 1 – It is said that Brahma created the seers solely to hear The Vedas and share them with humankind.

Note 2 – As facilitators of temple ritual, young Brahmins were, and are, required to memorize the Vedic hymns and mantras they will perform throughout their lives with subtle nuances of intonation and rhythm. Fastidious cross-checks ensure virtually no errors occur as this sacred knowledge is passed down through generations, and this oral tradition remains strong even today, with one Brahmin family in south India reportedly having passed The Vedas down without error for 3000 years.

Note 3 – Exactly when The Vedas were written down is unknown and likely to remain so. Contemporary Hindu nationalists in India claim The Vedas pre-date any other world religion, but because memory and speech leave no trace, that assertion is impossible to confirm. What no historian disputes, however, is Hinduism’s place as the world’s oldest living religion.

Note 4 – When Shailja and I married, the ceremony involved a series of sacrificial rites in Sanskrit around the temple’s sacred fire, all features of Vedic rituals.

The Vedas – That Which was Heard2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00

The History of Hinduism

The History of Hinduism

The roots of Hinduism may go back as far as 9000 BC to the first indigenous civilizations in the Indus Valley, but as they say, the specifics are “lost in the mists of time.” Very little is known of pre-Vedic indigenous spiritual life in India, but scholars believe they were centred – just as they were for virtually every other indigenous culture – upon natural and cosmic forces such as storms, fire and the sun. These forces were eventually given names and superhuman character traits which would ultimately be absorbed into Vedic worship, as gods with physical form and specific characteristic and responsibilities such as Rudra, Agni and Surya. Much later, elements of Rudra’s characteristics would evolve to become those of Shiva, while Rudra’s importance would wane. Other Vedic gods represented more abstract qualities such as friendship (Mitra) and statecraft (Indra). A similar process applied to many other deities as well. The inclusive nature of Hinduism ensures ancient pre-Vedic beliefs live on as nature spirits, such as yakshas, which still guard springs and trees, while the homes of cobra-like deities, or nagas, such as anthills will often receive offerings of food and flowers (note 1).

While most scholars agree The Vedas would become the authoritative spiritual source of Hinduism (note 2), there is an ongoing debate over whether they originated with the religious beliefs of Aryans or Indus Valley civilizations. The Aryans were multi-ethnic, Sanskrit speaking, tribal nomads from what is now Iran, who moved into the Indus Valley around 4000 BP. The indigenous Indus Valley civilizations, on the other hand, were agriculturists with sophisticated civil engineering technology and extensive sea-going trade networks (note 3). While their writings have yet to be decoded, they likely spoke a Dravidian dialect, which may have formed the basis for the Tamil language (note 4). Aryan religious beliefs were based on ritual sacrifice to deities embodying natural forces such as storms, rain and rivers (Rudra), fire (Agni), and the sun (Surya). Vedic foundations of Hinduism are possibly a synthesis of Aryan and Harappan, beliefs and may have included yogic meditation and the concepts of Shiva and Shakti. The Vedas, in the form of hymns and poems, were passed down orally for thousands of years before being written in Sanskrit between 3700 and 2500 BP. Meanwhile, Aryan hierarchal social structure (varna) grew out of Vedic religious practice and later came to be known as the caste system (note 5).

The period from 1000 BC to 500 AD saw the peak of Vedic spiritual influence in India. As its ritual and practice grew more sophisticated, scholars and sages continued to expand Vedic thought in three further volumes of writings; Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These texts introduced the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, while later Upanishads developed the concept of Atman, the deep inner essence within the individual, and moksha, union with the Ultimate Soul; Brahman. The Vedas now offered an alternative to temple rituals, and it was now possible to worship a personal manifestation of Brahman.

Traditionally, access to The Vedas and performance of their rituals was the exclusive right of the literate upper caste. Brahmin control over access to God led to widespread spiritual dissatisfaction, and the masses began to believe the ritual performance was of less importance than the ritual’s meaning to the individual. A movement (Sramana) gained popularity, which encouraged an internalized spiritual path through personal ascetism, setting the stage around 2600 BP for the birth of Buddhism (note 6) and Jainism (note 7). Buddhism rejected Vedic ritual, seeking moksha through meditation, while Jains rejected the concept of both Brahman and Atman altogether, finding moksha through strict austerity, and by 400 BC, both religions had gained ground on Hinduism. It was reported by a Chinese diplomat that in Kanchipuram, (south India) alone, there were 100 monasteries and 10,000 monks. This was not to last, however, as Hinduism would eventually absorb many Buddhist and Jain principles and practices, and by 1200 AD, Buddhism was on the fringes of south Indian spiritual life.

Devotional practice in south India reflected the passionate nature of the Tamil people and proved to be fertile ground for a renewed burst of spiritual energy known as Bhakti. Beginning about 1400 600 AD ascetic Tamil poets wandered south India, reciting poems and singing devotional hymns of unparalleled beauty and passion, praising Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Devi, the Mother Goddess. These poet-saints espoused a goal of mystical union with God bypassing the Brahmin controlled Vedic temple rituals with its divisions of caste and gender. 

Eight hundred years ago the poetess-saint Mahadeviyakka wrote of her devotion to Shiva in terms not unlike that of a lover to their beloved;

“He bartered my heart, looted my flesh, 

claimed as tribute my pleasure, took over all of me. 

I’m the woman of love, 

for my lord, white as jasmine.”

In the time of the Cholas, most Hindus wouldn’t disagree The Vedas were Hinduism’s spiritual source, though outside of Brahmin priests, very few would live their lives strictly according to Vedic precepts. The majority of popular Hindu practice is ritual worship to one or more or all the gods. Bhakti may be confined to one or two personal Gods, but a worshipper would be quite comfortable, for example, calling upon Ganesha to remove an obstacle in their lives in one moment and in the next to to beseech Boga Shakti to grant them a grandchild. Then as now, when devotees visit a large temple, for instance, they traditionally follow a circuit around the outside the main temple structure offering puja to stone icons, or mulamurti, installed in niches along the walls before they enter the inner temple. Hinduism’s innumerable deities are not deities in their own right but are manifestations of Brahman, The Ultimate Truth and Reality. Each god or goddess is a lens through which the worshipper is offered a brief glimpse of Brahman; therefore, there is no contradiction for a Saivite, for example, to offer devotion to Vishnu or a Devi or a sacred rock at their village well.  

Note 1 – When the primary source of domestic water for so many rural Indians is a well or spring, and when a recent survey of doctors in India showed 46,000 deaths a year by snake bite, perhaps it is understandable that people would like to stay on the right side of yakshas and nagas.

Note 2 – It’s essential to bear in mind The Vedas were created by human beings rather than the literal word of a Creator Deity. They are, therefore, open to interpretation and have been for thousands of years, resulting in a truly vast body of sacred literature, added to and amended up to the present day.

Note 3 – The Harappans were the first in the Indian sub-continent to cast bronze sculpture in about 2500 BC.

Note 4 – Around 1700 BC, the Harappans migrated into south India after the collapse of their Indus Valley Civilisation following a 200-year drought.

Note 5 – Despite the efforts of today’s Indian government to eliminate the caste system, it is so ingrained by 4,000 years of Indian culture that such efforts have been mostly ineffectual. By the way, the word caste comes from the Portuguese word for colour.

Note 6 – The decline of Buddhism in India had more to do with the attraction of participation in social and cultural life rather than the Buddhist doctrine of renouncing and retreating from the world. Today in India, Buddhism is enjoying a modest rise in popularity, primarily due to the conflict of modern human rights values with a patriarchal Vedic caste system.

Note 7 – Jainism, with its extreme austerity, has never enjoyed mainstream popularity, though its beliefs have had a disproportionate effect upon Buddhism and Hinduism.

The History of Hinduism2019-11-07T15:44:34-08:00

The Nature of Brahman

The Nature of Brahman

Brahman is the basis, source and support of everything in the universe. Its nature is Absolute Being (sat), Consciousness (chit), and Bliss (ananda). Brahman is eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, and everything that ever was, is now, or ever will be. Brahman is the Ultimate Reality.

Using mere words to define a concept as vast and complex as Brahman is bound to fail; therefore, Hinduism has developd a reductive device to help us approach and feel connection to that which cannot be comprehended in its entirety.

First, the principle of Brahman is divided into two realities; Brahman itself – unchanging, absolute Truth and absolute Reality; and Maya, the illusion of our perceived reality, an illusion which lives, dies and is reborn on the wheel of time.

Brahman is also divided into characteristics that are deemed male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti), attributes embodying as individual gods and goddesses, each with their own set of responsibilities and temperament as well as a unique human-like physical form. For example, when Shiva embodies the Purusha principle, it is Uma who embodies the Prakriti. 

“Ye yatha mam prapadyante tanstathaiva bhajamyaham.”  

“I come to you in whatever form you worship Me.” 

   Bhagavad Gita 4:11

Generally speaking, the deities are not divine in their own right but specific physical manifestations of Brahman (note 1). A metaphor might be that if Brahman was a vast cosmic diamond, the individual gods and goddesses are facets rather than individual diamonds.

Note 1 – Followers of sects such as Saivites or Vaisnavites or Shaktics, however, may argue their chosen god or goddess is Supreme over all other concepts or manifestations of Brahman.

The Nature of Brahman2019-11-08T05:37:00-08:00

The Puranas and Epics – That Which is Remembered 

The Puranas and Epics – That Which is Remembered

The second category of Hindu sacred text is Smrti, “that which is remembered” of which the Puranas and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are the most influential. Many scholars believe them also to be the richest collections of mythology in the world.

The Puranas There are eighteen major Puranas and several minor ones, each composed of myths and legends of the gods and goddesses, hymns, an outline of ancient Indian history, cosmology, rules of life, rituals, instructions on spiritual matters. They date from 1500 BC in oral form to 500 AD in the written and are semi-sacred remembrances and interpretations which continue to evolve through scholarly debate up to the present day.

The most important Puranas, as they relate to sacred sculpture, are the Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana and Markendeya Purana (The Goddess) and the Bhagavata Purana (Krishna). Other Puranas are Vayu, Agni, Skanda, Kalki, Lingam, all telling stories of the interaction between gods and between gods and mortals. These are the stories that bring the gods to life and render them relevant to the ordinary worshipper.

The Epics The Bhagavad Gita and The Ramayana, remain two of the most influential writings in Hinduism. They remain hugely popular today, and their impact upon Indian culture cannot be overstated (note 1).

The Mahabharata, or Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty, is 1.8 million words divided into 18 books, or parvans, and the most substantial single work of literature in existence, and perhaps the most unstructured and chaotic (note 2). Elements of the Mahabharata may date back to pre-Vedic times around 800 BC, though it probably reached its final form about 500 AD, a time when Hinduism was moving from Vedic sacrificial ritual towards sectarianism with the growing popularity of Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Tradition has the entire epic authored by the sage Vyasa, but it is unlikely the work of one individual (note 3).

The Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” is found in chapters 23 to 40 of Book VI of The Mahabharata. The Gita, as it is popularly known, is a priceless collection of divinely inspired metaphors with many levels of meaning. Perhaps composed around 100 BC, the Gita is relatively brief at 700 verses in 18 chapters and a little more than a fifth of the Mahabharata’s text. As to its other non-Gita content, the Mahabharata reveals early Vaisnava theology, particularly regarding Krishna, and a vast quantity of mythological and instructional material regarding dharma, the moral law supporting society and the universe, as well as svadharma, or individual dharma, which varies according to specific circumstances such as age, gender, place in society, or whether or not that person is seeking moksha or liberation from samsara and rebirth. The wisdom found within the Mahabharata is fundamental to Hindus as a guide to leading a virtuous life, which may be why it is often referred to as ‘The Fifth Veda”.

The Gita’s epic tale takes the form of a conversation between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, Vishnu’s seventh incarnation, on a battlefield before fighting commences (note 4). The battle will decide who will be the next king of Bharata (note 5), Arjuna’s brother or his paternal cousin. Arjuna is torn between his belief in non-violence (ahimsa) and his role as a warrior going into battle against his cousins, friends and teachers. He turns to his friend and charioteer, Krishna, for counsel (note 6) and as their conversation progresses, Krishna reveals himself as divine. Their discussion soon rises to a general discourse on theosophical matters with particular emphasis upon the importance of following one’s Dharma, or social duty. Krishna tells the warrior;

  •  he needs to remain faithful to his personal dharma, or svadharma,
  • Arjuna’s soul, or Atman, will not be destroyed when he dies,
  • his salvation depends upon his knowledge (jnana), work and devotion (Bhakti), and
  • Arjuna’s first loyalty is to God.

These points are expanded upon as the two friends discuss Arjuna’s ethical dilemma. Krishna tells him he must fight detached from the results of his actions and within the rules of the warriors’ dharma. Indeed, not to act according to one’s dharma is wrong. With the right understanding, one need not renounce actions but merely the desire (kama) for the fruits of actions, acting without desire (nishkama karma). Of course, Krishna isn’t speaking to only Arjuna; he is speaking to us all.

By directing Hindus to fulfil their dharma (“better one’s duty ill-done than another’s well-performed. Gita 3:35), the Bhagavadgita bridges the gap between ascetic practice as a path to liberation (Moksha), on the one hand, and life’s daily reality on the other. For those who must live in the world, the Bhagavad Gita gives a moral code and hope for final liberation (Moksha) from the endless cycle of birth, pointless life, death and rebirth. Because God is in all beings as their physical and metaphysical essence, and because God exists collectively in human society, a Hindu should see no difference between themselves and others. They should know that God’s presence in others obliges them to nurture the wellbeing of both individuals and society.

Krishna introduces the philosophy of Samkhya yoga where soul and matter are separate, therefore when the body dies, the Atman will either transmigrate through rebirth or, for those who understand The Vedas, achieve either union with God (Moksha) or extinction (Nirvana). Either way, they are liberated from the wheel of rebirth (Samsara).

Throughout their discussion, Arjuna begins to suspect his friend Krishna may be a god and asks his friend to reveal his true cosmic nature. Krishna gives Arjuna divine sight before assuming Vishvarupa, his universal form, with innumerable forms, eyes, faces, mouths and arms. He is the infinite universe, without beginning or end. Unable to bear the sight, and quaking with fear, Arjuna begs Krishna to return to his previous form, which the god consents to do, resuming his role as his friend.

With Prince Arjuna’s mind clear about what he must do, the battle commences and after culminating in a series of horrific struggles over 18 days on the field of Kurukshetra (about 100 miles northwest of present-day Delhi), only Arjuna, his four brothers and Krishna survive (note 7).

These few paragraphs are a gross oversimplification of Krishna’s contribution to Hinduism in the Gita, just as it unfairly glosses over a dramatic storyline and some very interesting participants. Here’s a link to the complete Bhagavad Gita; http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe08/index.htm

The Ramayana. Tradition has the Ramayana composed by the poet Valmiki between 700 and 500 BC and consists of over 24,000 couplets divided into 500 or so chapters over seven books. The oldest copy was recently discovered and dates from the 6th century AD. Should you wish to read The Ramayana in English, The Beauty of the Valmiki Ramayana by Bibek Debroy is critically acclaimed.

The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the 7th incarnation of Vishnu, who chose to be born into the powerful royal family of Ayodhya of north India. His stepmother, Kaikeyi, plots against him and, to settle a dispute over succession, Rama renounces his claim and accompanied by his bride, Sita, and younger brother Lakshmana, exile themselves from court, where the three live a simple life in the forest for fourteen years. One day Soorpanka, a rakshasa (demon princess), tries to seduce Rama. Lakshmana attacks her, cutting off her ears, nose and breasts. Soorpanka returns to her brother Ravana, the ten-headed ruler of Lanka and after hearing about Sita’s incomparable beauty, Ravana sends one of his demons disguised as a magical golden deer to entice her. Sita sees the deer and asks Rama to capture it for her as a pet. Rama agrees, but before he and Lakshmana leave to chase the deer, draw a protective circle around Sita and tell her, she will be safe as long as she does not step outside the circle. Rama and Lakshmana chase the deer for miles before realizing it’s a trap. After Rama and Lakshmana leave, Ravana appears as a holy man begging alms. The moment Sita steps outside the circle to give him food, Ravana grabs her and carries her off to his kingdom in Lanka. Over the next 14 months, Ravana attempts to seduce Sita but is spurned.

Naturally, Rama and Lakshmana set out to rescue Sita, and in the forests of Kikinda, meet Hanuman, the powerful general of a monkey army. Hanuman’s father is the wind which enables the monkey general to fly to Lanka and find Sita sitting in a grove. Hanuman comforts her, telling her Rama will soon come to save her. Ravana’s men capture Hanuman, and Ravana orders them to wrap Hanuman’s tail in cloth and to set it on fire. Hanuman escapes and, hopping from housetop to housetop, sets Lanka on fire before flying back to Rama with Sita’s whereabouts.

Rama, Lakshmana and Hanuman’s monkey army build a causeway from the tip of India to Lanka and cross over for an epic battle. Rama kills several of Ravana’s brothers and eventually confronts the ten-headed Ravana.

He kills Ravana and frees Sita but is concerned she has been unfaithful during her long captivity. As the dutiful wife, Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her chastity (note 8). Rama takes her back (note 9), and they return to rule Ayodhya.

Note 1 – In 1987-8, it is said that India came to a complete standstill whenever a TV episode of the Ramayana was aired.

Note 2 – In 1919 a project was undertaken by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute to distill the available copies of The Mahabharata into one Critical Edition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhandarkar_Oriental_Research_Institute

Note 3 – One of the Mahabharata’s origin myths says the holy sage, Vyasa, dictated the Mahabharata to Ganesha, who, when his pen broke, snapped off the tip of one of his tusks to serve as a pen to keep the dictation flowing.

Note 4 – Scholars put the date of the battle at around 3000 BC, but this is conjecture as no evidence outside The Gita has been found. 

Note 5 – “Bharata” is synonymous with the term “India.” Indians will often think of themselves as a native of Bharata. 

Note 6 – Whenever demons threaten the stability of the social order, Vishnu incarnates down to earth as a mortal being. Arjuna, at this point, is unaware that his friend and charioteer is Vishnu’s seventh incarnation and therefore divine.

Note 7 – Remember, Krishna was born human and will therefore die. Which is exactly what happened 36 years after the battle when he is mistaken for a deer by a hunter. The arrow hits him in his only vulnerable spot, his heel, and if this sounds familiar, the same fate befell Achilles in Homer’s Illiad. The similarities between the two epics may not be coincidental; there was a great deal of back and forth between classical Greece and India, and it’s entirely possible a copy of The Gita was on Homer’s bookshelf. 

Note 8 – The fire sacrifice is very likely the oldest form of Vedic worship though rather than sacrificing humans, symbolic offerings were – and are – made instead. A possible exception could be the practice of suttee where a wife would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although never widely practiced, among the elites suttee was held to be the epitome of wifely devotion. Suttee has been linked to the myth of the goddess Sati, who burned herself to death in a fire she created through the heat of her yogic power after her father insulted her husband, Shiva. Sati was reborn as Uma/Parvati.

Note 9 – Sita’s role in the Ramayana has historically been held up as the feminine ideal; modest, chaste, innocent and dutiful. The cultural importance of this epic tale and other parables has moulded the feminine role in marriage and society at large for centuries. However, in modern India, Sita, as the wifely role model, is increasingly out of date though in the rural areas in particular there remains a very long way to go.

The Puranas and Epics – That Which is Remembered 2019-11-08T05:36:09-08:00

Tantra

Tantra

The term Tantra is a term applied today to a broad range of exotic and erotic secular activities ranging from fitness yoga to couple’s therapy to pole dancing. Therefore it’s no surprise Tantra has an enthusiastic, though not particularly well-informed following worldwide. It’s safe to say few neo-Tantrists are aware of Tantrism’s deep significance to Indian spiritual practice, particularly the concept of personal connection with one’s chosen deity, or Bhakti. Puja, mudra, Mantra, chakra, mandala, temple architecture and even Chola Bronzes themselves all owe their existence to Tantric belief and practice.

As a matter of semantics, Tantra (tr; loom, warp, weave) is a term referring not so much to beliefs and practice as it does sacred text. These manuscripts were first transcribed from an ancient oral tradition late in the fifth century as the Agamas and Samhitas (note 1). Considered by Tantrikas as superior to orthodox Vedic Hindu and Buddhist scripture, they transcended association with either religious belief. Tantra takes the form of a conversation between the first yogi (Adiyogi) and their disciple. Depending upon their affiliation, some Hindu Tantrikas believe the guru is Shakti (note 2), Shiva or Vishnu. For instance, in Shakti Tantrism, it is Shakti manifesting as Kali who is the guru and Shiva is the disciple, while within Saivite Tantrism, it is Shiva sharing the wisdom of Tantra with Shakti. Buddhist Tantrikas (Vajrayanists), on the other hand, do not believe God manifests as deities; therefore, their Tantra offers a path to enlightenment through the primordial union of the male principle of compassion and the female principal of compassion. The metaphor for this union in iconography is male and female deities in a face to face sexual position with the female sitting within the crossed legs of the male, depicted in an icon known as Yab-Yam.

Fifteen hundred years ago, Tantrism introduced the revolutionary concept of The Divine Within, the idea that God was not a separate entity, but existed within us all (note 3). Traditional orthodox Hindu worship comprises lengthy Vedic rituals directed towards an abstract manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The formless Brahman manifested in physical form as gods and goddesses such as Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesha and others of the Hindu pantheon, however, the deity was always an ‘other,’ to be approached and worshipped as an unworthy supplicant as it was deemed presumptuous for a mortal to attempt a personal connection with a deity. On the other hand, Tantra believed divinity lay within us, lying dormant until energized through elaborate and lengthy ritual purification and preparation. To orthodox Hinduism, this concept was radical and tested the limits of inclusivity. Therefore, Tantric knowledge remained a closely guarded secret known only to the most evolved gurus, and passed down orally to initiates after years of disciplined study and yogic practice (guruparaṃparā).

The Tantric process of awakening the divinity within began with ritual purification of the body through its symbolic destruction. The deity was then awakened with sacred chants (Mantras), hand gestures (mudras) and the creation of sacred diagrams (yantras or mandalas). The newly awakened deity would then be ritually worshipped. It was believed an elaborate hierarchy of the cosmos was reflected like a mirror within the devotee’s body, particularly male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti) polarity, manifesting as the fearsome couple, Shiva Bhairava and Kali (note 4). Their union within the body was primarily visualized while in a deep meditative state; however, some sects believed only actual sex would lead to liberation (moksha). This sacred union was visualized through intense meditation upon Shakti as the flow of the female cosmic life force (prana) (note 4) from its source at the base of the spine (kundalini) upward through channels (nadi) through energy centres (chakras) (note 5) to the so-called “thousand-petaled lotus” (sahasrara) at the crown of the head, resulting in an intense feeling of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being. The devotional ritual concluded with external worship (puja) of Maha Devi, the Great Goddess, a ritual involving all the senses; sight (an image of the deity), sound (bells and chants), smell (flower and incense offerings), touch (the application of fragrant oils or paste to the image), and taste (offerings of food and sweets). Tantric puja, particularly, became standard practice in all forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism by the sixth century (note 6). This new personal style of devotion revolutionized Hindu worship and came to be known as Bhakti. 

The adoption of Tantric-style personal devotion led to the creation of temples, and within them, icons in stone and later in bronze became puja’s focus. Before the emergence of Tantrism, worship took place out in the open, in caves or other primitive shelters. The creation of temples and icons led in turn to these sacred images to be venerated as living beings in rituals resembling those accorded Chola monarchs. Sacred dance within the temples (Bharatnatyam) used the Tantric visual language of hand gestures (mudra) and body positions (asanas). By the time of the Cholas, these temples had evolved to become centres of secular power as well as holy communities of priests, musicians, dancers (note 7), poets, umbrella holders, cleaners and other support staff. The line between the secular and the spiritual began to blur further as sacred icons began assuming the roles of royalty in rites and processions, while conversely, the icons began to appear with the adornment (alankara) and clothing styles of their royal patrons. Icons, temples and puja are now fundamental elements of Indian spiritual devotion, and all have their genesis in Tantric traditions. 

By the tenth century, Tantrism was widely and openly practiced throughout the subcontinent, however, some of its more controversial beliefs and practices were viewed with fear, suspicion, and in some cases, abhorrence. The intent of Tantrism’s more esoteric and secretive rituals was to consciously break ancient Vedic taboos, for instance by the ritual consumption of meat, alcohol and body fluids of various types (note 10), adulterous sexual offerings to Kali (note 11), possession and exorcism rites, all flouted Hindu prohibitions and hidden from public scrutiny. Tantric knowledge had always been a sacred trust, kept in strict secrecy and passed down orally from guru to disciple after years of preparation and purification (guruparaṃparā). When transcribed, the more dangerous rituals were written in a type of loose code to ensure their content would be understood only by initiates. The nature of this aspect of Tantric practice and the lengths to which its adherents went to preserve its secrets ensured Tantrism achieved notoriety and mystique spanning centuries.

But Tantrism was much more than taboo-breaking attacks upon the old Vedic Hinduism. Modern values were expressed a thousand years ago as respect and equality for all and veneration of the Divine Feminine. While none of these beliefs endeared Tantrism to orthodox Hinduism or Buddhism, tolerance (note 12) and inclusiveness (note 13) were, and are, hallmarks of India’s cultural and religious values and, even though Tantric practice stretched these values to their limit, it did not break them. As long as its practitioners were discrete and its rituals were out of the public eye, Tantrism was tolerated, though never openly encouraged. This uneasy relationship remained unchanged until Muslim invaders arrived in the 13th century when Tantrism was ruthlessly suppressed, it’s followers slain and its manuscripts destroyed. South India was spared the worst of these depredations, however (note 14), and over time Tantra’s less controversial beliefs and practices were absorbed into Hindu practice. Muslim invaders never got over the Himalayas, and Buddhist Tantra survived for a time in Tibet, but a pogrom by occupying Chinese troops in the early 1950’s effectively put an end to Tantrism. Today very little formal Tantric knowledge is known, creating an environment where the term Tantra is freely exploited by self-styled gurus.  

Tantric belief also laid the foundation of yogic practice. It believes that with proper meditation, mudras and asanas, divine creative energy (Shakti) flows as prana within the human body. Energy centres (chakras) in the body are aligned along the spine, and when prana flows between the chakras through channels (nadis), the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body is maintained and balanced. 

Note 1 – The term Tantrism is Western in origin and born of misconception and assumptions from non-Hindu scholars. To practitioners, it was simply the warp and weave of the fabric of their spiritual belief and practice. Tantra and sutra are terms which are also used interchangeably, tantra being the cloth and sutra being the sewing of that cloth. When referring to Tantra here, I use the past tense because, for all intents and purposes, Tantra as a defined system of belief and practice is a spent force. The Tantric spirit lives on, however, through its profound influence upon religious life throughout Asia.

Note 2 – Tantra’s core belief is Shakti as the dynamic creative energy of God. The male principle is cognitive, the female is dynamic, and both are co-equal and interdependent. 

Note 3 – Hinduism, particularly as practiced during the Chola period, embraced stimulation of the senses as gifts from the gods. The Cholas saw little difference between the ecstatic bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved and the spiritual union between the worshipper and beloved deity. Both resulted in a mystical, blissful, out of body experience. 

Note 4 – Prana and Shakti’s force of life are considered by many to be one and the same, hence the powerful connection between Tantra and Shakti. 

Note 5 – Chakras are aligned along the spine and associated with colours, elements, planets or occult powers. Chakras draw in prana by spinning around their axes and holding it in their respective sphere to maintain and balance the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body.

Note 6 – The adoption of Tantric ritual, and particularly puja, was given further impetus when the first poet-saints (nayanars and alvars) began writing and performing devotional hymns and poems dedicated to their chosen gods and goddesses. Possibly inspired by Tantrism, their devotion was emotionally charged, at times even overtly sexual.

Note 7 – These dancers were known as devadasi and dedicated to temple service for life. On the walls of the great temple complex of Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore are inscribed the names of 400 devadasis, with their addresses. 

Note 8 – Of these texts, it is the Shilpa Shastra that guides the craftsmen (sthapathi) who create the exquisite Chola Bronzes.

Note 9 – A key element of Shakta Tantra is the belief that women are filled with the creative energy of Shakti and, therefore, spiritually more powerful than men. With its strong belief in equality between genders, in today’s terms, Tantrikas could be said to be feminists. 

Note 10 – Menstrual blood was considered to be especially power due to its association with feminine creativity.

Note 11 – Anyone participating in the sexual ritual who lapsed from the psychic state of oneness with the divine (preman) into the reality of the moment could expect hellish consequences. 

Note 12 – Indian spiritual beliefs were always eager to embrace new ideas to remain relevant. For instance, as Hinduism spread across the sub-continent, it absorbed local beliefs and deities under the overarching principle of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul. All deities and their associated beliefs and practices were deemed facets of Brahman and, therefore, seamlessly absorbed into Hindu doctrine.  

Note 13 – For example, the great Chola king and devout Saivite, Rajaraja Chola I, bore the cost of building and maintaining over 500 Buddhist monasteries within the Chola homeland. 

Note 14 – In 1311, Muslim invaders reached the former Chola homeland. They only stayed a hundred years but had plenty of time to strip the temples of their bronzes, melting them down to cast cannon. Hundreds of Chola Bronzes were saved though by being buried in the earth and behind false temple walls; however, the locations of many were forgotten with time. Today lost hoards are discovered from time to time, but after such a long period of spiritual neglect are no longer deemed sacred and so find their way into museums or private collections. There was at least one instance though where an icon was discovered near its original home in a village temple. The local priest gave it a wash, put it back in the temple, reconsecrated it and carried on as though the intervening 700 years had never happened.  

Tantra2019-11-20T09:29:00-08:00

The Nature of Shakti

The Nature of Shakti

Shakti manifests Prakriti, Brahman’s dynamic feminine will and creative energy. Shakti is the Divine Feminine and Brahman’s Force of Life. Prakriti consists of three types of matter, or gunas, which are the essential elements of all nature. Prakriti and it’s counterpart, the male principle of Purusha, consciousness and spirit, are interdependent, equivalent and ineffective without the other.

In mythology, just as Purusha embodies in the form of the male gods, Shakti, as the active, creative power takes physical form as Devi. This form can be one of the three Maha Devis, The Great Goddesses; Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge, Music and Art, aligned with Brahma, the Creator; Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune aligned with Vishnu the Preserver; and Uma, The Mother Goddess of Love and Devotion aligned with Shiva, the Destroyer (note 1). As the creative, regenerative and maintaining forces of the universe each Maha Devi, as well as other goddesses such as Kali, Ganga and Mari Amma, has unique set of roles and characteristics.

“She is the creative joy of life; herself the beauty, the marvel, the enticement and seduction of the living world”

Heinrich Zimmer; Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization

In pre-Vedic times, India’s indigenous peoples venerated powerful, independent goddesses, but as Hinduism spread the divine feminine principle was absorbed into the Vedic pantheon, and in doing so the goddesses lost much of their spiritual status. Hinduism’s spiritual source, The Vedas, reflected the values of a patriarchal nomadic culture that suppressed prehistoric feminine power, therefore, the goddesses were relegated to roles as wives and consorts. Devotional hunger for divine feminine energy was not to be denied, however, and powerful deities in their own right have re-emerged; Durga, the dispassionate demon killer; Kali, the fiery protector; and of course, Uma, the cool, sensual beauty and power behind Shiva’s cosmic role. Hindu belief continues to evolve into the modern era and as the need for Shakti’s energy grows, so does the influence of her Devis. 

Note 1 – Uma is known by many names, Parvati chief among them, but our Reference Library is primarily focussed on the Chola Bronzes, therefore, we refer to the deities as they are known in south India.

The Nature of Shakti2019-11-14T17:51:03-08:00

Glossary of Terms – Hindu Sacred Texts

Glossary of Terms – Hindu Sacred Texts

CategoryTermTranslationDescription
Hindu Sacred TextsAgamasacquisition of knowledgeThe Agamas are a Tantric collection of Tamil and later Sanskrit scriptures defining proper standards and techniques for temple construction, symbology, modes of worship, philosophical doctrine, meditative practice, attainment of sixfold desires, the four types of yoga, and the creation of bronze and stone icons (murtis). The Agamas insist each sacred icon ought to be as beautiful as possible out of respect for the deity depicted. This Agamic instruction is also Mantra Sacred Sculpture’s mission statement. See also; Shilpa Shastra and Tantra.
Hindu Sacred TextsAranyakaThe Forest BooksThe Aranyakas are the books of the Rig Veda dealing with the philosophy behind Vedic ritual. See also; Rig Veda, Samhita, Brahmanas and Upanishads.
Hindu Sacred TextsArthasa Shastraspolitical and military scienceA discussion and guide to statecraft, waging war, economics and social welfare.
Hindu Sacred TextsBhagavad GitaSong of GodThe Bhagavad Gita (lit; The Song of God) is a question and answer discussion between Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, and his friend, Prince Arjuna, on the eve of a great battle between different factions of Arjuna’s family. Arjuna is racked by the ethical questions arising from his involvement and Krishna offers his counsel on issues of duty, selfless service, devotion and meditation. Krishna’s thoughts and advice to his friend are considered by most Hindus as a uniquely powerful influence upon how they conduct their daily lives. The Bhagavad Gita is found in Chapters 23 to 40 of Book Six of the epic Mahabarata. See also; Krishna and Arjuna.
Hindu Sacred TextsBhashyacommentaryA general term used to describe a schollarly commentary or expansion upon a sacred text.
Hindu Sacred TextsBrahma SutraHindu philosophyA foundational text of the Vedanta school of thought. The Brahma Sutra discusses the nature of Brahman, reviews alternates to Vedic thought such as Buddhism, offers the means to achieve moksha and the benefits of spiritual knowledge. See also; Upanishads, Vedanta, Brahman, Atman and moksha.
Hindu Sacred TextsBrahmanamantras and hymnsThe section of The Vedas teaching rituals as they pertain to Mantras and hymns. See also; Vedas and Samhita
Hindu Sacred TextsDeva MahatmyaGlory of The GoddessThe foundational text of Shaktism which describes the Goddess as the supreme power and creator of the Universe. It contains 700 verses arranged into three episodes; the first depicting Devi as the Shaktic power behind the creation myths of Vishnu and Brahma; the second concerns the origins myth of Mari Amman, or Durga; and the third is the origins of Kali. All are allegorical tales symbolizing Devi in all her aspects vanquishing ego, pursuit of power and possesions, and arrogance, all human frailties in the form of demons. Commonly recited in its entirety during the festival of Durga Puja in October or November. See also; Durga, Shakti, Mahadevi.
Hindu Sacred TextsDharma ShastrasDharmic scienceRooted in Vedic scholarship, the Dharma Shastras discuss the role of Dharma in terms of duties and responsibilities to oneself, one’s family and one’s community in general. Interestingly, the colonial British used the Dharma Shastras as a basis for civil law in India for non-Muslims, who were governed by Shariah law.
Hindu Sacred TextsDharma SutrasDharmic guideThe source and inspiration for the Dharma Shastras, they are far older and few have survived. They deal with civil and criminal law as well as marriage and inheritance. They, and particularly the Dharma Shastras are a life’s guide to purusartha, spiritual goals, the stages of one’s spiritual life (ashrama), and principles of non-violence (ahimsa) and other ethical issues. For example; “Practise righteousness (dharma), not unrighteousness.
Speak the truth, not an untruth. Look at what is distant, not what's near at hand.
Look at the highest, not at what's less than highest.”
- Vasishtha Dharma Sutra 30.1
Hindu Sacred TextsItihasaso indeed it wasThe Itihasa is the historical mythology of the gods and goddesses told through the great epic tales of the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita) and Ramayana. These stories, and those of the Puranas are also known as the Fifth Veda for their importance in inspiring the faith of ordinary Hindus. See also; Puranas.
Hindu Sacred TextsKama Sutralove guideThe Kama Sutra discusses the philosophy and theory of love, what triggers desire, what sustains it, how and when it is good or bad. Contrary to the perception in the west, the Kama Sutra is not exclusively a sex manual, in fact only about a fifth concerns sexuality. Kama is one of four goals of Hindu life and translates as desire, including sexual desire. The writing of the Kama Sutra in the 2nd century CE is attributed to Vatsyayana. See also; Vatsyayana.
Hindu Sacred TextsMahabharataepic allegorical poemAt 1.8 million words and 200,000 lines the Mahabarata is possibly the longest epic ever written and comprised of 18 books, or parvas, one of which is the Bhagavad Gita, as well as other philosophical and theosophical treatises. The Mahabarata is an accretion of many stories within stories with an account of the the dynastic history of the Bharata clan as its overarching theme. See also; Bhagavad Gita, Krishna and Arjuna.
Hindu Sacred TextsNatya Shastrathe science of danceAn ancient foundational treatise defining the guiding principles of classic temple dance, as well as its theory, body poses (hastas), gestures (mudras), expressions, symbolism and standards. Codified some two thousand years ago it remains virtually unchanged from when it was written by scholar Bharata Muni. See also; hastas, mudras and Shastriya Nritya
Hindu Sacred TextsPuranasdivine mythologyWritten literature (as opposed to oral) whose themes are history, tradition and religion and usually written in the form of stories told by one person to another. There are eighteen major Puranas, each dedicated to; various stories of the gods and goddesses, hymns, an outline of ancient history, cosmology, rules of life, rituals, and spiritual knowledge. Most Puranas originated in oral form from about 1500 BCE, reaching their final written form around 500 CE. The Puranas, together with the Itihasas are jointly referred as the Panchama Veda or the fifth Veda for their importance in sustaining Hindu faith. See also; Smriti.
Hindu Sacred TextsRig Vedawhat is heardThe oldest and therefore the most authoritative of the Vedic sacred texts. Dating from 2100 to 1700 BC, they consist of Samhita, hymns of praise to the gods and goddesses, Brahmanas, commentariies on the hymns, Aranyaka, the philosophy underlying Vedic ritual and the Upanishads, treatises on spirituality and theosophy. Mantras and chants found in the Rig Veda are still in use today for events such as weddings, making the Rig Veda the world’s oldest religioust text in continuous use. See also; Samhita, Upanishads,Vedas and Sanskrit.
Hindu Sacred TextsSamhitaHindu liturgyThe Samhita section of the Rig Veda is dedicated to Mantra, benedictions and hymns to to deities of the Hindu pantheon. See also; Rig Veda, Vedas, Sruti.
Hindu Sacred TextsShastraencyclopediaThe root term used for Hindu science. Hinduism reveres truth above all and see no conflict between science and spiritual belief. Example; the Shilpa Shastra
Hindu Sacred TextsShilpa Shastrascience of arts and craftsShilpa Shastras are sacred texts dealing with arts and crafts such as the creation of icons in stone or bronze, painting, carpentry, pottery, jewellery, dyeing, textiles and others. The term used for the instructional guide defining the design, rules, principles and standards of sculptural art, temple architecture and 62 other traditional art forms. The Shilpa Shastra guidance is spread out over many ancient texts rather than one definitive volume. See also; Talamana.
Hindu Sacred TextsShlokapoetic styleFor many centuries the sacred texts of Hinduism were committed to memory and shared orally. It was found that a poetic style known as shloka was effective as a device to ensure accurate recollection. Much of Mahabharata/Bhagavad Gita, for instance, is in the shloka style and could be sung as well as recited.
Hindu Sacred TextsSmriti and Sruthiwhat is heard and what is rememberedSmriti are sacred text remembered as what was heard from the sages (rishi) after they had received the Sruthi and passed them on to their followers. Smriti is human knowledge and can therefore be debated or edited, while Sruthi is divine knowledge and must be accepted in its entirety. In any disagreement the divine Sruthi overules. Smriti sacred texts are fluid and have been freely edited according to ancient and medieval tradition.Bhasyas (reviews and commentaries on Sruthi and Smriti texts), and numerous Nibandhas (digests) covering politics, ethics (Nitishastras), medicine, culture, arts and society. See also; Vedas, Upanishads.
Hindu Sacred TextsTamilsweet soundTamil is a distinct language from Sanskrit, with its own set of sacred literature very nearly as ancient as The Vedas. Traditionally the creator of the Tamil language was the mythic Rig Vedic rishi, Agastya. While Vedic Hinduism in north India was influenced by Muslim culture over almost a millennia, Vedic Hinduism in the south, with Tamil as its lingua franca, remained much closer to ancient Vedic traditions.
Hindu Sacred TextsUpanishadstheological treatiseThe Vedic source of spiritual belief for Hinduism. The Upanishads expound upon the nature of Brahman, The Immensity, and Atman (the individual soul) which are the spiritual core of Hindu belief. There are 200 Upanishads in number but the oldest 12 or so are considered the most important; dating from roughly 3000 BP and extracted from The Vedas over time. Addendums to the Upanishads continue into the present time, and widely known as the Vedanta. See also; Vedanta.
Hindu Sacred TextsVatsyayanaScholarA Vedic philosopher believed to have lived in India 2200 BP. Best known as the author of the Kama Sutra.
Hindu Sacred TextsVedangasVedic scienceA guide to understanding Vedic literature through the application of linguistics to archaic Vedic texts. The Vedangas also guide rituals and ceremonies and formed the foundational basis for the Dharmasutra’s concepts of civil law.
Hindu Sacred TextsVedantaend of The VedasA collection of ideas derived from The Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras concerning the nature of Brahman, Atman and Maya, the illusional world. The Vedanta is the distillation of Hindu theology. See also; Brahman, Atman, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutra.
Hindu Sacred TextsVedasknowledgeThe Vedas’ are Hinduism’s sacred literature. They are the unwritten language of the Gods both revealed (sruti) and remembered (smurti) written in human language. (In mythology it is believed Brahma, with significant assistance from Saraswati, created The Vedas, and Ganesha was the scribe who wrote them down). There are four Vedas, each consisting of four parts; Mantras, rituals, theology and philosophy. The Upanishads are the distillation of The Vedas and were writthen towards the end of the Vedic Period from 3750 to 2500 BP. See also; Rig Veda, Sruti, Smriti and Upanishads.
Hindu Sacred TextsVyasaHindu sage and authorVyasa is arguably the most significant scholar in the development of Hinduism. He lived about 3500 years ago and credited with categorizing The Vedas and for authoring the epic Mahabarata, dictating it, according legend, to his scribe, Ganesha. Popular tradition says there was only one Vyasa, but in Sanskrit the word vyasa simply means compiler, so debate continues whether there is in fact one Vyasa or many vyasas.
Glossary of Terms – Hindu Sacred Texts2019-11-06T18:02:38-08:00

Hindu Sects

Hindu Sects

For most Hindus, their belief and practice is a loosely defined spiritual philosophy, however, the core foundation of Hinduism, The Vedas, is very specific about the nature of God as an overarching principle encompassing all other concepts of Divinity. Most Hindus would rather simplify their spiritual life by focussing their devotions upon one, or perhaps two or three particular deities and self-identify as members of one or more of the four main sects within Hinduism.

Shaivism, where Shiva is worshipped as the Supreme Deity in the sense that other gods and goddesses are manifestations of Shiva. Shaivism was the dominant sect in the Chola Period and remains so in south India today,

Vaishnavism dominates within Hinduism overall with some 70% of Hindus believing that Vishnu, or one of his iterations such as Krishna, is Supreme over all other gods,

Shaktism holds the female aspects of God as Supreme. While certainly a minority it’s followers are no less devoted to Shakti in all her manifestations, such as Uma, Kali or Saraswati,

Smartism generally rejects the sectarian belief in one god above all. It holds to a Vedic belief that the six primary gods of Hinduism; Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesh, Murugan and Surya (the Vedic Sun god) manifest the formless Brahman more or less equally.

True to the pluralist and inclusive nature of Hinduism, each sect’s followers freely borrow beliefs and practices from each other.

“Brahman is the One, the One alone, in Brahman all deities become One alone.” 

The Artharva Veda

Other sects may venerate less popular deities such as Krishna, Murugan or Ganesha, but do so with the fervour and dedication of the major sects. If such a group, or sect, has a defined philosophy and led by a particular guru, it is said to be sampradaya. An example would be The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly referred to as the Hare Krishna movement, formed in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Hindu Sects2019-11-07T16:12:15-08:00

Hinduism in The Chola Empire

Hinduism in The Chola Empire

When Vedic Hinduism reached south India around 2400 BP, the indigenous Tamil culture was fully established. Both traditions were rooted in common animist origins, and Vedic gods blended with their Tamil counterparts almost seamlessly. For example, the pastoral god Murugan, “the red god seated on the blue peacock who is ever young and resplendent,” merged with the north Indian Skanda and retains a large following even today. Murugan’s mother, the fierce war goddess, Korravai, united with Kali. Mayon, a black rural divinity, shares many of the same characteristics as Krishna Gopala. Lalita, “Beautiful Goddess of The Three Cities,” is the Tamil equivalent of Lakshmi.

A thousand years later, in the centuries leading up to the time of the Cholas, dissatisfaction with Vedic tradition was feeding widespread frustration among ordinary worshippers. Deep within the temple’s inner sanctums, the priests and a select few of the royal elite would have direct contact with the gods while the lesser castes waited in the entrance hall. This worship by proxy left the population spiritually unsatisfied, but change was in the air. Seemingly out of nowhere came the Alvars and Nayanars, itinerant poet-saints, male and female, high caste and low, who wandered through south India singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. This new personal connection with God sparked a devotional revolution known as Bhakti. It’s ardent, unstructured emotional style of worship contrasted sharply with the old Vedic temple rituals and the Tamil people wholeheartedly embraced these poet-saints and this new devotional style (note 2). They rejected not only the idea of salvation through Brahmin controlled ritual but Vedic divisions of gender and caste. Bhakti spread beyond the Chola borders and into India and eventually throughout Asia, where it remains the dominant form of worship. As the movement spread, Bhakti freed not just Hindus but Buddhists and Jains to perform their devotions when, where, and how they chose. Their relationship with God was now personal and far more gratifying. Chola craftsmen, too, found inspiration in the hymns and poems of the saints, creating in bronze the vitality, grace and beauty the poets had created in words.

“Youth who shines as a ruby,
In a cluster of emeralds!
Being who enters my heart,
Stirring memory!
Come to me in my sleep,
Be my friend,
Give me refuge in your grace,
O dweller in Avatuturai!”
Saint Appar

As often occurred when orthodox Hinduism is confronted with a powerful new spiritual energy, it absorbed key practices into itself. And when the Chola kings also fell under the spell of Bhakti, Brahmin priests eased their restriction on access to the gods and royal craftsmen were directed to re-create the temple’s stone-carved deities in bronze, portable images which could be carried in procession about the temple within view of worshippers. Over time these bronze figures began to acquire the persona of both divine and earthly kingship. The deity would have a sacred bedroom, where it would be awoken, bathed, offered food and drink (puja), adorned in sumptuous silks, jewels and fragrances before being carried in procession. The deity would preside over daily rituals and ceremonies, and in the evening would be ritually ‘put to bed.’ For annual festivals, these processional bronzes (utsavamurti) are carried by bearers or atop wheeled vehicles, outside the temple grounds to great fanfare (note 2). Such processions continue today, and the sensory onslaught has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Note 1; Four thousand of these hymns, the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, were collected from all over south India and within the four thousand, eleven hundred verses, the Tiruvaymoli, came to be known as the Tamil Vedas (note 2) and deemed every bit as authoritative as The Vedas from the north. The hymns were passed down orally through generations before being committed by scholars to pen and palm leaf.

Note 2; An extreme example may be the processional vehicles carrying Jagannath, an image of Krishna. A fresh one is constructed every year and is a massive 45 feet high and 35 feet wide and long. 

A photograph showing a processional car carrying a devotional image.  

Hinduism in The Chola Empire2019-11-10T15:44:27-08:00