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Indian Religions: An Overview


The Indians, anthropologically a mixture of immigrant Aryans and partly autochthonous peoples, gradually elaborated a many-sided, highly developed culture rooted in the archaic structure of the human mind. This culture is characterized by an often almost complete integration of heterogeneous elements, by unity in diversity, by homogeneity despite the utmost variety and complexity of its ethnic and social composition, by a multitude of languages and different cultural patterns, and by a great diversity in mental character and socioreligious customs, cults, beliefs, practices, and ways of life varying widely both regionally and, within the same region, from class to class. Indian culture gives free scope to the emotional and imaginative sides of human nature, to speculative, more or less visionary thinking and modes of apprehension, and it has long preserved the cohesion of its provinces: religion, art, literature, and social organization.


The religious life reflected in the oldest Indian literature in preclassic Sanskrit, the Veda (from about the thirteenth century bce), is that of a predominantly ritual and sacrificial system (Vedism) developing, almost in seclusion, at first in the Punjab, later in the Ganges Plain, among the immigrant Aryans (Indo-Europeans), whose ideas and representations of the divine constitute an almost unified synthesis embodied in an elaborate mythology partly paralleled by ritual equivalences. Vedic thought was based on the belief in an inextricable coordination of nature, human society, ritual, and the sphere of myth and the divine; it was also founded on the belief that these spheres influence one another continuously and that men have, by means of ritual, an obligatory part to play in the maintenance of universal order and the furtherance of their common interests. In later times also, Indians have constantly sought correspondences between objects and phenomena belonging to distinct spheres of nature and conceptual systems. Many hymns and individual stanzas of the oldest literary corpus (the gveda Sahitā, an anthology drawn from family traditions) were intended for the cult and used in the liturgy of spectacular solemn (śrauta ) ceremonies, which gradually increased in number, length, and complexity. These ceremonies were to ensure the orderly functioning of the world for the benefit of noble or wealthy patrons. The rites were performed in the open on a specially prepared plotthere were no temples or idolsby specialized officiants. Part of this literature was employed, along with texts from the Atharvaveda Sahitā, in the domestic or magic ritual performed by a householder or single priest to ensure an individual's health, safety, success, prosperity, and longevity. These texts and the ritual formulas of the Yajurveda, which invariably fulfill some ritual function, are collectively called mantra s. They are believed to be revelations of aspects of the divine, the product of the exalted experiences of sages (i s) and hence constitute sacred and inherently powerful verbal formulas for producing a desired result. Some Vedic mantra s remained in Hinduist rites, which, however, generally require other ones.

No definite chronology can be established for Vedic literature or the development of religious ideas and ritual practices. It is known that the collections of hymns were succeeded by the Brāhmaas, texts that discuss rites and rituals and explain their origin, meaning, and validity. These sacral acts, being the counterpart of the cosmic drama, are in fact also the symbolic expression of speculations about the origin and functioning of the universe and the significance, activity, and operation of the powers, personal and impersonal, presiding over its provinces and manifesting their presence and influence. Thus the ceremonious construction of a special place for the ritual fire is believed to reintegrate the creator god, enabling him to continue his creative activity and to bring about a transformation and higher existence of the patron of the sacrifice, who in and through this ritual is identified with the creator and delivered from death. Mainly based on the Brāhmaas are the Śrauta-sūtras, manuals in which the rites are for practical purposes systematically and authoritatively described. No information is given on the earlier, prehistoric cult, which cannot be reconstructed. These works arrange the solemn rites in three classes: the partly inherited bloodless sacrifices, the more elaborate animal sacrifices, and the typically Indian soma ceremonies. In the course of time these elite śrauta rituals fell largely into disuse and were superseded by Hinduist rites performed at the expense of and for the benefit of much larger parts of the population.


Some prehistoric forms of Hinduismthe civilization of the Hindus, consisting of their beliefs, practices, and socioreligious institutionsmust have existed at the Vedic period, especially in the unrecorded religion of the lower classes, and probably earlier. Domestic ritual, which is entirely different from the solemn rites, consists of many rites that, though described and systematized by brahman authorities in the Vedic Ghyasūtras, are in essence not typically Vedic, or rather constitute Vedic varieties of widespread rites of passage, rites of appeasement, cult of the dead, and so on. Later chapters of this literature show markedly non-Vedic and post-Vedic influences, such as strong leanings toward Vaiava ritualism, which attest to the gradual incorporation of non-Vedic rites and substitution of extra-Vedic elements for those recognized by the original compilers of Hindu rites and practices. Gradually these elements became more prominent.

Non-Aryan influences

How much influence was exerted by the religions of the non-Aryan inhabitants of India on the formation and development of Hinduism is a matter of dispute. Although aborigines may have contributed some elements, their religion is generally different in many respects (e.g., they do not venerate the cow, and they allow their widows to remarry). The Vedic religion had no demonstrable relation with the great civilizations of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and vast regions to the east of the Indus Valley (c. 25001500 bce). As long as the graphic symbols on seals from these sites are not convincingly deciphered and the language is not identified (that it was Dravidianthe name of non-Aryan languages of southern Indiais still unproved conjecture), most of the conclusions drawn from archaeological material and argumentation regarding links with elements or characteristics of older and even contemporary Hinduism remain as speculative as the hypothesis of a predominantly influential Dravidian substratum. Do the clay figurines of women really attest to some form of worship of a mother goddess that continued in the historical period, or to the existence of a prehistoric Śaiva śakti cult? Is the figure of a male dancer identical with the dancing Śiva? The wide distribution in various countries of, for instance, objects that may have been amulets or votive offerings should prevent one from hastily regarding their occurrence in Hinduist religions as an uninterrupted continuance of a function supposedly attributed to certain Indus objects.

General characteristics

The main current of Hinduism, the so-called great tradition, is a remarkably continuous whole. The tendency to maintain continuity has always been deep-rooted but did not exclude the constant accretion and integration of further elements derived from non-Aryan peoples, extraneous sources (invaders on the northwestern frontier may have contributed to the custom of satī, the self-immolation practiced by widows, for example), and the activities of individual religious leaders. While continuity and change have been the prevailing patterns, incorporation and synthesis between the new and the traditional usually were more obvious than the often almost imperceptible elimination of those elements that no longer had a useful and recognizable function. Nevertheless, it is more common to draw upon the past than to invent anew, and apparently original ideas may be foreshadowed by concepts apparent centuries earlier. Thus many features of Hinduism have their roots in the Vedic past, and some characteristic ideas inherited from that past and developed in a few main currentsprimarily doctrines of salvationhave up to the present largely determined the Indian view of life and the world.

The older Upaniads are the first recorded attempts at systematizing Indian philosophical thought. They are esoteric supplements to the Brāhmaas, intended for advanced pupils with a bent for reflection, abstract speculation, and philosophical discussion rather than ritual theory, and therefore answering the needs of ascetics and anchorites. Few Indians are inclined to reject the contents of these Upaniads, with which every subsequent philosophy had to show itself in accord. While emphasizing the philosophical value of the Vedic tradition, they are essentially concerned with describing the nature of what is alternately called brahman (the Absolute) or ātman (universal soul), and its relation with the individual soul (often called jīva ). The realization of the identity of the latter with the former came to be substituted for the ritual method of conquering death and attaining integral life, the ultimate goal of all speculation. Being compilations, the Upaniads do not present a homogeneous philosophical theory, but there was a move to reconcile the references to the dualistic and evolutionistic doctrines of what was to become the influential Sākhya school of philosophy with the prevailing monistic doctrines. Hinduism, directed by these works toward monism, has largely sought its inspiration in them.

There are a number of more or less constant elements of Hinduism. The central focus of India's spiritual life is the belief in and search for an uncreated eternal, fundamental principle (brahman ), the ultimate source and goal of all existence. Brahman is the One that is the All and the sole reality, which transforms itself into the universe, or causes all existence and all beings to emanate from itself, and which is the self (ātman ) of all living beings. Brahman may also be conceived of as a personal "high god" (usually as Viu or Śiva), characterized by sublime and adorable qualities. Further elements are the confidence that one's own existence and the culture of one's community are founded on an eternal and infallible basis, and the craving for building one's life and ideals on this firm foundation; the recognition of a pristine body of religious literature (the Veda) as an eternal and absolute authority considered to be brahman appearing as words, however unknown its contents; and acknowledgment of the spiritual supremacy by birth of the brahman s, another manifestation of brahman, who are regarded as representing the norm of ritual purity and who enjoy social prestige. The keystone of Hinduist ethics is the belief in the unity of all life and its corollary respect for life and fellow feeling with all living beings (ahisā); the doctrine of transmigration and rebirth (sasāra, a post-Vedic term), first adumbrated in one of the oldest Upaniads (c. 600 bce), and its complement, the belief in karman (previous acts) as the factor determining the condition into which a being is reborn, a consequence of a cyclic view of all worldly processes and existence. These doctrines encourage the opinion that mundane life is not true existence (the so-called Indian pessimism) and hence relate to the conviction that human endeavor should be directed toward final emancipation (moka ) from the mechanism of karman and transmigration, the only goal of this effort being the One (brahman ) that is beyond all phenomenal existence. In view of the above, Hinduism exhibits a natural tendency to speculation hand in hand with religion as well as to a monistic philosophy and mysticism that has left intact traditional mythology and common beliefs. Finally, it is characterized by a complex polytheism subsumed in a fundamental monotheism and by a propensity to ascribe the attributes of other gods to the deity one is worshiping.

Early history

The history proper of Hinduism begins with the emergence of the great works on dharma, the totality of traditional custom and behavior that, agreeing with standards considered to derive their authority from the Vedas, manifests and maintains order and stability. This is also the age of the epics, especially the Mahābhārata (c. 300 bce300 ce), that "encyclopedia of Hinduism" that shows, even then, what appears to be a varied and confused conglomerate of beliefs and practices. However, there are two main currents, soteriologies when viewed from their doctrinal aspect and religions from the viewpoint of their adherents: Vaiavism and Śaivism. Neither current is in itself a unity. Yet all Vaiavas are essentially monotheistic, believing in Viu as their immanent high god (Īśvara), although in many contexts he appears as one of the divine polytheistic figures (deva s). In the Vedas, Viu represents universal pervasiveness; his beneficent energy, in which all beings abide, reaches the world through the axis mundi, the central pillar of the universe. Vaiavas often worship him through his manifestations or incarnations (avatāra s), such as Rāma or Ka. These and other originally independent figures had fused with Viu mainly as a result of the tendency to identify the various representatives of the Highest Person with the Primeval Person (Purua), whose self-limitation, according to a gvedic hymn, inaugurated the era of creation. Preference for an avatāra is mainly traditional; in the North, Ka is more often worshiped; in the South, it is Rāma, Viu himself, or Viu's consort, Śrī. In many myths the versatile Viu performs, often in well-known Indian places, great and miraculous deeds to confirm the dharma, protect humanity, and preserve the world. The Bhagavadgītā, an episode of the Mahābhārata and the most seminal of all Vaiava works, founded Vaiava ethics: Fulfilling their duties disinterestedly, humans should realize God's presence in themselves, love him and their fellow beings devotedly, and dedicate all their actions to him so as to earn the prospect of final emancipation.

The Hinduist worship, in many different groups and currents, of Śiva in his various manifestations results from a complex development to which the often malevolent outsider god Rudra of the Vedas has contributed much. (There may also have been Dravidian influences.) Rudra, primarily representing the untamed aspects of uncultivated nature, was called Śiva ("the mild one") when the benevolent and auspicious aspects of his nature were emphasized. Śaivism is an unsystematic amalgam of pan-Indian Śaiva philosophy, local or folk religion, mythological thought, and popular imagery. Śiva's many-sided character, to which accreted features of great gods as well as demoniac powers, is split up into many partial manifestations representing aspects of his ambivalent nature. As Īśvara he is the unique and almighty Supreme Person, representing an abstract, sole principle above change and variation, less human than Viu, and much less active, although elsewhere, in his role as Nāarāja the dancer, he originates the eternal rhythm of the universe. He is both mild and terrible, a creator and destroyer, an ascetic and a sexualist. Thus Śiva represents a composite god who is a unity to his devotees, and he plays many apparently contradictory roles in myths, which, on various levels, resolve logically irreconcilable contradictions.

Buddhism and Jainism

The same period saw the spread of two heterodox soteriologies, heterodox because they reject the authority of the Veda and the social prejudices of the brahman s, although they scarcely attack the fundamentals of Hindu belief and practices. The way in which the early Buddhists presented their doctrines has much in common with the oldest Upaniads, which must antedate the spread of the Aryan culture to the south and the activity of Gautama (c. 560480 bce). Gautama, the Buddha, first gave an exposition of his basic doctrine in Banaras. He taught that those who wish to be delivered from sasāra and the automatism of karman, which does not rely upon a permanent transmigrating soul (whose existence the Buddha denied), should realize four basic truths: (1) earthly existence is pain; (2) the cause of pain is craving for existence, leading to rebirth; (3) cessation of that craving is cessation of pain; (4) an eightfold path leads to that cessation. Final deliverance is realized only in an ascetic and monastic life by those who, after having successfully observed definite rules of life and reached complete meditation (samādhi ), experience the undefinable state of nirvāa, the cessation of all becoming. The daily activities of Buddhist monks were recitation, meditation, instruction, and collecting alms from the laity (who largely continued adhering to Hindu belief and observing Hindu practices). As the number of adherents increased, the Buddhist order received large gifts that led to the establishment of monasteries. The multiplying order spread to different parts of India, including the south and Sri Lanka (third century bce). In the beginning of the fourth century bce the community began to be split by successive schisms, each of which made its own collection of canonical texts. After about 500 ce, Indian Buddhism began to decline.

The Buddha was not the only illuminated teacher who, after renouncing the world, organized his initiates into a community. In Bihar one of his contemporaries, Vardhamāna Mahāvīra, reformed an existing community and founded the predominantly monastic Jainism, which spread to northern and central India, Gujarat, and the Deccan, and in the last few centuries bce split into two groups, not on philosophic disagreement but on points of rules for the monks. Jainism is systematic and has never changed in its basic ideology. Its philosophy is dualistic: It posits nonliving entities (including space and time) pervaded by (partly transmigrating, partly emancipated) immaterial and eternal souls; the world, eternal and changeless, is not governed by a supreme being; the system is characterized by the absence of gods (deva s); karman is the central power that determines the destiny of unemancipated souls. Humans have to perfect their souls and those of their fellow creatures; ahisā and universal tolerance are the main duties and cardinal virtues. Whereas the adherents of Buddhism were from a variety of social classes, Jainism attracted the wealthy and influential. The Jains erected beautiful temples with statues of their perfect souls (siddha s) and produced an enormous body of moral and narrative literature. Nowadays they often tend to return to Hinduism, against whose social order they have never revolted.

Hinduism after about 300 bce

When Buddhism and Jainism enjoyed royal protection, they could extend their influence. However, the masses doubtless always remained Hinduist, even under the Maurya dynasty (c. 326c. 187 bce), from which time the epigraphical records left by kings create the impression of a Buddhist supremacy, and in the first and second centuries of the common era, when foreign rulers accorded Buddhists protection. Until the fourth century, inscriptional and numismatic evidence of Vaiavism and Śaivism is scanty, but the period of the Gupta dynasty (320c. 500 ce), which patronized the brahman s and the Hinduist communities, saw the full development of classical Sanskrit and the rise of a non-Buddhist architectural style. The construction of a temple, a rite based on mythical reality, a sacrifice leading to a higher level of self-realization for the builder, is, like the construction of the great Vedic sacrificial fire-place (usually, though inaccurately, called "fire altar"), always the material expression of the doctrine of reintegration. At the temple the god is worshiped through his image (mūrti ), whose beauty contributes to its force as a sacred instrument. In elaborate ceremonies the god, as an exalted personage and royal guest, is offered food, flowers, and incense. His iconography, consecration (introduction of the god's spirit), and installation, as well as the mantra s used, the significance of the material and requisites, and the spirit animating the execution of temple and images, are all meticulously described. This daily worship (pūjā ) probably continues many non-Aryan elements that were gradually received by the higher classes and incorporated into the Brahmanical literature. Pūjā is also performed at home by the householder. As far as the uncomplicated older private cult survived, it was supplemented by the traditional (smārta ) cults of Viu, Śiva, and other gods, morning and evening rites, oblations in the consecrated fire, recitation, and mental adoration.

During many centuries after about 300 ce there arose an enormous body of mainly Vaiava and Śaiva literature. The Puraas, stemming from various circles and regions, but significantly all attributed to the redactor of the Vedas and the Mahābhārata and claiming to be inspired, deal with cosmogony, cosmology (the universe exists cyclically, its eternal return implying the eternal return of souls to bondage and suffering), mythology and legends, principles and philosophy, religious practices and ceremonies, local cults and sanctuaries, sacred rivers and places of pilgrimage. The many, still-influential gamas, also in Sanskrit, mainly teach the practical realization of religious truths, while largely governing temple and household ritual and the traditional religious life and behavior of Hindus. Their subject matter is theoretically divisible into four categories: higher knowledge, which gives access to final emancipation; physical, mental, and psychic concentration, that is, complete control of all corporeal and mental functions, leading to the same goal (yoga); meritorious works; and rites, including the many socially and religiously important festivals that are believed to stimulate and resuscitate the vital powers of nature. The gamas favor various philosophical doctrines. A feature of the Vaiavāgamas, usually called Sahitās, is bhakti, "participation (of the soul in the divine)," devout and emotional worship and adoration of a personal deity in a spirit of deep affection, amounting to surrender to God. Because these works also teach non-Vedic tenets, they are often considered heterodox, in that they deviate from the Hindu dharma. Some religions, such as the northern Śaiva Pāśupatas, have propagated consciously divergent rites and practices. Most Vaiavas, among them the Pāñcarātras, however, deny that they deviate from the generally accepted tradition; many southern Śaivas regard their gamas (although with no certain proof) as the sanskritization of an originally Dravidian tradition; some assume the influence of oral esoteric doctrines. In fact, numerous elements are, notwithstanding argumentation to the contrary, non-Brahmanical in origin.

Śaiva Religions and Tantrism

Some religions of India do deviate from common Hinduist traditions and institutions. In contrast to the Śaiva Siddhāntins of the Tamil-speaking Southwho, basing themselves also on the mysticism of the Śaiva Tamil saint-poets (Nāyaārs), teach that God in the shape of a spiritual guide, or guru, graciously permits himself to be realized by the purified soulthe Vīraśaivas, or Ligāyats, in southwestern India (not mentioned before the twelfth century) abandon many traditional elements (e.g., caste, image worship). Doctrinal dissent is always possible. The religio-philosophic idealist and monist Kashmir school of Śaivism disagrees in certain important respects with the teaching of Śakara (eighth century), the founder of Advaita monism, derived from the Upaniadic Vedānta as a system of absolute idealism that is mainly followed by the intellectual elite. Śakara, a native of Malabar who resided in Banaras and traveled throughout India, was a superb organizer; he established a monastic order and monasteries (maha s), which, like the many hermitages (āśrama s) and the great shrines, became centers of religious activity and contributed to the realization of his ideal of Hindu unity.

From about 500 ce, Tantric ritual and doctrines manifest themselves more or less frequently in Buddhism, Śaiva Siddhānta, and Pāñcarātra. Tantrism, primarily meant for esoteric circles, yet still an important aspect of Hinduism, is a systematic quest for spiritual excellence or emancipation through realization of the highest principle, the bipolar, bisexual deity, in one's own body. The possibilities of this microcosmos should be activated, sublimated, and made to exert influence on the macrocosmos, with which it is closely connected (physiological processes are thus described with cosmological terminology). Means to this end, partly magical, partly orgiastic, include recitation of mantra s, contemplation of geometrical cosmic symbols (maala s), leading the performer of the rites to the reintegration of consciousness; appropriate gestures (mudrā s), and meditation. Tantric pūjā is complicated and in many respects differs from conventional ceremonies. Especially in Bengal, Tantrism has tended to merge with the Śākta cult. The term Tantra commonly applies to Śaiva or Śākta works of the Tantric tradition. Śāktism, not always clearly distinguishable from Śaivism, is the worship of the Supreme as divine creative energy (śakti ), a female force that creates, regulates, and destroys the cosmos; when regarded as a person, she usually is Śiva's spouse, often the dreadful goddess Durgā or Kālī. In contrast to the so-called right-hand Tantrists, who emphasize yoga and bhakti, the left-hand Tantrists seek to realize the union of the male and female principles in the One by combining control of the senses with the sexual act; in addition, they make sacramental use of what is forbidden (e.g., meat) to the brahman s.

Vaiava Religions and Bhakti

Although Vaiavism, less coherent than Śaivism, had, in the sixth century, spread all over India, it reached predominance in Tamil Nadu, which became the cradle of important schools and movements that still have many adherents. The tradition known as the Śrī Vaiavas was inaugurated between about 900 and 1130 by Yāmuna, the first apologist of Vaiava theology, and consolidated by the great philosopher Rāmānuja (c. 10171137). The Śrī Vaiavas introduced into their temple ceremonies the recitation of Tamil hymns of the vārs, which evince a passionate belief in and love of God. Considering these poets and their great teachers (ācārya s) integral parts (aśa s) of God's nature, they often worship images of them in their temples. According to Rāmānuja, brahman is as a "person" (purua ) the sole cause of his own modifications (emanation, existence, and absorption of the universe), immaterial, perfect, omnipotent, the soul of all being, the ultimate goal of all religious effort, to which God induces the devotee who wishes to please him. The purificatory significance of the ritual, meritorious works, disinterested discharge of duties, and bhakti are emphasized.

The influential Bhāgavata Purāa (c. 900?), also composed in Tamil Nadu, teaches that God through his incomprehensible creative ability (māyā ) expands himself into the universe, which is his outward appearance. On the basis of this teaching, Bengal Vaiavism developed the theory of a relation of inconceivable difference in identity and identity in difference between God and the world, as well as the belief that God's creative activity is his sport (līlā ). The emotional and erotic description of young Ka's sport with the milkmaids (gopī s), who represent souls pervaded by bhakti who yearn for God, enjoys lasting popularity. In this Purāa, bhakti religiosity was expanded, deepened, and stimulated by singing, meditation, and looking at Ka's image. As the safest way to God, bhakti, a mystical attitude of mind involving an intuitive, immediate apprehension and loving contemplation of God, often overshadows the devotee's aspirations to final emancipation and assumes a character of uncontroll-able enthusiasm and ecstasy, marked by tears, hysteria, and fainting.

In northern and central India the bhakti movement flourished from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, producing a vast and varied literature in vernacular languages. Even today these areas feel the influence of a long succession of saint-poets, passionate itinerant preachers (among them Caitanya, in Bengal, 14851533), and guru s. These mystics and religious (rather than social) reformers propagated public singing of their devotional songs and kīrtana (the praise of God's name and glory), and preached a nonextremist way of life. While so addressing the masses, bhakti influenced almost all religious communities and contributed as a unifying force considerably to a revival of Hinduism.

Reaction to Foreign Religions

The revival of Hinduism in the south and the spread of the bhakti movement also prepared the Indians to withstand the proselytizing of external religions, particularly Islam. From 1000 ce onward, the Muslims conquered the Northwest, made Delhi their capital, and extended their influence to Bengal, the Deccan, and the South, destroying temples and idols and making many converts, particularly among the untouchables. But Islam scarcely affected the Hindu way of life; rather, it provoked a counterreaction in the form of increased adherence to the Hindu dharma and the Hindu religions and stricter observance of rites and ceremonies. Nevertheless, the presence of Islam in India involved an age-long conflict between strict monotheism and the various manifestations of Hinduism. In one field, however, Islam and Hinduism could draw near to each other: Muslim and Hindu mystics have in common the idea of an all-embracing unity. To be sure, the ūfīs made this idea a channel of Islamization, but some Indian spiritual leaders tried to bridge the gulf between Islam and Hinduism. Kabīr (c. 14501525), an itinerant ascetic, mystic, and strictly monotheist poet and eclectic teacher and preacher, rejected traditional ritual and Brahmanical speculation but retained the belief in basic concepts such as karman and sasāra. In the course of time his syncretistic religion became largely Hinduized. Nānak (14691539) was likewise a strict monotheist who stated that any pluralistic and anthropomorphous idea of the Supreme should dissolve in God's only form, the really existent. An opponent of caste and idolatry, he organized his followers, the Sikhs, in an exclusive community, an amalgam of Islam and Hinduism, which gradually was transformed into an armed brotherhood hostile to Islam but separated from the Hindus. Supreme authority resides in their holy scripture (Granth ), the reading of which is their main form of worship.

India's contact with the West, Christianity, and modern life since the early nineteenth century has led to the emergence of many new religious movements and spiritual groups, as diverse in their principles, ideals, and reactions to foreign influences as the personalities of their founders; most distinguish themselves from traditional devotional movements by a more pronounced interest in ethical, social, and national issues. The extent of their influence in India has, however, often been exaggerated in the West, for the beliefs and customs of the Indian masses are still largely traditional.

The first product of this cultural encounter, the Brāhmo Samāj, a partly social, partly religious organization, was founded by the Bengali brahman Ram Mohan Roy (17721833), who, using modern vehicles of propaganda such as the press, advocated social reform and a reformation of Hinduism, which, if purged of abuses and with its monotheistic features underscored, might become the foundation of a universal religion. Schisms resulting mainly from the activities of the bhakti mystic Keshab Chandra Sen (18381884) led to the coexistence of various small groups of differing aims and ideals. In the second half of the nineteenth century, anti-Muslim and anti-Western ideas as well as religious nationalism led to movements of reformation and modernization or to the propagation of what was considered the essence of traditional Hinduism. One such reformation movement representing the former tendency is the rya Samāj, founded in 1875 by Dayananda Sarasvati (18241883). Sarasvati advocated absolute adherence to the religion of the Vedic hymns, which he regarded as a continually misinterpreted source of pure monotheism, moral and social reform, and guidance toward the right way to salvation; however, most of the doctrines Sarasvati accepted (e.g., karman ) were post-Vedic. Opposed to foreign religions, the rya Samāj propagates a refined nationalist and democratic Hinduism without symbols and local cults but including the worship of God with praise, prayer, meditation, and daily ceremonies. The main object of Ramakrishna (18361886), perhaps the best-known modern Hindu saint, was the propagation of the Vedānta as a superior and comprehensive view of life that synthesizes all faiths on a higher level of spiritual consciousness. A devotee of Rāma and later of Ka, he practiced the Vaiava form of love; convinced that Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity all lead to the same God, he also adopted Christian methods. Under his disciple Vivekananda (18621902), who turned the trend of Vedānta philosophy toward new values, the Ramakrishna Mission (founded 1897) became, in India, an important force for spiritual regeneration and unification.

See Also

Ājīvikas; Bengali Religions; Brāhmaas and rayakas; Buddhism; Cārvāka; Durga Hinduism; Gāapatyas; Hindi Religious Traditions; Hinduism; Indo-European Religions, overview article; Indus Valley Religion; Jainism; Kaism; Marathi Religions; Parsis; Śaivism; Saura Hinduism; Sikhism; Sinhala Religion; Tamil Religions; Vaisnavism; Vedas; Vedism and Brahmanism.


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Baird, Robert D., ed. Religion in Modern India. New Delhi, 1998.

Heehs, Peter, ed. Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience. New York, 2002.

Larson, Gerald James. India's Agony over Religion. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Religions of India in Practice. Princeton, N.J., 1995.

Madan, T. N., ed. Religion in India. Delhi and New York, 1992.

Perrett, Roy, ed. Indian Philosophy of Religion. Dordrecht and Boston, 1989.

Sharma, Arvind, ed. Women in Indian Religions. New Delhi and New York, 2002.

Young, Katherine K., ed. Hermeneutical Paths to the Sacred Worlds of India: Essays in Honour of Robert W. Stevenson. Atlanta, 1994.

Jan Gonda (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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