Himachal Pradesh – Religion
Unity in Diversity –
India is widely believed to be the land of spirituality, whose native philosophy detects the presence of the supreme divinity in the flower as well as in the thorn, in stone and in rust, in everything animate and inanimate. Just as Indians see spirituality in diverse forms, they also practice diverse forms of spirituality. It has many gods – the conventional strength of the pantheon is 330 million. And this pantheon’s elasticity is put to good use even today as revered social leaders and sages make the transition from exalted human beings to deities to be venerated. This polytheism also lends Hinduism enormous flexibility in terms of modes of worship, rituals and so on. A characteristic feature of Hinduism is the division of society into a hierarchy of castes.
Like India herself, Hinduism is incapable of confinement or description in words. It is a philosophy, all embracing, all accepting, tolerant of other thoughts, giving vast freedom of choice in worship. The manner of it and even whether there need be any at all – is God a being or the divinity in man or the force or quintessence of all that is. Dharma or the ethical mode of life has dominated Indian thought. Philosophy has deepened and widened the people’s outlook and helped an affectionate approach towards not only fellow beings but towards all nature, especially animals, birds, trees and rivers. The much-discussed myriad of gods and goddesses are but different images of the formless, all pervasive ‘energy’ of this universe and many others beyond it.
Most Hindus believe in reincarnation. All human beings and other living creatures are reborn as a result of their past actions in other lives. Higher beings come on the earth by a voluntary action in order to face a special situation. In the sacred book the Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “To protect the righteous, to destroy the wicked and to establish the kingdom of God, I am born from age to age”.
Through the ages, within the Hindu fold, sages have broken away from any kind of crystallization. Some founded sects and even new religions, offering greater liberty to those who felt or were made to feel, fettered and suffocated. One must admit that large numbers think of religion in terms of idols and Indian practice has not always lived up to the precepts laid down. At different stages, large segments of our society have surrendered to intolerance and insolence. Customs or rites still persist which may have had some significance in an earlier age but are now anachronistic or even actually obstruct progress. A case in point is the caste system.
The Caste System
Early societies all had their hierarchies. Caste of one kind or another has been known in all old lands. In India caste became a set feature of life. People were divided into four groups: Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas, (kings and warriors), Vaishyas (traders and landowners) and Shudras (the workers and lowly people). In the early beginnings there was caste flexibility. Inter marriage between the Aryans and the indigenous people appear to have been common. The children of these marriages gave rise to mixed castes.
Another factor responsible for the proliferation and crystallization of the caste structure was the establishment of craft guilds. Initially there was fluidity that made possible the absorption of people within their structure. This was common as late as the 6th and 7th centuries. An inscription of this period at Mandasaur in Rajasthan records silk-weavers who had migrated from Gujarat taking up professions ranging from soldiering to astrology. In early Tamil literature there is no evidence of caste.
By the late medieval period the caste structure had hardened, the lowness or highness being determined by the functions in which the group was engaged. What is worse, a large segment of the population was placed beyond the pale of these varnas (as castes were called) and sentenced to untouchability. The Hindu mind, which discovered the zero, also invented a system by which the human being was reduced to a zero. Indescribable injustice has been visited upon the so-called untouchables through the centuries. The only extenuating plea that can be made for India is that in other lands such groups would have been killed off but here they were not extirpated.
The Four Stages Of Life
Indian ethics laid down four main ends to man’s life – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. Dharma is a difficult word to translate. It means that which sustains or upholds, a way of life resting on right action, respect for others and being true to one’s self-nature. Artha was the earning of wealth by a right and honest vocation. Kama was the fulfillment of lawful desire or pleasure and Moksha was liberation from rebirth by the perception of the ultimate reality.
In answer to man’s need to learn, to enjoy, to understand and finally to become detached, Hinduism offers four stages or ashrams in man’s existence that allow him to accomplish his life in harmony with Dharma (the law of universal harmony) at all levels. These four stages are essential for a full and meaningful life. Brahmacharya covers the beginning of adolescence and includes the practice of celibacy, the study and knowledge of the sacred teachings transmitted by a Guru. Grihastha, when man married, had children and undertook the responsibilities inherent in the life of a householder. Vanasprastha, the first step towards moving away from the life of the householder and preparing the mind and body for withdrawal from all worldly pursuits and for the involvement in social and religious action. Sanyasa, the final stage when man put on the saffron robe, abandoning home, family, wealth and society, and entered the forest to meditate and seek liberation, before his ultimate departure from the earth.
Religious Life & The Sacred Texts
The religious ethos of India was given flexibility, tolerance and strength by the absence of a single religious doctrine, based on a ‘bible’ or sacred dogma; by the multiplicity of forms and faiths that collectively formed India’s religious beliefs and the Vedic and break-away traditions of our sages and seers. It was an inclusive attitude, drawing the alien heretical belief within a total ambience, extending and absorbing while representing the beliefs of other religions. Heresy was unknown and religious persecution was minimal.
From the earliest times the Indian has envisaged a continuum between God and Nature and Man. The gods were human, but godhead was inherent not only in man but also in all animals and in all creations animate and inanimate. In words of the Bhagvad Gita, a section of the epic Mahabharata, ‘All gods lead to God as all rivers lead to the Sea’. And again it was said ‘Truth is one, the wise perceive it in many ways’. This recognition of the possible limitation of one’s own viewpoint, this hospitality to the opinion of others, this refusal to condemn mankind to a single interpretation of Reality, this high reverence for the quintessence of Truth as distinct from phenomenal forms demonstrates a marvelous maturity of thought. This is the source of much that is most distinctive in our civilization and also the secret of our endurance.
The first millennium BC was a period of abounding creative activity. The sacred worship of the Upanishads where the sublime thinking of centuries coalesced and found expression treads beyond priestly dogma and belief. Anti-theology and anti-ritual, the Upanishads established a new relationship between man and the Brahman, the all-transcending principle. After the Upanishads came our great epics – the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Their influence on the masses has not diminished over the centuries. They continue to enthrall grown up and child alike. In fact we can say that the heroes of these classics have blended with the lives of our people. Typical of India is their method of reaching out simultaneously to different levels of mental development, from intellectual to illiterate. Their stories have been a kind of Open University, quickening our people’s senses of right and wrong and endowing them with examples with whom they can identify themselves and exalt their moral sense. Through a backdrop of heroic tradition and ethical living these classics give harmony to a society which was graded in castes and had many divisions and discords.
Of the two epics, the Ramayana is the much more popular, presumably because it is easier to understand. The epic centres around the hero Rama but there are many subsidiary stories each with its own moral and significance. The Mahabharata is the treatise on the science of society. It is a monumental work, a compilation of not only tradition and legend but also of the political and social institutions of that time. The Mahabharata makes a very definite attempt to stress the fundamental unity of India. What is important about it is not the story that concerns a feud between the Kaurava and Pandava princes for the sovereignty of the country but the sheer abounding wealth of knowledge and the fullness of life, no less than the moral and ethical percepts. In the Mahabharata is a gem of a poem, the ‘Bhagvad Gita’ or the Song of God. The wisdom of the doctrine of the Vedas, Brahmanas and the Upanishads come together in this teaching. It is the most important and the best known of all Hindu scriptures. It comprises a dialogue between Krishna the Lord and Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, of whom he is the friend and charioteer. The Bhagvad Gita expounds the nature and attributes of God. Its teaching is universal and deep. It is a general spiritual philosophy as applied to a specific crisis and relating to the application of ethics and spirituality to the problems of man. In simple language Krishna explains the imponderable truths that are the basis of Indian religious thought.
Through the centuries Indian religion has grown richly and deeply psychological, and has attempted to provide different forms and methods appropriate to different categories of people. There is the Spiritual Man for whom Indian religion provides an utter freedom from all dogma, ceremony and creed. It offers him numerous paths of direct experience of the spiritual verities. There is the Intellectual Man to whom is offered different systems of knowledge, countless philosophies and unending literature of commentaries and of commentaries on commentaries. Then there is the Vital Man, the man of emotion, passion and action for whom there is a vast literature of stories, Kathas, a plethora of accounts and practices, as in the Puranas and Tantras, which will stimulate his imagination and experience and connect them to the deeper truths of the spirit. And finally there is the Physical Man for whom Indian religion is a system of outer symbols and rituals, of festivals and other such occasions, which even in his daily routine, bring him into contact with the deeper truths that, govern the cosmos. It is in this light that the complexity of Indian religious life can rightly be understood.
The Hindu pantheon is prolific; some estimates put the total number of deities at 36 crore (330 million). No beliefs or forms of worship are rejected by Hinduism. All are regarded as a manifestation of Brahman, the One and ultimate reality, and the particular object of veneration and supplication is often a matter of personal choice or tradition at a local or caste level. Brahman is often described as having three facets, the trimurti: Brahma (The Creator), Vishnu (The Preserver) and Shiva (The Destroyer, also known as Mahesh). Within the Shaivite (followers of Shiva) cult, Shakti, the goddess as mother and creator is worshipped as a force in her own right and has many of her own manifestations.
Cults of Nature & Sacred Animals
The cults of Nature and ceremonies of temples have their own superficial and profound significance, although many of them are discouraged by those who feel able to pursue the deeper and higher disciplines of emotions, action and knowledge. In India the river is considered as a loving mother dispensing bounty, fertility and prosperity. The cult of rivers is especially important. The sea in the Indian cosmology is the reservoir of all. Bathing in the sea is considered the most purifying since all the sacred rivers run to the sea.
The love of trees is so strong especially among Indian women that they are regarded as companions. The kalpvriksha or tree of blessing is deeply rooted in Indian belief. Some plants also have strong spiritual significance. The Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) is so sacred that only in times of dire need people would pick its leaves or otherwise interfere with it. It symbolizes the Trimurti (trinity) and a pilgrimage to a sacred banyan is equal to 12 years of sacrifice. Its ashes are said to have the power to eradicate sin. Mango trees (Mangifera indica) are symbolic of love; Shiva is believed to have married Parvati under a mango tree and so mango leaves are often used to decorate marriage pandals (marquees).
Animals, particularly snakes and cows have been worshipped since ancient times in India. The cow represents fertility and nurturing, benign aspects of the mother goddess and is a symbol of Mother India. In the State of Tamil Nadu, on the third day of the Pongal (harvest) festival, sacred cows are washed, decorated and painted before being fed a mix of rice, sugar, dal (lentil) and milk, a dish that ensures prosperity and abundance for the following year. The bull is more aggressive but its association with Lord Shiva as his mount Nandi, accords it enormous respect. Snakes, especially cobras, are also sacred and associated with fertility and welfare. Naga (snake) stones protect humans from snakes and are shrines to fertility.
Folk & Tribal Religion
Folk deities are frequently viewed as being more accessible to the ordinary person and more competent for dealing with everyday village life. Deities identified with mountains or forests may be represented simply by a pile of stones or tree branches, which devotees add to as they pass by. Others may have simple shrines erected in their honour to which devotees bring offerings of flowers, rice and fruit. Some are little known beyond a village. Others such as the goddesses of pestilence like Mariyamma in South India are widely recognized. In South India folk deities are frequently female. A notable exception is Ayannar or Ayappan (ostensibly he is vegetarian and therefore ritually superior), who is worshipped in Tamil Nadu as a protective deity and for whom votive offerings, in the form of terra cotta horses are made in times of need.
Tribal religions have so merged with Hinduism and other mainstream religions that few are now clearly identifiable. But in the Nilgiri hills of South India, the Toda people still cling to their own beliefs even though they have adopted some Hindu and Christian customs over the years. The vegetarian Toda venerate the buffalo upon which they depend for milk, butter and ghee. This relationship extends into the afterlife. When a Toda dies, a buffalo is killed to accompany them into the next world where it will continue to provide milk and its by-products for sustenance and ritual purposes.
Polytheistic eclecticism lends Hinduism a capacity to co-exist with other religions that goes beyond tolerance. Religious tolerance is an Indian concept, coined by cultures that accept the idea of a single, true god. Monotheistic religions see other religions as false. These deviant religions can either be transformed or converted, to the true faith or they can be tolerated. Hinduism, in contrast, accepts plurality of gods and plurality of the ways of spiritual fulfillment. At a theological level, therefore, Hinduism does not recognize any religion as being deviant; all represent valid ways of attaining man’s goal of spiritual fulfillment. This perspective has informed the attitude of Indian society and Indian rulers to non-Hindu faiths that have travelled to this land from different parts of the world. Judaism, Christianity and Islam made their way to India across the Arabian sea, aboard the sailing ships that ferried timber, spices, gold and perfumes between the Malabar coast and the Levant.
A small Jewish settlement in Kochi, Kara, has earned for India the distinction of being the only country in the world where the Jews have not been persecuted. Legend has it that St Thomas; one of Christ’s original 12 disciples travelled to Kerala and converted a section of the local population to Christianity. Whatever the veracity of this claim, it is a historical fact that Christianity reached Kerala before it reached Europe and that the liturgy of several Christian denominations in Kerala continues to be in the ancient languages of the Middle East. Nor was Islam borne to India at the point of the sword, as many people believe.
The western coast has been home to Muslim settlements since the 7th century. True, subsequent invasions by Muslim rulers and the experience of colonialism have helped these religions spread in other parts of the country. This does not negate the fact that the original response of Indian rulers and society at large to the advent of external religions was hospitable rather than hostile. In fact, the only religion known to have invited active Hindu antagonism is Buddhism, with its streak of agnosticism and subversion of the caste hierarchy.
Hinduism, while receptive to theological diversity, punishes infringements of caste divides with ferocity, even today in rural India. It has been observed that certain recent attempts to mobilise Hindus politically on the basis of hostility towards other religions have met with only limited success because such attempts go against the traditional culture of Hinduism. Unity in diversity continues to the only viable collective imperative for many splendour India.
Yet in its philosophical groundwork, Hindu society does not aim at exclusiveness. From this has risen India’s unrivalled capacity to accept and assimilate. It is also true that religious people respect and accept the saints and great souls of their religions. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs will go with equal fervour to obtain the blessings of a Shankaracharya or a famous Muslim diviner. You will often see a church, a mosque, a temple or a gurudwara all on the same road or in the same vicinity.
In India there are as many temples as gods who conceived the world. But for the Indian the temple is not the only place of worship of the divinity. Even if the sanctuaries disappeared the religious life would not change an iota. The temples of the Hindus are at the same time the entire universe and their own bodies. In the Hindu concept of existence (Sanatan Dharma) there is no separation between sacred and profane activity. The temple is the centre of the cosmos as well as of man. Believers come to render homage to one of the major figures of the Indian pantheon or to seek protection of the god of their choice. The two main rites are individual worship (puja) and ritual sacrifices (yagna). The rites are a most complex and painstaking art. There are a number of symbolic gestures in all the rites. The idea of worshipping images is to venerate the invisible through what is visible.
There is a saying that if the measurement of the temple is perfect, then there will be perfection in the universe. For Hindus, the square is the perfect shape and complex rules govern the location, design and building of each temple, based on numerology, astrology, astronomy and religious law. These are so complicated and important that it is customary for each temple to harbour its own particular set of calculations as though they were religious texts.
Essentially a temple is a map of the universe. At the centre there is an unadorned space, the garbha griha (inner shrine or sanctum sanctorum), which is symbolic of the ‘womb-cave’ from which the universe emerged. This provides a residence for the deity to which the temple is dedicated. Above the shrine rises a superstructure known as shikara in North India and vimana in South India, which is representative of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain that supports the heavens. Caves and mountain are linked by an axis that rises vertically from the shrine’s icon to the finial atop the towering spire. As a temple provides a shelter for the deity, it is sacred. Devotees acknowledge this by performing a parikrama (clockwise circumambulating) of it, a ritual that finds architectural expression in the passageways that track around the main shrine. Some temples also have mandapams or halls connected to the sanctum by vestibules. These halls also contain spires.
Visitors please note • dress conservatively, remove your shoes before entering. Please do not attempt to enter the inner shrine room if you are not a Hindu.