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Siva Nataraja Bronzes (Origins)

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja: Re-examining the Origins of Nataraja Bronzes

Bronze masterpiece of Siva Nataraja (King of the Dance). 11th century CE, Government Museum, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

One of the most recognizable Hindu icons, both inside and outside India, is the standardized depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva king of dance) seen in places as far apart as Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu and the CERN nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland. This particular standardization of Shiva Nataraja seems to have arisen under the rule of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, as the first fully three dimensional stone carvings in this style appeared during her reign, though questions have been raised about earlier origins (Srinivasan, 434). This standardized form is distinctive and easily recognizable in several ways. First, this particular style of Shiva Nataraja is distinct from not only depictions of other deities, but also other depictions of Shiva as cosmic dancer, by the raised left leg held high across the body at the level of the hip with the foot at knee level (Srinivasan, 433). The supporting right leg, and indeed all the limbs save the lower left arm, are deeply bent giving an appearance of movement paused in a single frame (Kaimal, 392-3). Though held straight, the left arm does faintly bend at the wrist and the hand is held in a relaxed gesture known as gajahasta or “elephant hand” (Kaimal, 393). His lower right hand is held, just above the wrist of the lower left, in abhayamudra, a gesture of fearlessness seen frequently in Indian and Indian-influenced art (Kaimal, 393). The two upper arms hold a damaru drum (right) and a flame (left) (Srinivasan, 433). The foot of the supporting right leg rests on a dwaf, Apasmara, the demon of ignorance (Srinivasan, 433). Finally, in the bronzes, though not in the stone depictions commissioned by queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, Shiva is surrounded by a ring of flames (Srinivasan, 433). The popularity of this image has far outlasted the Chola dynasty, and inspired many speculative interpretations of the iconography present.

Detail of a Siva Nataraja or Natesa (Lord of the Dance) image, with his four arms holding the drum and fire, and displaying the fear-not (abhaya) mudra and the gajahasta (elephant hand) mudra.

Origin of the Image

It is generally accepted that the style of bronze Nataraja we see today originated, or at least rose to prominence, during the reign of queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the Chola dynasty during the tenth century (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi was a great patroness of the arts, she commissioned numerous pieces of art and even engaged in the refurbishment of several brick temples, rebuilding them in stone (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi made the job of archeologists in our own time somewhat easier by re-inscribing previous information about donations and patrons in the temples she refurbished, providing a rich historical record (Dehejia, 209). Notable in regard to the Nataraja image is that it seems to have appeared first in bronzes and stone carvings during her refurbishments (Dehejia, 209). While the similarity of these Nataraja images to present depictions in this style is undeniable, the peculiar raised foot and four armed form being present, doubts have been raised recently about a definitively Chola origin (Srinivasan, 432).

There are certainly examples of images and sculptures which could have contributed to the present Nataraja image exemplified at sites like Chidambaram and CERN, so a pre-Chola origin is not out of the question. One of the earliest possible ancestors of the Chola-era Nataraja is a stone figure from the Harappan civilization, which shares the raised leg posture with the Chola-Nataraja (Dehejia, 32). Granted, a single oddity from a civilization that died thousands of years before the Chola rose is a tenuous connection at best, but Srinivasan points to numerous other examples which may indicate a continuous line of artistic evolution culminating in the Nataraja images we see today.

One of Srinivasan’s suggested precursors is a Satavahana statue, of Shiva as Lakulisa the ascetic, from Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, the statue is dated to around the first or second century B.C.E. (Srinivasan, 434). What is remarkable about this statue is that, already as early as the first or second century B.C.E., we see the theme of Shiva trampling a dwarf which appears not only in Chola-era Nataraja images but in Pallava depictions as well (Srinivasan, 434).

The Pallava dynasty, in fact, is where Srinivasan asserts that the image of Shiva Nataraja we are familiar with today rose to prominence. Prior to the Chola overthrow of their dynasty around 850 C.E., the Pallavas ruled in the Tamil regions of south India from about 550 C.E., themselves having risen from the older Andhra dynasty (Srinivasan, 434-5). When the Pallava king Mahendravarman Pallavan converted from Jainism to Shaivism a burst of Hindu art in stone was produced (Srinivasan, 435). We can surmise that these stone icons were probably a distinctly Pallava innovation in the Tamil region by inscriptions at Mamallapuram praising Mahendravarman for building in “neither brick, nor timber, nor mortar.” (Srinivasan, 435).

What is interesting about these Pallavan stone icons is that the depictions of Nataraja among them show the four-armed Shiva with the raised leg and dwarf, of which there are no prior examples outside the Tamil region in stone or metal (Srinivasan, 435). Examples of Shiva Nataraja from outside the Pallava-controlled Tamil region show Shiva in the chatura tandava posture with both feet touching the ground and knees splayed outward, as opposed to the bhujangatrasita karana posture in which one leg is raised at hip level across the body which we see in the Chola bronzes (Srinivasan, 435). In addition, the dwarf is not present in any of these chatura tandava examples (srinivasan, 435). The number of arms also differs from the four-armed depictions seen in the Pallava and Chola examples, we see eight arms in Gupta examples from the Sirpur region of central India dating to the fifth century, and sixteen arms in a Chalukyan example from Badami in south-west India dated to the sixth century (Srinivasan, 435).

The earliest clear approximation of the Chola style Nataraja we see is on a Pallava pilaster from a cave temple at Siyamangalam, dated to the seventh century (Srinivasan, 436). This icon stands in the bhujangatrasita karana posture, although with the right leg raised, his lower right hand is in abhaya mudra with his upper right hand holding a lamp or bowl with a flame (Srinivasan, 435-6). This statue does differ additionally from the Chola examples in that its lower left arm extends out away from the body rather than across the body, though it retains the gajahasta gesture (Srinivasan, 435-6). Furthermore, the upper left hand holds an ax and the dwarf is not present under the foot of the supporting leg (Srinivasan, 435-6). This is paralleled in an eighth century cave painting from Ellora in Maharashtra, attributed to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, as well another Pallava stone icon in the Tirukkadaimudi Mahadeva temple in Tirucchinampundi (Srinivasan, 436).

While evidence seems to suggest that, in the cave temples constructed by Mahendravarman stucco and wood images are most likely to have been the norm, a seventh century verse by the poet Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”, so we can not rule out bronze processional icons (Srinivasan, 436). In addition, the mention of Shiva holding a drum in the image worshipped at Tillai (now Chidambaram) from the same seventh century verses by Appar seems to indicate that this aspect of the standardized Nataraja icon was already incorporated during the Pallava dynasty (Srinivasan, 436).

Hindu bronzes have not often been attributed to the Pallavas, due largely to a lack of inscriptions on the bronzes themselves, however there is no definite way to date solid metal artifacts with any known method (Srinivasan, 436-8). What we can do, however, is group metal artifacts by shared ore sources based on lead isotope content (Srinivasan, 437). There are some metal artifacts which have been attributed to the Pallavas, for instance a bronze of Shiva dancing in the urdhvajanu pose found in Kuram (Srinivasan, 440). This bronze is attributable to the Pallavas in part because of the forward facing dwarf, as opposed to the sideways facing dwarf in the Chola Natarajas, in addition it shares a metallurgical profile with other artifacts from the reign of Paramesvaravarman Pallavan I (Srinivasan, 440).

This Pallava metallugical profile becomes interesting in regard to two Nataraja bronzes previously attributed to the Chola dynasty, which share the lead isotope content of the Pallava bronzes and the left legged bhujangatrasita karana posture and four armed form of the Chola bronzes, with the hands of each arm bearing the same gestures and implements (Srinivasan, 440). The first, from Kunniyur, differs from Chola images in that it lacks the flying locks of hair found in the Chola bronzes, though the ring of fire is surprisingly present, a date around 850 C.E. is suggested (Srinivasan, 440-1). The second, a small bronze from the British Museum, differs in several ways; the raised leg does not cross the body, the dwarf faces forward, and both the flying locks and circle of flame are not present (Srinivasan, 440-1). This second bronze has been dated to around 800 C.E., making it the oldest known Pallava bronze of Shiva Nataraja (Srinivasana, 440-1). This may indicate that the ring of flame was the latest addition to the Nataraja icon.

It may be that these two Pallava images show an evolution from wood carvings of Shiva Nataraja due to their compactness and lack of flowing locks, both indicative of the limits of wood’s tensile strength, we see these same limits in modern wood carvings of Nataraja (Srinivasan, 440). This may explain the increasingly flared out and circular nature of the icon in Chola times as the tensile strength of bronze was understood to allow for these stylistic changes.

These issues of tensile strength may also indicate that properly three dimensional stone carvings of this style of Nataraja came later than the bronzes and were, in fact, modelled on pre-existing bronzes. We see the emergence of three dimensional stone Natarajas in this style during the reign of Sembiyan Mahadevi, and these images bear the signs of a struggle to represent the style found in the bronzes in a medium with lesser tensile strength (Srinivasan, 441). For instance, in the stone Nataraja from Manavalesvarar temple at Tiruvelvikudi, we see a strut disguised as clothing supporting the lifted leg and crossed left arm to allow for a more expansive image which would make more sense in a bronze casting (Srinivasan, 441-2). The lifted leg of an eleventh century Chola sculpture at the Gangaikondachalapuram temple is propped up by a rough basal strut, while in several other examples the lifted leg is completely broken off (Srinivasan, 442). These struts may even have been inspired by the runners which facilitate lost-wax casting, though they are usually removed from the finished product (Srinivasan, 442). All of this seems to indicate that the style of Nataraja statue attributed to the Chola dynasty was already well developed as such, and likely in bronze, during the Pallava dynasty.

Iconographic Interpretation

An influential, and enduring, interpretation of the Nataraja icon was offered close to one hundred years ago by Ananda Coomaraswamy in “the Dance of Shiva” (Kaimal, 390). While Coomaraswamy’s interpretation is certainly compelling, and likely responsible for the popularity of the Nataraja icon in the west and its interpretation by Western scholars for the last hundred or so years, there is some reason to doubt its accuracy in reflecting the way that the Pallavas and Cholas interpreted this icon when they developed it (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal offers three fairly compelling reasons for questioning Coomaraswamy’s interpretation. First, the question of if it is even possible to properly recover the original meaning of these objects, given the fragmentary evidence from medieval India (Kaimal, 391). Second, Kaimal questions whether a single interpretation is sufficient, noting that objects of art take on different meanings during different times and in fact live multiple symbolic ‘lives’ (Kaimal, 391). Finally, Kaimal draws attention to the fact that Coomaraswamy based his interpretation on texts written several centuries after this style of Nataraja rose to prominence (Kaimal, 391). On this last point, Kaimal also reminds us that there is no simple equivalence between text and sculpture, both mediums have their own “spheres of eloquence” which do not always overlap entirely (Kaimal, 391).

Kaimal is cautious not to completely reject Coomaraswamy’s interpretation however, as it does reflect the significance of the icon to devotees in the thirteenth century and later (Kaimal, 392). While elements of the thirteenth century interpretation could have, and in all likelihood did, derive from earlier interpretations, Kaimal offers three different interpretations which may reflect the meaning of this icon for devotees in the tenth century and possibly earlier (Kaimal, 392). The first interpretation, that Nataraja was used as a kind of emblem of the Chola dynasty is certainly compelling and well argued by Kaimal. Though, while it could serve as the subject of a book in its own right, this interpretation does not tell us much about the symbols within the icon or their origin, which are the primary foci of this paper.

Kaimal’s second interpretation deals with the origin, or synthesis, of this Nataraja icon in Chidambaram (previously Tillai). When Appar wrote about Tillai in the seventh century, it was already an ancient and well established center of many sects, including sects devoted to Vinshnu and the goddess (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal points to earlier interpretations of Nataraja from Tillai which see the tandavam as a dance much more associated with Shiva’s destructive aspects than with the lofty philosophical interpretation of Coomaraswamy (Kaimal, 401).

Many of the less obvious symbols built into the Tamil Nataraja sculptures do indeed point to an association with the destructive aspects of the creative cycle, and many of these symbols appear on depictions of other wrathful aspects of Shiva all over India (Kaimal, 401). For instance, the skull often present in the hair of Nataraja icons and the serpents which encircle his limbs often receive special emphasis in images of Shiva’s destructive aspects, such as the ‘enraged’ face on the giant three-faced Shiva at Elephanta (Kaimal, 402). These often indicate Shiva as Aghora, associated with cremation grounds and destructive ecstasy, as well as drawing an association with similarly adorned goddesses such as Kali, Chamunda, and Nishumbhasudani (Kaimal, 401). These wrathful goddesses also share the characteristics of deeply bent supporting legs and multiple arms splaying out in an explosive and energetic fashion (Kaimal, 402). That these symbols were present in earlier forms of Shiva and other gods/goddesses may indicate that they were redeployed to allow this icon to participate in a symbolic conversation which was already ongoing, and this interpretation would fit nicely with a gradual evolution of the form from the Pallava dynasty through the Chola standardization (Kaimal, 404).

The association with goddesses is interesting in regard to another possible origin of the icon. One of the origin myths laid down in the Chidambaramahatmya, a tenth century text reflecting the Sanskritization of the Tamil cult at Tillai into a pan-Indic cult, tells of a dance competition in which the goddess already resident at Tillai, Tillai Amman, resented Shiva’s encroachment and challenged him to a dance competition (Kaimal, 407). Shiva won the competition by taking a raised leg posture, which modesty prevented the virginal goddess from copying (Kaimal, 407). This loss split the goddess in two, the wrathful virginal aspect retreated to a shrine outside the temple walls, while her benign aspect became Shiva’s wife and remained in the temple where her worship continued. This may reflect an earlier tradition being replaced by, or syncretized into, a more pan-Indic cult rooted in Upanishadic Hinduism rather than the local Tamil culture. This Sanskritization of a local cult may reflect political or social changes brought about as a result of empires growing larger and larger which had to unify disparate belief systems without abolishing them.

Another myth, also presented in the Chidambaramahatmya support the hypothesis that symbols present in the Nataraja icon derive from earlier cults which where absorbed in, and Sanskritized by, the Nataraja cult. The “Pine Forest myth” relates the story of Shiva visiting several sages who were living in a pine forest to punish them for their devotional inadequacies (Kaimal, 406). Shiva arrives in the form of a nude and mirthful ascetic, Bhikshatana, who was sexually irresistible to the wives of the sages, he was accompanied by Vishnu in his female form, Mohini, who proved distracting to the sages themselves (Kaimal, 406). When the sages realized their humiliation they became infuriated and attacked Shiva with various objects which he incorporated into his dance (Kaimal, 406). After incorporating the objects hurled at him by the sages, Shiva’s dance intensified until it encompassed all of creation (Kaimal, 406). As the sages saw this dance they became enlightened by the cosmic proportions of Shiva’s true form and instituted the worship of Shiva in an aniconic form as the linga, which we see carried on at Chidambaram today (Kaimal, 406).

It is the particular items thrown at Shiva, and their incorporation into his dance, which interest us here. The items were: a skull, which Shiva wears in his hair; serpents, which adorn Shiva’s limbs and hair; a dwarf, which he tramples underfoot; a tiger, to which are attributed the shredded appearance of Shiva’s flowing garment; and the fire and drum which we see in Shiva’s two upper arms as well as the flaming ring within which he dances (Kaimal, 406). It certainly is not out of the question to see this legend as a possible reference to earlier Tamil cults, represented by the items, being displaced by and absorbed into the cult of Shiva as a pan-Indic god. This interpretation would further support the idea of a unification of disparate local cults as the empire grew to incorporate, and accommodate, more cultural groups. This is by no means the last word on the origins of the Nataraja icon, but it may indicate that a reappraisal is in order.

Works Cited

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Phaidon, 2011, London.

Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon” in The Art Bulletin, 81, 3. College Art Association, 2009, New York.

Srinivasan, Sharada. “Cosmic Dancer: On Pallava Origins for the Nataraja Bronze” in World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2004, Abingdon.

Article written by Logan Page (Dec. 2018), who is solely responsible for its content.

Ramprasad Sen and Bengali Saktism

Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) was a prominent poet during the 18th century. Though precise details regarding Ramprasad’s childhood and upbringing are often mixed with legend, he is said to have been born to Tantric Brahmins in Bengal, and is remembered for showing a skill and inclination toward poetry and music from a young age (McLean 42). Ramprasad’s upbringing is also characterized by his diligent religious study, especially that which focused on the Navya Tantric-scripture of Krishnananda Agamavagisha, the well-known 16th century Sreehattan Pandita and Tantra Jain Sadhaka (McLean 42). In adulthood, Ramprasad would achieve renown for his love songs, especially of a sort known as bhakti, still popular today.

The ecstatic loving fervor expressed in Ramprasad’s poems, directed toward the goddess Kali, has since come to encapsulate the devotional energies which the Bengali Saktas feel at the epitome of their faith. Appropriately, Ramprasad has since come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets in Indian history. The following work will evaluate Ramprasad Sen, the bhakti movement he originated from, and explore the intense devotion to the Goddess Kali which is present in many of Ramprasad Sen’s poetic works. Interestingly, the life of Ramprasad is very much intertwined with myth and legend which have arisen after his death, meaning that many of the pivotal experiences outlined by biographers are perhaps apocryphal. That said, the vast influence which Ramprasad has exerted over the Bengali Sakta canon and religious practice will form the core of this examination. Particular focus will be paid to the ways in which, despite his Tantric background, Ramprasad deviated from traditional devotional poetry, and even used his works as a platform for criticism of traditional Bengali Saktism.

Ramprasad Sen’s bhakti poetry can best be described as the product of its author’s unyielding devotion to the Hindu goddess Kali. This goddess is known as a destroyer of evil, and oversees, by such action, one of the four groups of tantric Saivism known as Kulamarga (Kinsley 116). Periodically throughout history, this goddess has been worshipped by her adherents directly, through devotional practice. In this role as religious icon, Kali is alternatively described as the Divine Mother, or the Mother of the Universe. Under Hindu Saktism and Tantrism, Kali was often thought to be the Brahman, both a powerful protector and the goddess who would provide moksa (Kinsley 116). Given the prominence that Kali has held in Tantric Brahmin worship, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ramprasad chose her as the object of his life’s poetic work.

Accounts of Ramprasad’s family life also reflect the powerful presence that the goddess Kali held in his life. One such account found Ramprasad building a fence and asking for his daughter’s help, a task he performed while reciting his poetry to Kali. When his daughter appeared, she chastised him for his singing to a goddess who would never appear. After helping him with the fence, Ramprasad and his daughter separated, but later he learned that his daughter had been in another town since morning, and realized he had been visited by the Divine Mother (McDaniel 2018: 45). Another perhaps apocryphal story about Ramprasad Sen’s early life concerns his work as an accountant in Kolkata. At this work, he is said to have busied himself writing poems to the Divine Mother in his workbooks. When exposed, he was not punished by his employer, but instead hired as a poet for the accounting firm (McDaniel 2018: 45).

One final account tells that Ramprasad would spend long hours lost in meditation, “often while standing deep in the Ganges river,” and the boat workers would listen to him as they passed (McDaniel 162). The account indicates that one day “the Maharaja Krishnachandra of Nadia” passed by and heard Ramprasad as he recited his devotional poetry, and was so impressed that “he asked [Ramprasad] to be his court poet” (McDaniel 162). Without strong evidence, there is no way to know whether either of these three accounts of Ramprasad’s early life are true, but the persistence of these legends of are themselves a testimony to the power of Ramprasad’s poetry and influence. In particular, it reflects the prominence that Ramprasad’s works would attain in Bengali Saktism, as considered in the section below.

The movement which would seize upon Ramprasad’s works as basis for a its literary and religious tradition is known as Bengali Saktism. This faith describes Kali as a goddess to be worshipped either as a “powerful force or life and death,” or as a “tantric and yogic goddess who [provides] supernatural knowledge,” but a third variant, one less prominent than the rest, would form the focus of Ramprasad’s work (McDaniel 2018: 44). Within Sakta devotion, and in Ramprasad’s poetry, the goddess is understood as a “loving mother who saves her devotees from painful rebirth,” as well as provides them with protection from harm and “entrance to her heaven” (McDaniel 2018: 44). In Ramprasad’s work, by contrast, his poetic vision of the Divine Mother manifest not as a loving mother, but with Kali taking the form of either “the universal mother or [an] innocent girl,” a figure which is “sometimes frightening on the outside, but inwardly loving and compassionate” (McDaniel 2018: 44). Ramprasad’s ecstatic works of devotional poetry to this dynamic figure would influence Bengali Saktism from then on, and has come to typify the effusive love which such adherents express for the goddess Kali.

Given the strong role which Ramprasad’s works play in epitomizing modern Bengali Sakti ecstatic devotion, there is certainly much evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s choice of subject was directly compelled by his faith. In particular, biographers present evidence to show that Ramprasad’s poetry is derived from the Kularnava Tantra, that millennia-old work of epistemology and logic upon which much of Tantric practice is based (McDermott 71). Official accounts will also refer to Ramprasad’s long years spent practicing “kundalini yoga meditation,” a variant common to Bengali Sakti communities (McDermott 71). There is evidence of this faith derived from Ramprasad’s works themselves, some of which provide “descriptions of Kali derived from [the] Tantric dhyanas” (McDermott 71). There is also Bengali Sakta religious precedent for the great deal of ecstatic loving fervor which flows through Ramprasad’s works. McDaniel (2018: 44) indicates that Ramprasad’s works, and his life, are an embodiment of the ecstatic states outlined in the Kularnava Tantra, a major text of the Bengali Saktas. This work describes ullasa, or the “ecstatic joy…which occurs during ritual practice,” where the practitioner seeking the highest (divya) state described as the “ecstatic or blind madman” (McDaniel 2018: 46). Ecstasy at this level brings loss of control, described in by Bengali Saktas as feeling like “[the adherent’s] limbs are stretched, his hair stands on end, [and] he laughs and cries and stutters” (McDaniel 2018: 46). While in this state, known as divyonmada, or “ecstatic madness,” individuals are made “beyond control by the body and the senses,” and will paradoxically “[gaze] outward but [look] inward,” and thus are seem as the “equivalent to the God Shiva Bhairava” (McDaniel 2018: 46). During his life, Ramprasad was frequently described as a madman, a factor which does much to support the use of his works and ambition as a basis for Bengali Sakta ecstatic practice. Though such textual evidence is persuasive, there is also strong evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s poetry diverged from the purely devotional and traditional Tantric poetry to which it is often compared.

As described by Schelling (2011: 14), Ramprasad’s bhakti poetry was often purely devotional, but this author ascribes its endurance in the Bengal popular imagination to the ways in which it diverted from tradition. Schelling (2011) cites the intimacy of Ramprasad’s works, or its often playful or scolding tone, as well as its deep esotericism and profusion with symbolism, as key areas where it diverges from traditional devotional work (Schelling 14). Moreover, in addition to these works lacking uniform devotional intent, they also contain a wealth of confessions of doubt “concerning the kindliness of [Kali]” which indicate a much more complicated relationship between author and subject (McDermott 71). Moreover, Ramprasad’s works included a range of heartfelt criticism against the “scriptures, images, pilgrimages, and surface acts” upon which the faith of so many people was often predicated (McDermott 71).

Accordingly, Ramprasad’s poetry is notable for the considerable depth and complexity he brings to its subject. His works focus upon “a single great goddess,” often called Kali but sometimes referred to as “Durga, Bhairavi, Sita, Uma, [or] Kalika” (McDaniel 2018: 45). These works emphasize not just the greatness and power of Kali, but tell of “passionate love which must be experienced, and cannot be found in books or philosophies” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Reflected in Ramprasad’s poetry, this intense and worldly love, as emphasized in devotion, was a way for Ramprasad (and Kali bhakti practitioners) to “[draw in] the goddess like a magnet attracts iron” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Of the poems not directed toward Kali herself, Ramprasad’s work also includes “songs of secret sadhana practices,” but each is unerring in its focus upon the act of devotion and the ecstasy to would result from such practice (McDaniel 2018: 45).

Moreover, Dalmiya (2000: 126) describes bhakti poetry as of “feminist significance,” as reflected not just in the “paradoxical” shifting attitude its author holds toward the subject, but due to each of these shifts in tone reflecting “a devotee’s worshipful attitude towards Kali” (Dalmiya 127). This author indicates that the “mother-child motif at the core” of Ramprasad’s work represented “not only a dramatic construction of femininity but of selfhood in general” (Dalmiya 125). As Ramprasad challenged the definition of devotional poetry through the “indigenous worshipful attitude of Kali-bhakti,” he transformed what had been an art form predicated on worship and devotion alone into a far more dynamic instrument (Dalmiya 125).

The transformative power of Ramprasad’s poetry is stressed in other works. In McDermott’s (2001: 71) analysis, this author explains that this poet’s biographers, no matter how stymied by anecdotal accounts, have also sought to offer a view of this eminent artist somewhat ‘divorced’ from “solely Tantric terms” (McDermott 71). This author indicates that some authors will describe Ramprasad not as a mere devotee, but as a bhakta, a “poet who transformed, rather than accepted wholeheartedly, the esoteric Goddess of Tantric heritage” (McDermott 71). The result of the poetry and legacy of Ramprasad, thus lies in his unwavering focus on expressing love for the goddess Kali, and the influence of that love, as expressed in his works, upon the Bengali Sakta tradition. Aside from the undeniable beauty of Ramprasad’s poetry, their legacy is thus felt as much by its deviation from classical poetic art forms as by its embodiment of them. A century after Ramprasad’s death, Yogendranath Gupta would argue that all of the “miracle stories” were comprised of “faith and devotion (visvasa and bhakti).” This is an indication that Ramprasad’s poetry, and his role as sadhaka (religious practitioner) who “softened the hard wood of kaula-sadhana”, the traditional Sakta practice, “through syrupy streams of bhakti and love” (McDermott 71). This description is notable for its acknowledgement that Ramprasad’s works were less an epitome of Bengali Sakta practice as a force for change in this faith.

To this end, while Ramprasad’s work has found a central place in Bengali Saktism, his poems are perhaps most notable for the ways in which they divert from this tradition. To indicate where Ramprasad’s work deviates from Sakta practice most strongly, it is important to consider the different kinds of bhakti practice. McDermott (2001: 71) indicates that there are three types of bhakti, namely (1) Vaisnava bhakti, described as a “dualistic devotion based on external image worship,” (2) Nirguna bhakti, which focuses on a “formless conception of the divine,” and (3) Saka bhakti, under which the goddess is “not understood as a real presence ‘out there’ but as a symbol of the world or of the self,” which can be “introjected into the spiritual physiognomy of the body” through kundalini yogic practice (McDermott 71). Under this formulation distinguishing between variants upon bhakti practice, the sort which is best-emphasized in the work of Ramprasad is the third type, Saka bhakti. While Ramprasad’s language may be interpreted by adherents of the first type (Vaisnava bhakti) as being purely devotional in nature, this “Vaisnavized perspective” often fails to account for Ramprasad’s symbolism, and for what is symbolized by the ecstasy which is strongly emphasized throughout his works (McDermott 71). Specifically, this author indicates that whenever Ramprasad mentions the act of loving Kali, or the idea of keeping Kali in his heart, he is in actuality “referring to [Kali’s] visualized presence in the heart,” and not “thinking of a particular [goddess whom] he worships within an external, dualistic framework” (McDermott 71). The result of Ramprasad’s intent is an art form co-opted by Bengali Shaktism which contains only superficial resemblance to the works which inspired it.

A promising alternative inspiration for Ramprasad’s works has been theorized as derived from the work of the “esoteric Bauls” (McDermott 71). Ramprasad’s songs addressed to the mind, as an example, “mirror the language and concerns of Baul maner manus songs,” themselves focused on a “man of the heart” (McDermott 71). Moreover, both Ramprasad’s works and those by the Bauls represent the mind as a bird, as well as “the body as a place of sadhana,” likened to a boat, as well as “reliance on a guru,” each of which are less emphasized or not present in traditional Bengali Saktism (McDermott 71). For this reason, McDermott (2001) argues that it is reductive and disingenuous to describe Ramprasad as a bhakti poet, despite centuries of subsequent literary works and religious tradition among the Bengali Saktas people suggesting otherwise (McDermott 71).

This work has touched upon the reductive power of religious symbolism over time. So enamored were the 16th-century Bengali Saktas with the depth of Ramprasad’s stated devotion to the goddess Kali, they neglected the deeper criticisms and complexity of these symbolic and esoteric works. In the intervening centuries, Ramprasad’s works have come to be celebrated for their ecstatic devotion alone, but they have lost much of the intricacy of the author’s original voice. Though Bengali Sakta celebrations are renowned for their fervor, their ‘basis’ in Ramprasad’s works, considered the epitome of their practice, is perhaps less direct than it seems.


Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving paradoxes: A feminist reclamation of the goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15, no. 1: 125-150.

Gross, Rita M. (1978) “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.1: 269–291.

Kinsley, David (1998) Hindu goddesses: Visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McDaniel, June (2018). Lost Ecstasy: Its Decline and Transformation in Religion. Springer: Oxford University Press

McDermott, Rachel Fell (2001) Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kālī and Umā in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McLean, Malcolm (1998) Devoted to the Goddess: the life and work of Ramprasad. SUNY Press.

Schelling, Andrew, ed. (2011) The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. Oxford University Press.

Related Research Topics

“The Alvars”

“Bhaskararaya (1690-1785”


“Kali Puja”

“Nirguna bhakti




“Tamil Literature”

“Tridevi” & “Navaratri”

“Understanding Sanskrit”

“Vaisnava bhakti


Related Websites

This article was written by Zach Myrtrunec (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy): Review

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a fictional novel that focuses on the different aspects of love in Hindu culture. “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” (Roy 33, 168, 311). This line is present in the book in multiple places, in slightly different words, and is the most prevalent and recurring motif: that love is not something to be given freely, but is a highly monitored and structural system with rules of engagement that must be followed. Marriage, love, and sex are tied closely with the caste system in Indian culture, an article in The Economist quoting 90-95% of marriages are within the same caste (The Economist, 2015). Reena Kukreja also writes that “inter-caste marriages are taboo” as marriages are a way to maintain the social order of the caste system, which would be degraded if people were allowed to marry outside their caste (Kukreja, 2018). Ammu, the mother of the main characters Rahel and Estha, is a higher caste than her lover Velutha who is born into the untouchable class, a ‘paravan’. “The term “Untouchable” was eventually used to designate these people, who were “outside” the varṇa [caste] system” (Rodrigues 87). Their secret love affair ultimately ends in Velutha’s brutal murder at the hands of the police, as he is accused of the rape of Ammu and kidnapping of her children, by Ammu’s family. Her family does this to protect themselves from the shame of Ammu having a relationship with someone from a lower caste. “She had defiled generations of breeding…For generations to come, forever now, people would point at them…They’d nudge and whisper” (Roy 244). Though the children, Rahel and Estha, also care for Velutha deeply, it is culturally forbidden to engage with a member of the untouchable caste in this way. This caste system is so important, and rigid, that Vellya Paapen offers to kill his own son, Velutha: “He asked God’s forgiveness for having spawned a monster. He offered to kill his son with his own bare hands” (Roy 75).

Ammu and Velutha are forbidden to be together due to the Laws of Manu. “The Laws of Manu firmly promotes marriage within one’s own varna, suggestive of efforts to prevent racial mixture” (Rodrigues 79). This is a part of the Dharma Sastra literature that explains the duties and behaviours that are appropriate for each caste. There is no acceptance of class mobility, “for it is better to follow one’s own dharma (svadharma) inadequately, than to do the dharma of another varna thoroughly” (Rodrigues 79). Should one want to change their caste, there is no way to do so, and acting in a way that would signify or imply you were born into a higher caste is worse than not following your birth caste, even poorly. One issue that is not overly explored in the novel is the idea that the caste system is also inherently sexist. Shruti Chaudhry writes of “The gendered character of caste membership” and the implications “that endogamy could be breached by dominant/upper caste men but not by Jat women” (Chaudhry 2018: 5). The research here suggests that if men are without a wife, they may go find one from far away, so that her caste is not known and essentially adopt her into their own caste. For women this would be unthinkable, as there is evidence to suggest women were killed by their fathers for breaching the caste marriage tradition (Chaudhry 2018: 4). Kukreja agrees: “Dalit women suffer more due to the intersection of caste with gender and patriarchy” (Kukreja 2018: 511).

What is interesting in the book is that, though the family of Ammu is Christian, they still adhere to the Dharmic principles of the caste system. Even though there is no caste system in Christianity, and Christ’s message is largely supportive of the poor, downtrodden, and despised.  “…such activities as having sexual relations, eating the same foods together, or participating in particular religious rites with persons outside of one’s jati are not just undesirable, but actually go against the natural order” (Rodrigues 84). Despite the Christian influence the importance of marrying and associating only with those of your own caste persists. Ammu and Velutha’s love is against the natural order and is therefore unacceptable. “The ritual pollution associated with these groups [lower castes, untouchables] is believed to transfer temporarily to the higher castes through contact” (Rodrigues 87). Through the importance placed on the higher castes of maintaining their “purity,” one can understand the reaction of Ammu’s family. Not only was their daughter touched by a paravan, but she had a sexual relationship with a paravan. This sort of pollution and shame would extend not simply to Ammu, but to her entire family, where maintenance of cleanliness, and purity was of utmost importance. The shame that would be extended to include the family by way of Ammu’s relationship with an untouchable was seen as something to cover up and deny at all costs. “…the stigmatization of the Dalit [paravan] is deeply rooted in Hindu culture, supported by scriptural injunctions and religious practices that have endured for millennia” (Rodrigues 88).

A second theme that the book explores is the controversial state of a divorced woman. “She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter – according to Baby Kochamma (Ammu’s aunt), she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma’s outrage.” (Roy 45). A long quote, but one that does well to highlight the negative opinions that are held about women of divorce. Rodrigues (Rodrigues 106) explains that a love marriage is seen as something inferior to the traditional arranged marriage. Ammu violated not only the arranged marriage customs, but, in the eyes of her family, added to her shame (and theirs) by marrying for “love”. The children also suffer from this stereotype, they hold less, or maybe no value at all, due to the unfortunate circumstances of being children of divorce. “Mammachi said that what her grandchildren suffered from was far worse than inbreeding. She meant having parents who were divorced” (Roy 59). “In crucial ways, marriage forms the cornerstone of Hindu religious life” (Rodrigues 104). Especially for women, who have no earlier rite of passage into Hindu society, marriage is the rite of passage. This is obviously the case with Ammu and her family as she is stigmatized for being a divorced woman, even in the household of Christians.

The caste system is divided into small and smaller units called jatis. “Jati refers to the group into which a Hindu is born, and from which he or she should traditionally choose a marriage partner” (Rodrigues 83). As we can see here, the stigmatization of divorcees is tied closely to the caste system, which defines who may marry whom, and discourages divorce. Ammu originally married outside of the caste system entirely, then divorced, and finally engaged in a relationship with a paravan. Each step pushed the boundaries of socially accepted practises further and further until the inevitable ending of Velutha’s death. According to Rodrigues most Hindu marriages, to this day, are arranged marriages with caste, and skin color being important factors when choosing a partner (Rodrigues 104). Each of the important features of marriage that Rodrigues touches on here were violated by Ammu, and Velutha, during their relationship. The denial by the family in order to salvage some of their reputation led to the misguided beating, and death, of Velutha by the police.

Finally, shame seems to be an integral part of the book as well. Velutha, a paravan, was born into a shameful caste, and Ammu was also shamed for divorcing her first husband, and even the children are not shielded from shame. At one point Rahel talks back to her mother, Ammu, who responds by telling her young daughter: “…do you realize what you have just done?… When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less” (Roy 107). “The moth on Rahel’s heart lifted a downy leg. Then put it back. Its little leg was cold. A little less her mother loved her” (Roy 131). There is also inherent racism that is felt by the children, for being treated so differently from their white cousin: “Littleangels were beach-colored…Littledemons were mudbrown…” (Roy 170). The racism is also mirrored in the Laws of Manu that seperation of the classes, or castes, is also implying a seperation of races (Rodrigues 79). Ever present throughout the book is this comparison of the children of Ammu, Indian children, to that of Sophie, their white cousin. The repetition of the laws of love which are directed at Velutha and Ammu’s secret affair are echoed in the love Sophie receives, that Rahel and Estha do not.

The God of Small Things creates an understanding of the issues of divorce, marriage, the caste system, untouchables, and the disparity between people in a way that is easily understood on an emotional level. It is leans towards highlighting the damages of the caste system, but it does get its message across in a unique and poetic way that allows one to feel as though they are experiencing the segregation of classes for themselves. Although it highlights the negative aspects of the caste system, it is enlightening to become attached to the characters and understand the struggle that they face in their culture. The stereotyping and degrading of unwanted peoples untouchables, divorcees, those of different religions, and races, the story allows one to connect on a deeper level to the issues that face those born into a lower caste with no chance of improving their life in a way that scholarly factual writing cannot.


Chaudhry, Shruti (2018) “‘Flexible’ Caste Boundaries: Cross-regional Marriage as Mixed Marriage in Rural North India.” Contemporary South Asia 1-15. Accessed November 27, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/09584935.2018.1536694.

Kukreja, Reena (2018) “Caste and Cross-region Marriages in Haryana, India: Experience of Dalit Cross-Region Brides in Jat Households.” Modern Asian Studies 52(2), 492-531. Accessed November 27, 2018. DOI:10.1017/S0026749X000391.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The ebook.  Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Roy, Arundhati (1997) The God of Small Things. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

“Love (and Money) Conquer Caste; Marriage in India.” The Economist September 5, 2015, p. 44. Canadian Periodicals Index Quarterly. Accessed November 27, 2018.

This article was written by: Skye Helgeson (Fall, 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Homosexuality in Hinduism

A wide spectrum of ideas and thoughts about homosexuality have been expressed, viewed, and experienced by Hindus. Hinduism acknowledges that there are three sexes; male, also known as Pumsa-Prakriti, female, also known as Stri-prakriti and a third sex called Tritiya-prakriti (Wilhelm 4). These categorizations are not only based on physical characteristics but are determined by the entire being. That is, Hindus looked at the physical body, the subtle psychological body and the individual’s social interactions or procreative status (Wilhelm 4).  A person who falls under the category of Tritiya-prakriti is either homosexual, transgender or intersexed.

The third sex has mainly been excluded from modern day Hinduism due to Great Britain’s negative views seeping into the cracks of society (Wilhelm 4).  When Great Britain was the major power and dominated India, homosexuality was viewed as sinful, horrific, and not to be mentioned. India and many other societies were influenced by this view and negative connotations were associated with same-sex relationships.  These associations became the norm. Although the third sex is not widely acknowledged by society today, many texts share ideals and beliefs regarding marriage, lifestyle, and overall rules, not only for heterosexual peoples, but also for people that fall under the category of third sex. In this article, I will also describe and explore the discussed view on homosexuality, same sex marriage and same sex intercourse that is elaborated through multiple Hindu texts. I will shed light on modern day Hinduism versus historical Hindu society and discuss whether or not the Hindu religion is relatively more tolerant to same sex behavior.

Homosexuality was essentially an underground form of behavior that was brought to light within many Hindu texts (Carpenter and Isterwood 5). The Bhavisya Purana states that scriptures dealing in religious law and behavior were transmitted from Lord Brahma to Manu and later created into four smaller texts sages; Manusmrti, Narada-smrti, Brhaspati and Angiras and others (Wilhelm 70). In the Dharma Sastra, the third sex is considered to be natural or something that is involuntarily embedded into an individual (Wilhelm 72). Therefore, no verses punish the third-gender citizens for their natural instincts, but some digressions towards homosexual behavior are discussed; found in the Manusmrti.

The stance taken by Dharma literature regarding homosexuality is not opposing nor is it entirely supportive (Yarhouse and Nowacki 40). The Dharma Sastras value heterosexual marriage and acknowledge the existence of other forms of sexuality. Although homosexuals are included in the text, Hindus still attempt to restrain them with fines, regarding sexual activity, without overly condemning them in religious or moral terms. An individual’s caste also plays a huge role. High caste men who have intercourse with other men are punished more than lower class individuals that do the same; for woman, the opposite order applies (Sands 9). Individuals might avoid homosexual relations all together in some instances to protect their family’s name, caste, etc. The Manusmrti declares that homosexual intercourse involving a Brahmana or twice born male results in the loss of caste unless atoned for by a ritual bath (Wilhelm 72). As for women, the only concern that is discussed by the Manusmrti is the violation of a young, unmarried girl. The violator would be punished to the same degree as a heterosexual male that forced himself on a young girl (Wilhelm 73). Other texts, such as the Arthasastra, are devoted to the basis or secular law and material success which, forbid intercourse. In this text, male homosexuals are to be prescribed punishment more so than females, but neither female nor male homosexuality is as strictly sought after  in the Arthasastra as they are in the Dharma texts. The Laws of Manu or Manusmrti is a central text that prescribes a harsher punishment for female homosexuals than male homosexuals (Sands 9).

The Dharma Shastra text clearly forbids the marrying of impotent or a third-gender man to a woman (Wilhelm 76). There are eight types of marriages or Vivaha stated in the Manusmriti: Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Prajapatya, Asura, Gandharva, Raksasa and Pisacha. Homosexual individuals would often engage in casual love, but were sometimes known to have a gandharva marriage to one another. The Kama Sutra states, “there are also third-sex citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married (parigraha) together” (Kama Sutra 2.9.36). The Baudhayana Dharmasutra also states that the first four are lawful for a Brahmana but the Gandharva form of marriage is for all since it flows from love (1.20.16). Gandharva was a union of cohabitation and love recognized by common law, but no parental consent or religious ceremony was needed to achieve this label. The sacrament of marriage in Hinduism was the joining of two families not two individuals. Conservative Hindu’s believe that only romantic love can be shared between a man and a woman, thus when two people of the same sex participate in sexual activities, it is only a result of lust (Yarhouse and Nowacki 40). Therefore, Gandharva is not regarded as a marriage but more of a friendship, in which lust is involved.

The Brhapati on the other hand was compressed into one of the four smaller texts to encompass politics, economy, and prosperity; they were called the Arthasastra. The Arthasastra regards it as a crime to vilify men and women of the third sex, and if a person of the third sex is mocked in public by an individual or group, they were fined (Wilhelm 80). It also states that an impotent man of the third gender will not receive any of the family’s inheritance, but if he has a progeny that is not impotent, they may receive some of the family’s inheritance. However, the family must supply their third gender relatives with food and clothing (Wilhelm 81). Therefore, the impotent man would still be somewhat looked after by his family, but may refrain from making it known that they are not attracted to the opposite sex for want of an inheritance. As for certain homosexual behaviors, the Arthasastra states that relatively small fines are to be given if certain behaviors are exhibited. For example, if a young unmarried girl is deflowered by a woman, the girl must pay a fine of 12 panas, if she was a willing participant and of the same varna, but the woman would pay double that. If the girl was unwilling, the violator must pay 100 panas plus the girl’s dowry (Wilhelm 81). These rules were put into place to resolve the issues in Hindu society, whereas in other religious societies, homosexuality was not discussed and individuals would not know what to do.  Overall, the third sex was viewed as a part of historical Hindu society, and was integrated into these texts as a result.

Verses regarding the understanding of sexuality, behavior, and practice were set aside by Nandi and forming the text called the Kama Sastra. In this text, the term Tritiya-prakriti is used to describe homosexual and transgender behavior within Hinduism along with the various Sanskrit words such as, Svairini and Kliba, which put individuals into certain homosexual categories. Lesbian, or Svairini, refers to an independent and liberated woman who has refused a husband and earns her own livelihood. She may live either alone or with another woman and the texts describes the various types of homosexual behavior.  The act of purushayita is when a couple switches roles and the woman goes on top, penetrating the male using her finger or a dildo (Wilhelm 9). These same acts occur between Svairini. There are, eight different types of penetration known as, purushopariptani, that are described so that similar acts can occur between two females.  Therefore, the Kama Sastra acknowledges that the Svairini, although in some cases looked down upon in society, should be able to participate in sexual acts (Wilhelm 90). Lesbians were readily accommodated into the third gender society and ordinary society. They were allowed to engage in all means of livelihood, such as trade, government, and entertainment (Wilhelm 9). Gay men, or Kliba, can refer to any type of impotent man, but, in this case, it is used to describe men who are completely un-attracted to woman (Wilhelm 10). Kliba’s are described in the Kama Sutra regarding oral sex. Heterosexual males are not recommended to have oral sex and it is forbidden to Brahmanas. However, it is acknowledged as a natural practice among third sex individuals who are not engaged in celibacy.

Gay men, who take a passive role in oral sex, are specifically known as mukhebhaga or asekya (Wilhelm 51).  There are two different types of gay males described by the Kama Sutra, the first being the feminine male. These individuals usually keep a womanly fashion with long hair but are not to be confused with males who dress up as females ( i.e. transvestites) (Wilhelm 10). Gay males who fall under the feminine category were often hired by aristocratic women and usually very good at entertainment, most notably dancing. Their presence was also considered to be auspicious and their blessings were welcomed at religious ceremonies. The masculine gay male is not as recognizable as the feminine homosexual male (Wilhelm 11). They would keep a masculine body type, grow out moustaches or small beards and would often wear shiny earrings. They were also talented in a different way and would often serve as house attendants to wealthy vaisyas (merchants) or as ministers to the government officials. Gay males who were practicing celibacy were also allowed to become temple priests despite their sexual preferences.

In modern day society, homosexual terms that are used to describe gay or lesbian citizens have been inaccurately translated by individuals to impose puritan ethics upon Hindu literature, where they did not otherwise exist (Wilhelm 7). When Great Britain colonized India, the term homosexuality was first coined and writers labelled it as a “sin” or “horrific” and it became an orientation that was not to be spoken of (Wilhelm 9). This idea has crossed over into modern day Hinduism. The third-sex is unspoken of in modern day Hindu society and many individuals are forced into arranged marriages, where parents force their children to be straight (Sands 9). Same sex marriages also continue to be illegal in India (Sands 13).

Despite these negative views, acceptance of gay pride marches and events are evident in urban areas such as Mumbai, which holds the largest gay pride march in the country. However, the majority of the population does not approve (Sands 6). Given all the information, it appears that even though the Hindu religion has acknowledged same sex behavior in their texts, historically Hindus have been more tolerant than other religions towards homosexuality. That being said, restrictions and rules were upheld and continue to be/are continually upheld so that the religion can have the structure, so third sex individuals are not necessarily viewed as equals in society, especially not in modern day society. The question remains: will Hinduism go back to the way it once was and include third sex individuals into their society, or will they form a new idea and ideals about homosexuality on their own?


Sources Consulted

Jeffrey S. Siker (2007) Homosexuality and religion: An encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut, London: Geenwood press.

Takhar, S (2018) Hidden desires: Hinduism and Sexuality. London South Bank University.

Stephanie Kaye Nowacki., Mark A. Yarhouse (2007) The Many Meanings of Marriage: Divergent Perspectives Seeking Common Ground. Virgina beach: Regent University.

Amara Das Wilhelm (2008) Tritya-Prakriti: People Of The Third Sex.  Understanding homosexuality, transgender identity and intersex conditions through Hinduism. Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris Corporation.

Anthony Copley (2006) Apiritual Bloomsbury. Hinduism and Homosexuality in the lives and writings of Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood.  Langam: Lexington books.


References and further recommend readings

Kalra, Gurvinder (2016) “Hijras: the unique transgender culture of India” International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 5:121-26. DOI:10.1080/17542863.2011.570915

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

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.

Doniger, W., Sudhir Kakar, and Vatsyayana (2002) Kamasutra: Oxford world’s classics. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Olivelle, Patrick (2008) “Celibacy in Classical Hinduism.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 151-164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related topics for further investigation

1) The Hijra

2) The Aravani or Ali

3) The Jogappa

4) Marriage equality

5) Homosexuals rights in india

This article was written by: Maria Fanning (November 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.


Intoxication in Hinduism

The use of intoxicants in the Hindu tradition varies depending on the substance. Specific substances are mentioned in sacred writings, such as the alcohol in the Ayurveda and cannabis in the Atharva Veda (Frawley 1 and Shivaharidas 2). Highly regarded substances are used sacredly during rituals, as offerings to gods and goddesses. Furthermore, there are over one hundred Vedic hymns praising Soma, one of the most highly regarded intoxicants in the Hindu tradition. Certain substances are associated with particular deities and incorporated into precise myths. These important substances are understood widely in the Hindu tradition and considered very holy (Godlaski 1067). Other substances are recognized as harmful and individuals are advised to use caution when consuming them. There is no specific set of rules for Hindus to follow regarding intoxicating substances (Frawley 1). However, many Vedic scriptures discuss the use of intoxicants and can be referenced as a guideline. Based on the understanding of Dharma, individuals must recognize how intoxicants will affect them in relation to cosmic order. It is challenging to comprehend how mind-altering substances, can fit in with the natural laws behind the universe. The many ancient writings of the Hindus serve as a guideline when becoming involved with intoxicating substances, and should be referenced in order to obey a virtuous Hindu lifestyle.

The core beliefs and practices surrounding alcohol in the Hindu tradition are based on caste-related permissive uses. For example, alcohol restrictions were placed on the high-caste brahmins (Sharma 9), furthermore the Rg Veda states that ksatriyas (the warrior class) were allowed to use alcohol on occasion in coherence with their military culture. The lower castes such as the vaisyas and sudras had few restrictions on alcohol use, based on their social status. These lower classes do not have societal obligations to attend to therefore alcohol usage is permitted. The Brahmins (priestly class) refrain from alcohol because within the caste system they are of a closer ranking to the gods, which means that intoxicating substances are offered to deities instead of ingested. The Brahmin class must remain pure and mentally clear in order to worship the gods and have them remain unpolluted. Alcohol is an important aspect within religious events and festivals (Frawley 1), but the Brahmin class does not consume.

The Vedic scriptures can be referenced in order to understand when alcohol is appropriate to use in the Hindu tradition. Alcohol is an important aspect during religious ritual and becomes a traditional feature of social gatherings, however it can be sinful and dangerous when used incorrectly. Within the post-Vedic period (700 BCE-110 CE), strong alcoholic beverages were served to guests on certain occasions, such as marriage. Occasions like this are seen as appropriate times to take part in alcohol consumption, but following the guidelines of Vedic scripture it is only used in seldom (see Sharma 9). Furthermore, the use of alcohol is mentioned in two of the greatest Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two great Hindu stories that are widely acknowledged, which provide reference to alcohol usage that the public can respect and incorporate into their personal lives. Within the Ramayana the royal individuals are drinking wine, and many people of Ayodhya are also consuming large amounts of alcohol (Sharma 10). Alcohol is mentioned frequently within the Mahabharta, the demise of the Yadavs (a warrior dynasty) was due to fighting while inebriated (Sharma 10). This epic also mentions that drinking alcohol can be sinful, and alludes to the demise of a warrior dynasty to describe its potential side effects. This piece of the epic is important to understand intoxication within the Hindu culture. A great warrior class failing due to inebriation is an important lesson to guide an individual to understanding how intoxicants can negatively affect the state of mind. Hinduism acknowledges that alcohol is a powerful affluence, and that its influence should not be taken casually (Frawley 1).

The Ayurveda literature also contains views on the use of alcohol. Within this medical section of the Hindu Dharma, alcohol is used as an important solvent for extracting herbs; it is used as an essential tool within this text (Frawley 1). The Ayurveda also mentions two important herbal wines, asavas and aristas, which are used for weak digestion and relaxants for stress. The Ayurveda recognizes that herbal wines can have health benefits, but only when taken in moderation. This text expands on the dangers associated with alcohol use. Stating that frequent consumption can cause both psychological and physical disease. The dangers of alcohol use become relevant when it comes to an individuals’ state of mind: not only can frequent use of alcohol damage the liver, contribute to blood toxicity and also damage the brain, but it is also important to recognize that for studying students and religious individuals, it can impair mental judgment (Frawley 1). Mental clarity is an essential component in achieving moksa, and by purposely impairing an individuals mind; they are further away from attaining this ultimate goal. This kind of intoxication is predominantly viewed as negative within the Hindu tradition because of the health risks and addiction associated with this particular substance.

The use of cannabis in the Hindu tradition is widely explored within the Atharva Veda in which “cannabis is named one of the five most sacred plants on Earth” (Ramadurai 1). Vedic and Hindu literature mention cannabis for its medicinal, cultural, and religious usages. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years in the worship of the god Siva (Godlaski 1067). It is orally administered through bhang in the form of pills, or a drink made of milk and spices. It is commonly consumed at celebrations such as weddings and festivals to honor Siva and dispel evil influences caused by demons, which focus on the suffering of mankind. At festivals like Shivratri, the night of Siva and Holi, the festival of colors, bhang plays an important role. The holiness of bhang reverts back to its virtue of clearing the head and stimulating the brain (Shivahardias 11). It is used in order to clear the human brain and bring individuals closer to the gods. Cannabis is believed to have a guardian spirit whose most important duty is to counteract the attempts of evil demons. Worshippers of Siva consume bhang on festival days, and ascetic holy men smoke the flower buds in devotion to him. These holy men (sadhus) follow Lord Siva and consume regular quantities of cannabis. Most often, they smoke buds of the flower in clay pipes, called chillums, which are used in rituals of meditation, worship and yogic practices (Godlaski 1069). The ashes of the buds are believed to have powerful medicinal properties.

These specific practices are codified in the Vedas, which describe an association between Siva and cannabis. It states that a drop of amrta (sacred nectar), fell out of the sky, landed on a mountain and sprouted a cannabis plant. Siva then brought the plant down for the benefit of mankind (Godlaski 1068). This story recounts how the use of cannabis is associated with the god Siva. The same story continues to describe how demons attempted to use the cannabis plant for their own evil usage; Siva prevented this and so cannabis has also been given the name, vijaya (victory).

Cannabis in the Vedas is referred to as a source of happiness, and given to human beings to assist us in feeling happiness and to revert feelings of distress and anxiety (Godlaski 1068). The Atharva Veda continues to mention the benefits of cannabis and how it is able to “release us from anxiety” (Atharva Veda 11.6.15). It is described as a protector, and is used to protect all animals and properties (Shivaharidas 2).  Cannabis is therefore sacred, significant and respected in the Hindu tradition and is highly beneficial to Hindu society as both a medicine, and religious property.

In Vedic literature, the use of Soma can be identified as a plant, a drink and a god (deva). It is highly glorified within the Vedas, most importantly within the ninth mandala of the Rg Veda (McGeough 1). This mandala compares Soma to the sun, fire and immortality. Soma is directly correlated with the Rg Veda, because it has over 100 hymns dedicated to the plant, and plays a crucial role in understanding its effects. Soma is also mentioned within the Satapatha Brahmana, “Soma is a God, since Soma (the moon) is in the sky” and “now Soma is a god, for Soma was in the heaven” (Shivaharidas 1). The various descriptions and metaphors for Soma provide emphasis to the importance of this Vedic god within the Hindu tradition. It is physically referred to as a god, and put on the same pedestal as the heavens. It is glorified within sacred writings, and its power is clearly influential.

Similar to cannabis, it is described within the Rg Veda as the healer of disease, which renounces feelings of anxiety and stress and named the king of plants (McGeough 1). Vedic descriptions of Soma vary: it has been speculated to be cannabis, the ephedra plant, wine or a mushroom. However, it is unlikely that Soma is a type of alcohol since alcohol has other names within the Vedas and alcoholic intoxication is not seen as a positive influence within Vedic literature. It is most likely that Soma is a type of hallucinogenic mushroom, because of its appearance and intoxicating effects, however this theory cannot be proven with certainty (McGeough 1).

There are no other types of intoxicants in the Hindu tradition that produce the same effect as Soma. Primarily, Brahmin priests used Soma to be connected with the gods during Vedic rituals. Soma clearly plays a very significant role within rituals, and the Hindu tradition as a whole. Vedic deities also consume large amounts of Soma, such as Agni (god of fire) and Indra (lord of the thunderbolt) (Rg Veda 108. 1-13). It is the favorite drink of these gods, and is supplied to mortal human beings so they may find happiness. Soma is able to provide humans with mystical experiences and contributes to the connection between human and deities within the Hindu tradition.

The connection between the use of cannabis and the use of Soma within the Hindu tradition is evident. Hindu history even suggests that these two intoxicants might be the same substance (Shivahardias 1). Both substances are used for relaxation, mental clarity and used within religious rituals. These two substances are highly regarded within society, and mentioned frequently within ancient writings. Users of these intoxicants practice usage frequently, and it is normalized within their society. On the contrary, the use of alcohol is recognized as a more harmful intoxicant and its users are advised to proceed with caution when consuming. The Hindu tradition recognizes the possible harmful consequences that occur with intoxicants (predominantly the use of alcohol), such as the harmful effects of over consumption. Particularly within the Ayurveda, these harmful consequences are explored and explained.

In order to follow a Dharmic lifestyle and understand the concepts of Karma, one should not participate in over consumption of any intoxicant due to their hallucinogenic and mind-altering properties. Referring back to the ancient Hindu texts and epics can guide the individual toward understanding when and where intoxication is appropriate and how to use mind-altering substances appropriately. These writings not only serve as a guideline when it comes to intoxication in Hinduism, but also how to live a virtuous Hindu lifestyle. The negative consequences associated particularly with alcohol usage within Hinduism should be understood and acknowledged before individuals decide to partake in consuming intoxicants.



Alfred, J. Andrea (2011) World History Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Frawley, David (2014) “A Hindu view on the use of alcohol.” The Hindu Perspective. Hindu Voice UK. Accessed October 8, 2018.

 Godlaski, Theodore M (2012) “Shiva, Lord of Bhang, Substance Use & Misuse.” Substance Use & Misuse. Vol. 47, Issue 10. P1067-1072. DOI: 10.3109/10826084.2012.684308

Ramadurai, Charukesi (2017) “The intoxicating drug of an Indian god.” BBC Travel. BBC. Accessed November 27th, 2018.

Shivaharidas (2012) “Vedic use of Cannabis “ Scribd, BY-NC. P1-12.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1998) “Soma” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Britannica Academic. Encyclopaedia Britannica inc.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Rg Veda
















Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Leah Paul (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic (Linda Egenes and Kumuda Reddy): Review

The Ramayana is an ancient story believed to have been transmitted orally, in Sanskrit, for thousands of years until the great sage Valmiki wrote the story down in the form of a poem (Egenes & Reddy 2). It is believed to be enjoyed by over one billion people around the world and widely considered to be a one of the “great classics of world literature” (Egenes & Reddy 2).

Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is broken down into sections, with the first one being the Prologue – The Qualities of Rama, wherein the great sage Valmiki is told of a man named Rama who has all the heroic qualities to make him the perfect person. Later that day, Brahma, the Creator, comes to Valmiki and tells him that he must tell the story of Rama to the world.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is called the Bala Kanda, translated as ‘Childhood Book’, which describes King Dasaratha, his wives, and his sons. King Dasaratha’s firstborn son is named Rama and is the protagonist of the story. Rama has celestial origins and his upbringing has allowed him to flourish as a Dharmic warrior, having been educated in the four Vedas under the direction of the family guru. Rama wins his wife Sita by lifting Siva’s bow, which he is able to do because of his Dharmic nature, proving that he is worthy to be Sita’s husband. Rama and Sita live happily married, in the city of Ayodhya, for 10 years.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is the Ayodhya Kanda, translated as ‘City of Ayodhya Book’, which is the story of King Dasaratha beginning to make arrangements for Rama to become king of Ayodhya due to the king’s old age. King Dasaratha announces his plans to his ministers, spiritual advisors, rulers from nearby kingdoms, and all the people of Ayodhya, who are all thrilled at the idea of Rama ruling the kingdom. After being manipulated by her servant, Queen Kaikeyi, King Dasaratha’s third wife, redeems a boon that had been granted to her by the king. Queen Kaikeyi requests that her son, King Dasaratha’s second-born, Bharata, become king and that Rama be exiled to the Dandaka Forest for 14 years. After much grief, and with Rama’s persistence, King Dasaratha follows through with Kaikeyi’s requests. Rama, ever the righteous son, prepares to retreat into the forest, along with his most favoured brother Laksmana, and his beautiful wife Sita. Rama leaving Ayodhya prompts the death of King Dasaratha, and Bharata becomes very upset with his mother for her malicious actions. He goes to the forest to find Rama to beg him to come and reign as king, however Rama does not want to dishonour his father’s request, and therefore declines Bharata’s appeal. Rama, Sita, and Laksmana continue through the forests toward Dandaka, stopping to visit sages along the way.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is the Aranya Kanda, translated as ‘The Forest Book’, which describes the many raksasas, or demons, that Rama, Sita, and Laksmana encounter, and the subsequent battles that ensue. Rama and Laksmana being the great warriors that they are, easily win each fight. The forest dwellers, Rama, Sita, and Laksmana, make several stops at different asramas to visit with, and receive guidance from, the various sages and rsis that they meet. Rama and Laksmana receive celestial weapons from some rsis in exchange for making their forest safe from raksasas. One day, a raksasi named Surpanakha, who is described as being the opposite of Rama in every way, happens upon Rama and takes a liking to him. Rama being disgusted by her, turns her down. Surpanakha, embarrassed and angry, goes to attack Sita and Laksmana cuts of the raksasi’s nose and ears. Surpanakha tells her brother Khara what has been done to her and begs him to kill Rama, Sita and Laksmana. Khara sends his 14 strongest warriors to attack the forest-dwellers, however Rama defeats them with ease. Khara then leads fourteen thousand warriors to battle, and after a fierce war, Rama defeats them all using his skill and celestial weapons granted to him from the rsis and the gods. Ravana, the king of the raksasas, and brother to Khara and Surpanakha, hears of Sita’s beauty and Rama’s strength and victory against the other raksasas. Ravana comes up with a plan to make Sita his bride and enlists Marica, a fellow raksasa, to help him. Having lured Rama and Laksmana away from Sita by having Marica disguise himself as a beautiful golden deer, Ravana tricks Sita into believing he is a holy man. He then reveals his true self and attempts to convince her to become his bride and return to Lanka with him. Sita vehemently denies his requests to be his bride and repeatedly professes her love for Rama, which angers Ravana, so he kidnaps her and takes her to his kingdom of Lanka. Upon discovering that Sita is gone, Rama is distraught but determined to find her and rescue her. Sita is adamant that she will remain true to Rama by not giving into Ravana, but she is heartbroken and misses her husband desperately. Finding clues along the way in their search for Sita, the two warriors, Rama and Laksmana make several friends with fellow Dharmic individuals who are able to help them in their quest for revenge against Ravana.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is entitled Kiskindha Kanda, translated as ‘Kingdom of the Monkeys Book’. One friend that Rama and Laksmana are guided to meet is Sugriva, the king of the monkeys, who vows to help Rama get Sita back in exchange for Rama’s help in recovering his kingdom. Rama helps Sugriva get his kingdom back and then waits several months for Sugriva’s help. Finally, troops from the monkey army are sent to all corners of the earth in search of Sita. Hanuman, Sugriva’s most trusted advisor, is the one who finds out that Sita is in Lanka, and where to find this kingdom. He makes himself very large and jumps across the ocean to Lanka to find Sita.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is the Sundara Kanda which translates to ‘The Beautiful City Book’. Hanuman arrives in Lanka where he finds and approaches Sita cautiously. After earning her trust, he tells her of his mission and assures her that Rama is on his way to rescue her. Her resolve is strengthened once again knowing that her beloved husband has not abandoned her. Before Hanuman leaves Lanka to let Rama know of Sita’s whereabouts, he decides that he must pay Ravana back for taking Sita against her will. First, he destroys the pleasure gardens inside the palace, then he draws out Ravana’s army. He destroys many ministers and generals before being captured and his tail set on fire. Hanuman escapes capture by shifting sizes and sets Lanka ablaze before leaving to return to Rama. Once he returns, Rama has many questions about Sita’s wellbeing and whereabouts, feeling much stronger knowing that she is okay. They begin to devise a plan to get her back.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is called Yuddha Kanda which translates to ‘The War Book’. Rama has made his way to the ocean, which Hanuman leapt over, but is unsure how he will cross. The monkey army builds a bridge over the ocean so Rama and Laksmana can head to Lanka along with millions of monkeys and other great warriors. Finally, they arrive in Lanka and after some time the war begins. All of Ravana’s troops – his ministers, generals, warriors, raksasas, brothers, and sons – end up killed in the midst of war. Rama’s troops all die as well but they have gathered special herbs that instantly heal any injuries and revive their troops from death. After lasting for many days, the battle is finished when Rama destroys Ravana. When Sita is finally rescued, Rama greets her with harshness and indicates that he cannot believe that Sita has remained virtuous during the entire time that she was with Ravana. Heartbroken, Sita sets herself on fire to prove that she has been devoted to only Rama, and she asks that Agni, the God of Fire, protect her from the flames. Of course, Sita has remained pure and so she is not burned by the flames at all, and Rama discovers that he is actually Visnu incarnate and Sita is Laksmi. Having proven that Sita has been faithful to her husband, they are finally reunited and return to Ayodhya to rule over the kingdom. Everyone is thrilled to see Rama, Laksmana, and Sita, especially Bharata, who had been ruling the kingdom on Rama’s behalf. After being crowned king, Rama and Sita live in happiness in Ayodhya for many years.

In the final section of Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana, the Uttara Kanda, translated as the ‘Epilogue Book’, it is revealed to Rama that the people of Ayodhya question Sita’s purity and faithfulness. Rama must now make a decision between being a Dharmic king or a Dharmic husband. He chooses his kingdom over his wife, and knowing Sita is pregnant, sends her off to the forest to dwell with Valmiki, the great sage, and to never return. Several months later Sita gives birth to twin sons, Lava and Kusa, who are taught the poem of Rama by Valmiki, which he called The Journey of Rama or Ramayana. One day, when the twins are grown, they are in Ayodhya with Valmiki and have the opportunity to perform some of their beautiful poem for Rama. Recognizing the story as his own, he asks them to tell him the whole story, and after several days of them reciting, Rama realizes that these are his sons. Sita is brought back to Ayodhya to prove her purity once more. Sita asks for Mother Earth to swallow her up if she has been faithful to Rama, and with that, the earth opens up and Sita is gone forever. Rama is devastated but after many years he returns to Brahma Loka, or the heavens. His sons, Lava and Kusa remain in Ayodhya where they rule their kingdoms.

The Ramayana is made up of many relatable events and experiences, which appear to fall in line with many stories of old that aim to teach people the basic differences between right and wrong, as well as to teach people how to treat others. The Ramayana has been so popular over so many years because it is a fantastic story containing great battles, super-human powers, struggles, victories, love, and loss. Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana has been written using beautiful descriptions of the characters’ thoughts and emotions which can allow the reader to really feel involved in the story and feel like they are making decisions along with the character. It can also make the reader feel like they are experiencing the emotions first-hand, which allows the reader to feel more immersed in the story. Rama and Sita, being depicted as such virtuous characters, encourages the reader to want to emulate them and act with more virtue.

With The Ramayana being part of Hindu culture for thousands of years, it makes sense that it has provided women with an image of what they should aspire to in marriage. Sita, who served as an example of the ideal wife, followed her husband Rama into exile, gave up all her belongings for him, and waited in chaste for him to rescue her. This allows women to emulate Sita in their devotion to their husbands. Likewise, with Rama being so dharmic, men also have a role model to look up to when manoeuvring through difficult situations. Rama proves that one can be dharmic even when faced with tough decisions in which many people would struggle to make the dharmic choice, such as when Rama chooses his kingdom over his wife. In this way, Rama provides a roadmap for men to follow and for women to support.

Additionally, The Ramayana provides brothers and friends a character to emulate in Laksmana as he honors and follows Rama into exile, leaving behind his wife in order to do so. Laksmana fights and struggles alongside Rama to the very end, while ensuring that Rama’s needs are taken care of before his own. Laksmana has different dharmic responsibilities than Rama does, allowing a more diverse range of men the opportunity to look up to someone and to help act as a guide in their day-to-day lives.

In many ways, The Ramayana acts as a guidebook showing people how to act in a variety of situations. It illustrates that no matter whether you are a king, a wife, a monkey, or a brother, you should always act in the most dharmic ways possible. It demonstrates that sometimes acting in a dharmic fashion is harder than it may seem because you need to take into account the hierarchy of one’s own responsibilities – but it is always doable. It portrays the idea that true love and honoring your spouse is possible, even when faced with adversity.


Egenes, Linda and Reddy, Kumuda (2016) The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic – Complete and Comprehensive. New York: TarcherPerigee.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Mahabharata









Dandaka Forest







Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Jill Easton (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.

Autobiography of a Yogi (Paramahansa Yogananda): Review

Paramahansa Yogananda is said to be one of the most influential spiritual figures reaching people in both eastern and western societies (Goldberg 4). Yogananda wrote many books, but arguably the most powerful and well-known was his personal memoir: Autobiography of a Yogi, written in 1946. Although many have written about Yogananda as a yoga guru, less has been said about his unique approach to spiritual guidance or the influential life events that directed him on his path of enlightenment. I plan to focus on these two distinct aspects of Yogananda throughout the following literature review. In addition, I will provide an overview of his life and spiritual journey that took him from his coastal hometown of Gorakhpur, in the north-eastern area of Uttar-Pradesh (India), to America, and back again to visit a few prominent spiritual leaders including his Hindu guru, Yukteswar Giri. Of particular interest is the degree of influence Hinduism itself had in shaping Yogananda’s life and consequently the lives of his supporters.

Paramahansa Yogananda was born on January 5th, 1893 in Gorakhpur, India to a well-off Hindu Bengali family. The book begins with a recitation of Yogananda’s childhood and specific spiritual events which sparked his interest in spirituality. He describes his memories of being a fetus in the womb of his mother, Gyana Prabha Ghosh, where he knew all the languages of the world but selected the one in which he heard spoken to be his mother tongue. From the beginning, Yogananda described having an acute awareness of the spiritual world far beyond the average child. The many mystical phenomena that he experienced in his youth set Yogananda on an early path of spiritual devotion in search of self-realization. In his younger years, he sought out many Indian yogis in hopes of finding a virtuous guru that could guide him on his religious pursuit of enlightenment. Finally, at age 17, he found his guru: the esteemed, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri in the city of Varanasi. Not long after, Yogananda became his disciple and went on to spend the next decade living in his Serampore ashram alongside other devotees under the guidance of his master. Yukteswar was a strict guru who showed great spiritual discipline, something he expected from all of his disciples as well. Despite Yogananda’s opposition, Yukteswar insisted it was necessary for him to finish school to prepare him for his foreseen future journey to America to be a spiritual leader for thousands of people. Following his graduation in 1915 from Calcutta University, he took his formal vows to become an official monk of India’s monastic Swami Order.

In 1917, Yogananda founded Yogoda Satsanga, a school for boys which merged modern education with spiritual teachings and yoga training. Three years later, Yogananda left India to fulfil his master’s envisioned prophesy: to travel to America and teach west society the sacred Kriya Yoga practice. As predicted by Yukteswar, Yogananda went on to lecture to thousands of people on the Hindu lifestyle and further established the Self-Realization Fellowship—a spiritual organization for the conservation and dissemination of his knowledge and philosophies. During his time in America, Yogananda became fast friends with a renowned botanist named Luther Burbank. Yogananda admired Burbank’s humble, generous, and loving character so much that he actually dedicated Autobiography of a Yogi to him.

In 1935, Yogananda returned to India for a year-long quest, giving Kriya Yoga classes all around the country. Along the way, he met many well-known individuals including the internationally famous social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi; the Nobel Laureate physicist, Sir C. V. Raman; the Indian guru who encouraged the practice of atma-vicara, Ramana Maharshi; the great female Hindu saint, Ananda moyi Ma; and Giri Bala, a yogi woman who was known not to eat anything, , among other notable figures (Yogananda 1946: 737). This visit was also the last time Yogananda saw his beloved guru, Yukteswar. After saying his final goodbyes, Yogananda departed back to America where he continued to practice, teach, and share his spiritual wisdom with all. In 1946, he wrote the famous book, Autobiography of a Yogi which acknowledged the influential people and events that fuelled and shaped his relationship with spirituality.

Yogananda was known for being completely devoted to his God and his guru, Yukteswar. Indeed, throughout the book, he attempts to share with the reader just how genuinely faithful and God-loving all the Hindu saints that he encountered were. The many ways in which individuals showed their love for God were tremendously diverse. Devotion was demonstrated throughout the book through prayer, meditation, and the dedication of one’s life to helping others (Yogananda 1946). Among all these methods the underlying feature was the loving of God above all else, including themselves. Yogananda’s aim with his training and literary work was to illustrate to those who desired enlightenment (regardless of their faith) that anyone could grow their love for God.

Unlike Christianity, Hinduism has been described to be a religion that is all-encompassing, woven throughout the everyday life of every Hindus (Lipner 3). In this general regard, Yogananda’s legacy is a powerful example of the pervading Hindu spirituality incorporated into his existence. To appeal to the West, Yogananda explained the unification of Hinduism, and he advocated for a spiritual synchronicity between the East and the West. The rhetorical methodology used by Yogananda included the emphasis of harmony between the teachings of Jesus Christ and Yoga taught by Bhagavan Krishna (Yogananda 2004: 1566). Indeed, Yogananda believed the core values of Hinduism were, in fact, true for all religions. Every religious belief system has the foundational element of devotion. He emphasised that there was a single unifying trait amongst all religious groups: the worship of the same almighty God. Yogananda also wanted to appeal to the science-minded individuals by emphasizing the similarities between science and religion in their fundamental principles.

Correlating with the sacred Vedas and Upanishads, Yogananda stressed the importance of disconnecting one’s self from their physical body, ego, material possessions, in exchange for self-realization. Echoing traditional Hindu scripture, he explained the cosmos as God’s project, where humans are simply actors who have the ability to change their role via reincarnation (Yogananda 1946: 453). This is akin to Rta in Vedic scripture, which is the cosmic order of things that must be preserved and maintained through having compassion for all creation, simple living, and higher thinking. Also, in accordance with sacred Vedic scripture is the principle of Ahimsa. In the book, Yogananda recounted a time when he was about to slap a mosquito that had landed on his leg when Yukteswar reminded him that all life forms have an equal right to the air of Maya, which, prevented him from killing the mosquito (Yogananda 1946: 190-191).

Ultimately, Yogananda’s teachings accurately reflected many traditional Hindu beliefs using methods that would particularly appeal to western society. For example, he evaded mention of the controversially sexist Hindu traditions associated with the caste system and Vedic culture as a whole, which would likely deter many westerners. One prominent example of a positive method for disseminating Hindu beliefs that Yogananda utilized was through Kriya Yoga—a meditative technique that inspires spiritual growth (Miller 178). Kriya Yoga was passed down through Yogananda’s guru line—Mahavatar Babaji taught Kriya Yoga to Lahiri Mahasaya who taught it to his disciple, Yukteswar Giri, Yogananda’s guru (Yogananda 1946: 232). Kriya Yoga, as Yogananda described it, is unification with the infinite through action or rite (Yogananda 1946: 393-394). Yoga is very popular in western society now, with Yogananda’s teachings being a founding influence of the initial appeal of Hinduism to the west. Autobiography of a Yogi taught people all over the world the core Hindu values, while the reader fell in love with Yogananda’s humbly devoted character.


 Goldberg, Philip (2018) The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. Carlsbad: Hay House.

Lipner, Julius (1994) Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. New York: Routledge.

Miller, Timothy (1995) America’s Alternative Religions. Albany: SUNY Press.

Yogananda, Paramhansa (1946) Autobiography of a Yogi. New York: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Yogananda, Paramhansa (2004) The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ      Within You. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Swami Order

Yogoda Satsanga

Kriya Yoga






Caste system



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


This article was written by: Hilary Williams (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.


Of Sanskrit origin, the term Trimurti is composed of the roots tri, being ‘three’ and murti, being ‘form,’ referring to the three-deity nature of the Hindu Trinity (Dent 2012). The origins of the Trimurti are thought to stem from the Harappan Civilization of pre-Aryan India but appear in later writings and art (Chakravarti 1986). The associated deities of the Trimurti are Siva, Visnu, and Brahma in the Puranas, though there are antecedents to the Trimurti in Vedic texts and art forms that are still under speculation (Vitsaxis 1977). To understand the complex nature of the evolution and rise of the Trimurti, the origins of its deities and their development with the expansion of Aryan culture and religion must first be examined.

The intermingling and interchanging of deities and their respective names in the Vedas allowed a fluid base for the concept of the Trimurti to begin its bout. Rudra is the fearsome Vedic god of howling wind, who represents fear and destruction (Chakravarti 1), but also a generous healer in the Vedas (Flood 122). Although he is not regularly mentioned in Vedic literature, his character is one that is built upon as the Aryans encounter the Harappan Civilization (more generally the Indus-Valley Civilization). Included in Vedic literature are the Aranyakas, Brahamanas, Samhitas, and the Upanisads. The worship of a proto-Siva deity in the Indus-Valley Civilization predates the arrival of the Aryans in the Indus Valley. This proto-Siva is arguably shown on seals dating back to near 3000 BCE (Flood 122). A seal from Mohenjo-Daro pictures the figure sitting with the soles of its feet together, arms rested above its knees, and horned headdress (trait associated with Siva) (Nagar 58), and others include animals or people surrounding the proto-Siva as shown by Chakravarti (plate 1). Such is evident of the gradual integration of non-Aryan beliefs into Indo-Aryan religion, and the beginning of the non-Aryan proto-Siva being impressed upon Rudra (Chakravarti 22-23). Synonyms of Siva (yajurveda, bhavas, sarva) were attributed to Rudra in Vedic literature, and Siva was used as an adjective in the Vedas, ascribed to multiple gods, particularly to Rudra, where the first linking of Siva to the Vedic god Rudra can be observed. Siva was later incorporated into the Trimurti and became predominate in the Hindu tradition (Chakravarti 73).

In the Svetasvatara Upanisad, Rudra, among other deities (isvaras), is given the title of Great God (mahesvara), and is regarded as having the qualities of the Trimurti (creator, preserver, destroyer); Rudra is the precedent of the Trimurti that officially appears later in the Puranas. There were examples of a triad in the Vedas, one example being in the Rgveda, where Agni is revealed to have three forms (sun, lightning, fire) (Chakravarti 54). Three deities in unison can be noted, as there is a tendency to reduce many gods to three major ones, namely those of the Trimurti in later texts (Chakravarti 54). An example (Chakravarti 54) in the Rgveda is as follows: “May the Surya protect us from the sky, Vata from the air, Agni from the earthly regions” (RV X, viii. 1). In the Upanisads, Visnu is linked with Surya, the Vedic sun god (Chennakesavan 48). Evidence of this correlation is slim, however, it does offer a connection from the Vedic proto-triad.

Brahma remained as the creator in ancient texts when Siva and Visnu were extolled on a much larger scale (see Glucklich 148). The dualism between Siva and Visnu is an antecedent for Trimurti doctrine that emerges later in the Puranas (Chakravarti 54). Rival, but not evidently hostile, cults, the Saivas and the Vaisnavas worshiped Siva and Visnu respectively (Chakravarti 54, 174). It was likely in efforts to harmonize the aforementioned cults in the Gupta period (approx. 300-600 CE) that brought such doctrine into being (Basham 310).

The first legitimate accounts of the Trimurti as an entity in Hindu literature appear in the Puranas, which date prior to 200-300 BCE (Bharati 106). The Puranas are diverse in the ways they are written as they were compiled over time by many authors (Bharati 106), and are thence named for the deity that they regard (Bharati 128). Differing from Vedic literature, Puranas encourage worship of a single, all-encompassing deity that has dominion over all reality, even though they exalt the three deities of the Trimurti as well (Matchett 138). Constructed to encourage greater religious devotion and awareness (bhakti), the Puranas, with time, introduced new means of worship in Hindu society; pilgrimage  (tirthayatras), alms (dana), and observances (vratas) began to replace certain Vedic rituals, shaping the common religious practices among the general majority of Hindus (Bharati 128). It is important to note that, in regards to dharma, the Vedas are considered authoritative over the Puranas, despite their significance among Hindus (Bharati 27). There are three groups (sattva, rajas, tamas) that the eighteen major Puranas are divided between, each devoted to a member of the Trimurti (Bharati). The rajas Puranas regard Brahma as a force maintaining equilibrium, capable of action. Visnu’s qualities of preservation and renewal are conveyed in the sattva Puranas, and Siva’s destructive nature is displayed in the tamas Puranas (Dallapiccola 2002).

The Trimurti is associated with the three gunas sattva, rajas, and tamas (Dallapiccola 2002; Sharma and Bharati 73). The guna to which Brahma correlates is rajas, as Visnu is to sattva and Siva is to tamas. Bharati (313) explains that gunas describe temperament or attributes. Brahma’s rajas guna is the quality of activity, the sattva guna is characteristic of Visnu’s stability and purity, and the rajas guna equates to the dark nature of Siva.

As Glucklich (148) notes, textual evidence for the roles of the Trimurti deities can be found in the Matsyapurana as well, which states, “Brahma creates the universe, Visnu fosters it, and at the end of the kalpa, Siva destroys it.” This further reinstates the central concept which the Trimurti endure. The significance of the Trimurti as creating, preserving, and destroying forces support the encouragement of worshiping a single figure that overshadows all reality (Matchett 138).

Sharma and Bharati (72) recall the poem, Kumarasambhava, of Kalidasa (approx. 400-500 CE) in which the creator, preserver and destroyer aspects of the Trimurti are regarded as being representative of birth, life and death, and morning, noon and night (see also Dallapiccola 2002).

An early story involving the Trimurti under its respective name is in the Devipurana. Mahadevi tells Visnu that the god Brahma will be born through his navel, and that Rudra will be born from between Brahma’s eyebrows (Mani 147). Brahma is to have the quality of activity (rajoguna), Rudra, darkness (tamasaguna), and Visnu is to be the preserver (sattva) of the world that Rudra will eventually destroy [Rudra here is homologous to Siva]. The Vamanapurana Mani (147-8) states “the Eternal Being is Brahma, Visnu, Siva.” Various stories in the Puranas involve all three Trimurti, who do not act as a unified deity, rather are portrayed more often as individualistic deities. A myth in the Lingapurana that involves Brahma, Siva and Vishnu also denote superiority in the triad as residing with Siva (Chakravarti 138-9). In this myth, Brahma and Visnu are in conflict over who is the rightful creator of the universe, when the sight of an expansive linga (phallus) that is aflame interrupts their quarrels. To locate the top of the immense ligna, Brahma turns himself into a swan, and flies off in search of it; to locate the bottom, Visnu takes the form of a boar and runs to search. They do not succeed in their attempt, as the linga was larger than they had thought it to be, and so they praise it. The linga is that of Siva, and so by praising it, they also bowed to him. Another example of Siva’s superiority over Brahma and Visnu in the triad is in the inscription on the Aug Chamnik that conveys Siva’s dominance over Brahma and Visnu, which stand with folded hands before him (Chakravarti 174).

Some scholars believe that a relief (raised sculpture), excavated from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan, detailing a single body with three heads, those of Siva (center), Visnu (proper right), and Brahma (proper left) is a depiction of the Trimurti (Chakravarti 56). Vitsaxis (1977) notes that although popular iconography of the three faces of Siva tend to have little differentiation from one another, in classical iconography, particularity in sculptures, there is a different expression on each of his three faces, possibly corresponding to his different attributes or revealing three different deities constituting the Trimurti. Another possible occurrence of Siva with Visnu and Brahma is depicted on a Huviskian coin (approx. 100-200 CE) where Siva wields his trident (trisula), and the symbolic weapons of Visnu (cakra: discus) and Indra (vajra: club)  (Chakravarti 54, 148).

While art forms and the literature containing Trimurtic doctrine remain and continue to be consulted by Hindus today, the implication of the Trimurti is rather limited. Unlike the familiar example of Christianity, the Hindu Trinity did not gain momentum or significant influence in the Hindu tradition (Basham 310). The strong tendency towards polytheism among Hindus meant that praising three deities equally was an abstract form of worship, which ultimately undermined any wholesome worship of all three deities together as one (Basham 310).


 Basham, A. L. (1988) The Wonder That Was India. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Bharati, Dayanand (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Chakravarti, Mahadev (1986) The Concept of Rudra-Siva Through the Ages. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chennakesavan, Sarasvati (1980) A Critical Study of Hinduism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Dallapiccola, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Dent, Susie (2012) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. London: Chambers Harrap.

Flood, Gavin 2004. “Saiva.” In The Hindu World, edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 119-139. Abingdon: Routledge.

Glucklich, Ariel (2008) Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hinnells, John R., and Eric J. Sharpe (1972) World Religions Education in Hinduism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Oriel Press Limited.

Jamison, S. W., and M. Witzel. 1992. “Vedic Hinduism.” In Hinduism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (2015), edited by Will Sweetman, 258-350. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mani, Vettam (1975) Puranic Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Puranic Literature. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Matchett, Freda (2005) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Nagar, Shantila (1998) Indian Gods and Goddesses: Vol 1. The Early Deities from Chalcolithic to Beginning of Historical Period. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation.

Sharma, Arvind, and Ray Bharati. 2000. “Chapter VI: The Hindu Trinity (Trimurti).” In Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction, 72-75. New York: Oxford.

Vitsaxis, Vassils G. (1977) Hindu Epics, Myths and Legends in Popular Illustrations. New Delhi: OUP.


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Rajas Puranas





Sattva Puranas


Tamas Puranas









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This article was written by: Hannah Bouma (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.


Untouchable (Mulk Raj Anand): Review

India’s caste system has been around for centuries and is a very important part of the Hindu culture (Vallabhaneni 361). No other country can compare to the complexity of this system (Vallabhaneni 362). This caste or jati system determines where someone stands in society. People are placed into these castes when they are born because of the lineage of their family members, if one’s parent is born a Brahmin then they shall be a Brahmin as well. There are four different classes or varnas involved in the system; the highest ranking members are called Brahmins (Sultana and Subedi 19). The Brahmins are considered the purest of all people and are the priests or educators who have the sacred knowledge of the Hindu culture. They are expected to spread their dharmic knowledge to others to help them achieve steps in one’s spiritual life. The second highest rank is known as the Ksatriyas, the kings or warriors (Sultana and Subedi 19). Their job is to protect society and keep the order inline. The third group are the Vaisyas; these are the merchants or farmers who work in trade and agriculture (Sultana and Subedi 19).

These three groups, which are the three highest varnas, are considered to be ‘twice-born’ meaning they undergo spiritual rebirth and induction during adolescence. The fourth and final class is known as the Sudras (Sultana and Subedi 19). Considered to be at the bottom of the system, Sudras are the working class such as servants. The Sudras are known to serve the upper three varnas. There is one more group that does not belong in the caste system, known as Untouchables, who is considered so polluted that they do not have a place in the caste system (Sultana and Subedi 19). In the book Untouchable, it explains how people in the caste system treat each other. Bakha, the main character in the book, is part of the Untouchable group (Anand 3). Throughout the book, he explains his experiences of being an Untouchable and how it affects him and his family. Untouchable is able to portray to the reader what it is like to be an Untouchable in the Hindu caste system.

In Untouchable, Bakha is an eighteen-year-old boy in a family of five. His father, Lakha, is the head of their job of sweepers, in Bulashah, where they live (Anand 3). He has a sister, Sohini and brother, Rakha. He also had a mother but she had died when he was younger. Leaving Bakha to now look after the family since he was the oldest (Anand 6). Bakha is the one who has to get up early each morning and work as his brother tends to be distracted and occupied playing in the streets (Anand 14). His father, Lakha, is ageing and tends to stay home while the boys work. Lakha is known to be a ‘bully’ to Bakha, abusing him with verbal insults if Bakha is not doing what Lakha wants him to be doing (Anand 6-8). Other parts in the book, Lakha is able to support Bakha through his experiences of horrific attacks for being an Untouchable (Anand 67).

Throughout Bakha’s daily life, he is involved in many disputes about him being an Untouchable. In one incident that occurred, Bakha, being an Untouchable, is forbidden to enter temples because of how impure he is and if he was to enter, he would pollute it. Bahka was a curious boy and decided to observe a ritual happening in the temple without realizing that he was too close. Someone caught him and notified everyone (Anand 50). After going through many incidents of him being terrorized and threatened for being an Untouchable, Bakha has to start announcing his presence around other people to let them know a polluted being was around     (Anand 41). He is called a scavenger, a pig, a dog and many other vicious insults (Anand 51). Bakha hates that he is an Untouchable and how the other castes treat people like him (Anand 42). At times, Bakha forgets he is an Untouchable, he does not remember that if he comes into contact with people they can become impure (Anand 119). He wishes that he could leave the world because of how unlucky he is and what he has to go through while being so impure to society (Anand 105). He wants a better life where he can be treated like an actual human being with respect.

Later on in the book, Bakha, has an encounter with the ‘Great Soul’, Gandhi. Bakha was very intrigued with Mahatma Gandhi as he had never seen or heard him speak before (Anand 125). Gandhi did not agree with the name and loss of rights to the Untouchables, so he renamed them Harijans, he did this because he wanted to remove the label of ‘untouchability’ (Anand 124). This opened up Bakha’s eyes as he realized that he wanted something to change about the way he was being treated; he wanted to follow Gandhi’s vision (Anand 138). Bakha believed that with Gandhi’s teachings that his life for him and other Untouchables could turn out differently (Anand 121).

The caste system is a way of life for Hindus. They believe this system guides Hindu society as a whole as it benefits how they all interact in their daily lives (Raheja 497). This jati system of varnas is considered to be a social institution that people are born into without being able to switch groups (Sultana and Subedi 21). Each one of these groups has its own customs, rules, etc that they need to follow and live by (Raheja 502). There is this obsession of purity that Hindus want to acquire in their life. This division of groups among the Hindus not only shows the different customs or rules but also shows the differences between wealth, status and knowledge. Brahmins, who are the highest varna, separate themselves from the second group, Ksatriyas, by having this essential spiritual knowledge such as dharma that aids society (Raheja 501). They have to have this ability for them to be able to perform rituals to the Gods and Goddesses properly. The Brahmins are dominant in the caste system. Ksatriyas, do not have this spiritual essence but they do have the power to control the social order and protect it as they are the kings and warriors of this caste system (Raheja 501). This power over the social order is what separates them from the Vaisyas; the merchants and landowners. Vaisyas are the people that help bring the money to the society (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 52). The Sudras, the bottom rank of the class system, are distinguished from the other varnas as the servants and working class who do not bring a lot to society. Their job is to help benefit the upper three classes. With the Untouchables, it is a whole other story because they are not considered to belong to the caste system at all because they are so polluting in the Hindu culture.

Untouchable: the word itself means “should not be touched.” This group is considered the outcaste of society. They do not belong anywhere and are segregated for their status. These people are known to be in poverty (Deliège 535) and they also work jobs that are considered extremely impure to the Hindu society. “They think we are dirt because we clean their dirt” stated Bakha in the book because he is a sweeper and toilet cleaner, two of the most polluting jobs someone can have (Anand 67). One other polluting job to have is the cremation of bodies during the Antyesti (last sacrifice or death ritual) because death is considered to be an impurity in Hinduism. This is why they are known to be Untouchables, as it is impure to be in contact with them since they are involved in these fields of work. The Untouchables is a very complex group that is divided into different jatis (Deliège 535). In India the terms that are now used to describe the Untouchables are either ‘Harijans’, meaning the people of God, ‘Scheduled Castes’ or Dalits, meaning oppressed (Deliège 535). These groups of people are so greatly discriminated that they are unable to be in the same places as their superior higher caste members. They are forbidden to wear jewellery or exquisite clothing, cannot enter the streets and houses of the higher castes and cannot access their own town’s water supply as they will pollute it (Deliège 535). The higher castes loathe the Untouchables and treat them like they are filth. In India today, there is a rise of a demand for rights for the Untouchables as they are fed up with being treated like dirt (Deliège 535).

Untouchable displays the very accurate situations that the Indian Untouchable caste has to go through in their daily lives (Anand 38). These people are treated inhumanely because of the rank they were born into. The caste system is able to distinguish people from each other in many ways but it is a way of life and an ancient tradition for the Hindu people. This order of differential hierarchy has been around for over a thousand years and not only is it a religious necessity but it is also an aid to keep society in a social structural system (Arunoday 1). Certain occupations can and cannot be achieved in these classes, for example, an Untouchable is unable to work in the trade or agriculture as they can pollute the crops and water that can disrupt the trade system in the town or village by making impure. The caste system determines social status right at a person’s birth. In the caste system the social status of an individual at birth is permanent; if one’s father is a Sudra, the son would also be a Sudra (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 55). They are unable to avoid this socially and religiously structured society (Vallabhaneni 361). With this system, Hindus are not even allowed to marry outside of their varna. They must marry someone who belongs in their class. The caste system is a key aspect that helps portray the identity of someone in Indian society. (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 54). With this system, it shows the differences between certain activities each class has access to. For example, an Untouchable is allowed to be educated but since they are in such poverty, schools are unable to run. Also, with education, there is a great deal of discrimination and bullying an Untouchable can receive from other children. Every single Hindu belongs in one of the castes in this complex system: it does not matter if they want to or not, it is a way of life in Indian society.


Bibliography and Related Readings

Anand, Mulk (1935) Untouchable. City: Penguin Classics.

Arunoday Sana, (1993) The Caste System in India and its Consequences, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 13 Issue: ¾: 1-76

Carlsson, Fredrik. Gupta, Gautam. Johansson-Stenman, Olof (2008) “Keeping up with the Vaishyas? Caste and relative standing in India.” Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 61, No. 1: 52-73.

Deliège, Robert (1993) “The Myths and Origin of the Indian Untouchables.” Man, New Series, Vol. 28, No.3: 533-549.

Raheja, Gloria (1988) “India: Caste, Kingship, and Dominance Reconsidered.” Annu Rev Anthropology, 17: 497-522.

Vallabhaneni, Madhusudana (2015) “Indian Caste System: Historical and Psychoanalytic Views.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 75, No.4: 361-381.

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

Sultana, Habiba. Subedi, D.B (2016) “Caste System and Resistance: The Case of Untouchable Hindu Sweepers in Bangladesh.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol 29, No. 1: 19-32.


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Caste system


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This article was written by Mollie Kennedy (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The Radhasoami Movement

The Radhasoami movement was started in Agra in 1860 by Swami Shiv Dayal Singh during the period of British occupation in India (Juergensmeyer 3).  Shiv Dayal sought a new spiritual identity that was not like the Christianity that was being offered to him by missionaries, but rather something else that linked him to his Hindu culture (Juergensmeyer 18). In order to accomplish this, he drew from many sources, some of them from Sikh culture (Juergensmeyer 19). Shiv Dayal gained a following and began introducing his devotees to a new yogic practice that did not involve breathing exercises (Juergensmeyer 17). Shiv Dayal is regarded as an “exemplar of the Radhasoami vision” by every subgroup of the Radhasoami movement – the only agreed upon matter by some of the subgroups (Juergensmeyer 31).

Shiv Dayal named Rai Saligram his successor while noting their difference in views (Juergensmeyer 35). During his life, Rai Saligram edited Shiv Dayal’s work, Sar Bachan, which is a two-volume work of poetry and sermons (Juergensmeyer 24-25). The prose volume is authoritative throughout the Radhasoami subgroups (Juergensmeyer 25). The subgroups still debate whether Rai Saligram is an incarnation of Swami Shiv Dayal or a loyal disciple (Juergensmeyer 38). Regardless of the true nature of the role he occupied, Rai Saligram managed to continue the Radhasoami movement.

After the death of Saligram, the Radhasoami movement splintered under their disagreements (Juergensmeyer 44). As a result of this, Misra, a Brahman of a merchant-caste community, decided to form the Central Administrative Council in 1902 (Juergensmeyer 45). This council was made up of ten-members, the notable ones being the President, Pratap Singh, the next in command, Misra, and Saligram’s son (Juergensmeyer 45). These three people held the power to induct members and later disperse that authority to leaders of Radhasoami fellowships in regions that were further away (Juergensmeyer 45). Jaimal Singh lead the Beas subgroup, which rejected the formation of the council and continued to separate their group from the rest (Juergensmeyer 45-46). As more and more leaders arose, more and more divisions were formed within the Radhasoami movement; however, all of them still trace their origins back to Swami Shiv Dayal (Juergensmeyer 46-47).

The Radhasoami movement has made its way across the globe through different subgroups (Babb 293). This could be due in part to DuPertuis’s idea that the sect is appealing to Westerners because of the use of English publications and Western ideologies (114). Westerners had found their way to Rai Saligram while he was developing the sect and adapted to his teachings (Juergensmeyer 52). Daualbagh and Beas colonies have records of Westerners settling among them in the 1930s, but the major addition of Westerners in the sect occurred during the 1960s and 1970s when Sawan Singh was leading the Beas subgroup and began touring abroad (Juergensmeyer 52). When Sawan Singh’s grandson, Charan Singh, took over leadership, he pointed out that Radhasoami is universal, as the sacred sound could be found in many religions (Juergensmeyer 52).

The Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, and the Singh Sabha are all movements in Hinduism that occurred around the same time as the Radhasoami movement (Dimitrova 89). As a result, there are similarities between the Arya Samaj and the Radhasoami (Dimitrova 89). Some would say that the Radhasoami are an offshoot of Sikhism; however, this is incorrect despite the similarities between the two religions (Juergensmeyer 7). Another comparison that has been made is that Radhasoami members could be considered Hindu if one was referring to the religious culture, but Radhasoami spiritual teachers reject some rather essential parts of Hinduism, such as image worship (Juergensmeyer 7).

Like Hinduism, the Radhasoamis are trying to discover their true self, or surat, which means “subtle self” (Babb 297-298). They believe that surat used to be a part of the supreme being Radhasoami but, was separated from Radhasoami long ago and has since been wandering around, lost in the “darkness,” suffering through life after life (Babb 298). The surat is believed to be inside humans and therefore one must foster their awareness of their true predicament and find the way to their “true home” through the guidance of a guru (Babb 298). Once surat has been realized and the highest realm of consciousness has been achieved then one is in the realm of Radhasoami (Dimitrova 92).

Radhasoami comes from the word radha which theologically means “the energy centre” and svami which means “master of”” (Dimitrova 92). Energy is important to the Radhasoamis because they see it as the essence of God, who is pure energy (Dimitrova 92). They also believe that this energy is within the guru (Dimitrova 92). The Radhasoamis hold the guru in a high regard since they believe gurus to be the embodiment of God (Dimitrova 92).

The spiritual journey that Radhasoamis must embark on to achieve surat is to be guided by a guru; therefore, the guru is essential to Radhasoami teachings (Dimitrova 93). The guru is believed to have healing powers that source from darsana, or “sacred sight.” As such, sacred sight is longed for by Radhasoami devotees (Dimitrova 93). Due to the importance that the guru holds for Radhasoami followers, there is an encouragement for “loving devotion” to be directed to the guru, making guru bhakti  a main concept of Radhasoami (Babb 303; Dimitrova 93).



Babb, Lawrence A. (1983) “The Physiology of Redemption.” History of Religions 22: 293-312.

Dimitrova, Diana (2007) “The Development of Sanātana Dharma in the Twentieth Century: A Rādhāsoamī Guru’s Perspective.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 11: 89-98.

DuPertuis, Lucy (1986) “How People Recognize Charisma: The Case of Darshan in Radhasoami and Divine Light Mission.” Sociological Analysis 47: 111-124.

Juergensmeyer, Mark (1991) Radhasoami Reality: The Logic of a Modern Faith. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.

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This article was written by: Desiree Kmiecik (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.