Early Medieval Period – Religion

In the field of religion, the Puranic temple-based Brahmanical sects, about the nature and rise of which you have already read in the previous lessons, continued to be in the ascendant. Of these the Vaishnava and Shaiva sects were the most important. Taking the evidence of royal patronage as an indicator, the various Shaiva sects appear to have been moving ahead of the Vaishnava ones during this period.

A major new development of great importance was Bhakti movement in the Tamil south. The idea of bhakti or devotion to a deity was basic to most sects of the period, but it was in the south during this period that it was invested with an unprecedented emotional intensity and became the focus of a powerful religious movement. It was espoused by both Shaiva saints called Nayanars and Vaishnava ones called Alvars. They journeyed extensively in propagation of their faith; debated with rivals; sang, danced and composed beautiful lyrics in praise of their deities; and converted kings and commoners alike to their faith, exhorting them to bring disgrace to the other faiths. Besides fulfilling the religious cravings of the people, the idea of bhakti served to tone down the severity of the iniquitous caste system as well as helped, as the central doctrine of temple-based religiosity and in calling forth the unquestioning loyalty of the subjects, the monarchs to shore up their rule.

There is a perceptible decline in some areas of Buddhism, which had gradually been falling out of royal favour since the Gupta period. In many others, however, it continued to retain a substantial presence. There was a century of lavish royal patronage by the Maitraka state of Saurashtra in the west, and in the east the importance of Nalanda reached its peak during this time as the most outstanding of all the centres of Buddhist learning, to which some more like Vikramashila, Oddantapuri, and Somapura were added. In Gujarat and Rajasthan regions, Jainism too seems to have done reasonably well among the people despite the dwindling royal support.

It is in the South that the two religions lost out to Brahmanism in a major way, although the Kannada territory remained a Jaina stronghold. There was never any love lost between them and the Brahmanical religions, and religious rivalry and persecution have long been identified as distinct features of the age, despite a certain general reluctance to accept it and a rather desperate bid by some scholars to see nothing but religious tolerance and harmony. There were no doubt kings during these centuries who were evenhanded in their attitudes to the various religions, but so were those with partisan views bordering on bigotry. For instance, the following quote from one of the earliest studies on South Indian Jainism by M.S. Ramaswami Ayyangar and B.Sheshagiri Rao (1922) represents a standard view of the downfall of the faith in the region, about which students of history tend to be unfamiliar these days:The vast remains in South India of mutilated statues, deserted caves, and ruined temples at once recall to our mind the greatness of the religion in days gone by and the theological rancour of the Brahmins who wiped it out of all active existence. The Jains have been forgotten, their traditions have been ignored; but, the memory of that bitter struggle between Jainism and Hinduism, characterised by bloody episodes in the South, is constantly kept alive in the series of frescoes on the wall of the mantapam of the Golden Lily Tank of the famous Minakshi Temple of Madura. … As though this were not sufficient … the whole tragedy is gone through at five of the twelve annual festivals at the Madura temple.

Tantricism was well on way to becoming a salient feature of religious life all over the subcontinent. In Tantricism the cult of female divinities, who were in general known as Tara in Buddhism and Shakti or Devi in Brahmanism, was combined with a set of esoteric beliefs and magical practices. A graphic portrayal of Tantric religion is seen in the Harshacharita, where an ascetic from the South performs what may clearly be identified as a Tantric rite for Harsha’s ancestor Pushpabhuti. The ascetic lived near an old temple of the Mothers (matri), and performed a fire-rite in the mouth of a corpse in an empty building near ‘a great cremation ground’ on the fourteenth night of the dark fortnight.

Among the other features of religious life in this period of transition, one was the coming of Islam on the west coast and in Sindh, and the other was the expansion of Christian communities from Malabar and some other places on the west coast in early sixth century to the east coast of the peninsula by the eighth.

Philosophy continued to be enlivened and enriched by debates and discussions. Apart from the six major schools of philosophy in Brahmanism, there were, as you already know, three ‘heterodox’, i.e. non-Brahmanical ones: Buddhist, Jaina, and Charvaka. No works of the Charvakas have come down to us and their views are known only through refutation by others. A major representative of this school was Purandara, who probably lived in the seventh century and is known to have composed texts on his school of philosophy. In the same century flourished Dharmakirti, the outstanding Buddhist philosopher. In Vedanta philosophy we have Gaudapada, who is reputed to have been Shankaracharya’s paramaguru, the teacher of his teacher. Some greatest names in Mimamsa philosophy also belong to this period: Shabara, Prabhakara, and Kumarila.

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