Category Archives: History

The Question of Hindu, Hinduism et cetera – Part Two

Continued From Part One

For my learned friend Prof. Dr. DMR Sekhar

As observed by the Supreme Court of India while dealing with the case of  ‘Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal’ (1995) the word ‘Hindu’ derived from the name of the river Sindhu originally referred to the region along the river Sindhu (now called the Indus) as also the people residing in the Sindhu region.

It is explained that Persia, in the ancient times, was the vital link between India and the Greeks of Asia Minor. In the Avesta of Zoroaster, what we today call as India is named as Hapta Hendu,   the Avesthan for the Vedic Sapta Sindhavah – the Land of Seven Rivers, that is, the five rivers of the Punjab along with the Sarasvati ( a river which has since disappeared) and the Indus. The word ‘Sindhu’ not only referred to the river system but to the adjoining areas as well.

And again, by about 516 B.C.E, Darius son of Hystaspes annexed the Indus valley and formed the twentieth satrapy of the Persian Empire. That became the twentieth Satrapy, the richest and most populous Satrapy of the Persian Empire. The inscription at Nakshi–e-Rustam (486.BCE) refers to the tributes paid to Darius by Hidush and others vassal such as Ionians, Spartans, Bactrians, Parthians, and Medes. 

The name of Sindhu reached the Greeks in its Persian form Hindu (because of the Persian etymology wherein every initial ‘S’ is represented by ‘Ha’).The Persian term Hindu became the Greek Indos / (plural indoi) since the Greeks could not pronounce ‘Ha’ and had no proper ’U’. The Indos in due course acquired its Latin form – India. Had the Sanskrit word Sindhu reached the Greeks directly, they might perhaps have pronounced it as Sindus or Sindia.

All this was to explain that the word ‘Hindu’ originally referred to the river system; and to the adjoining areas; as also to the people residing in that region. The term was employed to denote regional and cultural affiliation; but, not a religious identity.


In the ancient times the concept a distinct ‘religion’ as opposed to other ‘religions’ did not seem to exist. The Rig-Veda or the Upanishads or even the Buddha do not refer to a ‘religion’ or speak in ‘religious terms’. Even the later texts such as the Arthashatra of Kautilya or the Indica Megasthanese  do not mention a religion per se that existed in India of their times.

Even otherwise, what has now come to be categorized as ‘Hinduism ‘does not satisfy or fall within the accepted definition of a ‘religion’?

For instance; it has no Prophet or a Originator; its origin cannot be pinpointed to a time or place;  it has no single source-text or the Holy Book; it is not identified with a particular symbol or an emblem; it does not prescribe (injunctions or list of Do-s – thou shalt) or proscribe (prohibitions or list of don’t-s- Thou shalt not) a set of beliefs or rules of conduct;  it does not lay down a particular system of faith , dogma or worship ;  there is no single Authority to issue mandates or edicts (Fatwa)  for regulating or governing religious faith  of its people; one cannot be excommunicated from its fold ; and by the same token one cannot m strictly speaking , converted to its faith; in fact it has no global ambition, intending to conquer the world;  those within it have the absolute freedom to accept/reject/ abuse any or   all of the gods ;  any or all of the texts; one can accept or reject a superhuman controlling power according ones will;  one can observe the time-honoured accepted customs , ceremonies and rituals or reject any or all of it with impunity and still profess to be a ‘Hindu’; and so on…

Further; what is now called Hinduism was not made; but, it has grown over the centuries. And during its long and circuitous route, in its metamorphosis,   it has imbibed within it several tribal cultures  by absorbing, transforming and reforming various cult and tribal beliefs and practices, many of which were vague and amorphous,  ranging from sublime to grotesque . The Hinduism, as practiced today, is a continuing amalgam of hundreds of tribal cultures.  The Hindu culture, philosophy and rituals are greatly enriched by such countless tribal cultures. But, all the while it did retain the ancient concept of an all-pervading, Universal entity from which everything emanates and into which everything eventually returns. Some describe Hinduism as an inverted tree or a jungle; but not a strictly planned structural building.

Thus what has come to be regarded as Hinduism is a peculiar, open-ended system that rejects all sorts of restrictions and defies a specific definition. That perhaps is the reason why the Supreme Court observed:  ‘Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such’.

The ‘Hindu’ view of life accepts – rather celebrates the pluralistic nature Truth or Reality, which cannot be , dogmatically, restricted or diminished to a particular single position. The ‘Hindu’ traditions have always tried to adopt the concept of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. It believes that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; and, it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika). It also marks the tendency to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason.

Then the Question is: how did such an open concept that vaguely meant a geographical or a cultural association was brought down and restricted to mean a particular religious group as distinct from other such rival groups or sects.



Catherine A. Robinson, a Professor on the Study of Religions at the Bath Spa University in the introduction to her celebrated Book Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and images of the Hindu tradition investigates and  discusses , in fair detail , the course of  ‘the changing meaning of ‘Hindu’ whereby an original ethnic and cultural meaning was much later superseded by a religious meaning’. Much of what follows hereunder is based on her work.

The very notion of religion (dian definiri religio), commonly translated as ‘a feeling of absolute dependence’,’ to tie or bind’, is primarily a Western concern. It is the product of the dominant Western religious mode; the theistic inheritance from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The basic structure of such theism is essentially a distinction between a transcendent deity and all else; between the creator and his creation; between God and man.

 [On October 25, 2016, a Seven-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India  headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur which had taken  up   a review of the judgement handed down by its Three-judge Bench  in 1995, among other things , observed:

“It is difficult to define religion. There will be no end to this”. ]


According to Ms. Robinson: ‘Hindu’ did not, originally, designate religious significance or affiliation; nor did it distinguish among affiliations to what are now regarded as different ‘religions’. ‘Hinduism’, she says, is to be understood as a modern Western concept adopted and adapted by ‘Hindus’. And,  it is , therefore, important to differentiate between ‘Hinduism’ as a contemporary phenomenon with ideological power and practical implications and the historical process that produced it, imbuing it with an appropriate past and aura of antiquity.

The change in the meaning of ‘Hindu’ from the ethnic and cultural to the religious occurred in two important phases during which ‘Hindu’ was defined negatively through the exclusion of Muslims ; and,  then  during the Western period , positively through the association of those identified as ‘Hindu’ with a single unified ‘religion’.

In the medieval period, in Islamic usage, ‘Hindu’ tended to denote an Indian who was not a Muslim. It was a negative criterion – non-adherence to Islam; as also a demarcation of the indigenous inhabitants from the foreign or invading populace in terms of ethnic, cultural or even religious distinctions. And later, a ’Hindu’ came to mean one who was not affiliated to any of the identifiable cults, beliefs and practices prevalent among the indigenous population.

In the modern period, as per the Western usage, initially, and in general, ‘Hindu’ signified   an ethnic and cultural identity associated with the indigenous civilization of India. Later,   ‘Hindu’, in particular, tended to denote an Indian who was neither a Muslim nor a member of another sect recognized as a ‘religion’

Let’s look at these phases in a little more detail.


Al-Biruni (973-1048) a Muslim scholar of Iranian descent is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era, who distinguished himself as a historian and versatile linguist,.  He arrived in India during 1017; and spent here number of years learning the local history, culture and languages. He also collected books on Indian philosophies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and art, as practiced in 11th century India. During his stay, it is said, he learnt Sanskrit, befriended number of Indian scholars, and had discussions on verities of subjects.

Al-Biruni in his book Tarikh Al-Hind (History of India) , wrote about his impressions on almost every aspect of life in the India of his times (early 11th -century) as also about its history, geography, geology, science, and mathematics.

He observed: ‘the Hindus entirely differ from us in every respect’ they totally differ from us in religion; alongside in general cultural practices, language and custom’. The Hindu, in his work, generally denoted non-Muslims. And his description of the ‘Hindu’ was not particularly in terms of ‘religion’. It was meant to highlight the differences in the culture; rather than in religious beliefs and practices.

And within the hierarchy of ‘religions,  as derived  from the criteria that were close to Islam, those religious groups without a revealed book or fixed laws were  ranked  lowest.

The later medieval Muslim scholars adopted a similar approach. They too referred to the whole of the non-Muslim population as the Hindu; and, they did not seem to be aware of the diverse sects and cults within it or outside of it.

Accordingly, the medieval Islamic view of ‘Hindu’ was primarily to designate indigenous non-Muslim population and their way of life.


Medieval Church

 It is said; according to medieval Christian belief, the entire population of the world was classified into four major religious groups: ‘lexchristiana, lexiudaica, lexmahometana and lexgentilium’; that is, Christians, Jews, Muslims and the rest ‘Heathens’. The ‘idolaters’- of any sort -, who were said to form roughly nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, were also grouped under ‘heathens’ (gentilium). It is explained; the concept of ‘heathen’ was derived from such Christian-world view; and its fourfold classification.

By about the sixteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were categorized by the Church and by the Europeans, in general, under lexgentilium- heathens and idolaters. And, till about the Eighteenth Century, the term Gentile, Gentio or heathen was applied to identify the Hindus and to distinguish them from the Moors (Muslims) of India.


The Portuguese (who perhaps were the earliest to colonize India) after they landed on the West coast found that the native inhabitants of India also included Jews and the Moors (Muslims). They did not quite know what those other indigenous pagan religious groups were called. But, the Portuguese named them as Gentoos – the native heathens. It is said; the Portuguese word ‘Gentoo’ is a corruption of the Gentio, meaning a gentile, a heathen, or native. 

Thus, as early as in the sixteenth century, Gentoo was a term commonly employed, basically, to distinguish local religious groups in India from the Indian Jews and Muslims. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gentoo as ‘a pagan inhabitant of Hindustan, a heathen, as distinguished from Mohammedan’.


East India Company and the Code of the Gentoos Law


With the rapid spread of the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company, the British courts in India had to adjudicate on increasing number of legal disputes among the locals. The Court of Directors of the East India  Company decided  to take over the administration of civil justice ; and, felt that it would help its business interests if it could involve in what they termed as ‘Hindu learning’ to decide on civil matters. Accordingly, Warren Hastings who was appointed as Governor General of Bengal in April, 1772 was asked to execute the Company’s decision; and, interalia come up with a ‘Judicial Plan’. His immediate object thereafter was to devise an arrangement to dispense law/justice to the Indian litigants in ways that are as close as possible to their own customs, in matters of person and property; and, particularly, on matters considered as religious. But, the dispensation of justice had to be according to the British norms and by British Judges; and it was made   explicitly clear that employing the Indian scholars or pundits as judges was totally out of question.

By August 1772, Warren Hastings submitted his ‘Judicial Plan of 1772’. It  declared that ‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws…of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos shall be invariably adhered to’.

[Pitt’s India Act 1784 or the East India Company Act 1784 was passed in the British Parliament to rectify the defects of the Regulating Act 1773. It resulted in dual control or joint government in India by Crown in Great Britain and the British East India Company, with crown having ultimate authority. The relationship between company and crown established by this act kept changing with time until the Government of India Act 1858 provided for liquidation of the British East India Company; and the transference of its functions to the British Crown. On November 1, 1858, at a grand Durbar  held at Allahabad, Lord Canning released the royal proclamation which announced that the Queen had assumed the governance of India.

Under the provisions of the  Royal Titles Act 1876 , Queen  Victoria assumed  the title “Empress of India” , effective from 1 May 1876.. The new title was proclaimed at the Delhi Durbar of 1 January 1877 ]


Till about the eighteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were labelled by the British as Gentoos. That is the reason why the first digest of the Indian legislation drafted by the British in 1776 for the purpose of administering justice and to adjudicate over civil disputes among the people of India belonging to local religious groups was titled as A Code of Gentoo Law.

The English version A Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the Pundit was published in 1776 to serve as a source for ’legal accomplishment of a new system of government in Bengal, where, it was said :  ‘the British laws might , in some degree, be softened and tempered by a moderate attention to the peculiar and national prejudices of the Hindoo ; some of whose Institutes, however fanciful and injudicious, may perhaps be preferable to any which could be substituted in their room’.

In the introduction to the Code of the Gentoo Laws(pages xxi-xxii) it was explained that the terms ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Hindoo’ are not the terms by which the inhabitants originally called themselves or their religion. In fact, in very distant past when their books were created, the religious distinctions as we know did not yet exist. And, their land was originally called as Bharatha-khanda or Jamboodweepa, in Sanskrit. Hindustan is a Persian word unknown to the original inhabitants of the land.   It was only since the era of Tartars (Muslims) the name Hindoos came into use to distinguish them from the Mussalman conquerors. Thus, the term ‘Hindoo’ was employed mainly to demarcate some class of natives from some other class of natives. The translators, therefore, decided to reject the term Hindoo; but to retain Gentoos which term was then in common use among the Europeans.

It was only later when the British realized that the Indian Gentoos had numerous religious groups and sub-groups among them, the term ‘Hindoo’ came to be used in place of the Gentoo. Accordingly, in the British official records, ‘the religion of the Hindoos’ gradually displaced ‘the religion of the Gentoos’. The word Gentoo later became archaic and obsolete,

Until then, what is now called as Hinduism was officially referred to by the Europeans as the religion of the Gentoos. In the early years after that change, which is till end of    early nineteenth century, the word ‘Hinduism’ was in common currency; and, it largely meant ‘the primal and ancient religion of the subcontinent’.  But in the later years, the scope of the term Hindu as a religion was restricted to cover non-Muslims and non-Christians.

It was only later that ‘Hinduism’ came to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics; and, having an assortment of beliefs.


Administration of Temples and religious institutions

The intervention and supervision by the British over the implementation of the Hindu Personal Law led to their gaining direct and indirect control over administration of religious institutions, deciding on religious matters ; as also to officially categorize  issues and classify them as ‘religious’ or secular.

[With the advent of the British and their judicial system, an increasing number of litigations were brought before the Courts on all sorts of secular and religious matters, including petty ones. The better known among the religious issue, though a petty one, was Vadakalai Vs Thenkalai namam dispute of 1776 concerning the shape of the namam to be placed on the elephant at the Kanchipuram temple; and, the appeal filed thereafter in 1795. Baron Robert Hobart, 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire, who was then the Governor of Madras (1794- 1798), advised the warring Sivaishnavas:

“The Board of Directors of the Company do not think it is advisable to interfere in the religious disputes of the natives, lest by giving a decision on grounds of which they are not certain, it might become the cause of dissentions serious in their consequences to the peace of the inhabitants”.

Despite Governor Hobart’s sensible advice, disputes on the namam issues continued to be brought before the Courts. (Source: Madras, Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India, Volume 1; edited by S. Muthiah; pages 100 – 101)]


As the British began defeating the local Kings and gaining control over their territories, they naturally stepped into the shoes of the erstwhile rulers; and inherited the special privileges they were entitled to. 

In the olden days, the King as the ruler of the state exercised authority and also assumed responsibility of protecting temples. He was accorded special regard and honors at the temples. The East India Company, as the rulers, too had to maintain such relations with the temples.  In the process, the British gained control over the management and administration of the temples.

But some modifications in the relations between the ruler and the temple became inevitable under the Company rule.

In that context, the Madras Endowments and Escheats* Act of 1817 (particularly Regulation VII) came into force. Under this Regulation, the Madras government enabled itself to administer all the religious institutions in the Presidency. Apart from overseeing the temple administration, maintenance of its buildings and management of its finances, the British also had a say in ritual and worship activities.

[*Escheats – Where a person dies interstate and without leaving legal heirs, all his property shall be escheat and shall belong to the Government]

The involvement of the East India Company in temple activities was viewed by the   British public opinion, back at Home,   as supporting native heathen religion. The Anti-Idolatry Connection League (AICL) protested against such anti-Christian activities.  East Indian Company came under heavy criticism for adopting and supporting a non-Christian creed.

The connections between of the Company with religious institutions in India also became a matter of dispute between  politicians  and the high officials of the Company in England on the one side;  and administrators of the East India Company in India on the other side.  Whereas the latter justified the support of the religious institutions like the temples with pragmatic political arguments…the former strongly opposed these links with moral and Christian missionary arguments and condemned it as state sanction of idolatry. 

On August 8, 1838, the Court of Directors transmitted the following instruction: We more particularly desire that the management of all temples and other places of religious resort, together with the revenues derived therefrom, be resigned into the hands of the natives; and that the interference of the public authorities in the religious ceremonies of the people be regulated by the instructions conveyed in the 62nd paragraph of our despatch of 20th February, 1833.

Thereafter, in 1843`, the Madras Government of the East India Company finally bowed to the pressure from the British at home ; and ended its participation in the ritual activities of the temples , while retaining its control of the religious endowments. And, again in 1863, the power over endowments was also given up.

[The case on the point was that of the celebrated temple atop the Tirumala Hills.

Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao in his very well researched work The Hill Shrine Of Tirupati ( Surama Prakashana – 2011) while chronicling the history and traditions of the Tirupathi-Tirumala Temple , spread over long centuries, makes a mention of the involvement of the East India Company in its management and administration.

The East India Company was in direct control of the Tirumala temple , its management, administration and its finances for about forty long years, from 1801 to 1841.

After the defeat of Tippu Sultan (1799) almost the entire South India came under British control. As regards the Arcot region which fell within the Madras presidency, the British gained control over the territory in a rather contrived manner.

After the death Chand Sahib, the then Nawab of Arcot, the British installed Md. Ali Khan Wallajah (1717 –1795) as the next Nawab of Arcot, during 1760. But, they demanded a price: Wallajah and his succours should serve the British as vassals; and that British would be paid certain amount of money for their efforts- (for services earned with blood and presence, and that at the risk of losing our trade on the Coramandel coast).

Later, again, in 1780, the Nawab had to seek help from the British in defending his territory from attacks carried out by Hyder Ali of Mysore. The British East India Company agreed to provide the Nawab, for his safety, ten battalions of its Army stationed at Madras. For its services and also as the Royalty, the Company demanded, as its price, 400,000 pagodas (about £160,000) per annum.

Since Nawab Wallajah was unable to come up with the money demanded, he ran into enormous debts to the British. The Nawab had to borrow very heavily East India Company as also from financiers in England

Thereafter, an arrangement was devised through which the British would be able to recover their dues. Under that arrangement, Nawabs of Arcot assigned to the East India Company the revenues of the temples in their territory, including that of the temple at Tirupathi, to enable the Company to recoup the expenditure it incurred in safeguarding the territory of the Nawabs of Arcot, and also to recover the amounts that were promised to them, earlier, by Md. Ali Khan Wallajah for installing him as the Nawab.

The first Collector of Chengalpattu, Lionel Place, noted in his Report of 1799 that, soon after he became the Collector, he took over the ‘management of the funds of all the celebrated pagodas’ into his own hands and allotted the expanses of the temples for their festivals and maintenance.

And, by 1801, the British East India Company deposed the Nawabs of Arcot and annexed their territory. Thus, in 1801, the East India Company stepped into the shoes of the Nawab of Arcot as the De Jure ruler of the territory; and took direct control of the Tirupathi-Tirumala temple for the sake of garnering income of the temple. The object of the Company in taking over Tirupati temples was to generate fixed revenue, by organising its working, through systematic administration, and by preventing misappropriation and pilferage of temple funds.

In 1803, the then Collector of the Chittoor Mr. Sutton, sent a report to the Board of Revenues of the Company detailing the full account of the Temple, together with the schedules, pujas, expenses, and extent of lands held by the temple etc., This report came to be known as Statton’s Report on the Tirupati Pagoda; and, formed the basis on which the Company controlled the temple till 1821.

(According to the Report , the temple owned 187 villages of which 40 belonged to the various temple functionaries and 124 were under the management of palayakkarars )

Between 1805-16, many instances of misappropriation and misuse of temple-funds were brought to the notice of the Company. Thereafter, the British East India Company passed the Regulation VII of 1817 to check such abuses. That paved way for the Company to interfere in almost every aspect of the Temple administration.

And again during 1821, Col. Bruce the then Commissioner of the Chittoor District came up with a code of rules for  guidance and conduct in the management and administration of the Tirumala Temple. His code which came to known as Bruce Code  , was said to be in use till   the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams Act of 1932 came into force.

The Bruce’s Code of 1821, formed in terms of regulation seven of the Madras Regulation Act 1817, was essentially a set of rules for the management and administration of temples at Tirupathi and Tirumala.  These were  well-defined rules formulated as a code having Forty-two provisions to guide the administration of temples of Tirumala and Tirupati on the basis of customs and previous usages , (including payment of salaries to staff ) without , however, interfering in its  day-to-day affairs. It also prescribed a Questioner (Saval-Javab- Patti) and time-table and regimen for conduct worship and other services for each day of the year.

Under the recommendations of the Bruce Code, a District level official working under the Revenue Board of the Company was appointed to look after the income, expenditure, administration and management of the temple on behalf of the Company.  He was assisted by a Tahsildar, Siristedar and four clerks. It is said; the annual income from the Tirumala temple  which in 1749 was Rs.2.50 lakhs  was increased to more than Rs.3.50 lakhs in 1822; and the  the expenses in 1822 amounted to  about Rs.0.30 lakhs.

The protocol for the entry of the pilgrims as also for collection of offerings and accounting was also laid down :

Passing through the Bagalu vakili or silver porch the pilgrims are admitted into a rather confined part and are introduced to the God in front of whom are two vessels, one called the Gangalam or vase, the other Kopra or large cup and into these things the votaries drop their respective offerings and making their obeisance pass through another door. At the close of the day, the guards, both peons and sepoys round these vessels are searched. Without examination of any sort offerings are thrown into bags and are sealed…after which the bag is sent down to the cutcherry below the hill Govindarauz pettai. At the end of the month, these bags are transmitted to our cutcherry… and there they are opened, sorted, valued and finally sold at auction. However during the Brahmotsavam either the collector or a subordinate must be on the spot due to the value of the offerings…

The East India Company was in direct charge of the Tirumala Temple until 1841, when its Court of Directors in England strongly resented “the participation of the Company’s officers and men in the idolatry conducted in Hindu temples by reason of its management of these religious institutions and ordered its relinquishment of their administration of religious endowments”.

Thereafter, in 1843, the East India Company decided to move away from direct involvement in temple administration; but, to ‘outsource’ the Temple –administration by introducing the system of appointing a Mahant. Under that system, the Mahant would administer the Temple on behalf of the Company; and would remit to the Company a certain specified amount, regularly each year.

The first of such Agent appointed in 1843 was a Mutt named Hathiramjee Mutt, belonging to the   Vaishnava Ghosai tradition of North India. The first Mahant so appointed by Hathiramjee Mutt was Seva Das (1839-1860). He was succeeded by Mahant Dharma Das (1860-1870). During their tenure, many temples atop the Hill affiliated to the main temple of Tirumala were renovated; and the restoration and improvement of the temple-tank was also undertaken (1846).

The Mahant system was in existence until the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams Act of 1932 was enacted. That Act was replaced by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1951.]

But, withdrawal of the Company from the direct involvement in the administration of the temples did not seem to matter much, because by 1863 all the ‘Hindu’ religious institutions had been brought under the control of the East India Company. And the Government had to continue to be involved in litigations concerning the temple properties, which by- the-way, produced body of case laws based. And, the Government had to bring into force additional legislative provisions to govern the temples more effectively.

Such legislative measures were intended to take care of varieties of issues and problems not only in the day-to-day administration but also on matters impinging upon the control and ownership of the temples. For instance; the rules specified the conditions under which the Government could take control over the temple; the extent of such control; measures to combat pressure-groups that posed threats to the temple; as also the tactics of the vested interests to influence the direction of the Government policy etc.

It was during the course of such measures and steps taken by the British in the administration of ‘Hindu religious institutions’, the concept and identity of ‘Hinduism’ as a legal entity and a public cause took concrete shape.  Thus, ‘Hinduism’ which till then was rather amorphous, began to gain a structure as litigation after litigation  were brought before the courts.  The events that followed advanced the process.


The Census of 1871

But, it was the Census of the 1871 that formally, officially and legally categorized Hinduism as a religion.

The 1871 census, the first comprehensive   census to be conducted on All-India basis, set out to gather data on religion in order to analyze and interpret data categorized under various heads. Apart from supplying factual information to the government, the Census helped in objectifying   the concepts used to compile the data collected. As a result, these concepts – one of which was the religion – acquired a new reality and relevance beyond the census figures and bureaucratic reports.

Not only did the Census reports accord increasing importance to ‘religion’ both as a subject in its own right and in relation to other subjects, but also as a conceptualization of ‘religion’ in terms of community, membership of which could be established by reference to certain criteria , and conduct ; and , hence compared with membership of such other communities .

The inclusion of religion and the role assigned to it posed a problem to the enumerators and analysts when it came to identifying ‘Hindus’ and hence ‘Hinduism’. In order to avoid complicated tabulations, the enumerators adopted a short method or a thumb rule. They went by the rule that anyone who was unable to identify himself with a known sect was to be classified as a ‘Hindu’. This was also the method adopted for tabulating most of the tribal people, nomads and low caste

And that brought focus on the contentious question of determining who was a ‘Hindu. It also went into exercise of classifying religious movements as “Hindu’ or; non-Hindu’.

While enumerating ‘Hindus’ , the Census made judgements about the limits of ‘Hinduism’ that in turn became focus of controversy , thereby establishing how official use of certain categories to classify ‘religion’ promoted the reification of ‘Hinduism’, which is rendering the complex idea of Hinduism into something recognizable and easier to identify.

Thus, the British imperialism played a key role in the concretisation of ‘Hinduism’ as an identifiable religion. This led to transformation of an abstract idea into a practical ‘religion’ distinct from other religions.


Divide and Rule

At times, the cultural and linguistic differences among the local populations were exploited by the British to accentuate the ‘Hindu’ divide.

For instance; the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh was a large and heterogeneous territorial unit of British India. The rural areas, in general, were dominated by Hindu folk traditions. The fairly large Muslim minority of the United Provinces (about 17 per cent of the population) was mostly settled in the towns (about 44 per cent of the urban population).

The differences between the two were reflected in their language and literature: Urdu, the lingua franca of the Mughal empire, was associated with urban Muslim culture; while, Hindi and its many dialects was the idiom of the rural Hindus.

Movements such as that for the recognition of Hindi in Devanagari script (i.e. the Sanskrit alphabet) as an official language in the Urdu-dominated courts of law (where proceedings were recorded in Persian characters), as well as campaigns for the protection of the sacred cow from the Muslim butcher, merged into a general stream of Hindu nationalism in the late nineteenth century.

The British decision to replace the use of Persian in 1842 for government employment and as the language of Courts of Law caused deep anxiety among Muslims of the sub-continent. This development greatly alarmed the Muslims and gave rise to communal conflicts.

The British had certainly not created these conflicts, but they took advantage of them in line with the old maxim ‘divide and rule’. The British seemed to favour the minority Muslims who looked to them for the protection of its interests against the Hindu majority.

The British established a Muslim college at Aligarh, near Agra, which was designed to impart Western education to Muslims while at the same time emphasising their Islamic identity. This college, later called Aligarh Muslim University, became an ideological centre whose influence radiated far beyond the province in which it was established.

Challenged by the foundation of a Muslim university, the Hindus soon made a move to start a Hindu university which was eventually established at Benares (Varanasi) and became a major centre of Western education.

The establishment of two sectarian universities in the United Provinces was characteristic of the political and cultural situation in that part of India, also clearly demarcated the ‘Hindu’ from the rest.


Role of the Missionaries

If the British imperialism played a leading role in the construction of ‘Hinduism’, the role of the Christian Missionaries was no less important.

Because of the effort of the group of Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, the British Parliament resolved that Christianisation of India was the solemn duty of the British Government. This led to the unrestricted ‘opening’ up of India to missionaries with full freedom to condemn and malign Hindu religious practices and institutions. It also led to the setting up of the Ecclesiastic Department as a part of the Government of India.

The Christian Missionaries, thereafter , enjoyed a special and a privileged relationship with the British Government. Britain was seen the ‘Mother Country’ of Empire whose official religion was Christianity. The British rulers in India viewed themselves as the servants and protectors of the Mother country as also of its religion. The Missionaries could preach and propagate Christianity under the protective canopy of the British Raj.

The Missionary activity earnestly picked up strength since 1813 under the aegis of the East India Company. Even later under the protective canopy of the British Raj, the Missionaries could preach and propagate Christianity as the ‘true religion’; and denounce Hinduism as a ‘compound of error, c corruption and exaggeration’ and as a false religion.

With such propaganda, a clear line was drawn between Hindu and non-Hindu religions.


Oriental Scholars of the West

The oriental scholars were also influenced by the British government and by the Church.

There were the Oriental scholars, funded by wealthy private patrons, who carried forward the Missionary agenda. Lt. Col. Boden of the Bombay Native Infantry endowed a Chair in the Oxford University for propagating Christianity in India through Sanskrit. Sir Monier Williams became the second-Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, England. He studied, documented and taught Asian languages, especially Sanskrit, Persian and Hindustani.

He made it clear that his interest in preparing dictionaries was primarily to translate the Bible into other languages. He said that he would initially fulfill the wish of Col. Boden to translate the Bible into Sanskrit ‘in order to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion’. Monier Williams, eventually, compiled a Sanskrit-English dictionary based on the earlier Petersburg Sanskrit Dictionary which was published in 1872. A later revised edition was published in 1899 with collaboration by Ernst Leumann and Carl Cappel.

In his writings on Hinduism, Monier Williams argued that Hinduism is a complex ‘huge polygon or irregular multilateral figure’ that was unified by Sanskrit literature. He stated that ‘no description of Hinduism can be exhaustive which does not touch on almost every religious and philosophical idea that the world has ever known’.

Monier Williams taught Asian languages, at the East India Company College from 1844 until 1858, when the rule of the East India Company in India ended, after the 1857 rebellion. He came to national prominence during the 1860 election campaign for the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford University, in which he stood against Max Müller.

After his appointment to the professorship, Williams had declared, from the outset, that the conversion of India to the Christian religion should be one of the aims of orientalist scholarship.


Max Müller (1823 –1900) considered that Hinduism which was characterized by superstition and idolatry needed to be reformed just in the manner of Christian Reformation.  In his letters to the Dean of St. Paul’s (Dr. Milman) of February 26, 1867, Max Muller wrote: I have myself the strongest belief in the growth of Christianity in India. There is no country so ripe for Christianity as India, and yet the difficulties seem enormous.

In a letter to his wife, Max Muller wrote: “It (The Rig-Veda) is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.”

In one of the letters, he says, “Ah! We have found the key to Christianize India.” And the key, according to him, was the Brahmo Samaj, in which the missionaries reposed great hope as the intermediate station for the Hindus of Bengal to become Christians. They had their hopes, in particular, on Keshav Chandra Sen, who was heading the Brahmo Samaj then.

 Later he also wrote to the Duke of Argyle, the then acting Secretary of State for India: “The ancient religion of India is doomed. And if Christianity does not take its place, whose fault will it be?”

In his 60s through 70s, Max Müller gave a series of lectures, which depicted his view of Hinduism. That somehow was followed by others of his time.


Many have argued:   “The term ‘ism’ refers to an ideology that is to be propagated and by any method imposed on others for e.g. Marxism, socialism, communism, imperialism and capitalism but the Hindus have no such ‘ism’. Hindus follow the continuum process of evolution; for the Hindus do not have any unidirectional ideology, therefore, in Hindu Dharma there is no place for any ‘ism’.

They point out that ‘Hinduism’ that the western world perceived was essentially the construction of the British imperialism, the nineteenth century western scholars and the Missionaries. Such constructions were made to suit their own agenda.



 ‘Hindus’ and ‘Hinduism’

As we saw, the concept of Hindu and Hinduism that emerged during the Nineteenth century was mainly in terms of the notions imposed by imperialism, missionary impulse and western scholarship.

Many educated Indians of the nineteenth century, therefore, mounted a counter attack on the Christian Missionary propaganda against Hinduism, adopting their own (missionary) methods and style.

There were also those who sought to remedy the flaws through which others tried to expose and exploit Hinduism, by revaluing the ancient texts, by reforming the Hindu practices and such other radical explanations.

In addition, there were the Indian elite who somehow seemed to be apologetic about Hindu beliefs and practices; and brought in social and cultural reforms. A Bengali Renaissance tried to usher in a new type of philosophical Hinduism tinged with a romantic nostalgia for some of the nobler forms of Vedic traditions.

At the same time, many cast doubts upon the conclusions of the oriental scholars, pointing out the flaws in their sectarian stance and arguments and dogmatic approach .

There was another set of Indians trying to make use of the religious enactments passed by the Government and take control of the religious institutions; while at the same time protesting against threats and encroachment on Hindu interests.

The construction of Hinduism thus arose out of encounter and interaction with the West. And it owed much to the Indian elite.

Such assortment of   ’ Hinduism’, thus, was mostly the creation of the nineteenth century Indians as a response to or in confrontation with the Western interpretations. Their reaction also to an extent contributed to the shaping of Western perception of ‘Hinduism’.



Some of the influences that shaped and re-shaped the concept of ‘Hinduism’, during the nineteenth century, were obviously religious; and, in addition there were also social, cultural and political organizations that projected their concept of ‘Hinduism’.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Brahmo Samaj looked down upon the current practices as corrupt and degenerate. The Brahmo Samaj harked back to the ancient and pure ways of the Upanishads, formulating an enlightened creed of ‘Hinduism’.

Swami Dayananda Saraswathi also aspired to bring back the principles and practices of the Vedic times. He called upon all Indians to study Vedas.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a mystic seer, through his own experiences declared the oneness of all religious   paths ‘and took a ‘universal’ view of all religions and varied paths leading to same goal.

Jatiya Mela and Jatiya Sabha  of Bengal came together, (renamed as Hindu Mela, in 1867), in order to promote a distinct identity of the ‘Hindu’ and a sense of pride in being a ’Hindu’


There were also movements of emerging popular ‘Hinduism’ floating their own pet brand of ‘Hinduism’.


In the political terms, the concepts of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ got entwined with nationalistic ambitions of several organizations.

Some of those nationalists portrayed the land Hindustan as the holy Motherland of the people of India.  For instance; Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) (1838-1894) raised Nationalism to the level of religion by identifying the Motherland with the Mother-Goddess. The tremendous impact and thrilling upsurge that Anandamath and Vandemataram  had on the Indian National Movement is indeed legendary.  He came to believe that there was “No serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism-reformed, regenerated and purified”. With that in view, Bankim Chandra tried to reinterpret ancient Indian religious ideals by cleansing them of the accumulated floss of myths and legends.

Aurobindo Ghosh and other revolutionaries acknowledged Bankim Chandra as their political Guru and followed his ideals of India and ‘Hinduism’.

The Hindu Mahasabha founded in 1909 by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was based in the idea of Hindutva. It called upon Hindus to fight for the freedom of Motherland and to consolidate the Hindu nation.

That movement fell into decline rather soon. And, its place was taken by Rastriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) inspired by the ideals of the Anushilan Samiti , was established by Dr.  Hedgewar (1889 –1940)  in 1925 with the ideal to ‘unite and rejuvenate our nation on the sound foundation of Dharma’.

Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) the political offshoot of RSS carried a similar ideal.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) a cultural organization with undertone of Hindu religion vowed to protect Hindu religion from encroachment by other religions.

These movements also contributed towards identification and demarcation of ‘Hinduism’ where “Hinduism’ was broadly associated with nationhood.


Hinduism variously conceived

Variously conceived, ‘Hinduism’ was generally regarded as the ‘essential religion of India’. And yet; the views on the quintessence of Hinduism varied greatly. The question got complicated by the presence and practices of immense varieties of beliefs and plurality of perspectives. But, yet there have also been efforts to equate ‘Hinduism’ with a particular version of it. There are also those who wish to treat Hinduism as a group of ‘religions’ or a socio-cultural unit or civilization which consist a plurality of distinct religions

There are also different versions of ‘Hinduism’. Sri Sankara’s non-dualistic Advaita philosophy takes a broad view and reconciles the apparently conflicting beliefs within the ‘Hinduism’ as a system. Then there is the Vaishnava theology centred on devotion on a personified God. There are also affiliate home-grown religions such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikh-religion. There is also the juxtaposition of foreign faiths such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.


The acceptance of the Vedas and their authority has been cited by the Supreme Court as one of the characteristics of Hinduism.

It is no doubt that Vedas are the roots of Indian ethos, thought and philosophy. They are of high authority, greatly revered and very often invoked. But, their roots are lost in the distant antiquity. The language or the clear intent of those texts is not easily understood; its gods and its rites are almost relics of the past. They no longer form active part of our day-to-day living experiences. The worship practices followed by the common Indians of the present day differ vastly from the rites prescribed in the Vedic texts. The gods worshipped by the present generations too vary greatly from the Vedic gods .  In today’s world, it is the popular gods, modes of worship as in the duality of   Tantra that has greater impact on socio religious cultural practices than the Vedas. The living religion of ‘Hindus’, as practiced today, is almost entirely in the nature or the version of what appeals to each sect,  or  to each individual .  

[Most of the Western Scholars consistently draw a distinction between the Vedic tradition and the ‘Hinduism’.]


There is also a claim to adhere to Sanatana Dharma (eternal law), an equivalent of perennial philosophy of the West, where all ‘religions’ are unified. This is despite the fact that the meaning and scope of the term Dharma is far wider than ‘religion’; and is not restricted to religion or sect.

But, the term Sanatana Dharma is perhaps used to signify orthodoxy as opposed to reformed ‘Hinduism’. That is based in the belief that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ though of great antiquity is indeed an ongoing process that changes while retaining continuity. Yet, it is rooted the aspiration of attaining liberation (Mukti) from all sorts of confines and limitation.  It is all-inclusive in nature and not shutting out new ideas and concepts; it is also not regimented by fixed set of rules or commandments.

The proponents of  Sanatana Dharma concept assert that ’Hinduism’ is a recent construct, which was  introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India. Despite that rather newly coined epithet, they point out, it essentially refers to a rich cumulative tradition of texts and practices that date back to a very distant past. And, they quote The Supreme Court which said that Hindu does not signify a religion but a way of life; and represents the culture of India, and of all people of India, whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc.



At the End

Thus, though the word Hindu (not originally Indian) might have, in the past, referred to a geographical region (Hindu-stan), a cultural association, or language (Hindu-stani) or to a common religion of the land etc, yet, it has, over a period, come to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics. Consequently, the concept of the ‘Hindu religion’, that is ‘an Indian religion with a coherent system of beliefs and practices that could be compared with other religious systems’ got established.

Now, generally, one is understood to be a Hindu by being born into a Hindu family and practicing the faith, or by declaring oneself a Hindu. It has been used as a geographical, cultural, or religious identifier for people indigenous to South Asia. In any case, Hinduism is now a nomenclature for the religious tradition of India and the suffix ism is hardly noticed. Not many have qualms in accepting ‘Hinduism’ or being a ‘Hindu’.


A Hindu is a Hindu not because he wanted to be distinct and created a room and put a door around him. But, because others started constructing walls everywhere, and at some point of time, the Hindu found that the walls other constructed somehow became his boundaries as well.

– Julia Roberts




Sources and References

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and images of the Hindu tradition by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. A History of India by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund ; Fourth Edition; Routledge ; 2004
  3. The Hill Shrine Of Tirupati by Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao (Surama Prakashana – 2011)

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The Question of Hindu, Hinduism et cetera – Part One


The Newspapers have been reporting that a Seven-judge  Bench of the  Supreme Court Of India headed by the Chief Justice T S Thakur  has since 18 October 2016 taken up a review of a judgement handed down by a Three-judge Bench  of the Supreme Court in 1995.

The uncomfortable issues questioning the legitimacy of the statements made by political parties canvassing for votes in the name of religion had since been coming up before the Apex Court. The present Review, it is said, had become necessary for arriving at ‘an authoritative pronouncement on electoral law categorising misuse of religion for electoral gains as corrupt practice”.

The 1995-Judgment that the Newspapers have been talking about refers to the famous case of Manohar Joshi vs. Nitin Bhaurao Patil & Anr (citations: 1996 AIR 796, 1996 SCC (1) 169) delivered on 11 December, 1995 by the then chief justice of India, J S Verma . Please click here for a copy of the judgement.

The judgement handed down by a bench of three  judges  of the Supreme Court led by the then chief justice of India, J S Verma was examining the question regarding the scope of corrupt practices mentioned in sub-section (3) of Section 123 of the 1951  Representation of People Act  and its interpretations. The Court in its ruling found that that statement by Manohar Joshi that “First Hindu State will be established in Maharashtra did not amount to appeal on ground of religion”.

The court had held that seeking votes in the name of Hinduism is not a “corrupt practice” under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act; and , it would not result in setting aside the election of winning candidates.

This ruling delivered in 1995 which earned the nickname ‘Hindutva judgement ‘ held that ‘Hindutva/Hinduism is a way of life of the people in the sub-continent; it represents the culture of India, and of all people of India, whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc.;  and ‘is a state of mind’.  

And, the Judgement concluded that ‘Hinduism’ was “indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and is not confined merely to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as a faith”.


In effect, the 1995-Verdict was taken to interpret that seeking vote in the name of ‘Hindutva/Hinduism’ did not prejudicially affect any candidate

However, the issues regarding the interpretations of the sub-section (3) of Section 123 had been coming up before the Apex Court quite regularly. Three election petitions are pending on the subject in the Apex court. The questions raised were: whether a politician can legitimately seek votes in the name of ‘Hinduism’; whether will it amount to corrupt practices under the Representation of People’s Act; and, whether will it subsequently attract disqualification.

The issue for interpretation of the sub-section (3) once again arose on January 30, 2014, before a five-judge which referred it for examination before a larger bench of seven judges. The apex court in February 2014 had decided to refer the matter to a seven judge’s bench.

Now about two decades after that 1995-Judgment, a Seven Bench Judges of the Supreme Court of India has taken up  this contentious ruling, commencing from 18 October 2016.

On October 19, 2016 the Supreme Court asked the Counsels if non-contesting spiritual leaders or clerics could be held accountable for corrupt practices under electoral law for asking voters to vote for a particular party or candidate; and how such appeals seeking votes would fall foul of the RP Act.

The proceedings are on .

Let’s wait and watch the final outcome.

[ Update

On October 25, 2016 , a Seven-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur said that for now it will not touch on its 1995 definition of “Hindutva is a way of life and not a religion” and also not ban its use during elections.

At this stage, we will confine ourselves to the issue raised before us in the reference. In the reference, there is no mention of the word ‘Hindutva’. We will not go into Hindutva at this stage.

The SC said that it would not examine the larger issue of whether Hindutva means Hindu religion, and whether the use of Hindutva in elections is permissible.

“It is difficult to define religion. There will be no end to this ”

The 7-judge bench, however, said it is looking into the nexus between religious leaders and candidates and its legality under Section 123 (3) of the Representation of People Act; and, whether seeking of votes in the name of religion will amount to a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Act warranting disqualification.

But , asserted that asking for votes in the name of religion was ‘evil’ and ‘not permissible’ ]


[ Further Update:

A seven-judge-bench of the Supreme Court of India in its judgement delivered on 02 January 2017, by a 4 to 3 majority view, enlarged the scope of Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act 1951. The Section 123(3) defines as ‘corrupt practice’ appeals made by a candidate or his agents to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of ‘his’ religion, race, caste, community or language. The court  has  now interpreted Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act to mean that this provision was brought in with intent ‘to clearly proscribe appeals based on sectarian, linguistic or caste considerations”.

The reference to the seven-judge bench had become necessary in view of the conflicting rulings in the previous judgements. In that context, the present Constitution bench explained the meaning of the term ‘his’ since that was relevant as to whose religion it has to be when an appeal is made.

 In substance, it ruled that an election could be annulled if candidates seek votes in the name of their religion or that of their voters. Till now, soliciting votes on the basis of religion and other such considerations was restricted to that of the candidates alone. 

The latest ruling is significant in the sense that any attempt to canvass for votes on the ground of religion or other such parochial identities – either of the candidates’s or on behalf of his agents or groups or his opponents – would invite the provisions of the Representation of People Act.


In their majority view, Chief Justice T S Thakur, Justices Madan B Lokur, S A Bobde and L Nageswara Rao ruled in favour of a ‘purposive interpretation’, stating that the term ‘his’ would mean the religion of the candidate, his agents, voters as well as any other person who, with the candidate’s consent, brings up religion or such subjects in an election

“An appeal in the name of religion, race, caste, community or language is impermissible under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and would constitute a corrupt practice sufficient to annul the election in which such an appeal was made regardless of whether the appeal was in the name of the candidate’s religion or the religion of the election agent or that of the opponent or that of the voters,” the majority view held.”

The Chief Justice said in his separate verdict:

 “The state being secular in character will not identify itself with any one of the religions or religious denominations…The elections to the state legislature or to Parliament or for that matter any other body in the state is a secular exercise just as the functions of the elected representatives must be secular in both outlook and practice,”



Justices Adarsh K Goel, Uday U Lalit and D Y Chandrachud, however, dissented with the majority’s view, holding that the expression ‘his’ used in conjunction with religion, race, caste, community or language is in reference to the candidate, in whose favour the appeal to cast a vote is made, or that of a rival candidate when an appeal is made to refrain from voting for another. 

His’ in Section 123(3) of the RP Act cannot validly refer to the religion, race, caste, community or language of the voter.

To hold that a person who seeks to contest an election is prohibited from speaking of the legitimate concerns of citizens that the injustices faced by them on the basis of traits having an origin in religion, race, caste, community or language would be remedied is to reduce democracy to an abstraction,” the minority judgement held”. ]


In this context , while on the question of ‘Hindu ‘and ‘Hinduism’ I would like to draw attention to another important judgement of the Supreme Court , also of 1995, which somehow seems to have been forgotten. I am referring to the case  ‘Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal’ in the matter of the Ramakrishna Mission’s petition to be declared a non-Hindu, minority religion under the Indian constitution. Please click here for the full text of the judgement that was delivered on July 2, 1995 ; delivered by Justice N. Venkatachala.

The judgement, interalia, discussed the intent and connotation of the term Hindu; and also identified Seven Defining Characteristics of Hinduism. The petition filed by Ramakrishna Mission was denied.


The following are the observations of the Supreme Court of India while dealing with the term Hindu:

 (27). Who are Hindus and what are the broad features of Hindu religion, that must be the first part of our inquiry in dealing with the present controversy between the parties. The historical and etymological genesis of `the word `Hindu’ has given rise to a controversy amongst indologists; but the view generally accepted by scholars appears to be that the word “Hindu” is derived from the river Sindhu otherwise known as Indus which flows from the Punjab. `That part of the great Aryan race”, says Monier Williams, which immigrated from Central Asia, through the mountain passes into India , settled first in the districts near the river Sindhu (now called the Indus ). The Persian pronounced this word Hindu and named their Aryan brother Hindus. The Greeks, who probably gained their first ideas of India Persians, dropped the hard aspirate, and called the Hindus `Indoi’.

 (28). The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. VI, has described `Hinduism’ as the title applied to that form of religion which prevails among the vast majority of the present population of the Indian Empire (p.686). As Dr. Radhakrishan has observed: `The Hindu civilization is so called, since it original founders or earliest followers occupied the territory drained by the Sindhu (the Indus ) river system corresponding to the North-West Frontier Province and the Punjab . This is recorded in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures which give their name to this period of the Indian history. The people on the Indian side of the Sindhu were called Hindu by the Persian and the later western invaders [The Hindu View of Life by Dr. Radhakrishnan, p.12]. That is the genesis of the word `Hindu’.


On the question of Hinduism, the Supreme Court of India discussed in detail the nature of Hinduism, citing several references and authorities.

While laying down the characteristics of Hinduism, the Hon. Court observed:

Features of Hindu religion recognized by this Court in Shastri Yaganapurushdasji (supra) as coming within its broad sweep are these:

(i) Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.

(ii) Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent’s point of view based on the realization that truth was many-sided.

(iii) Acceptance of great world rhythm, vast period of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession, by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.

(iv) Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.

(v) Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.

(vi)  Realization of the truth that Gods to be worshipped may be large, yet there being Hindus who do not believe in the worshipping of idols.

(vii) Unlike other religions or religious creeds Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.

While drawing up the criteria for indentifying Hinduism, the Court relied heavily on the views of Swami Vivekananda and Dr. Radhakrishnan that stressed tolerance, universality and a search for a fundamental unity as the virtues of Hinduism. It also relied on B.G. Tilak’s view: “Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means to salvation are diverse; and realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.”Even in the earlier case (Yagnapurushdasji) the “acceptance of the Vedas” was a key element in the court’s decision.

The criteria drawn up in the Brahmachari Siddheshwar Shai v. State of West Bengal case is taken as a working rule evolved for a limited purpose. It is not construed as the definition of Hinduism; because, Hinduism is described on various occasions depending on the context. Each time a ‘context- sensitive’ interpretation has been put forth.

It was therefore said: All definitions of Hinduism are indeed  ‘context –sensitive’; and there is no absolute and precise definition.

For instance:

: – In the Indian Constitution, Explanation II appended to Article 25 says that the “reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion”

: – The Hindu Code Bill (which comprises four different Acts), too, takes an undifferentiated view of Hinduism: it includes anyone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew under ‘Hindu’ as a legal category.

: – Any reform movements, including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, were seen as merely different sects within Hinduism.

: – There are legal pronouncements that Hindus are Indian citizens belonging to a religion born in India. This means Buddhists, Sikhs or Parsis, even those who did not recognize themselves as Hindus, are to be considered Hindus.

The Supreme Court of India dealt with the meaning of the word ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ when used in election propaganda. The court came to the conclusion that the words ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the People of India depicting the way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract, these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract, these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as a faith. This clearly means that, by itself, the word ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ indicates the culture of the people of India as a whole, irrespective of whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews etc.”


Incidentally the Seventh in the list of criteria drawn up by the Supreme Court in Brahmachari Siddheshwar Shai v. State of West Bengal case leaves me a little perplexed. It reads ”Unlike other religions or religious creeds Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such”. This in a way sums up the position; but, at the same time, it appears to knock down the earlier six criteria.

Perhaps it is because of this view ( of not being tied down to any definite set of concepts)  that many say “The term ‘ism’ refers to an ideology that is to be propagated and by any method imposed on others for e.g. Marxism, socialism, communism, imperialism and capitalism but the Hindus have no such ‘ism’. Hindus follow the continuum process of evolution; for the Hindus do not have any unidirectional ideology, therefore, in Hindu Dharma there is no place for any ‘ism’”


That leads us to the question: how did a ‘way–of-life’ that was not tied down to an ‘ism’ came to be known as Hinduism, a religion?

Tracing such process that led to tagging or assigning a name to a ‘way of life’ is, no doubt, an elusive exercise.

It is explained that the name Hinduism was coined by the foreigners as an operative term; points at a much larger entity; but, does not exactly stand for it.

I sometimes wonder whether even in the distant past it ever had a specific name or did it needed one, perhaps because of the absence of a rival. It is also plausible there was none.

For instance:

: –  The ancient Indian texts such as Vedas and Upanishads do not talk in terms of a ‘Religion’.  

 : – The Buddha also does not name, refer to or attack the religion of the day though he criticizes the Brahman attitude, the rituals; and discourages its ungainly speculations. He sometimes referred to his disciples by their sect as Brahmins or Kshatrias. He addresses some of them by their Gotra like Vaccha (Vatsa), Kassapa (Kaashyapa), and Mudgala (Maudgalya) etc. Some of the disciples address the Buddha by his Gotra- Gautama.

Buddhism did not start as a religion. The Buddha intended to offer true interpretations of the Dharma. (That perhaps was how his sect was named.) It started as a free-thinkers-moment that attracted the seekers and the lay intellectuals; in much the same way as the Ramakrishna moment did at a much later time. During the Buddha’s time it was not a religion yet; the rituals related to births, deaths and weddings were presided over by the Brahmin priests. The Buddhist rituals and practices (vinaya) were collated from the teachings and the incidents in the Buddha’s life at a much later time, after his death.

What set apart the Buddhism and other school of thought was is emphasis on compassion towards all and ethics in all walks and modes of life.

:- Megasthenes (Ca. 350 BCE – 290 BCE )- the Greek explorer who became an Seleucus I Nicator to the Court of Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra –  in his  the work Indika , though mentions Brahmins and Sramanas does not  talk about the name of any religion.

 : – The Arthashastra of kautilya makes frequent references to classes of people within its society; but does not refer to a Religion in particular.


Perhaps it was this factor of the absence of a Religion per se in ancient India that largely guided the Supreme Court of India in listing some criteria for Hinduism while handing down the ruling in Brahmachari Siddheshwar Shai v. State of West Bengal.



Here, in these references by the Apex Court,  the term Hindu had somehow travelled a full circle and came back to the original view of territorial and not creedal significance. It implied residence in a well-defined geographical area.

But now, generally, one is understood to be a Hindu by being born into a Hindu family and practicing the faith, or by declaring oneself a Hindu. It has been used as a geographical, cultural, or religious identifier for people indigenous to South Asia. In any case, Hinduism is now a nomenclature for the religious tradition of India and the suffix ism is hardly noticed. Not many have qualms in accepting “Hinduism.


How did this transformation of ‘Hindu’ which originally referred to an inhabitant of the subcontinent into one of   religious identity take place? It is t important to learn the changing meaning of ‘Hindu’ whereby an original geographic , ethnic and cultural meaning was much later superseded by a religious meaning.

It is a long story. Let’s read that in the next part.

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Continued in Part Two


References and Sources

  1. Manohar Joshi vs Nitin Bhaurao Patil & Anr on 11 December, 1995(Equivalent citations: 1996 AIR 796, 1996 SCC (1) 169) Author: J S Verma

  1. Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal (in the supreme court of India ; civil appellate jurisdiction;  civil appeal nos. 4434a-34d of 1986 with civil appeal nos. 4937/85, 5676-78/85; with I.A.No. 1 in C.A. Nos. 5676-78/85 and CMP  No. 23111/86 in C.A. No. 4937/85
  1. Newspaper reports

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The Early Buddhist Women – stories – An Introduction

1. Theri – gatha

1.1. The role of women in the early Buddhism has been a fascinating subject for study. There are several dimensions to the issue , such as the position accorded to women in the religious and secular life of ancient India before and after the advent of the Buddha; the influence exerted by the personality of the Buddha and his teachings on the lives of individual women and their families; the role and the significance of the Bhikkhuni sanghas (the order of the Buddhist nuns) in the lives of the women  and of  the society at large; and , the phasing out and eventual disappearance of the Bhikkhuni order.

1.2. Perhaps the best way to begin is to read the life-events and stories of women who joined the Bhikkhuni sanghas; and also of the lay-women- disciples of the Buddha. The portions of the Pali Canon known as the Vinaya-pitaka (comprising the rules of conduct for monastic discipline) and the Sutta-pitaka (mainly a collection of discourses delivered by the Buddha and his disciples) contain a wealth of interesting information. The ardor and the liveliness of those early nuns have come down to us mainly through a set of verses grouped under the title Theri -gatha (the songs of the elder nuns), unique in any literature, composed by seventy-three elderly nuns towards the end of their lives. Then there is the Bhikkhuni-samyutta, a part of the Samyutta-nikaya, which contains another collection of verses ascribed to ten of these Women Elders (Theris). And, there are short biographies (the Apadana) , in verses, of forty-three nuns who were also the contemporaries of the Buddha.

1.3. These stories in verses are truly remarkable for their candor, eloquence and sensitivity. They are not scarred by bitterness, disgust or hatred. They are, on the other hand , marked by their compassion and an attempt to understand life , even while placed in its very cauldron. Apart from narrating their individual experiences, they throw light on the condition of the women in the Buddha–period. They are also of great interest because they depict the family and social life; practices and values of those times.

1.4. The Theri-gatha consists some of the best known names in early Buddhism. They include Prajapati Gotami, the foster mother of the Buddha and who was also the first Bhikkhuni; then there was Uppalavanna and Khema, regarded as “foremost of the Bhikkhunis”. Kisagotami and Patacara, too figure in the best known stories of early Buddhism.

1.5. The members of the order came from all walks of life attracted by the simple beauty of the Buddha’s teaching and the freedom which the new Order offered. Some were former courtesans like Ambapali and Vimala; and there were those that came from royal lineage like Sumeda and Sela. A large number came from merchant families like Bhadda Kundalkesa, Sujata, and Anopama. There were also some distinguished exponents of the Dhamma like Dhammadinna  . Many others were of humbler origins like Punnika the slave girl, or Chanda the daughter of a poor Brahmin. Apart from these Theris and Arahants there were many women who cherished the Buddha’s teaching. They were the upasikas and savikas, students and attendants of the Buddha and the Sangha. Their names too are recorded in Buddhist legends and their piety is well known.  The actual numbers of Theris and other women of the Sangha are not clearly known. But, their numbers must have been quite considerable.  It is said ; Theri Patacara alone had as many as 500 followers.

1.6. These nuns and the lay-devotees, as Ms. Isaline Horner remarks :

“by their response to the majesty of the Buddha’s Teaching, made an imponderable contribution to the strength, vitality, expansion, and longevity of the Buddhism. It is as well to survey again from time to time the lives of these ardent contemporaries of the Buddha. Indeed the Buddhist world owes them a large debt of gratitude”.

1.7. In the subsequent posts, I propose to narrate some stories that not merely make an interesting reading but also throw up a few lively issues for debate. Before we go the first story in the series, let’s, briefly, talk about some of the general issues relating to treatment of women; their position in the Sangha and in the then society.

hamsa 5

2. Women in the pre-Buddha period

2.1. While discussing the position of women during the pre-Buddha period there appears to be a tendency among some to over-estimate the amount of ignominy, of obedience and subservience to men; and their exclusion from certain worldly occupations or religious education or observances. Much of those accusations are unfounded. For instance, I came across writing  which said: ” It (Buddhism) put an end to child marriage, dowry and sati. Women were free from bondage and an era of equality was created”. But the fact is that the practices such as sati and child-marriage cropped up, like weeds, in the Indian society about 1,500 years after the Buddha;  and the women were never in bondage during the pre-Buddha period. As regards the equality or the equal status accorded to women, sadly, that ideal state was not fully realized either during or after the life of the Buddha.

2.2. We have to be on our guard against such statements. Women have always been central to life in the Indian society. Even during the pre-Buddha period, the women were never debarred from education or from taking part in philosophical debates. In fact, women’s participation in academia was one of the positive features of those times.

2.3. Stephanie Jamison in her book Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India (1996), while outlining the position of women in ancient India, writes:

“she plays a crucial role in knitting together her community. By producing sons, she insures the linkage of generations and the continued veneration of the ancestors. By dispensing food and hospitality, she forges harmonious links between different segments of secular Aryan society. By her role in the srauta ritual (and by making such ritual possible), she links gods and men and allows the religious life of the community to proceed” (p. 254).

2.4. That might read be a bit too rosy; but the point is that the woman functioned as a central figure in the rituals, hospitality and family life. She was respected and had a place of honor in the home. The Vedic rituals were centered on the home; and the lady of the house was in charge. The difficulties the women of that era had to face and overcome were no more than normal for women in any time or country. As regards religion, women have always been the main stay or upholders and supporters of a religion or faith or movement. That certainly was the case with Buddhism too when it was at its beginnings.

3. The Sangha

3.1. The Sangha commonly meant the society of ordained monks or nuns who formally undertook to follow the rules of conduct prescribed by the Vinaya; but in its larger sense it encompassed all those who “entered the stream”, be they monk or lay. The Sangha which came into being a few months after samana Gotama emerged as the Enlighted One, the Buddha, was not a religious organization in its initial stages; but; it was a movement that brought together those who keenly sought freedom from all ills, present and future. It was a unique establishment, in a number of ways.

Until then, the ascetics were individual wanderers not belonging to an organized group; and, the Sangha was the first instance of a body of men, not discharging a priestly function, accepting a common code of conduct and discipline for seeking a way of release. Yet, the Sangha was not a social group the objectives of which could be achieved by team effort .The teaching of the Buddha was essentially for the individual; and each seeker had to be guided his own experience and  work out his own salvation.

3.2. The Buddha’s offer to mankind was the possibility of leading a more sensible life. And, that life was characterized by essential freedom; freedom implied the rejection of all barriers; and, affection and attachment verily are the strongest barriers. The aim was to surpass all limitations.

For the Buddha, life was more important than intellect. Freedom from attachments was superior to all dogmas and discussions. His approach to life was practical and emphasized on the quality of life. And, above all he preached, as only he could, by precept as by example.

3.3. With the advent of the Buddha and his message, the traditional structure and functions of the society underwent some modifications. The relations between the individual and the family; the individual and the society were re-aligned. As the new-teaching spread to distant areas rapidly gaining increased number of followers, it brought in its wake perceptible social changes. The men, women and the society were each, in some way or other, touched by that change.

4. The Women

4.1. The extension of the monastic Order to women was truly revolutionary; it had no precedent.  The Buddha acceded to its formation, rather reluctantly . His foster mother Prajapathi Gothami pressed for it persistently and made it difficult for the Buddha to refuse her demand.

Prajapathi Gothaml was the first to be ordained as a Bikkhuni of the Sangha. She was followed by many other women who shared her aspiration and who too opted for spiritual endeavor as a positive vocation. They perhaps found in the Bhikkhuni order a freedom that they could not find in the secular life.

4.2. The Buddha’s message emphasized freedom from sorrow: “As this great ocean has but one taste, that of salt, so has this Dhamma but one taste, that of freedom”.  That  and the secure ambiance the Sangha provided for the Bikkhunis  , brought about astounding changes in the attitudes of a large number of women. It also modified their perceptions of life and their position within that.

4.3. Life under the Vinaya was one of both active and contemplative discipline. The emancipation won implied ‘space’– aksha or avakasha – opportunity for developing, regulating, and concentrating both thought and deed. Under its regime a Bhikkhuni came under the tutelage of some Theri. She led a simple life, and discharged the ministering duties of a novice. And by prescribed exercises and daily lessons she worked out for herself, her own salvation, qualifying to become a teacher and leader in her turn.

She need not had to forget what she had left behind and escaped from. She need not had to turn and mark those past struggles; but, as her insight grew she learnt to put the past experiences in a context and understand the working of the law of Kamma (karma), the conservation of the effect of action. The vision might have its terrors, but it was all part of her process towards an end — an end which meant: peace whose names are also Rapture,  Power,  Clear sight and Love:   for these are parts of Peace.

Thus, her perception of life too changed. The life jivita was not viewed as an interval between two extremities, but as a continuum propelled by causes and effects (karma) spread over several jivitas. The misery can be put to an end when that cycle ceases forever. Thus, one could always look forward with hope.

4.4. What the Sangha did, in effect, was that it provided the women an opportunity, a vision, and the freedom to pursue a way of life that promised to lead them away from the angst and sorrows of their existence; and even direct them towards the peace and bliss of nibbana, the ultimate freedom.

Even in case one discounts its spiritual objectives and aspirations, the Sangha did act as a useful and an effective safety-net in the society.  I wish the institution of Sangha continued to this day, in one form or other.

Unmarried women

4.5. That vision soon became the aspiration of even the unmarried women who might otherwise have continued living an unabused, contented and adequately busy life caring for their parents, younger brothers and sisters. The Sangha showed such women an escape from crushing sorrows, disappointments or ceaseless round of menial tasks. Subha the unwed daughter of the goldsmith said it all, as she entered the Order of Buddhist nuns “All worldly pleasures irk me sore, silver and gold lead neither to peace nor to enlightenment”.

Married women

4.6. A number of married women too discovered that they could go to the Order of Nuns if they found the nagging worries, the disappointments, the betrayals and the pain of domestic life were mounting on them; and the life in those conditions was becoming unbearable. Suffering in lonely silence and enduring pain without a hope, they found, was no longer their inevitable lot in life.

4.7. In the stories narrated by the Theris , you will come across many who   left behind a home and husband and went into the world searching for freedom and a meaning to life. There are also cases where the woman was turned out of her house by her husband who took on another wife. It is said that a woman endowed with five virtues: beauty , wealth, relations (from her parents’ side), a son, and chaste conduct (shila) could dwell with confidence as the lady of the house, get the better of her husband and keep him under her thumb (S iv 246). But, if she lacked those virtues, she ran the risk of being driven out of her house (S iv 248). The instances where the husband deserted his wife or threw her out of the house were not rare. On the expulsion of the wife, the husband then usually took another wife

[There was perhaps no formal process put in place for decreeing a divorce. The separated couples just parted their ways, each seeking his/her happiness elsewhere. Yet, the matters like inheritance of property, etc. were regulated by social processes, and the individuals were free to sort out the arrangements; and the wives were usually allowed considerable liberty.]

4.8. The woman too could likewise leave her husband and remarry; and no stigma was attached to her. In most cases parents took initiative to find a new husband for such a daughter . There is the strange case of Isidasi who married four husbands one after another; and for some reason not one of her husbands   could live with her happily, though she was endowed with virtues and she did everything she could to keep each of them happy.

4.9. However, the woman who remarried had to contend with another irksome problem: the co-wife, one who might already be installed in her new husband’s house. The hapless Isidasi had such an unenviable experience in her fourth marriage. Both the wives suffered.

…Another wife he had,
A virtuous dame of parts and repute,
Enamored of her mate,
And thus I brought
Discard and enmity within that house. (Thig.446 )

Kisagotami too had to endure such sorrow:

Woeful is woman’s lot, hath he declared,
Woeful when sharing home with hostile wives,
Woeful when giving birth in bitter pain,
Some seeking death or a breach – birth they suffer twice,
Piercing the throat, the delicate poison take (Thig.216-7)


The rejection and disparagement of wives; the domestic drudgery finds a pithy expression in the verse of the nun Mutta:

O free indeed, O gloriously free
Am I in freedom from three crooked things..!
From quern, from mortar and my crooked lord.


Then she rejoiced, saying

Free am I from birth and dying.
Becomings’s cord removed.
That which leads to renewed existence
Has been rooted out. (Thig.11)


4.10. But the risk of marriage had to be run, and it was still the most normal career open to a young woman. It was said: “A woman’s goal is a man, her ambition is for adornment, her resolve is for a child, her desire is to be without a rival, and her fulfillment is authority” (A iii 363).

4.11. There were, of course, many women who longed to be free but repressed their longing to ‘go forth,’ for many years, until the duties that kept them at home were resolved. To these women, the late-won liberty came as retreat of peace. A poem is attributed to the Master himself welcoming a tired old woman:

Happily rest, thou venerable dame..!
Rest thee, wrapt in the robe thyself hast made.
Stilled are the passions that have raged within.
Cool art thou now, knowing Nibbana’s peace. (Saŋyutta Nikaya, i. 68-70)

4.12. A certain Theri commonly known as Sumangala’s mother entered the Sangha, late in her life. One day while she was reflecting on her past, she was overwhelmed by the sufferings she endured in life, and was much affected. It is said; that insight quickened her understanding of the form and the meaning of Dhamma.

O woman well set free..! How free am I,
How thoroughly free from kitchen drudgery!
I stained and squalid among my cooking-pots
My brutal husband ranked as even less
Than the sunshades he sits and weaves always.

Purged now of all my former lust and hate,
I dwell, musing at ease beneath the shade
Of spreading boughs–O, but ’tis well with me..! (Thgi 23 , 24 )

4.13. Not all couples figuring in the Theri-gatha had a miserable married life. The Pali canon mentions a number of devoted couples, such as Queen Mallika and King Pasenadi; Nakulamata and Nakulapita; and, Dhammadinna and Visakha. The wife here is described as the “comrade supreme” (S i 37).

Nakulamata and Nakulapita were considered by the Buddha to be the most eminent among his lay-disciples for their close companionship and mutual regard (A i 26).There is a poignant verse of how Nakulamata comforted her husband when he was dangerously ill and was worrying about the future of his wife and children should he die. “Do not fret,” She said, “I am deft at spinning cotton and carding wool and so would be able, were you to die, to support the children and run the household. Nor would I go to another man. Even greater than when you were alive would be my desire to see the Bhagavan and the Order of monks. As long as the Bhagavan has female disciples, clad in white, I shall be one of them, fulfilling the precepts of ethical behavior, and gaining inward tranquillity  of mind. I shall live confident, without doubt or questioning, following the Teacher’s instruction. So do not die, householder, while you are fretting, for so to die is anguish” (A iii 295ff).

4.14. The Buddha too dealt with worldly aspects of living and happy married life. In the Sigalovada Sutta , he talked about the duties of husband and wife towards one another. A lot of what he said is eminently sensible. He asked one to consider the other as the best friend. He emphasized the principle of reciprocity; just as the wife had to perform her duties towards the husband, so should the husband perform his duties. He asked man and wife not to compete with one another , but to pull together just as a pair of horses pulls a chariot. The Sigalovada Sutta presupposes a monogamous system, but the Buddha preferred not to be assertive on it.

4.15. One of the verses in Theri-gatha describes how an understanding couple could bring prosperity to their family:

“All families that have attained great possessions have done so for one or other of the following reasons: they search for what is lost; repair what is dilapidated; eat and drink in moderation; and place in authority, a virtuous woman or man” (A ii 249; AN 4.255).

4.16. There were a few instances where the couple in a happy marriage, both decided to go forth into homelessness. Theri-gatha (Thag 1051ff ) lovingly describes how Bhadda Kapalini and her husband Kassapa helped one another to put on the yellow robes of a recluse, to shave off the hair and sling the begging-bowl from their shoulders.Then they set out together, but only to part quite soon lest people should say that even in their new state they could not do without one another.

4.17. Another was the case of Dhammadinna though happily married to Visakha, a rich merchant of Rajagaha; she sought his consent to go forth into homelessness because she felt her spiritual hunger was stronger than the earthly ties.Visakha at once sent her to the Bhikkuni Sangha in a golden palanquin , although he had no desire to enter the Sangha and become a monk. In due course, Dhammadinna gained fame as an eminent preacher; and the Buddha considered her as the foremost among the nuns who could preach. Interestingly, years later Visakha, as a lay devotee, sat at the feet of Theri Dhammadinna to receive a discourse from her   [Culavedalla Sutta (MN 44)].


4.18. There were a few former courtesans like Ambapali and Vimala, among the order of Bhikkhunis. The Buddha’s attitude towards the courtesans was rather interesting. He never rebuked or looked down upon them. Instead, he tried to help them by reminding them of the impermanence of all conditioned things, including their physical beauty and attraction. The Order of Nuns was as open to them as it was to any other women who qualified for the ordination.

4.19. Daughters born to courtesans or former courtesans do not appear to have been regarded as a disaster. There is a mention of two such daughters who followed the same calling as their mothers for some time and later became nuns (Thig 39; SnA 244).

4.20 . The courtesan Ambapali who gained fame as one of the most loyal and generous supporters of Buddhist monks and another lady known as Abhaya’s mother each had a son who became a monk. When this latter lady heard her son preach, she left the world and entered the Buddhist Order of nuns.


5. The Men

5.1. The establishment of the Sangha impacted the lives of men too. In those days , it was not unusual for the elderly to retreat into the forest after fulfilling their duties, leaving the household under the care of the wife. The women of that era must have ordinarily been prepared for such an eventuality. But, with the coming of Buddhism and the Sangha, the men were no longer under obligation to wait till the age of “retirement”. A boy   of fifteen could leave his home and go into monastic homelessness as a novice; and he could be fully ordained while he was in his twenties. The boy was required to obtain the consent of his parents before he was ordained. In most cases the consent was extracted from reluctant parents.

5.2. In a way of speaking, the establishment of the Order of monks might be regarded as a new threat to the happiness of women. For now, there was nothing to stop their sons and husbands from taking up the “religious life” while they were still quite young.

5.3. Capa, the daughter of a trapper, was about to lose her husband Upaka to the Sangha. She hoped that her new born son would save her from desertion by her husband . But; neither Cupa’s five-virtues nor her pleading could stop Upaka from leaving his home. She cried out in anguish:

And this child blossom, O my husband, see
Thy gift to me—now surely thou wilt not
Forsake her who hath borne a son to thee? (Thig.300)


Some of the women placed in similar circumstances sought consolation ,saying:

” So great a mystery is the little life, both as to its coming and its going, that it never was yours–your property–to have or to mourn over. The great laws of the universe are not worked by you. Be quiet…”.

“ No trouble hath overtaken you, save such as hath already overtaken you many and many a time in the infinite number of your past spans of life. Why, then, fall ever back on these hapless tears that never have availed aught? ”  (Thgi 37 Ubbri)

5.4. Then, there were the uncomfortable questions of funeral obsequies and the periodic rites of the ancestors (Shraddha ceremonies) that had to be performed by the son. Only a son could perform those rituals which were believed to be essential for bestowing peace and serenity on the pitris, the departed ancestors

But, in the changed context, the aged parents had to learn to cope with the reminder of their life without sons at home. And, they  could no longer hope to be looked after by their son either.

Added to that, the old folks often had to take care of their grand children, left behind by their parents who went into the Sangha. Because, in many cases, when the husband left home for the Sangha, the wife emulated him and she too became a Bhikkhuni.

6. The Society

6.1. The message of the Buddha was essentially addressed to the individual in his quest for freedom. The Buddha did not set out to be a social reformer . He was a preacher who guided to “the road leading to the suppression of sorrow.”

6.2. The Pali texts hint that in the early years of his ministry  the Buddha had been accused of being a snatcher of sons, a breaker of homes, one who turned wives into widows and rendered the  mothers childless (pubbajatha).The allusion was to his call for “ home-leaving”. His early followers indeed were social run-aways; they wandered about without a care or dwelt in forests learning “to bend their minds towards emancipation”. They were, in the Master’s own words, like uprooted palm trees.

6.3. As the Buddha’s message and the Sangha captured the imagination of the populace more young and able bodied persons left their homes and lands. The trade and agriculture, in particular, and the economy in general did suffer. As the number of monks increased, more monasteries had to be built and more number of monks had to be provided with food, clothing and health care. Over a period, the living conditions and the health care arrangements in the Sangha improved considerably. A stage was reached when the poor and the feeble found that it made more sense to live in the Sangha than try hard to eke out a meager living. Many poor people, afflicted with disease and unable to pay for treatment, joined the Order in order to avail free medical facilities.

6.4. The Buddha in consultation with his physician Jivaka had to put in place a sort of screening process to keep out the non-genuine entrants to the Sangha, as he thought the Sangha was being misused. As a result, it was decided that men afflicted with certain diseases be refused entry into the Order. The diseases prevalent in Magadha of those times included: leprosy, boils, dry leprosy, consumption, and fits (Vin.i.71ff). Later, cripples and homosexual were also kept out of the Order. (Vinaya, Vol. 4, pp. 141-142).

7. The question of gender equality

7.1. The attitude of the Buddha towards women was an enlightened one. His utterances on such issues as the girl child, the conduct of a newly married girl, setting up of the  Order of Nuns etc have however to be viewed in the context of his times.

7.2. At the time the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Order of Nuns, was established as demanded by Prajapati Gotamai, she had to agree to obey eight special rules (garudhamma) before she was ordained; and those rules were later incorporated into the Bhikkhuni Vinaya.

” If, Ananda, women had not received permission to go out from the household life and enter the homeless state, under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathagata, then would the pure religion, Ananda, have lasted long, the good law would have stood fast for a thousand years. But since, Ananda, women have now received that permission, the pure religion, Ananda, will not now last long, the good law will now stand fast for only five hundred years…”

The Buddha then goes on to illustrate his point by a series of similes. And he ends his statement saying:

“And just, Ananda, as a man would in anticipation build an embankment to a great reservoir, beyond which the water should not overpass ; just even so, Ananda, have I in anticipation laid down eight chief rules for the bhikkhunis, their lifelong not to be overpassed” .(Vinaya Part 3; pp. 325-326).

Many fears and appresensions of the Buddha  sadly came true. The tenor of the rules indicates that the Bhikkhunis in general were placed next to the Bhikkhus (monks). It was explained that some of the rules were meant for the  protection of the  nuns, while a few others were merely a  matter of protocol.

For instance, one rule prescribed that   Bhikkhunis could not observe the annual retreat (vassa) in a district where there were no Bhikkhus; this was meant to ensure safety of nuns living in isolated areas. Another rule laid down “Bhikkhus were always to have precedence over Bhikkhunis in matters of salutation, etc. irrespective of any other consideration”; “Bhikkhus can officially admonish Bhikkhunis, but not the other way.” It is likely the senior nuns found the protocol rather irksome. [The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha contains 311 rules for conduct of the nuns.]

7.3. Women were important to the Order. They are mentioned in almost every Pali Canon; and even in the Thera-gatha the anthology of verses attributed to the elder monks (verse 1257). But, women and the discourses delivered to them are not central to the Canon. Those discourses are scattered through the Vinaya and Nikaya texts; and have to be picked and collated in order to gain a reliable picture of women’s position, particularly that of the lay-women, in the Order.

7.4. The sexes were not segregated in the Sangha, and though naturally nuns had their quarters apart from those of the monks. The nuns carried out their official acts, such as ordination, in conjunction with an Order of monks. The monks and nuns participated in debates; and nuns were respected for their learning and spiritual attainments. The nuns freely moved around the town seeking alms and dispensing Dhamma. “With shaven head, wrapped in their robe the Sister was free to come and go, to dive alone into the depths of the wood, or climb aloft. “

Another interesting feature was that, unlike in other religions, The Buddhist Order of Nuns did not place a premium on the state of virginity of the women entering the Sangha. A vast number of its inmates had been mothers and wives; and, a few had been courtesans. The Master himself was once a husband and father. This again was an assertion of the Buddha-faith that the road to enlightenment is not blocked by the state of the body and its condition.

7.5. But, the more important aspect was that, the women were not discriminated against in doctrinal matters. The Dhamma preached by the Buddha was addressed to one and all; and had no gender preferences. The Buddha’s path could be practiced by anyone, male or female. The travails of life and the difficulties in the pursuit of the path were regarded the same for men and women alike.

The female disciples of the Buddha who had grasped the true essence of the Dhamma were clear in their mind; and had realized that Dhamma was beyond all distinctions and free of the gender as well.

7.6. The Sanyutta Nikaya text contains an interesting repartee that takes place between Mara the tempter and the Theri Soma. Mara taunts Soma saying she is laboring hard but in vain, because no woman can reach “the high ground of the wise”. He said mockingly, a woman has only the “two-finger knowledge (dva-angula-panna)”, an allusion to cooking where the woman tests the consistency of the cooked rice by pressing it between her fingers. Soma shoots back, saying:

What can that signify to one in whom
Insight doth truly comprehend the Norm?
To one for whom the question doth arise:
Am I a woman in such matters, or
Am I a, man? or what not am I, then?–
To such an one is Mara fit to talk..!

Soma here is asserting the irrelevance of the “female condition” (itti-bhavo or Sthree bhava) in the spiritual path. She asks Mara to get lost.

With pleasures overcome everywhere
And the mass of ignorance torn away
Know this, 0 Defiled One,
Driven out art thou at last!

Thus in the samsaric sense there is no male or female, but only a single karmic stream.

7.7. The position of women in hierarchy of the Order could be seen as one relating to protocol rather than to spiritual progress. Assuming there was no Bhikkhuni order, there still was ample scope for women participation in Dhamma work. Even otherwise, the Buddha had not said that enlightenment could come only from formal adherence to a monastic order. Men and women either inside or outside the Order could attain enlightenment. The Buddha reiterated that position:

This is the only vehicle
Be it a woman or be it a man
The one who takes this vehicle
Can reach the peace of Nibbana (Sam.Nik., 1, 5, 6)

That was demonstrated by the Theri Bhadda Kapilan who associated herself in spiritual attainments with the learned Maha Kassapa who later succeeded the Master as the Head of the Sangha.

She too, Bhadda the Kapilan–thrice-wise
And victor over death and birth is she–
Bears to this end her last incarnate frame,
For she hath conquered Mara and his host.

We both have seen both he and I, the woe
And pity of the world, and have gone forth.
We both are Arahants with selves well tamed.
Cool are we both, ours is Nibbana now..! (Thgi 37:65, 66)


Theri Sundari went even further and related herself to the Master: “Thou art Buddha..! Thou art Master..! And thine. Thy daughter am I, Issue of thy mouth.”

7.8. It is said, the Buddha in his last days desired to see some modifications made to the Vinaya practices. Some scholars surmise those modifications most likely had to do with the position of women in the Order. That question is now purely academic since the Bikkhuni Sanghas have virtually disappeared in India and Sri Lanka. But the mere absence of the Bhikkhuni order does not in any manner affect a woman ardently seeking enlightenment.

8. At the end

As Isaline Horner said:

“in the Buddha’s time women were not despised and looked down on but, on the contrary, were respected and had a place of honor in the home. The difficulties they had to face and overcome were no more than normal for women in any time or country, even if their life was, at the worldly level, more restricted than it has come to be in the last decades as women go in more and more for public work and hold professional posts. At the higher, more spiritual level however, they had the great advantage and great joy of entering the Order of Nuns either because they wanted to get free of worldly sufferings or, more positively, and above everything else, because they wanted to find the way to the peace and bliss of Nibbana, all their former craving for sense-pleasures rooted out, tranquil and cool.

We live in a Buddha-era that is at a time when the Teachings of the Buddha are still remembered and are of significance. This alone would make it incumbent on us to put into practice his message of Peace, inner and outer, as faithfully as we can.”


9. With this as the backdrop, I would be posting, in the subsequent articles, the narrations or , call it , stories of a few women of that era, such as Isidasi, Bhadda Kundalakesa, Visakha , Mallika the Queen , Patachara and a few others, if possible .At the end of each story, I would like to put down a few issues emerging out of it.

In the next article let’s read the story of the much married Isidasi.



Abbreviations: A, AN = Anguttara Nikaya; D, DN = Digha Nikaya; Ja = Jataka; M, MN = Majjhima Nikaya; MA = Majjhima Atthakatha (commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya); S, SN = Samyutta Nikaya; Thag = Theragatha; Thig = Therigatha.



The story of much married Isidasi

References and sources

 Buddhist women by Dr. Bimala Churn Law

Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha by Hellmuth Hecker

Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India.

By: Stephanie Jamison

The Place of Women in Buddhism by Swarna de Silva

Women in Early Buddhist Literature by I.B. Horner

Psalms of the early Buddhists- i.–psalms of the sisters by
Mrs. Rhys Davids,

The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha containing 311 rules for conduct of the nuns

Pictures are from Internet



Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Buddhism, Buddhist Women, History


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The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (4)

The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (Annexure to three)

This segment is in the nature of a supplement to The Art of Painting in Ancient IndiaChitrasutra (3) . I mentioned therein: “The Chitrasutra explores in great depth the characteristics of persons hailing from various regions and occupations. Since it is rather too detailed, I would be posting a summary of that, along with few other issues, in a separate article”. Hence, this post.

The Chitrasutra, at several places, discusses the appearances  of  persons and objects that we meet/see in our day to day life. It instructs, the representations of the objects and persons,   as drawn on the canvas should bear a credible resemblance to their original.

The text, therefore, reckons   rupa-bheda and sadrushya, among the six essential elements of a painting. Rupa-bheda consists in the knowledge of special characteristics of things – natural or manmade; say, the differences in appearances among many types of men, women or natural objects or other subjects of the painting; while Sadrushya aims to depict, in painting, those distinctions and resemblances.

Things that usually are visible to all should be well represented,  resembling what is  commonly seen in nature.”

Shiulparatna, another ancient text, too refers to painting as that which bears resemblance to, and looks like a reflection  in   mirror.

The Chitrasutra instructs that the resemblances should not merely be in general but should extend to details as well. Every part of the object represented should agree with the general treatment of the whole object. It also says that the persons should be painted according to their country; their region, their colour, dress, and general appearances as observed. Having well ascertained the person’s country, region, occupation, age and his status in life; the text says ,  his other details such as his seat, bed, costume, conveyance, stance, and his gestures should be drawn.

The Chitrasutra explores this subject in great depth, detailing the characteristics of persons hailing from various regions and occupations; the nobility, widows, courtesans, artisans, wrestlers, soldiers etc.  It presents a virtual catalogue.

I am posting some of them, in a summarized form along with some illustrations (wherever available) from the sketches of the figures depicted in paintings of Gupta period.


1. A king should be drawn as if he were a god

The handsome looking King wears a brown striped silk garment. He is offering flowers to the gods , placed  on a tray painted with designs.

He wears a tiara of floral motif from which hand string of pearls and sapphire. He has on his wrists bracelets of different kinds.

2. Women of good-families should be made bashful, wearing ornaments and not showy dress.

The beautiful looking queen seated on a decorated chair is dressed in antariya, a sort of lehenga tied to body at her waist. She has an uttariya (duppatta) the upper garment made of fine material.

She is adorned with several pearl neck-laces (mukthavali), ornamental pearl -bracelets on wrists (valaya), on upper arm (keyura).She wear rings (angulya) on her fingers, and anklets (nupura) round her ankles.

Her hairstyle is elaborate and made into a bun at the nape. Her hair is adorned with flowers, jewels and a tiara.

[Note: Btw, the bodice or blouse is a late entry into the Indian notion of dress. The aristocracy, the ladies of position, and queens of vey ancient India did not usually use a bodice or blouse (as you can see from ancient frescos at Ajanta etc). The women in orthodox families,   engaged in religious duties too did not use one such. But , somehow the chambermaids , the  female attendants on the king and the queen,  were required to wear a bodice –  Kanchuka , a  long narrow scarf, which did not require much tailoring. The chambermaids were therefore, generally, designated Kanchuki (कंचुकी) – as in the old Sanskrit dramas of 2nd century BCE.

The Buddhist nuns were, usually, allowed to use three pieces of cloth: samghati (for lower part), antarvasaka (for the upper part) and uttarasanga (covering garment, in cold season). Kanchuka or bodice was allowed to young nuns.

Some say that wearing a blouse or jacket came into vogue after the entry of Scythians, Kushanas and such others who hailed from cold regions. And, it became fashionable during the Muslim period. The northern influences took some time to percolate down to  the orthodox Deep South.]

Queens’s maids

The queen had several maids, and each had her function. Their dresses, styles and ornaments too varied accordingly.

Court lady or a sort of superintend over queen’s quarters

She is a rather stern looking lady with her hair neatly done and decorated with a tiara (makuta).She has wheel-like large ear–rings (kundala), a strand of pearls across her neck (haravsti) and a twisted wire necklace.

Maid servant

She carries a fly-whisk (chauri). She wears a short lower garment tucked in under her belt (mekhala) and perhaps a choli too. She is modestly adorned with a strand of pearls round her neck (haravsti), an armlet (keyura) and a bracelet (valaya).She has simple ear-rings. Her hair is drawn back into one plait with few curls on her fore head.

Another maid servant has a simple skirt with a draw-string (nada) and a breast-band (prathidhi). She has an armlet (valaya) , large ear-rings (kndala) . Her hair is worn loose and long. She carries a palm-leaf fan.

There was an Ayah (nanny) type of maid too. She wore a long sleeved tunic and covered her head. She had large ear-ring (kundala) and a simple chain (hara).

Dancing girl

The dancer who entertains the queen has an apron-front dress with long sleeves. Her lehanga (antariya) is short with patterned stripes. She perhaps has a choli too. She is well decorated with strands of pearls (muthavali), bangles and brace-lets (valaya), elaborate ear-rings (kanchana kundala) and a tiara (makuta).

For hair-style, she wears a large bun on her nape; she is adorned with flowers, several strands of pearls and chains, held in position by broaches.

Another dancer is clad in a sari-like garment and a full sleeved upper garment. She has a simple twisted sash round her waist. She is adorned with a necklace (hara),a row of bangles (valaya)on her left wrist, ear rings (kundala)and a set of heavy rings(nupura)  round her ankles. Her hair style is a chaplet of leaves.


Widows are to be shown with grey hair, wearing white clothes.

She wears a sari –like garment fully covering. Her ornaments are modest; with a string around her neck, simple brace-let and ear-rings. Her gray hair is drawn back in a knot.

Female Guard

The female security guard  in queen’s quarters  was well covered with a knee-length tunic having long sleeves. Below that she wore another garment reaching up to her ankles.

Her hair was drawn back tightly. She wore a simple neck-lace (hara) bracelet (valaya) and a heavy –twisted sash round her waist. She wore heavy anklets (nupura).

She carried along sphere and an embossed shield.. She appeared to be a mixture of indigenous and foreign styles.

3. Musicians

Musicians, dancers and those in their party entertaining the royal couple should wear gorgeous dresses.

The dancer, usually, has a long garment from his waist down to ankles. He is heavily ornamented with rows of neck-laces and jewellery around his arms, wrists and around the waist. He has an ornamented head gear too.


4. Heralds

Heralds should be drawn tawny and squint-eyed, carrying staffs in their hands.

A Herald is often shown in calf-length tunic with pointed ends; and with trousers narrow and clinging to legs. He also had a sash round his waist. He is not shown with jewellery; but holds a staff.


He has an ankle length tunic and a long sleeved upper garment. A round cap with border and a plume sits on his head .

5. Bards

Bards should have a resplendent dress. Their look should be directed upward and the veins on their neck should be shown.

6. The doorkeeper

Door-keepers should be shown with a sword hanging by his side. He holds a staff in his hand; he should not look mild. His dress should not be too conspicuous.

He has a coat made in kachcha (Gujarat) style; and turban with twisted clothing. He holds in his hands a sphere and a shield. There is perhaps a sword hanging by hid waist-band.

7. Sage

Sages, emaciated yet full of splendour should be represented with long stresses of hair clustered on top of their head, with a black antelope –skin as upper garment.

8. Priest

Priests should be represented with white garments, and emitting splendour.


A priest was shown wearing a dothi type of garment and an upper garment (uttariya) thrown across his left shoulder. He had a simple string round his neck. His hair was tied in a top-knot.

9. Commander

The commander of an army should be represented as strong , proud and tall, with big head, powerful chest; fleshy shoulders , hand and neck; firm hips,; prominent nose , broad chin with eyes raised upward towards sky.

10. Soldiers

Soldiers should generally be painted with frowns on their faces. Foot soldiers should be represented with short and showy uniforms, carrying weapons. They should have arrogant looks.

A foot-soldier wore a short jacket (cholaka) with half-sleeves, covering the chest. The lower garment (antariya) was short above the knee –level and had decorative stripes. He wore long hair and no headgear. He often wore domed caps with bands.  He carried a sphere and a shield.

Another soldier carrying a sword and shield is dressed in a calf-length tunic and a girdle at the waist. He has a disc type ear-ring (kundala). His hair is drawn in large top-knot bun.

11. Archer

Good archers are to be shown with bear legs. Their dress should not be very short and they should wear shoes.

He has a tunic with short sleeves and up to the mid-thigh. He has a wide wrap round his waist (kavabandh); an elaborate turban with top-knot; and, has earrings.

12. Elephant riders

Elephant raiders should have swarthy complexion. Their hair should be tied in a knot. They should wear ornaments as well.

It is said the foot soldiers and elephant-riders in the Gupta army wore a similar uniform. They wore sometimes more resplendent in gold-striped antariya and skull caps or fillets on their heads.

13. Horsemen

Horsemen were shown dressed in coat having pointed collar and floating ribbon ties; baggy trousers up to ankles and wearing dome-cap.


14. Wrestlers

Wrestlers should be drawn with broad shoulders, fleshy neck and lips; with closely cropped hair; and with arrogant and impetuous looks.

15. Elders

The elders and respected people of town and country -side should be painted looking calm, with almost grey hair, adorned with ornaments suitable to their status, wearing white garments; and stooping slightly forward, ready to help.

An elderly gentleman’s hair is arranged in a large top-knot and with turban in a twisted style. He is decorated with elaborate ear-rings , necklaces and bracelets.

16. Merchants

Merchants should be shown with their heads covered on all sides by turban.

A merchant is usually shown in a calf-length tunic (kanchuka) gathered at the neck, with long sleeves. He has a heavy looking and a long cloth (uttariya) thrown across his chest and shoulders. He has waist band too (kavabandh).His turban has a fan shaped frill. He carries a baton like stick.

17. Monk

Buddhist monk (Bhikku) with the lower garment tied at the waist and secured by a girdle. The upper garment is thrown across the left shoulder. He could be shown clean-shaven or with hair.


Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III:  A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making; Second Revised and Enlarged Edition (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

Gupta period [Early Fourth to Mid-Eighth Century AD] –Ancient Indian costume


Sml. Attr Nainsukh, A Troupe of Trumpeters

The following is also by way of  an appendix.

This is about the details provided in Chitrasutra for preparing the wall-surface for  the purpose of painting a mural.

A word of caution ; the instructions detailed here are rather too technical me. And ,  I do not pretend I understand all that is said in the text . That is the reason,  I am posting those details in the form of an appendix.

Preparation of the wall- surface for painting a mural

The text details two methods. It assures that if its recommendations are followed “it (the wall-surface) does not go to ruins even at the end of hundred years.”


A. The wall has to receive a thick coating  of bricks , burnt conches and the like , powdered and mixed with sand; the watery preparation of molasses and drops of the decantation of mudga(phaseolus munga –mung pulse) amounting to a fourth part of the mortar powder.

In to that, smashed ripe banana fruits have to be added, also a fourth part of the amount of the mortar.

After three months, when the mixture is dried, it shall be ground again.

Then it must be mixed once more with molasses-water, until it gets a touch of fresh butter.

In this stage, buffalo-hide has to to be boiled in water, until it becomes soft like butter. The water then has to evaporate and sticks have to be made of the paste and dried in the sunshine.

This hard plaster is called Vajra-lepa (diamond like –paste). If, then boiled in mud vessel with water, it will make any colour fast with which it is mixed. If mixed with white mud, it has to be used as coating for the wall, in three layers, each layer being allowed to dry before the application of the next.

The wall having been cleansed with coconut fibres and having been sprinkled for some time with molasses- water, on this the painting may be applied.

This is the two-fold process by which the wall is made ready for the drawing and application of colours.


B. Brick powder of three kinds has to be mixed with clay, one third part (in amount of the brick powder). Having mixed saffron with oil, one should mix it with gum resin, bees’ wax, liquorices, molasses and mudga preparation in equal parts. One-third part of burnt yellow-inyrobalan should be added therein.

Finally , the astringent made of Bel-tree (Feronica-elephantum) destructive (of all injurious agents) mixed in proportion of two to one should be added and also a portion of sand , proportionate to the amount of the whole.

Then the artist should drench the mixture with moist split pulse dissolved in water. The whole of the moist preparation has to be kept in a safe place for one month. After the moisture has evaporated within a month, one should put this dried, yet still damp, plaster on the wall, having carefully considered everything.

It should be plain, even, well distributed, without ridges or holes, neither too thick nor too thin. Should it look ill-done after having become quite dry , due to shrinkage , then it ought to be carefully smoothened by coatings of plaster made of that clay (as mentioned before) mixed with resin of the sala-tree (shorea-robnsta) and with oil.

It is further made smooth by repeated anointing, constant sprinkling with water and by careful polish. When this wall has promptly dried, it does not go to ruins anywhere even at the end of hundred years.

By this same means various jeweled floors can be made of variegated mixture in two-fold colors.


For a detailed discussion on the subject of Paint grounds and binders according to ancient sutras, please refer to : M. Singh and B.R. Arbad who conducted technological studies on Ajanta painted mortars, write in their in their research paper Ancient Indian painting recipes and mural art technique at Ajanta

 (A) Vishnudharmottara Purana

 For the preparation of paint ground this text prescribes three types of brick dust and three parts of mud mortar to which Guggula (gum or resin), madhu-cchlliioa (bee wax) are added in equal quantity. According to the text all these must be mixed with one third of powdered burnt lime, pulp from bilva (Aegle marmelos) in two to one ratio along with necessary quantity of salt free sand. The text recommends storing this mixture in water mixed with the bark of picchila (a legume, probably Dalbergia sisoo, Bombax heptaphyllum) for one month. An experienced artist removes this mixture from the container and applies it to the wall and allows drying. Particular care has to be observed that this layer is smooth and uniform and neither too thin nor too thick. If the wall that is starting to dry does appear not properly done, then it must be carefully polished to make it uniform with a layer of intonacco (lepna) made up of earth mixed with a juice of oarja (Shorea robusta). The surface is also polished with a fine lamp black (anjana) and repeatedly spread with milk. The text confirms that the wall mortar treated in this way will not deteriorate even after one hundred years. It also says that the same procedures must be followed to prepare various paint grounds.

For the binder, the Vishnudharmottara prescribes the use of decoction of skins (Carmakvatha) which corresponds to famous Vajralepa glue, used in the mixture to cover the surface that act as protective coat. The text provides five different recipes for the preparation of Vajralepa. One of the recipes lists ox or buffalo horns among the ingredients, a buffalo or cow or goat skin mixed with juice of bimbo (Momordica monadelpha) and kapittha (Feronia elephantum).

In Vishnudharmottara the use of binders with vegetable origin is also prescribed. One such recipe is the juice of bakula (Minusops elengi) and sindura (Grislea tomentosa) which are mixed with Carmakvatha.

For protective agent or fixative, the text recommends application of juice of Cynodon dactylon (durva grass) to the finished paintings with the help of cloth soaked in it.

(B) Samaragao Sutradhra

The Samaragao Sutradhara describes very clearly to Vishnudharmottara between the first preparatory layer known as bhumi-bandhana and intonaco, known as Lepkarma. It recommends that juice from various plants, such as Snuhivastuka (Euphoria anti quorum), kuimaoa (a cucurbit, Beninacasa cerifera), kuddali (Bouhina variegata), Opamarga (Achyrantes aspera) and Ikika (Sugarcane sp.) are let to rest for a week and them mixed with the juice of Siaoapa (Dalbergia sisso), Ashoka tree, Nimba (Azadirachta Indica), Triphala (Myrobalan sp.), kuooja (Wrightia antidysenterica) and kaiayaka (Acacia catechu) together with sea salts (about 2%). This mixture is sprayed in previously leveled wall where the painting work has to be undertaken. The juices of these plants are used to wash the wall surface that also probably works as insecticides.

Some of the fine earth is mixed with double quantity of sand, to which juice of kakubha (Terminlia arjuna), Maia (seeds of beans or other legumes), oalmali (Salmalia malabarica) and oriphala (Aegle marmelos, bilva or bel tree) in variable proportions are added. The mortar thus prepared by mixing the ingredients are applied to the wall in sufficient quantity to get what has been described as thickness of elephant skin. When the wall is dry it must be washed with care. Whitish lime stone fine powder is mixed with boiled rice and starch in correct proportions and applied three times to the prepared wall.

After the application of first preparatory layer (bhumi-bandhana), neutral colored, red or brown clay collected from different places (such as bank of lotus pond, side of the wall under the roof of tree or along the bank of the river etc.) is applied on the wall. For the third layer, the text says that earth from anthill (free from stone grains) should be added to the juice of Oalmali (Salmalia malabarica), kakubha (Ferninalia arjuna), triphala (myrobalan), chopped betel nuts (Areca catechu, kramukha), bilva pulp (Aegle marmelos, bel tree), horse hair, ox hair, coconut fiber, a certain quantity of rice husk, and double quantity of mud and sand in one to two ratio in respect to mud is applied on the already prepared wall. A further mixture of mud slip and marble dust, gypsum or sugar dust is applied to the mortared ground with a brush. Finally, the mixture of lime putty and wax is applied.

(C) Silpratna

Silpratna is the southern Indian traditions of preparing paint ground with lime based materials. The text prescribes that the mixture of first layer is prepared with lime obtained from conch-shells burnt in wood fire and grounded into powder, mixed with a quarter part of mudga juice (Phaseolus mungo), a quarter parts of sand and molasses and a quarter part of paste of banana burnt in fire. After proper mixing, these are stored for three months, after which it is grounded in the form of a mortar with molasses until it has the consistency of fresh butter. In the meantime, the wall is first leveled and polished with coconut coir brush. It is then tampered with molasses water to keep it wet for at least a day. The lime mortar prepared as above slowly applied layer by layer to the wall so that the surface becomes smooth and uniform. While intanaco application is under progress water must be sprayed on to the surface using coconut coir brush. For the preparation of upper preparatory layer, powdered shells or white earth fine powder mixed with kapittha (Feronia elephantum) and nimba (Azardirachta Indica) is applied to the wall. This compound must be applied using the bark of ookooa (Trophis aspera) tree or with a brush made up with the stem of ketaki plant (Pundunus odoratissimus) plant until the wall becomes smooth and polished. The same powdered lime having been moistened with the milk of a tender coconut is again grounded and diluted with hot water and applied again to the intonaco as described above.


The authors conclude:

Although ancient Indian painting text were written after Ajanta, it is worthwhile to explore where what is written in the text are in consonance with the technique employed at Ajanta

Analysis of mud mortars and its composition reveals that there are no changes either in composition or technology of preparation of mud mortar and execution technique of murals at Ajanta supporting the short chronology. The investigation showed that the organic binder has invariably been used in the preparation of mud mortar of Ajanta in accordance with ancient text which might have now transformed into calcium oxalate, observed through FTIR images. The mortar is also found mixed with organic additives such as rice husk, plant fibers and seeds for re-enforcement. With minor variations, almost similar technology was used for the preparation of mud mortar and pigment layers were also found mixed with organic binder and sometimes with kaolin as per ancient text. With minor modification, the technique of painting at Ajanta remained almost identical and the pigments used are always natural mineral colors. All the pigments are of local origin except lapis lazuli which was probably imported from Persian countries through trade on silk route. The studies are of great importance in planning future conservation measures of Ajanta murals and understanding of execution technique.




References and sources

Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana by Parul Dave Mukherji

Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III:  A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making; Second Revised and Enlarged Edition; (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

M. Singh and B.R. Arbad who conducted technological studies on Ajanta painted mortars,  in their research paper Ancient Indian painting recipes and mural art technique at Ajanta


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Who were the Vratyas – the searching wanderers?

[This article attempts to trace the meaning that the term Vratya acquired  at various stages in the unfolding of Indian history; and, wonders how well that meaning mirrored the state of Indian society at that  given stage.]

Every civilization has certain unique features, which differentiate it from the rest. Indian civilization is distinguished by its resilience; continuity with change; and its diversity. The composite fabric of Indian civilization is woven with strands and shades of varying textures and hues.

Rig Veda repeatedly refers to the composite character of its society and to its pluralistic population. It mentions the presence of several religions, cults and languages; and calls upon all persons to strive to become noble parts of that pluralistic society.

The pluralistic character of that society was characterized not merely by its composition but also by the divergent views held by its thinkers. There were non -conformists and dissenters even among the Vedic philosophers. In addition, there were individuals and groups who were outside the pale of the Vedic fold; and who practiced, the pre-Vedic traditions; and rejected the validity of the Vedas and its rituals.

The prominent among such dissenters and rebels were the Vratyas. They were an atrociously heterogeneous community; and defied any definition. Even to this day, the meaning of the term Vratya is unclear; and is variously described. The amazing community of the Vratyas included magicians, medicine men, shamans, mystics, materialists, vagrant or mendicant (pari-vrajaka), wandering madmen, roaming- footloose warriors, mercenaries, fire eaters, poison swallowers , libidinous pleasure seekers and wandering swarm of austere ascetics.

Some of them were violent and erotic; while some others were refined and austere; and a lot others were just plain crazy. It was a random assortment of nuts and gems.

[ Even in the later times , Vratya was used as derogatory term. For instance ; in the Drona parva of the Mahabharata (14.1-15) the Vrishni-s and Andhaka-s were branded Vratyas – uncouth and uncultured.]

The Rig Veda mentions Vratyas about eight times (e.g. 3:26:6; 5:53:11; 5:75:9; 9:14:2); and five groups of the Vratyas are collectively called pancha-vrata (10:34:12). The Atharva Veda (15th kanda) devotes an entire hymn titled vratya- suktha to the “mystical fellowship” of the Vratyas. The Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas too talk about Vratyas; and describe a sacrifice called Vratya-stoma, which is virtually a purification ritual.

The Rig Veda, generally, employs the term Vratya  to denote: breakaway group or an inimical horde or a collection of men of indefinite number; living in temporary settlements. The Atharva- Veda too, uses the word in the sense of a stranger or a guest or one who follows the rule; but, treats it with a lot more respect. Apparently, the perceptions changed a great deal during the intervening period.

The Jaiminiya Brahmana (2:222) describes  Vratyas   as ascetics roaming about themselves in an intoxicated state. The Tandya (24:18) however addresses them as divine-Vratyas (daiva vai vratyah). The Vajasaneyi-samhita refers to them as physicians and as guardians of truth. They seem to have been a community of ascetics living under a set of strange religious vows (Vrata).

Interestingly, Shiva –Rudra is described as Eka –Vratya* (AV celebrating the glory of one- hundred – and- eight forms of Rudra hails Rudra as Vrata-pathi, the chief of the Vratyas (TS.

[ The Atharva-veda (AV: 5. 1-7) speaks of seven attendants of the exalted Eka Vratya, the Vratya par excellence  : Bhava of the intermediate space in the East;  Sarva in the South; Pashupathi in the West; Ugra of the North; Rudra of the lower region; Mahadeva of the upper region ; Asani of  lightening ; and, Ishana of all the intermediate regions. It is said; though they are named differently they in truth are the varying manifestations of the one and the same Eka Vratya. While Rudra, Sarva, Ugra and Asani are the terrifying aspects, the other four: Bhava , Pashupathi a, Mahadeva and Ishana are peaceful aspects.

Of these, Bhava and Sarva by virtue of their rule over sky and earth protect the devote against calamities, contagious diseases and poisonous pollution.]

[*  However, Dr.RC Hazra in his work Rudra in the Rg-veda (page 243) remarks that Eka-Vratya is to be identified with Prajapathi ; and , not with Rudra,  as some scholars think.]

The Atharva Veda (15.2.a) makes a very ambiguous statement: “Of him in the eastern quarter, faith is the harlot, Mitra the Magadha, discrimination is the garment, etc…..” in the southern quarter Magadha is the mantra of the Vratya; in the other two quarters Magadha is the laughter and the thunder of the Vratya. (Mitra, maAtm, hasa and stanayitnii).  It is not clear what this statement implies. But it is taken to mean that the Magadha tribes were friends, advisers and thunder (strong supporters) of the Vratyas.

The implication of this is rather interesting. The breakaway group from among the Vedic people (including the pre Vedic tribes), that is, the Vratyas left their mainland and roamed over to the East; and ultimately settled in the regions of Magadha, where they found friends and supporters. The reason for that friendly reception appears to be that the Magadha tribes in Eastern India were not in good terms with the Vedic people in the Indus basin; and saw no difficulty in accommodating the Vratyas. And, more importantly, the Magadhas did not follow or approve the Vedic religion; and they, too, just as the Vratyas, were against the rites, rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic community.

The Vedic people too did not seem to regard the Brahman of the Magadha region. They were considered not true Brahmins, but only Brahmins by birth or in name (brahma-bandhu Magadha-desiya)- (Latyayana Srauta sutra .8.6)

The Vratyas roamed about, mostly, in the regions to the East and North-west of the Madhyadesha, that is, in the countries of Magadha and Anga .They spoke the dialect of Prachya, the source of the languages of Eastern India. It is also said ; the Vratyas  also spoke  the language of the initiated (dlksita-vac) , though not themselves initiated (a-dtksita), but as’ calling that which is easy to utter (a-durukta)t difficult to utter ‘ (Panchavimsa Brahmana, 17.1.9) .This may mean that the Vratyas were familiar and comfortable both in Sanskrit and Prakrit.

They lived alone or in groups, away from populated areas. They followed their own cult-rules and practices. They drifted far and wide; roamed from the Indus valley to banks of the Ganga. They were the wandering seekers.

[According to Mahamahopadhyay Haraprasad Sastri,the vast territory to the South of the Ganga and North of the Vindhya ranges extending from Mudgagiri (Monghyr) in the East to the Charanadri (Chunar) in the West was called the land of Magadha tribes. The Anga region was around Bhagalpur area.]

The Kesi-suktha  of Rig Veda (10:13:6); Latyayana –sruta-sutra (8.6-7); Bahudayana –sruta- sutra (26.32); Panchavimsati Brahmana (17. 1.9-15) and vratya- suktha of Atharva Veda (15th kanda), provide graphic descriptions of these magis, the Vratyas.  These descriptions put together project a truly impressive, colorful and awe-inspiring image of the wandering Vratyas.

They were distinguished by their black turbans (krishnam ushnisham dharayanti) worn in a slanting manner (LSS 8.6-7); a white blanket thrown across the shoulders(BSS 26.32);  displaying long matted hair (kesi); a set of round ornaments for the ears (pravartau); jewels (mani) hanging by the neck;  rows of long necklaces of strange beads swinging across the chest ; two (dvi) deer-skins tied together for lower garment, and sandals  of black hide , with flaps, for the feet (upanahau); carrying a lance (Pra-toda) , bow (AV 15.2.1)  and a goad (pratoda) ; and , riding a rickety   chariot / cart  ,with planks ( amargagamirthah) tied together with strings,   suitable for rough roads (vipatha) drawn by a  horse or a mule (LSS 8:6,10-11).The Vipatha was said in greater use in Eastern regions (Prachyartha). 

Panchavimsati Bralhmana (17.1.9-15) further states that the Vratya   leader (Grhapati) wore a turban (Usnisa), carried a whip (Pratoda), a kind of bow (Jyahroda*), was clothed in a black {krsnasa) garment and two skins (Ajina), black and white (krisna-valaksa), and owned a rough wagon (Viratha) covered with planks (phalakastirna). He also wore garment lined of silver coins (Niska). His shoes were black and pointed.

[* The descriptions of the Jya-hroda, a sort of arms carried by the Vratya, occur in the Pancavimsa Brahmana (17.1.14) as also in the Katyayana (22.4.2) and Latyayana (8.6.8) Sutras. It is described as a ‘bow not meant for use’ (ayogya’ dhanus); and also as a ‘bow without an arrow’ (dhanushka anisu). It obviously was a decorative-piece meant to enhance the impressive look of the Chief.]

And, the others, subordinate to the leader, had garments with fringes of red (valukantani damatusam) , two fringes on each, skins folded double (dvisamhitany ajinani), and footwear (Upanah).

Vratyas used a peculiar type of reclining seats (asandi)

Vratya Asandi

[A-sandi is a generic term for a seat of some sort, occurring frequently in the later Samhitas and Brahmanas, but not in the Rig-Veda.  In the Atharvaveda (AV. 15.3.2) the settle brought for the Vratya is described at length. It had two feet, lengthwise and cross-pieces, forward and cross-cords. It had a seat (Asada) covered with a cushion (Astarana) and a pillow (Upabarhana), and a support (Upasraya).

The Satapatha Brahmana (Sat.Brh. describesthe Asandi as an elaborate seat. It is said to be made of Khadira wood, perforated (vi-trinna), and joined with straps (vardhra-yukta) . It perhaps meant a long reclining chair/ rest.]

They moved among the warriors (yaudhas), herdsmen and farmers.  They did not care either for the rituals or for initiations (adhikshitah); and not at all for celibacy (Na hi brahmacharyam charanthi).They did not engage themselves in agriculture (Na krshim) or in trade (Na vanijyam). They behaved as if they were possessed (gandharva grithaha) or drunk or just mad.

The scholars generally believe, what has come down to us as Tantra is, in fact, a residue of the cult-practices of the Vratyas. The Tantra, even to this day, is considered non-Vedic, if not anti-Vedic.

The Atharva Veda (Vratya Kanda) mentions that Vratyas were also a set of talented composers and singers. They found they could sing a lot better—and probably hold the notes longer—if they practiced what they called pranayama, a type of breath control. They even attempted relating their body-structure to that of the universe. They learnt to live in harmony with nature. There is, therefore, a school of thought, which asserts, what came to be known as Yoga in the later periods had its roots in the ascetic and ecstatic practices of the Vratyas. And, the Vratyas were, therefore, the precursors of the later ascetics and yogis.

It is said, the theoretical basis for transformation of cult-practices into a system (Yoga) was provided by the Samkhya School. Tantra thus yoked Samkhya and Yoga. Over a long period, both Samkhya and Yoga schools merged with the mainstream and came to be regarded as orthodox (asthika) systems, as they both accepted the authority of the Vedas. Yet, the acceptance of Samkhya and Yoga within the orthodox fold seemed rather strained and with some reservation, perhaps because the flavor -the sense of their non-Vedic origin rooted in the Vratya cult practices of pre  Vedic period –  still lingers on.

The German Indologist Jakob Wilhelm Hauer (1881 –1962) – who had made the beginnings of Yoga in India the theme for his doctor’s thesis –   in his Der Yoga als Heilweg (Yoga as a way of salvation) traces the origin of Yoga to the wandering groups of the Vratyas.

JW Hauer, who represented the leading commentators on Eastern thought in the days of CG Jung, mentions that many of the groups that had roots in the Vratya tradition (such as: Jaiminiyas, Kathas, Maitrayaniyas and Kausitakins) were eventually absorbed into the orthodox fold. He also remarks that Chandogya and Svetasvatara Upanishads are closer in spirit to the Vratya- Samkhya ideologies.

It is the Svetasvaratara Upanishad which declares Rudra as the Supreme, matchless and one without a second – eko hi rudro na dvitiiyaaya tasthu– SV.3.2. It establishes Rudra as the Absolute, the ultimate essence, not limited by forms and names – na tasya pratima asti yasya nama mahadyasha – SV.4.19)  ]

The Samkhya school, in its earlier days, was closely associated two other heterodox systems, i.e., Jainism and Buddhism. In a historical perspective, Samkhya-Yoga and Jainism – Buddhism were derived from a common nucleus that was outside the Vedic tradition. And, that nucleus was provided by the Vratya movement.

Interestingly, Arada Kalama, the teacher of Gotama who later evolved in to the Buddha, belonged to Samkhya School. Gotama had a teacherfrom the Jain tradition too; he was Muni Pihitasrava a follower of Parsvanatha. The Buddha later narrated how he went around naked, took food in his palms and observed various other rigorous restrictions expected of a Sramana  ascetic. The Buddha followed those practice for some time and gave them up, as he did not find merit in extreme austerities.  The Buddha, the awakened one, was a Yogi too. His teachings had elements of old-yoga practices such as askesis (self- discipline), control, restraint, release and freedom. The early Buddhism, in fact, preserved the Yogi – ideal of Nirvana.

Thus, the development of religions and practices in Eastern regions of India, in the early times, was inspired and influenced – directly or otherwise – by the Vratyas.

The contribution of the Vratyas, according to my friend DSampath, was that they gave a very time and space based approach to the issues.  They were the initial social scientists with rationality as the anchor, he says.

Some of the characteristics of the Vratya-thought found a resonant echo in Jainism and Buddhism. Just to mention a few: Man and his development is the focal interest; his effort and his striving is what matters, and not god’s grace; the goal of human endeavor is within his realm; a man or a woman is the architect of one’s own destiny ; and there is nothing supernatural about his goals and his attainments. There was greater emphasis on contemplation, introspection, pratikramana (back-to-soul),; and a deliberate shift away from  exuberant rituals and sacrifices seeking health, wealth and happiness.

The Vratya was neither a religion, nor was it an organized sect. It was a movement seeking liberation from the suffocating confines of the establishment and searching for a meaning to life and existence. The movement phased out when it became rather irrelevant to the changed circumstances and values of its society.  The Vratyas, the searching wanderers, the rebels of the Rig Vedic age, faded in to the shadowy corners of Vedic religion, rather swiftly; yet they left behind a lingering influence on other systems of Indian thought.


The Jain tradition claims that it existed in India even from pre- Vedic times and remained unaffected by the Vedic religion. It also says, the Jain religion was flourishing, especially in the North and Eastern regions of India, during the Vedic times.

Because of the basic differences in their tenets and practices, the two traditions opposed each other. As a part of that ongoing conflict, certain concepts and practices appreciated by one religion were deprecated by the other. The term Vratya was one such instance.

The term Vratya has a very long association with Jainism; and its connotation in Jainism is astonishingly different from the one implied in the Vedic tradition where it is employed to describe an inimical horde. On the other hand, Vratya in Jainism is a highly regarded and respected term. The term Vratya, in the Jaina context, means the observer of vratas or vows. Thus, while the Vedic community treated the Vratyas as rebels and outcasts, the tribes in the eastern regions hailed Vratyas as heroes and leaders (Vratya Rajanya).

The Vedic and the Jain traditions both glorify certain Kings who also were great religious Masters. In the Hindu tradition, Lord Rsabha – son of King Nabhi and Merudevi, and the ancestor of Emperor Bharata (after whom this land was named Bharatavarsha) is a very revered figure. The Rig Veda and Yajur Veda, too, mention Rishabhadeva and Aristanemi. According to the Jain tradition Rishabhadeva is the first Tirthankara of the present age (avasarpini); and, Aristanemi is the twenty-second Tirthankara.

The Jain tradition refers to Rishabhadeva as Maha-Vratya, to suggest he was the great leader of the Vratyas.

Further, the Mallas, in the northern parts of the present-day Bihar, with their capital at  the city of Kusavati or Kusinarawere a brave and warlike people; and were one of the earliest independent republics (Samgha). The Jaina Kalpasutra refers to nine Mallakis as having formed a league with nine Lichchhavis, and the eighteen Ganarajas of Kasi-Kos’ala.They were also said to be  a part of a confederation of eight republics (atthakula )  until they were vanquished and absorbed into the Magadha Empire, at about the time of the Buddha. The Mallas were mentioned as Vratya – Kshatriyas.

Similarly, their neighboring tribe, the Licchhavis who played a very significant role in the history and development of Jainism were also called as the descendants of Vratya-Kshatriyas. Mahavira was the son of a Licchhavi princess; and he had a considerable following among the Licchhavi tribe. In the Jaina Kalpa Sutra, Tris’ala, the sister of  Chetaka – the Lichchhavi chief of Vesali, is styled Kshatriyani  .

The Buddha too visited Licchhavi on many occasions; and had great many followers there. The Licchhavis were closely related by marriage to the Magadhas.

The Buddhist tradition has preserved the names of eminent Lichchhavis like prince Abhaya, Otthaddha, Mahali, general Siha, Dummukha and Sunakkhatta. The Mallas , like the Lichchhavis, were ardent champions of Buddhism. In the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta they are sometimes called Vasetthas

Pundit Sukhlalji explains,  the two ethnic groups of ‘Vratva’ and ‘Vrsala’ followed non-Vedic tradition; and both believed in non‑violence and austerities.  He suggests that both the Buddha and Mahavira were Kshatriyas of Vrsala group. He also remarks that the Buddha was known as ‘Vrsalaka’.

It is not surprising that the Licchhavi, Natha and Malla clans of Eastern India proved fertile grounds for sprouting of non-Vedic religions such as Jainism and Buddhism.

Thus, both Buddhism and Jainism were in tune with  the philosophic atmosphere prevailing in Magadha, around sixth century BC. Apart from his philosophical principles, the Buddha’s main contribution was his deprecation of severe asceticism in all religions and acceptance of a sensible and a rational approach to life.

The nucleus for development of those non Vedic religion was, reputedly, the ideas and inspiration derived for the Vratya movement.


In the mean time Vedic perception of Vratyas had undergone a dramatic sea- change.

Latyayana –sruta-sutra (8.6.29) mentions that after performing Vratya-homa the Vratya should Tri-vidya-vrti the threefold commitment to study of Vedas, participating in the performance of Yajnas; and giving and accepting gifts. These three were the traditional ways of the priestly class.

Apasthamba (ca. 600 BCE), the Lawgiver and the celebrated mathematician who contributed to development of Sulbasutras, refers to Vratya as a learned mendicant Brahmin, a guest (athithi) who deserves to be welcomed and treated with respect. Apasthamba, in support of that, quotes sentences to be addressed by the host to his guest from the passages in Atharva Veda (15:10 -13).

According to Atharva Veda, Vratya is a srotriya, a student of the scriptures, (of at least one recession), and a learned person  (Vidvan) faithful to his vows (vratas). In summary, the passages ask:

” Let the king , to whose house the Vratya who possesses such knowledge comes as a guest , honor him as superior to himself, disregarding his princely rank or his kingdom.

Let him, to whose house the Vratya possessing such knowledge comes as a guest, rise up of his own accord to meet him, and say “Vratya, where didst thou pass the night? Vratya, here is water; let it refresh thee .Vratya let it be as thou pleasest. Vratya, as thy wish is so let be it done.”

[From Hymns of the Atharva Veda, by Ralph T.H. Griffith…Hymn x and xi of Book 15]

[ tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tyo rājñó ’tithir gṛhān āgáchet  // – 15.10.1

Śréyāmsam enam ātmáno mānayet táthā kṣatrāya  nā ́ vṛścate táthā rāṣṭrāya nā ́ vṛścate // -1510.2

tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tya úddhṛteṣv agníṣu ádhiśrite agni hotré ’tithir gṛhān āgáchet // – 1`5.12.1

tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tya ékāṁ  rā ́trim átithir gṛhé vásati  / yé pṛthivyā ́ṁ púnyā lokā ́s tān evá ténā ́va runddhe// — 15.13.1 ]

There is, thus, a gulf of difference between the perception of the early and later Vedic periods. This amazing transformation seems to have come about as a result of sustained and successful contacts between the Upanishads and the systems of Samkhya and Yoga. There was a healthy interaction between the two streams of the Indian tradition. The Samkhya-Yoga ideas found a place in the Upanishads. At the same time, the Upanishads brought its impact on Buddhism and Jainism. The savants of orthodox tradition such as Kumarila Bhatta (ca.6th century AD) accepted the Buddhist schools as authoritative because they had their roots in the Upanishads. (Tantra vartika)

The ideologies of the two traditions moved closer during the period of Upanishads. It was a period of synthesis.


The term Vratya acquired a totally different meaning by the time of the Dharma Shastras. Manu Smruti (dated around third or second century BCE) states that, if after the last prescribed period, the twice-born remain uninitiated, they become Vratyas, fallen from Savitri. (Manusmriti: verse II.39)

Manusmriti (verse X.20)  also informs that those whom the twice-born  ( Brahmin , Kshatriya and Vaishya ) beget from  wives of equal caste, but who, not fulfilling their sacred duties, are excluded from the Savitri (initiation), must also designate by the appellation Vratyas.

The samskara of initiation or upanayana (ceremony of the thread) was considered essential for the dvijas (the twice-born). Manusmriti mentions the recommended age for upanayana and for commencing the studies. It also mentions the age before which these should take place.

In the eighth year after conception, one should perform the initiation (Upanayana ceremonies of sacred thread) of a Brahmana, in the eleventh year after conception (that) of a Kshatriya, but in the twelfth year that of a Vaisya. (MS: II.36)

The initiation of a Brahmana who desires proficiency in sacred learning should take place in the fifth year after conception, that of a Kshatriya who wishes to become powerful in the sixth, and that of a Vaisya who longs for success in his business in the eighth.(Ms: II.37)

The time for the Savitri initiation of a Brahmana does not pass until the completion of the sixteenth year (after conception), of a Kshatriya until the completion of the twenty-second, and of a Vaisya until the completion of the twenty-fourth. (MS: II.38)

After those (periods men of) these three (castes) who have not received the sacrament at the proper time, become Vratyas (outcastes), excluded from the Savitri (initiation) (MS. II.39)

garbhāṣṭame’bde kurvīta brāhmaasyaupanāyanam | 
garbhādekādaśe rājño garbhāt tu dvādaśe viśa || 36 ||

brahmavarcasakāmasya kāryo viprasya pañcame | 
rājño balārthina aṣṭhe vaiśyasyaihārthino’ṣṭame || 37 ||

ā odaśād brāhmaasya sāvitrī nātivartate | 
ā dvāviśāt katrabandhorā caturviśaterviśa || 38 ||

ata ūrdhva trayo’pyete yathākālamasask | 
sāvitrīpatitā vrātyā bhavantyāryavigarhitā || 39 ||

Oddly, the insistence on upanayana and making it compulsory seems to have come into vogue in the post-Upanishad period. During the Atharvana period, initiation was regarded as second-birth; and was associated with commencement of studies or as a requirement for performing a sacrifice. The significance of the second birth in the Vedic time was, therefore, largely, religious and not social. Not everyone was required to obtain the Upanayana samskara. The upanayana was a voluntary ceremony for those who wished to study or perform a sacrifice.

It was only after the Grihya-sutras crystallized, upanayana turned into a samskara, as a recognition of ones position in the social order.Some scholars , however , suggest, Vratya does not necessarily denote a person who has not undergone upanayana samskara; but, it refers to one who does not offer Soma sacrifice or keep the sacred fire(agnihotra).


 [ Dr. Ananat Sadashiv Altekar  ( 1898-1960)- who was the Professor and Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture at Banaras Hindu University –  (in his Education in Ancient India, 1934) explains that it was in the times of the Upanishads that the Upanayana ceremony gained greater importance. Upanayana literally meant taking a young boy to a teacher in order to hand him over to the latter for his education in the Vedas.  Thus, the Upanayana occasion  marked the entry of a student, as an inmate (Antevasin), into Guru-kula to pursue Vedic studies. The Upanayana was thus primarily linked to pursuit of studies; and, it was not compulsory for all.

And, again, an Upanayana had to be performed every time a student approached a new teacher; or, when he embarked upon a new branch of study. Dr. Altekar mentions that there were occasions when even married men had to undergo Upanayana while approaching a renowned teacher for learning a new subject (Br. Up.6.2.4). And, such a ceremony that was so often repeated, Dr. Altekar opines, could not have been an elaborate one. It was, by its very nature, a domestic and simple performance. The student had to approach the Teacher, holding the sacred fuel (Samitt), and indicating his complete willingness to learn and to serve the Teacher, as also to tend his sacred Agni-s (Ch.Up.6.5.5 and 5.11.7; and Mu. Up. 1.2.12).

An ardent young student entering a new phase of life after Upanayana was said to be born a second time – Dvija. (A similar notion of a ‘second-birth’ came into vogue in Buddhism when lay person was admitted into the Sangha)

According to Dr.Altekar,  for several centuries, Upanayana was not regarded as a Samskara ritual. And, it seems to have become a popular Samskara – ceremony only in the later times. In the earlier times, one was called a Vratya if he was not offering Soma sacrifice or if one was not tending to sacred fires. But, in the later times, the one who had not undergone a Upanayana Samskara came to labelled a Vratya. Subsequently, such a Vratya was re-admitted into the orthodox fold (even if his past three ancestors had failed to undergo Upanayana altogether- Vratya pita pitamaho va na Somam priveshya Vratyah – Sri Madhava’s commentary on Parasara Smriti), provided he underwent the purification ritual of Vratya –stoma (Paraskara Grihya Sutra 2.5)

In course of time, Upanayana came to be regarded as an essential bodily Samskara (Sarira samskara) for all the three classes. And, the non-performance of Upanayana would disqualify one from entering into a valid wedlock.

Although Manu prescribed 8th, 11th and 12th year as suitable for performance of the Upanayana for the Brahmana, Kashtriya and Vaishya boys, it was not taken by the later Law-givers as an absolute norm. For instance; Baudhayana considered anytime between 8 and 16 years of age, for all classes, as suitable. The change in the norm perhaps came about because of the change in the conception and the nature of the Upanayana. In the earlier times, Upanayana marked the commencement of Vedic education ; and, therefore, the child had to start learning at a quite young age. But when Upanayana became a bodily Samskara, any age between 8 and 16 was considered good enough. In any case, commencement of  Vedic studies after the age of 16 was discouraged, perhaps because it was thought that the boy’s capacity to absorb and learn a new subject might have by then gone rather slow.]


In any case, during the period of Dharma sastras, those who did not adhere to the prescriptions of the sastras and did not perform the prescribed rites and ceremonies were termed Vratyas.There were, obviously, many people who didn’t bother to follow the rules.

The smritis therefore, provided a provision for purification of the errant persons through a ritual (vratya stoma); and created a window for taking them back into the fold; and for rendering them eligible for all rites and rituals.

[ In the Puranas , the Sisunaga kings are mentioned as Kshattra -bandhus, i. e., Vratya Kshatriyas.]

The object of the entire exercise undertaken by the sastras, seemed to be to build and preserve a social order, according to its priorities .But, in the later periods these smaskaras lost their social significance, entirely. The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.  Even in the religious life, upanayana remained just a routine ritual, often meaningless. Agnihotra vanished almost entirely.

In a way of speaking almost all of us are Vratyas, in terms of the smritis.

[.. Let me digress, here, for a little while.

In the Vedic era, women were initiated into the thread ceremony. It was essential for both sexes who wished to study [Atharva Veda 11.5.18a, Satpatha Brahmana., and Taittariya Brahamana II.3.3.2-3]

Yama, a Law-giver even prior to Manu, upheld education for women, but stipulated the female students should not engage in begging their meals, wearing deer-skins or growing matted hair (as male students might do) [VirS.p.402]

All that changed radically, for worse, during the period of Dharma sastras. The woman lost the high status she once enjoyed in Vedic society. She lost some of her independence.  She became an  object to be protected.

The harsh prescriptions of the Dharma shatras have to be placed in the context of its times, in order to understand why such changes came about.

The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the society. Fear and insecurity haunted the common people and householders.

Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the increased need for fighting males, in order to survive the waves of onslaughts. It was   imperative to protect women from abductors. The then society deemed it advisable to curtail women’s freedom and movements. The practice of early marriage perhaps came in as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority. The Sastras compromised by accepting marriage as a substitute for Upanayana and education. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and insecurity that gripped their lives, had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women .The society in turn sank into depravity.

The Manusmruti and other Dharmasastras came into being at the time when the orthodox society was under dire threat and when it was fighting for survival. The society had entered in to self preservation – mode. The severity of the Dharma Shastras was perhaps a defensive mechanism, in response to the threats and challenges thrown at its society.

Its main concern was preserving the social order and to hold the society together. Though the sastras pointed out the breaches in observance of the prescribed code of behavior, it was  willing to condone the lapses, purify the wayward and naughty; and admit them back into the orthodox fold. Further, It even readily took  under its fold the alien hordes such as Kushans, Yavanas (Ionians or Greeks), Sakas (Scythians) and others; and recognized them as Vratya – Kshatriyas…]


To sum up, Vratya in the early Rig Veda denoted an amorphous collection of heterogeneous groups of pre- Vedic tribes and  the dissenters from among the Vedic community, who rejected the Vedic concepts and extrovert practices of rites, rituals and sacrifices seeking from the gods gifts of health, wealth and glory. The Vratyas turned in to nomads and drifters. The wandering seekers roamed the land and finally settled down in the Magadha region, in the East, where they found acceptance.

The Vratyas appeared to be a set of extraordinarily gifted and talented people, who brought fresh perspectives to life and existence; to the relations between man and nature and between nature and universe. Their innovative ideas spawned the seeds for sprouting of systems of thought such as samkhya and Yoga. Those systems in turn inspired and spurned the movement toward rationalism and man -centered – non Vedic religious systems Jainism and Buddhism.

What the Vratyas did, in effect, was they deliberately moved  away from the extrovert and exuberant rites and rituals; brought focus on man and his relation with the nature and his fellow beings. Their scheme of things was centered round reason (not intuition). They turned the mind inwards, contemplative and meditative.

It is clear that in the ancient times, the two religious systems – one in the Indus valley on the west and the other along the banks of the Ganga in the east- developed and flourished independent of each other. Their views on man – soul –world – god relationships, differed significantly. Because of the basic differences in their tenets and practices, the two traditions opposed each other. They seemed to have even stayed away from each other. That, in a manner, explains why the Saraswathi is referred over fifty times in the Rig Veda, while the Ganga hardly gets mentioned.

Towards the later Vedic era something magical (chamathkar) appears to have taken place. By the time of Atharvana period, the concepts and perceptions of the two traditions seemed to have moved closer.The later Vedic traditions recognized and and accorded Vratyas a place of honor. That was  the result of  sustained and successful contacts between the Upanishads and the systems of Samkhya and Yoga; and the impact that Upanishads brought  on Buddhism and Jainism. It was the age of understanding and  synthesis.

The interaction between the two systems heightened during the period of the Buddha and Mahavira. In the later centuries, the texts of the orthodox school (e.g. Brahma sutras, Yoga Sutra, Panini’s grammar, Anu Gita etc.) devoted more attention and space for discussing the Buddhist principles, especially the theories relating to cognition.

The shift towards East was symbolized by the transfer of the intellectual capital of ancient  India from Takshashila (Taxila) to Pataliputra (Patna) and Nalanda, when Taxila was overrun by the invading Persians (third century BCE).That provided an impetus not merely for fresh activity within the orthodox schools , but also for greater interaction with the heterodox religions.

Both the traditions inspired, influenced and enriched each other over the centuries; absorbing and complementing each other’s principles and practices; and finally synthesizing into that fabulous composite culture, the Indian culture.

That synthesis was symbolized when the post Vedic tradition hailed and worshipped its god Ganapathy with the joyous chant Namo Vratapataye – salutations to the chief of the Vratyas.( Ganapaty-atharva-shirsha)

The Dharmasastras mark a period of degeneration in the orthodox society, as it reeled under the onslaught of hordes of successive invaders and plunderers. The concerns of security and survival took precedence over innovation, development and expansion. It became an inward looking society seeking for right answers and remedies to preserve its form and structure. It’went in to a self-preservation mode. Its society metamophasized and shrank into a pupa:  cautious and ultra conservative.

Vratya then meant someone naughty and unmanageable ( It appears , it is only the Marathi language that still retains such meaning of the term). Yet, the society could ill afford to abandon him to his whims and wayward manners. It was willing to pardon, purify and welcome him back in to its fold, clasping him dearly to its bosom. It was ready to accept even   the foreigners as its own.For instance ;  the medieval Rajput families descended from immigrant races from West in the distant past were treated Vratya-Kshatriyas ; and given pedigrees going back to Rama, Yadu, Arjuna and such other heroes of the mythologies

Thereafter, for a long period of time, the term Vratya went off the radar screen of the Indian religious life; because the samskaras and their associated disciplines had lost their sanctity and significance.

The only other occasions when Vratya came in to play , were in the context of the vratya stoma purifying ceremonies.

*.Vratya stoma ceremonies were performed before anointment and coronation of kings, in the middle ages. For instance, Shivaji went through Vratya stoma and upanayana ceremonies, on May 29, 1674, before he was crowned.(For details , please refer to Malhar Ramarao Chitnis – Siva chatrapathiche charitra Ed by K N Sane , 1924 – based on the reprorts of eyewitnesses and court officials )

*. Even as late as in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Hindus returning from foreign lands were purified through Vratya stoma.

*.Dr. S. Radhakrishnan stated that individuals and tribes were absorbed in to Hinduism through vratyastoma.(The Hindu View of Life)

*.Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami cites many instances of people forcibly converted to other faiths  re -admitted to Hinduism and issued Vratya stoma certificates.


At each stage in the evolution of Indian History, Vratya was accorded a different meaning; and that meaning amply mirrored the state of Indian society at that stage.

The obscure term Vratya, in a strange manner, epitomizes and conceals in its womb the tale of unfolding of Indian thought through the ages.


Sources and references:

 Early Indian Thought by prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

‘The Path of Arhat: A Religious Democracy’ by Justice T. U. Mehta

Jaina Tradition and Buddhism:

Rsabha in the Atharvaveda by Dr. Satya Pal Narang

Mention of Magadha in Vedic Literature

SanatanaDharma –sources

Sanathana Dharma – Vratya

Hymns of the Atharva Veda, by Ralph T.H. Griffith…Hymn x and xi of Book 15

Does Hinduism Accept Newcomers? Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami


Posted by on September 13, 2012 in History, Indian Philosophy, Rigveda, Vratya


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Oral Traditions

Oral Traditions

1. The essence of all religions and spiritual paths has come down to us mainly through oral traditions. It was passed on from generation to generation by speaking or singing them to one another, to their children and to their children’s children. The traditions were safeguarded, kept alive and revitalized by the teacher or the story teller or the singing minstrel.

1.1. Besides carrying the core of the doctrine, the oral tradition was luscious with song, poetry, myth, parable and wonder. These appeared to have had a more lasting and a stronger impact than did the codes, dogmas and the formal texts. Consequently, the great stories have become a part our collective- psyche.

2. Let’s take a look at the other worlds before we reach the classical oral traditions of India.

2.1. In the western world, most people, regardless of their religious affiliations, are familiar with the events in the life of Jesus – his forty days  in the desert; or changing water in to wine; or his last supper and his crucifixion. Similarly, the events in the life of the historical Buddha are also well known. His life as a prince shielded from harsh realities of life; his renunciation; his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree; his perambulations teaching Dharma and his death have been celebrated in song, dance and visuals.

2.2. The stories of the great ones bring alive, to us, their teachings and traditions. Jesus, in turn, used parables as vehicles to convey his message. His parables were simple stories that brought his tenets closer to the lives of ordinary men and women. The Buddha too had earlier employed such teaching methods.

2.3. Tibetan Buddhism, in contrast, has a more interesting and a complex method of storytelling. The Termas  of the Tibetan Buddhism  are, in fact, texts in disguise .They are the stories of wonder and awe, concealing within their womb the seeds of true message.  Such termasare said to be time-coded, waiting for a designated adept (treasure-gatherer) to reveal itself.

2.3. In Sufism, the clever and entertaining fables of a beloved – seemingly foolish  Mullah Nasruddin demonstrate the stupidity of self obsessions of the humans, in a manner  that all could recognize and enjoy. The Sufis told stories, made jokes, entertained and offended human sensibilities by holding a mirror to their frailties, in a way that no other one did.

3. In Zen Buddhist tradition, the stories and koans have been in use, for a longtime, as a tool for training the mind ( or dissolving the mind). Koans are designed not to reveal their meaning to the student easily and instantly; but, to throw his mind in to a vortex and a crisis .That crisis should be so intense and overpowering as to break   through the barriers of reason and barge into non-conceptual, direct apprehension of reality, the Satori.  Such Satori would occur, unexpectedly, in a flash after years of struggle trying to “understand” it.

3.1. Entertainment never was (or is) the object of a koan. One can still read the stories and be amused; but, that is not why the koans were narrated. Within a Zen tradition, the teaching-stories were preserved and passed on a lineage as a part of its training traditions. There is a certain simplicity and purity about those stories; and, they have to be placed, essentially, within the student –teacher relationship and in the context of sadhana.  The story finds its fulfillment in the satori attained by the student.

3.2. Going back into the Zen history we find that  the seeds of the Zen were in the Dhyana school of Bodhidharma who discouraged mere book learning. He said, Dhyana is not an intellectual exercise one can learn from books. Instead, it’s a practice of studying mind and seeing into one’s nature. The face-to-face transmission of the Dharma was important. That meant, the student and the teacher have to work together face –to – face. That made the student –teacher relation and interaction critical to its success.


4. Before we come to the classical oral heritage  of India, let us briefly talk about that fabulous folk tradition of India.

The folk oral traditions of India go back into timeless antiquity. The heroes and heroines of the bygone eras are kept alive through songs and dances of simple rustic people. The nomadic tribes that wandered far into distant valleys in search of pastures and waterholes to tend their herds burst out into poignant soulful songs pining for their beloveds and yearning for the smells, sounds and feel of their motherland. Nehru, in his Discovery of India talks about how tribes that had drifted apart long ago, recognized each other through their songs, after centuries of separation.

4.1. The two major epics that shaped the Indian sensibility, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were preserved and spread as oral epics. The Suthas narrated and sang the glory of its heroes and heroines in divine fervor. Even to this day the tradition of devote groups of listeners gathering around a sutha to listen to the ancient stories, rather than read the epic poems themselves, is still alive.

5.1. Though poetry is easier to remember than prose, the oral tradition in Indian literature was not confined to poetic literature. Indian story telling has been molded to suit oral form right from the very beginning of narrative fiction in India. The stories in the Kathasaritasagara and the Jathaka are structured for oral rendering by wandering minstrels.

5.2. India owes a lot of its rich tradition of story telling to its tribal people.

The tradition of story telling evokes pictures of weary travelers, at the end of a long day’s hard journey, gathering around a fire lit on the sands of a river bank under the starry night, listening with rapt attention and amusement to the stories of wonder and awe of distant lands inhabited by exotic people, narrated by an elder, in magical soothing voice with theatrical and lyrical interludes. With each re-telling, the stories gathered additional narrative, becoming more circuitous to enhance the drama of the live recitation.

The power of the spoken language to ignite the listener’s imagination and transport him to the world of ideas, dreams, myths and fables, is truly amazing.

As a professor of Mass communication remarked, “In the saying of the word, something is also done, and cannot be undone. Indian literature is full of tales in which a word was misused, uttered capriciously or wrongly, with mischievous or even disastrous consequences. And, in some ways the power of words can be seen as magic; but this is not mere magic. “

6. The period around and after the 10th Century, was the glorious period of Indian oral heritage. The groups of inspired poets, charged with devotion and love – Nanak, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath,  Tukaram, Kabir, Mira, Allamaprabhu, Akkamahadevi, Purandara Dasa, Narsi Mehta, Surdas and a hoast of others known as the bhakti poets, sang.  pouring out some of the very best poetry in the Indian literary history. They created poetry of abiding beauty in the languages spoken by the people.

Before that the Alwars and Nayanmaars of South India sang in pristine Tamil; and charged with devotion and dedication, poured their hearts out to their gods in musical ecstasy,

6.1. The songs of all those bards, permeated with fragrance of devotion, also carried love and concern for their fellow beings. They tried to guide and steer their brethren away from ignorance and superstition. Their messages   were a challenge to the established theology and social order. The lines and verses of their poetry, easy to remember and recite , have an amazing range and depth of philosophic, social and moral concerns. In many instances they held their communities together and brought about social integration. Those songs are relevant, even today; and are sung in the villages and cities. Their influence is so profound and pervasive that those songs are now a part of our collective psyche.

7. 1.There has never been a central agency or an organization in India to monitor or diffuse cultural values among its people. The spread of cultural values has always been, at the grass root level, by countless iterant, unassuming bards, fakirs, saints many of them outlandish and exotic. They came from all segments, all divisions of the society. They came from different regions, different religions, different sects and sub sects. They roamed about the countryside without any expectation or reward .They preached and lived what they believed. Those nameless, non-conforming selfless savants have been the guardians of Indian culture.

7.2 . Lets briefly talk about one such group of unassuming bards; the Bauls of Bengal. They belong to a fabulous folk tradition, which has a history that stretches back to about seven hundred years. Their tradition is a delightful amalgam of bhakthi of Vaishana School, tantra of Shajiya Buddhism and the mysticism of the Sufis. The Baul synthesis is characterized by four elements: there is no written text and therefore all teachings are through song and dance; God is to be found in and through the body and therefore the emphasis on kaya (body) sadhana, the use of sexual or breath energy; and, absolute obedience and reverence to Guru.

7.3. Bauls are easily noticeable by their attire, demeanor and way of living. They are wanderers, beggars, poets and musicians praising God in song, dance and mystical poetry. The message of the Bauls is encoded in their song and poetry; and is accessible through the appreciation and understanding of its rich symbolism.

7.4. Baul singer though romanticized in folk art, music and poetry, is a part of the fast vanishing tribe. As wanderers and beggars Bauls are looked down upon; are considered vagrants in polite society; and kept away as heretics by the orthodox. Their religious life is not bound by conventions and rules; but springs from intuition and lived-relationship with the divine. Bauls life is permeated with the fragrance of a passionate yet profound reliance upon the Beloved, the personal god within. The celebration of that relationship with all its ecstasy and heartbreaking agony is the lifeblood of a Bauls existence.

8. 1. As regards other forms of folk art and drama in particular, they continue to thrive in most Indian languages. Even during the ancient times the Sanskrit drama made a generous use of folk elements and folk dialects.

8.2. In the present day, the Kannada and Tulu languages have the Yakshagana theatre, the Gujarati language has the Bhavai theatre and the Marathi has the Tamasha performances. These regional forms do not have a fixed and written text to support the performance. They are spontaneous and depend on improvisation by the actors. And for that reason, when compared to plays with written scripts, they are closer to the audiences. That does not mean they are primitive forms of drama; on the contrary they are sophisticated in technique, presentation and performance.

8.3. The plays of modern Indian playwrights such as Girish Karnad, Habib Tanvir and others are rooted in the oral traditions of literature. They are less marked by the influences of the west and are closer to Indian culture and tradition.

8.4. Even today, access to traditional knowledge of subjects like art, music, grammar or   philosophy is widely held to require a direct oral transmission from   master to pupil.  In India, it is this oral tradition that is held to embody   the pure transmission of music;  its teachers and students, alike, are still not comfortable in reducing musical sounds in to written notations.

8.5. Among the many traditions (parampara) inherited in India, the tradition of Vishwakarma (the sculptors and architects) is unique. The principles , rules , measurements , proportions as also the aspects of expression of the deities to be sculpted are described in Shilpasastra, Natyasastra and various other texts; and all of which are in Sanskrit. The scholars who could read those texts knew next to nothing about sculpture. While, the Shilpis who actually carved the images had no knowledge of Sanskrit or access to the texts; and therefore could not know the texts or interpret the shlokas. This dichotomy was bridged by the generations of Shilpis who through experience learnt the craft, imbibed its principles and concepts; and passed them on to their succeeding generations and to their disciples

The mode of transmission of knowledge of this community was both oral and practical. The rigor and discipline required to create objects that defy time and persist beyond generations of artists, has imbued this tradition with tremendous sense of purpose, and zeal to maintain purity and sensitivity of its traditions; and to carry it forward. This has enabled them to protect and carry forward the knowledge, the art and skills without falling prey to the market and its dynamics.

8.6. India’s age-old love for the oral found a powerful means of expression in cinema. Indian cinema, with descriptive passages than narrative sequences; as also studded with songs and dances; and with the story always ending on a happy note with the Good and Love triumphing over the bad guys and the Loveless., is more akin to folk tales than to what cinema is in the western world.

9. 1. The most amazing of all the oral traditions preserved in India are the oral traditions of the Vedas.

“The three worlds would have merged in darkness had there been no light called Sabda” said Acharya Dandin (6th century) the celebrated author of prose romance and an expounder on poetics.

9.2. For Indian thinkers, language was primarily the spoken word or speaking itself (vaak). Indian philosophy has been even more emphatic than Western thought with regard to the priority of the oral over the written. The tradition in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy has been to correct the written text with the oral. It is the oral word, carefully memorized, guarded by the discipline of the prathi_shakins, and passed down from teacher to student through succeeding generations that has remained authoritative and authentic in India.

Not merely that; the meaning or the purport of a term in a  text  is derived and explained based on its precise pronunciation. Because, the written word, inscribed on a surface,  is unable to bring out the various shades of the term . For instance, Sri Sayanacharya offered several interpretations to the term ‘Asat’. He explains, the form of Asat – with ascent of the first syllable – in many ways :  in the sense of untruth ‘ (asatya); and once each in the senses of ‘ inauspious ‘ (ashubha); ‘ un-manifest (avyakrta), and ‘ indescribable ‘ (nirupdkhya) . The form of Asat –without ascent- is understood as to mean:  ‘ goes or reaches ‘ (gacchati, prapnoti), and ‘ fruitful (phala-sadhana-samarthah).

Sri Sankara commenting on symbols and reality, curiously remarks, “ We see that the knowledge of the real sounds  a, aa, e, ee  etc., is reached by means of the unreal written letters.”(B.S. 2.1.14). He perhaps was suggesting that the spoken language is the real language.

9.3. The ancient Indian philosophers and Grammarians just loved elaborate discussions on all aspects of the spoken word: its origin in the mind and body of the speaker; its articulation; its transmission; the grasp of the sound and the essence of the word by the listener; its ultimate reception by the speaker’s intellect and such other related issues.

9.4.Each of the major schools of Indian philosophy such as Mimamsa, Tantra, Yoga and Prabhakaras viewed and interpreted the origin and nature of the Universe by exploring the nature and manifestations of the sound. They built elaborate philosophical edifices around the concepts they evolved during that process. Those traditions considered sound as one of the most important principles of existence; as the source of matter and as the key to be free from it. They described Sound as the thread-like link between the material and spiritual realms.

Panini’s Astadhyayi, the Grammar, is also based on the sound of spoken Sanskrit.

9.5. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida said: The spoken word is given a higher value because the speaker and listener are both present to the utterance simultaneously. There is no temporal or spatial distance between speaker, speech, and listener, since the speaker hears himself speak at the same moment as the listener does. This immediacy seems to guarantee the notion that in the spoken word we know what we mean, mean what we say, say what we mean and know what we have said.

It is only of late we have come to regard that speech and writing are expressions of one and the same language; and that language can be best understood by combining both the form and content of writing.

10. 1. Perhaps the most salient feature of ancient Indian linguistic culture was the concern for the preservation of sacred texts and the purity of the language in which they were composed. This concern arose out of the willingness of the society not only to commit the resources (time, effort, energy,  enthusiasm and material resources) for this transmission, but also to the development of a technique that would guarantee the purity , entirety  and constancy of the texts. The decision or strategy devised was to commit the sacred texts to memory and to transmit the sacred texts orally, but in a highly controlled way that was rightly felt to be the only way to avoid the introduction of error into the texts. As anyone who has witnessed a demonstration of this technique can attest, the outcome seems to be fairly foolproof, better anyway than via literacy and handwritten transmission, where scribal error and individual additions and emendations can often be introduced.

10.2. Tradition accepts that Rishi Veda_Vyasa categorized and compiled four Vedas by splitting the primordial single Veda and rendered the Vedas more amenable to study and to memorize. The task of preserving and perpetuating each branch of the Veda, in its entirety and purity , was assigned to a specified Shakha (meaning branch).The followers of each Shakha , identified as Shakins of that particular Vedic school, were responsible for preserving their assigned part of the Veda. Followers of each Shakha would learn and preserve one the four Veda Samhitas along with their associated Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishads and the Sutras such as Grhyasutra and Shrautasutra. Only a small number of these Shakhas have survived; the prominent among them are Sakala and Baskala. [For more on Shakas, please see the link in the comments section]

It is astounding that large bodies of Vedic texts could be preserved in oral traditions for over thousands of years, safeguarding their purity and entirety.

10.3. In order to achieve this difficult task, an elaborate and a meticulous system of recitations were devised. These systems of discipline with their checks and balances , ensured the correctness of a text including the correct sequence of its words; purity of the language; exact pronunciation of the words; precise stress on syllables ; measured pause between syllables; appropriate tone, accent, modulation and pitch of recitation; proper breath control etc. Shiksha one of the six Vedangas (limbs of Veda) that dealt with phonetics and phonology of Sanskrit, laid down rules for correct pronunciation of Vedic hymns and mantras. Please click here.

10.4. Along with this, several patterns of Vedic chants were devised to ensure complete and perfect memorization of the text and its pronunciation including the Vedic pitch accent. These patterns called Pathaas ensured correct recital of the Veda mantra by weaving the mantras into various patterns and complex combinations of such patterns. There are eleven acknowledged patterns or Patahaas Viz. Samhitha or vakhyaa, padaa, krama, jataa, maala, Sikhaa, rekhaa, dhvajaa, dandaa, rathaa and Ghana. Please see the links in the comments section

10.5. Among these, The Samhita Paathaa and Pada Paathaa are natural (Prakrithi) way of reciting the words of the mantras, in their normal sequence. The rest are Vikrithi (or artificial) Paathaas. Recently mathematical series have been devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns. For more on this and for greater details on Paathas please click see the link in the comments section.

10.6. By applying such stringent methods of learning and complicated patterns of recital, each generation committed to memory long passages of its assigned texts through incessant practice spread over a number of years, retained the form and content of the texts in their pristine purity; and  succeeded in transmitting it, orally, to the next generation. This was how the Vedic texts were retained in oral form, uncorrupted, over the centuries. It was an act of intense reverence, dedication and love.Rarely has any other oral tradition of poetry been so venerated and so well preserved as the Vedic tradition.

11. 1. Because the regimen was already so well established the epics too were committed to the oral tradition. In the mantra tradition, orality was best suited to preserve the purity and the secrecy of the sacred syllables. The primary purpose here was to talk to gods and not merely to know what gods had spoken. The mantra had therefore to be learned in a proper way from/by a proper person and pronounced in a proper manner. Writing the syllables and words on paper (stone , copper , bark or whatever) would not therefore be a substitute for learning  and pronouncing the mantra  properly. The efficacy of precisely articulated sounds is believed to be in its power to invoke gods and spirits.

As my friend Shri DSampath says the mantras and the dhyana slokas have audio – visual dimensions to them, to enable better retention. And , knowledge transfer in such cases would be  effective when it is oral.

12.1. It was however in the Sutras – the pithy, unambiguous, aphorisms laying out all the essential aspects of each topic and dealing with all aspects of the question, free of repetitiveness and flaw – the oral tradition functioned as key to open a vast treasure

12.2.. Sutra literally means a thread but technically it meant in the ancient Indian context, an aphoristic style of condensing the spectrum of thoughts of a doctrine into terse, crisp, pithy pellets of compressed information that could be easily committed to memory. They are analogous to synoptic notes on a lecture; and by tapping on a note, one hopes to recall the relevant expanded form of the lecture. Perhaps the Sutras were meant to serve  a  similar purpose. A Sutra is therefore not merely an aphorism but a key to an entire discourse on a subject. Traditionally, each Sutra is regarded as a discourse rather than a statement.

12.3. Problems arose when the sutra-concept was overdone and often carried to its extremes. It is said a Sutrakara would rather give up a child than expend a word. The Sutras often became so terse as to be inscrutable. And, one could read into it as many meanings  as one wanted to.

It was left to the genius of the commentator; the Bashyakara to pinpoint Vishesha Vakya the exact statement in the Vedic text referred to by the sutra; to maintain consistency in treatment – in the context and spirit of the original text; to bring out the true intent and meaning of the Sutrakara’s reasoning and conclusions. It was therefore said, each according to his merit finds his rewards. But, it was here the written and printed texts came to rescue of the teachers and learners, alike.

13.1. The oral method of preserving and communicating knowledge had a fatal flaw. There are instances where the collective wisdom of a race acquired throughout the centuries was ruined and  wiped out of existence  in a flash by catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis , war or whatever. Those unfortunate occurrences demonstrated time and again the risks involved is storing the racial memories in a line of individuals.

13.2. The inevitability of the spoken word has also vastly diminished in today’s world. The reliance on spoken word is no longer necessary, nor it is always possible; and in a large number of instances it is treated not merely as unreliable but also relegated to the status of non-communication. Even in the field of literature oral literature was seen as a sign of cultural backwardness.

14.1. It would be wrong to assume that one type of communication is superior to the other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. The spoken word can be beautiful and soul stirring in a way that the written word can never be; it alone is capable of preserving the purity of the word, its sound and its form. On the other hand, the written word preserves thoughts in a very meticulous manner for dissemination and further study; and it surely can be disbursed more easily. Each tradition has its value and its place in the scheme of things.

14.2. The unique feature of the Indian classical literature is the interaction between the oral and written texts, Sheldon Pollock in his The Language of the Gods writes:

In contrast to Veda and its strictly oral transmission,    large post-Vedic literatures were expressed in writing. Nevertheless, writing did not extinguish the spoken word. Rather, we find new performing styles; recitatives in simple meters without accentuation, songs and dramatic staging.

None of this should be taken to suggest that the rise of the manuscript culture in India, whether diachronically or synchronically viewed, entailed a clean and permanent break between the oral and the written. To the contrary, the ongoing interaction of the oral and literate constitutes one of the most remarkable and unique features of Indian literacy culture.

That is to say; the oral and written texts are relevant and important in their own context. While the Vedic oral rendition has its own status, there would have been no effective distribution of Puranas and epics without the written texts.

partnernhm (1)

References and Sources:


1. Paragraph 10.2: For Shakhas please click here:

2. Paragraph 10.3. For Shiksha Please click on:

3. Paragraph 10.4. For eleven acknowledged methods of pathas , please click on:

4. Paragraph 10.5. For mathematical series devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns please click on :

5. Sources and References:

Unbroken Chain of Oral Tradition by Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna

“Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartṛhari by Harold G. Coward

Mass Communication in Ancient India

Telling a Ramayana by G N Devy


Posted by on September 13, 2012 in General Interest, History, oral traditions


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Why Is The Year Of Alexander’s Death Important To Indian History?

The major problem with the events in ancient Indian History is not so much as their historicity but as their chronology. That is the reason that the dates of the Mahabharata war, the date of Nirvana of the Buddha or of Mahavira or even of Sankara are still matters of debate, study and research.

Although the ancient Indians were great calculators of time, they, somehow, did not standardize the dates of important events in a uniform manner. That might have been because  the ancient India, except for the two relatively brief imperial periods of the Mauryas and the Guptas, 321 BCE  to 185 BCE  and 320 AD to 467 AD , for  rest of the period  was largely politically and culturally fragmented into regional segments. There were  also numerous ancient Indian calendars, each with its own commencement year, which were used by different dynasties or religious communities or regions.

The chronology, which we now refer to, was put in place during the later years of the 18th century (around the year 1793) largely due to the efforts of Sir William Jones. It was built around two factors: One, the date of the death of the Alexander the Great; and two, the identification of Sandrocottus mentioned in the Greek accounts with Chandragupta Maurya. Of the two, the former, that is, the date of the death of Alexander the Great is verifiable from other sources. However, it is the identity of Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya that is still a matter of debate. Thus the chronology of Indian History, as we now follow, is supported on one leg by a fact and on the other by an assumption.

This was, broadly, how the chronology was worked out.

The first fixed point in this chronology was the year 326 BCE, when according to the Greek writers Plutarch and Justin a young Indian prince Sandrocottus met Alexander then camping at Taxila. After the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, his empire broke up and Sandrocottus of Palibothra established himself and ruled over a large region.

Now, the Indian scholars of 18th century identified Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya and Palibothra with Pataliputra (in the region of present day Patna), because of the phonetic similarities.

That was how the death of Alexander and equating Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya became the sheet anchor of the ancient Indian chronology.

The working of the dates of the Buddha, Asoka and others was attempted along the following lines.

1. Alexander the Great died in the year 323 BCE (taken as an undisputed date).

2. Sandrocottus equated with Chandra Gupta Maurya began his reign in the year of Alexander’s death (323 BC).

3. According to the list of Kings given in the Puranas, Chandragupta Maurya ruled for 24 years, so did his successor Bindusara (323 -24-24 =275 BCE)

4. Asoka came to the throne some years after the death of his father Bindusara because of the succession wars (275 -6 = 269 BCE), Asoka ruled for 36 years (269-36 = 233 BCE).

5. According to the Sinhalese chronicles, Asoka’s coronation took place 218 years after the death of the Buddha. Therefore, the Buddha’s Nirvana might have taken place in the year 487 BCE (269 + 218).

6. The Buddha lived for about 80 years. He therefore might have been born around 567 BCE. His date might therefore be between 487 BCE and 567 BCE.


Another method was also employed. The king Bimbisara (Vidhisara) was a contemporary of the Buddha. Bimbisara sent his personal physician Jivaka to attend on the Buddha. His son Ajathashatru of the Sisunaga dynasty of Magadha succeeded Bimbisara. When Ajathashatru came to the throne, the Buddha was 72 years of age. The Buddha died 8 years later. All generally accept these events.

According to these events and with reference to the Puranic records the time of Bimbisara is reckoned as 580 – 552 BCE and that of Ajathashatru as 552 – 527 BCE.

Since the Buddha died 8 years after Ajathashatru came to throne, the year of the Buddha’s death is taken as 544 BCE. And, the life of the Buddha is therefore taken as between 644 and 544 BCE.


The dates of the Buddha’s birth and death are still uncertain .The most commonly used dates are between 644 BCE to 544 BCE. Yet, all dates within 20 years of either side are also acceptable.

In any case, the Buddha’s period is in the sixth century BCE.


Identifying Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya, though looks rather convenient, has given rise to a number of unanswered questions. It sometimes looks as though Sandracottus might not have been Chandragupta Maurya afterall.

1. According to the Greek accounts, Sandrokottus deposed Xandrammes and Sandrocyptus was the son of Sandrokottus. In the case of Chandragupta Maurya, he had opposed Dhanananda of the Nanda dynasty and the name of his son was Bindusara. Both these names, Dhanananda and Bindusara, have no phonetic similarity with the names Xandrammes and Sandrocyptus of the Greek accounts.

1. a. Some scholars surmise that Sandracuttos mentioned by the Greek writers might actually refer to Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty. The kings before and after Chandragupta Gupta were Chandramas and Samudragupta. The phonetic similarity is quite apparent for Chandragupta Gupta and not Maurya.

Chandragupta of Guptas is now placed in fourth century AD. In case he is indentified with Sandracottos, then the entire chronology will shift back by about eight hundred years .Then the Buddha might as well have been in the 14th century BCE.

2. The Greek accounts cover the period from 4th century BC to 2nd century AD. None of them has mentioned the names of Kautilya or Asoka. It was with Kautilya’s assistance that Chandragupta had come to the throne. Asoka’s empire was bigger than that of Chandragupta and he had sent missionaries to the Yavana countries. However, both of them are not mentioned. The Greek writers did not say anything about the Buddhist Bhikkus though that was the flourishing religion of that time with the royal patronage of Asoka. The Indian scholars wonder why the Greek accounts are silent on Asoka and Buddhism.

The ancestry of Chandragupta is still shrouded in mystery and not known for certain. There are divergent views regarding the origin, and each view has its own set of adherents. Please check the following site for further discussions on the issue. Please also visit Talk: Ancestry of Chandragupta Maurya

Please check the following for the other side of the issue: Chandragupta, the Sandrocottus


The another reference point that is often relied upon is the work of the famous astronomer Aryabhatta who wrote his definitive mathematical work in 499 AD. Aryabhatta through his astronomical calculations,  claimed that the year of completion of his work (499 AD) also marked 3,600 years of the Kali Yuga. It , indirectly,  meant, that Kali Yuga commenced in or around 3101 BC.

The other method was calculating the dates from the start-year of the Islamic lunar calendar (622 AD). According to that reckoning, Mahmud of Ghazni attacked India in 1000 AD.

But again, the modern European system of dating is not entirely accurate either.  That is because,   Christ was born at least four years before what we consider to be its start-year of 1 AD , supposedly the year of his birth. Apart from that ,  there have also been both slippages of days and days added artificially by the Church  at different times in European history.

Nevertheless, the present dating system is commonly accepted; and, is compared with many Indian calendars.  Of course, one needs to be constantly reminded that all dates of ancient Indian history are somewhat fluid; and,  in the dating of some events one has to accommodate  a certain ‘give and take’ of a few decades or even a couple of centuries , at times .


Talking of chronology in Indian History, Shri Niraj Mohanka (not a professional historian) has produced a remarkable set of spreadsheets – 23 columns wide, 350 rows deep and over 8,000 cells in MS Excel – basically on the chronology of Indian history. The like of which I had not come across. As the chronology in Indian History is always a matter of debate, one may quarrel a bit with the dates indicated by Shri Mohanka, this way or that. But that does not, in any manner, take away the sheen from the dedication and the amount of scholarship and work that has gone into producing the document.

Please check :

In the webpage, the following link opens up a Microsoft Excel file that contains four spreadsheets (see the four lower Tabs when you open up the Excel file):

1) Royal Chronology of India (Columns K through P on the right-hand side describe other civilizations – Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran and China).  On Page 21 of this file is a Population Chart of India from 8000 B.C.E. to 2200 C.E.  On Page 42 is a list of assumptions and sources used to build the timeline.

2) The History of World Religion- major religions [Eastern AND Western] have roots in the Vedas

3) Comparison of All Religions

4) Festivals of India

In the webpage please click on the above picture


Posted by on September 7, 2012 in General Interest, History


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