Who Is a Hindu? The Geography of Gods.
Published on 8th November, 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.
We know that the Rig Veda, in its current form, was consolidated in the Kuru-Panchala region around Haryana about 3,000 years ago. The Upanishads evolved 2,500 years ago in the eastern Gangetic plains in what is today Bihar. The early Dharma Shastras, which are over 2,000 years old, refer only to North India as Aryavarta. Manusmriti, which is less than 2,000 years old, refers to the entire subcontinent, from the Himalayas right up to the coasts, as Aryavarta. Tamil Sangam literature is aware of the North, and refers to Aryas as a people different from the Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas, who are referred to for the first time in Ashokan edicts 2,300 years ago.
We know that Brahmins started receiving land grants from around 1,500 years ago and that led to the construction of temples especially in the South. The earliest instance of land being given to Brahmins is in the 3rd and 4th Century in Andhra Pradesh; the 4th and 5th Century in Odisha and Gujarat; the 6th and 7th Century in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the 8th and 9th Century in Kerala. Thus we see the gradual spread of Brahmanism from North India to the South. This is collaborated by mythologies of sages like Agastya. It is said he travelled from the North to the South. He carried with him mountains and rivers from the north to create the mountains and rivers of the south. Thus Brahmanism carries its geography from the north to the south and starts referring to southern rivers as Dakshin Ganga and southern cities as Dakshin Kashi.
Most people are familiar with the 8th Century Shankaracharya of Kerala, who came to Kashi via Omkareshwara, and who challenged Buddhist might to spread the Vedanta doctrine to the four corners of India. But Shankaracharya is not particularly associated with temple worship. That credit goes to Ramanujacharya, who merged temple worship with Vedanta philosophy in Tamil Nadu in the 11th century. His ideas spread northwards through his followers such as Vallabhanatha and Ramananda. Even today, Agama temple practices are more found in the south than in the north. At one time, Kashmir was a centre of Tantrik rituals and philosophies, with scholars like Abhinavgupta, but few remember it today.
In the Vedic period, gods such as Indra, Agni and Soma have no geographical rootedness. Ram and Krishna are rooted in the Gangetic plains, but when you read Alwar and Nayamnar poetry and the vachanas of Basava, we find that Vishnu and Shiva, venerated in these songs, are firmly located in a particular temple scattered across southern India. As regional languages evolved in various parts of India, bhakti literature anchored god in different geographies of India. In Odisha, when one speaks of Vishnu, Ram or Krishna, one associates him with the Jagannath Temple.
Shankaradeva’s Krishna is located in the landscape of Assam, Chaitanya’s Krishna thrives in Bengal. In Maharashtra, when Dyaneshwara and Ekanath refer to Krishna, they are effectively referring to Vitthala Panduranga of Pandharpur. In Karnataka, when Purandardasa talks of Krishna, it is related to the temple in Udupi. In Andhra Pradesh, Tirupati is far more important to Annamacharya than Mathura and Kashi in the north Indian plains. In Kerala, Krishna sits in Guruvayoor.
In trying to unite Hindus into a single vote bank, Hindutva overlooks geographical Hinduism as it fears diversity will be divisive and prefers focusing on a streamlined historical Hinduism, spearheaded by the Hindi heartland, whose culture is very different from the vast temple complexes and traditions of eastern, western and southern India.