The religions of India are even more numerous than her races, and at least as difficult to describe and define, if not more so, as the two classes of phenomena are by no means conterminous, and often mix and overlap one another in a manner that is most perplexing. Yet the main outlines of the case are clear enough, and may be described in a very few words with sufficient clearness for our present purposes at all events.

First comes, of course, the religion of the great immigrant Aryan race, embodied in the hymns of the Vedas, and consequently called the Vedic. It seems to have been brought from the regions of Central Asia, and it and its modified forms were, to say the least of it, the dominant religion in India down to the middle of the third century before Christ. At that time Aśoka adopted the religion of Buddha and made it the religion of the State, in the same manner that Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman world, at about the same distance of time from the death of its founder.

For nearly 1,000 years Buddhism continued to be the State religion of the land, though latterly losing much of its purity and power, till the middle of the seventh century of our era, when it sunk, and shortly afterwards disappeared entirely, before the rising star of the modern Hindu form of faith. This last was a resuscitation of the old Vedic religion, or at least pretended to be founded on the Vedas, but so mixed up with local superstitions, and so overlaid with the worship of Śiva and Vishṇu, and all the 1001 gods of the Hindu Pantheon, that the old element is hardly recognisable in the present popular forms of belief. It is now the religion of upwards of 150,000,000 of the inhabitants of India.

Jainism is another form of faith which sprung up contemporaneously with Buddhism, and perhaps even a little earlier, for the date of Nirvâṇa of Mâhavîra, the last of the Tîrthankars or prophets of the Jains, is 526 B.C., and consequently earlier than that of Buddha. It never rose, however, to be either a popular or a State religion till after the fall of its sister faith, when in many parts of India it superseded Buddhism, and now, in some districts, takes the place that was formerly occupied by its rival.

It would, of course, be vain to look for any written evidence of the religion of the Dasyus during the long period in which they have formed an important element in the population of Hindostan. They always were too illiterate to write anything themselves, and their masters despised them and their superstitions too thoroughly to record anything regarding them. What we do know is consequently only from fragments encrusted in the other and more advanced faiths, or from the practices of the people where they exist in tolerable purity in the remote districts of the country at the present day. From these we gather that they were Tree and Serpent worshippers, and their principal deity was an earth god, to whom they offered human sacrifices till within a very recent period. They seem too to have practised all kinds of fetish worship, as most men do, in their early and rude state of civilisation.1 The great interest to us, for the purposes of the present work, is, that if there had been no Dasyus in India, it is probable there would have been no Buddhist religion either there or elsewhere. Though Buddha himself was an Aryan of pure Solar race, and his earliest disciples were Brahmans, still, like Christianity, Buddhism was never really adopted by those by whom and for whom, it first was promulgated. It was, however, eventually adopted by vast masses of the casteless tribes of India, and by mere weight of numbers they seem for a long time to have smothered and kept under the more intellectual races of the land. It always was, however, and now is, a religion of a Turanian people, and never was professed, to any marked extent, by any people of pure Aryan race.

As we do not know exactly what the form of the religion of the Dasyus really was, we cannot positively assert, though it seems most probable that it was the earliest existing in India; but at the same time, it is quite certain that the Vedic is the most ancient cultus of which we have any written or certain record in that country. It was based on the worship of the manifestations of a soul or spirit in nature. Their favourite gods were Indra, the god of the firmament, who gave rain and thundered; Varuna, the Uranos of the Greeks, the “all-enveloper,” the king of gods, upholding and knowing all, and guardian of immortality; Agni, the god of fire and light; Ushas, the dawn; Vâyu and the Maruts or winds; the Sun, addressed as Savitri, Sûrya, Vishṇu; and other less distinctly defined personifications. The service of these gods was at first probably simple enough, consisting of prayers, praises, libations, and sacrifices. The priests, however, eventually elaborated the most complicated ritual probably ever invented, and of course, as in other rituals, they arrogated to themselves, through the proper performance of these rites, powers, not only superhuman, but even super-divine, compelling even the gods themselves to submit to their wills.

The system of caste—an essential feature of Brahmanism—had become hard and fast as early at least as the sixth century before Christ, and was felt, especially among the lower castes, to be an intolerable yoke of iron. Men of all castes—often of very low ones—in revolt against its tyranny, separated themselves from their kind, and lived lives of asceticism, despising caste as something beneath the consideration of a devotee who aspired to rise by the merits of his own works and penances to a position where he might claim future felicity as a right. The Tirthakas and others of this class, perhaps as early as the seventh century B.C., threw aside all clothing, sat exposed to sun and rain on ant-hills or dung-heaps, or, clothed in bark or in an antelope hide, sought the recesses of forests and on mountain peaks, to spend their days apart from tie world and its vanities, in order to win divine favour or attain to the power of gods.

The founder of Buddhism was one of these ascetics. Grautama “the Buddha” was the son of a king of Kapilavastu, a small state in the north of Oudh, born apparently in the sixth century B.C. At the age of 29 he forsook his palace with its luxuries, his wife and infant child, and became a devotee, sometimes associating with others of the class in their forest abodes in Behar, and sometimes wandering alone, and, unsatisfied with the dreamy conjectures of his teachers, seeking the solution of the mystery of existence. After some six years of this life, while engaged in a long and strict fast under a pipal tree near Gayâ, wearied by exhaustion like the North American Indian seers, he fell into a trance, during which, as he afterwards declared, he attained to Buddhi or “perfected knowledge,” and issued forth as the Buddha or “enlightened,” the great teacher of his age. He is called by his followers Śâkya Muni—the Muni or ascetic of the Śâkya race ; the Jina, or “vanquisher” of sins; Śâkya Sinha, “the lion of the Śakyas;” Tathâ-gata, “who came in the same way” as the previous Buddhas, &c. He celebrated the attainment of the Buddahood in the stanzas—

Through various transmigrations 
Have I passed (without discovering) 
The builder I seek of the abode (of the passions). 
Painful are repeated births! 
O house builder! 
I have seen (thee). 
No house shalt thou again build me; 
Thy rafters are broken, 
Thy ridge-pole is shattered,
My mind is freed (from outward objects). 
I have attained the extinction of desires.2

With its dogma of metempsychosis, Vedantism and Brahmanism provided no final rest, no permanent peace; for to be born again, even in the highest heaven, was still to be under the empire of the law of change, and consequently of further suffering in some still future birth. Hence it had created and fostered the thirst for final death or annihilation as the only escape from this whirlpool of miseries. The mission Śâkya Muni, now at the age of 35, set before himself as the proper work of a Buddha, was to minister to this passion for extinction; to point out a new religious path for the deliverance of men from the endless series of transmigrations they had been taught it was their doom to pass through, and to be the liberator of humanity from the curse of the impermanency, sorrow, and unreality of existence. His royal extraction, his commanding dignity and persuasive eloquence, the gentleness of his manners, his ardour and self-denying austerities, the high morality and the spirit of universal kindness that pervaded his teaching, fascinated the crowds, and he soon attracted enthusiastic disciples who caught something of the fire of their master’s enthusiasm, and who were sent forth to propagate his new doctrines.

Caste he set aside: “My Law,” said Buddha, “is a law of grace for all.” Belief in his doctrines and obedience to his precepts was, for Sûdra and Dasyu as for the Brahman, the only and the wide door to the order of “the perfect.” By the lower castes, whom the Brahmans had first arbitrarily degraded and then superciliously despised, such teaching would naturally be welcomed as a timely deliverance from the spiritual, intellectual, and social despotism of the higher classes. For them, evidently, and the despised aboriginal tribes, it was most specially adapted, and among such it was sure to find its widest acceptance.

Accompanied by his disciples, Gautama wandered about from place to place, principally in Gangetic India, subsisting on the offerings placed in his alms-bowl, or the provision afforded him by his wealthier converts, teaching men the emptiness and vanity of all sensible things, and pointing out the paths that led to Nirvâṇa or final quiescence, “the city of peace,” scarcely, if at all, distinguished from annihilation. After 45 years thus spent, Śâkya Muni died in the north of Gorakhpur district, in Bengal. His disciples burnt his body and collected his relics, which were distributed among eight different cities, where they afterwards became objects of worship. Springing as it did from Brahmanism, of which it might be regarded as only a modification, or one of its many sects or schools, Buddhism did not at first separate from the older religion so as to assume a position of hostility to it, insult its divinities, or disparage its literature. It grew up slowly, and many of its earlier and most distinguished converts were Brahmans. Though its founder had made many disciples during his lifetime, and sent them out to propagate his religion, it was not till the conversion of the great emperor Aśoka that it acquired any political importance; under his royal favour and patronage it spread widely. He is represented as having lavished the resources of his realm on the Buddhist religion and on buildings in honour of its founder, who by that time had become almost mythical in his wonderful travels and teaching, the number of his discourses being reckoned at 84,000, and nearly every place in India having some legend of his having visited it.

The Buddhist traditions are full of the name of Aśoka as the founder of vihâras or monasteries, stûpas or dagobas, asylums, and other religious and charitable works. “At the places at which the Vanquisher of the five deadly sins (i.e. Buddha) had worked the works of his mission,” says the Ceylon Chronicle,3 “the sovereign (Aśoka) caused splendid dâgobas to be constructed. From 84,000 cities (of which Râjagriha was the centre) despatches were brought on the same day, announcing that the vihâras were completed.” After a great council of the Buddhist priesthood, held in the 17th year of his reign, 246 B.C., missionaries were sent out to propagate the religion in the ten following countries, whose position we are able, even now, to ascertain with very tolerable precision from their existing denominations:—(1) Kâsmîra; (2) Gandhâra or Kandahâr; (3) Mahîsamaṇḑala or Maisûr; (4) Vanav â si in Kanara; (5) Aparântaka—‘the Western Country’ or the Konkaṇ,-—the missionary being Yavana-Dharmarakshita;—the prefix Yavana apparently indicative of his being a Greek, or foreigner at least; (6) Maharatta or the Dekhan; (7) The Yavana country,—perhaps Baktria; (8) Himâvanta or Nepal; (9) Suvarnabhumi or Burma; and (10) Ceylon. His own son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitrâ were sent with the mission to Ceylon, taking with them a graft of the Bodhi tree at Buddha Gâya under which Buddha was supposed to have attained the supreme knowledge.

In two inscriptions from Sahasrâm and Rupnâth, recently translated 4 Aśoka mentions that in the 33rd year, “after he had become a hearer of the law,” and “entered the community” (of ascetics) he had exerted himself so strenuously in behalf of his new faith, that the gods who previously “were considered to be true in Jambudbipa” had, in the second year afterwards (B.C. 226-5), been abjured. To him, as already mentioned, the first Buddhist structures owe their origin. These were principally stûpas or dâgobas, that is, monumental shrines or receptacles for the relics of Buddha himself, or of the Sthaviras, or patriarchs of the sect,—consisting of a cylindrical base, supporting a hemispherical dome, called the garbha. On the top of this was placed a square stone box, commonly called a Tee, usually solid, covered by a series of thin slabs, each projecting over the one below it, and with an umbrella raised over the whole. These stûpas were erected, however, not only as monuments over relics, but set up also wherever any legend associated the locality with a visit or discourse of Buddha’s—which practically came to be wherever there were a few Buddhist Bhikshus desirous of securing an easy livelihood from the neighbouring villagers :—for legends are easily invented in India. Aśoka erected many of these over the length and breadth of his extensive dominions and raised great monolithic pillars, inscribed with edicts, intended to promulgate the spread of Buddhism. Edicts were also incised on rocks at Kapurdigiri near Peshâwar, at Mount Girnâr in Kâṭhiâwâṛ, in Orissa, Ganjam, and the Upper Provinces. The stûpas or topes at Bhilsâ, Sarnâth near Banâras, Manikyâla in the Panjâb, and elsewhere, are examples of that class of monuments, of which there are also gigantic specimens in Ceylon, erected by Devânâmpriya Tishya, the contemporary of Aśoka, and his successors. But these belong rather to a general history of Indian architecture than to a work especially devoted to the caves.5

The Buddhist Bhikshus thus soon became very numerous, and possessed regularly organised monasteries, or Vihâras, in which they spent the rainy season, studying the sacred books and practising a temperate asceticism. “The holy men were not allowed seats of costly cloth, nor umbrellas made of rich material with handles adorned with gems and pearls, nor might they use fragrant substances, or fish gills and bricks for rubbers in the bath, except, indeed, for their feet. Garlic, toddy, and all fermented liquors were forbidden, and no food permitted after midday. Music, dancing, and attendance upon such amusements were forbidden.”6 And, though seal rings or stamps of gold were prohibited, they might use stamps of baser metal, the device being a circle with two deer on opposite sides, and below the name of the vihâra.

Buddhism, after this, flourished and spread for centuries. Chinese pilgrims came to India to visit the spots associated with the founder’s memory, to learn its doctrines, and carry away books containing its teachings. In the seventh century of our era it had begun to decline in some parts of India; in the eighth apparently it was rapidly disappearing: and shortly after that it had vanished from the greater part of India, though it still lingered about Banâras and in Bengal where the Pala dynasty, if not Buddhists themselves, at least tolerated it extensively in their dominions.7 It existed also at some points on the West coast, perhaps till the eleventh century or even later. It has been thought that it was extinguished by Brahmanical persecution, and in some places such means may have been used to put it down; but the evidence does not seem sufficient to prove that force was generally resorted to. Probably its decline and final extinction was to a large extent owing to the ignorance of its priests, the corruptions of its early doctrines, especially after the rise of the Mâhâyana sect, the multiplicity of its schisms, and its followers becoming mixed up with the Jains, whose teachings and ritual are very similar, or from its followers falling into the surrounding Hinduism of the masses. Except in the earliest ages of its existence it probably never was predominant in India, and alongside it, during its whole duration, Śaivism continued to flourish and to hold, as it does still, the allegiance of the majority of the lower castes.

Rock temples and residences for Buddhist ascetics are early referred to. Mahendra, the son of Aśoka, on his arrival in Ceylon, erected a Vihâra on the summit of the Mihintala mountain, where he caused 68 cells to be cut out in the rock, which still exist at the Ambustella dagoba. 8 We find also at Barabar (near Gâya) in Bihâr, several caves with inscriptions upon them, with dates upon them of the 12th and 19th years of Aśoka himself, or in 251 and 244 B.C.9

We have no means of knowing what the primitive religion of the Dravidians was before their country was colonised by the Brahmans of the north, who imported with them the worship of Śiva and Vishṇu and all the multitudinous Gods of the modern Hindu Pantheon. It is probable that before that time, the Dravidians did possess a Pantheon distinct from that of their northern neighbours, but so little has the comparative mythology of India been hitherto studied, that it is impossible now to say how much of the present religion of the country is a foreign importation, how much an indigenous local growth. Śiva is, and apparently as far as our information goes, seems always to have been, the favourite deity in the South, and his name and that of his consort is mixed up with so many legends, and these extend so far back, that it almost looks as if his worship sprung up there. On the other hand, the earliest authentic mention of Śiva is by a Greek author, Bardasanes, who describes him as worshipped in a cave not far from Peshawur in the early part of the third century, under the well-known form of the Ardhanâri, or half man half woman.10 He is also found unmistakeably represented on the coins of Kadphises11 with his trident and bull, before the Christian era, and it is not clear whether these are fragments of mythology left there by the Dravidians, dropped like the Brahui language, on their way to India, or whether it is a local northern cult which the Brahmans brought with them into India, and finally transported to the south.12

Though the worship of Vishṇu is as fashionable and nearly as extensively prevalent in modern times, in the south, as that of Siva, it certainly never arose among the Dravidian races. It is essentially a cultus that could only have its origin among the same people as those from whom the Buddhist religion first took its present form. It is in fact at the present day only a very corrupt form of that religion, so corrupt, indeed, that their common origin is hardly to be recognised in its new disguise,13 but still undoubtedly springing from a cognate source, though, very far from emulating either the virtue or the purity of its elder sister faith. Borrowing apparently a cosmogony from Assyria, Vishṇuism separated itself from Buddhism, attracting to itself most of the local superstitions that had crept into that religion, and finally becoming fused by the all powerful solvent of the Vedas, it forms a powerful element in the modern Brahmanical religion as now existing in India.14

It is only now that we are beginning to see, dimly it must be confessed, the mode in which all the conflicting and discordant elements of the present Hindu religion were gathered from 1,000 sources, and fused into the present gigantic superstition. The materials, however, probably now exist which would enable any competent scholar to reduce the whole to order, and give us an intelligible account of the origin and growth of this form of faith. The task, however, has not been attempted in recent times. When Moor’s15 and Coleman’s16 works were written, sufficient knowledge of the subject was not available to enable this to be done satisfactorily, but now an exhaustive work on the subject could easily be compiled, and would be one of the most valuable contributious we could have, to our knowledge of the ethnography as well as of the moral and intellectual status of the 250,000,000 of the inhabitants of a land teeming with beauty and interest.

  • 1. In his Hibbert Lectures Professor Max Müller points out with perfect correctness, that the Aryans in India never were fetish worshippers, and argues, that as no fetishism is found in the Vedas, therefore it never existed, at least anywhere in India. From his narrow point of view his logic is unassailable, but he entirely overlooks the fact, that only a very small portion of the population of India ever was Aryan, or in their early stages knew anything of the Vedas. Nine-tenths of the population are of Turanian origin, and judging from the results, indulged in more degrading fetish worship than is to be found among the savages in Africa and America till partially cured of these practices by contact with the Aryans.
  • 2. For Gogerly’s version as well as Tumour’s, see Spence Hardy’s Manual of Buddhism, pp. 180, 181.
  • 3. Tumour’s Mahâvanśo, p. 34.
  • 4. Dr. Bühler in hid. Ant., vol. vi. p. 149, and vol,.vii. pp. 141-160. Y 132.
  • 5. For an account of the stûpas at Sanchi and Amravati, see Fergusson’s Tree and Serpent Worship, and Cunningham’s Bhilsa Topes; also Fergusson’s Indian and Eastern Architecture, pp. 54, 60-65, 71-72, 92, 105 ; and for Sarnath, ibid. pp. 65, 68, 173, and Sherring’s Sacred City of the Hindus, p. 230 ff.
  • 6. Mrs. Speirs’ Life in Ancient India, p. 317.
  • 7. The date of the Pala dynasty has not been ascertained with accuracy. Abul Fazl in the Ayin Akbari assigns 689 years to their 10 reigns, which, however, is evidently too much. The most complete list is that inserted by General Cunningham in his Reports, vol. iii. p. 134, based on a comparison of the written authorities, with their existing inscriptions on copper and stone. He represents them as 18 kings, reigning from 765 to 1200, a.d., which is probably very near the truth.
  • 8. Tumour’s Mahâvano, pp. 103, 123; Emerson Tennent’s Ceylon, vol. ii. p. 607.
  • 9. Jour. As. Soc. Ben., vol. vi. p. 671. Cunningham Reports, vol. i. p. 44 ff.
  • 10. Stoebus’ Physica. Gainsford edition, p. 54.
  • 11. Wilson’s Ariana Antiqua, Plate X.
  • 12. See Battel’s Lingacultus.
  • 13. How Buddhism may be transmogrified may be learnt from the tenets and practices of the Ahyantra sect in Nepal.
  • 14. The facts referring to the ethnography and religion of India are stated more fully than it is necessary to do here in the introduction to my History of Indian Architecture, 1876, to which the reader is referred for further information.—J. F.
  • 15. Hindu Pantheon, 4to., Plates, London, 1810.
  • 16. Mythology of the Hindus, 4to., Plates, 1832. 22