INTRODUCTORY NOTES TO "HINDUISM"
(ASTIKA SYSTEMS AND PRACTICES OF INDIA)

By Debashish Banerji

Astika Systems: Those which accept the primacy of the Vedas.

Productive Dualities within Hinduism:-

Ideology/Creative Agent -Ideology: is the institutionalized aspect of Hinduism made up of canonical and exegetical texts (sastras), an archive of established practices (puja, niyama) and custodians of canonicals texts and practices, such as priests (brahmins) or social authorities (kula-patis, etc.)
Creative Agent: those who realize identity with a higher principle of consciousness (yogi, rishi, guru) and can teach the way to it through personal authority (diksha), a personal system of practice (sadhana) and/or direct transmission of experience (darshan). The institutional or ideological system is open to revision by such agents through debate (vitarka), followers capable of reproducing the realization in their lives (sishya, sangha) and direct transmission of experience (darshan) demonstrating its validity.

- Animism/Spirituality - Animism: mastery or control of spirits behind material world through ritual, magic, propitiation, shamanic skills, yoga – sense of predictable results (see discussion on yakshas/yakshis below).
Spirituality: Belief in a transcendental God or Spirit – non-propitiatory access to the Source undertaken for experience of relationship or oneness – results: non-theistic - preditable results through yoga; theistic: dependent on Grace and not predictable.

- Will to Liberation (Transcendence)/Will to Mastery and Enjoyment -  Will to Liberation: Sense of material existence as an imprisonment and need to escape from it – world-negating, ascetic, seeking cessation of reincarnation, experience of transcendental spirit/consciousness, non-dual, yoga as meditation, Vedanta, Mayavada, mukti (freedom), aniconic.
Will to Mastery and Enjoyment: Sense of material existence as a challenge and opportunity and need to control and enjoy it – world-affirming, magic, ritualistic, yoga as practices of mastery, bhukti (enjoyment), Tantric, iconic.

- Aniconism/Iconism - Aniconism: All religions have some degree of aniconism built into them, though they may be due to different reasons – eg. A major reason for aniconism in Islam is because only God has the right to represent living things. Human representations of living things is an insult to God. In Buddhism, the basis of aniconism is the doctrine of nirvana and sunyata – i.e. the non-substantiality of the phenomenal world. In Hinduism it arises from the un-worldliness (alien-ness) of the Divine and the illimitability of Brahman. The will to liberation tends towards formulations which emphasize the experience of illimitability and hence tend towards aniconism.
Iconism: Hinduism believes in the immanence of God in all things – i.e. all phenomenal objects are names and faces of the Brahman. Hence all phenomenal objects can be used to iconically represent the Divine. However the human body given multiple parts has been conceived as adequate to the representation of the gods as cosmic figures of Brahman. This is known by art historians as “the
multiplicity convention” (Doris Srinivasan). The will to mastery and enjoyment tends towards relationship with objective representations of the Divine and hence tends towards iconism.

- Shiva/Shakti – Soul or Consciousness and Nature or manifesting power – explained below.

Textual History of Hinduism:

1. Yaksha/Yakshi cults – of uncertain chronology – considered animistic propitiation deities. Large icons in the Mauryan period (3rd c. BCE) – dangerous but pleased by specific offerings and made to give gifts.

2. The Vedas (c. 1500 BCE ?) nature gods, ritualistic, introduces the caste system as the stratification of society (eventually hierarchical and hereditary) into priests (brahmans), warriors, rulers and administrators (kshatriyas), traders, merchants and artisans (vaishyas) and laborers (sudras). Outside of the system are the unclean or untouchables (achyutas) and foreigners or outcastes (mlecchas). The Vedas represent a yogic path (Sri Aurobindo) in symbolic forms which traslate socially into propitiation rituals for material enjoyments conducted by the brahmans (priests) for the kshatriyas (royalty). Hence, prioritizes the will to enjoyment. However, there is no evidence of Vedic iconism – Doris Srinivasan characterizes this by the phrase “ritual as icon”.

3. The Upanishads (8th – 6th c. BCE ?) – aphoristic and paradoxical verses prioritizing the will to liberation – seen as a reaction to the ritualism of the Vedas though it aligns itself to the Vedas by claiming to reinterpret them in a non-ritualistic way: (a) The formless and illimitable Brahman is posited as superior to the Vedic gods, the Vedic gods being seen as representations of Brahman. (b) Access to God no longer the prerogative of brahmans but of all people and no longer through ritual but through psychological processes of meditation and yoga (way of experiencing identity with Brahman) – tending towards asceticism, worldnegation and aniconism. Buddhism and Jainism can be seen as philosophies that share the discourse of the Upanishads though by rejecting the primacy of the Vedas they exclude themselves from the “Hindu” tradition. (c) Social ideologemes put in place at this time: samsara (society)/sannyasa (renunciation) relationship highlighted due to ascetic tendency of the Upanishads, karma and rebirth cycle (dharma-karma-punarjanma).

4. The Puranas (1st – 4th c. CE upto the 10th c) – based on the cosmic gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma and the many manifestation of the Goddess Devi or Shakti. These are possibly independent cults but aligned to the Hindu formation through the Puranic writings. Devi texts are called the Tantras or Shakti Tantras. Puranas and Tantras combine the will to liberation with the will to mastery and enjoyment – iconic and non-iconic forms of these Gods/Goddesses co-exist. Puranas cluster themselves around the three major deities – thus there are Brahma Puranas, Vishnu Puranas and Shiva Puranas. Each set looks upon the deity at its center as the Supreme God and the others as subsidiary to him, often his devotees. There are no major cults pertaining to Brahma (perhaps because the creation is perceived as “faulty”) and Hindus are broadly classed as Shaivas, Vaishnavs and Shaktas. The sects have a degree of rivalry among them, though the idea of “adhikara” or spiritual capacity and swadharma or soul-preference contribute to a greater degree of tolerance along with the Puranic notion that the gods work in harmony with each other.

Major Puranic Gods and Goddesses:

Trimurti: Puranic trinity integrating the three major deities into a cosmic ecosystem. Here, Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer.

Vahana: The gods and goddesses of the Puranas ride animal mounts termed vahanas. These may be derived from dwarf mounts associated with the yakshis.

Shiva: Destroys bondages towards liberation – this portrays the will to liberation and co-exists in a dialectic (duality) with Devi seen as the giver of mastery and enjoyment. He represents transcendence and is thus characterized by opposites – the ascetic and the lover, the formless and the formed, the preserver and the destroyer. Aniconically he is portrayed as the erect phallus (linga) always in association with the vulva (yoni) which represents the Devi. The linga/yoni combination represents the cosmic creation act at the center of the universe constantly giving it birth. By and large Hindus do not look upon this as having any relationship with the human sex act, the sex of the cosmic gods being seen as incomprehensible to humans except through spiritual experience. Iconically, Shiva is seen with four-hands riding the bull (named Nandi) as his vahana. He often has a trident (trishula), a snake (naga), a begging bowl and an antelope (kuranga). Forms of the Devi associated with Shiva are Shakti, Parvati, Durga and Kali.


Vishnu: Preserves “dharma” (righteousness, truth or divine order/harmony) in the universe – hence “incarnates” whenever there is a danger of chaos and falsehood overpowering the earth. Vishnu’s incarnations (avataras) have an evolutionary component and represent his critical appearance at each transition to a higher order of complexity and consciousness in the universe. In the canonical version the incarnations are – Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narasimha (man-lion composite), Vamana (dwarf), Parasurama (vitalistic man with an axe), Rama (ethical man, ideal king), Krishna (overman with superhuman powers and a supreme lover), Buddha (appropriation from Buddhism) and Kalki (avatara of the future – represented as a sword-bearing horseman – will come to bring a reign of Truth on earth). Each avatara is associated with a destructive crisis on earth (pralaya) which spells the end of an age (yuga). The universe is seen as cycling through different ages (kalpas and yugas) and being reborn after destruction. Vishnu is represented aniconically through an ammonite fossil called shalagram. Vishnu’s vahana is the eagle-like bird Garuda and his bed, when he has his cosmic rest is the snake with infinite coils, Ananta. Vishnu’s Devi counterparts (consorts) are Lakshmi and Saraswati. Iconically, Vishnu is represented with four hands, usually holding a conch, a disc-weapon, a mace and a lotus.

Devi: The Goddess as extolled in the Tantras is fierce and represents passionate power which goes to war when even the gods fail. She is also benign and a granter of boons when united with her Lord. Representing the will to mastery and enjoyment, Goddess cults are invested in ritual, magical and yogic practices which open up special supernatural powers (siddhis).

Ganesha: Deity with an elephant head and human body who is said to have been created by Parvati out of her own body dirt and given life to by Vishnu. There are different myths on how he lost his head and had it replaced by an elephant head. He is a “liminal god” – ie. one who stands at the threshold between the world of humans and gods. He is the first god to be worshipped in any puja and at any temple.

Hindu Practice:The dialectic between the will to liberation and the will to mastery and enjoyment is active within the forms of Hindu worship. Devotion to the cosmic gods (bhakti) lies at its foundation. Worship (puja) may be conducted at home shrines, in temples, during special times or in the mind (dhyana, meditation or japa, chanting). Lay people seek to worship so as to be granted material boons, but this is seen metaphorically as “asking one’s father and mother for what one wants.” Thus, if denied, one understands “it is for my good”, leading to transcendence. Yogis worship for special powers (siddhis) or for liberation (mukti). In all cases, the devotional relationship with the deity also carries a component of mutuality. The experience of this mutuality during worship is called darshan, a nondual experience of seeing and being seen when the experiencer disappears in or becomes one with, the Deity. Pujas, if external rituals, are conducted by brahmans for sponsors (yajamana) using offerings of food, flowers, clothes, ornaments, mantras and entertainment. The iconic/aniconic dialectic is present in pujas which are conducted both to the iconic form of the deity and an abstract pot (ghata puja) representing the incomprehensible “vessel” (adhara) which contains Divine Consciousness. Clockwise circumambulation (pradakshina) around the temple and the shrine forms a part of the worship.

The Hindu Temple: At the center of the Hindu temple is the shrine with an aniconic or “unbeautiful” representation of the deity, pointing to its illimitability or alterity. In the case of Shiva, this is the linga/yoni combination representing the cosmic act of creation. In the case of Vishnu, it is an ammonite fossil called shalagram representing the earliest form of awakened consciousness on earth. In the case of Devi, it is often a Tantric diagram (yantra) or semi-formed representation with a “relic” associated with it. The temple itself is conceived as the home of the God, seen as a cosmic mountain, Mount Meru or Shiva’s Himalayan home-peak, Kailash. It also has associated with it smaller or subsidiary peaks or smaller shrines to other gods, reflecting the Puranic idea of the realm of gods as a family with the central deity at its head. There is little evidence of stand-alone temples prior to the 5th c. They may have been made of materials which have perished (wood, bricks) or worship may have been temporary or aniconic. Regarding worship of the Vedic gods, Doris Srinivasan has suggested that the ritual itself was the icon. The earliest examples of remaining temples are of the cave variety. Perhaps this has something to do with replicating the environment of Buddhist cave viharas and chaityas and/or the metaphor of the cave as a “womb” of the earth. The “womb” metaphor is transposed in the stand-alone temple in the name of the sanctum, garbha-griha (womb-chamber). This is the center of the temple, a small room with limited access where the performers of ritual (brahmans) perform puja to the deity. The garbha-griha is housed in a structure which has an assembly hall for the worshippers (mandapa) and a towered portion adjoining the mandapa with a circumambulatory path around the garbha-griha. This portion of the temple is called the vimana. In North India, the tower of the vimana is a continuously curving convex structure called shikhara, topped by a capstone in the shape of a ribbed disc resembling the Ayurvedic fruit of immortality, amalaka. In South India, the tower is a tiered pyramid topped by a barrel-vaulted capstone. In the South, this capstone is called the shikhara. The North Indian temple is known in Indian writings as the Nagara temple, while the South Indian temple is called the Dravida temple. The temple in both cases is usually oriented on an E-W axis with the entry from the East and the deity at the West end of the temple. The temple form undergoes some experiments which come to settle in the structure described above by the 6th c. or so. Early Nagara and Dravida temples have little or no carving inside and limited carving on the outside walls. Typically, there is some carving on and around the doors and niches holding images of deities and attendants, one on each of the exposed walls of the mandapa and vimana. The first wall on the outside in the circumambulation path (South wall of the mandapa) often houses a Ganesha and the back wall (west) of the vimana (closest to the deity in the garbha-griha) houses the form of the deity to whom the temple is dedicated.