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Religions in India

  • India is the 2nd most populated country in the world with over 1.38 billion people or 18% of the total world population
  • Birthplace of 4 major religions
    • Hinduism (80.5%)
    • Buddhism (2.6%)
    • Jainism (.5%)
    • Sikhism (1.8%)
  • Other religions
    • Islam (13.4%) [ca 623 CE]
    • Christianity (2.3%) [ca 50 CE]
    • Judaism (< 20,000) [562 BCE]
    • Zoroastrianism (.006%) [224 CE]
    • Baha’i (2 million) [ca 1884 CE]
    • Tribal/Animist/Other (.4%)RELIGIONS IN INDIA


  • The term “Hindu” was first used by Persians as a geographical term to describe the people who lived beyond the Indus river (from the Sanskrit: sindhu)
    • The first Greek geographer to use the term India was Herodotus (5th century BC)
  • Became used as religious designation towards the end of the 18th century by the British to refer to the people of ‘Hindustan’
    • Essentially came to mean an ‘Indian’ who was not a Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, or Christian thus it encompassed a huge range of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions in a single term

Languages of South Asia

  • Home to 7 different language families
    • IndoEuropean 74%
    • Dravidian 24%
    • AustroAsiatic 1.2%
    • TibetoBurman (.6%)
  • Over 700 living and distinct languages, with 29 languages having over1 million speakers
  • 22 Official state languages
    • “Union Gov’t” Hindi & English
  • 6 “Classical” Languages: Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam & Oriya


  • No single historical founder
  • No unified system of belief or scripture
  • No single soteriology (i.e. doctrine of salvation/final aim)
  • No centralized authority (e.g. church/pope) and bureaucratic structure
  • Hinduism, as a “world religion” happened in the 19th century, the term first being used by Western orientalists and later Hindu reformers

Dharma and Religion

  • Dharma some have used this term to translate as “religion”
    • Multivalent term which can also refer to the cosmic and social order, natural law, duty, or “the way”
  • Rita the principle of cosmic order (similar to the Dao in Daoism)
    • Thus by following the dharma, one is upholding the social (human) order and thus the cosmic order

General Chronology of Religious History

  • Indus Valley (33001300 BCE)
  • Vedic Period (1500500 BCE)
  • Epic & Puranic Period (500 BCE500 CE)
  • Medieval Period (500CE 1500 CE)
  • Modern Period (1500CE Present)

Pre-Indus Valley

  • Humans have existed on the subcontinent from at least 73,000 BCE
  • Various early migrations of people African, Australoid and Dravidian (dominant group in the South)
  • This cluster of groups have contributed to what we could call the indigenous people of India, many which still exist and are known as adivasis(tribals)

Indus Valley/Harappan Civilization

  • Roots of Indus Valley civilization began as early as 7000 BCE, reached its zenith in 2500 BCE and by 1500 BCE it began to fade away
  • Excavations began in 1921 first with Harappa and soon after MohenjoDaro, the two most important cities of the Indus
  • Over 1200 sites were eventually discovered, covering an area of almost 800,000 square miles
  • Along with Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China it was one of the four earliest civilizations of the Old World. Of the four it was the most widespread at. All were actively trading with each other since early times.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Darro

  • These were highly developed, carefully planned urban cultures with sophisticated water & irrigation technologies, drainage, plumbing, religious centers, brick houses, and in general a high standard of living for the time.
  • Writing was found here, although it has yet to be deciphered

Indus Valley Religion

  • For now we can only infer what Indus valley religion was like from the archeological record
    • Sacred platforms for rituals and sacrifices
    • Ritual bathing (e.g. The Great Bath)
    • Evidence of fire altars
    • Female terracotta figurines implying goddess/fertilitydeity worship
    • Complex relationships between deities, humans, plants, and animals
    • Multiheaded figures and horned deities or shamanlike figures
    • Pilgrimage sites
  • A number of scholars have posited a number of linguistic and iconographic continuities between the religions of the Indus valley civilization and later India

Decline of the Indus Valley

  • Evidence suggests that the Indus Valley rivers began to dry up due to natural and human causes, causing the civilization to disband and eventually moved towards the Gangetic Valley
  • After the decline of the Indus Valley, there were many waves of migrations over a period of IndoEuropean speaking groups known as the Aryans
    • The “Vedic culture” which emerged out of this contact was an amalgamation of these migrants and the indigenous Dravidians who incorporated each others’ beliefs and practices
    • Eventually Sanskrit, the primary IndoEuropean language of the early Vedas, became the dominant literary language in the North

Vedic Period (1500500 BCE)

  • What we know about the Vedic civilization comes from the Vedas (from Sanskrit root “vid”, meaning knowledge) and its ancillary texts, the oldest being the Rg Veda (15001200 BCE)
    • Said not to be of human authorship and are timeless and eternal revelations (sanatana dharma) and contains all knowledge of the Universe, which was revealed to the great ancient sages known as rishis (“seers”).
    • These sacred hymns and mantras (thoughtforms) were passed down orally for thousands of years, preserved by lineages of Brahmins, the priestly class, before being eventually put in to writing
    • May be the oldest scripture in the world still in use today

Vedic Ritual

  • The central religious practice of the early Vedic Aryans was sacrifice and ritual to attain worldly ends and to maintain the social and cosmic orders
    • Through sacrifice humans could engage with the natural and divine worlds seen as essential for the functioning of the cosmos
    • Centered around fire rites (homa) where various offerings to divinities were made
      • Agni (fire god): the transformative link and messenger between the worldly and divine realms
  • Primary devas (deities) were Agni, Indra(king of devas, god of thunderstorms), & the sacred visionary inducing plant known as Soma
    • There are hundreds of other different gods & goddesses (devis) as well as antigods (asuras), mentioned throughout the Vedas

Vedic Cosmology

  • Four orders of reality which are distinct but interwoven:
    • divine order
    • natural order
    • human order
    • sacrificial order
  • It was the sacrificial order which was considered essential at this time for their proper functioning
    • All sacrifices are essentially a recreation of the primordial sacrifice of “The Cosmic Man” which lead to the creation of the Universe as found in the Purusha Sukta of the RV
    • The sacrificial act replicates this creative process and harness these same creative forces
    • The myth, in sum, affirmed that the entire universe came from a single source


Early Vedic Soteriology

  • Soteriology (ultimate goal): Emphasized the external world and worldly aims and maintaining the cosmic/social order.
  • The three aims in life were:
    • Dharma: worldly responsibility/duty
    • Artha: wealth
    • Kama: pleasure
  • Highest goal: to reach the heavens, the realm of the pitrs (ancestors)
  • Means to goal: Ritual and sacrifice and acting in harmony with the social/cosmic order


Late Vedic Period

  • Ritualism of the Vedas and the Brahmins become more institutionalized over the centuries and was primarily in the control of the elite class
    • Rituals too expensive and elaborate and required knowledge of Sanskrit
  • New questions, regarding the ultimate nature of reality, were being asked by sages/teachers (gurus) who begin to seek alternative lifestyles and began living and teaching in the forests as sadhus (wandering holy men) or as sannyasis (renunciants)
  • This questioning began the rise of the ascetic and renunciant traditions which grew to challenge the earlier priestly sacrificial tradition


Ascetic Traditions

  • Ascetic: A renunciant (one who renounces the world), who performs acts of mortification or various austerities for spiritual purposes
    • There were both Vedic and nonVedic (Shramanas i.e. Jains, Buddhists, Shaivas, etc. who rejected Vedas completely) groups of forest renunciants

The Upanishads

  • Upanishads: Texts that contained metaphysical speculations concerned with the attainment of knowledge (jñana) of ultimate reality as a means of achieving liberation (moksha)
    • Originally challenged the Vedic order, but ultimately became incorporated into the Vedic corpus
  • Emphasized more personal religious experience and direct transmission of teachings from teacher (guru) to disciple.


The Upanishads: Late Verdic Period

  • Shift from karma (ritual action) to jñana(knowledge) 
  • Emphasis on the internal world and rejection of the external world, which becomes identified with Maya, the world of illusion
  • 2 States of Reality were posited (ca. 800 BCE)
    • Samsara: the cycle of birth and death (transmigration), as the everchanging field of relative existence (conditioned reality/Maya)
    • Moksha: state of liberation in which one becomes established in the nonchanging absolute (absolute/ unconditioned reality)
  • Shift towards an internalization of Vedic sacrificial rituals which was thought to be the rituals highest meaning the true sacrifice was internal and included renunciation, celibacy, religious austerities, breath control, nonviolence, etc.
  • Meditation and yoga were considered the highest practices


Karma and Reincarnation

  • Moksha (liberation) is from samsara,but also karma, the storehouse of actions that bind the individual soul (jiva) to samsara life after life
    • One wanders in the cycle of transmigration (samsara) according to one’s own actions (karma)
      • Meritorious action leads to merit, while evil action leads to further evil and misfortune (i.e. being reincarnated as a lower life form)
      • “The Self changes from body to body like one changes clothes” (Bhagavad Gita)
  • It was thought by minimizing one’s accruement of karma (actions), doing ascetic practices to “burn” one’s karma and to attain wisdom, one could attain liberation
    • Minimize action + knowledge = liberation (moksha)


Brahman and Atman

  • Brahman and Atman become most common designations for absolute reality our divine essence or source often identified and depicted by the sound Aum/Om the universal vibration which underlies all of existence
    • Atman is the subtlest principle of the microcosm, the absolute “ground state” of all human existence and awareness i.e. the true Self of every individual
      • Distinction: Jiva is the individual soul that reincarnates and is effected by karma, while atman is the Universal Self that is eternal and nonchanging
  • Brahman is the subtlest principle of the macrocosm and the absolute basis of cosmic existence, the unitary “ground state” of the objective phenomenal universe
    • Is both transcendent (beyond the relative phenomenal creation like the empty seed) and immanent (pervading all aspects of existence like salt in water)
  • Moksha is first realizing your true identity as atman and then the realization that atman is same as Brahman: Tat Tvam Asi “Thou art That” (Chandogya Upanishad)



  • Yoga, seen for the first time in the Upanishads, is one of the means whereby the mind and senses can be restrained, where the limited empirical self/ego (ahamkara or jiva) can be transcended, and the Self’s true identity (atman) eventually experienced
  • The most famous yoga text is the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, which had an 8limbed system (asthanga yoga):
    • Ethics
    • Discipline
    • Posture
    • Breathcontrol
    • Withdrawal of the senses
    • Meditation
    • Concentration
    • Inquiry
    • Absorption


Comparison of Soteriology

  • Early Vedic
    • Soteriology – worldly aims and cosmic/social order
    • Highest goal: the heavens, the real of pits (fathers/ancestors)
    • Means to goals – ritual and sacrifice
    • Emphasis o the external world and maintaining social and cosmic network
  • Late Vedic : Renunciant
    • Soteriology – liberation from samsara
    • Means to goal – knowledge (jnana) of ultimate reality
    • Highest goal – moksha
    • Emphasis on the internal world and rejection of the external world, which becomes identified with Maya, “illusion”

Brahmanical Synthesis: Post-Vedic Period

  • Varnashramadharma: system of ritual and social duties that are incumbent on brahmin males at different stages of life (ashramas) to repay the debts of life
    • Student: pay off debt to the sages/ri’s by studying the Vedas and supporting the religion
    • Householder: pay off debt to ancestors by having children (especially sons) and supporting the elderly
    • Forest dweller: pay off debt of life to gods by performing sacrifices
    • Sannyasa Renunciant: there were originally three, but later during the synthesis, this becomes absorbed into the Vedic fold as the last stage of life

Brahmanical Synthesis – Dharma vs Moksa

  • Purusharthas: Four “aims of humans”
    • Kama sensual pleasures
    • Artha economic and political wellbeing
    • Dharma moral and social duties
    • Moksha liberation from samsara
  • However the tension always remained:
    • Brahmins believe that dharmais a prerequisite to moksha.
    • Renunciants however seedharma always belonging to the relative world and ultimately futile for their efforts moksha is their only focus in the world

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