Indian Religions: Rural Traditions

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The religious beliefs and practices of rural India reflect the influence of three general cultural traditions that throughout history have mingled and mixed in varying degrees. Grouped generally, these traditions are those of agricultural cultures, food-gathering communities, and nomadic societies.

Since the third millennium bce the most stable groups within these three traditions have been those of the agricultural cultures, which are typified by their development of written script and by their emergent sophistication in the production of artifacts reflecting a pervasive consciousness of the earth and its vegetation. The myth-bound lives of people in these cultures have long been linked to the cycles of time experienced in the circular movement of the seasons and in the resulting change in the earth's character. The fundamental energy that gave life to sprouting seeds was commonly understood to be feminine and was represented in female imagesalthough a variety of icons, figurines, and magical geometric drawings painted on home floors and walls also reveal a pervasive worship of the sun, water, grain, and other natural phenomena. Possessed of an archaic knowledge of tools and agricultural methods, these people were India's first inventors and creators and have given as their cultural inheritance to India agrarian technologies that until recently remained unchanged for five thousand years.

A second general cultural stream arose from the archaic food-gatherers living in India's forests and mountain regions and whose myths reflect the notion that they are the firstborn of the earth. Made up mostly of tribal societies with a remote past and no recorded history, these groups established kingdoms and ruled large areas of the vast interior of India, but then disappeared again into the wilderness, where they lived in caves, hunted animals, and collected wild foodstuffs from the dark and pathless forests. These peoples, too, experienced life as power and developed magical and sacerdotal means by which they could please or combat the intensely felt but unseen and terrible potencies of the natural world. Like the ancient agriculturalists, they also felt kinship with the earth but in their case revered the animals and wild plants of the forest rather than of the domestic arena. They, too, knew the earth intimately and understood her to whisper her secrets to them as long as they did not wound her breasts with the plough.

The third cultural stream was comprised of nomadic peoples, wanderers across the lands who have bequeathed to their descendants a racial memory of ancient migrations across wild deserts, over rugged mountains, and through lush valleys. These were cattle herders and horse riders who first entered India, the land of rivers, seeking water for their stock. They had a penetrating visual vocabulary based on an astute appreciation of color and light. Their rituals and art forms share in this vibrant experience of the world. Their bards and dancers were vigorous drinkers who lived a free and spontaneous life full of the passion of war and love.

India's rural religious traditions arose from the confluence of these three cultural streams. These ancient societies are the predecessors of the rural people today whose farming techniques, arts, and rituals give form to primordial tribal myths. When women today paint ceremonial drawings, when artisans create fecundative images, when singers and performers tell of epic conquests, they concretize the legends and mysteries of these ancient groups. From this archaic unconscious come rural myths of cosmic power, of cyclical destruction and creation, of natural processes in which human beings live their lives.

Women of today's higher castes in northern Mithila recount a myth that is identical both in form and meaning to a legend sung by autochthonous women of the deep south who worship the goddess Pedammā. The long history of the myth indicates a substratum of powerful and energetic female memories, the unconscious source of which is transmitted through feminine culture and given form in the act of communication between mother and daughter. In this myth are to be found remnants of ancient wisdom regarding creative power that carries the germ of its own destruction. Out of this tradition arises values that are deeply understood by the women of Mithila, who say with great simplicity that "these insights come from a time without beginning; we carry this wisdom in our wombs."

Candrakālā Devī, a traditional artist of Mithila, narrates the following myth:

First there was di Śakti ("primordial power"), another name for whom was Mahāmāyā ("great creator"). She was the one, alone. She desired [a partner] and, displaying her māyā, created the manifest world out of the void. A cosmic egg appeared and the new male gods Brahmā, Viu, and Śiva emerged when it hatched. As these gods grew to young manhood, di Śakti turned with fiery passion to Brahmā and sought to marry him. Brahmā recoiled, saying, "You are our mother!" The goddess laughed at him and reduced him to ashes. The same thing happened to Viu: He, too, retreated, filled with horror and he, too, was consumed by fire. The luminous goddess then approached Śiva, the young, beautiful, long-limbed youth who, hearing her demands, smiled and accepted her as his bride.

The story's versions as told in the South and the North are the same to this point. But now they diverge. In the legend as told in Mithila (in the North), Śiva responds to the goddess di Śakti by asking her to accept him as her disciple. She agrees to his request, and Śiva learns from her the secrets of life and various incantations for raising the dead. Having mastered these mysteries and ancient secrets of power, Śiva then destroys the primordial di Śakti by engulfing her with flame and reducing her to ashes, promising to her as he does so that he will marry her again after many aeons when she is reborn as Satī, the daughter of Daksa. The story acknowledges that this second marriage did, indeed, eventually take place.

The Dravidian variantone in which passionate youth is said to lead irrevocably to old age and decrepitudeis darker and more archaic. As in the northern version, Śiva agrees to marry di Śakti after the goddess has reduced Brahmā and Viu to ashes for refusing to do so. In the southern account Śiva is then said to ask di Śakti if he may have as a gift from her the brilliant jewel that shines as brightly as ten thousand suns and that rests on her forehead. Infatuated, she agrees to the request and hands the jewel to her young lover. As he takes it from her hand the goddess ages frightfully, as if centuries had just elapsed in the moment's duration. Formerly a beautiful goddess who lived unhindered by time, she is now suddenly a bent and undesirable old woman. Time, the devourer of all things, has entered the world. Śiva merely smiles; for he is Kālā, the lord of time. With this action, the new gods have taken over. The primordial primacy of female power is reduced to ashes, its brilliance usurped. The female takes second place in the Puranic pantheon to the male.

Candrakālā Devī molds images of di Śakti out of clay and paper pulp to which has been added methi (cumin seed), ground to a paste. The image of the goddess has many arms, an elongated body, and hollow eyes. She is reminiscent of the ancient and universal Mātalas, the earth mothers. Their gaunt, passionless, masklike faces have crater-deep eyes, stark with the secrets of death and life.

Images of di Śakti, the primeval mother, are made at harvest time. Also known as Aabhuja ("eight armed"), she holds in her hands the cosmic egg as well as a cup that holds the seed or blood to fertilize the fields; she also holds the sun and moon, the earth (depicted as a flat plate and covered with grass and sprouts of other plants), two bullocks pulling a plow, a plowshare, a flower, and a sword.

By the beginning of the second millennium (no one knows exactly how early), groups of peoples migrated into India from the Northwest. They were not of one tribe, nor had they all reached the same levels of cultural development or of artistic abilities. The best-known of these migrating groups were the Vedic Aryans. Strong, heroic, and proud of their identity, these people had wandered the steppes for generations, never settling long enough to establish any cities.

The Vedic Aryans were warriors who brought with them into the river valleys of northern India the songs and poems that came to be included in the mantra s (hymns) of the Vedic religious textual tradition. Their songs were robust, loud, and full of life: hymns to the awesome processes of nature; invocations to Aditya, the sun god; praises to Vāyu, the wind, and to Uas, the maiden of the dawn. Moving into the decaying or destroyed Harappan urban areas, the Vedic Aryans introduced to those agricultural peoples the instruments of war, new dimensions of language, new volumes of sound, new relationships with nature, and pulsing vitality.

In successive waves through the centuries the Vedic Aryans moved on their horse-driven chariots along the densely forested banks of the Indus, Ganges, and Yamunā rivers. It took a thousand years for them to reach the Narmada River in central India (in modern Madhya Pradesh), by which time they had merged into the cultures of the vast hinterland through intermarriage and by adopting local customs, skills, and tools.

It is likely that the Vedic Aryans found the original inhabitants of India living at various levels of technological culture, those groups living within the walled cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa contrasting vividly with the Paleolithic societies living in the dense forests along the banks of the Ganges or in the caves of the Vindhya Mountains. Five-thousand-year-old ruins scattered throughout the Harappan sites indicate that the people of the Indus Valley had established a highly developed society: They had discovered the wheel, with which they transformed their methods of transportation and increased the sophistication with which they molded their clay pots; they had developed simple tools with which they could measure angles and with which they could build structures with precision and accuracy; they had learned to grow and spin cotton, to weave and dye cloth, to mold clay, and to cast bronze into figurines.

Intense intellectual and psychological activity accompanied the tremendous revolution in technology and the production of tools brought about by these early city dwellers. They had developed a script to illumine their pictographs, and they practiced yoga and other meditative techniques to expand their minds.

With the fall of the cities to natural and martial forces, large numbers of people took refuge in the wilds of central India, traveling all the way to the banks of the Narmada and Tapti rivers and even farther south. They carried with them into the inner lands of the subcontinent their knowledge of agriculture, technology, ritual, and magic. The influence of these urban skills and perceptions appear in their symbols, worship, and magical practices.

The migrations of nomadic peoples onto the fertile plains of India were to continue through the centuries. One of the most important of these tribes to the development of Indian culture and its rural traditions were the Ahirs, who came to be known in the epic Mahābhārata as the "snake-loving" Abhiras.

The figure of Ka also was known as Māyō or Māyavan in ancient Tamil samgam literature; the dark-skinned, non-Aryan god emerged in the culture of Mathurā and reflects a mixture of elements from Ahir and tribal backgrounds. The name itself, Ka ("dark one"), is pregnant with early Aryan scorn; but it was Ka who was to supply the generative vitality that transformed Indian arts and culture.

Stories about the personalities and affairs of Ka, of the Goddess, and of other local heroes were collected by the compilers of the epic poems the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaa. These tales, as well as myths and legends recounted in the various Purāas, traveled by word of mouth through the vast lands of India. Transmission of these stories was enhanced by their widespread multifaceted use of song, dance, mime, drama, and iconography. These various media allowed all kinds of people, particularly members of those tribal groups living outside the mainstream of society, to experience the sensory nature of the divine presence and to express the immediacy of that presence through an active, personal, and contemporaneous participation.

Rural painters and balladeers drew their inspiration and source material from Ahir love songs, accounts of brave and victorious heroes, and tales of the Puranic gods and their erotic adventures. The most famous of these ballads was the Lorikagan, which was composed in Avadhi (a dialect of Hindi) and which recounts the love held by Lorik, an Ahir from the Mithila country, for Chaa, the wife of Śrīdhara. According to the tale, Śrīdhara had become impotent as a result of a curse placed on him by the goddess Pārvatī. Chaa then fell in love and eloped with Lorik. Śrīdhara searched for the couple, only to be killed by Lorik when he found them. The young couple then approached the master gambler Mahāpatra Dusadh and engaged him in a game of dice. Lorik lost Chaa and all his wealth to Mahāpatra Dusadh. But Chaa argued with Dusadh that the stakes involved in the game did not include her clothing and demanded that the gambling continue. On resumption of the game she sat down in front of Dusadh and exposed her beautiful body. Intoxicated by the sight of Chaa's nakedness, Dusadh lost control of the game and was defeated by Lorik, who later killed him. This legend finds expression in paintings, theater, and song.

The tribal kings of central India also had an ancient bardic tradition. The Gond rāja s included in their courts official tribal genealogists and musicians known as Pardhans, who recounted to the royal household the ancient stories of the Gond hero-kings and warriors. Serving also as priests and diviners, in time the Pardhans absorbed Hindu legends, gods, and even ethics into their tribal epics, ballads, and other expressions of folklore.

A Pardhan today worships his musical instrument, the bana, as the god Bara Pen. "As his sacred books [are] to a Brahmin, as his scales [are] to a Bania, as his plough [is] to a Gond, so is the bana to the Pardhan" (Hivale, 1946, p. 66).

It is said that the original Pardhan was timid when he first played his wonderful new music in the house of the Gond brothers. But he played so divinely that all those residing in the heavenly as well as earthly worlds were enchanted. Even the supreme god, Nāyāya Deo, stood watching in amazement. Then the Pardhan forgot his shyness and completely lost himself in his music. He danced ecstatically with his bana, with which he produced sounds the world had never heard before. On that day, it is said, three new par s (sounds or combination of sounds) known as Sarsetī Par, Nāyāya Par, and Pujan Par were first created.

Pābujī is a folk hero who is especially popular among the Bhils, a tribal group living in Rajasthan. According to legend, Pābujī was suckled as an infant by a lioness and grew to be a brave warrior. He was given a powerful black mare named Kāmī by Deva, a cāra woman of a pastoral community. In return for this gift Pābujī promised to protect Deva's life and cattle, and he eventually died in the attempt to keep his promise. Among the Bhils are a group of bardic musicians (bhopā s) who travel through the countryside with a fifteen-foot long painted scroll known as the Pābujī-ka-Pad (Pābujī's scroll). In its center lies the main figure, a portrait of Pābujī himself, painted in vibrant red, black, olive, and yellow ocher. Surrounding this main figure are depictions of warriors engaged in battle, images of horses, lions, and tigers, and scenes of heroic incidents that serve to illustrate the legend of Pābujī. Performers reenact stories based on that legend at night. The scroll is stretched out, oil lamps are lit, and the bhopā sings his story. As he sings, a woman lifts the lamp to the cloth in order to illumine for the crowd the figures of warriors on horseback, animals, birds, and other elements of the tales. She joins with the bhopā in singing the refrain and, at times, dances.

The bards of the Santāls in Bengal and Bihar are known as jādu pauā ("magic-painters"), who carry from village to village their painted pa s depicting scenes from the Puraas as well as their own tribal cosmogonic and anthropogonic myths.

The fundamental assumptions of male supremacy in Brahmanic culture were established by the time of the classical law books such as the Manusmti (c. 200 bce100 ce) and the various Dharmaśāstras. According to these and other texts, a girl was dependent on her father and then, as a woman, was inferior to her husbands and sons. Such ideals of Indian womanhood as obedience and faithfulness to the male were embodied in the images of the goddesses Sītā and Savitrī.

Vedic learning was closed to women by the time of the smti ("remembered") literatures. However, in the vast and flat countryside that encircled the cities and in the rural life of the village and fields surged a powerful, flexible, ancient, and secret undercurrent among women, wandering yogins, Tantric adepts, and magician-priests, who focused their religious sensibilities on the primeval female, Śakti, and on Śiva, the mysterious god of the autochthonous tribes.

The earliest, almost primordial, images of the earth mother glorified a feminine creative principle made manifest by the image itself, which often celebrated the secrets of birth and death. The dark earth-bound goddess was a mother, yet a virgin, for "no father seemed necessary to the society in which she originated" (Kosambi, 1962, p. 90). Originally represented aniconically through hieroglyphs and vegetation symbols, through the centuries the primeval mother came to be represented in animal and finally in anthropomorphic images of Śakti, who had a thousand names and forms. Potent with the energy of life itself, and holding within herself the essence of her earlier incarnations, she had the capacity to heal and transform. Such earlier forms find expression in the hieroglyphic triangle resting on her heart or generative organs. Her vegetal nature appeared in the plants she held in her hands. Her animal incarnations were transformed into the various beasts on which she rode. As the primary physical and spiritual essence of the universe, Śakti was alive in the experience of color, form, taste, and fragrance. In her final form she was Durgāthe holder of all life, brighter than a thousand suns.

Tantric texts describe Durgā's symbols: "The Goddess of renowned form assumes in times of protection the form of a straight line. In times of dissolution, she takes the form of a circle. Similarly for creation she takes the brilliant appearance of a triangle" (Sastry, 1906, p. 280).

A new priesthood and new relationships with the gods became inevitable with the rise of the male godhead into the Puranic pantheon. The emergent potent male deity was known as the ketrapal (guardian of the field and womb), Thakur Dev. The ketrapal protected and fecundated the earth and field, the body of the goddess. In the religious rites the people expressed their search for cosmic transformation, embodied in the act of sexual union between the God and Goddess. Agricultural magic fused with alchemical and Tantric practices.

Either the aboriginal magician-priest known as the baiga or a priest from the potter, the barber, or the camār community presided at ceremonies worshiping trees and river-washed stones held at the village or forest shrines honoring the primeval mother, the Goddess, various deities, or the tribal hero. The potency of his magic was recognized and accepted by the villagers and householders living in the sheltered rural societies. The Tantric doctrines outlined in the gama and Nigama textual traditions, the frenzied ecstatic worship of Śakti through ritual performance and mantra -recitation, had pervaded the Indian psyche to the depths of the cultural subconscious. In prosperous villages the Puranic gods were worshiped; but along with this praise, and at a deeper level, a worship of the pre-Vedic deities continued and the practice of Tantric rituals remained.

One of the attributes of the Goddess was jāgarit (wakefulness). Through practicing such vrata ("vow") rites as fasting, meditative concentration, and other observances, the woman votary directly invoked the power of the goddess by awakening her power (śakti ) inherent in various symbols, stones, trees, and water pots. She drew geometric shapes (maala s) on the ground and on the wall of houses, worshiped the interlocking triangle known as the yantra dedicated to the Goddess, and performed in the darkness various rituals accompanying the sprouting of corn. Songs, dance, and image-making flourished as part of the ceremonies. The worshiper hoped through creative expression, vrata, and ritual song and dance to awaken Śakti and to ensure that, once awakened, that primal energy was not dissipated or dispersed.

Unlike the temporary clay images of the grāma mātkā s ("village mothers"), which have mysterious links with the earth and its cyclical patterns of creation and destruction, the images of the vīra s (deified "heroes") and the ketrapal s are shafts embodying virility and power carved in stone and wood. Rising as pillars to the sky and toward the sun and yet rooted in the earth, the harsh simplicity of the flat visual planes thus gives to the images a heroic dimension representing the sanctity of the immovable and the eternal divine presence.

The term vīra ("hero") is often used to refer to the valiant ancestors killed in battle while protecting women, fields, and cattle. It also is used to describe the alchemists, yogins, magicians, and enlightened ones who gained control over and conquered the ways of their bodies and minds. Both types of vīra s were deified and worshiped in the form of the vīrakā and pāiā stones. The vīra cult itself is an ancient one that centers on an admixture of ancestor worship, veneration of the heroic protectors and guardians as well as of magicians and seers, and praise of such figures as the Hurā Purā (deified heroes) or the yi Vail (deified ancestors) of the Bhil tribes. The cult also includes the worship of a wonderfully rich symbolic complex associated with the yaka s, spirits of the forests and rivers known by the compilers of the Atharvaveda and the Purāas. Depicted as having tall male bodies (which they are mysteriously able to transform), the yaka s were regarded at first as malevolent beings, but underwent a significant change at some point when they became associated and identified with the ketrapal s and the vīrā s, with whom they protected and watched over the welfare of the earth and the Goddess.

India's most powerful symbol of the hero is a rider on a horse. Carved in memorial stones or cast in metal icons and amulets, the image displays the vitality and energy of the heroic male.

Elements of the vīra cult evolved through time into the worship of Śiva, the supreme god of rural India. Śiva is described as late as the third century ce as a yaka who is to be propitiated in the wild regions beyond the village walls. Rural customs still exist in India that reflect Śiva's autochthonous origins. In the Punjab and in Himachal Pradesh, for example, women are not permitted the worship of Śiva. Women in Uttar Pradesh can worship Śiva in the form of the liga, but they must carry their offerings to the god in the corner of their sārī s and must never allow their hand to touch the phallic form as they circumambulate it.

The tribal Bhils worship Śiva as their first ancestor. The Gonds of Bastar sing an epic, Lingo pen, in which they describe the appearance of Śiva in human form:

There the God Mahādev was ruling from the upper sea to the lower sea. What was Mahādev doing? He was swimming like a rolling stone, he had no hands, no feet. He remained like the trunk [of a tree]. Then Mahādev performed austerities for twelve months. And Bhagavān [i.e., Śiva] came and stood close to Mahādev and called to him. "Thy devotion is finished, emerge out of the water." He said, "How shall I emerge? I have no hands, no feet, no eyes." Then Mahādev received man's form. Thus man's form complete was made in the luminous world. (Hislop, 1866, pp. 23)

Next to their drawings of the corn goddess the Warlis of Maharashtra often display an image known as Pāñc Siryā Dev, a headless male figure with five sheaves of sprouting corn emerging from his body. Among the Bhils of Gujarat a five-headed figure with an erect penis is cast in metal and is called Pāñc Mukhi Dev. Both images are linked to Śiva and to cultic fertility rites.

In some regions of West Bengal the roles and personalities of Śiva and the sun god fuse into the worship of Dharma Thākur. The maala (village headman) performs rituals centered on the marriage of Śiva and Gaurī at which Kalighat painters used to congregate in order to sell their paintings to pilgrims.

At the Nilā Gajan or Gambhira festivals Śiva is worshiped as Nilākaha (nilā is an indigo cloth worn by low-caste devotees of Śiva who worship the planets and for whom the Gambhira is a key harvest ritual). Singing abounds in these rites. One song describes Śiva as a cultivator of cotton and as one who loves Koch tribal girls:

The month of Baisakh came,
The farmer ploughed the field;
The month of āh came,
God Śiva planted cotton seeds,
As the planting was over,
Śiva went to the quarter of the Koch women.
He stayed and stayed on there,
Until he knew that cotton had grown.
Śiva returned to gather cotton,
He placed the stuff in the hands of Gagā,
She spun yarn out of it.
Śiva wove a piece of cloth,
The washerwoman Netā washed it clean,
She washed it by water from the ocean of milk. (Bhattacharya, 1977, pp. 6061)

Having become the central deity in rural areas, Śiva then became the figure from which all of the minor rural gods emerged. The elephant-headed Gaeśa ("lord of the folk"), for example, is regarded as the son of Śiva, though no legend specifically relates the nature of his birth. Originally worshiped as a malevolent spirit and the creator of obstacles, Gaeśa underwent a transformation during the time of the composition of the Purāas and assumed the role of protector of the people and the remover of obstacles. Hanumān (or Māruti), the devotee of Rāma, is also known to be an incarnation of Mahābhairav, who, in turn, is one of Śiva's many manifestations. No forest or village masculine deity is free of an intimate association with Śiva, the central personality of the cosmos and locus of the processes of creation and destruction.

Deep within the religious practices and ideologies of rural India lie the recognition of cosmic transformation marked by the flexive flow of creation and destruction, the appreciation of the vital forces of life, and the longing to be protected from the powers of the physical and spiritual worlds. The gods fuse and merge, or they are transformed, or they vanish with the receding forests and disappearing tribes. New gods come into being and new rituals emerge, bringing with them changes in the form and content of religious expressions. But the sacredness and the mystical power of rural religious sensibilities survive the many changes in deities and rituals throughout history.

See Also

Alchemy, article on Indian Alchemy; Bengali Religions; Goddess Worship, article on the Hindu Goddess; Hindi Religious Traditions; Horses; Indus Valley Religion; Ka; Mahābhārata; Maalas, article on Hindu Maalas; Marathi Religions; Purāas; Rāmāyaa; Śāstra Literature; Śiva; Tamil Religions; Tantrism; Yantra.


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