An Alternate View of India's Religious History

Deities of Indian Dharmas

by Jayaram V

Overview: A Review of India's religious history, its existing false constructs, and how they can be rectified by accepting the diverse faiths as convergent paths to one eternal Dharma.

It has been asserted that there is no such thing as Indian Religion, though there are many Religions in India. This is not so. As I have already pointed out (Is India Civilized?) there is a common Indian religion which I have called Bharata Dharma. Sir John Woodroffe


In the following discussion we will briefly examine the distortions that crept into the construction of India's religious history during the British rule, how the historians of those times ignored the fundamental similarities that existed among different native faiths, how it influenced the thinking of later generations of scholars, and what we can do to reconstruct an alternate view that truly represents its essential nature and distinct character.

It is important to remember that in the present day world faith has become a divisive factor, rather than a unifying one. It is therefore possible that the following presentation may not fit well into the worldview of everyone. Its purpose is to unify, rather than divide, and remove the artificial divisions that exist in our understanding and interpretation of India's religious history and faith groups. Still, readers are advised to study the following with an open mind, treating it as a perspective (drishtikon) and a proposition, and reserve their judgment.

The distortions in the interpretation of India's religious history

One of the unfortunate developments of the British rule in India had been that its religious and cultural history was interpreted by European scholars (with a few exceptions), who did not have a correct understanding of it. They looked upon it with prejudice and from the perspective of their Judeo-Christian beliefs, viewing the native people as barbaric or semi barbaric, who needed a complete, cultural and religious makeover to be of any service to their colonial masters. While their work and effort led to a renewed interest in the study and research of Indian history and Asiatic studies, in the process it created many false narratives and a lot of confusion, which until this day distorts the history of the subcontinent and influences the thinking of numerous scholars both in India and abroad who teach or study Oriental religions and philosophies. In this regard the following points are worth noting.

1. The European scholars of the previous centuries focused excessively upon Vedic tradition and upon the history of Vedic people who might have originally lived in the north western borders of the Indian subcontinent, and had little in common with people of other regions. They ignored the rest of the subcontinent where the bulk of present day Indian population lives, and where the native faiths really developed.

2. They presented the Vedic faith as the faith of foreigners, who according to them were a group of warriors, who came from outside India and subjugated the native rulers in violent conflicts. In constructing this rather mythical idea, they helped the British establish a direct historic connection with India and legitimize their rule and presence in India as a repetition of history.

3. Having been accustomed to the worldview of organized, prophetic religions, they regarded the faiths of India as independent religions, ignoring that the idea of an organized religion was alien to Indian faiths. Accordingly, they classified the native faiths into four artificial religions, namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, ignoring their underlying unity and common history, and that they would not really fit into the definition of a religion.

4. They were able to distinguish the essential features of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. However, when it came to other faiths, which did not fit well into a coherent, religious system, they had a great difficulty. Hence, they put them all into a generic category and called it Hinduism, after the name Hindu, which was historically a geographic and ethnic identity. Today, we know that creating a miscellaneous group or a class is the last thing we should do in the creation of any classification system or organized data.

5. In establishing the classification, the European scholars ignored the similarities that existed among various religious systems, and instead focused upon their differences. The classification helped the British colonial administration to divide the native people into distinct cultural groups and cater to their special interests as part of their appeasement strategies to keep the people under their control.

6. The European historians exaggerated the importance of Vedic culture, ignoring the fact that diverse groups of people lived in the subcontinent and practiced different faiths. The people of India had little access to the knowledge of the Vedas, unless they belonged to the higher castes. Therefore, it is doubtful how many people actually identified themselves with it and practiced it. It is possible that a few privileged people might have engaged the Vedic priests to perform rites and rituals for them, but in their personal lives might have worshipped different gods.

7. The European scholars ignored the reality that India had numerous castes and sub castes and diverse social classes, which would not confirm to the ideal of the fourfold Varna system as originally prescribed in the Vedas. The anomaly did not bother them as they ascribed it to a subsequent, historical development, without proper evidence and substantiation, and suggesting that it might have happened due to the expansion of the Vedic civilization.

8. Because of their limited focus, they also failed to recognize the true significance or the historicity of ancient faiths such as Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Bhagavathism, and Shaktism, and instead presented them as sectarian trends within the Vedic fold, without knowing how and why the Vedic pantheon became associated with newer gods and goddess who were previously not part of it.

The scholars focused their attention exclusively upon Vedic religion because its scriptures were well preserved and were easily available to them for research. Secondly, they were able to study and interpret them without much difficulty because they had an easy access to the English educated, native scholars who were wellversed in the Vedic scriptures and who were in the employment of the British administration. They also failed to note the distinct character of Indian belief systems, their complexity, and essential characteristics, which distinguished them from other world religions. The native faiths are not prophetic religions, founded by messengers of God and controlled by centralized theocratic authority. Unlike their western counterparts their leadership and propagation rest with scholars, teacher traditions, ascetic groups, and conventional wisdom.

How the European scholars ignored the similarities of Indian faiths

As stated before, the scholars of the colonial days ignored the similarities among the diverse faiths and focused upon their differences. In the process they identified four subsets of native faiths as four independent religions. The seemingly logical conclusion, which to this day goes unchallenged in the academic circles, was but an artificial classification, justifiable only in a limited sense. It had many flaws, which were ignored to perpetuate the notion that they were indeed distinct religions. In this regard the following points are worth noting.

1. Indian faiths are nirvanic. The Indian faiths are neither prophetic nor messianic, but nirvanic, which means their source is not a Prophet or a messenger of God but divine or spiritual knowledge, transmitted through seers and sages or divine beings. Their emphasis or ultimate purpose is not heavenly life, but liberation. It is the idea of liberation, Moksha, or Nirvana, which truly unites them and puts them in a class of their own in comparison to other world religions. Liberation in a very general sense means total and absolute freedom from existential suffering and from the continuation of mortal life. The faiths may vary in the methods they suggest to achieve it, but they invariably regard it as the highest purpose of human life. Therefore, one can conveniently call all the faiths of India as the nirvanic faiths, in contrast to the messianic or prophetic faiths that originated in the middle-east.

2. Indian atheistic philosophies are also nirvanic. The atheistic (Charvakas) and materialistic (lokayatha) groups of ancient India are no exceptions to this rule. They clearly fall under the same classification, as nirvanic faiths, since they too believed in liberation, although it was of a different kind. They did not believe in afterlife, or heavenly life. For them the mortal life was the only acceptable, perceptible, and verifiable reality and belief in God or afterlife was a delusion (maya). In their worldview, the physical self was the real self, and bondage to the body was a reality that could not be mitigated through renunciation or sacrificial actions, but through death, which for their purpose was liberation in itself. Karma was what people suffered because of their previous actions in this very life. Therefore, people should live responsibly, and enjoy their current lives, pursuing the twin goals of artha and kama, without hurting others or making them unhappy. For them it constituted the righteous living (dharma). Thus, you can see that both theistic and atheistic faith groups of India accepted the undeniable fact of suffering and in their own ways suggested liberation as the means to escape from it.

3. Dharma unites them all. Another important factor which unites all Indian faiths is their allegiance to Dharma, which is believed to be eternal, and continuous. Since the earliest times, the idea of Dharma has been central to all the native faiths of India. They all pursue it or practice it in their own ways. Dharma is a complex word with multiple meanings. In a very basic sense, it means moral duty, sacred law, or religious instruction. In a broader sense it means faith or essential nature. All the current faiths of India are indeed either different aspects of one Dharma or different Dharmas with a common history and geographical identity. They also share among themselves several common beliefs and practices. You may consider them different paths of Dharma (dharma marga), different instructions in Dharma (dharma shikshana), or different forms of Dharma, which promote and strengthen adherence to Dharma (Dharma apeksha) and righteous conduct (Dharma svabhavam). Their immediate purpose is to ensure the order and regularity of the world and peace and happiness of people through righteousness, whereas their ultimate purpose is to ensure liberation or eternal freedom from suffering and bondage to Nature by following the path of righteousness.

4. They have many other similarities. Liberation is not the only idea that unites the faiths. They share a wide range of common beliefs such as karma, reincarnation (punarjanma), cyclical nature of time, a hierarchy of worlds and celestial beings, spiritual evolution of all life forms, delusion (maya) as the alternate reality, detachment, sameness, renunciation, cremation, sacrifice, self-control, meditative and yogic practices, image worship, ritual worship, pantheon of gods, obedience to gurus, duality, pairs of opposites, desires as the cause of suffering, possibility of soul's journey into multiple heavens and hells, Jambudvipa, Mount Meru, Tantra Sadhana, the use of Yanthras, Mantras, and Mandalas, and so on. Many deities in their pantheons bear the same names, such as Brahma, Indra, Varuna, Tara, Kali, Yama, etc. They all believe in the gradual decline of Dharma and its subsequent revival either due to the inviolable universal laws that are at work or due to the direct intervention of their supreme deities.

5. They have an identical code of conduct and common ethical practices as part of their allegiance to Dharma. Their ideal ethical conduct is represented by more or less the same jewels of virtues such as truthfulness, nonviolence, non-stealing, non-covetousness, and righteous living for self-transformation, physical and mental purity, and predominance of Sattva. They caution people against the risks of ignoring Dharma (Dharma nirapeksha), or following the evil path of Adharma, suggesting that the practice of Dharma leads to virtue, enlightenment and liberation, whereas the practice of Adharma results in sin, suffering, and condemnation in the darkest hells.

Constructing an alternate view, the Eightfold Sanatana Dharma

The Eightfold Eternal Dharma
The Ashtanga Dharmas

From the above it is clear that the faith based systems of India share many common features. Since they all owe their primary allegiance to Dharma, they can be considered different versions of a common Dharma, whose ultimate purpose is peace, happiness, order and regularity, mitigation of suffering, and liberation through righteous living. They prescribe an ethical code of conduct with many common features that would set in motion a transformative spiritual process, that would eventually lead to such an august goal. It is true that each tradition considers itself superior to others and distinct from them, often expressing hostility and partiality. It is not because they are meant to be different but because human nature is such that people like to treat their faiths as their personal possession to establish their social, cultural, or spiritual superiority rather than to improve their spirituality or righteous conduct.

Despite such problems, we can still view them as Dharmic faiths, which consider Dharma their center and circumference, and which resort to it for regulating the world and society and establishing ethical conduct to ensure the liberation of mortal beings. It is an undeniable fact that the faiths of India have Dharma as their ideal and central goal. Dharma unites them and imparts to them their distinct character vis-à-vis other major religions of the world. Their highest spiritual ideal is the practice of Dharma, or eternal Dharma, and its realization through self-example. Therefore, all the native faiths of India that have a substantial following can be grouped into the following eight primary categories. They are like the eight limbs of one eternal Dharma, (Sanatana Ashtanga Dharma), which are listed below in the order of their supposed origin. Each of them in turn has several subsets of sectarian traditions and schools of philosophies.

  1. Vaidika Dharma, the faith of the worshippers of Brahman and Vedic gods.
  2. Shaiva Dharma, the faith of the worshippers of Shiva
  3. Jaina Dharma, the faith of the followers of Jainas
  4. Vaishnava Dharma, the faith of the worshippers of Vishnu
  5. Bauddha Dharma, the faith of the followers of the Buddha
  6. Lokayatha Dharma, the faith of the secular, worldly people
  7. Sikh Dharma, the faith of the followers of Sikh Gurus
  8. Guru Dharma, the teachings of divine gurus, and spiritual masters

The Tantra Dharma and Shakti Dharma are part of many of the above mentioned sects. Hence, they have not been categorised separately. The eightfold Sanatana Dharma is India's one and only native faith, or native religion if it can be called so in a very limited sense. Everything else is one of its facets, aspects, or subsets.

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