Seven Avtars of Hinduism

Hinduism has never been a uniform religious idea and there was never a continuous tradition as it evolved in many different ways in many parts of India over the centuries. The word Hindu was actually a shifting label that had meant many different things at different times over the 2,500 years since Cyrus the Great first used the word `Hindu’ to define the people living in his 19th province beyond the river Sindhu or Indus river. As the Persians could not pronounce the sound `S’, Sindhu became Hindu.

People forget that India had been a predominantly Buddhist country for a thousand years from the time of Ashoka (268 – 232 BC) till the time of Harshavardhan (590 – 647 AD) and had been a mainly Muslim country for six hundred years from the time of the Sultanate till the end of the Mughal period.  During this period the word Hindu had been used like the word `native’ to describe the agriculturalists, traders, artisans, etc. The word Hindu had not been used until quite recently to describe a religion.

Hinduism, as is generally practiced in India today, is very different to the forms of religion of earlier times. The dedicated caste of Brahmin priests, however, managed most of India’s religious evolution for roughly 3,000 years. In the beginning, as in all religions, this tradition was oral but put to writing from about the time of Christ. Their deities, beliefs and customs steadily evolved over the years as they assimilated many local customs over the centuries.

The evolution of worship in India evolved through several distinct stages:

1. The earliest was the tribal tradition dating to long before the advent of writing. These worshipped the spirits or ‘jivas’ believed to inhabit every mountain, river, tree, rock and other object. These animistic people living in remote forested areas had no priests but ‘Shamans’  who would organize sacrifices, including blood sacrifices of buffaloes, goats, or birds to gain the blessings of the spirits. These customs still survive.

2. Then there was the Vedic tradition of the Aryans with their elemental gods of the sun, storms, earth, waters, fire, etc. The 33 Vedic gods like Indra, Nasatyas and Rudra vanished but Brahmin priests preserved Vedic hymns, rituals and sacrifices at fire altars. There was no belief in reincarnation or any deep philosophy except for great sacrifices in exchange for boons.

3. Buddhist and Jain philosophy co-existed with Aryan forms of worship in the beginning but Brahmin priests and their patrons erased Buddhism completely in India by the 9th Century AD. Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation, Karma, Dharma and Ahimsa now became an intrinsic part of the evolving Hindu belief.

4. During the 1000-year period of Buddhist supremacy, came another form of Hinduism that was a religion of the Sanskritized Puranas. It introduced a huge multitude of new deities with vastly elaborated beliefs and customs evidently based on pre-Vedic and pre-Sanskrit Puranas as found in some of the Sangham poetry of Tamilnadu. Shiv and Vishnu only now emerged as great gods with new companions like Ganesh, Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati, Kali, etc. Great myths like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were accorded almost religious importance. There was a strong Brahminical revival at this time that tried to eliminate Buddhism and Jainism. This was also the period of India’s great temples.

5. In the Mughal period, the almost forgotten legendary heroes, Ram and Krishna were elevated to ‘Man Gods’ and became objects of deep personal devotion in the style of the adoration of Jesus. The Krishna cult was popularized by Chaitanya (1486 -1534 AD) and Tulsidas (1532-1623 AD) wrote the Ramacharitamanas. The Bhakti devotional cults like Vedanta, and Sufiism (a faith that began long before Islam) were preached by wandering sages seeking direct devotion to a cosmic creator without any idols or places of worship.

6. After the 19th century many educated Hindus, began to be aware that there was little knowledge about their own history, culture and religion. Surprisingly many religious scriptures like the Vedas, the Upanishads or even the Bhagavat Gita, that were mostly unknown except for the secret records of Brahmin pundits, were just not known. The Upanishads and Bhagavat Gita were first discovered and translated into Persian by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh around 1650 from where it was translated into French and English before becoming more widely known in India. The Rigveda was extracted from a reluctant Brahmin in Benares by Coerdeveaux, a Jesuit priest, in 1767.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy, in 1826, first began the use of the word Hindu to describe a religioninstead of a name for the local people. Hinduism, as the name for a religion, was only now born. A new religion needed a common scripture comparable to a Bible or Quran and the Bhagavat Gita seemed the best choice. The voluminous original text of the Gita was compressed and edited by many Indian philosophers like Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Tilak and others and Radhakrishnan’s version only appeared in 1948. Under the influence of European standards of ethics and morality, many casteist and obscurantist sections were deleted and its inspiring philosophical core was promoted.

7. A virulently revivalist Hinduism began with the freedom movement and increasingly strident Hindu leaders began to view India’s religion, culture and history in a much more aggressive manner. As the history of the Harappans, Mauryas, Sungas and Guptas began to emerge and Indians became aware of their great historic and literary heritage there was a belief that Hindu greatness had been deliberately suppressed by foreign invaders.

V. D. Sarvarkar (1883 -1966) followed by K. B. Hedgewar (1925 -40) and M. S. Golwalkar (1940 -73) were to add fuel to the flames. They glorified Brahmanism and bitterly opposed anything to do with Muslims or Christians. They, however, began a vigorous evangelical campaign to bring millions of tribal people to their religious convictions. Some tried to ape Muslim fundamentalism by promoting a Jehadi fervor. An expansion into politics followed with the formation of the RSS whose political arm the Jan Sangh later evolved to become the BJP. 

Many of these traditions overlapped each other and the practiced forms of Hinduism today contain many of these elements simultaneously. The Brahmin priests dominated all learning, assimilated many traditions they wove a complex tapestry of mythology including the mythification of historical events and personages. These made a shallow and often baseless religiosity triumph over India’s rich and pluralistic heritage of religious philosophy and tolerance. The advent of calendar art, cinema and TV allowed many promoters to elaborate and exaggerate many religious themes.