7. Revival of Hinduism
From New Age Village
In 320 a native Indian dynasty, the Guptas, came to the throne and inaugurated a revival of Hinduism, to which religion we must now turn. To speak of the revival of Hinduism does not mean that in the previous period it had been dead or torpid. Indeed we know that there was a Hindu reaction against the Buddhism of Asoka about 150 B.C. But, on the whole, from the time of Asoka onwards Buddhism had been the principal religion of India, and before the Gupta era there are hardly any records of donations made to Brahmans. Yet during these centuries they were not despised or oppressed. They produced much literature: their schools of philosophy and ritual did not decay and they gradually made good their claim to be the priests of India's gods, whoever those gods might be. The difference between the old religion and the new lies in this. The Brâhmanas and Upanishads describe practices and doctrines of considerable variety but still all the property of a privileged class in a special region. They do not represent popular religion nor the religion of India as a whole. But in the Gupta period Hinduism began to do this. It is not a system like Islam or even Buddhism but a parliament of religions, of which every Indian creed can become a member on condition of observing some simple rules of the house, such as respect for Brahmans and theoretical acceptance of the Veda. Nothing is abolished: the ancient rites and texts preserve their mysterious power and kings perform the horse-sacrifice. But side by side with this, deities unknown to the Veda rise to the first rank and it is frankly admitted that new revelations more suited to the age have been given to mankind.
Art too enters on a new phase. In the early Indian sculptures deities are mostly portrayed in human form, but in about the first century of our era there is seen a tendency to depict them with many heads and limbs and this tendency grows stronger until in mediaeval times it is predominant. It has its origin in symbolism. The deity is thought of as carrying many insignia, as performing more actions than two hands can indicate; the worshipper is taught to think of him as appearing in this shape and the artist does not hesitate to represent it in paint and stone.
As we have seen, the change which came over Buddhism was partly due to foreign influences and no doubt they affected most Indian creeds. But the prodigious amplification of Hinduism was mainly due to the absorption of beliefs prevalent in Indian districts other than the homes of the ancient Brahmans. Thus south Indian religion is characterized when we first know it by its emotional tone and it resulted in the mediaeval Sivaism of the Tamil country. In another region, probably in the west, grew up the monotheism of the Bhâgavatas, which was the parent of Vishnuism.
Hinduism may be said to fall into four principal divisions which are really different religions: the Smârtas or traditionalists, the Sivaites, the Vishnuites and the Śâktas. The first, who are still numerous, represent the pre-buddhist Brahmans. They follow, so far as modern circumstances permit, the ancient ritual and are apparent polytheists while accepting pantheism as the higher truth. Vishnuites and Sivaites however are monotheists in the sense that their minor deities are not essentially different from the saints of Roman and Eastern Christianity but their monotheism has a pantheistic tinge. Neither sect denies the existence of the rival god, but each makes its own deity God, not only in the theistic but in the pantheistic sense and regards the other deity as merely an influential angel. From time to time the impropriety of thus specially deifying one aspect of the universal spirit made itself felt and then Vishnu and Śiva were adored in a composite dual form or, with the addition of Brahmâ, as a trinity. But this triad had not great importance and it is a mistake to compare it with the Christian trinity. Strong as was the tendency to combine and amalgamate deities, it was mastered in these religions by the desire to have one definite God, personal inasmuch as he can receive and return love, although the Indian feeling that God must be all and in all continually causes the conceptions called Vishnu and Śiva to transcend the limits of personality. This feeling is specially clear in the growth of Râma and Krishna worship. Both of these deities were originally ancient heroes, and stories of love and battle cling to them in their later phases. Yet for their respective devotees each becomes God in every sense, God as lover of the soul, God as ruler of the universe and the God of pantheism who is all that exists and can exist.
For some time before and after the beginning of our era, north-western India witnessed a great fusion of ideas and Indian, Persian and Greek religion must have been in contact at the university town of Taxila and many other places. Kashmir too, if somewhat too secluded to be a meeting-place of nations, was a considerable intellectual centre. We have not yet sufficient documents to enable us to trace the history and especially the chronology of thought in these regions but we can say that certain forms of Vishnuism, Śivaism and Buddhism were all evolved there and often show features in common. Thus in all we find the idea that the divine nature is manifested in four forms or five, if we count the Absolute Godhead as one of them.
I shall consider at length below this worship of Vishnu and Śiva and here will merely point out that it differs from the polytheism of the Smârtas. In their higher phases all Hindu religions agree in teaching some form of pantheism, some laying more and some less stress on the personal aspect which the deity can assume. But whereas the pantheism of the Smârtas grew out of the feeling that the many gods of tradition must all be one, the pantheism of the Vishnuites was not evolved out of pre-buddhist Brahmanism and is due to the conviction that the one God must be everything. It is Indian but it grew up in some region outside Brahmanic influence and was accepted by the Brahmans as a permissible creed, but many legends in the Epics and Puranas indicate that there was hostility between the old-fashioned Brahmans and the worshippers of Râma, Krishna and Śiva before the alliance was made.
Śâktism also was not evolved from ancient Brahmanism but is different in tone from Vishnuism and Sivaism. Whereas they start from a movement of thought and spiritual feeling, Śâktism has for its basis certain ancient popular worships. With these it has combined much philosophy and has attempted to bring its teaching into conformity with Brahmanism, but yet remains somewhat apart. It worships a goddess of many names and forms, who is adored with sexual rites and the sacrifice of animals, or, when the law permits, of men. It asserts even more plainly than Vishnuism that the teaching of the Vedas is too difficult for these latter days and even useless, and it offers to its followers new scriptures called Tantras and new ceremonies as all-sufficient. It is true that many Hindus object to this sect, which may be compared with the Mormons in America or the Skoptsy in Russia, and it is numerous only in certain parts of India (especially Bengal and Assam) but since a section of Brahmans patronize it, it must be reckoned as a phase of Hinduism and even at the present day it is an important phase.
There are many cults prevalent in India, though not recognized as sects, in which the worship of some aboriginal deity is accepted in all its crudeness without much admixture of philosophy, the only change being that the deity is described as a form, incarnation or servant of some well-known god and that Brahmans are connected with this worship. This habit of absorbing aboriginal superstitions materially lowers the average level of creed and ritual. An educated Brahman would laugh at the idea that village superstitions can be taken seriously as religion but he does not condemn them and, as superstitions, he does not disbelieve in them. It is chiefly owing to this habit that Hinduism has spread all over India and its treatment of men and gods is curiously parallel. Princes like the Manipuris of Assam came under Hindu influence and were finally recognized as Kshattiyas with an imaginary pedigree, and on the same principle their deities are recognized as forms of Siva or Durga. And Siva and Durga themselves were built up in past ages out of aboriginal beliefs, though the cement holding their figures together is Indian thought and philosophy, which are able to see in grotesque rustic godlings an expression of cosmic forces.
Though this is the principal method by which Hinduism has been propagated, direct missionary effort has not been wanting. For instance a large part of Assam was converted by the preaching of Vishnuite teachers in the sixteenth century and the process still continues. But on the whole the missionary spirit characterizes Buddhism rather than Hinduism. Buddhist missionaries preached their faith, without any political motive, wherever they could penetrate. But in such countries as Camboja, Hinduism was primarily the religion of the foreign settlers and when the political power of the Brahmans began to wane, the people embraced Buddhism. Outside India it was perhaps only in Java and the neighbouring islands that Hinduism (with an admixture of Buddhism) became the religion of the natives.
Many features of Hinduism, its steady though slow conquest of India, its extraordinary vitality and tenacity in resisting the attacks of Mohammedanism, and its small power of expansion beyond the seas are explained by the fact that it is a mode of life as much as a faith. To be a Hindu it is not sufficient to hold the doctrine of the Upanishads or any other scriptures: it is necessary to be a member of a Hindu caste and observe its regulations. It is not quite correct to say that one must be born a Hindu, since Hinduism has grown by gradually hinduizing the wilder tribes of India and the process still continues. But a convert cannot enter the fold by any simple ceremony like baptism. The community to which he belongs must adopt Hindu usages and then it will be recognized as a caste, at first of very low standing but in a few generations it may rise in the general esteem. A Hindu is bound to his religion by almost the same ties that bind him to his family. Hence the strength of Hinduism in India. But such ties are hard to knit and Hinduism has no chance of spreading abroad unless there is a large colony of Hindus surrounded by an appreciative and imitative population.
In the contest between Hinduism and Buddhism the former owed the victory which it obtained in India, though not in other lands, to this assimilative social influence. The struggle continued from the fourth to the ninth century, after which Buddhism was clearly defeated and survived only in special localities. Its final disappearance was due to the destruction of its remaining monasteries by Moslem invaders but this blow was fatal only because Buddhism was concentrated in its monkhood. Innumerable Hindu temples were destroyed, yet Hinduism was at no time in danger of extinction.
The Hindu reaction against Buddhism became apparent under the Gupta dynasty but Mahayanism in its use of Sanskrit and its worship of Bodhisattvas shows the beginnings of the same movement. The danger for Buddhism was not persecution but tolerance and obliteration of differences. The Guptas were not bigots. It was probably in their time that the oldest Puranas, the laws of Manu and the Mahabharata received their final form. These are on the whole text-books of Smârta Hinduism and two Gupta monarchs celebrated the horse sacrifice. But the Mahabharata contains several episodes which justify the exclusive worship of either Vishnu or Siva, and the architecture of the Guptas suggests that they were Vishnuites. They also bestowed favours on Buddhism which was not yet decadent, for Vasubandhu and Asanga, who probably lived in the fourth century, were constructive thinkers. It is true that their additions were of the dangerous kind which render an edifice top-heavy but their works show vitality and had a wide influence. The very name of Asanga's philosophy—Yogâcârya—indicates its affinity to Brahmanic thought, as do his doctrines of Alayavijñâna and Bodhi, which permit him to express in Buddhist language the idea that the soul may be illumined by the deity. In some cases Hinduism, in others Buddhism, may have played the receptive part but the general result—namely the diminution of differences between the two—was always the same.
The Hun invasions were unfavourable to religious and intellectual activity in the north and, just as in the time of Moslim inroads, their ravages had more serious consequences for Buddhism than for Hinduism. The great Emperor Harsha (†647), of whom we know something from Bâna and Hsüan Chuang, became at the end of his life a zealous but eclectic Buddhist. Yet it is plain from Hsiian Chuang's account that at this time Buddhism was decadent in most districts both of the north and south.
This decadence was hastened by an unfortunate alliance with those forms of magic and erotic mysticism which are called Śâktism. It is difficult to estimate the extent of the corruption, for the singularity of the evil, a combination of the austere and ethical teaching of Gotama with the most fantastic form of Hinduism, arrests attention and perhaps European scholars have written more about it than it deserves. It did not touch the Hinayanist churches nor appreciably infect the Buddhism of the Far East, nor even (it would seem) Indian Buddhism outside Bengal and Orissa. Unfortunately Magadha, which was both the home and last asylum of the faith, was also very near the regions where Śâktism most flourished. It is, as I have often noticed in these pages, a peculiarity of all Indian sects that in matters of belief they are not exclusive nor hostile to novelties. When a new idea wins converts it is the instinct of the older sects to declare that it is compatible with their teaching or that they have something similar and just as good. It was in this fashion that the Buddhists of Magadha accepted Śâktist and tantric ideas. If Hinduism could summon gods and goddesses by magical methods, they could summon Bodhisattvas, male and female, in the same way, and these spirits were as good as the gods. In justice it must be said that despite distortions and monstrous accretions the real teaching of Gotama did not entirely disappear even in Magadha and Tibet.