Wave 7:  An Overview of Hindu Religious Worship:

Concept and Practice,

With particular reference to South India


(A revised version of this overview now (July, 2002) appears as Chapter 10 – The Worship – of

Science and Spirituality – A Vedanta Perception’ published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India,  with ISBN -81-7276-267-4)




Abstract: Though there are differences in the conceptual nuances of the various schools of Indian Philosophy in its higher reaches, at the basic level the teachings of the different masters broadly coincide. Authenticity of the Vedas, Transmigration, Eternal journey of the soul, Applicability of the karma theory, Transcendence and Immanence of the Almighty, Necessity and Significance of deity worship through idols and images, Worship in temples, Recitation of God's names, the power of the Mantra, the concept of Avatar -- On all these there are near-identical views and almost parallel practices. This is what gives Hinduism a tradition of universality and an unbroken vitality over the past three milleniums and possibly more.

The greatest creation of the Indian genius is the Temple. The towering giants of spirituality, namely, Alwars, Nayanmars and miraculous successions of Acharyas continuously contributed to the richness and profundity of the culture, which, though steeped in rituals, has time and again come out of the clutches of dogma. The two great branches, Saivism and Vaishnavism have together enriched and flooded not only the architectural and sculptural treasures through their own traditions of temple worship, but have promoted an ever-deepening faith in the religious and spiritual roots of the nation. And, to top it all, the Age of Renaissance of the past three centuries has brought the emphasis back to an eclectic character for the entire religion.



Any account of the evolution of religious philosophy in India would have to contend with the fact that ancient Indians cared more for the truth of experience and the soundness of logic than for the circumstances which originated that thought. A direct offshoot of this is an indifference to history of religion. It is therefore very difficult, in some cases it is almost impossible, to trace a Hindu religious thought to its real source. The very scriptures, called the Vedas, which are said to constitute the source of everything in Hinduism, are sourceless. They cannot be traced to any single name, writer, author, prophet, founder or rishi, nor can they be ascribed to any single time period. Probably the vedic literature is earlier than that of Greece or Israel. Rig Veda the earliest of the vedas is the earliest book that humanity possesses. Generally the vedic period is taken to be 3000 B.C.E.. to 1000 B.C.E. but there are sound arguments to place them even earlier. To make matters simple we may ascribe, very broadly, and with a large margin of error, seven successive periods, to the evolution of Hindu religious philosophy: When we talk of a Hindu thought or practice, which is valid in modern times, it must be understood that it could have evolved through all the seven different ages to its present form. Any historicity that is implied or indicated must be considered in the context of the conspicuous rarity (more so, when we go deeper into the past) of historical evidence that is available in other cultures and traditions of the world.

The vedic period -- all the way from the distant past up to 1000 B.C.E.

The Age of the ritualistic aphorisms (sutras) and the six limbs of the veda- The first half of the first millenium B.C.E.

The Age of the Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata -- The second half of the first millenium B.C.E.

The Age of the Puranas, Darsanas and Agamas -- The first half of the first millenium C.E.

The Age of Tamil Devotional Literature -- The second half of the first millenium C.E.

Each of these periods as listed above indicates only this much: Most of the literature mentioned therein must have attained their present final form by the end of that period.

The Age of the Bhakti schools -- The first seven centuries of the second millenium C.E.

The Age of Reform and Renaissance -- The last three centuries of the second millenium C.E.

These may be called, shortly, the Vedic Age, the Sutra Age, the Epic Age, the Purana Age, the Tamil Saints Age, the Bhakti Age and the Renaissance Age.

The evolution of Hindu religious philosophy has much to do with South India because, the most famous earliest exponents (not to be taken for founders) of the four major schools of philosophy, all came from the South.

Sankara, usually placed by western scholars in the 8th century C.E., but who very probably lived in the 5th century B.C.E. itself -- who propagated the Absolutist school of philosophy called Non-duality or advaita;

Ramanuja, of the 12th century C.E. -- known as the propagator of the earliest theistic philosophy known as Qualified Non-duality (Visishtadvaita) ;

Madhwa of the 13th century C.E. -- known as the propagator of the dualistic (dvaita, in Sanskrit) philosophy; and

Meykandar, also of the 13th century C.E. - known as the propagator of Saivism, technically called the school of Saiva-siddhanta.

Every variety of Hindu philosophy, not only those listed above, has its source in the Upanishads (the concluding dissertations in the vedas), the Brahma Sutras (aphorisms on the Absolute Reality) of Badarayana Vyasa and the Bhagavad-gita which forms a part of the Mahabharata. These three sources constitute an Authority-triad. The above schools of philosophy probably arose as a reaction to the tendencies exhibited by Buddhism and Jainism. As a consequence, the system of religious thought propounded by the Authority-triad survived the Buddhist and Jain impact, though of course, the side-effect was a renunciation of much ritual and metaphysics on the part of a sizable proportion of the population. Buddhism was absorbed into the parent religion within a few centuries and Hinduism, as the vedic religion may now be called, adopted the theory of Avatars or incarnations according to which the Buddha himself was accepted as an avatar. Jainism also became, in essence, a doctrinal modification and adaptation of the Vedic religion.

All the schools of the Hindu tradition agree that the Absolute Transcendental Supreme Godhead is ever-present, all-knowing and all-powerful. But with regard to the concepts of the Ultimate God, the nature of the Soul, our experience of the Universe and what constitutes the so-called Ultimate Release (moksha) , the schools have technical differences. Below is a brief summary, in four paragraphs, of the teachings of the four schools. An acquaintance with this summary would be helpful in understanding the interplay of mythology and culture associated with Hindu temples, tradition and practice. However, the beginner-reader who is being exposed to these teachings for the first time may find this summary a little hard-going; he may want to skip this - which, incidentally, is the only difficuult part of this account - on a first reading, go with the main text and come back to this as and when he is ready to seek answers to questions.

The Non-dual school of Sankara: There is only one Absolute Reality. It is eternal and impersonal. It is that which is called Brahman in the scriptures. It is infinite in its presence, infinite in its consciousness and infinite in bliss. All our conceptual knowledge of it can be only an approximation. Maya is the magical power by which the Absolute, without undergoing any change in itself, appears to us as the changing pluralistic universe conditioned by time, space and causation. The spirit in man is identical with the Supreme Spirit, as indicated by certain famous scriptural pronouncements like 'That Art Thou'. The Soul has an individual existence only so long as it is wrapped up in ignorance of its identity. All our sin and suffering are due to this ignorance of ours, which has no beginning, but would end when the Self-realisation occurs that we have never been in bondage. This occurrence is called Release (moksha) from the cycle of births and deaths. For this, Action (karma) and Devotion (Bhakti) are necessary subsidiary helps. The real release, however, comes through illumination (jnana) which may come, even while alive, as a result of meditation on the scriptural passages affirming this identity. The plurality of the universe that we experience as well as of the gods and goddesses that we worship is only an apparent plurality. It is the same Absolute Godhead that appears as the different divine Personalities as well as the varied universe. The multiplicity is only an appearance and not an absolute reality. If multiplicity is taken to be real, it would be impossible to reconcile it with the experience of the sages. For, reality of multiplicity would imply a beginning for the Realisation of one-ness and then there is the inevitable consequence that such a deliverance (from the birth-death cycle) would also have an end.

The Qualified non-dual school of Ramanuja: The Absolute Supreme Reality referred to as Brahman, is a Transcendent Personality with infinite superlative qualities. He is Lord Vishnu, also known as Narayana. He creates the other two members of the Trinity, namely, Creator Brahma and Siva, the Lord of Deluge. He is the Absolute God. The Soul and the Universe are only parts of this Absolute God. The relationship of God to the Soul and the Universe is like the relationship of the Soul of Man to the body of Man. Individual souls are only parts of Brahman. God, Soul and Universe together form an inseparable unity which is one and has no second. This is the non-duality part. Matter and Souls inhere in that Ultimate Reality as attributes to a substance. This is the qualification part of the non-duality. Souls and Matter are only the body of God. Creation is a real act of God. It is the expansion of intelligence. Matter is fundamentally real and undergoes real revelation. The Soul is a higher mode than Matter, because it is conscious. It is also eternally real and eternally distinct. Final release, that comes, by the Lord's Grace, after the death of the body, as a consequence of a life of intense Devotion and or total Surrender, is a Communion with God. Individual Souls retain their separate identities even after moksha. They live in Fellowship with God either serving Him or meditating on Him. The philosophy of this school is also known as Vaishnavism.

The Saiva-siddhanta school of Meykandar: Also known as Saivism, conceptually this stands midway between the previous two schools. The supreme Reality is Lord Siva. His infinite love reveals itself in the five divine acts of creation, preservation and dissolution of the universe, and the obscuration and liberation of souls. Siva acts through his consort, the personification of His Energy and Power. She is known as Sakti. The universe which undergoes evolution for the benefit of souls is real and eternal. Matter and Souls form the body of the Lord. Souls are in their nature infinite, eternal and omniscient like God, but being in bondage, they imagine themselves to be finite, temporary and ignorant. To obtain the Release, one must get rid of the bonds viz., our past karma, our false notion of a finite self and our subjection and attachment to matter. This has to be done through a discipline prescribed by the guru and by the grace of Siva. Discipline and Grace culminate in Enlightenment which is the supreme means of Release.

The unqualified dualism school of Madhwa: God, Soul and Universe are three mutually and fundamentally different categories, each having a separate reality, though the latter two are dependent on the former. However God controls them. God's Grace is necessary for the liberation of the Soul. God is Lord Narayana, possessed of countless superlative qualities, devoid of all blemish and is an independent Reality. He causes the universe to be born and sustains and controls it. But He is not its material cause. Five differences are absolute: God and Soul; Soul and Soul; God and Matter; Soul and Matter; Matter and Matter. Each Soul is essentially different and belongs to different grace, even in its enjoyment of bliss after moksha. The philosophy is one of down-to-earth realism. Moksha is a state of existence when the soul enjoys eternal bliss, the only way to reach that state is Devotion. The Lord can be known only through Scriptures.


That there are these differences in the higher reaches of Hindu philosophy does not however mean that the followers of the religion are divided into different camps and tightly earmarked 'churches'. It is very important to understand this. The only difference, if at all, is in the temples and in certain household ritual performances. Excepting those that came up in the recent Renaissance Age, temples generally stand classified into Siva temples and Vishnu temples. In the Siva temples the dominant undercurrent theme, presentation and ritual worship would be based on the thinking of the advaita school and or the Saivite school. In the Vishnu temples the thinking of one or other of the non-Absolutist schools (visishtadvaita or dvaita) will predominate. In spite of this and in spite of the scholastic differences, there is a large mass of agreement on the fundamentals of the religion that gets reflected in the average Hindu religious outlook and practice. We shall turn to these basics now.


 Ó Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 7, 2000