Published on 20th December, 2020, in Mumbai Mirror.
Hinduism is typically taught through a historical lens. We are told that there was a Harappan period 4,000 years ago, followed by Vedic Period 3,000 years ago, followed by the Puranic Age, which began 2,000 years ago, which was then followed by the Bhakti Age 1,000 years ago. This was followed by the Reform Movement in colonial times, which happened 200 years ago. However, none of these happened uniformly across India. India is a very large subcontinent. Hinduism did not appear fully formed across the subcontinent, one fine day, like Draupadi appearing fully formed from the sacrificial fire.
Traditionally, Hinduism is traced to the Rig Veda, which was composed over 3000 years ago. But the gods of the Rig Veda – Indra, Agni, Soma – are hardly worshipped today. Hindu ritual is dominated by worship of trees, animals, mountains, rivers, stones and images of gods enshrined in temples. Where did that come from? From Harappa? From tribes beyond?
Hindus worship the vrinda or tulsi plant as Lakshmi, the vata or the banyan tree as sacred to ancestors (pitr), the nimba or neem as sacred for the Goddess, the bilva or bel for Shiva. Then there are specific herbs and shrubs that are gathered as part of Durga puja, Ganesh puja, Gauri puja. In Buddhism, Buddha’s birth and enlightenment are linked to the sala and the pipal tree. Every Jain tirthankara has his own special tree. The doctrine of karma is most often explained using the relationship of seed (bija) and fruit (phala). These clearly show the influence of extra-Vedic tribal and Harappan practices on mainstream Hinduism. We have seals from the Harappan civilization showing goddesses emerging from trees, offerings being made to the tree. Tribal communities in Central India are now demanding that their faith in trees, ‘Sarnaism’, which involves worship of the sal tree, be recognised as separate. Perhaps they are tired of Hindutva imposing its political doctrines on them, denying their autonomy as was done in Hindu Dharma for hundreds of years.
Vedic gods rode chariots pulled by horses or oxen, but in Puranas Indra has an elephant, Vishnu an eagle, Shiva a bull, Kali a lion. In Jainism, Mahavira is symbolised by a lion, Parsva by a cobra, Rishabha as a bull, Munisuvrat at a tortoise. Again, in Indus valley, we find seals with animal imagery – bull, elephant, rhino, goat, deer, tiger (no horse, no lion) though it is unlikely their purpose was religion or even sacred. But animals are sacred in tribal cultures – associated with gods and demons, as we find in Bhuta performances of Tulu Nadu, clearly inspiring Puranic tales.
Hymns for dawn (Usha), river (Sindhu), for rain (Paranjaya) and for the forest (Aranyani) are found in Rig Veda, but that more poetry than mythology. Greater praise is for the power of language (vak) that compels the gods (devas) to communicate with the poets (kavi). We don’t find concept of Ganga riding a dolphin. No veneration of mountains such as Palani of Tamil Nadu, Girnar of Gujarat, or Vindhya of Central India, where gods and sages sit and commune with infinity. The idea of sacred geography comes much later.
Across Indian villages and towns, we will find rocks, even in temples, that are generally neglected. On a certain day, at a certain time, they suddenly become the centre of the village’s attention. They get covered with turmeric, vermilion paste, flowers. They are scented with incense, and sacrifices are made to them. Many temples contain rocks that are seen as gods who are ‘Swayambhu’ (self-manifest). If one looks beyond the metal mask, one realizes that they are ancient monolithic rocks, that are worshipped. The famous ‘Shaligram’ stone associated with Vishnu is an ammonite fossil found in the riverbed of Gandaki river. Shivling is, more often than not, just a polished stone picked up from a riverbed, often Narmada, and then placed on a metal trough. Matrikas and multiple gods are associated with just a rock or a protrusion of a rock, in many temples. In south Indian temples, around the main shrine, are small rocks representing old ancient devatas and kshetrapalas. In Buddhism and Jainism they are seen as yakshas and yakshis guarding sages.
The worship of heroes as ‘vir’stones, or powerful women as ‘sati’ stones, may have started in warrior communities. People who protected their cows and lands from marauders and plunderers were worshipped with water, flowers and lamps by early farmers and herders. This then became the local temple deity linked to Shiva and Vishnu, who in turn communicated Vedic concepts. These ‘vir’ or ‘bir’ even became symbols for ‘pir-baba’ of folk Islam, a controversial point denied by puritanical Islam, just as ‘tribal’ origins of Hinduism is denied by orthodox Hinduism.
Hinduism has many tributaries, not just the one. Privileging one over others, is less to do with history and more to do with politics. Let us leave that to the know-it-all politicians who have lost the ancient royal art of attracting auspicious Lakshmi into the land.