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Worldwide Locations

The Religions of South Asia

Statue of Buddha in India

Statue of Buddha in India



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.