Sri Lanka Table of Contents

Whereas Buddhism claims a historical founder, a basic doctrine, and a formal monastic structure, Hinduism embraces a vast and varied body of religious belief, practice, and organization. In its widest sense, Hinduism encompasses all the religious and cultural systems originating in South Asia, and many Hindus actually accept the Buddha as an important sectarian teacher or as a rebel against or reformer of ancient Hindu culture. The medieval Arabs first used the term Hindu to describe the entire cultural complex east of the Sindhu, or Indus, River (in contemporary Pakistan). Hindu beliefs and practices in different regions claim descent from common textual sources, while retaining their regional individuality. In Sri Lanka, Hinduism is closely related to the distinctive cultural systems of neighboring Tamil Nadu.

Classical Hinduism includes as a central tenet of belief the concept of nonviolence (ahimsa), a concept that was of great importance to the Buddha and to such reformers as Mahatma Gandhi some 2,500 years later. Veneration of pure life, especially of the cow, has come to be intimately associated with orthodox Hinduism of all sects. The cow is regarded as, among other things, the sacred embodiment of motherhood and fruitfulness. The deliberate killing of a cow is scarcely less terrible than the killing of a Brahman. For the miscreant it results in immediate and irrevocable outcasting; even the accidental killing of a cow requires elaborate purification ceremonies.

The earliest and most sacred sources of Hinduism are the Vedas, a compilation of hymns originating in northern India around 1,500 B.C. They are the oldest surviving body of literature in South Asia, created by the culture of the Arya (the "noble" or "pure" ones) in northwest India. Composed in an archaic form of the Sanskrit language, the Vedas were sung by a caste of priests (Brahmans) during sacrifices for the ancient gods. Families of Brahmans have passed down the oral recitation of these hymns for thousands of years, and Brahman claims to high status ultimately rest on their association with Vedic hymns. The vast majority of Hindus know almost nothing of Sanskrit or the Vedas, but even in the late twentieth century Brahmans frequently officiate at important ceremonies such as weddings, reciting ancient hymns and making offerings into sacred flames.

By the time of the Buddha, intellectual speculations gave rise to philosophical concepts that still influence all of South Asia. These speculations became books called Upanishads, originally written as commentaries on the Vedas but later viewed as sacred works in their own right. The Upanishads discuss brahman, an impersonal, eternal force that embodies all good and all knowledge. The individual "soul," or atman, partakes of the same qualities as brahman but remains immersed in ignorance. Action (karma) is the cause of its ignorance; reason continually searches for meaning in the material world and in its own mental creations, instead of concentrating on brahman, the one true reality. The individual soul, immersed in action, migrates from life to life, until it achieves identity with brahman and is released. There is a close relationship between the Buddha's understanding of suffering and enlightenment, and the ideas of atman, karma, and brahman that became basic to Hindu philosophy. The Buddha, however, claimed that even the idea of the soul was a mental construct of no value, whereas Hindu thought has generally preserved a belief in the soul.

As India became a major center of civilization with extensive political and economic systems, Hinduism became associated with new visions of the gods and worship in temples. Tamil Nadu was a major center of this transformation. By about A.D. 1000, the Tamils had reworked Brahmanical culture into a southern Indian type of devotional (bhakti) religion. This religion claimed to be based on the Vedas and the philosophy of the Upanishads, but its roots lay just as deep in strong attachments to local deities and a desire for salvation (moksha) through their intercession.

Several gods predominate in the many myths, legends, and styles of worship. One of the main Hindu gods is Vishnu, often represented as a divine king accompanied by his beautiful wife, Lakshmi, the bestower of wealth and good fortune. Besides presiding as a divine monarch, Vishnu periodically descends to earth, assuming a physical form to help beings attain salvation. Vishnu has ten main incarnations, two of which--Rama and Krishna- -are particularly popular. Rama was a great hero, whose exploits in rescuing his wife from the demon king of Lanka are recounted in the epic Ramayana. Vishnu's most popular incarnation is Krishna, who combines in a single divine figure the mythic episodes of a warrior prince and a rustic cowherd god. As warrior, Krishna figures prominently in what is perhaps the single most important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he stresses the importance of doing one's duty and devotion to god. As divine cowherd, Krishna served as an inspiration for a vast body of religious poetry in Sanskrit and the regional South Asian languages. From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, Tamil devotees of Vishnu (alvars) composed poetry in praise of the god. These Tamil poems, collected in anthologies, are still recited during worship and festivals for Vishnu.

The second major Hindu deity, and by far the most important god among the Tamils in Sri Lanka, is Siva. He differs considerably from Vishnu. In many stories he reigns as a king, but often he appears as a religious ascetic, smeared with ashes, sitting on a tiger skin in the jungle, with a snake around his neck. He is the lord of animals. Although he is an ascetic, he is also a sexual figure, married to the beautiful Parvati (the daughter of the mountain), and his image is often a single rock shaped like a phallus (lingam). He is often a distant figure whose power is destructive, but paradoxically he is a henpecked husband who has to deal with family squabbles involving his sons. His devotees enjoy retelling his myths, but worshipers visualize him as a cosmic creator who will save his creatures when they have abandoned themselves totally to his love. One of the most powerful expressions of his creative role is the image of Nataraja, "Lord of the Dance," who gracefully manifests the rhythm of the universe. Great Tamil devotees (nayanmar) of the early middle ages created a large collection of poems dedicated to Siva and his holiest shrines. These collections are still revered among the Tamils as sacred scriptures on the same plane as the Vedas.

Female deities are very important among the Hindu Tamils. At temples for Siva or Vishnu there are separate shrines for the god and for his consort, and in many cases the shrine for the goddess (amman) receives much more attention from worshipers. Hindu philosophy interprets the goddess as the Shakti, or cosmic energy, of the god in the world and therefore the most immediate creative or destructive force, to be thanked or placated. Many of the manifestations of the goddess are capricious or violent, and she is often seen as a warrior who destroys demons on her own or whom Siva himself has to defeat in combat. As Mariamman, she used to bring smallpox, and she is still held responsible for diseases of the hot season.

In addition to the main gods, there are a number of subordinate divine beings, who are often the most popular deities. Ganesha, or Pillaiyar (or Ganapati), the elephant-headed son of Siva and Parvati, is the patron of good fortune and is worshiped at the beginning of a religious service or a new venture, such as a business deal or even a short trip. Murugan, his brother, is a handsome young warrior who carries a spear and rides a peacock. He is worshiped near hills or mountains, and his devotees are known for fierce vows and austerity that may include self-mutilation. Every village has its own protective deities, often symbolized as warriors, who may have their own local stories and saints.

Worship of the gods is known as puja. Worship can occur mentally or in front of the most rudimentary representations, such as stones or trees. Most people assemble pictures or small statues of their favorite deities and create small shrines in their homes for daily services, and they make trips to local shrines to worship before larger and more ornate statues. Public temples (kovil) consist of a central shrine containing images of the gods, with a surrounding courtyard and an enclosing wall entered through ornately carved towers (gopuram). During worship, the images become the gods after special rituals are performed. Worshipers then offer them presents of food, clothing, and flowers as they would honored guests. The gifts are sanctified through contact with the gods, and worshipers may eat the sacred food or smear themselves with sacred ash in order to absorb the god's grace. In public temples, only consecrated priests (pujari) are allowed into the sanctum housing the god's image, and worshipers hand offerings to the priests for presentation to the god. Most of the time, worship of the gods is not congregational, but involves offerings by individuals or small family groups at home or through temple priests. During major festivals, however, hundreds or thousands of people may come together in noisy, packed crowds to worship at temples or to witness processions of the gods through public streets.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress