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Ganga (River and Goddess)

Starting in the Himalayas, flowing over 2,000 km across India, going south and east all the way to the Bay of Bengal, is the Ganges River. The river is not just a physical feature of the world, it also has a spiritual connection to the Hindu religion. The river is the goddess Ganga. Hinduism has tales to describe the connection of their religion to the river and why it is important to them. The myths explain who this goddess is and also how the river came to be created and the significance of the river itself. Of all the myths in which Ganga plays a role, the main and most important one is how she came to earth. The main myth describing Ganga’s descent to earth told in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and in Puranas, is widely known in India (Eck 2012:138). The most popular tale of Ganga’s descent includes Siva, who plays an important role in this myth. It was with Siva’s help that Ganga landed on earth and saved the sons of King Sagara. Siva helped by catching Ganga, for the impact from her fall would destroy the earth. The Vedic myths have Indra (god of storms) playing the role of having the waters descend to earth. Indra did this by setting the water free and letting it fall to earth, as told in the Rig Veda (Eck 2012:137).

Although there are many different versions of the tale from different sources, there are themes and facts that remain the same. A main theme in all the different versions of Ganga’s descent is that the water (heavenly, celestial, and divine) descends from heaven to earth, and gave the river a connection, for example a pathway, to the heavens. Other constants within the myths are that the water falls to earth to save it, or that there was another god (Indra or Siva) to help the waters come to earth in one way or another. Another common theme is that the waters have powers of some kind. For example, the water is life-changing, and has a connection to immortality because of the presence of soma (the nectar of the gods) in the water. It is said that the Ganges River is quintessence of the source of all sacred waters, indeed of all waters, everywhere (Eck 2012:159). The Ganges River is sacred water, and is an essential element for all the Hindu rites and rituals (Singh 210).  The important factor of all the myths was that Ganga came from the heavens with her celestial water to save earth in some way.

The goddess Ganga is linked through symbolism to the Trivanti at Prayaga. She is also known as Tripathaga, or the Triple-Path River. Ganga is identified as a triple river, flowing in the three realms – in the heavens, on the earth, and in the netherworlds. The Trivanti express the nature of Ganga, whose mythology connects her with the three major gods – flowing from Visnu’s foot in heaven, falling on Siva’s hair, and carried in Brahma’s water pot (Eck 2012:149). This connection with the triple divinity is distinctly present with the Trivanti at Prayaga. The Ganga has been seen as the white river because it bears the mica-laden waters of her Himalayan course; this description is referred to in the Rig Veda (Eck 2012:145).

Ganga may be depicted as a mermaid on top of Siva’s head. This image is connected to the descent myth, when she fell from heaven to earth (Eck 1986:51). Ganga may also be portrayed on a river or surrounded by water. She is usually depicted sitting on a crocodile (makara), and with an aureole surrounding her head. She is also decorated with jewelry, such as a crown, a necklace, and other ornaments (Darian 2001:72). Like other goddesses and gods she is eerily beautiful and serene. Ganga is known to have a vase (kumbha) with her, which is said to have a connection to the purifying waters (Darian 2001:125). She is also pictured with a water lily, either holding the flower or in some images sitting on a giant flower. The images she is holding are auspicious emblems of her generosity (Eck 2012:132). Ganga’s image sometimes can be golden on a silver throne on her mount, and her holding a water pot and a lotus. The way Ganga is portrayed helps to distinguish her from the other goddesses, and the symbols that connect with water, like the crocodile, strengthens the connection to her myths.

The Ganges River and Ganga are also known as Mother Ganga. She is said to be forgiving, embracing, nourishing, and does not have any anger. Unlike other goddesses she does not have any weapons, but has symbols of auspicious blessings. Those goddesses are seen as gentle with ferocious tendencies, and although Ganga does have this potential, she is acclaimed in unambiguous terms (Eck 2012:161). In some myths she is a mother figure or has a mother role, particularly in the Vedas.

The river and the goddess, do not exist without each other. In the myths the river is the goddess, and the goddess is the river. This connection between Ganga and the river, which is the Ganges River, brings the myth into the real physical world. The myths describe where the river is, which correspond to the actual geographical placement of the river; for example from where it originates to where it ends. The myths of the river and goddess brings the spiritual world into the physical world. This connection of the goddess Ganga and the Ganges River illustrate how interwoven religion and culture are in the Hindu tradition. The myths give the actual river a mystical and powerful meaning. Although the river was originally important for survival, this spiritual connection enhances its importance to Hindus.

Ganga plays a vital role in worship and ceremonies, in rituals of birth and initiation, of purification and religious merit, of marriage and death (Singh 210). For instance, during the initiation or sacred thread ceremony (upanayana), a young man may eat nothing but bread and water from the Ganges. Another example is that Hindus often wish to have a person’s ashes scattered on the sacred river after death (Darian 2001:14). Ganga worshipped as a source of life and generation, and in some rituals water is taken from the Ganges River, put in a pot and used to ensure a good harvest. Another ritual is for newly married women to go to the river and pray for children and the long life for her husband (Darian 2001:37). A ritual at the river is where one takes the water in their hands and pours it back as offerings to the departed ancestors and the gods (Eck 2012:131-132). There is another ritual where the water from the Ganges River is poured on a representation of Siva (linga) at shines and temples. It is to recreate Ganga’s fall from heaven and through Siva’s hair. This ritual is either done constantly, or done by a worshipper who brought the water themselves. This simple ritual is done countless times daily (Eck 2012:140).

There is a ten-day festival called Dasahara, which celebrates the descent of Ganga from heaven to earth or Ganga’s birth. During this festival the river is filled with boats and decorated with long ropes of marigold garlands. There is even chanting Victory to Mother Ganga (Ganga Mata ki Jai) (Eck 2012:132). On the 10th of the waxing fortnight of Jyestha (May- June) is the height of the festival. It is believed by devotees that bathing in the Ganga in the morning of this day grants high merit, and destroys ten sins (dasahara) or ten lifetimes of sins. Those who worship Ganga start bathing in the river and do the associated rituals from the first day of Jyestha and complete the cycle on the 11th day (Singh 218). This day is devoted to worship of Visnu.

The myths about the river, with it having power (Shakti), has great significance to Hinduism and the culture. For the devout people who visit and worship at the river every day, it has deep connection to their way of life, and their religion. The water from the Ganges River is seen as pure, has life-giving properties, sacred, and known as the crossing place from earth to heaven. Many Hindus live near the river or pilgrimage to visit the river. Many devout people go to the river in the morning and gather on the steps (ghats) to bathe, to drink a least a few drops of the water, and take blessings or religious instructions from the priests (ghatias) at the steps. Also, there are various offerings, including ancestral offerings, on the steps (Singh 213). The Ganges River is regarded to be holy all along is course, from its source to the sea (Eck 2012:132). The rituals and these offerings show how deeply embedded the Ganga river is in Hindus’ daily lives and their religion.



Darian, Steven (1976) “Ganga and Sarasvati an Incidence of Mythological Projection.” East and West 26 (1/2). Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO): 153–65.

Darian, Steven (2001) The Ganges in myth and history. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Eck, Diana (1986) “Darshan of the Image.” India International Centre Quarterly 13 (1). : 43–53.

Eck, Diana (2012) India: a sacred geography. New York : Harmony Books.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Brighton [England] ; Portland, Or. : Sussex Academic Press.

Narayan, M. K. V. (2009) Exploring the Hindu mind: cultural reflections and symbolisms. New Delhi : Readworthy Publications.

Scharfe, Hartmut (1972) “The Sacred Water of the Ganges and the Styx-water”. Zeitschrift Für Vergleichende Sprachforschung 86 (1). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (GmbH & Co. KG): 116–20.

Singh, Rana P. B. (1994) “Water Symbolism and Sacred Landscape in Hinduism: A Study of Benares (wassersymbolismus Und Heilige Landschaft Im Hinduismus: Eine Studie Aus Benares).” Erdkunde 48 (3). Erdkunde: 210–27.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Ganges Valley


Ganga Sagar Mela

Godavari River

Narmada River



Seven Gangas



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Angel Hope (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.



Dattatreya is an important figure in the Hindu religion. Dattatreya is regarded as an important dharmic Guru, Yogi, and incarnation of three main deities in this religion. He is seen as a significant Yogic figure across a wide spectrum of the religion from Tantric to Brahminic orthodox Hinduism (Rigopolous 7). Dattatreya also extends past the confines of Hinduism into certain sects within Jainism as well as Sufism and is even briefly talked about within some Buddhist texts.

Dattatreya is seen as an incarnation of the three main Hindu gods: Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, fused into one singular being. The incarnated form of these three gods (Dattatreya) is depicted as a three headed, six armed being. Each set of his arms contains symbols for each of the three gods: a lotus and water pot is depicted for Brahma, a wheel and conch for Visnu, and a trident and drum for Siva. Dattatreya is usually portrayed dressed as an ascetic while also accompanied with a cow (symbolic in Hindu tradition of the earth) and four dogs (representative of the four Vedic texts) (Pain 95).

Dattatreya is a deity that is associated with the conservation of the environment and education pertaining to the environment. Teachings of this deity involve attaining realization through the observation of the earth (symbolic presence of the deity associated with the cow) as it is a sacred space representative of the entire cosmos itself. Dattatreya teaches this message in the way that most Hindu philosophical teachers address the world, in a matter of self-realization. This deity’s teachings reflect that of a Buddha-like figure in the way in which this deity points to self-realization and freeing the self from material attachment. The true nature of things is much deeper and that enlightenment comes from freeing the self from material attachment (Haigh 1). However, teachings such as these are seen all across Hinduism as reflections of highly realised Gurus (teachers) relaying much deeper meaning than just what is seen.

The manner in which Dattatreya goes about his teachings in a highly realized manner comes from how the being was thought to have attained moksa (self liberation) in the first place. This deity gained liberation from being temporarily earth bound while being taught by twenty-four Gurus. Each of Dattatreya’s teachers taught him deep yogic lessons in which he later portrays within his own teachings such as compassion and the absence of material attachment.

The mythological creation of Dattatreya dates back to the Rg Veda and a rsi (“seer”; semi divine figures who composed the sacred texts) named Atri. Dattatreya came into being from a boon asked from the wife of the sage/rsi Atri (also thought to be a manifestation of Agni the fire god) called Anasuya  (the non-envious one)(Rigopolous 2). A demon, named Svarbhanu, pierced the sun and moon with arrows, causing darkness to fall over the land. However, the gods noticed Atri practicing tapas (generating of inner heat) in a forest nearby and asked for his help. Atri was able to restore light to the moon and sun due to his great ability to generate his inner heat (Rigopolous 3). Atri’s wife, Anasuya, then requested the boon of giving birth to the trimurti (tri incarnation) incarnation of Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, bringing forth Dattatreya. Tales of Atri and the relevance of Dattatreya can also be found in Hindu texts such as the Ramayana.

Since Dattatreya is found in many different forms such as a rsi, Yogi, and a god, across many different Hindu writings from the Ramayana to the Vedas, one wonders if there were many different figures with the generic name generated with the root datta (surrendered), treya (three), and atreya (child of Atri) (Rigopolous 28). However, in many of these texts, there are different stories and hymns relating the figures to one another and the roots of their names, most likely illustrating a transformation of this deity in order to teach specific lessons within the text.

Dattatreya’s worship resembles that of other gods within the religion, and draws specific aspects from worship of the three gods that make up the trimurti form. Just as Siva or Visnu have sramana (wandering philosopher) groups dedicated to them that use one god as a focus in hopes of attaining moksa. Dattatreya’s sect is referred to the Datta cult (Pain 97) derived as an abbreviation for the full name.

Devotees of Datta rarely visit the temples of Dattatreya and only stay for brief periods of time for darsana (visions of divine beings) or to view the depiction of the deity. Temples of Dattatreya are often quite small, mostly consisting of tucked away or roadside shrines. However, larger Datta temples for worship do exist and have characteristics that resemble Siva temples, often containing a corridor, which surrounds the inner shrine of the temples (Pain 101). These temples also usually contain a small hall for initial entry, which contain a small bell that is rung by devotees to signal their arrival to the god.

Worship, within the temples dedicated to Dattatreya, also follows ritual patterns associated with other gods within the Hindu religion. Among these devotional practices is, ritual bathing for purification before entering, as well as offerings of incense, food, and flowers, along with the occasional waving of lights in front of the deity. For Dattatreya Thursdays are particularly auspicious, on which a more thorough ritual worship is done (Pain 101).

The attire of Dattatreya also has significance in his worship. The depiction of him wearing the robes of a sramana relates to the constant and super human movement of this deity from one holy place to another such as bathing in the Ganga river in the morning and then moving to the Mahalakshmi temple in Maharashta to beg for alms and so on, carrying out his day wandering. The constant movement of Dattatreya ties into his worship and relates to the images of this deity where he is worshiped are footprint or sandal-like impressions called padukas (Pain 102). The padukas are the main focal point of worship for this deity as they are symbolic of non-attachment to material objects. They also tell how renouncers should continue to move from place to place, re-emphasising Dattatreya’s core teachings.

Emphasis on a particular god constituting the trimurti may be seen in specific sites as well, depending on which of the deities is most popular in the local community. For example, the walls in a temple may be lined with pictures or symbols of Siva such as his trident in areas where Siva plays greater role in community worship. Smaller single representations of each god that constructs Dattatreya may also be seen within the temples, to reiterate the importance of each major god that constructs him.

Dattatreya’s teachings are consulted in India today due to his stance regarding environmental protection, as this country continues to modernise. Reference to his teachings is often made when discussing issues such as pollution and sustainable development (Haigh 128).  His teachings are also used to further show the importance of environmental protection as well as to diminish other environmentally destructive practices. Dattatreya’s teachings are able to have a strong influence on environmental presentation due to their intellectual and well-constructed arguments.



Pain, Charles (1988) “The God Dattatreya and the Datta Temples of Pune.In The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashrta, edited by Eleanor Zelliot, and Maxine Bernsten, 95-104. Albany. State University of New York Press.

Haigh, Martin (2007) Sri Dattatreya’s 24 Gurus: Learning from the World in Hindu Traditions. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University Press.

Rigopoulos, Antonio (1998) Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogic, and Avatara: A Study of the Transformative and Inclusive Characters of a Multi-faced Hindu deity. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Article written by: Michael Hutchinson (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Marathas (and their social mobility)

Hinduism is composed of a caste, jati, system and class, varna, system (Rodrigues 132). According to Hindu myth, the four main varnas, compromising the brahmin or “priestly” class, the ksatriya or “warrior” class, the vaisya or “commoners” class, and the sudra or “servant” class (Rodrigues 146), originated from the body parts of a mythical deity, Purusa (Macdonell 240). The Brahmins were and continue to be regarded as the purest class in Hindu society, originating from the head of Purusa. The Ksatriya class is said to originate from the torso and arms of Purusa as they are expected to protect people and bear arms. Thirdly, members belonging to Vaisya originated from his legs and lower body. They are responsible for tending to land or cattle and trading goods or money. The Sudra class originated from Purusa’s feet as they were the most impure members of society. Jati means “birth group” and provided Hindus with a more explicit rank or status in society (Macdonell 238). One’s jati refers to their occupation and dictates their dietary habits, ritual allowances, and interactions with members of other castes (Macdonell 231). Members or groups within a caste claim varna status and these claims are dependent upon their states of ritual purity (Rodrigues 83).

Upward mobility and social reform was extremely rare in Hinduism. The caste and class system was very rigid, and ritual purity in pre-colonial India was held in the highest regards. However, one group that achieved upward mobility in the varna system was the people of the Maratha jati. Originally, members of the commoners or servant classes, they were eligible to achieve Ksatriya or warrior status through their military efforts against the Mughal Empire in the late 17th centuries under the rule of the rebellion Shivaji (Deshpande 6).

The Maratha jati was a military caste situated in southern India. The majority of the group was mainly derived from kunbis origin; atribe” or caste that was and continues to be generally associated with the Sudra varna as “peasant cultivators” of the Western region in Maharashtra (Russell 199). The two other “tribes” that constituted the Maratha caste included the dhangar or “shepard” and the coala or “cow-herder” (Russell 201) both of which also claimed Sudra status.  

It is also likely that the Maratha caste is derived from a military origin from various castes throughout Marathashtra. Many of the chief families claim to have rajput origin, a warrior caste located in Northern India. Their name is derived from the word rajaputra meaning “son of gods” (Russell 199). Shivaji, a noble ruler of the Maratha caste in, also claimed rajputs origin as he was the ideal Hindu ruler (Gordon 1). Born somewhere between the years of 1627-1630 C.E. (Abbott 159), Shivaji, has become a glorified icon in Hinduism. He was a Hindu king who instituted the Maratha kingdom and revived the Hindu religion in India (Laine 302).  Shivaji has become popular through the stories and myths about his ability to lead a Maratha uprising and establish a Maratha kingdom in the midst of the era of the Mughal Empire. Thus, the Marathas were agents of the Mughal Empire’s ultimate defeat towards the end of the century.

The military engagement between the Mughal and Maratha Kingdoms began with a feud between the Maratha warrior Shiavji and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 along with the fall of his empire (Pearson 221). Their feud was instigated long before the decline of the Mughal kingdom when Aurangzeb constantly invaded the northern Pune district in Marathashtra (Gordon 59). His father, Shahji, gave Shivaji his first position in his career as a jagirdar, owner or lord of a feudal land grant (Laine 302). Shahji was among the army at Bijapur, a region of Muslim power, and became a successful solider under the direction of many Muslim rulers, including Adil Shah (Laine 302). When Shahji died, he sent his son to Pune where he learned to become a central political and military figure, establishing control over much of Maharashtra (Laine 303).

The revival of Hinduism and the start of the social mobility for the Marathas began when Shivaji proclaimed himself as a member of the Ksatriya class. His Vedic coronation in 1674 (Laine 303) was protested by many Maharashtrian Brahmins as they questioned the legitimacy of his lineage in the Hindu culture (Deshpande 6). Despite his grandfather’s, father’s, and half-brother’s Muslim sponsorship, Shivaji became invested in identifying as a Hindu, and later became known for his role as a “defender of dharma” (Laine 306).

Once Shivaji grew older, he became the primary candidate for coordinating the Maratha-Mughal war. The Mughals had captured many of the Maratha forts during their crusade of Maharashtra and, after a period of peace, Shivaji launched several successful attacks in order to retrieve the lost forts (Gordon 79). The most renowned legend of the great Hindu ruler, however, was when he confronted Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan was a Bijapur general for the Muslims who was sent to defeat the Maratha uprising in which Shivaji was credited (Laine 306). They had negotiated a meeting but whilst on his journey to meet Shivaji, Afzal Khan harassed many communities along the way and destroyed idols and buildings, including the temple of the goddess Bhavani (Laine 306). Upon arrival, Afzal Khan attempted to murder Shivaji but was unsuccessful. Instead, Shivaji slew his opponent using a sword given to him by the allied goddess (Bendrey 1143). That sword, to this day, is in an unknown location. Other accounts of the story say that it was a prejudiced attack, stating that Shivaji had prepared for the murder of his opponent, arriving to their arranged meeting with weapons while Afzal Khan did not (Beveridge 184). In either case, it seems safe to say that neither challenger arrived without the idea of defeating the other.

Another great story of Shivaji is told through the Maratha defense against the Mughal invasion at the fort of Simhagad in 1670 (Laine 307). Here, the Marathas under Shivaji’s reign were able to gain control over the fort. In contrast with the Mughal captain Udebhan, who is often portrayed with demonic characteristics of cruelty and lust, Shivaji is portrayed as an “epic hero.” Some, even suggest he is an incarnation of Rama himself (Laine 307), though it does not seem to be widely accepted. He is more often equated with Arjuna or even Bhima (Laine 307), both characters in the Mahabharata epic.

Following Shivaji’s death in 1680 (Pearson 226), Sambhaji took over the Maratha’s military. During his reign, the Mughals were able to conquer the kingdom of Golconda in 1687, an overdue goal Aurangzeb had set for himself (Richards 241). A long battle ensued between the Mughal and Maratha empires at Hyderabad Karnatik, as the Marathas attacked the capital in Kancipuram (Richards 24). However, the Marathas were driven out of Karnatik two months later.  Up until 1690, both the Mughal and Maratha forces suffered military setbacks, and both were equally ineffective at striking against each other during this time. Shambhaji was captured and killed by the Mughals around 1689, leaving his brother, Rajaram, in control (Richards 244). However, the Mughal Empire regained full control over Hyderabad Karnatik, forcing the Marathas to rethink their strategy.

By 1692, Karnatik became the centre of military affairs between the two enemies (Richards 247). The siege of Jinji, a previously Maratha territory, took several years resulting in major losses for the Mughal army (Richards 2). During the intervals of Maratha raids, Aurangzeb’s generals collected whatever revenue they could find since the war was of his main concern (Richards 250). The Marathas, between the years of 1704 to 1707, were ruthless in their warfare against the Mughals as some of their greatest battles and victories occurred during this time (Richards 252). These crusades also concluded the twenty-one year struggle between the two empires. Aurangzeb, unable to defeat the Marathas armies with brawn instead resorted to bribery, paying his enemies in rupees and jagir (Richards 252-253), or land revenue (Pearson 221). The Mughal armies soon grew weak as the empire was unable to support their military due to loss of land and money. As a result of this financial deprivation, Mughal military performance continued to decline which lead to the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra in 1707 (Pearson 221).

The Marathas caste, formerly situated under the Sudras varna, came to claim Ksatriya status due to a series of events encompassing Shivaji’s coronation and their military persistence against the Mughal Kingdom in the late 17th century. In present day, Maratha caste members live in deprivation, and some even in poverty, yet they continue to claim aristocratic status (Russell 205). Along with those who claim kunbis origin, the Marathas remain tied to the Ksatriya varna, (Deshpande 5), but they do not possess the resources or methods to conserve it easily. Some have trouble electing peace over warfare and instead produce a shallow and external façade of extravagance and glamour under their upper-class status (Russell 205-206). The Maratha caste prospered during their two to three centuries of constant warfare against Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire (Russell 205-206). During this time they succeeded in becoming an extremely wealthy and powerful caste – a trademark of their name that Maratha members continue to identify with today.


References and Further Recommended Readings:

Abbott, Justin (1930) “The 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Maratha King Shivaji.” Journal of the Oriental American Society, Vol. 50: 159-163.

Bendrey, V. S. (1938) “The Bhavani Sword of Shivaji the Great.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 86, No. 4482: 1142-1144.

Beveridge, H. (1917) Review of Shivajī the Marātha; His Life and Times by H. J. Rawlinson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 183–185.

Deshpande, Prachi (2003) Caste as Maratha: Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth Century Maharashtra. Colorado: Colorado State University.

Gatson, Anne-Marie (2003) “Dance and Hinduism: A personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 75-86.

Gordon, Stewart (1993) The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas 1600-1818. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laine, James (1999) “The dharma of Islam and the din of Hinduism: Hindus and Muslims in the age of Sivaji.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3: 299-318.

Macdonell, A.A. (1914) “The Early History of Caste.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2: 230-244.

Pearson, M. N. (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2: 221-235.

Richards, J. F. (1975) “The Hyderabad Karnatik, 1687-1707.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2: 241-260.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) “Divine times: Goddess worship in Banaras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 131-145.

Russell, Robert Vane (1916) The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in India. London: Macmillan and Co.

Sax, William (2003) “A Himalayan exorcism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.


Related Websites:


Related Topics:

Class/Caste System in India

Maharashtra during the late 17th Century







Mughal Empire

Maratha Empire

Afzal Khan

Hyderabad Karnatik






Article written by: Lauryn Zerr (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Gaudapada (and Advaita Vedanta)

Legendary Life

Of the many philosophers in the history of Hinduism, Gaudapada is one of whom little is known, although he had a large effect on the tradition as a whole. His origin is the most prominent feature in legends concerning him; however, due to liberties taken in the oral tradition, they are rarely a strong source of factual information (Pande 96). For example, some legends state that Patanjali himself taught Gaudapada, and due to his disobedience, had cursed him until Gaudapada could find a suitable student (Pande 96). Of course, there is great scepticism surrounding this story, as the timelines in which Patanjali and Gaudapada are proposed to have lived are separated by hundreds of years (Pande 96). Other sources seem to believe that he was, at some point, the student of a sage named Suka. However not much is known about Suka, other than he was believed to be the son of the legendary Vyasa (Comans 2). As such, Gaudapada emerges as more of a pseudo-legendary person, than a concrete historical figure. There is virtually no indication of his existence other than his works, or reference to him by his students later in history (Comans 1).

The estimated periods when Gaudapada lived varies greatly, according to different sources. Generally, it is calculated in relation to the dates of his distant student Sankara, who was believed to live around 780-820 CE. This placed Gaudapada at around 680 CE, although it shifts based on estimation of Sankara’s life time (Isayeva 15). Scholars also examine motifs used by Gaudapada in his works, which seem to reflect particular Buddhist values. They thus propose that Gaudapada had lived during the time when certain Buddhist philosophies flourished (Isayeva 15).

Similarly, we are uncertain as to where Gaudapada came from or lived. Some propose that he lived in northern Bengal, near the Hiraravati River, where a tribe known as the Gaudas resided. As such, some propose Gaudapada lived as a master, taking his name from the tribe of which he was a part of (Isayeva 15).

Although we know little about how, when, or where he lived, we know more about whom he influenced via his philosophical ideas. The most well-known of these is the great thinker Sankara, whos strong influence from Gaudapada is evident in his own work (Isayeva 14). The time gap between Sankara and Gaudapada leads scholars to generally agree that Gaudapada perhaps taught a man named Govinda, who went on to teach Sankara (Isayeva 14).



Gaudapada is most well-known for his commentary on the Mandukya Upanisad. Of the ten Upanisads, the Mandukya is the shortest, and deals with cosmology as well as absolute truth known as brahman (Isayeva 16). His works, known as the Mandukya-Karika, is made up of four chapters: “treatise concerning the scriptural text”, “treatise concerning unreality”, “treatise on non-duality”, and “treatise on the quelling of the fire brand” (Comans 2). Of the four chapters, only the first is tied to a text, which Gaudapada discusses, namely the Mandukya Upanisad. The other three chapters are not involved directly with any other text, but expand on the ideas developed in the first chapter (Comans 2).

The basis of Gaudapada’s philosophy, which makes up Advaita Vedanta, is concerned with the illusory nature of things. In particular, this stem of Hindu philosophy focuses on absolute reality, brahman, the inner self, atman, and maya, which is the illusion that holds us in the cycle of samsara, rebirth (Rodrigues 94). Gaudapada explains four stages, or steps, that one would go through in order to achieve the state of absolute reality. As well, he holds that the concept of absolute truth or reality is already in each individual (Isayeva 23).

The first stage, called vaisvanara, means waking self or waking state (Comans 3). This stage pertains to the self as it lives within the illusion of maya, unaware of its illusory nature (Isayeva 21). In essence, it is the spiritual ignorance of the self that this stage speaks of. The Mandukya Upanisad describes atman here as having “seven limbs, nineteen mouths, and who experiences gross objects” (Comans 3). Gaudapada explains that it is these extremities that the atman uses to experience illusory existence. In this waking state, the atman is unaware and so it thrashes about, attempting to experience everything it can. In this way, the consciousness of the atman is seen as external here (Comans 3).

The next stage pertains to the dream like state, taijasa, where the atman notices the illusory nature of everything (Comans 4). In this state, Gaudapada would maintain that consciousness begins to move inward as it starts to realize the nature of itself (Comans 4). It is essentially at this stage that one could say the atman, previously external and ignorant, begins its journey inward towards truth, as it begins to see the existence of maya (Isayeva 21).

Prajna, stage three, speaks of deep sleep, or slumber (Comans 4). In this stage, Gaudapada holds that one is saved from illusion, though not truly liberated (Isayeva 22). In contrast to the previous two states, in which the self is separated due to its interaction with illusion, self, illusion, and consciousness all become one here; just one “lump of consciousness” (Isayeva 22). Instead, he cautions about this stage because those on their way to truth may get caught up in the bliss of freedom from maya, thinking they are liberated just because they have become aware that they were ignorant before. He says that although it is a wonderful state to be in, even greater bliss comes from full understanding of the nature of the atman, which cannot be obtained whilst in this stage (Isayeva 22).

Finally, the last stage is where the main concept of advaita emerges. Advaita means non-dualism, and refers to absolute truth, or brahman (Isayeva 23). In essence, brahman is seen as the only thing, rather than multiple aspects of reality, as described in more dualistic philosophies of Hinduism like Sankhya (Rodrigues 199). This stage is called turiya, although Gaudapada would argue that even giving this state a name undermines the very idea of it (Comans 5). Examples such as, “brahman is neither here nor there”, “living nor dead”, “waking or asleep”, are all given by Gaudapada to illustrate this view. As an absolute truth, there is nothing but it, which in turn means it is all, and it is nothing (Comans 5). This is the essence of what advaita means as well, which conflicts with the general dualistic orthodox view of brahman and atman (Absolute Reality, and Self) being two different things (Rodrigues 71).


Later Influences

Hundreds of years after his time, Gaudapada’s philosophies live on through his students. The most noted of these distant students was Sankara, whose teacher was taught by Gaudapada. Within Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta, we see many parallels between the two philosophers. A major similarity is that Sankara proposed that the only absolutely real thing is brahman, which is the only thing in existence (Rodrigues 374). Although this may seem completely identical to Gaudapada’s belief, the emphasis Gaudapada put on the paradoxical nature of brahman varies slightly with Sankara’s viewpoint. Instead Gaudapada held that brahman neither exists, or exists, among other examples of his extreme non-dualistic viewpoint or darsana (Comans 5). Sankara still held many other core values that were quite similar to Gaudapada’s viewpoint. The concept of neti-neti­, meaning not one or the other, in regards to absolute truth (Rodrigues 374). This is more aligned with the idea that Gaudapada seems to be conveying in regards to brahman, as well as the abstract concept of understanding brahman. It is in this unification of brahman that causes Advaita Vedanta to be considered so radical. Many other philosophies, such as Sankhya, propose that brahman is made up of many aspects that make up our reality. In the particular example of Sankya, prakrti and purusa, the creator and observer (Rodrigues 199). Although Advaita Vedanta seems to undermine philosophies such as this, the Vedas themselves are not openly criticized, and as such Advaita Vedanta is accepted within the Hindu orthodoxy (Rodrigues 376).



Comans, Michael (2000) The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta: A Study of Gaudapada, Sankara, Suresvara and Padmapada. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Isayeva, Natalia (1995) From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism: Gaudapada, Bhartrhari, and Abhinavagupta. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pande, Govind (1994) Life and Thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: the EBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Tenzin, Kencho (2006) Shankara: A Hindu Revivalist or a Crypto-Buddhist? Atlanta: Georgia State University.


Related Topics














Noteworthy Websites / Additional Readings

Banerji, Sures (1989) A Companion to Sanskrit Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Dvivedi, Manilal (trans.) (1894) Mandukya-karika. Boimbay: Tatva-vivechaka Press.

Karmarkar, Raghunath (trans.) (1953) Mandukya-karika. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Lochetfeld, James (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. The Rosen Publishing Group.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wilson, Horace (trans.) (1837) Samkhya-karika. London: Valpy.


Article written by: Jordan Wingfield (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Avidya (Ignorance)

Avidya is a Sanskrit word most commonly defined as ignorance. This can be misleading if we think of ignorance as a lack of knowledge. Avidya is not simply a lack of knowledge; it is a lack of  what Hindu philosophers sometimes refer to as true knowledge (Singh 394-395). The knowledge we have of the material world around us, our minds, thoughts, bodies, and emotions is worldly knowledge. Avidya is our mistaken belief that these things make up reality, or our true self (Puligandla 218).  Avidya, then, is not simply ignorance, but spiritual ignorance (Lipner 246). It is ignorance of our true selves and of the true nature of reality (Puligandla 244). “It is no accident that light and the reflection of light are common symbols in Hinduism of vidya and the knowing process, respectively. Avidya is spiritual ignorance, symbolized by darkness” (Lipner 247).

Frequently in literature on Hinduism, avidya is said to be synonymous with, ajnana, prakrti, and maya (Nikhilananda 43). There are fine distinctions that need to be made between these words in order to better understand Hindu literature and philosophy. Ajnana is a Sanskrit word that can also be translated to ignorance or without knowledge. More specifically, without true knowledge, or knowledge of one’s true self. Avidya is also a lack of higher knowledge. Both terms allow for lower, or worldly knowledge. Avidya and ajnana can be used synonymously (Chatterjee and Datta 49).

The Sankhya or Samkhya system of Hindu philosophy is based on the dualistic principles of purusa and prakrti (Singh 75). Purusa and prakrti are separate and distinct. Purusa is pure consciousness, spirit, or self. Prakrti is nature or matter. In Sankhya, prakrti is the cause of our minds, bodies, thoughts, and feelings (Puligandla 115). The elements that make up the universe as well as all the physical properties in the universe are prakrti (Chatterjee and Datta 257).  The air we breathe, sunlight, our physical as well as mental composition are all prakrti. Our bodies and minds, and our interaction with the finite, ever-changing world in which we live cause us to have a perception of ourselves and the world that is not true reality. The way we look, feel, and behave is not the true essence of who we are.  In this way, prakrti is the same as avidya, as these are the causes of our false knowledge, or false sense of reality; our ignorance of purusa, the true self. The only way to know purusa is to rid one’s self of avidya (Puligandla 123).

The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism can be traced to the Upanisads, which are the last part of the Vedas.  Advaita means oneness or non-dualism. It is here that the concept of avidya is explored and tied to the concepts of maya, Atman, and Brahman (Puligandla 244). Unlike the separate and distinct entities prakrti and purusa in the Sankhya system, Atman and Brahman are identical. In Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualism comes from the belief that Atman (the true self) is Brahman (reality, pure consciousness). They are not separate, but one (Puligandla 244). That is to say, we are always Brahman, but because of the delusion caused by maya, or avidya, we are ignorant. Avidya is our ignorance to the fact that we are Brahman. When avidya is extinguished, we recognize Atman, which is Brahman (Puligandla 244).

Maya is most often translated as illusion. Maya is also sometimes referred to as magic, magical power, and even fraud. Much like prakrti, maya presents us with a material or false reality that keeps us from seeing our true self or Absolute Reality (Atman and Brahman) (Deutsch 28-29). “Maya generally signifies the cosmic illusion on account of which Brahman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of the universe. It is under the influence of avidya that Atman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the jiva, or individual self. Prakrti is the material out of which the universe is evolved. But Vedantic writers do not always strictly maintain these distinctions” (Nikhilananda 43). So prakrti is to purusa as maya is to Brahman, they are both illusions that keep us from seeing our true self.

Dualist or non-dualist, avidya is what keeps one from seeing one’s true self. Avidya is the cause of samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that keeps us trapped in a worldly existence (Chatterjee and Datta 18). In order to be freed from samsara, avidya must be destroyed. Samsara is caused by illusion and once the illusion is destroyed, moksa, or liberation from samsara is achieved (Deutsch 75-76). Once you realize that worldly existence is not reality, there is nothing tying you to it. Avidya is the antithesis of vidya, which is the Sanskrit word for knowledge, or insight.       According to all Indian schools of philosophy, humanity’s state of suffering is due to ignorance (avidya) of his true being and nature (Puligandla 22-23). The Upanisads teach that a person’s true being is Atman (Brahman), which is infinite, eternal, and immortal (Nikhilananda 35). But in ignorance (avidya), one identifies themselves with perishable things such as their mind, body, ego, and thereby develop attachments to them and suffer sorrow when they inevitably lose them (Puligandla 22-23).

Buddhism also recognizes avidya, and it is also defined as ignorance. Buddhists believe that there are four Noble Truths. These are: 1) Sorrow/Suffering: All living, sentient beings experience suffering; 2) Origin/Cause: The major cause of suffering is craving or desire for the illusory; 3) Cessation/Ending: The ending of suffering is the ending of the craving that causes it. This ending of craving, which is an ending of the condition of ignorance at its root, is described as nirvana. 4) Path: The Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed in Buddhism as a means of attaining nirvana (Robinson and Rodrigues 192).  The ignorance referred to in the third Noble Truth is avidya, and its cause is also the illusory. In Buddhism, the ending of the illusion is nirvana, or enlightenment. Just as in Hinduism, liberation from samsara comes through the ending of avidya.

The fact that the end of avidya is the path to liberation (moksa), or enlightenment (nirvana) does not mean that these can only be achieved at the end of one’s life or after death. Ideally, it can be achieved in this lifetime and then one can live without the suffering caused by avidya (Puligandla 23). Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana in his lifetime and this is how he came to be known as the Buddha (Enlightened one) (Chatterjee and Datta 115).



Chatterjee, S., & Datta, D. M. (1968) An introduction to Indian philosophy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deutsch, E. (1969) Advaita Vedanta: A philosophical reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

Indich, William M. (1995) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kumar, R., & S. Ram (2007) Hinduism-religion and philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.

Murthy, B. S. (1985) The Bhagavad Gita. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications.

Nikhilananda (1963) The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, Mundaka, Svetasvatara, Praśna, Mandukya, Aitareya, Brihadaranyaka, Taittiriya, and Chhandogya. New York: Harper & Row.

Puligandla, R. (1975) Fundamentals of Indian philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Robinson, T. A., & H. Rodrigues (2006) World religions: A guide to the essentials. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Singh, S. P. (2004) Vedic vision of consciousness and reality. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Advaita Vedanta











Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Robin Wilcox (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kama Sutra (Book Seven: Erotic Esoterica)

Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra is an ancient Hindu text belonging to the Kama Sastra genre of literature (Rodrigues 152). The title, Kamasutra, is composed of two Sanskrit words: kama meaning “desire/pleasure,” and sutra meaning “treatise” (Doniger and Kakar 13). The Kamasutra covers a variety of topics, among them ways of attaining the goals of life (dharma, kama, and artha), finding and keeping a partner, sexual positions and techniques, adultery, and dealing with or as a courtesan (Danielou 20-21).

The last section of the Kamasutra, Book Seven, deals with “erotic esoterica” (Doniger and Kakar 233) or “occult practices” (Danielou 487). Book Seven consists of two chapters, “Making Luck in Love,” and “Rekindling Exhausted passion,” each of which is made up of three sub-divisions (Doniger and Kakar 233-242).

The first chapter, “Making Luck in Love” begins with a preamble stating that the methods and recipes mentioned in Book Seven should be utilized only if the methods discussed in previous books have proven unsuccessful (Danielou 489). From there, the chapter continues with methods to make yourself lucky in love. Techniques in this section claim to either enhance beauty or sex appeal, promote good luck, or make one “lucky in love” (Danielou 490-491). Methods include: wearing a garland of lotus flowers, wearing an amulet made with a conch shell or jujube berries while chanting verses from the Atharvaveda, or applying a makeup, cream, or ointment made from honey or butter and a variety of plants, flowers, or fruits. The section ends with methods specifically for courtesans and performers- many of which involve extending a daughter or servant girl’s hand in marriage in exchange for money or “special favours on a musical instrument” (Doniger and Kakar 233-235).

The second subdivision of the first chapter deals with “Putting Someone in Your Power” and contains a variety of recipes for ointments and powders which claim to enchant, captivate, or subdue a person or their sexual partner when applied to certain parts of the body (Doniger and Kakar 235). One recipe involves mixing powdered milk hedge, red arsenic, and sulphur with monkey feces; it is stated that if you sprinkle this mixture over a girl, she will not feel attraction towards anyone else (Danielou 497).

The final part of chapter one covers “Stimulants for Virility” (Doniger and Kakar 236). This portion contains multiple recipes one may consume to increase virility, and/or lifespan (Danielou 499-503). Most of these recipes include milk and/or butter, sugar, and honey. Other ingredients include, but are not limited to, “dog’s-fang,” asparagus, and prickly-fruit (Doniger and Kakar 233-237). There are also multiple recipes that claim to provide the ability to copulate with numerous women. A recipe for biscuits made from crushed sweet potatoes, sugar, honey, cow’s milk, ghee, and wheat flour claims that consumption will provide a man with the capability to sleep with countless women (Danielou 501).

The chapter comes to a close with a passage that says one may learn erotic techniques from magicians, experienced people, and the Vedas. It is stated that one should not employ procedures that are harmful, dangerous, painful, or unhygienic; apply only methods prescribed by Brahmins or other competent people (Doniger and Kakar 237-238).

The second chapter, “Rekindling Exhausted Passion” begins with a section of the same title. It is stated that if a man is unable to satisfy a woman, he should fondle her with his hand prior to copulation, engage in oral sex, or make use of an artificial phallus (some of which may require harnesses or attachments) that may be made of copper, gold, horn, iron, ivory, lead, tin, or wood (Danielou 508-510). According to Vatsyayana, those made of wood most closely resemble a real penis, and therefore are the most sought after (Doniger and Kakar 238-239). The rekindling passion section concludes with methods for piercing a penis, including ways to clean, widen, and accessorize said piercing (Danielou 512-513). According to the Kamasutra, “a man whose penis has not been pierced does not experience real sex. And so the people of the South pierce a boy’s penis just like his ears” (Doniger and Kakar 239).

The next section of chapter two is “Methods of Increasing The Size of The Male Organ” (Doniger and Kakar 240). The techniques mentioned claim to cause swelling of the penis that can last up to a month, six months, or a lifetime- depending on the technique used. One technique that is said to produce permanent swelling involves rubbing the penis for ten nights with a mixture of oil and the hairs of tree-inhabiting insects; when swelling begins, one should sleep face-down on a wooden cot and allow the penis to hang through a hole in the cot (Danielou 514-515). The Kamasutra warns that all of the methods for increasing penis size should be learned from an expert (Doniger and Kakar 241).

The final section “Unusual Techniques” contains methods for making objects invisible, turning iron pots into copper, removing passion, changing hair color, and causing insanity, among other things (Doniger and Kakar 241-241). One technique claims that if a woman bathes in buffalo’s milk with mint, extract of cow’s bile, and yellow amaranth mixed in, any man who sleeps with her afterwards will become impotent (Danielou 516). The Kamasutra comes to a close by stating that sensible people will not be consumed by passion; one must know when it is appropriate to make use of the practices mentioned (Danielou 520).



Danielou, Alain (1994) The Complete Kamasutra. Rochester: Park Street Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2003) “The “Kamasutra“: It Isn’t All About Sex.” The Kenyon Review 25(1): 18-37.

___ (2002) “On the Kamasutra.” Daedalus 131(2): 126–129.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) “Hinduism the eBook: an Online Introduction.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books. 0-9747055-4-3.

Vatsyayana, Mallanaga (2009) Kamasutra. Translated by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Kama Sastra

Mlecchita vikalpa









Noteworthy Websites related to the Topic


Article written by: Riley Wilcox (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Vrindavan (Vrndavana)

India is a country with a varied and rich mythology. Vrindavan (aka Vrndavana) is located in Northern India around fifteen kilometres from Mathura and is considered to be one of the seven holiest cities for Hindus (Haberman, 272). The city features many sacred land and water features such as the Yamuna River, sacred groves (vanas), ponds (kundas) and ghats (holy steps leading down to a river) (Luthy, 4). It is also referred to as Vrindavan or Vrindivana city. The name Vrindavan is derived from ‘Vrinda’ which is another name for the sacred tulsi (i.e. basil) plant. It is one of the most holy cities within the Hindu tradition and is commonly known as the “The City of Temples” with allegedly five thousand in total.

Major religious routes within the forests of Vrindavan were first established in the sixteenth century based on the Sanksrit text Vraj Bhakti Vilasa written by Narayan Bhatt (Shah, 41). Bhatt is responsible for mapping out a large portion of the religious sites that are worshipped to this day. Bhatt more specifically mapped out the place-names found within the Puranas onto the physical terrain where these sites are found (Ghosh, 193) Pilgrimages are religious and cultural phenomena that are important features the Hindu religion. In the Hindu religion, a pilgrimage is referred to as a tirtha yatra and is a liminal process that establishes participation in the spiritual realm (Singh &Haigh, 783). A pilgrimage has been defined as a journey resulting from religious causes, externally to a holy site, and internally for spiritual purposes and internal understanding (Barber, 1). Today, pilgrimage is defined differently, as a traditional religious or modern secular journey (Collins-Kreiner, 440). For example, the Krsna Balrama Madir Temple, established in 1975 by His Divine Grace Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, has now become Vrindavan’s most popular temple and has one of the highest standards of deity worship and cleanliness. It has become one of the most popular temples and Hare Krsna devotees can be found here throughout the year (Jacobsen, 143).

Vrindavan is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for devotees of Krsna as the city is well-known as the forested region where the deity Krsna grew up as a humble cowherd (go-pala). The city itself is said to be where Krsna spent his childhood and many say that he still resides within the city itself.  It is located in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. The area of Vrindavan is described in the Puranas as the childhood home of the deity Krsna. This mythologized place was located geographically when the Bengali Saint Caitanya travelled there to rediscover Krsna’s childhood home where he then experienced visions of the deity in the uninhabited forest (jangala) which is now modern day Vrindavan (Ghosh, 194). Caitanya and his followers began to construct temples in the holy city that can still be found today. For example, the Madan Mohan Temple is the oldest temple in Vrndavan today and is closely associated with Caitanya.

Mathura (just outside of Vrindavan) is a little town and a major place of pilgrimage on the banks of the Yamuna River. It attracts about a half of a million pilgrims each year, especially during major festivals such as Krsna Janmastami, Holi, and Radhastami. These journeys are made to sacred places as an act of religious devotion (Nash, 101). Pilgrimage sites are places that people consider sacred and maintain their sanctity by visiting them regularly and relating them into their religious framework (Eck, 8). In India more than one hundred million people visit around two thousand major pilgrimage sites annually (Shinde, 449). During ritualized pilgrimages individuals travel to a sacred place and perform rituals considered necessary to appease the sacred object in that place. These ritual acts of worship acts by pilgrims (individual and collective) of worship and rituals are regarded as part of their normal their religious duties (Shinde, 450). Pilgrimages are crucial in the Hindu religion in order for an individual to engage all of the senses when to experiencing the sacred sites Vrindavan has to offer. The believer “sees” the sacred sights (temples, churches, relics, icons, monuments), he/she “hears” the sacred sounds (church and temple bells, drum beats, chanting, singing, the call to prayer), “touches” the sacred artifacts (icons, deities, texts), “eats” special food (such as consecrated food); and “smells” specific aromas (incense, fresh flowers) (Eck, 9). All of these experiences vary depending on the individual’s participation in the religious culture developed around the pilgrimage site itself (Shinde, 451).

Although there are thousands of temples erected within Vrindavan there are a few that stand out. Since the establishment in the fifteenth century, Vrindavan has continued to be a center for devotional pilgrimages dedicated to the deity Krsna. Vrindavan is a place for pilgrims to visit Krsna temples, participate in worship and rituals, listen to narration of stories from the religious epics of Krsna, and perform poetry, art, dance, song, and drama dedicated to Krsna’s glory (Shinde, 452). For example, these everyday rituals involve dressing the idol in finery and darshan, communal singing of hymns, and food offerings to the deity depending on the temple of worship. Today you can find a live video stream of the Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Mandir which has now become one of the most popular and visited temples in the world.

Vrindavan is also a major site for Vaisnava groups. For example, widows (mostly from Bengal) have been congregating in Vrindavan for years to live out the rest of their lives. In India, social mores inhibit women from remarrying and they are shunned because they are viewed as inauspicious. Nilakantha Braja (The Blue-necked God) written by Assamese writer Indira Goswami highlights the plights of the widows who reside in the sacred city by depicting the despicable and undignified life and death experiences of these women. Known as the Radheyshamis (widows who sing devotional songs in temples for a pittance) these widows sing bhajans (hymns) in order to accumulate money to survive (Bhushan, 138). Whether young or old, widowed women leave behind their colorful saris, jewelry, and even shave their heads if they are part of the more conservative Hindu traditions (Jamadar, Melkeri, & Holkar, 57). Although these women are not forced to die in ritual sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre) they are still expected to mourn until their own deaths. Therefore, these women find refuge in Vrindavan where they lead miserable lives surviving by begging and singing hymns in praise of Gods (Pande, 209).

Today, the city of Vrindavan has become more of a tourist attraction than a pilgrimage site. Pilgrimages, themselves, are being transformed into mere sightseeing tours and can now be more accurately labeled as ‘religious tourism’ (Shinde, 184). Annually, Vrindavan receives more than six million visitors, who are no longer visiting strictly for religious reasons (Shinde, 448). Places that were once Hindu holy sites may be accessed with a simple search on Google where the best flight deals and top places to visit are a click away. However, some temples remain constant to modern Hindus such as the Banke-Bihari Temple which is considered to be the most popular shrine and is associated with Swami Haridas and Nimbarka. Another is Nidhi Van Temple where Krsna and Radha are said to come out after midnight and indulge in raas-leela (dance found in the Puranas) and then rest in the Rang Mahal Temple which is decorated daily for the two deities.

In conclusion, Vrindavan is gaining popularity due to its numerous temples. Construction and development are ongoing which includes temples, guest houses, and apartments. Simply wandering around Vrindavan allows one to see the vast beauty of the holy city and share vicariously in the myths of Krsna.



Barber, R. (1993) Pilgrimages. London: The Boydell Press.

Bhushan, Ravi. (2014) “Estranged Identity: The Problem of Hindu Widows in Indira Goswami’s Nilakantha Braja.” Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies 5 #2:138-141.

Collins-Kreiner, N. (2010) “Researching pilgrimage: Continuity and transformations.” Annals of tourism research, 37(2): 440-456.

Eck, D. L. (1981) “Darsan: Seeing the divine image in India.” Chambersberg, PA: Anima Books: 8-9.

Ghosh, P. (2002) “Tales, tanks, and temples:the creation of a sacred center in seventeenth-century Bengal,” Asian Folklore, 61 #2:193-222.

Haberman, D. (1994) Journey through the Twelve Forests: An encounter with Krsna. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luthy, T. (2016) “Few people know that Krishna was the first environmentalist”. Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, power and the environment.

Jacobsen, K. A. (2015) “Book review: Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, written by Ferdinando Sardella.” Numen, 62(1): 143-146.

Jamadar, C., Melkeri, S. P., & Holkar, A. (2015) “Quality of Life among Widows”. #1: 57-68.

Mostafanezhad, M., Norum, R., Shelton, E. J., & Thompson-Carr, A. (2016) “Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, Power and the Environment”. Routledge: #2.

Pande, Rekha (2015) “Widows Of Vrindavan-Feminisation Of Old Age In India.” Pakistan Journal of Gender Studies Vol. 10: 209-223.

Shah, B. (2006) “The Pilgrimage of the Groves: Reconstructing the Meaning of a Sixteenth-Century Hindu Landscape”. Arnoldia: 39-41.

Shinde, K. A. (2015) “Religious tourism and religious tolerance: insights from pilgrimage sites in India.” Tourism Review, 70(3): 179-196.

Shinde, K. A. (2011) ““This is a religious environment”: Sacred space, environmental discourse, and environmental behavior at a Hindu pilgrimage site in India””. Space and Culture. 14: 448-463.

Shinde, K. A. (2008) “The environment of pilgrimage in the sacred site of Vrindavan, India.” PhD diss., Monash University: 449-451.

Shinde, K. A. (2007) “Case study 6: Visiting sacred sites in India: Religious tourism or pilgrimage.” Religious tourism and pilgrimage festivals management: An international perspective: 184-197.

Singh, R. P., & Haigh, M. J. (2015) “Hindu Pilgrimages: The Contemporary Scene.” The Changing World Religion Map: 783-801


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Banke-Bihari Temple

Bhagauata Purana






Hare Krsna





Krsna Balrama Madir Temple

Madan Mohan Temple



Nidhi Van

Nilakantha Braya




Rang Mahal


Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Madir Temple

Swami Haridas

tirtha yatra




Vraj Bhakti Vilasa

Yamuna River


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic (Sri Vrindavan Dham, 2016). (Daily Bhaskar, 2016). (Hindu Website, 2016). (Vrindavana: The Holy Land of Lord Krsna, 2009). (, 2016).


Article written by: Lindsay Tymchyna (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.







Although there is no accurate date for when Bhavabhuti actually lived, as Sanskrit authors did not give away any telling information about their personal lives or the age in which they lived, there are many indicators in other Sanskrit literature giving reference to the time when Bhavabhuti flourished (Mirashi 1). The playwright is referenced multiple times in the Rajatarangini (a historical chronical of early India). These verses describe Bhavabhuti as a colleague of Vakpatiraja in the Court of Yasovarman (Mirashi 3), both of which flourished in the early 8th century. In addition, Vamana cites illustrations from Bhavabhuti’s works in 800 CE, from which historians concluded that Bhavabhuti’s work must have been famous prior to this time (Mirashi 9). Through the use of these crucial markers, most historians have approximated that Bhavabhuti lived and did the majority of his dramatic work in the first quarter of the 8th century C.E., specifically from 700 – 730 CE (Mirashi 3).

Bhavabhuti was born to a learned priestly family of Brahmins in Vidarbha, which resulted in a vast knowledge of both language and philosophy (Bhat 155). In the prologue of his play Malati-Madhava, he claimed to have been conversant in Vyakarana, Mimamsa, and Nyaya, besides having extensive expertise in the Vedas, Sankhya, and Yoga (Ramanathan 1). The fact that Bhavabhuti was well-educated was not lost on him, for he references himself as Srikanthapadalanchanah, which means “adorned with rich learning” (Ramanathan 1). Following this reference, historians believe it is unlikely that Bhavabhuti’s name was actually that which was written on his work. The manuscript for Malati-Madhava references the author as a disciple of Kumarila named Umbekacarya. Bhavabhuti’s family surname was Udumbara, so historians believe the name Umbekacarya may have been derived from there (Bhavabhuti 1967: 5).

Because Bhavabhuti was born into the Brahmin caste, he was expected to follow tradition and attempt to strengthen his family’s name. However, he chose not to carry on the rituals and traditions of his family and focused instead on drama. Being a writer in early India was in itself viewed badly as it did not focus on religious traditions set out for individuals, but Bhavabhuti’s association with actors (who were regarded as low-class citizens) as he began writing greatly upset his family (Bhat 155). Vidarbha, and Padmaputa in general, was not a prosperous area and so Bhavabhuti left Vidarbha, where he had grown up, to seek fortune in North India (Mirashi 17). He travelled to Padmavati and resided there for a few years, though he staged his plays at Kalapriya, a city north of Padmavati. Because Bhavabhuti held his plays away from the city and not in the royal court, he did not receive royal patronage there (Mirashi 18). However, King Yasovarman of Kanauj heard of Bhavabhuti’s work as his fame became widespread, resulting in Bhavabhuti becoming Poet Laureate at his court (Mirashi 19).

Although known almost exclusively for his three plays, Mahaviracarita, Malati-Madhava, and Uttara Rama Carita, it is possible that Bhavabhuti had written other pieces. Quotes in Sargadhara’s Paddhati and Gadadharabhatta’s Rasikajibana demonstrate that Bhavabhuti may have had other works that are lost or have yet to be discovered (Bhavabhuti 1967: 8). It is not possible to comment on unknown works, and thus analysts only credit Bhavabhuti for the plays that are commonly known. Though his writing does not contain any humor, he possesses a lyrical element that dominates throughout every play (Bhavabhuti 1967: 13). His mastery of multiple languages resulted in the use of very high-level speech, which, criticized by analysts as “pretentious”, was not at all suited to efficiently convey inner thought or to please audiences viewing the play (Bhavabhuti 1967: 13).

Mahaviracarita is believed to have been Bhavabhuti’s first play, though there is contention over this statement by some historians. The style, ideas, and plot conception lead many to believe that this was his first piece of work, Bhavabhuti’s outline seemed to many Sanskrit literature critics to “need finishing” (Ramanathan 2), and was the mark of an inexperienced writer. Mahaviracarita is based on the early life of Rama, from boyhood to his return to Ayodhya after the Lanka war and his wife Sita’s rescue (Bhavabhuti 1967: 10). Bhavabhuti relied heavily on Valmiki’s Ramayana for a significant portion of the theme, and even copied verses from the Ramayana into Mahaviracarita (Bhavabhuti 1967: 146). This play is known as virarastradhana, where the main sentiment evoked is bravery and/or heroism. Mahaviracarita is available in eleven northern manuscripts and seven southern, however, Viraraghava (the original commentator) wrote that the original book consisted up to only Act V. Most scholars concur that the rest of the play was written by an author that was not Bhavabhuti, but reasoning for this is unclear (Ramanathan 2).

Malati-Madhava is commonly known as Bhavabhuti’s second play, though there is minor contention as to whether this may have been the first play. The theme of love present in this play often arrives in a Sanskrit writer’s works before themes such as heroism, resulting in a theory among some historians that this Malati-Madhava could have been his first completed piece (Bhavabhuti 1967: 9). The play is based on a folktale of Brhatkatha and focuses primarily on the love story of Malati and Madhava. Malati’s love-torment for Madhava grows unbearable, for she is betrothed to Nandana by her father due to the King’s insistence. Her desire for a love marriage directly contradicts the need Malati has to please her family through an arranged marriage (Bhavabhuti 1967: 17). These conflicting desires result in Malati’s childhood friend marrying Nandana while she carries out a secret love marriage to Madhava (Bhavabhuti 1967: 20).

Malati-Madhava consists of 10 acts and multiple prakari, which are small incidents that assist with the progress of the play (Bhavabhuti 1967: 1). The earliest and, according to critics, most crucial prakari in Malati-Madhava is the conversation between Kamandaki and Malati as Madhava overhears, for this first alerts Madhava to the mutual feelings shared by the couple (Bhavabhuti 1967: 33). This play belongs to a division of dramatic compositions called prakarana; the subject matter of a prakarana must be drawn from worldly life and must be a work of pure invention.  Bhavabhuti’s theme of love throughout Malati-Madhava fulfills the requirements of a prakarana (Bhavabhuti 1967: 31).

Bhavabhuti’s Uttara Rama Carita is widely known as his “masterpiece” (Bhavabhuti 1967:10). In this piece, Bhavabhuti chose to focus on one particular incident: Sita’s banishment, and Rama’s feelings throughout the event. Bhavabhuti attempts to depict karuna (pathos) and finds more success and applause in doing so than almost any other poet of classic India (Bhavabhuti 1967: 11). The portrayal of both Rama’s ruthless heart in banishing his wife and tender heart as he weeps for her gained audience approval that had been lacking in much of his previous work (Ramanathan 3). In addition to the use of karuna, the tone of Uttara Rama Carita is lofty but without any obscenity or humor: there is not a single work in all of Sanskrit literature that is completely free of these two elements (Bhavabhuti 1895: 11). Due to a “positive rule” in Sanskrit literature prohibiting tragedy in said literature, the ending of Uttara Rama Carita was adapted so that Bhavabhuti’s work could be shared with the public. Whereas the original story concluded with tragedy, the modern ending shows a happy reunion of Rama, Sita, and their two sons, which added to critical acclaim of his final known work (Bhavabhuti 1895: 7).

Each of Bhavabhuti’s three plays has different main themes, though the concept of love maintains a constant presence in every one. In both Uttara Rama Carita and Malati-Madhava (and briefly in the beginning acts of Mahaviracarita) Bhavabhuti emphasizes the concept of love, specifically monogamous relationships. Bhavabhuti flourished in a period in which polygamy was gaining popularity but expressed monogamy in high regards (Ambardekar 80). Bhavabhuti uses the concept of “love at first sight” in both Mahaviracarita and Malati-Madhava when Rama and Sita meet, and when Malati first sees Madhava (Ambardekar 83). An expert of high-level speech, Bhavabhuti goes beyond simply portraying a couple in love by also describing the afflictions associated with love in Malati-Madhava, feelings such as despair, disappointment, and frustration (Ambardekar 83).

Despite serious events often covered in Sanskrit drama, playwrights of the time would use simple diction mixed with sections of entertainment for the sole purpose of entertaining an audience. In contrast, Bhavabhuti’s work was completely serious. Though he used themes of love, Bhavabhuti did not include lighthearted conversation or thought, but instead used a serious tone and philosophized on the concept of love itself (Bhat 154). As previously mentioned, Bhavabhuti had mastered a high-level writing style that would only be understood by well-educated classes, which, combined with a consistently solemn tone, was ill-received by audiences and critics alike. The harshest criticism, however, came from Bhavabhuti’s relatives and residents of his native Padmapura, who disapprove of Bhavabhuti’s journey into the dramatic arts and his abandonment of the prestige and tradition of his family (Bhat 156). While most early Sanskrit writers used the prologue of their plays to introduce themselves and the play itself, Bhavabhuti’s introductions (specifically Mahaviracarita and Malati-Madhava) replied to the critics themselves. It is unclear why Bhavabhuti chose to reply to negative criticism in the prologues of his first two works, but this unusual introduction did not occur in Uttara Rama Charita (Bhat 152). Despite harsh criticism of Bhavabhuti’s non-traditional style of writing, modern critics applaud his unique works and view him as one of the best playwrights of early India.


References and Further Recommended Reading:

Ambardekar, R.R. (1978) “Bhavabhuti’s Concept of Love.” Indian Literature. 21:2-16. Accessed February 1, 2016. doi:

Bhat, G.K. (1979) “The Detractors of Bhavabhuti.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. 60. Accessed February 2, 2016. doi:

Bhavabhuti (1895) Uttara Rama Charita with Sanscrit Commentary. Translated by Vinayak Sadashiv Patvardhan. Nagpur: Nyaya Sudha Press.

Bhavabhuti (1967) Malatimadhava: With the Commentary of Jagaddha. Translated  by M.R. Kale. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Mirashi, Vasudev Vishnu (1974) Bhavabhuti. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Nandi, Tapasvi (1996) Bhavabhuti and Sanskrit Literary Criticism. Bhandarkar: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Accessed February 21, 2016. doi:

Ramanathan, C. (1985) Bhavabhuti: a Brief Sketch of Life and Works. Bangalore: W Q Judge Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation















Uttara Rama Carita




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic



Article written by: Ashley Steenbergen (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content

Newari Hinduism

The Newar people are the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The term Newar is an etymologically identical to Nepal (Gellner 1995:4). They are a product of ethnic and cultural mixing between North Indian ancestry and Tibeto-Burman language (Mackenzie n.p.). The Newars are divided by religion, caste, locality, and dialect, making the Newar peoples a complex group of people. Most Newars are Hindu, however the culture is a mingling between Hinduism and Buddhism. According to the 2001 census, Nepal was 81.8% Hindu, 11% Buddhist, and the remainder is a combination of Kirat, Christian, Jains, and Sikhs (Central Bureau of Statistics 29). From this data it is important to understand the influence the Hindu tradition has on Nepal. The relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is both simultaneously competitive and ecumenical (Gellner 1995:3).

The history of the Newar people begins in the fifth century, when the “people of Nepal”, naipalah, populated the area (Gellner 1995:3). However, the term Newar only came into existence in mid-seventeenth century, where the term was used to refer to the politically dominant members of society or ksatriya groups (Gellner 1995:3). The Licchavi period saw the first appearance of monarchial state and associations with high Indian culture in the Kathmandu Valley (Gellner 1995:6). The area was settled due to the uniquely fertile soil in the Kathmandu Valley, which was at one point the bed of a lake, and benefits also included a temperate climate, and control over trade routes between the plains and Tibet (Gellner 1995:6). In the valley both Hinduism and Buddhism were supported by the ruling class, made up of ksatryas, patrons of brahmans (Gellner 1995:7).

The Licchavi period preceded the Thankuri and Malla Period; it is the Malla period that accounts for traditional Newar culture (Gellner 1995:7).  The Malla period is marked by a division into three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur (Gellner 1995:9). The kings of each region did not see themselves as Newari, but rather as descendants of Rama and the sun, establishing their connection to Hinduism (Gellner 1995:9). Furthermore, in each of the three kingdoms the rulers sought to make their subjects adhere to Hindu norms, both in relation to ritual pollution and death rituals (Gellner 1995:9).

Most Newar castes hold their own myths regarding their origins. An example of this is where higher castes, such as ksatriyas, hold the belief that the later the arrival in the Valley the higher the status. These castes claim to have been kings in earlier dynasty, or courtiers to incoming kings (Gellner 1995:5).  Other castes, such as the Rajkarnikars (or Sweet-Makers) claim to have descended from brahmans in India (Gellner 1995:5). The Kathmandu Valley plays host to a diversity of racial origins, and different physiognomies both within and between castes.

Newari is a Tibeto-Burman language, belonging to socio-linguistic family from Northern India, which is known for its borrowing between other Indo-European languages (Gellner 1995:5). The tradition of borrowing continues today, despite nationalistic efforts. This can be seen in that most Newari men and the emerging generations are bilingual in both Nepali and Newari (Gellner 1995:5).  Language is important to the study of Hindu Newars through its connection to Sanskrit. Much like India, Sanskrit is the language of scripture for both Hinduism and Buddhism (Gellner 1995:5). Sanskrit, various Prakrits, Persian, Hindi, Nepali and English have profoundly influenced Newari, this is a reflection of linguistic borrowing (Gellner 1991:2).

The construction of the caste system shapes both the macrostructure of society and the micro-reality of everyday life. The Newar people are involved in two caste systems: they have their own system that both separates and unites them internally, and the long-standing caste system of Nepal (Parish 4).  The state caste system is used to unite tribes, castes, different religions, and social organizations to create political and administrative convenience. One of the results is the reconstitution of Buddhist and Hindu identities in relation to one another (Parish 4). The Newar specific caste system hails from historic times of Newar kings, beginning in the Licchavi, but fully forming in the Malla period (Gellner 1995:9).

The Newar caste system is most easily described through the six blocks, or levels in hierarchy. Newar people speak of high and low castes, and the rank of each as described in the Bhasa Vamasavali (Gellner 1995:16). Block one is comprised of Brahmans, and the vajracarya and sakya castes combined, all priestly classes. The second block contains the chathariya and pancthariya castes. Blocks one and two are made up of those castes that are entitled to Tantric initiation using the sacred thread. Block 3 is comprised by the maharjans (farmer class). Block four is made up of several small castes including oil-pressers, dyers, blacksmiths, barbers, and painters. Block five includes the khadgi (butcher) and kapali (mortician) classes. Individuals from blocks one to four (“clean castes”) will not accept water from people in this caste, however their touch does not require ritual purification. The last block is made up of dyahla (street cleaner) and cyamkhalah (scavenger) groups. Other castes refuse to accept water from individuals in these castes and touching them requires purification.  [All information on the block organization of the caste system from Gellner 1995, page 17.]

Interaction between castes occurs, however, as seen in the block system some interaction can result in ritual pollution. The caste system is an essential element to the maintenance of social structures in Newar society. Food exchange is an important aspect in determining ritual pollution. Food is divided into three categories that dictate which directions food can be taken and given (Ishii 111). Interrelations between castes are also governed by the physical structure of the village or town; this insures minimal interaction between the castes (Ishii 112). Inter-caste marriages also take place in Newar society, usually where the bride marries a caste lower than hers.

One of the main ways in which Newar culture relates to Hinduism is through its treatment of death. When an individual dies they become a preta and resides in relatives’ households before going to the kingdom of Yama. Essential death rites are performed to help the potentially dangerous spirit move on to pitr-loka (realm of ancestors). Newar Hindus of all castes are fascinated with death and are fixated with the dramatic consequences that can result from improperly performed funeral rites (Toffin 259).

Newar Hindu women in the Kathmandu Valley hold a high level of agency in Newari culture. This can be seen in particular through the relatively easy divorce practices for these women. For Newar women, leaving their family is as simple as walking away; her family can finalize the separation by sending betel nuts and reclaiming her dowry (Gellner 1991:14). Betel nuts can also be used as a way of avoiding ritual pollution in the case that her husband dies, this also allows her to remarry.  The agency granted to women in the Newar population is connected to its history of collaboration with Tibetan people (Gellner 1991:8).  Newar girls also partake in rites of passage, like their male counterparts. A mock marriage, ihi, can be done when a girl passes the age of five, seven, or nine; it is debated as to whom she is being married to, answers range from Visnu, to the bel fruit (Gellner 1991:9). The intent of the ceremony is to signify that the girl will never be a widow, even if her human husband dies; this therefore protects the girl from the stigma associated with being a widow (Gellner 1991:9).

For Newar Hindus marriage is affected by the caste system in which their society operates. For the upper castes, they must invite a Brahmana or Vajracarya to perform the ceremony, lower castes will invite a lineage elder (Gellner 1991:10). For each caste, there is a dichotomy between elaborate weddings with exchanges, feasts, and a marriage procession, and weddings where the bride simply comes to live with her husband without ceremony (Gellner 1991:9).  In both instances, an exchange occurs where betel nuts are passed between families to symbolize the bride leaving her family and being introduced to her husband’s.



Central Bureau of Statistics (2001). Nepal – National Population Census 2001, Tenth Census. Nepal: Central Bureau of Statistics.

Gellner, David N. (1991) “Hinduism, Tribalism and the Position of Women: The Problem of Newar Identity” Man 26 (1). 105–25. Accessed February 4, 2016.

Gellner, David N., and Declan Quigley, et al. (1995) Contested hierarchies: A collaborative ethnography of caste among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gellner, David N., and Max Weber (2001) The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levy, Robert I. (1991) “Nepal, the Kathmandu Valley, and Some History” In Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mackenzie, John (2005) “Newars.” Cassell’s peoples, nations and cultures. London, United Kingdom: Cassell.

Parish, Steven M. (1996) Hierarchy and its Discontents: Culture and the Politics of Consciousness in Caste Society. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Von Rospatt, Alexander (2014) “Negotiating the Passage beyond a Full Span of Life: Old Age Rituals among the Newars” Journal of South Asian Studies. 37 #1 (March): 104-129

Whelpton, John (2005) A History of Nepal. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.


Related Research Topics for Further Investigation

Newar Buddhism

Newar caste system

Role of women in Hinduism

Death rituals

Rites of passage

Hindu marriage rituals






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Nicole Sommerfeld (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sexuality in Hinduism

Sexuality in Hinduism is most notable through the observance of kama, one of Hinduism’s catur-purusartha’s (four human aims).  Within the Dharma Sastras contain prescriptions for how one should live one’s life, as well as outlining various religious duties (dharma).  Kama in this instance refers to fulfilment of sensual and sexual pleasure (Lidke 108).  Attainment of kama for males is prescribed in the second of the four asramas (life stages), the grhastha stage. This stage of life is known as the householder stage, and in it Hindus are expected to marry.  Sexual relations within a Hindu marriage are meant to be for procreation, however it is expected that couples will be intimate for pleasure also.  Sexual indulgence can become a problem that will cause unhappiness for grhasthas and self-restraint is cautioned.  Mentioned in various scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita is extramarital sex, considered taboo as marriage is seen as contractual and for life (Mehta 66-67).  The catur-purusartha exists within Hinduism’s caste system, and only the upper three classes undergo the rituals that transition from one asrama to the next (Mehta 63).

Rgveda 10.85 begins by telling us that there is a divinity to human marriage, in that it is modeled after the gods, before focusing on more on the humanness of marriage.  Simply by being a woman, a bride is seen as having inherent value to not only her husband, but her husband’s family as well.  This has to do with the expectation that children will be the result of a marriage (Menski 56).  If a husband dies before the woman has conceived, she is not destined to remain a widow, but can be married to another member of her husband’s family in the hopes of conception.  Ideally the original marriage will bear children, and so gods are invoked in certain rituals in the context of fertilization; Indra is invoked for strong sons while Agni is invoked for many sons (Menski 56).  At the same time that a bride is seen as an asset to her husband and his family, she may also be seen as a danger.  On a couples’ wedding night there is an expectation that the hymen will break and a woman will bleed during the act of intercourse.  This, of course, will defile the bedding, but it is also seen as a destructive blood in a Vedic marriage.  For this reason, a husband may consult a Brahmin to purify the cloth and bring longevity to the marriage (Menski 58).

Some Puranas personify kama as Kamadeva, the god of desire and passion.  By contrasting this god with Siva in the Siva Purana, this Purana is full of insight into how Hindus view sexuality.  As Siva is sometimes seen as the eternal brahmacarin and supernaturally chaste, his interactions with Kamadeva show the sexual side of Hinduism (O’Flaherty 141). Much of the literature focuses on Kamadeva as he relates to Siva, but the information gathered in these texts give the reader some idea of what influenced Hindu attitudes and rituals relating to sexuality.

While Siva is seen as chaste in many rituals, the idea that he is tempted or does not remain chaste throughout are common. Some of the myths actually place him in the position of the creator, with an erect penis (linga) and seminal fluid that acts as the seed of creation (O’Flaherty 143).  Siva’s chastity is, however, his most powerful weapon in myths in which he is juxtaposed with Kamadeva.  In one such myth, Siva is responsible for burning Kamadeva up, destroying him.  Modern interpretations of this myth hold it as a temptation story, whereas early interpretations view it as a wholly asexual act.  Siva, being compared to fire, when the two interacted is said to have melted or destroyed Kamadeva, who is likened to snow.  In this analogy, Siva is so pure and chaste that Kamadeva’s sexuality could not possibly have affected him (O’Flaherty 143-34).

The Puranas include a different story of Siva burning Kamadeva.  Siva may be aroused by the act or bring Kamadeva back more powerful.  In the Puranas, it is suggested that Siva, rather than being so chaste that he is not affected by Karmadeva, in fact recognizes his power and possibly admires him (O’Flaherty 145).

Hinduism is unlike many western religions in that it does not have a single canonical text, but many.  Other texts from early Hinduism that mention sexuality include the Upanisads and the Tantras (Doniger 2011).  Some Upanisads compare Vedic rituals to sexuality, such as the oblation of butter into the fire resembling the acts of procreation.  Each action taken in the ritual has a counterpart in love-making and eventual birth.  The Tantras take this notion one step farther and suggest that sexual intercourse is not simply like a ritual, but that the act itself is a ritual (Doniger 2011). The most in-depth text dealing with kama is the Kamasutra, a text from approximately the third century B.C.E.  By modern standards, the Kamasutra is a liberal text, with thoughts put forth on subjects such as women’s sexuality and homosexual behavior (Doniger 2011).  In opposition to the Vedas, the author of the Kamasutra, Vatsyayana, dismisses the notion that people should only have to procreate.  There is also the idea that since people of all ages are capable of understanding sexual acts, all should be familiar with the text.  The idea of female pleasure and sexuality is strong in the text, even suggesting a woman leave her husband if he is not satisfying her, in contrast to what earlier law texts say (Doniger, 2011).

The Dharma Sastras’ view of homosexuality is one of taboo; a man who engages in same sex activity is to be punished, however slightly, for the transgression. Vatsyayana holds different ideas, where instead of the defamatory kliba [translated as eunuch, but holds many other meanings] he uses hijra, a term that means third gender.  Rather than transgressive, third genders in the text are described in a more neutral way; hermaphrodites and bi-sexuals are treated the same as all others.  Throughout the Kamasutra are references to servants and friends who perform oral sex on members of the same sex.  The Kamasutra is unlike other texts, it is not a law book, but rather one that categorizes and attempts to explain sexuality.  In this way, it is not judgmental (Lidke 124).  This lighter view of homosexuality and transsexuality is found throughout both ancient and modern India (Doniger 2011).

Homoeroticism is an important aspect of Hindu literature, even if textual authorities disagree on its morality.  The Hindu concept of rebirth, as well as its views of gods as being androgynous, means that gender and sexuality can be viewed as fluid.  Heterosexuality, however, is still highly regarded as the normative sexuality (Lidke 124-125).  Hijras can also be found in the stories of the epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  In the former is the story of Sikhandhin, who begins the tale as Amba and is captured by a warrior.  After spurning his advances in favor of one she loves elsewhere, she is eventually rejected by both the one she loves and later the warrior and his brother.  She is granted a boon by Siva and asks to be reborn a male.  She is reborn as a female hijra, her boon having not been granted as she had hoped (Lidke 126-127).  Despite a long history of hijra populations and homoeroticism attitudes about sexuality and behavior changed during and after colonization. The British imposed anti-sodomy laws in 1860 and worked to impose Christian values (Lidke 127).  Despite the efforts of the British, hijras still exist in India to this day and include those who proclaim themselves neither man nor woman.  For a majority of Hijras the dominant gender is female, with dress and mannerisms being feminine whether one is biologically male or biologically female.  In lesbian relationships this means that both partners are feminine, since masculine hijras are rare (Penrose 4).

The Kamasutra also speaks explicitly about females and their sexuality, not only in regards to hijras and males but also in regards to their relations with other females.  There are references to penetration with sex toys, both of males and females.  The word used for the penetrator is svairini, although some translators also put forth that svairini can also mean oral sex partner or prostitute (Penrose 15).  The Kamasutra describes women as penetrators, both of men and of other women.  The text, while describing homosexual acts, does not categorize the women as such (see Kama Sutra 2.8.13).  Women’s sexuality in this context is defined by her dominance in the act of penetrating, not by the gender of her partner (Penrose 16).

Sexuality in Hinduism has been influenced by divine myths and written and revealed texts and has an effect on many aspects of life.  Each of the four stages of life (asram vyavastha) have something to say on the topic and dharmic prescription in place.  Sexuality also includes how gender is defined for Hindu’s, as the large and continuing hijras population is proof of.  The texts also often have a lot to say about how one should conduct oneself in regards to sexuality, although with multiple texts there are often times contradictions.



Benton, Catherine (2006) God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2011) “From kama to karma: the resurgence of Puritanism in contemporary India.”   Social Research 78:1. Accessed February 7, 2016.

Herdt, Gilbert H (1994) Third sex, third gender: beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history. New York: Zone Books

Kalra, Gurvinder “Hijras: the unique transgender culture of India” International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 5:121-26. DOI:10.1080/17542863.2011.570915

Lidke, Jeffrey S (2003) “A Union of Fire and Water: Sexuality and Spirituality in Hinduism.” In   Sexuality and the World’s Religions, edited by David W. Machacek and Melissa M. Wilcox, 101-32. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mehta, J.M (2009) Four Spans of Human Life: Ashram Vyavastha. Daryaganj: Hindoology Books.

Menski, Werner F (1991) “Marital Expectations as Dramatized in Hindu Marriage Rituals.” In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, edited by Julia Leslie, 47-67. Jawahar Nagar: Shri Jainendra Press.

Nanda, Serena (1990) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijaras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Siva the Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

Penrose, Walter (2001) “Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a “Third Nature” in the South Asian Past.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3-39. Accessed February 7, 2016.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Kamasutra

Ashram vyavastha






The marriage of the Pandeva’s

The Ramayana

The Mahabharata


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Adam Smith (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.