Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Hinduism: The Golden Thread of Indian History

K. S. S. Seshan

Starting from the Pre-Aryan days, embodying every custom and idea of one group of people or the other, Hinduism, like a snow-ball, has gone on ever getting bigger and bigger in the course of centuries. It is difficult to define Hinduism in definite terms, for, it rejects nothing that isgood. It is thus all-comprehensive, all-absorbing and all-tolerant. It has its spiritual as well as material aspects. Hinduism embraces all within its soft loving fold. It never confines its power, of indefinite expansion. Hinduism is closely interwoven with the history of India, the homeland of many faiths and religions. The following is a brief survey of the evolution of Hinduism during the ancient, medieval and modern periods of India’s history.

Ancient Period

During the age of the Vedas, i.e., from 2000 B. C. to 560 B. C., there were few stages in Hindu faith and they were the Age of Mantras (Hymns), Age of the Brahmanas and the Age of Upanishads. Mantras are the creations of the poets; Brahmanas are the works of priests and Upanishads are the revelations of mystics. During this period of the Vedas the foundations were well and truly laid. The later stages only built a superstructure on them.

From the birth of Buddha to the fall of Mauryan Empire, brings the next stage in the development of Hinduism where it passes into historical times. Out of the sixteen Mahajanapadas (Republics) Magadha rose into importance in the 6th century B. C. The Sisunagas were succeeded by Nandas on the Magadhan throne. Byabout 325 B. C., Chandra Gupta founded the Mauryan dynasty. The history of Magadha since then rightly became the history of India. At about this time Alexander, the great Greek warrior, invaded the country. Under the reign of Asoka, Buddhism rapidly spread in and outside of India and experienced its golden period. Buddhism and Jainism which rose as reforming sects, repudiated the authority of Vedas, priests and sacrifices. But they both retained the ethical ideals of the orthodox Hindu faith.

After the fall of the Mauryan Empire, there was a revival of Hinduism. The Aswamedha sacrifice performed by Pushyamitra Sunga, the founder of the Sunga dynasty, is an indication for such prominence to Hindu faith. The period from 200 B. C. to 300 A. D. is rightly called the Epic Age when Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great epics, were written. The codes of Manu and Yajnavalkya were also composed during this period. There was a division in Buddhism into Hinayana and Mahayana faiths which resulted in the weakening of the Buddhist hold. Hinduism at this stage clearly laid down that the purpose of life was four-fold, namely, Dharma (Duty) Artha (Wealth) Kama (Desire) and Moksha (Liberation). The doctrine of Avatara or incarnation was also popularised. The conception of the impersonal Brahma and the personal Ishvara, the supreme authority of the Vedas, the laws of Karma and rebirth, the formulas of Varnaashrama-Dharma were all well established.

With the advent of the Gupta period, Hinduism experienced its golden age. Gupta’s (330 A. D. to 375 A. D.) period witnessed the zenith of the empire. This mighty empire was shattered by the waves of the Hun invasions. By the seventh century A. D., the North Indian politics were dominated by the Vardhamanas among whom Harsha was the greatest. Right from 300 A. D., to 1000 A. D., the period is said to be the Age of Puranas. The religious poems known as Puranas were widely used by the common people. They were of great inspiration for both literate and illiterate. Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Surya and Ganapati were the deities commonly worshipped. The philosophical Sutras also became vogue during this period. From this time onwards, the authority of the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavadgita was well established. During the period extending from the death of Harsha to the coming of Muslims, Rajputs have dominated the political scene of North India. It was during this period that Shankara advocated the doctrine of Advaita philosophy, which said that the eternal Absolute namely Brahman is the only final Reality; that the ‘Death’ is not applicable to the Absolute; that Moksha or Liberation could be had not through Karma or action but through Jnana or illumination. Nayanmars and Alvars in the South popularised Shaivism and Vaishnavism respectively.

Medieval Period

With the conquest of the country by the Arabians and the Turks, Delhi Sultanate was established. The five dynasties namely, the Slaves, Khiljis, Tughluqs, Sayyids and Lodis held power up to 1526 A. D. In South, there were several Hindu kingdoms like Pandyas, Yadavas, Hoyasalas,  Kakatiyas, etc. Great changes took place in Hinduism during this period because of large scale forced conversions to Islam. It was during this stage that several other systems of Hindu Philosophy like Visishtadvaita by Ramanuja, the Dvaita by Madhva, the Virashaiva by Basava came into existence. All these systems gave importance to Bhakti cult. Even after the downfall of the Delhi Sultans, the Mughals continued to keep Islam as the foremost religion in the country till they met their decay in the 18th century. The rise of Marathas under the leadership of Shivaji and the Sikhs in the Punjab towards the close of the Mughal era served as bulwarks for upholding the supremacy of Hinduism against the onslaughts of Islam. During this time a great Bhakti movement swept over the country and this in turn gave rise to devotional literature. Religious leaders like Ramananda, Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, Chaitanya, Tulsidas, Tukaram, etc., contributed for such devotional literature. The Bhakti movement in South mainly centered around the worship of Vishnu and Shiva; whereas in North India it was the worship of Rama and Krishna, the two incarnations of Vishnu. The Ramayana written by Tulsidas, though with the same old story of Rama, depicted a different spirit. The Radha-Krishna cult came into existence, and the most famous poets who belonged to this branch were – Vithoba, Namadeva, Ekanath, Jayadeva, Chandidas, Vidyapati, etc. The Bhakti movement developed belief inone supreme God of Love and Grace; belief insalvation, recognition of Guru and Sanyasi; and relaxation of caste system.

Modern Period

After 1750 A. D. the British Supremacy was established in India. After the subjugation of the Mughals, the Marathas and the Sikhs, they became predominant. In 1858 after the Great Indian Mutiny, the Government was transferred from the British East India Company to the crown and a uniform system of administration was introduced. The Spread of English education broke the intellectual isolation of the Indian mind and brought into contact the Western Science, Literature and History. In the light of the new knowledge many evil customs in the Hindu society appeared in their true colours as only the folly of man. As a result Sathi, infanticide, enforced widowhood, child-marriages, untouchability, purdah, the caste-system, etc., started to lose their hold on the minds of the people. The name of Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General, would be remembered for ever in this great task of erasing such social evils.

The early Christian missionaries had a great effect on Hinduism just as it had on Hindu society. In schools and colleges they not only taught secular knowledge, but also said Christianity was the “only true religion.” Yet several Western scholars commonly called as Orientalists like Sir William Jones and Max Muellar revealed the treasures of Indian wisdom. This made the educated class to rouse Hinduism from its deep sleep. There arose in this period a number of reformers, teachers, saints and scholars who have purified Hinduism, separated its essentials from its non-essentials, confirmed its ancient truths and even carried the message of Hindu faith to Europe and America. Among the foremost reform movements of this period was the Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal. It condemned the idol worship and gave importance to spiritual contemplation for the attainment of spiritual bliss. Keshab Chander Sen and Devendranath Tagore were closely associated with this Samaj. An offshoot of his Brahmo Samaj was the Prarthana Samaj of Bombay. This aimed at destroying caste system, introduction of widow re-marriages, women’s education and the abolition of child marriages. Mahadev Govinda Ranade was instrumental for the popularity of this Samaj. Similarly Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati who insisted that Hinduism should follow the Vedic path. “Go to the Vedas” was the slogan of Arya Samaj.

During the recent past the efflorescence of the Renaissance ofHinduism has been witnessed due to Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. The Ramakrishna Mission with branches all over the world was established to teach Hinduism. In South India, Ramalingaswami exerted a great influence on the Hindu mind through his popular hymns. The Satyagraha movement of Gandhiji opened a new phase in the history of Hindu ethics. The philosophy of the supermind and internal Yoga taught by Sri Aurobindo attracted people from all over the world to his Ashram at Pondicherry. The pure Advaita philosophy taught by Sri Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai also attracted a number of disciples. Dr. Radhakrishnan with his marvellous erudition and clarity interpreted Hinduism to the Western world.

Hinduism today is recognised as a great world religion. Islam and Christianity have come to stay in our country. The attitude of Hinduism has rightly been ‘tolerance’ and peaceful co-existence towards such faiths. Hinduism thus is a practical religion and its practice is designed for the purpose of taking the individual to his goal and making him realise God.

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