The evolution of SANATANA DHARMA

  • This is an excellent prima on the evolution of Sanatana Dharma. The biggest learning is that what does not change becomes history in course of time.

Sanatan Dharma (also known as Hinduism) is an eternal concept, the reason why it has become the longest living religion of the world. The religion flourished despite having its share of ups and downs in its cherished and checkered history. In comparison, most religions of yore got wiped out in the sands of time due to external aggression or internal anarchism, while others which survived witnessed steady decline/ division in their follower-base.


It is an interesting enquiry into the oldest religion to understand its basis and ability to adapt to changes from within and challenges from without


Hinduism flourished over the millennia due to a strong basis in/ focus on Spirituality, evolution and practice.


Hinduism is spirituality-based: It is based on the philosophia perennis that Self is the permanent reality/ bliss (also, its opposite, ignorance (Maya), is the root cause of apparent reality/ misery). Realization of the Truth, that Divinity is universal, is a matter of faith and not mere belief, it is a matter of understanding and not mere fantasy.


Hinduism is evolution-oriented: It is based on the principle that change is an inevitable aspect of existence; hence, everything needs to stay relevant in changing circumstances. Resting content with status-quo in practice or understanding is not a virtue or purpose of life, but evolving through concepts and contents of creation sure are. This applies even to God‘s’, as they are an integral part of creation. God ‘evolution’ is part of religious evolution.


Hinduism is practice-driven: It is based on the premise that for religious evolution, living its principles is a way of life. Consequently, practices and rituals at different stages of life are essential elements for progress through the cosmic-maze/ individual-mania. Worship rituals, the means to pray and propitiate Gods, also had major role to play in the evolution of religion.


Of these, many aspects of Spirituality and Practice are not the monopoly of Hinduism. In fact, they, or their equivalents (gospels/ canons), are the hallmark of other religions as well. What really made Hinduism to stay on and stand out was the religion’s ability to evolve, a fact and factor missed by dead religions.


Religious Evolution:


Religious evolution essentially centred on:

  • The Worshipped (Gods)
  • The Worship (Rituals)
  • The Worshippers (Followers) 

All Gods despite their differing denominations, and all rituals despite their disparate descriptions, existed in some form or other. What really happened was fusion of cultures, with followers appreciating/ accommodating/ assimilating the best parts/ practices of the other. These qualities turned out to be Hinduism’s saviour during turbulent years of history, when armed missions and articulate missionaries made repeated attempts to eclipse it.


1. The Worshipped (Objects-of-Worship): 


For Hindus, God is the central theme of life. But god is not a hard-headed belief, but a broad-minded understanding. This is confirmed by the marked difference between the Gods the distant ancestors worshipped and the current generations worship, and that by itself is a proof that even with respect to Gods we are receptive/ adaptive to changes, a phenomenon unthinkable in other religions.


How did the Objects-of-worship evolve?

Different periods of history had different sets of Gods:


The primeval objects-of-worship were the Tutelary Deities/ Vedic Gods.

The medieval objects-of-worship were the Puranic Gods/ Avatars.  

The coeval objects-of-worship are a medley of Gods and God-men. 


The Primeval Gods:

Vedic Gods: They were 33 in number, with no hierarchy (12 Adityas, 11 Rudras, 8 Vasus, Indra and Prajapathi). They were representative of the forces behind the macrocosmic and microcosmic existence. As the Gods were defined by Scriptures, it was a closed-end tradition, i.e. a follower couldn't add or delete a God from the pantheon. Consequently, Vedic worship never evolved, instead went into decline/ oblivion. 


Tutelary Deities: They are the Gods native to a particular region/ clan, their antiquity paralleling or even preceding the Vedic ones. Known as Village Deities (Gram Devata), they were worshipped by a community/ native population from time immemorial. One remarkable aspect of such God-worship was that, despite any amount of advance/ changes in their trade or traditions, the followers' faith never wavered or weakened. 


These deities were quite 'earthly' with no fixed pattern in their forms, or purpose in their functions. Anything could be deified by anybody, though some figures (especially the Shakti/ Siva equivalents) were more prevalent/ predominant than others. 

Adivasis of Bastar bringing their Kul Devata during Bastar Dussehra, Jagdalpur.

The natives had three sets of Gods: Clan/ Community Deity (Kul Devata) (a female or male deity corresponding to Parvati/ Siva), Guardian Deity (corresponding to Shiva’s sons, Iyappan/ Karthikeya) and Subordinate deities (corresponding to Ganas of Shiva).


Female deity was the equivalent of Goddess Parvathi in Vedic worship. She was considered the fertility goddess who in Her benevolent form bestowed prosperity and knowledge, and in Her angry form caused pox and similar ailments. No wonder Shakta goddesses were revered as well as feared.


Every community had a guardian deity, which was invariably a male deity (in the Dravidian hinterland it was called Ayyanar). The Vedic people considered Him more as a son of Shiva.


The temples of main female/ male gods were invariably in the middle of the community settlements, whereas that of the male guardian deity was always at the outskirts of it.


Since there were no regulations for defining or identifying Gods, it was an open-end tradition, i.e. a worshipper/ community could add/ avoid a God from the pantheon at will. Tutelary gods evolved over the millennia, notwithstanding cultural and racial prejudices. 


The Medieval Gods:

Puranic Gods: They were the central figures of adulation in the Puranas.  The Puranic Gods were many in number, with well-defined hierarchy. Ishwars, especially Vishnu/ Shiva were regarded as the foremost, in importance and power, followed by Sarasvati/ Laxmi/ Parvati (Devis), and Ganesh/ Surya/ Kartikeya. Further down the Celestial class, there were Devas, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Kinnaras, Kimpurushas, Yakshas, Siddhas, Charanas, Vidyadharas, apart from certain Asuric Gods like Varuna, Bali et al. 


Avatars: They were the central figures of adulation in the Itihasas (Ramayana, Mahabharata and Shrimad Bhagavatam). Lord Vishnu’s incarnations were the most celebrated, especially Ram and Krishna Avatars. Their elevation and adulation planted the seeds of Bhakti Movement, whose after-effects are sweeping the different corners of Indian landscape even to this date.


The Coeval Gods: 

Gods & God-men: They are an inter-mix, sometimes an incongruous-mix of above traditions. Apart from the Gods, the mix included Vedic saints (like Sage Agastya), Itihasa characters (like Hanuman), self-realized souls ((like Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ramana Maharishi), protagonists of Bhakti movement (the 63-Saivaite Nayanmars/ 12 Vaishnavaite Alvars, Mirabai, Tulsidas) and holy-men (like Sai Baba). Many modern-day (self-proclaimed) cult-leaders also staked claim for the exalted state, though only a few made the grade! 


2. The Worship (Rituals): 


Most followers ignore or are ignorant of the lofty truths in the well-meaning scriptures or well-articulated sermons. It is the rituals which appeals and attracts the imagination of the individual as he becomes a participant and not a mere spectator.


Also, esoteric rituals which needed elaborate engagements or educated elite to execute, or that which let a more-advantaged group dominate over a lesser-privileged one, or which excluded main-stream participation withered.


Rituals which encouraged flexible/ egalitarian approach, or which were open to changes survived the odds, while those which adopted a rigid/ elite attitude collapsed like a pack of cards.


How did the modes-of-worship evolve?

Shrauta tradition:  It is the tradition based on Shrutis (Vedas). References to very elaborate rituals, mostly Yagnas (Yaga and Homam) could be found in the Upasana Kanda of the Vedas. It compulsorily required an officiating priest, Ritvij. Corresponding to the Vedic hymns recited, they were called Hota (Rig), Adhvaryu (Yajur), Udgata (Sama) and Brahma (Atharva).  Fire (Agni) was an essential aspect of rituals, as it was He who was deemed to carry the essence of offerings to higher regions/ Gods. There was always an expectation preceding every offering. 


Tutelar tradition: While Shrauta tradition was ritualistic (demanding more of ‘head’), tutelary God worship was rustic (demanding more of ‘heart’). Hence, despite their customs being derided and denigrated by the Vedic protagonists, they proved more versatile. Rituals were simple with no need for sophisticated Tantram or Mantram. Offerings to God were mostly flowers, plant items or cooked food. Cooked offerings to the subordinate-gods sometimes included even non-vegetarian fare. That meant that there was no dichotomy between their daily routine and god worship, or hypocrisy between their thoughts and practices. Though Shrauta tradition is extinct, tutelary mode of worship is still extant.  


Smarta tradition: This tradition revolved around Pancayatana-puja (five shrine worship) with focus on Shiva (Saiva tradition), Vishnu (Vaishnava tradition), Shakti (Sakta tradition), Ganesh (Ganapatya tradition), Surya (Saura tradition). In some places, Kartikeya (Kaumara tradition) is also added to the pantheon, in which case it is called Shanmata tradition.  


Shakta tradition was the worship of Shakti, probably the most ancient form of worship. The goddess was worshipped in a friendly form (fertility goddess) and a fearful form (Kali). Tantric cult and Shakta tradition are closely related.

Ma Kali. 

Saiva tradition of Shiva worship transcended even the Vedic period. He was worshipped in many names (Shankar as the destroyer-deity and Maheshwar as the Purusha-aspect of Brahman) and forms (mostly in abstract form like Lingam, and occasionally in tangible form like Nataraja). Shaivism had different schools – Saiva Siddhanta, Vira Shaivism, Kashmiri Shaivism, Natha Shaivism, etc.


Vaishnava tradition was the worship of Vishnu, mostly as the god-of-prosperity (Lord Venkateshwara) amongst a select group of worshippers, while His incarnations (Avatars), Ram and Krishna were more and immensely popular across a wide spectrum of followers. Ram and his consort, Sita and his foremost devotee, Hanuman, and Krishna are the central figures in two of the longest epics of Hinduism. Radha, Krishna’s playmate of childhood, but considered more of his soul-mate by his devotees, is not mentioned in the epics or even in Srimad Bhagavatham. She and her eternal love for Krishna was probably the product of Bhakti movement, and her love symbolized the ultimate form of devotion. Poet Jaydeva in 12th century and Acharya Nimbarka in 13th century immortalized their devotional-love. 


Vaishnavism had four different traditions (Sampradayas) – Brahma Sampradaya (Madhavacharya – Vyasakutas & Dasakutas), Sri Sampradaya (Ramanuja – Vadagalai & Thengalai), Rudra Sampradaya (Vallabhacharya), Kumaras Sampradaya (Nimbarka).    


Ganpatya tradition worshipped Ganapati as the central deity, and was the favorite of almost all Hindus, despite their Advaita or Dwaita affiliations. He is worshipped before commencing any endeavor as the harbinger of luck and remover of obstacles in their secular/ spiritual pursuits.


Saura tradition was the worship of Surya, which had a place of pride in the Vedic period as well. He seamlessly found a slot in the Smarta tradition too, as He was the only prominent divinity visible in physical realm. In fact, the most sacred/ secret/ potent mantra of Hinduism, Gayatri Mantra, is a hymn in eulogy and entreaty of the Surya devata.


Kaumara tradition was the worship of Skanda (Murugan/ Kartikeya), the commander-in-chief of Gods. He was more popular in the southern parts.


The Smarta system of worship probably existed for long, but found rightful space and importance in/ during/ post Bhakti movement which swept India from the 8th century, more particularly from the 11th-13th centuries. The most common mode of worship under the Smarta traditions is Sodasopachara, the 16-step rituals. The more elaborate pujas needed the services of an Aagama priest, but the lesser ones were done by a householder himself. There may or may not be an expectation for doing the puja, but devotion was always an underlying and unifying thread.   

Krishna Worship, Ras Mahotsav Majuli, Assam 2018

3. The Worshippers (the followers):


The followers of the religion are spread over a broad spectrum of background. Defining the paradigms which characterize the followers, and decoding the paradoxes which confuse the observers can be a daunting task. While the paradigms confirm followers’ social/ cultural/ spiritual similarity, the paradoxes convey their ethnical, geographical and ideological diversity.


The paradigms which define a follower: A Hindu is defined by not just an explicit belief in religion, but also an implicit faith in spirituality. It is not just adopting a time-tested tenet, but also accepting a contrary view-point. It is not just the freedom to profess chosen path, but also the willingness to embrace changes en route. It is not just the ability to stay rooted in traditions, but also an earnestness to evolve to a higher order.


The paradoxes which confuse an onlooker: Hindus would fight amongst themselves, but not resort to armed aggression on neighbors. They would advocate supremacy of a sect’s philosophy over other, but not their religion over others. They would fast for religious reasons, but feast in the name of same gods. They would abstain from intoxicants on auspicious days (Shravan), but get drunk in the name of the same gods (Shivratri). They would ensure handsome donations to an advantaged ‘creator’ (God/ temple), but not to a disadvantaged ‘created’ (down-trodden). They wouldn’t offer their hands for wishing a stranger, but relish their meals with hands. They would be extremely fuzzy about personal hygiene, but would be equally reckless about public cleanliness.


How did the Followers evolve?


The Itihasas and Puranic era (5th century BCE) followed the Vedic period (15th-5th century BCE), initially co-existing, later eclipsing it totally. The Vedic worshippers had a very rigid regimen and they had no freedom to pursue anything to the contrary. The tutelary deity worship was more laissez-faire, affording freedom to worshippers.


Due to the stranglehold of the people from the higher strata, and non-participatory nature of Vedic worship, there was mass exodus of people, largely from the lower strata of society.


Enter now Mahavira. Some claim that Jain religion is much older, perhaps starting with Rishabha, the great-great-grandson of Swyambhavu Manu, and ending with the 24th Tirtankara, Mahavira (around 6th century BCE). Jainism had patrons among the ruling elite, therefore flourished due to state support. 


Buddhism came into existence almost at the same time as Mahavira (6th century BCE). Buddha’s message was simple and universal. It preached and practiced egalitarianism with no social stratification. Buddhism had mass following. With its focus on middle-path (Madhyama Marg), it spread far and wide very rapidly, even to the far-east countries, where it is a major religion now.


The rapid spread of Jainism and Buddhism during the centuries preceding and following Common Era (5th century BCE to 5th century CE), caused rapid erosion in the ranks and ratings of Hinduism. The turmoil was more pronounced in the northern parts due to diffused and shuffling political landscape. Fortunately, south was relatively free of these headwinds and the tranquil environment spawned a brand of Bhakti movement.


5th-6th CE onwards, Saivaite Nayanmars sowed the seeds of Bhakti movement in south India. But unification of the divergent and distraught Hindus had to wait for few more centuries, not until Shankaracharya entered the ‘revival-battle’ in the 8th century. Within 32 years of event-filled life, he managed to bring all the drifting and disparate sects of Hinduism with a gospel message that every/ everyone's God was an aspect of ultimate truth, and that any/ every mode of worship was acceptable to god, if performed with love and faith. 


Overnight, Smarta tradition found its bearings. In Smarta system, a follower became a ‘proximate’ participant, unlike a Yajna, where he was a ‘silent’ spectator! This appealed to masses and Hinduism retraced its lost glory over the next few centuries. Thus did Shankaracharya bring the ideologically drifting and geographically spread-out sects back into the folds of mainstream Hinduism almost single-handedly? 


Though Vedic ideology dramatically differed from the local traditions, the Vedic people were in total sync with the native population. There was a healthy mixing of different strata of the society.


Veda Vyasa, for example, was born of Parashara muni and a fisher-woman, Satyavati. Vyasa’s guru, Acharya Gautama was married to Sharmi, a tribal girl from the Godhuli village, so was Sukha, Vyasa’s son, to Peevaree, a sister of the tribal chieftain. Such inter-mingling of people even at the highest level, facilitated the fusion of cultures then and even much later. 


Unity in diversity – where/ how did the traditions concur/ differ?


In Vedic God worship (Shrauta traditions), Idols (Yantram) were unknown, while Mantram was the major means to address Gods, with Tantram (rituals) playing a subsidiary role.


In Tutelary God worship, Idols (Yantram) were essential aspect of worship, with Tantram (Rituals) complementing the worship regimen. Mantram was unknown.


In Puranic God worship (Smarta traditions), Aagama Shastras defined exacting specifications for Yantram (for Idols and Temples). 16-step-rituals, in full/ part (Tantram) was an essential aspect of worship. Chanting of Mantram, and Bhajans/ Kirtans in its absence (sometimes in addition), completed the worship protocols.


Gods were more ‘heavenly’ in Shrauta traditions, whereas the Tutelary Gods were more earthly, that is, the followers could see God in human forms (some people would get ‘possessed’ by the deities (ritual shaman dance), called ‘Sami Aadis’ in Tamil, literally dance of gods). Communicating with the tutelary gods was very easy, as the gods (in the form of ‘possessed’ revelers) would talk the native tongue (an oracle). It was almost impossible in the Vedic tradition, as the language (Sanskrit) and the intermediaries (Brahmins) acted as barriers to free communication. 


The Puranic idols were sculpted to exacting specifications, whereas the Tutelary gods were not as portly, mostly made of mud or in some cases even a simple stone. Temple worship was foreign to Vedic culture, which believed in Homas and Yagas to invoke/ propitiate Gods.


Smarta tradition is a fusion of cultures; it borrowed the Temple culture of natives and the worship rituals of Shrauta culture, which appealed to the entire spectrum of Hindu devotees. 


Vedic people never had temples, nor idols for worship. They would erect a place for Yaga-Homa and destroy it after the puja. Consecration and dismantling the Yajnakund were part of the rituals. In comparison, tutelary gods always had a place for worship, either within the core settlement or in the near periphery or in the yonder wilderness. The natives didn't have elaborate worship or Samskara rituals. Hence, services of a learned pandit were not a necessity.

It was common for community members to perform rituals.  


In a fusion of cultures, and over a period of time, the Smarta tradition accepted the fixed-place (temple) worship-concept of the natives and the worship rituals of the Vedic people. Also, most of the native gods were absorbed into the Hindu pantheon as aspects of Shiva-Parvathi or their descendants.  


Family deity (Kul Devata) was an essential element in native worship. In Smarta tradition, Personal deity (Ishta Devata) had a prominent and preeminent position. Shrauta tradition never presented options.


The Smarta tradition of God-worship was a mid-way point, where a worshipper had the freedom to choose a God (like natives) from a galaxy of them (like Puranic gods). Even the worship could be effected with a simple offer of flower (like natives) to an elaborate set of Upacharas (like Vedic).

At ancient Shiv Mandir Manikaran, Himachal Pradesh. Known for hot water springs.

Shiva worship is a typical example of the fusion of cultures:

Amongst Vedic lore, there was no concept of Destroyer. They worshipped 11 Rudras (the ferocious ones, probably representing wind/ storm).


Amongst Tutelary gods also there was no concept of Destroyer either. There was a female goddess and her consort was Ayyan (in south India).


Shiva (meaning the auspicious, representing Destroyer) was a later addition to the Puranic pantheon.


When Bhakti movement swept through the Hindu landscape, the Vedic Rudras and the tutelary ‘Ayyan’ got ‘merged’ with Shiva. True to the saying, ‘all is well that ends well’, the merger was seamless and successful.


Bhakti movement was a blessing:

The latter day Dvaita practitioners literally usurped/ hijacked the Saivaite-initiated Bhakti-oriented Smarta traditions, but that only added muscle and momentum to the renaissance rather than undermining the original premises of Advaita practitioners. 


The Bhakti movement, though it remarkably contributed to the arresting of the spread of Buddhism, yet, produced its share of problems, with Advaita and Dvaita followers fighting for supremacy.


Once again, tutelary deities were called in to subdue frayed tempers. A guardian deity of Dravidian hinterland, Ayyanar, came handy for resolving the Saiva-Vaishnava dispute. He was considered as the son of Vishnu (Hari) (Vishnu as Mohini) and Lord Shiva (Hara). Ayyanar became the famed Hariharaputra, also called Sastha or Aiyappan, who then became a rage in the sub-continent.


Fortunately, by the time Mughals came in the 14th-15th century, the reforms and Bhakti movement had firmly taken root. So deep was the foundation and so strong was the edifice that the fervour or the fatwas of the new rulers failed to make a dent in the structure and solidarity of Hindus.


Centuries later the British attempted to shake their basic faith, but without success. However, their strategy to break the unity on caste lines met with enormous success. (Remember, Hindus loathe to fight external war of aggression, but love to fight internal sects to the last man).


The solidarity of the religious milieu became a main plank of launching freedom movement by some leaders like Tilak, Aurobindo, during British rule. But the caste-division still continues to haunt the society even now. 

Maharshi Aurobindo. Read his writings in India’s Rebirth to know Bharat.


Self/ Truth is supreme in Indian Spirituality. It considers even God as an ‘extension/ symbol’ of this truth.


Hinduism flourished because it was open to evolution even with respect to Gods, something unimaginable/ blasphemous in most religions. Hinduism was not dogmatic even with respect to their Gods; hence, it had no qualms in adopting different Gods that accommodated people of different geographical/ ideological background, or that evolved with their aspirations/ understanding.


Unlike evolution of human (thoughts) which takes place over a few years, and that of human (renaissance) which takes place over a few decades, and that of humanity over a few centuries, the god evolution in Hinduism took place over a few thousand years.


Surprisingly, from the orthodox Dravidian heartland, where Vedic religion played second fiddle to tutelary god-worship, arose the three pioneering religious reformers of Hinduism, Shankaracharya, Sri Ramanujar and Madhavacharya, and their historic schools of thoughts, Advaita, Dvaita and Vishistadvaita.


Surprisingly, it was the upper-caste leaders who initiated the religious renaissance initially and sustained the Bhakti movement subsequently.


Surprisingly, it was the principal proponent of Advaita who seeded the bhakti concept, a distinguishing mark of Dvaita, as a means to get the drifting masses back in the fold of Hinduism. 


OM Namah Shivayah

 Author is an Alumnus of BITS, Pilani (MPharm). He worked with some of India’s best MNC Pharma companies. Currently writes articles on Spirituality. One book, Spirituality - A Roadmap is published. The next book, 'Mindfulness - A Roadmap' is ready for publication.

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