Is the current Hindu religion Vedic?
If we were to go back to the Rgvedic religion, here is what it would mean.
- There would be no temples.
- The chief religious activity would be the animal sacrifice in a yagna. Not the currently ubiquitous pooja.
- This sacrifice ritual will be very different from the kind that does exist today in many areas of India. And would be to a completely different set of deities.
- We would all be non-vegetarians.
- Indra would be the most important god in our pantheon.
- Vishnu would be a minor deity. There would be no Dashavatar, no Rama, no Krishna.
- Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagwat Gita, Puranas won’t exist as religious texts.
- There would be no concept of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh as Trimurti.
- There would be no Shiva as we know him. There would be an almost outcaste Rudra, but he would be missing most of Shiva’s legacy as we know them today.
- There would be minor female deities like Usha, Ratri, Prithvi. But no Durga, Kali, Parvati, Sati, Minakshi, Saptamatrika, etc.
- There won’t be any mainstream recognition of ascetics, wandering sadhus, body-mortifying tapasya/penance.
Did Muslims destroy the Rgvedic religion?
No. A lot happened to the Rgvedic religion much before Islam was even conceived.
Many changes happened simply because changes happen as philosophical ideas, society, politics and economic life evolve and change. But there were definitely two major influences.
- Existing (Dravidian, but perhaps with huge local variations) culture of the subcontinent
- Reactions to sacrificial Vedic religion in an age that gave us Upanishads, Buddhism, and Jainism.
In Rgvedic Sanskrit itself, there are signs of borrowings from the Dravidian language family. Culture and religion could not have stayed far behind. While there was definitely a class of older inhabitants of the subcontinent who were left outside the folds of the Aryan varna system (who became the ancestors of today’s untouchable castes and the tribal folks), there were others who were assimilated. It might have been driven or accelerated by the Aryan men’s need to marry local women.
Then, 500-1000 years after Rgveda we had a period whose best remembered legacy is the origin of Buddhism and Jainism. But these religions had not cropped up in a vacuum. By this period we had Upanishads and people were asking more profound philosophical questions than Rgvedic folks ever bothered with. Asceticism, principles of non-violence, search for spirituality and a connection with the higher power, the need to understand the self and its relation to the world – these things became mainstream in religious and philosophical discourses. The religion didn’t turn away from sacrifices overnight, but the seeds were sown.
This period was around 500-600 BC.
Through a lot of evolution, reaction, and mixing of ideas Hindu religion came to its currently recognizable shape, at least from a scholarly viewpoint, in the first few centuries after Christ in the Gupta period. This makes it 800 to 1000 years after Buddha. Although there are many medieval influences (Bhakti movement for one, and many texts in popular languages) that went into making the popular religion of today.
Where did the temples come from?
Temples are a post-Buddhism phenomenon. Buddhist stupas, cave temples, and monasteries are the most likely inspiration for temples in the Hindu religion. Most ancient temples we know today are 1000-1500 years old, no more. It is still a lot of history, but there is nothing “sanatan” about the temples. Rgveda is 2000-2500 years old in comparison.
The simplest answer is that non-vegetarianism is a result of Buddhist influence. But like most historical changes it must have been a complex one. The initial impulse wouldn’t have been just Buddhism. As mentioned earlier, it was a period that saw strong reactions to Rgvedic religion based on animal sacrifice.
But Buddhism is definitely the most important survival from the era. Later as Buddhism became influential, the traditional religion reacted with coded rules and philosophy to elevate itself, especially the Brahmins. By the Gupta period, vegetarianism for Brahmins is another recognizable feature of the current Hindu religion that was well established.
Dashavatar, Rama, Krishna?
These legends started developing much before Buddha, in the centuries soon after Rgveda was composed. But there isn’t a single original source of these stories. The initial conception of avatars was perhaps an attempt to assimilate local deities into the mainstream religion. Matsya, Kachchhapa, and many other avatars are acknowledged but have never been specifically sacrificed to, or worshipped, in the mainstream religion. Rgvedic folks celebrate nature and pray for cattle, but there isn’t much indication of worshipping animal-original deities. Rama and Krishna were perhaps much later additions to the list of avatars.
Many deities we know today have had an evolution of their own. Especially the ones which are known today with multiple names.
Krishna is an interesting case in point. A lot of names that are used for the same deity now weren’t always the same. In all likelihood that Krishna of Vrindavan, the deity of cowherds, was different from the Krishna who preached Gita to Arjuna. Krishna of Dwarka may have a different origin as well. Vasudeva was definitely a different deity than Krishna who was later made synonymous with Krishna and Vishnu. Balgopal may have yet another different origin.
This history of assimilation of different deities in one becomes more believable when we compare it to the current set of deities that have “North Indian” and “South Indian” equivalents. For example, identifying Murugan with Skanda or Kartikeya. They definitely don’t have the same origin but have been assimilated into the mainstream religion as one by now.
Shiva is also an amalgamation of deities. The ascetic, the tantrik, the yogi, the deity of animals (Pashupati), the householder (with Parvati and their sons) – all of these have come together over time from disparate local origins.
What happened to the Harappan religion?
We still don’t know enough. The relationship of Harappans with the later Indians was not very clear for a long time. Their script is still far from being deciphered. But the genetic studies of recent years have established that the Harappan genes are present in almost all the Indians today, and more so in the South Indians. So, culture-wise it is likely that Dravidian culture was a successor of Harappan, even if they were not identical. And hence the Hindu religion of today may very well have absorbed elements of Harappan religion.
Impact of Aryan religion on the Dravidian religion?
Aryan Rgvedic religion definitely absorbed elements from the Dravidian religion as time passed. What happened the other way? Dravidian religion was also thoroughly Aryanised. The oldest Tamil (Dravidian) texts, collectively called Sangam literature, already have the influence of Sanskrit. Agastya, a Rgvedic rishi, is supposed to have given Tamil it’s first grammar. In the same “sangam” where the Sangam literature is supposed to have been composed. Even if this myth came into the picture later than the time of the composition of the literature, the very acceptance of a rishi coming from the North as one of the most important cultural and literary icons speaks volumes about the acceptance of Aryan influence.
The religions came together and this combined religion became the ancestor of the current Hindu religion.
Is everything clean and clear now?
By no means.
Yes – the vegetarianism of Brahmins now may have almost 2000 years of history. But not all Brahmins are vegetarian. I personally know that Bengali and Maithil Brahmins have a tradition of eating specific meat.
While the Vedic sacrificial culture didn’t really survive, a different kind of sacrifice, to female deities, Shakti and Durga of the world, became a part of mainstream religion in some parts of the country. Again, I am personally familiar with the sacrificial rituals in Bihar, Bengal, and Assam.
To the extent we did become vegetarian, it remained an upper-caste phenomenon.
The local variations in religious beliefs and rituals are staggering. As much as certain powerful factions would like to impose a uniformity on the idea of the Hindu religion today, we are a land of a thousand Ramayanas.
We still keep creating deities (Sheetla Mata couldn’t be too old). For all we know, Corona Mata is in the making.
It is a mish-mash. There is no one God. There is no last messiah. There is no single book of truth. Everyone can find a god or goddess to suit them. And they can choose to not believe in them at all.
We are better off that way. Because we need the freedom to question. We need the freedom to reform, the freedom to change.
Photo by Apoorv Dubey on Unsplash