It is hard to define Hinduism. It is not a religion in a narrow sense associated with the word religion. Its comprehensiveness bypasses the human mind. No single approach is able to enunciate its basic concept and philosophy. In a very broad sense Hinduism is a way of life. From time immemorial indigenous religious consciousness has continuously enriched it. It has been influenced by the aspirations and needs of the human society from time to time. It embraces the indigenous religions of India which have been modified almost continuously with the development of ideas and the needs of local communities. As a result Hinduism is a mixture of sects, cults and doctrines which have had a profound effect on Indian culture. In Spite of this diversity, there are few of its aspects which do not rely in some way or the other on the authority of Indian religious literature – the Vedas, the Epics and the Puranas.
The Vedic gods who eventually became established in India may have been the result of the fusion of ideas brought by migrants and those of the indigenous people.
These deities were defined in the Vedas, along wit Ii meticulous descriptions of the ceremonies that were intended to propitiate them.
There is a popular school of thought which disputes the theory of the migrants having brought in ideas and is of the opinion that Hinduism was highly developed much before. It is not within the scope of this book to go into this controversy.
It is evident from the Vedas that these deities were, to a certain extent, visualized as having human or animal forms. But it is not certain whether they were worshipped in the form of images. There remains the possibility, important for its effect on the later development of images, that some of the lower castes worshipped images in human or animal form and that this practice gradually spread upwards to the higher sections of society. At a much later period, the Vedic deities were given human form and reproduced as images.
In response to the forces of development, the old Vedic religion underwent several changes. These chiefly concerned the deities that were worshipped, and the forms of ritual. Some deities changed their function, or gained or lost popularity, while the powers of mediation between the deity and the devotee became monopolized by the priests (Brahmins) who alone could perform the necessary rites at the rituals. This made the deities remote and some of them acquired awesome aspects. Consequently, while many of the old deities were relegated to minor positions in the pantheon, others were elevated, and new deities were introduced. Parallel with this, and as a possible reaction against the strict orthodoxy of the the need gradually arose for a more satisfying relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped. This need for devotion (bhakti) towards a personal god stimulated the desire for images which would make the deity more approachable. Their introduction was a slow, uneven process and it is likely that images were made at first only of minor deities in the pantheon. One of the earliest references to images for worship is around the 5th century B.C. of the Yakshas (tree Spirits) and Nagas (snake gods).
Further stimulus to a more personal relationship between gods and men was given by the two great epics of Indian literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The stories of these epics are secular in nature but they not only describe the feats of their heroes but refer to the influence that the gods had on their exploits. Thus the stories of the gods were supplemented and expanded as they were woven into the narratives and the heroes themselves got assimilated into Indian popular religion and became deified.
Further development of the Indian society brought about changes in religious concepts and an increase in the size of the pantheon. This grew by a process of absorption and combination, adopting popular (including female) deities into a sophisticated and well-developed assembly and merging several deities into one. Thus the minor Vedic deity Vishnu was identified with Vasudeva and another epic hero Krishna. It is likely that the ten incarnations of Vishnu that eventually became conventional were attributed to him in a similar way.
Later, Krishna himself got assimilated with a pastoral flute – playing deity and became the subject of many poems and legends. At the same time, an ancient fertility Lord Shiva, was elevated to the higher ranks of the pantheon and became a important deity with a variety of forms that gave him a popularity equal to that of Vishnu. Shiva and Vishnu were visualized as forming a triad with Brahma. But, in spite of his ancient prestige, Brahma never received the widespread adoration enjoyed by the other two gods.
Beginning about the 4th or 5th century A.D., attempts were made to create some sort of order out of the mass of myths and legends that had evolved around a large number deities. Eventually these traditional tales were incorporated into the Puranas (Ancient Stories) summing up all that was known about the gods, with their elaborate genealogies, and providing religious instructions. In consequence, many of the deities who subsequently made their appearance are the result of formalization given to them in the Puranas. At the same time a further impetus was given to Hindu mythology (and thus a corresponding increase in the number of deities) by the development of Tantrism which emphasized the cult of the female partner (shakti) in association with a male deity, often Shiva.
From the 15th century onwards a revival of interest in the bhakti movement brought about a widespread devotion to the cult of Krishna, one of the earliest gods to have human-like qualities.
The creative powers of India’s religious life have not declined but continue with the same energy as they had earlier. For example recently (in the 1960’s), in Northern India, the goddess Santoshi Mata appeared complete with her own mythology and legends.