General Essay on Hindu Ascetic and Ritual Groups

Of all the world's religions, Hinduism presents the greatest difficulties in the construction of charts that aim to show the growth, development and divisions in each tradition. The model on which the charts are based postulates a founder, foundation incident and gradual proliferation of groups away from the original core community that grew up around the founder. The Hindu tradition cannot be fitted into this conventional pattern as it has no founder, no foundation event and no hierarchy that arose from this foundation.

There is indeed a strong argument against regarding Hinduism as a world religion, for it is a designation based more on geography than on doctrinal or institutional unity. The term Hindu refers to the beliefs and practices of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent who are not Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains or Sikhs and thus includes an enormous range of perspectives which have never been gathered together under any form of hierarchical or organisational structure. Therefore the attempt to construct a chart of this type inevitably risks imposing an inappropriate model onto the tradition.

Such reservations notwithstanding, the fact that modern Hindus typically regard themselves as such by way of contrast to their Muslim or Christian neighbours means that the imposition has substantially been accepted and that one is now obligated to work within the context of that imposition. Furthermore, there are certain common beliefs shared by most Hindus which offer a loose unity to a diverse tradition, or, more accurately, series of traditions.

It is thus apparent that the chart cannot be constructed in the same manner as would be appropriate in explaining, for example, the growth of Christian sectarianism. As there has never been an organisation or structure there cannot truly be a Hindu sect which has divided itself from the core group. The pattern is completely different, with strands of the tradition developing parallel to each other and sometimes overlapping and sharing beliefs and practices. The groups generally referred to as 'Hindu sects' typically arise from within the various tendencies of Hinduism, usually based on adherence to the ideals espoused by a particular saint or teacher.

The principal strands of Hindu belief may roughly be designated as ritual, devotional and mystical, although these frequently merge into each other within the beliefs of individual Hindus and in the teachings of specific groups. The term ritual is used here to refer to the division of society into castes with their understandings of proper action or dharma. Though primarily a social phenomenon, the Hindu caste system is clearly inseparable from religious belief and practice. It would be wrong, however, to equate the Western notion of sects and denominations with the Hindu castes.

Ritual Hinduism also includes the pervasive worship of gods, spirits and saints in order to gain success in all aspects of worldly life. Again worship of this type is common to most Hindus and for many it forms the central pillar of their beliefs and practices. It is unusual, however, for this form of religiosity to manifest itself in any form of 'group of believers'. It is rather the attempt of an individual, or more usually a kinship group, to ensure that their life is made easier by gaining the assistance of supernatural forces.

The term devotional here refers to the tendency amongst Hindus to venerate Great Deities in a manner that may be designated as monotheistic. Here the Deity is regarded not as a force within creation, but as an external creator whose existence transcends all the vicissitudes, however grandiose in a cosmic sense, of life in this world. The worship may frequently be motivated by worldly concerns, but ultimately the Deity has the power even over salvation or rebirth and is propitiated in order to gain success in the highest spiritual endeavours. Here the Hindu Gods Vishnu and Shiva are paramount as well as the Goddess, most frequently designated as Durga, Kali, Parvati or Uma, the mother. In the execution of devotional worship, numerous groups have arisen around teachers and shrines, some remaining small and localised and some spreading widely across India and becoming subdivided on the basis of organisation, doctrine or mere geography. It must be noted, however, that most devotees of Vishnu, Shiva and the Goddess are not members of any of these sects, though they may worship at the temples of such groups, and that most will pursue the ritual aspects of Hindu belief and practice as part of their overall religious purview.

The term mystical here refers to soteriological tendencies in Hinduism which aim to transcend the more worldly forms of religiosity and seek absolute salvation from this world. For thousands of years renunciants have been seen in the Indian subcontinent advocating various types of transcendentalist ideology and undertaking specific disciplines with the aim of directly experiencing the philosophical truths which they espouse. It is within this milieu that the origins of Buddhism and Jainism are to be found, but numerous other strands of speculation have remained as part of the broad span of beliefs designated as Hindu. Here attention must be drawn to the Vedantic teachings appearing first in the Upanishads, and the various schools of Yoga which train adepts in mystical practices that eventually bring direct experience of the spiritual domain.

For most of the history of Hinduism such beliefs and practices were confined to small groups of renunciants on the fringes of society and perhaps a small intellectual elite with access to Sanskrit texts. The onset of modernity, however, has forced Hindus onto the defensive over the Western perception of primitivism in their beliefs in gods, myths and magic. Westernised neo-Hindus have seen in Vedanta, and to a lesser extent Yoga, an aspect of their tradition that is not only acceptable to the West, but is frequently much admired for its avoidance of an anthropomorphic Deity and its philosophically based mysticism. As a result, the Hindu revival of the last hundred years has been characterised by the emphasis placed on Vedantic ideals by Western educated Indians and the claim that Hindu beliefs form a doctrinal hierarchy which gradually leads the participant towards the goal of Vedantic realisation.

The chart is constructed primarily in terms of these broad strands of Hindu belief, and seeks to identify the specific groups and denominations that have arisen from within each. The origins of Hinduism are regarded by Western scholarship as being found in a gradual coming together of the religion of the Indo-european Aryans who entered India probably around 1500 BCE and that of the indigenous population of the subcontinent. The exact manner in which specific beliefs emerged in this early period is imprecisely understood, but it is thought that the practice of animal sacrifice and the worship of a pantheon of gods representing natural forces is of Aryan derivation whilst the tendency towards monotheism in the worship of Vishnu and Shiva may have arisen out of the beliefs of the earlier Dravidian population.

The charts recognise these origins of the Hindu tradition, though the lack of knowledge limits the possibility of presenting a precisely mapped course of development. The chart indicates the persistence of Vedic ideals in the stress on sacrifice as a means of satisfying the gods and the division of society into specified social classes, each of which has a designated code of conduct known as dharma. The early division into four groups - priests, warriors and rulers, merchant farmers, and labourers - provided the religious underpinning for the later stratification of society into a large number of castes which still provide a significant focus of identity for contemporary Hindus.

The performance of yajna, in which offerings are made into a sacred fire, though substantially eclipsed by temple worship, was perpetuated by priests and monarchs, and by the atheistic mimamsa system of philosophy. In the last century Dayananda Sarasvati founded the Arya Samaj which claimed that only the teachings of the original Vedas were to be accepted as a true part of the Hindu tradition and that all notions of caste, image worship and discrimination against women were to be rejected. Dayananda thus attempted to revive the original Vedic/Aryan religion that had for centuries been overshadowed by other tendencies.

The earliest speculations about the nature of the absolute are to be found in the Rigveda, but are more fully developed in the Upanishads, most of which were composed between 700 and 400 BCE. Out of such mystical insights there arose a number of schools which sought to lead their adherents to ultimate salvation through a variety of different paths. Some of these sects completely denied the teachings and revealed status of the Vedas and moved outside of the broad purview of Hinduism. amongst such groups are to be noted the Buddhists, who today are virtually absent from India, the Jains, who still exist as an independent tradition with around three million adherents, and the Ajivikas, who appear to have disappeared altogether around the 14th century CE.

The philosophical tradition of Vedanta and the disciplined practices of Yoga have continued to exert a significant influence on Hindu religious life. Vedanta as propounded originally in the Upanishads and systematised by Badarayana (4th century CE) and Shankara (8th century CE) teaches that the true self is neither the body nor the intellect but a spiritual entity, the atman, that exists beyond both. In reality, there is no variety of existence but an all-pervading unity, designated by the term brahman. When the individual realises this truth about his own existence, he merges his identity with brahman and is free from the cycle of rebirth.

Most of the followers of Shankara lived a monastic or mendicant lifestyle and were known as Dashanamis. Whilst the numbers of such adherents must always have been small, the influence of Vedantic thought has become widespread, particularly amongst the intellectual elite of the brahmana castes. In the last 100 years Hindu thought has been dominated by Vedanta and many modern Hindus understand their variegated tradition as a hierarchy of belief which eventually leads through polytheism to monotheism and ultimately to Vedanta which is the highest realisation of all the world's religions.

During the last 150 years numerous groups have arisen, often based on a charismatic teacher, which stresses the Vedantic ideals in combination with philanthropic, anti-materialist concepts. The Brahmo-Samaj, founded in 1828 by Ramohan Roy, was an attempt to purify Hinduism of its less acceptable features. The Ramakrishna Mission which grew up around the Bengali saint, Ramakrishna (1834-1886), came to prominence primarily as a result of the work of his successor, Swami Vivekananda. It was Vivekananda in particular who stressed the idea that all world religion, including the various strands of Hinduism, forms a pyramid of spiritual pursuits which culminate in the highest realisations taught by Vedanta. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and Colonel H.S. Olcott. Despite its European origins, much of the society's teaching was based on Vedanta, and was embraced by a number of educated Hindus who saw in it a practical reconciliation of Western and Hindu ideals.

Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) propagated ideas unique to his own vision of Vedanta, and founded the Aurobindo Ashram with its headquarters in Pondichery. The south Indian renunciant, Ramana Mahirshi (d.1950) likewise attracted a number of followers from both East and West who sought from him the spiritual realisations he had absorbed. The Brahma Kumaris claim not to be a religious group, but include elements of Vedanta, Yoga and Shiva worship in their belief system. Founded in 1937 in Karachi by Dada Lek Raj (1877-1969), they have centres in both India and the West, teaching a doctrine which stresses meditation, non-violence and ascetic values.

More recently teachers such as Satya Sai Baba have attracted large numbers of followers in India and amongst the Hindu communities of the West with their teachings that combine Vedantic spirituality and philanthropic acts of love for humanity. The power of such leaders is enhanced by their apparent ability to perform miracles and manifestations at will. Another sect both active in India and the West is Ananda Marg, founded in 1955 by Anandamurti (b.1921), which combines Vedanta philosophy and Yoga practice with political and social activism. The Radhasoamis have connections with both the Hindu and Sikh traditions. Their ideals are based on the teachings of Shiv Dayal (1818-1878) who used the myths of Krishna's childhood love affairs with Radha as a spiritual metaphor for the Vedantic ideal of the ultimate union between the individual spirit and the absolute Brahman.

The religious influence of Mohandas Gandhi must also be noted and his teaching of what he referred to as the religion of ahimsa. In his campaign for Indian independence, Gandhi insisted on a policy of strict non-violence and taught that the highest stage of spiritual development was characterised by a complete absence of competitive sentiment towards any other being and hence total restraint from all forms of mental, verbal or physical violence. Again Vedantic ideals were prominent in Gandhi's thought, for it is consciousness of one's inner spiritual nature that detaches one from the competitive endeavours of this world.

Yoga has for many centuries been taught to small schools of adepts existing on the fringes of Hindu society. In contemporary Hinduism, many Vedantic groups advocate Yoga as a technique to assist in the spiritual quest and a few of the Yoga ashrams have grown beyond their localised status. Swami Shivananda (b.1887) founded an Ashram in Rishikesha and in 1935 established the Divine Life Society to spread knowledge of Yoga and Vedanta throughout the world. Today the society and the Shivananda Yoga Centres are active throughout India and the West.

Maharishi Mahesha Yogi started his movement of transcendental meditation in the early 1960s with the aim of presenting techniques of Yoga and meditation suitable for the modern world. Though based on the ancient Yoga texts, Transcendental Meditation is a modern western-orientated society with branches throughout the world; it aims to impart simple meditation techniques to as many people as possible and thereby bring about an improvement in the spiritual consciousness of the world. in India today Yoga and meditation are taught by numerous teachers and ashrams spread throughout the subcontinent, though none of these would fit the Western definition of a religious sect.

Finally, attention must be drawn to the chart of the South Indian cults of local Tamil gods. It is likely that worship of the Dravidian gods has persisted from the most ancient times with only limited influence from the northern Aryan culture. Today, with the resurgence of Dravidian identity, gods such as Murukan and Mal and the goddess Mariamman are increasingly worshipped alongside the Great Deities of Sanskrit culture.


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