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Hinduism - The Essence of India

Hindu Customs in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism
- Socio-cultural Interchange between Religious Communities in India

by Sudheer Birodkar


Table of Contents


India is the birthplace of many religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are all progeny of this part of our globe. But they are not the only religions that exist here. Adherents of Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrainism and Judaism also to be found in India.

Over countless generations there has been significant exchange of customs, traditions, beliefs, rituals, etc., between these different religions Such an exchange is not peculiar to India and has been occuring the world over throughout the past. In India though, the existence of many religions in the same social environment created a situation favourable for such an interchange of customs and rituals.

The other fact that some religions existing in India are offspring of the amalgam of beliefs that co-existed under the heading Hinduism. This has also led to the presence of many features of the parent religion in the offspring religions. At times this has blurred the line dividing Hinduism from the offspring religions leading occasionally to tension of the offspring religions with their parent.

One instance of this is the ire against the constitution of India wherein the term 'Hindu' includes Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.

Hinduism does not have
a formal priesthood.
The Sadhus are traditionally those
who have renounced material pleasures
of life. They along with
the semi-formal Brahmin clergymen
are looked upon as what can come
closest to a priesthood.

But interchange of customs and rituals has taken place even between religions originating in India and those brought into India from other parts of our globe. This interchange has also been a massive one for the reason that that apart from the fusion of customs as a result of co-existence of different forms of worship, the adherents of religions originating in other parts of the globe like Christianity and Islam are largely converts from Hinduism. This does not apply in the case of Zoroastrianism and Judaism as these two religions have tended to be insular and have jealously guarded against the entry of members of other faiths by way of conversion. But even then they display many traits which they have absorbed from other religions especially Hinduism.

Although this interchange has been quite substantial, it has not succeeded in bringing about identity in many important respects. Communal riots are still not a thinq of the past, sectarian feelings are still very much with as and there normally run counter to the spirit of nationalism and secularism. The result of this is perhaps India's having the dubious distinction of being a Secular society without a common civil code. For an appraisal of contemporary Indian society to be complete we ought to examine the nature and genesis of the different religions that exist around us, and also the extent to which they have influenced each other. To obtain an insisght into every religion, we shall briefly state the history of every religion since its inception, what it has borrowed from other faiths and what it has lent to it.

We start with the religion which is not only professed by a vast majority in India, but has also been the birthplace for many customs found in other religious communities in India.

Ram and Sita
Shri Ram is an important diety
in the Hindu Pantheon.
He is considered to be a
Maryada Purushottam
which means a person who has
a balance of all good qualities.


A student of Hinduism can be compared with one of those blind-folded wise men who set about to examine an elephant by touching it and came up with totally different ideas about what the elephant looked like, none of which were factual. Hinduism is like a multifarious ocean of beliefs and modes of worship with an indeterminate origin. It comprises within itself the most sublime philosophies and gross fetishism of all kinds of objects which are worshipped.

This is one religion with a history stretching from around the second millennium B.C.E. upto the present.

The Pantheism of Hinduism

A contemporary author has observed, "As a matter of fact orthodox Hindus have believed in every kind of theism, polytheism, and pantheism. They have worshipped any object which they prefer, or practically none. They followed any standard of morality or almost none. Yet they have been recognised as Hindus in good and regular standing as long as they have not flagrantly violated the rules of caste or for that offence been out-casted".

Educated Hindus though have rejected the primitive features and have developed a refined religion which they follow alongwith the cruder versions that resemble primitive animism followed by their rural and tribal brethren. Throughout its long history there have been many reform movements in Hinduism, the best known of which were Buddhism and Jainism in around the 6th century B.C.E. and Sikhism in the 16th century C.E. The recent reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj Prarthana Samaj, have been protests against ritualism and idolatory, but their membership is very small.

In other primitive religions, when a great reformer has come, the entire primitive religion has become uniform, and unified and has consequently become cohesive and monotheistic as in the case of Zoroastrianism and Islam. But in India the followers of a reformer have always been a separate sect and the old Hindu religion has continued to be the religion of a vast majority.

As Hinduism has always been an eclectic religion it becomes difficult to identify all features which are universally recognised in this religion. The objects of veneration and worship in Hindu temples are very startling to those not familiar with the history of this hoary religion (One has to remember that the term religion is very loosely applied to Hinduism. It is more a collection of attitudes and forms of worship).

A view of ritual bathing at one of the bathing Ghats at the Triveni Sangam at Prayaga.

It is widely recognised that most elements of present day Hinduism descended from the amalgam of the religious beliefs of the Aryans who are said to have come into India (West Punjab) around 1750 B.C.E. and those of the earlier peoples who reportedly were the founders of the Indus valley civilization.

(Many scholars refute the Aryan invasion theory and also the date stated here for the entry of the Aryans into India. These scholars propound that India was the original home of the Aryans and it was from India that they spread to other parts of the globe. These scholars say that it was the Aryans themselves who founded the Indus (or Saraswati) valley civilization.

This is one point of view and the dating these scholars propound is supported by the star patterns mentioned in the Vedas, and the epics. Deciphering of the Indus Valley script as to be, in fact, Sanskrit also supports the point of view that the founders of the Indus - Saraswati - valley civilization were also Sanskrit speakers and hence Aryans (and not pre-Aryans). However, the author of this web page cannot claim any authority to either support or refute either theory. But then this debate is not relevant to our discussion as here we are not concerned with the fact whether the Aryans came into India from other parts of our globe or left India to go to other parts of our globe. That the Aryans existed in history is enough for our discussion. We are concerned with their modes of worship.)

The earliest objects of worship were the forces of nature and the religion was in essence polytheistic. Later on came the personified Gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva while the polytheistic nature remained unchanged.

Partial Amalgamation through the Concept of Incarnation (Avatara)

With a view to having a unifying medium, in this mushrooming pantheon, was propagated the monotheistic philosophy that there is one God, one supreme reality (Brahman) and the various personified Gods, Goddesses and animistic objects of worship are incarnations (Avataras) of God. While God himself was indestructible, the various incarnations in which he descended to Earth in the form (Rupa) of an ordinary mortal had to go through the cycle of birth and death. The incarnation idea helped to partially unify the plethora of deities as different manifestations of a single divine entity. It also facilitated the absorption of deites from other religions and tribal cults which had been outside the pale of Hinduism.

Assimilation, acculturation, amalgamation have been the hallmarks of the development and growth of the Hindu religion.

A flower vendor outside a Hindu temple
Fresh flowers, coconuts, oil, etc.,
are traditional offerrings made by Hindus
to their various dieties.

Many deities are themselves a result of amalgamation of two or more deities. For instance we have Hari-hara who is an amalgam of Hari (Krishan who is an incarnation of Vishnu) and Hara (Shiva). This amalgamation of the two recognised principal deities Vishnu and Shiva was undertaken to ease out the dualism in the Hindu religion due to the existence of the two principal sects Vaishnavism (worshippers of Vishnu) and Shaivism (worshippers of Shiva) who were frequently at loggerheads with each other. There are innumerable other sects though. Another deity who is also amalgam of Vishnu and Shiva is variously known as Sashta and Ayyappa. He has a famous shrine devoted to him at Sabarimala in Kerala.

The Ayyappa Mythology

The mythology behind Sastha, artfully explains this amalgam of Vishnu and Shiva. Briefly it is as follows. After a long drawn strife between Gods and demons, they mutually agreed to temporari1y sink their differences and with their combined efforts churn the ocean and draw out nectar (amrita) that existed at the bottom of the oceans. Both the Gods and demons stood on opposite sides and started the churning process with the help of Seshnaga (the celestial cobra) as a rope. The churning went on for and many beautiful and powerful things issued forth from the ocean. All these things were distributed equally between the Gods and demons. At last came the coveted nectar, but as soon I came up, the demons snatched it and ran away leaving the Gods high and dry. The Gods then prayed to lord Vishnu to retrieve their share.

To do this Vishnu struck upon an idea to deceive the demons. He took on the form of an enchanting maiden as Mohini known as the Mohini-Avatara of Vishnu. Mohini approached the demons who were having a loud argument as to how to distribute the stolen nectar amongst themselves . Taking advantage of this confusion Vishnu in the guise of Mohini offerred to distribute the nectar on condition that the nectar also be distributed amongst the Gods.

A Goddess
from the Chola period.
Rajendra Chola was an ambitious ruler.
Under him and under the Shailendra rulers
Indians sailed to the far-east and
established colonies in Java
Sumatra, Bali, etc.

Under the captivating influence of Mohini, the demons agreed and Mohini went about distributing the nectar, first among the Gods. Very deceptively she had made the Gods and demons sit in different rows, such that when the nectar was distributed to the last God sitting there, no nectar would be left for the demons.

Now unknowing to Mohini, her seductive form had captured Shiva's imagination and later he requested Vishnu to reappear as Monini before him. Despite being warned by Vishnu that Mohini was irresistible and that Shiva would fall prey to her charms, Shiva insisted that she appear before him confident as he was of his self-control. But lust being the weakest link in the chain of instincts, on seeing the inviting forn of Mohini Shiva's self-control gave way and out of the union of Shiva and Vishnu (as Mohini) was born Sastha who is a repository of all what Shiva and Vishnu stand for.

The External symbols of being a Hindu

But among the Hindus, whatever the object of worship it was personified in the form of an idol. One cannot find a Hindu temple without a idol. Propitiation of the Gods takes place through the chanting of Mantras (hymns). This is done by the officiating priest.

Ritual bathing
is an important
custom among the Hindus.
It is undertaken
at every important
occasion like festivals,
pujas, thread ceremony,
rites during all
religious ceremonies,etc.
Hence all important
Hindu places
of pilgrimage
are along a river.
Even most
Hindu temples
have a pond
near them for
this purpose.

Considerable importance is attached to purification which is done by sprinkling water on an object to be purified and to the ritual washing of hands and feet before performing a prayer. Bathing in sacred rivers (notably the Ganga i.e. Ganges), is looked upon as an act of devotion that secures for a person a place in heaven . Fire plays a pivotal role in consecrating religious ceremonies, marriages, etc. The importance of fire originates in its being one of the forces of nature worshipped by the Aryans The vermilion mark on the forehead (Tilaka) alongwith the tuft of hair as the Pigtail (Shikha or Choti or Shendi) and the sacred thread (Yagnopavit or Janeu) are the external symbols that proclaim a Person's adherence to Hinduism. All these Practices are now on the wane and in urban areas they have nearly vanished.

The saffron colour is looked upon as and is to be found on flags atop temples and in the clothes worn by ascetics (Sadhus and Sanyasis). The traditional form of greeting among Hindus is the joining of hands called Namaskara.

The 4 Ashramas (Stages of life)

Traditionally, life of a person was divided into four stages viz. Brahmacharya (childhood and celibate youth), Grithasta (householder) Vanaprastha (householder devoted to spiritual pursuits) and Sanyasa (ascetic). Sanyasa has been extolled as the culmination of an ideal life. The external signs of a person on becoming a Sanyasi were the unshorn hair and beard, the growth of fingernails, the forsaking of normal ablutions.

A Sanyasi was supposed to rise above the requirements of normal material life and devoted himself to the seeking of truth Society among the Hindus has been divided into four Varnas Brahmin (clergy), Kshatriya (nobility), Vaishya (traders and cultivators) and Shudra (menials). This division is a social issue that was given religious sanctity. Belief in rebirth (Punar-janma) and release from the cycle of birth and re-birth (Moksha) have been central to Hindu morality.

The Parshurama Temple
and the Pushkara or "Lotus Pond"
which is in its precincts.
Every Hindu temple has a pond near it.
Devotees are supposed
to take a bath before
entering the temple.

Another tradition that has been nurtured in Hinduism is that of the Guru. A Guru is supposed to play the role of a tutor and mentor. But among the Hindus, the Guru, has traditionally been considered to be more than just a tutor. Surprisingly in one Vedic hymn even Gods are referred to as Guru. (Gurur Brahma, Gurur Vishnuhu, Gururu Devoho, Maheshwaraha: Guru Sakshat Para Brahma, Tasmayee Shri Gurveh Namaha.)

Education, in India has been traditionally imparted through Gurukulas (homestead of a ,Guru). A student (Shishya) had to spend his early years at a Gurukula where he was taught all the known disciplines of knowledge. But the term Guru has also had the connotations of a spiritual guide. The term Shishya could be taken to mean both student and disciple. It has not been uncommon for a person with a spiritual bent of mind to go in search of a Guru. All spiritual personalities among the Hindus such as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Swami Ramkrishna Paramhansa, etc., who attained the status of Gurus were once shishyas of some Guru. The Guru-Shishya tradition has had manifestations in innumerable Babas, Swamis and Gurus that are a part of our society, so much so that eight out of ten Indians would be followers of one Guru or another

Throughout our history, spiritual leaders and social reforms be looked upon as Gurus. In the absence of a founding father for Hinduism, these Gurus have played the role of guiding this conglomorate of beliefs (Hinduism) through the ages of history. In this context the role of Adi Shankaracharya has to be recalled.

Adi Shankaracharya's Reform of Hinduism

Adi Shankaracharya can be considered as the only Hindu spiritual leader who was almost universally accepted in this religion . His philosophical standpoints of Vedanta were effective in overshadowing Buddhism on the philosophical and intellectual level. Shankaracharya came from a Brahmin family from Kalady in Central Kerala (South India). He is sald to have lived around the 8th century C.E. In the traditional manner he seems to have had his basic education in a Gurukula (traditional monastery where education was imparted in ancient times).

A Shishu or Shishya (Student).
Traditionally education was imparted
in Ashramas and Gurukulas (monasteries).
It was imparted through
Shruti (hearing),
Smriti (memorizing)
and Sloka-Pathan (recitation).

From his early days he displayed a passion for philosophical speculation endless debates. Completion of primary education in the Gurukula did not satisfy his thirst for knowledge. While still in his teens he set out to explore the various centers of learning.

His quest took him to north India where in one of the innumerable Buddhist monasteries, the philosophy of that religion caught his fancy and he spoke about this idea amongst his disciples and friends. One of Shankaracharya's disciples expressed readiness to enroll as a student in the Nalanda University, which in those days was the leading senter for Buddhist philosophical speculation. But being a Brahmin by birth, Shakaracharya's disciple was refused admission. Undaunted by this the young monk upon a bold idea to gain entry into the Buddhist cloister. He shaved off the tuft of hair and pigtail, cast aside his sacred thread, wiped the ash (Bhasma) on his forehead, and dressed as a Buddhist monk he approached the Nalanda University again to be enrolled in a philosophy that had fired his imagination.

Having secured admission this way, he stayed on for a few years and mastered Buddhist philosophy. Steeled as he was in the rival Hindu schools of philosophy, he beset his tutors with incisive questions many of which exposed the weaker side of Buddhist philosophy.

And day-by-day the master-philosophers at Nalanda began to grow suspicious of this curious student and henceforth they never let go an opportunity to cross-examine him. During one such grueling session Shankaracharya's disciple inadvertently slipped up and that cost him his identity (as a Buddhist monk) and very nearly his life.

The infuriated Buddhist Bhikkus (monks) caught hold of this imposter and threw him out of a window. Unfortunately for Shankaracharya's disciple, this meeting was in progress in one of the top floors of the multi-storied buildinqs of the Nalanda University. Realizing the peril he was in, whi1e falling to the ground, the disciple invoked the Vedas and cried out "If the Vedas are true not a single hair of mine will be hurt". He fortunately survived the fall but one eye of his was brutally injured and gave him a severe pain. Knowing that with this event his life as a Buddhist monk has ended, he decided to return to his Guru Adi Shankaracharya. After he returned to his Gurukula, he asked Shankaracharya one question that had been bothering him lately. He wondered why his eye had been injured when he had invoked the Vedas.

Shankaracharya explained this anomaly by telling him that he had said "If the Vedas are true not a single hair of mine w111 be hurt.", thereby he had not expressed confidence in the power of the Vedas to protect him but had expressed a hope which entertained doubts as to the power of the Vedas. Shankaracharya told him that had he said, "The Vedas are true and they will protect me", he would have come out unhurt.

The Halebid temple complex
at Halebid in Karnataka has been built
by the Hoysalas in the 12th century.
The architecture here represents the finesse
of craftsmanship in granite.

Shankaracharya continued his studies and discourses for which he travelled far and wide throughout India. He is reported to have gone far north to Badrinath and Srinagar (in Kashmir). One thing for which he is remembered is his attempt to institutionalize Hinduism through the establishment of monasteries (Mutts or Mathas) under the charge of bishops (Jagadgurus). He established four such Mutts in different parts of the country. Although these institutions could not institutionalize Hinduism on the scale of other religions like Christianity or Buddhism, they left a lasting mark on the Hindu ecclesiastical organisation.

A Chola Bronze image of Vishnu.
The Cholas ruled Tamil Nadu
in around the 9th century C.E.

Sects within Hinduism made up this "Religion"

But in spite of this reform by Adi Shankaracharya, the centrifugal looseness inherent in Hinduism left no check on the innumerable sects with various objects and forms of worship that kept on mushrooming. What held the various sects together was the inclusion the principal deities like Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and the mother Goddess (Shakti) in the various sects, albeit in varying forms and the mutual recognition between the different sects of the validity of each other's patron deities (Ishta-devata).

Thus worshippers of Vishnu did not generally castigate the deities Shiva and Shakti as non-Hindu nor did the worshippers of Shiva look upon Vishnu as alien deity.

Some Sects broke off from Hinduism

A Shaivaite Sadhu
worshipping the lingam
i.e. a phallus, symbolizing the diety Shiva.

But at times some of the sects withdrew this recognition given to the deities of other sects and acquired an exclusionist character. Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are surviving examples of such sects.

But on the whole the main body of beliefs that are brought under the heading Hinduism continued to be supple. On many occasions when it came into contact with alien forms of worship, it tried to incorporate them within itself.

Shakti - the Mother Goddess.
The worship of the Mother Goddess
known variously as Durga, Kali, Bhavani
Chandi, Ambika, Mahalasa, etc.
is common all through India.
Every village has a local Goddess.
This form of worship is most popular
in West Bengal which is famous for its
Durga Puja before Vijayadashmi (Dussehera).

One of the offspring sects, Sikhism originated as a fusion of elements of Hinduism and Islam. During the 18tb century the formation of the Bramho Samaj in Bengal under Raja Rammohan Roy aimed at combining the best elements of Western Christianity and Hinduism. Despite the picture of ultra-orthodoxy that Hinduism normally presents, distinctly non-Hindu concepts were absorbed into it. One of these is the concept of 'Niraakar Ishwar' the formless God* it found its reflection in some Hindu sects notably the Arya Samaj which is looked upon as a revivalist movement. The Arya Samaj upholds Vedic ritualism and disowns idol worship. The influence of Islamic ideas of God (Allah) being an abstract power, on some strains of Hindu thought cannot be ruled out.

Even in day-to-day life, Hindus adhere to many practices which originate in other religions. For instance the practice among Hindus, especially among women, of covering their head while offering prayers is a result of Mohammedan influence and is an adaptation of the Mohammedan practices of wearing Burkha, Chador and observing Purdah. So is the practice of burning incense sticks (Agarbattis and Dhoop) in temples which comes form the (originally Zoroastrian) Muslim practice of burning Loban. In ancient times women in India did not follow the custom of wearing a veil.

Thus Hinduism which is the religion of the majority in India has imbibed many concepts and beliefs from the religions it came into contact with. This is more relevant in the context of Hinduism and Hindu culture being regarded largely, exclusively and distinctly Indian. What we know as the Hindu religion has been born and bred in India. Not surprisingly are the terms Indian and Hindu considered as synonymous. It is a widely held opinion that Hinduism is the heart and soul of the Indian nation. Remove Hinduism and India loses its identity.

A panoramic and dramatic view
of the temple complex at Madurai
in Tamil Nadu.

All this whi1e being generally true, leads to notions that everything associated with Hinduism originated in India, which is, strictly speaking, incorrect. Hinduism has borrowed significantly from other religions although this has not been a one way affair.

We shall see below how Hinduism has much more significantly lent to other religions than it has borrowed from them.

To understand the fusion of customs and beliefs of different religions we shall review the history of these religions in the folowing chapters.

We first turn our attention to the second great religion that emerged from ancient India - Buddhism. This religion was also the first to institutionalize missionary activity and to reach global dimensions in the ancient period circa 300 B.C.E.


Sudheer Birodkar


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