The Religions of South Asia

Statue of Buddha in India

Statue of Buddha in India

The Indus Valley and Vedic Culture

The story of South Asian religious life begins with the river Indus and its tributaries. The Indus was the center of the earliest complex urban culture of which we have evidence in the region, the Indus Valley or Harappan culture (ca. 2800-1500 B.C.E.) Some scholars postulate continuities between elements of the culture, such as possible goddess or fertility worship, and later religious developments in South Asia, such as the growth of the cult of the goddess in Hinduism. The great Hindu god Shiva, who gained prominence later, may also relate to a figure present on Indus Valley seals. Similarities between the Indus Valley and later cultures are difficult to verify, because the script found in the Indus Valley is undeciphered and available evidence is entirely material.

In contrast, our understanding of the culture that immediately followed, that of the arya (or “nobles” as they called themselves in their texts), is almost exclusively shaped by literary evidence. By 1200 B.C.E., the Vedic culture of the arya came to dominate the central plains of the north. Vedic culture is so named for the literature of the period, the Veda. The word veda comes from the Sanskrit root vid (to know) and veda generally means “wisdom,” or in this context, a set of texts that deal primarily with ritual. It is not exactly clear from the available evidence how the arya—who spoke a language (Sanskrit) with Central Asian roots and had cultural ties to the Greeks and Romans—came to dominate the area.

Interactions between the arya and other local peoples are to a degree reflected in a late hymn from the Rig Veda (the earliest of the Vedic texts), which describes a hierarchical division of society into four varna or classes: brahmins or ritual specialists; ksatriya or warriors; vaishyas or merchants; and shudras, made up of laborers, artisans, and farmers. According to this schema many non-Aryans (but almost certainly not all) would have been relegated to the lowest class of shudras.

The veda provide insight into the religious life and worldview of the Sanskrit-speaking people, a class of ritual specialists or priests (brahmins) who transmitted the texts orally within families or lineages for generations. A key concept found in the Vedic texts is sacrifice, which often involved animals or plants and nonliving materials like spices and cloth. The ritual acts and words of sacrifice were the primary means of communicating with the various deities, gaining their favor, and preventing calamity. The correct ritual action was held to bring about a particular effect if completed correctly.

Prominent among the gods invoked and assuaged through sacrifice was the warrior god Indra, a testament to the militaristic nature of early Indo-Aryan culture, and Agni, the god of fire. Agni is the primary intermediary between the gods and men through the sacrificial fire. Many of the Vedic gods are no longer prominent in contemporary Hinduism, but the veda are considered to be revelation by many practicing Hindus, and aspects of Vedic practice such as the use of the sacrificial fire persist.

Foundations of the Contemplative, Renunciatory Model: The Upanishads

By the middle of the last millennium B.C.E., the tribal society associated with Vedic culture was settled and urbanized. Within this society, renunciation became a valid social option among diverse sectors, providing space for shramanas, or ascetics who sought liberation from the world of suffering through austerity.

The Upanishads represent these perspectives within orthodox Vedic tradition, without rejecting the authority and primacy of the veda.

The early Upanishads (from mid-first millennium B.C.E.) deal with sacrifice but focus on individuals and their relationship with the world. Their primary concern is the hidden connections and equivalences among the world at large, the human self or body, and ritual action—the bindings that join all beings, events, and the world into one. It is in this context that the texts explore the equivalency of atman, the self (which can refer both to the spiritual center of a person and the living, breathing person) and Brahman, the cosmos.

Key concepts found in earlier Vedic literature arise in the Upanishadic and other contemporary writings but with profound changes. The cycle of birth and rebirth called samsara is introduced for the first time in the Upanishads, as is an expanded meaning of karma as “action,” which established that all actions have certain effects according to an immutable law and such effects govern the process of rebirth. The possibility of escape from the cycle of birth and death (moksha or enlightenment) was a radically different goal from that encoded into Vedic ritual, which focused on the achievement of certain goals and positive results in this world.

The paired concepts of renunciation and enlightenment or release came to have a profound influence upon the development of religious and philosophical thought in South Asia for millennia. The focus of the Veda on family and society also continued, many times in contexts that owed little allegiance to Vedic thought. The two ideologies have remained in a tense balance in Indian intellectual and religious thought to this day.

Responses to and Reformulation of Vedic Traditions: Buddhism and Its Contexts

The changing worldview described in the Upanishads is also evident in two other contemporary major movements, those founded by Mahavira (Jainism) and Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (Buddhism). These shramana movements share much of the basic worldview of the Upanishads but propose radical re-evaluations of Vedic practice and ideology. Both reject the ultimate authority of the veda, unlike the Upanishadic tradition.

The generally accepted dates for Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, are 563–483 B.C.E. Accounts of the Buddha’s life are based on later hagiographies; the actual words of the Buddha were not written down during his own time and the first recordings date from the last century B.C.E. The Buddha is one of three key elements of Buddhist belief and practice. The other two are dharma (here meaning “teaching”) and sangha (“community of believers”). These three—the Buddha, dharma, and sangha—are called the three “jewels” of Buddhism and form the center of Buddhist religious thought and identity.

There is a tendency in the West to understand Buddhism primarily through textual and philosophical evidence; that is, through a focus on dharma. Buddhism is also the religion lived by the sangha (monks and nuns—representing a radically new social option for women—as well as lay practitioners) and materialized in representations of the Buddha and sacred sites such as stupas, reliquary monuments holding the remains of the Buddha and other revered persons. Besides the actual teachings and biography of the Buddha, also important are accounts of his past lives, the Jataka Tales. Memorials and tales to his followers and the great saints, who play a prominent role in Buddhist cosmology, play a great role in Buddhist history and ritual.

The Mahayana, or “great vehicle,” came into being at the beginning of the Common Era, and its supporters labeled prior traditions as the Hinayana or “lesser vehicle,” reflecting the sometimes-contentious relationship between the two. A series of new texts, such as the Lotus Sutra, were associated with the Mahayana that had not been accepted by earlier schools. These texts describe a radically different view of the Buddha as forever present and infinite. The cosmology of the Buddhist world took on greater detail and complexity and the role of the bodhisattva—one who strives toward enlightenment but remains active in the world for the sake of sentient beings—came to occupy a central place.

The Buddhist world in the beginning of the first millennium was dynamic and diverse, as the new faith spread out from South Asia to Southeast Asia, China, and beyond. Within South Asia it was centered within large-scale monasteries and scholastic centers, such as that at Nalanda in the Indian state of Bihar. Lay people were active supporters of such establishments, as well as practitioners in their own right. The destruction of major monastic centers by Central Asian invaders contributed to the disappearance of Buddhism from India in the twelfth century, but it has thrived into the present in its Mahayana and Tantric forms in Nepal and Tibet and in its Theravada form in Sri Lanka. Buddhism was also reintroduced into the modern state of India in the twentieth century.

The Jain tradition, on the other hand, has continued uninterrupted into modernity, with the majority of its adherents in western India.

There is little doubt that the rejection of Vedic authority by Buddhist and Jain thinkers encouraged the reformulation and strengthening of particular aspects of Vedic traditions and the reassertion of the authority of Brahmins.

Literature of the period helped to codify and reassert aspects of Brahminical ideology. The concept of Four Stages of Life (ashramadharma) was articulated here, according to which every person must follow the dharma (or social role) assigned to him or er corresponding to his or her place within the caste (varna/jati) systems, and corresponding to his (the emphasis here on men) stage in life, or ashrama. The system defined appropriate roles and responsibilities for “twice-born” men, those from the upper three castes: brahmins, ksatriyas, and vaishyas. Four stages were identified: celibate student, householder, hermit or forest dwelling (undertaken toward the end of life), and renunciation.

Four possible aims in life were identified: artha (economic and social success), dharma (learning), kama (pleasure), and moksha (enlightenment). Students were to concentrate on dharma, householders to be concerned with artha and kama, and only in the final stage of life, that of a wandering holy man, is moksha a goal. The system did not hold for all—particularly for those excluded due to their gender or low position in the varna and jati systems—and renunciation was never universally embraced, though it remained an ideal. Although somewhat fluid, position in these systems was hereditary.

Puranic and Temple Hinduism and Bhakti

The religion that we now call Hinduism—the term itself is of recent vintage—began to take a recognizable shape in the first millennium C.E., drawing upon Vedic roots. In this period, the epics Mahabharata (containing the Bhagavad Gita) and Ramayana were composed, along with the Puranas. The Mahabharata recounts the tragic conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas, while the Ramayana relates the tale of King Rama, who was exiled from his kingdom for 14 years in the company of his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshman. These epics have had a profound influence in Southeast Asia, even when Hinduism waned as a primary religious force.

The Puranas provide stories of the gods who were to take a central place within the developing religion now known as Hinduism: Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess, among others. The cult of Vishnu, as it developed later, is generally accepted to be an amalgam of many smaller traditions; these were absorbed into the overarching Vishnu tradition through the idea of avatara, or incarnation (Vishnu is said to have 10 major incarnations who appeared in our world to save it) and into aspects of one character (such as the various portrayals of Krishna—as a child-god, as the charioteer in the Bhagavad Gita, and as the ruler of Dwarka in his adult life).

The Goddess takes many forms—some frightening and powerful, some auspicious and gentle. Parvati, Lakshmi, Shri, Kali, and Durga are some of the names she goes by. In all forms, she is devi, “the goddess.” Shiva, the other great deity commonly worshipped, is the ultimate ascetic. His body is white from being smeared with the ashes of the cremation ground—an unclean place that reminds us of the temporary nature of existence. His hair is matted and unkempt, and he is known to possess sometimes frightening and dangerous yogic powers. This same god is also married to Parvati and is intimately tied to the Goddess in her many other forms as well.

These three divinities—Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess—represent the three main deities worshipped in Hindu practice. Those who worship Vishnu are Vaishnava, those who worship Shiva are Shaiva, and those who worship the Goddess are Shakta (from shakti, or “power,” the feminine force the Goddess is said to possess). Brahma is not often the object of worship. Other deities have gained in popularity, such as Ganesha (the son of Shiva and Parvati) and Hanuman (the monkey god who aided Rama, an avatara, or “incarnation,” of Vishnu, in the Ramayana). It is important to note that although there are many deities represented in the Hindu pantheon, worshippers generally consider their own deity to be central and all-powerful; other deities are subservient to him or her. In addition, all are often seen to be manifestations of one central force in the universe. Many Hindus today (as in the past) therefore see themselves as believing in a single divine presence that takes form in endlessly diverse ways.

Temples acted as both religious and social centers in the dynamic urban hubs of the regional kingdoms established in the wake of Gupta power (after 500 C.E.) As regional kings and princes gained power, they often sought legitimacy by granting Brahmins large areas from which to collect taxes to finance temple development. Temples provided homes for the central deity, and the images enshrined within represented the deity and in many cases embodied it. Puja, or “worship,” of the deity, carried out in the home as well in as the temple, became the central focus of religious practice, representing a full transition away from sacrifice as the primary form of practice. Puja remains a central practice in temples all over Hindu South Asia and its diaspora. Home-based rituals have continued to be important; in some contexts, more so than public and congregational forms of worship.

Bhakti, or “devotion,” transformed both temple-based and personal forms of worship. It started in southern India in the eighth century C.E. among saints who sang of their love for god in Tamil rather than in Sanskrit, the language of Vedic orthodoxy. The Puranic deities—Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess—were the foci of radical devotion in Hinduism, but such devotion was central in Buddhist, Jain, and other traditions as well. Devotionalism came to influence and transform Brahminical traditions, just as it gave voice to alternative practices and practitioners such as women and those of lower caste. Bhakti insisted upon the immediate, direct apprehension of the god, whether he/she is contained within a form (such as an image) or unknowable formlessness. The language of intimate relationships was key—poets sang of the god as a devoted lover, parent, or child. Different social positions were represented by bhakti poets such as Ravidas, a chamar (leather worker), and Mirabai, a Rajasthani princess who dared to eschew familial responsibilities in favor of devotion to her lord and god, Krishna.

Although devotionalism is associated with vernacular languages and texts, it is also found in Sanskrit texts, most notably in the Bhagavad Gita, which became prominent on a popular level in the modern period. The text describes a conversation between the hero of the Pandava clan, Arjuna, and Krishna, incarnation of the great god Vishnu. Arjuna balks at fighting in battle against his mentors and relatives. Krishna discusses with him the religious and philosophical implications of his choice, asserting the necessity for fulfilling one’s dharma (svadharma) and performing right action without attention to the results of such action. Devotion is identified as a viable means to enlightenment, alongside the paths of knowledge and unattached action. At the end of this section of the epic, Krishna reveals himself in all his glory to Arjuna, and the path of devotion (bhakti) is revealed as a primary means to reaching god.

The Introduction of Islam

Not all the important religions of South Asia were born in the region. Adherents of Zoroastrianism (now known as Parsis) came to India in the early eighth century C.E. from Persia, to the west. Islam began to shape the culture and history of South Asia from the end of the first millennium C.E., when Arab traders first came to the shores of Gujarat. In considering South Asian society, we must remember not only to look to the eastern lands where Hinduism and Buddhism and the South Asian languages and cultures associated with them took hold, but also to the west, from where other models of religion, culture, and language were brought into the South Asian world.

Although the first interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in South Asia took place through trade, the presence of Islam was also strongly shaped by the military campaigns that first brought large numbers of Muslims into the region, establishing Muslim powers in the north and center. Certain elements of Islamic belief, such as its radical monotheism and eschewal of images in worship, brought about religious conflict in the region. However, although this conflict formed a part of the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims in South Asia, there was great complexity to the interaction among Muslim rulers and their mostly non-Muslim subjects, as well as between those who converted to Islam and those who did not. Indian art of the period, for example, provides vivid testimony to the way in which West Asian influences were integrated with South Asian styles and techniques, giving birth to a vibrant and unique tradition.

Religiously, the situation was also complex. Law is a central feature of Islamic thought, and Muslim legal representatives became a feature of life in most areas where Islam exerted influence. Scholars of the Islamic tradition wielded considerable influence, but not exclusively; the Mughal emperor Akbar was famous for his interest in all religious traditions, and he encouraged cross-religious dialogue and understanding. Many rulers chose to provide patronage to all religious traditions present within their area of influence. Conversions did not take place on a large scale in all regions, and cannot be attributed to force. Most conversions took place in the outer areas of Bengal and Punjab and were associated with the Muslim mystical movement called Sufism.

Sufis, Saints, and Holy Men

Sufi saints shaped the development of popular Islam, just as bhakti saints shaped religious belief and practice among those we now call by the general term “Hindu.” Like bhakti poets, Sufis (many of them poets as well) spoke of their direct experience of god and the need to get beyond just formal religious observance to a true and immediate religious engagement. Such religious leaders used similar strategies—the establishment of regional centers open to wide audiences, the appeal to direct and unmediated experience of god, and the validation of aspects of local culture through the establishment of local economic and social imagery in poems. P

opular religious leaders and practices also interacted with more orthodox and established forms as theological speculation and advanced learning in the elite languages of Sanskrit and Arabic continued. Muslim centers—mosques and madrasas (religious schools)—proliferated, but so too did Hindu sites, although great temple centers were for the most part a thing of the past in the north. The cult of Krishna grew enormously in popularity, and its center south of Delhi became an important pilgrimage site even in the shadow of the Mughal capital. In the fifteenth century, the famous poet and holy man Kabir was known for his critique of the hollow religiosity of both the Muslim cleric and Hindu brahmin. He mocked them both and sang of his own direct access to a formless god. It is notable that Kabir’s name is Muslim, but his poetry reveals the influence of Shaivite yogic practices—boundaries between religious groups were not absolute.

The central role of saints and holy men was closely connected to the relationship between guru (teacher) and sh’isya (student), or in Muslim contexts, pir and murshid. The teacher/student relationship remains important in the religions of South Asia, as well as in life in general, such as in the classical music traditions.

Building a community around the guru-student relationship was fundamental to the development of the Sikh tradition, one of the world’s newer faiths. Guru Nanak (1469 1539) formed a community of disciples (sikhs) after he had a revelation of the formless and inexplicable nature of god. His songs and those of later gurus were recorded in the text known as the Adi Granth, or “First Collection.” His monotheistic vision of god is seen by many as a compromise between Hindu and Muslim ideas, but such a self-conscious rapprochement between the two traditions was apparently not Nanak’s intention. Like other religious speakers of his time, he experienced a religious vision in keeping with the many cultural influences that formed him, but in his own distinctive and unique mode. The community that grew up around him has become a prominent minority in India and around the world.

Reform and Reaffirmation of South Asian Religious Traditions in the Colonial Period

The advent of British power and waning of centralized Mughal power brought about key changes in South Asian religious life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Religions came to be defined in particular ways through the enactment of the census with its discrete categories for “Hindu,” “Muslim,” and for separate castes. In actuality, these categories may have been much more fluid than the census allowed for. Many groups—Sikhs, low-caste people, those who followed syncretic traditions that blended elements of separate religions—were left in the margins and had to fight to be recognized.

The cultural critique and racism associated with the colonial regime also meant that many Indians found themselves in defense of “tradition.” All the movements of the period tended to position themselves in relation to the British challenge, explicitly or not. Thus Ram Mohun Roy, the famous Bengali founder of the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, modeled his vision of religious life along pluralistic and universalist grounds. In the late nineteenth century, Dayanand Saraswati, embracing the Vedic tradition, founded the Arya Samaj and attempted to purge Hinduism of such “impure” elements as image worship (based on an understanding of Vedic traditions as more authentic, as also articulated by Western scholars). This organization was very active in building Hindu consciousness in Punjab and elsewhere.

Certain organizations, educational institutions, and political movements came to be centered around religion as well as caste and other identities. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded Aligarh University to promote the position of Muslims, many of whom had not benefited from colonial patronage as much as Hindus. Many debates were couched in religious terms. A community sought to gain the patronage and attention of the British administration, and those who could “speak for” a particular group were given the ability to influence government policy.

In Punjab different communities came to compete with one another for representation on government committees and in fledgling representational institutions. One’s political affiliation and one’s religion became intimately intertwined as groups of people attempted to align themselves in ways that would allow them a voice within the colonial structure—particularly as the promise of independence took shape. These loyalties and communities were reconfigured and politicized in a way that fundamentally transformed both religious identity and how people engaged in political organization. It is within this context that one must understand the formation of the nation-states that succeeded the British colonial state through the partition of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan, and after 1971, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.

To the Present—Conflict, Accommodation, New Directions

Modern India, the world’s largest democracy, has seen periods of great triumphs in the formation of modern religious identities and practices, as well as great tragedies. Caste continues to exert a profound influence both in individual lives and in regional and national politics (as shown recently in Bihar). However, leaders like Ambedkar, who chose to convert to Buddhism to combat the stigma of untouchability, and others have challenged the status quo like the bhakti poets and Buddhist thinkers of centuries ago.

Change and continuity still characterize the development of religious traditions in South Asia as they have in the past. Pakistan and Bangladesh have experimented to different degrees with the integration of Islamic legal structures into the running of the nation-state, but in neither nation has conservative Islam exerted a definitive influence on governance. The legal system in India has retained differing systems for Hindu and Muslim personal law (more than 10 percent of the population of India is Muslim).

The Sikhs have battled for their own homeland, since 1997 a relative peace has returned to the Punjab, but the issue may emerge again. Fundamentalist Hinduism, especially after the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1991, has raised concerns for all religious minorities in the region—Sikh, Muslim, and Christian alike. South Asia’s dynamic religious present is manifested throughout the world, since the South Asian diaspora is a vital and growing community. Religious traditions are transformed by this increasingly small world, influenced by economic and political change, new media, and altering social expectations. Core religious beliefs and practices will continue to change, as living cultures do, in the future.