Vedic and Dravidian roots of Hinduism
In the development of philosophical thought in India there are two main currents, the Vedic and the non-Vedic.
It is true that since early mediaeval times the Vedas have been regarded as the source of all Indian wisdom, but this was possible only by interpreting the term Vedas in a very wide sense.
Thus, the Āgama-Śāstras and sciences and arts, like medicine and music, were accepted as parts of the Vedas, though they could not be traced to any extant text of the Vedas.
Nothing definite can be said as to whether Hindu thought is the result of the addition of the Āryan or the Vedic elements to an earlier Dravidian civilization or the addition of Dravidian elements to an already existing Āryan or Vedic civilization.
This much is certain, that what is called Hindu thought is not a simple growth from Āryan or Vedic civilization.
The element other than the Āryan or the Vedic, which contributed to this development, will be described in this paper as Dravidian. This Dravidian element is the most important other element in Hindu thought.
It is difficult to define what is meant by the term Dravidian. The term is applied to a group of languages, to a people, and also to a civilization. The languages that are Dravidian have preserved their individuality, though mixed up with the Āryan languages.
The ethnic inter-mixture in India has been so great that it is not possible at present to say who are the Dravidian peoples. Similarly, it is difficult to define Dravidian civilization, as distinct from the Āryan or Vedic civilization.
Linguistic and ethnic surveys make it clear that it is wrong to think of North India as wholly Āryan and South India as wholly Dravidian. Linguistically, this division is not very wrong, but various minor languages spoken in North India show pronounced Dravidian elements.
All that can be done is to mark out features in Indian thought which cannot be traced back to the Vedas as direct and natural developments from Vedic texts and treat them as Dravidian in this broad sense.
The part played by the forest in the evolution of Indian thought has deservedly received recognition in modern times.
The āśramas of the Ṛṣi were the centres for the development of philosophical thought in India, but only from the time of the Upaniṣads.
Forests played no part in the pre-Upaniṣad Vedas. The Ṛig-Vedic Ṛṣi were citizens living in cities and villages, and not people who retired to the forest for contemplation.
The forest plays no part in the civilization of the Brāhmaṇas either.
In the Taittirīya-Āraṇyaka there is, however, a reference to obligatory study being in a place other than the village and the home. The place is described as a-cchadi-darśa, a place from which there will not be the sight (darśa) of the roof (chadi) of the homes.
The distinction of the two parts of the obligatory study as what could be done in the village (grāmya) and what should be done in the forest (āraṇya) is very clear in the later literature of the Vedas relating to the life of the Hindus.
The gods of the Vedas are not forest deities. They came in chariots drawn by horses and there is no mention of hunting associated with the Vedic gods.
But when we come to the non- Vedic gods of Hinduism, we find that they are associated with the forest and with hunting.
Nearly all the Śaivite gods of Hinduism are non-Vedic, and are recognized as Dravidian.
There are especially two deities, Kālī or Durgā and Ayyappan (a Dravidian god that is supposed to be the offspring of Śiva through Viṣṇu as māyā, who distributed nectar to the gods after the churning of the ocean). The temple of these two deities is called a kāvu in certain parts of South India and the word means a forest or grove.
This shows that these deities were worshipped in forests and groves. The place where the serpent images are installed and worshipped is also designated by the same term.
The influence of the non-Vedic element was not merely in introducing a new kind of scene for the development of thought in the country, but also in bringing about a change in the approach to the problem of truth.
The Vedic civilization is one of ritualism. The offering of soma at the sacrifices formed the most important feature of the religious life of the people among the Vedic Āryans.
The Vedic texts are intimately associated with this form of ritual. The thought element in it is subordinate to the factor of sacrifice.
No doubt, in the case of some of the poets who have composed the Ṛig-Vedic poetry, the element of communion with the gods is quite clear.
The element of speculation and even philosophical thought is also not absent from the Vedic texts, but a system of ritualism is not the best environment for the development of philosophy and abstract thinking. There is too much action in such an environment for the development of speculative thought.
Contemplation and concentration are necessary for the development of abstract thinking, and a sacrifice is hardly the suitable occasion for it.
Worship of the Divine in a more concrete form leads to higher thinking about God and the universe and their mutual relations. Such worship may be in a temple where there is a visible symbol of divinity or an actual image.
The system of sacrifice as a public institution is seasonal, and performed only in certain specified months. The day-to-day sacrifice is in the home.
The worship of the Divine in a temple is, on the other hand, a standing institution. Here, it is not merely a few poets with mystic faculties who are in communion with the Divine.
Others also have a more concrete vision of the Divine than is possible at a sacrifice where they see only the fire, and where they do not have any opportunity for participation.
The concreteness, the community and the continuity associated with temple worship are a more suitable environment for the development of speculative thought.
In the Upaniṣads we find a combination of the element of the worship of the Divine in the forest with the Vedic sacrifices. Ritualism was not given up. But contemplation became a more important feature in the fire sacrifice in the forests.
The temples were forest institutions in the beginning. Perhaps it is the association with the Vedic practice of worship in the homes, in the villages and in the cities that led to the development of temples in the villages and cities and the installation of shrines also in the homes.
There are many temples where the idol is accepted as self-installed. Such idols are called svayam-bhū (self-born).
There are temples even now where the idol has to be left exposed to rain. There might be a temple, but no roof is put up above the idol. All these show the original connection of the temples and image worship with the forest.
In the change from cities to the forests which are more congenial for contemplation and abstract thinking, and from the sacrifice to the more concrete temple worship we thus have two factors of non- Vedic origin that had great influence in the growth of philosophy.
The idea of unity of the universe is present in Vedic texts, but not the preliminary requirements for the growth of philosophical thought.
There are two great elements in the non-Vedic side of Hindu religion that contributed to the recognition of ultimate unity in this world. These are met with also in the Vedas, but were interpreted and presented in a systematic way only in the later stages:
One of these factors is the emergence of the female element in the pantheon. The Vedic religion is essentially the worship of the Divine in its male aspect. There are few goddesses in the Vedas, and the few who are there are not of great importance.
Perhaps Aditi identified with the earth is the only goddess that has a high position in the Vedic pantheon, being the mother of the gods. But even Aditi is not worshipped in the Vedas like the other gods, Agni (fire), Indra, Varuṇa, and Viṣṇu.
Saraswatī is a very insignificant figure in the Vedic pantheon. Indra appears in a very casual way in the Vedic text.
It is only at a later stage that we find the Mother Goddess appearing on the scene in the Hindu religion, and the presumption is that this is due to the influence of the non-Vedic scheme of gods.
Thus we find in course of time the Goddess as the most prominent power in the world, the Goddess as the creative power of the highest God, and a goddess associated with practically all the important gods.
Thus we have Śrī (the Goddess of wealth) and Bhūmi (the earth) as the consorts of Viṣṇu, Pārvatī as the consort of Śiva, and Saraswatī as the consort of Brāhma. The tri-mūrti (the triad of divinity) had thus also a female aspect.
From Kālidāsa’s works we gather that Brāhma occupied a high position in the religion of the times.
The fact that this Vedic deity did not continue as a great god shows the non-Vedic influences then working in the religious life of India.
Although on the male side, both Viṣṇu and Śiva continued to occupy the highest position, on the female side, it is the aspect of goddess as the consort of Śiva that prevailed in the Hindu pantheon.
Pārvatī, Kālī and Durgā are various aspects of the goddess who occupies an independent position in the Hindu religion of later days.
There are certain Schools which regard the highest Divinity as the Mother, and Śiva is worshipped only as her consort. Śiva is also worshipped as the ardha-nārīśvara, or the Lord who is half woman.
Beside the Goddess, there are associates like mahā-vidyās (the great wisdoms), the yoginīs (those who have attained to yoga), and various other elements which show the high position assigned to the female aspect of divinity.
The theistic Sāṁkhya of the Purāṇas traces the cosmos to the Divine, which transformed itself into puruṣa and prakṛti. Through their interaction, the world is originated and continues. This Sāṁkhya metaphysics is one of the strongest foundations of the Upaniṣad system.
It is doubtful if this doctrine could be evolved from the Vedic heaven and earth as Father and Mother and the Vedic Aditi, without some outside contribution which assigned to the female aspect a position of requisite importance.
The other great contribution of the non-Vedic religions to Indian thought is the position assigned to animals, birds, trees, etc.
In the Vedas, animals and trees play very little part. This is natural in a city civilization. Animals and trees have a higher position in a civilization evolved in the forest.
In the Vedas, there is the horse which drew the chariots of the gods, there is the cow that gave milk. Many other animals and birds are also mentioned as well as fish.
There are also references to soma and its juice, and the log of wood from which the sacrificial pole is made.
Animals, birds, fish, trees and plants, however, come into the picture only incidentally in the Vedas. They are referred to as a subordinate material in the life of man and not as integral parts in the scheme of the total world.
We see a different picture in later Hindu thought.
Cow-worship becomes one of the most important features in Hindu life, but this is an aspect that did not appear in the Vedas.
Various other animals and birds appear as vehicles (vāhana) of the different gods, and they are also the banner signs for the gods:
Thus Śiva has a bull and Viṣṇu has a kite (Garuda, which is the Sanskrit form of the Dravidian word kazhngan, a vulture). Brāhma has swans. Viṣṇu rests on the coiled body of the serpent Śeṣa or Ananta that supports also the earth. Śiva has the serpent Vāsuki as his ornament.
Elephant, lion, tiger, buffalo, etc., come into the picture as associated with divinities. The vehicles of the gods are also objects of worship along with the gods.
Trees also began to be worshipped by the Hindus in the post-Vedic times. Especially is this the case with the banyan tree. Other trees and plants and creepers also were associated with various powers.
The scope of Divine emanation was thus extended and increase of time gave rise to the doctrine of Tīrthas (holy places, especially in rivers and oceans).
It is not merely in temples that the Divine was present, but also in certain localities in this world. Contact with such localities contributed to the spiritual elevation of man.
The deification of man is another feature of post-Vedic religion.
Great heroes, considered as gods, came down to the earth as men for the protection of humanity, and were worshipped as gods in temples erected for them.
A typical instance of this process which continued till recent times is the goddess Karṇījī in Rajputana.
In the Vedas also, human beings became gods like the Maruts, and human beings attained to divine powers and some of the divine rights, e.g. the Ṛṣi known as Aṅgiras. But there is no mention in the Vedas of gods coming down to earth as human beings.
In post-Vedic Hinduism God appeared also in the form of animals.
There is Hanuman, the monkey god. There is Gaṇeśa, the man-elephant god. Nanda, the attendant of Śiva has the form of a bull. Skanda or Subrāmaṇya has the form of a serpent.
The avatara doctrine associated with Viṣṇu is, however, a later development. There is only one avatara of Viṣṇu for which there is a trace in the Vedas. That is the Dwarf, who measured out the whole world in three steps.
From the word Varāha which occurs in the Veda, commentators have tried to show that this is a reference to the Boar incarnation (Varāha), but there is no basis for this interpretation. All the other Avatāras of Viṣṇu are extra-Vedic.
The gods in the Vedas have little individuality and hardly any concreteness. But the entire conception of God changed in later Hindu thought.
There is greater clearness owing to the more concrete nature of the divine form and the greater differentiation in the functions of the gods.
Brāhma was assigned the function of creation, but as this remained an abstract conception he dwindled in religion though he continued to find a place in mythology.
Śiva and Viṣṇu, on the other hand, became concrete and highly individualized and took the highest position in Hindu thought.
The image of Viṣṇu reposing on the coiled body of the serpent Śeṣa, with his two consorts Śrī and Bhūmi, and with his functions of preserving and protecting the world cannot be derived from the conceptions of God we find in the Vedas.
The same applies to Śiva on the Mount Kailāśa, with his consort Pārvatī, and his sons and attendants, and charged with the destruction of the world so that there may be a better creation.
Gaṇeśa, Skanda and other deities acquire distinct individualities and distinct functions.
The growth in personification helped in the development of the doctrine of bhakti in Hinduism.
We find traces of bhakti also in the Vedas, especially in the hymns to Varuṇa; but how can true bhakti evolve with the Vedic gods who are incorporeal and abstract and cannot be seen even in the form of idols?
Vedic sacrifices remained domestic or village institutions and it was temple worship that assumed the form of national institutions. The Ṛṣi of the Vedic times who had communion with the gods gave place to the great devotees who surrendered themselves to the gods.
There evolved a new literature relating to Hinduism, distinct from the Vedic literature. These are the Āgamas relating to temple worship.
Tamil has an immense literature of the Śaiva School. The earliest religious literature in Tamil consists of devotional songs of the saints called the Ālvārs. They are all collected together into what is called Tiru-murai.
Names of works like Nāl-aḍiyār, Tiru-vācakam, Tevāram, etc., are very famous in South India. Similarly there are the Divya-prabandhas of the Vaiṣṇavites.
These works, along with epics like Maṇimekhalai, all belonging to the early centuries of the Christian era, contain much of philosophy and controvert many of the Buddhist and the Jain doctrines.
The saints were able to convert the rulers back to Hinduism from Buddhism and Jainism, but it cannot be said that the conversion was to Vedic Hinduism.
From the Brāhmaṇas and the Upaniṣads, which interpret the ritualism and the philosophy of the Vedas respectively, to the works of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and Śaṅkarācārya it is a long leap.
These two thousand years are covered on the one hand by the sūtras of the Mimāṅsā and the Vedānta, and on the other by the Epics with the Bhagavad-Gītā as a part of the Mahābhārata in Sanskrit, and an immense literature of worship in Tamil.
This literature paved the way for the revival of Vedic religion, but it may be pointed out that the southern languages also developed a mass of literature relating to the higher aspects of non-Vedic religions.
There are also Schools like Śaiva-siddhānta and some sections of the Vaiṣṇavite religion that accord an independent authority to their basic texts without recognizing them as part of the Vedas.
It is also interesting to note that, the revival of Vedic religion was almost entirely due to the contribution of men speaking the four main Dravidian languages:
Kumārila Bhaṭṭa was an Andhra, Śaṅkarācārya came from Kerala, Rāmānuja āchārya belonged to Tamil-land and Madhva āchārya had his home in the Kannada area.
It is true that the revival was in the name of the Vedas and not in the name of the new religion of temple worship.
The texts relating to the latter accepted the supremacy of the Vedas and their own literature was given a place in the religion as forming parts of the Vedas.
Śankara’s monism may be Upaniṣadic but his theology is certainly not Vedic. In the systems of Rāmānuja and of Madhva, only the texts are taken from the Vedic store. The entire interpretation is based on the latter-day religion of temple worship and the Āgamas.
Viṣṇu of the Vedas has only the name in common with the Viṣṇu of latter-day Hinduism, along with the attribute of the three strides (tri-Vikramā).
Rudra of the Veda has little resemblance to the Śiva of later Hinduism, except that the name Rudra continued as synonymous with Śiva.
The multitude of village gods and goddesses with their various functions and legends and attributes brought about a revolution in the whole of the Vedic religion, though the new religion professed its allegiance to the Vedas.
Within the last century our knowledge of the non-Vedic elements in the evolution of Indian thought has greatly increased from the discovery of the remnants of an ancient civilization in the Indus Valley, in places known as Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. The archaeological finds in these regions reveal the existence of cities there as early as about 3000 B.C.
The study of this civilization is still in its early stage and its chronological relation to Vedic civilization is still a matter of dispute. Nevertheless, valuable information regarding the civil, the social and the religious life of these people has helped to remove some of the gaps in our knowledge of ancient India.
There is no evidence of the existence of anything corresponding to Vedic ritualism in the Indus valley civilization. We, however, find many of the features of the non-Vedic civilization that contributed to the growth of later Hinduism.
Thus phallus worship was a prominent feature of the religion of the Indus peoples. It represents the creative aspect of the Divine, a feature that is very indistinct in the Vedic conception of gods.
Certain powers relating to the early stages of the world are attributed to the various gods in the Vedas, but God as creator is not an aspect of the Vedic texts.
The Vedas speak with scorn of those who do not perform sacrifices and those who do not make gifts. This may well be a reference to the Indus valley civilization.
Another prominent feature of the Indus valley civilization was the worship of the Mother Goddess. Various forms of the deity have been found in this region, but there is no doubt about the identity of these forms.
Thus the predominance of the female aspect of the Divine in this civilization is another non-Vedic element which influenced the Indian civilization of later times. Temple worship was also prominent in this civilization.
These two aspects are common to the Dravidian civilization already dealt with above. But this civilization was essentially a city civilization and it could not be otherwise in so far as the remnants are available only from the city sites.
The appearance of animals and birds is another feature in this civilization that is common with the Dravidian civilization. Various figures have been discovered, but it is uncertain whether they were decorations or objects of worship.
Another important non-Vedic element which can be clearly discovered in the Indus valley civilization is the mode of the disposal of the dead body.
Burial urns have been unearthed in the Indus valley which indicates that the dead bodies were buried and not cremated. This is distinct from the Vedic practice where dead bodies were cremated.
It is interesting to speculate on the reasons for burying the dead. Is it in the hope of the soul returning to the earth, and perhaps occupying the same body that the body was not destroyed? Is this the beginning of the doctrine of transmigration?
Traces of a belief in the return of the soul to the earth after death are not totally absent in the Vedic texts, but the life of the soul in a higher and happier world is the more dominant feature of the Vedic religion and not the return of the soul for another span of life in this world.
The doctrine of karman too is very faint in the early Vedic texts. The doctrine of karman is not merely a belief in the attainment of happiness as a fruit of good deeds.
The essence of the doctrine is that while man in the present may be the product of his own past, he is also the sole architect of his own future.
The Śrāddha and various other Vedic rites show that there is a remedy in the hands of others for the evil effects of one's own actions.
The doctrine of reincarnation and the doctrine of karman are interlocked and prominent in the Upaniṣads, but in the earlier texts they are very faint, if traceable at all.
The belief that the dead person can mould his own destiny and return to this world may be at the root of not burning the dead body in this non-Vedic civilization.
The idea of man being his own architect fits in better with the non-Vedic religion than with the Vedic religion of ritualism where man performs the sacrifices to propitiate gods who bestow benefits on man.
The system of burying the dead bodies is based on the belief of the ability of the dead person to work out his own destiny and to return to life.
The literatures of the Southern languages mention various kinds of disposal of the dead body of which one is burial of the dead body. But cremation is not unknown. Perhaps the literary evidences are influenced by the admixture of the Vedic custom of cremation.
The sannyāsa is not an institution that has developed independently from the early Vedic civilization.
According to custom that has continued till today, the sannyāsins are buried after death and their bodies are not cremated.
Perhaps this may be a survival of all bodies being buried instead of being cremated, and the sannyāsins, with their yogic powers, may be able to return to life and as such their bodies are not destroyed in fire through cremation.
It is doubtful whether the Indus valley civilization is distinct from the Dravidian civilization. Scholars have declared that there is great affinity between the two.
It is for this reason that the Dravidian contribution to Indian thought has been discussed in detail because nearly everything said about that civilization applies to Indus valley civilization as well.
To sum up: The important contributions from the non-Vedic or Dravidian and Indus valley sources are:
(1) The influence of forests in the life of the people;
(2) Temple worship along with contemplation of the Divine in a more concrete form;
(3) Elevation of animals, birds, trees, etc., to a higher position in the scheme of the universe;
(4) The exaltation of the female aspect of the Divine;
(5) The creative aspect of God; and
(6) God appearing as national heroes and the deification of man.