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An Historical Sketch

Part 2

In considering the evolution of modern Hinduism out of the old Vedic religion, three of the many factors responsible for this huge and complicated result deserve special attention.

1) The first is the unusual intensity and prevalence of the religious temperament. This has a double effect, both conservative and alterative: ancient customs receive an unreasonable respect: they are not abolished for their immorality or absurdity; but since real interest implies some measure of constructive power, there is a constant growth of new ideas and reinterpretations resulting in inconsistent combinations.

2) The second is the absence of hierarchy and discipline. The guiding principle of the Brahmans has always been not so much that they have a particular creed to enforce, as that whatever is the creed of India they must be its ministers. Naturally every priest is the champion of his own god or rite, and such zeal may lead to occasional conflicts. But though the antithesis between the ritualism of the older Brahmanism and the faith or philosophy of Śivaism and Vishnuism may remind us of the differences between the Catholic Church and Protestant reformers, yet historically there is no resemblance in the development of the antithesis. To some extent Hinduism showed a united front against Buddhism, but the older Brahmanism had no organization which enabled it to stand as a separate Church in opposition to movements which it disliked.

3) The third factor is the deeply rooted idea, which reappears at frequent intervals from the time of the Upanishads until to-day, that rules and rites and even creeds are somehow part of the lower and temporal order of things which the soul should transcend and leave behind. This idea tinges the whole of Indian philosophy and continually crops up in practice. The founder of a strange sect who declares that nothing is necessary but faith in a particular deity and that all ceremonies and caste observances are superfluous is not in the popular esteem a subverter of Hinduism.

The history of both Śivaism and Vishnuism illustrates these features. Śiva begins as a wild deity of non-moral attributes. As the religious sense develops he is not rejected like the less reputable deities of the Jews and Arabs but remains and collects round himself other strange wild ideas which in time are made philosophical but not ethical. The rites of the new religion are, if not antagonistic, at least alternative to the ancient sacrifices, yet far from being forbidden they are performed by Brahmans and modern Indian writers describe Śiva as peculiarly the Brahman's god.

Finally the Śivaite schools of the Tamil country reject in successive stages the grosser and more formal elements until there remains nothing but an ecstatic and mystical monotheism. Similarly among the Vishnuites Kṛishṇa is the centre of legends which have even less of conventional morality. Yet out of them arises a doctrine that the love of God is the one thing needful so similar to Christian teaching that many have supposed it must be borrowed.

The first clear accounts of the worship of Śiva and Vishṇu are contained in the epics and indicate the existence of sectarian religion, that is to say of exclusive devotion to one or other deity. But there is also a tendency to find a place for both, a tendency which culminates in the composite deity Śaṅkara Nârâyaṇa already mentioned. Many of the Purâṇas[1] reflect this view and praise the two deities impartially. The Mahâbhârata not unfrequently does the same but the general impression left by this poem is that the various parts of which it consists have been composed or revised in a sectarian spirit.

The body of the work is a narrative of exploits in which the hero Kṛishṇa plays a great part but revised so as to make him appear often as a deity and sometimes as the Supreme Spirit. But much of the didactic matter which has been added, particularly books XII and XIII, breathes an equally distinct Śivaite spirit and in the parts where Kṛishṇa is treated as a mere hero, the principal god appears to be not Vishṇu but Śiva.

The Mahabharata and Puranas contain legends which, though obscure, refer to conflicts of the worshippers of Śiva with those who offered Vedic sacrifices as well as with the votaries of Vishṇu, and to a subsequent reconciliation and blending of the various cults. Among these is the well-known story of Daksha's sacrifice to which Śiva was not invited. Enraged at the omission he violently breaks up the sacrifice either in person or through a being whom he creates for the purpose, assaults the officiants and the gods who are present, and is pacified by receiving a share. Similarly we hear[2] that he once seized a victim at a sacrifice and that the gods in fear allotted to him the choicest portion of the offerings.

These stories indicate that at one time Brahmans did not countenance his worship and he is even represented as saying to his wife that according to rule (dharmataḥ) he has no share in the sacrifice.[3] Possibly human victims were immolated in his honour, as they were in Kâlî's until recently, for in the Mahabharata[4] it is related how Kṛishṇa expostulated with Jarâsandha who proposed to offer to Śiva a sacrifice of captive kings.

In the Vishṇu-Purâṇa, Kṛishṇa fights with Śiva and burns Benares. But by the time that the Mahabharata was put together these quarrels were not in an acute stage. In several passages[5] Kṛishṇa is made to worship Śiva as the Supreme Spirit and in others[6] vice versa Śiva celebrates the glory of Kṛishṇa. Vishnuites do not disbelieve in Śiva but they regard him as a god of this world, whereas their own deity is cosmic and universal. Many Vishnuite works[7] are said to be revealed by Śiva who acts as an intermediary between us and higher spheres.

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- Footnotes:


E.g. Mârkaṇḍeya, Vâmana and Varâha. Also the Skanda Upanishad.


Mahâbh. Vanaparvan, 11001 ff. The Bhâgavata Purâṇa, Book IV. sec. 2-7 emphasizes more clearly the objections of the Rishis to Śiva as an enemy of Vedic sacrifices and a patron of unhallowed rites.


Mahâbh. XII. sec. 283. In the same way the worship of Dionysus was once a novelty in Greece and not countenanced by the more conservative and respectable party. See Eur. Bacchae, 45. The Varâha-Purâna relates that the Śivaite scriptures were revealed for the benefit of certain Brahmans whose sins had rendered them incapable of performing Vedic rites. There is probably some truth in this legend in so far as it means that Brahmans who were excommunicated for some fault were disposed to become the ministers of non-Vedic cults.


Mahâbh. II. secs. 16, 22 ff.


Droṇa-p., 2862 ff. Anusâsana-p., 590 ff.


E.g. Anusâsana P., 6806 ff.


E.g. the Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitâ and Adhyâtma Râmâyaṇa.

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