The Gupta Empire – Religious Life

The Gupta period has been traditionally known as a period of brahmanical renaissance. A range of brahmanical religion was flourishing in this period. Buddhism was still prevalent in some parts of the sub-continent and its rivalry with shaivism had become well known. But Buddhism was being influenced by ritual of worship of other religions. Buddhism had a following beyond the frontiers of India in central Asia, China and south-east Asia. Religious practices current in these regions were accommodated in the practices of the newly established Buddhism. Jainism received support from the merchant communities of western India and royal patronage from Karnataka and the south. In the early part of the sixth century the second Jaina council was held at Valabhi, and the Jaina canon was defined subsequently as it exists today. The use of Sanskrit was on the increase as it had become the prestigious language of the elite in many areas. But it isolated the religious teachers from a wide following. The Jains had evolved a series of icons such as straight standing figures or the cross-legged seated figures of Mahavira and other tirthankaras. This long drawn process of societal interactions with tribal societies in parts of the sub-continent brought important changes, among the tribal chiefs. The process of ‘peasantization’ invariably introduced forces of acculturation by the brahmanas and a large number of tribal chiefs hired turned to agricultural entrepreneurship hired tribal labour, and adopted some form of caste ranking and rituals from the brahmanical society.

Shaivism, Vishnuism, Shaktism and worship of Ganesha and Surya had become established in the form of Puranic religion by the Gupta period. In the post-Gupta period, the worship of the cult of Surya seems to have been confined to Gujarat and gradually disappeared. But the most important religions development in this period was the worship of Devi, all encompassing female deity. Devi subsumed many substratum female deities associated with notions of fertility. Female deities became the nucleus of a number of rites, imbued with magical properties which in a later form were foundational to Tantricism. Devi was supposed to be the initiator of action, and of the power and energy-Shakti-of Shiva (it was held that the male God could only be activated through union with the female). That these ideas were influential can be seen from the temples dedicated to the Yoginis, females endowed with magical power and sometimes linked to goddesses. These temples of Yoginis have mostly survived in central India. Some of the mythology linked to the worship of the goddess was brought together in the text famously known as the Devi-mahatmya. It is important that assimilation of the cult of goddesses popular among the tribal population also enriched Tantric religion.

The Shakti-Shakta cult became not only the fundamental belief in many religious sects, but gradually attained a dominant status. The consorts of male deities were worshiped in their own right, such as Lakshmi the consort of Vishnu, or Parvati Kali and Durga who were various consorts of Shiva. Buddhism was also influenced by Tantric beliefs and rites. Tantric influence on Buddhism can be seen in the emergence Vajrayana sect of Buddhism (the Thunderbolt Vehicle) with its centre in eastern India. Vajrayan Buddhism gave female counterparts, the cult of Taras, to the existing male figures of the Buddhist pantheon. However, Xuan Zang (Hiuen- Tsang) noticed a decline in Buddhism at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and some other places and mentioned the hostility of some rulers, such as Shashanka of Bengal towards Buddhism. Hence, Buddhism registered a decline on a sub continental scale by the seventh century. Three important aspects of Vaishnavism and Shaivism that took place in this period were important religions developments in Brahmanical religion. The image emerged as the focus of worship, and in this form of worship, puja to the idol superseded the Vedic sacrifice. Offering to the image, often food or in some cases an animal, remained a requirement of the ritual. The reduction of the emphasis on the priest compared to his role in the sacrificial ritual of Vedic Brahmanism gradually led to devotional worship-bhakti-becoming the most widespread form of the Puranic religion. Unlike the Vedic religion, the Puranic religion had a far wider appeal. The popular participation in religion included individual performance of rituals, traveling collectively to places of pilgrimage and promoting local mythologies. A few of the Puranas were written at this time, although it is difficult to date these precisely. Some of the Puranas are sectarian literature informing worshipper about the mythology, rituals of worship and observances associated with the particular deity to whom the Purana was dedicated. Some of the early Puranas like Vishnu Purana has a section on genealogies and dynasties of the past. It was an attempt at creating a historical tradition.

The interaction of northern culture with that of the south, with the circuits of traders and regular routes of armies as well as Brahman settlers, resulted in the assimilation of some of the patterns, ideas and institutions of the north, while others were rejected or modified. The brahmanas settled in Tamilakam saw themselves as keepers of what they now regarded as sacrosanct Vedic tradition. As keepers of the Vedic traditions, brahmanas were venerated and gradually found patrons among kings of the peninsula. The performance of rituals by the king was an avenue to high status. Although orthodox brahmanas initially dismissed the devotional movement, the latter eventually proved more popular that other religions trends in the south and this was recognized even by royal patrons. The Tamil devotional movement was deeply affected by Vaishnavism and Shaivism in the choice of deity. These sects were among the early expressions of what has been called the Bhakti movement. Tamil devotional achieved a great wave of popularity in the hymns and poems of the Alvars and the Nayanars, the Vaishnava and Shaiva poets. The hymns dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu have been preserved Nalayira divya- prabandha. Appar was one of the most popular Shaiva poets while Nammalvar and Tirumankai Alvar and the much revered woman poet, Andal were important Vaishnava poets. Some philosophers revitalized Vedic philosophy and established mathas and ghatikas (monasteries and centres for Vedic learning).

The most effective way to make the Vedic philosophy acceptable and comprehensible to the educated was to reduce its obscurities. This was attempted by Shankaracharya, the profounder of new Vedanta philosophy, who accepted the challenges to Brahmanism from the Buddhists and the Jains and the popular devotional sects. He was born in Kerala and wrote and taught in the eighth-ninth centuries, although he could be of a later period. Temples evolved as the centre of socio-religions life in peninsular India in our period of study. From the Pallava period onwards the more prosperous temples maintained trained dancers, singers and musicians. This gave rise to the system of employing devadasis-the woman who served the deity-in many large temples, virtually all over India. Some among them became composers of devotional poems. Rock-cut temples were introduced in the Pallava period, the famous being monolithic temples at Mahabalipuram. Stone structural temples were built at Aihole in the sixth century (under the challenges of Vatapi), at Mahabalipuram-the famous shore temple-in seventh century, and at Kanchipuram.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.