The Foundations of Indian Religion
Indus Valley Civilization & the Aryan Invasion
 
Indus Valley Civilization
The Indus Valley Tradition began as early as 6000 BCE when inhabitants of the region began to develop a distinct cultural style. In about 2600 BCE city-states begin to emerge with common, standardized, and shared elements, such as writing, pottery styles, bricks, and stone weights. There was internal trade throughout the civilization, consisting of beads, lumber, pottery, and cotton, transported by bullock carts and boat, as well as far-flung trade with surrounding cultures to the east and west. Certain Mesopotamian sites, such as the ancient city of Ur, have yielded materials of Harappan origin. By 1900 BCE there appear signs of distinct regional developments. Local languages and writing began to develop and long-distance trade diminished. However, a broader-based, more fluid cultural tradition emerged, stretching from the Indus to the flood plains of the Ganga in North India. ... Apart from the major cities such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa, which at their peak may have each had over 40,000 inhabitants, the people lived in small towns and villages. (IH, 9-10)
 
 
Indus Valley urban planning was sophisticated. Each city was built on a mud brick platform, providing it with a protective elevation against rainy season flooding. Mohenjodaro had a large paved water tank used for public or ritual bathing, as well as a citadel and a Great Hall. The roads were paved, and drains were covered. Homes were often two storied and constructed of uniformly cast baked or sun-dried mud bricks that were used throughout the civilization. Homes were equipped with bathrooms, with drainage systems that funneled water to communal sewer systems. The standardization of the bricks, and other elements, such as weights and measures, used over such a large territorial area of hundreds of thousands of square miles and through a period of many hundreds of years, suggest a strong centralized government. (IH, 10)
 
 
It is difficult to know with certainty what the religious practices of the Indus Valley people were since we do not have any decipherable written information available. The archeological record provides us with the material basis for reasoned speculations, but most of these ideas are open to debate. ... Simple terracotta images of men, women, and animals have been unearthed. A particularly well crafted image is of a man who sports a beard and a disc forehead ornament, as well as a decorated cloak draped over his left shoulder. His eyes seem half shut, as if in meditation. The royal demeanor and garb of this figure have led archeologists to dub it the “Priest-King,” although whether such functionaries as “priests” or “kings” even existed in the Indus Valley Civilization, and what their roles might have been, is unknown. ... The seals and molded tablets sometimes depict narrative scenes. For instance, one tablet shows a figure with a foot pressing down upon the head of a water buffalo, which it is simultaneously spearing. A figure with a horned headdress seated in an atypical posture of the sort we associate with yogic practice, with the soles of the feet pressed together, rather than simply cross-legged, looks on. The obverse image on that tablet shows a female figure throttling two tigers. An elephant stands below. Such images suggest continuities with myths and beliefs in modern Hinduism. For instance, various Hindu deities (such as Skanda and Durga) are associated with the slaying of a buffalo demon, and modern representations of Hindu deities are still portrayed accompanied by animals such as tigers and elephants. Certain Indus Valley seals portray female figures entwined in or fused with trees and plants, which resonates with the association Hindus still draw between women, goddesses, fertility, and vegetation.
       The figure in the unusual seated posture mentioned above is particularly intriguing. There are several seals depicting such a figure, some with different details than others. In one seal the figure appears to have a horned headdress and three faces. He is seated in what is neither a simple cross-legged posture (the half-lotus or tailor posture, with one ankle over the other), nor the more contrived full-lotus posture (cross-legged with feet resting on opposite thighs with the soles pointing upwards), but in a much more athletic and challenging seated stance that we currently associate with yogic posture practice. He wears a number of bracelets on his arms. The figure appears to possess an erect penis. Animals — including a water-buffalo or bull, rhinoceros, elephant, and tiger — are also depicted around the figure, which has come to be referred to as the “ithyphallic proto-Siva.” This is because the seal contains many characteristics similar to those associated with the Hindu god Siva, and have led some to suggest that this is an early depiction of that deity. Siva is regarded as the yogi par excellence, and is often worshipped in the form of an erect phallus (linga). His animal mount is the bull, and he is also called Pasupati (Lord of Animals). Despite such compelling connections, the evidence that these seals actually depict an early form of Siva is inconclusive.
 
 
Another potential continuity between Indus Valley religion and modern Hinduism is the emphasis on ritual bathing and personal hygiene. The bathing tank at Mohenjodaro suggests a connection with the bathing tanks found at many Hindu temple sites. Similarly, smooth oval and doughnut-shaped stones at Indus Valley sites have led to speculations that these are evidence of early worship of the symbols of male and female generative principles, the linga and yoni, respectively, which are widespread in Hinduism today.
       However, these may merely have been grinding or tethering stones. We shall have to await the accumulation of much more data before we can comfortably assert knowledge about the nature of Indus Valley religion. (IH, 12-13)


The Aryan Migration Thesis
c. 1500 BCE
From about 1500 BCE, a pastoral, cattle-herding people known as the Aryans (Noble Ones), appeared on the Indian subcontinent. The prevailing view among scholars is that they originated from the area of central Asia near the Caucasus Mountains and migrated westward into Europe and eastward into the Indian subcontinent. However, there is also a view held by a minority of scholars that the Aryans originated in or close to the Indus Valley. This Cultural Diffusion Hypothesis derives from a number of uncertainties inherent in the Indo-European (i.e. Aryan) Migration Thesis. It is also bolstered by orthodox Hindu political ideologies. In this regard it suspects the Aryan Migration Thesis of being based on a white-supremacist ideology and a colonialist paradigm. These theses will continue to be hotly debated until new evidence, particularly from archeological excavations, provides a compelling answer. (IH, 14-5)
 
 

Vedic Religion
The Aryan heritage produces an indelible imprint on the character of Hinduism, and is particularly evident in Vedic religious literature, beliefs, and practices. ... The most highly regarded literary works of the Aryans are hymns in praise (rg) of various deities. Many of these hymns were chanted during a New Year festival centered on a ritual to prepare, offer, and imbibe a sacred beverage, Soma. The oldest collection (samhita) is the Rg Veda Samhita, which consists of over 1000 hymns arranged in ten books known as mandalas. ... The exact dates of its composition are still debated; some proponents postulate dates as early as 5000 BCE or even earlier, whereas very conservative scholarly estimates suggest that the Rg Veda Samhita reached its final form by about 300 BCE. A prevailing number of estimates suggest a date of about 1000 BCE. ...
       Of the various deities to whom hymns are addressed in the Rg Veda Samhita, Agni (Fire) and Indra (God of Storms and Lightning) each receive about 200 hymns, suggesting their high status among the gods of the Aryan pantheon. There are hymns to Surya (the Sun), Dyaus-pitr (God of the Heavens), Vayu (the Wind), and Varuna (God of the Waters), and even to Soma (a sacred plant and the intoxicating drink prepared from it). The pantheon of Vedic deities is mostly populated by male gods, but there are a few hymns to such goddesses as Usas (the Dawn), Ratri (the Night), and Prthivi (the Earth). Scholars conjecture that the prevalence of male deities, some of whom, like Indra, have warrior natures, reveals a patriarchal social structure among the Aryans. Others suggest that because goddesses form a sizeable part of current Hindu worship, quite in contrast to their representation in the Samhitas and other early Vedic literature, these feminine deities may have figured significantly in non-Aryan worship traditions, which progressively influenced the dominating Aryan culture. (IH, 26-29)
 
Fire or agni was given great importance in the vedic sacrificial religion. As the power who brings the gods to the sacrifice, he is the intermediary between them and human beings. This hymn, the very first in the Rg Veda samhita [c. 9th century BCE], is a straightforward invocation, summoning Agni to his duties as “minister of the sacrifice”. (Indian Religions, 42)
 
To Agni

I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice,
the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.

Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too;
he will bring the gods here.

Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day,
glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.

Agni, the sacrificial ritual that you encompass on all sides —
only that one goes to the gods.

Agni, the priest with the sharp sight of a poet, the true and most brilliant,
the god will come with the gods.

Whatever good you wish to do for the one who worships you, Agni,
through you, O Angiras, that comes true.

To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day,
bringing our thoughts and homage to you,
the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of the Order, growing in your own house.

Be easy for us to reach, like a father to his son.
Abide with us, Agni, for our happiness.

(Rig Veda 1.1, Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism, 6)
 
Indra
Lord of the Heavens/God of War
More vedic hymns are addressed to Indra than to any other god. He is the lord of the heavens, leader of the gods of the storm, and victor over the enemies of the Aryan people. Those who perform the vedic sacrifice offer the soma [a psychoactive beverage] to him in the hope that he will act generously in return. (Indian Religions, 47)
 
To Indra
The doer of [works that have] a good shape, Indra, we call daily for protection as [one calls] for the cow-milker a good milch-cow.
     Come to our [three] libations, drink of the Soma, O Soma-drinker; the intoxication of thee, the wealthy one, is indeed cow-giving.
     Then [standing] among the intelligent people who are nearer to thee, may we know thee. Do not [go] beyond us [and] manifest [thyself to others, but] come to us.
     Come to him and question about me, the intelligent one, [whether I have praised him rightly or not], — to the intelligent and unhurt Indra who gives to thy friends [the priests] the best wealth.
     Let of us [i.e. our priests] speak [i.e. praise Indra],
— and also, O you who censure, go out [from here] and from elsewhere too, — [our priests] doing service all about Indra.
     O destroyer [of foes], may even our enemies speak of us as having good wealth,
— men [i.e. our friends will say it of course]; may we be in the peace [bestowed] by Indra.
     Bring this Soma, that wealth of the sacrifice, the cause of exhilaration to men, [the Soma] that pervades [the three oblations] for Indra who pervades [the Soma-offering], that attains the rites and is friendly to [Indra] who gives joy [to the sacrificer].
     Drinking of this, O thou of many actions, thou becamest a slayer of Vritras [i.e. enemies led by Vritra] and didst protect entirely the fighter in the fights.
     O Indra of many actions, for enjoyment of riches we make thee abundant in food who art strong in the battles.
      Sing to that Indra who is a protector of wealth, great, a good fulfiller [of works] and a friend of the sacrificer. (
Indian Religions, 48)
 
Migration to the East
c. 1000-700 BCE
An examination of ... [the] Vedic Samhitas reveals a progressive development in Vedic ritual art, with greater specialization on the part of priests (e.g., udgatr, adhvaryu) entrusted with particular duties in the performance of rites. Geographical references suggest a movement from the regions around the Indus to the Ganga river basin, leading to postulations that the Aryans migrated from the northwest of the Indian peninsula to the east and south. These movements resulted in interactions with the local cultures whose religious beliefs and styles were partially assimilated into the compositions of the Samhitas and the rituals that accompanied them. (IH, 28)
 
 
A genre of texts next emerged that primarily deal with the power (brahman) within the recitation of sacred verses (mantra), and with the ritual practices of the priestly class (brahmana; Brahmin in this text, to minimize confusion). The Brahmanas, as these texts are called, are composed in Vedic Sanskrit prose, and extol the virtues of sacrificial rites known as yajna. They contain commentaries on hymns from the Vedic Samhitas, and describe a variety of rituals in detail. They also offer interpretations of aspects of ritual practice, and explanations for their origins. The interpretations often strive to demonstrate parallels between three realms: the macrocosm, which is the abode of the gods, the mesocosm, which is society and the worldly realm, and the microcosm of individual human life and ritual action. Hence, the fire sticks that are rubbed together to kindle the sacrificial fire are equated with the sexual union between a Vedic god and goddess, and the clarified butter used to stoke the fire is likened to the rain, to semen, and to the divine child produced by their sexual union. (IH, 30)
 
 
The term that was originally used for Vedic sacrifices is yajna, and the patron who commissioned such a rite is the yajamana. Nowadays, it is much more common to hear the term homa used for such Vedic-styled rituals of offerings into the fire. The Brahmana literature begins to emphasize yajna even more than the gods to whom the offerings are made, insinuating that it is yajna that gives the gods their powers, or that it is because the gods themselves performed yajna that they gained prestige. Thus the Vedic gods are seen as dependent on the performance of yajna, and in turn on the ritual acts of the priests who are capable of conducting the rites. The Vedic deity Brhaspati, regarded as the high priest and wise spiritual preceptor to the gods themselves, served as a divine model for the earthly members of the priestly class, who presided at yajnas. The performance of yajnas was deemed vital for anyone desiring entry into heaven. Yajnas were thought to maintain the very order of the cosmos by providing nourishment for the gods. The gods consumed the essence of the offerings that were made into the fire, requiring these offerings as their sustenance. What was left behind were the empowering consecrated remnants of the offered food that the gods had tasted. Although the term “sacrifice” often conjures up images of animal offerings, Vedic yajnas, and certainly contemporary homa rites, rarely involve offerings of flesh and blood. Milk, clarified butter or ghee, yogurt, rice or other grains and pulses, and even parts of sacred plants such [as] the datura fruit, wood-apple leaves (bilva patra), or Soma, might be offered into the sacred fire. (IH, 30-31)
 
Caste

Aryan society was originally divided into 3 social groups:

ksatriya (clan/tribal leaders)

brahmana (priests)

vaisya (everyone else)

After the integration of the indigenous peoples, a fourth caste was added:

sudra (“a person in suffering/mourning/pain”)


The Sacrifice of Purusa
When they divided the Purusa [as the victim at the cosmic sacrifice], into how many parts did they separate him? ... The Brahman [“priest”] was his mouth, his two arms became the Rajanya [“ruler”]; his two thighs are the Vaisya [one of “the people,” an artisan, merchant, or farmer], from his two feet the Sudra [“serf” or “servant”] was produced.
       The moon sprang from his thought organ [manas], the sun was produced from his eye; from his mouth Indra and Agni, from his breath Vayu [“the wind” was produced.
       From his navel arose the atmosphere, from his head the heaven evolved; from his two feet the earth, from his ear the directions. Thus they fashioned the worlds. (Rg Veda X.90.11-14) (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 24)
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More important than any single association in this scheme is the total system of correlations it establishes between the various levels and types of phenomena. The cosmos, the world of nature, human society, and the sacrifice are seen as parallel orders of reality of equal antiquity and permanence. ... The sacrifice of the Purusa is a common reference point for all things; it explains their unity and diversity and their relationship to each other, and provides a means of moving from one order of reality to another. ... [T]o know the sacrifice is therefore to know and control the universe. (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 25)
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