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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.