Art by Devdutt Pattanaik
By Devdutt

Published on 10th December, 2022, in Economic Times.

Many people think the world is unravelling itself today. Politicians insist this unravelling began a thousand years ago with the coming of Muslim warlords of Central Asia (Turuka) followed by the Europeans. But as per Sanskrit lore, this began two thousand years ago, with the arrival of another set of ‘foreigners’ – the Greeks (Yavanas), the Scythians (Shaka), the Parthians (Pahalava), and other Central Asian tribes (Kushana, Huna). These have been conveniently forgotten by contemporary WhatsApp and ideologically driven historians.

Vedic society was totally disrupted with the arrival of these invaders, and it led to the invention of a new concept – ‘Age of Strife’ or Kali Yuga, that was not found in the earlier Vedic canon. The world was falling apart for the Brahmins because Vedic fire rituals, that once served pastoralists, had lost all relevance, hence patronage.

Before 500 BCE, Indian history was firmly based in the Gangetic plains. After 500 CE, following Gupta rule, everything happened in the South – the realms of the Chalukyas, the Kalachuris, the Kadambas, the Gangas, the Pallavas, the Rashtrakutas, the Cholas, the Pandyas. Brahmins serving these kings had to reinvent rituals that made sense to their new patrons, many of whom are deemed tribals, pastoralists (shudra), and foreigners (mleccha).

The old Vedic rituals of Ashwamedha yagna and Vajapeya yagna were meaningless to these kings as were the old gods such as Indra, Agni and Soma. So new king-like gods emerged – Shiva and Vishnu whose temples were like durbars, and goddesses like Durga perched outside forts. A new Hinduism is born. These ideas even spread to parts of Southeast Asia.

Puranas spoke of new ritual practices that were as good as the old yagna. Most important was the invention of a set of rituals known as Maha-dana (great gift giving ceremonies) referred to in early texts such as Matsya Purana (500 CE) and even in Linga Purana, composed five centuries later, indicating their popularity.

Agni Purana even says that in the Krita Yuga, people went to everyone’s house to give donations; in Treta yuga, people went to houses of Brahmins to give them donations; in Dvapara yuga donations were given when asked; while in Kali Yuga donation is given only when the rich are pursued. Those who give gifts voluntarily are truly rare and great, worthy of kingship and divine fortune.

Traditionally there are sixteen Mahadana. Details vary in different texts, but gifts are always given to Brahmins, local gurus, local artists, and the poor. They were meant to enhance prestige and build status, and in case of kings, declare independence and establish sovereignty.

Rich chieftains and rich merchants also performed it to seek the grace of divine forces, for wealth, health, children, victory and prosperity. This gift-giving played a key role in the economy as it enabled distribution of vast amounts of wealth.

The rituals involved gold. The patron would sit on a pan balance (tula) and gold equal to his weight would be used to make a huge pot (hiranya garbha), or seven pots filled with milk, curds, ghee, treacle, honey and toddy to represent seven seas (sapta sagara).

Or gold coins would be stacked like bricks in the shape of a mountain (meru) or a tree (kalpataru), a cow (dhenuka), a horse (ashva), elephant (gaja), ploughs (hala), land (dhara), or continent (dvipa). These were all symbols of abundance, affluence and auspiciousness, created with the most sacred precious metal.

The grand offering would be displayed in a ceremony witnessed by everyone, not just humans, but also Vedic gods (Indra, Soma, Agni, Prajapati) and Puranic gods (Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati) and local gods of the local regions as well as gods of space (Diggapala) and time (Graha) and spirits (gandharvas, yakshas, rakshasas, asura). The gold would finally be distributed to all those assembled. Epigraphs would proclaim the ritual was done so that its benefits would last forever (as long as the sun and the moon adorn the sky).

While donation (dana) was always part of Indian tradition since Vedic times, this Maha-dana was an innovation in later times, to mark the shift into Kali Yuga, when it was impossible to conduct yagna as there were very few who remembered the old Vedic ways. Some of these practices like making offerings equal to the king’s weight (tulabhara-dana) was practised later in Mughal courts too and is still found in South Indian temples today. The idea of hundi in temples is also a remnant of this Maha-dana ritual, where offerings are made to God, in the hope of creating a karmic balance that assures fortune to the donor.