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The Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition

The Lingayat tradition, also known as Virasaiva, is a Hindu sect with a vast following in Karnataka, a southern state of India. They are known as Virasaivas because of their relentless and deeply passionate devotion to Siva, a deity who is worshipped by both upper and lower caste Hindus, as well as other marginal groups in Hindu society (Basu 475). The origin of the sect is traced to the eleventh and twelfth century as a small-scale socio religious movement and founded by Basavanna, a government minister. In order to maintain their purpose within the broad framework of the Lingayat tradition, Basavanna adapted and reconstructed the principles of the influential Saivite (Siva-worshiping) religious traditions superior during his time in Kashmir, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu (Basu 475). The Lingayat tradition highlights the shared dependence between Siva and individual human beings. TheParama Sakti (ultimate spiritual force) is believed to have been established by Siva; that is, Siva and the cosmic force are considered to be equal or alike (Basu 475). The Lingayat tradition believes that before the cosmos was created, Siva was the “The Supreme Self” in terms of purity, beyond space and place, beyond design, nameless, shapeless, and deedless (Basu 475). Basavanna preached that work, in all its forms, was to be worshipped. Therefore, Lingayats are washermen, barbers, weavers, carpenters, teachers, farmers, and members of practically every occupational group (Ishwaran 148). Work was to be worshipped as a continuation of the design of the Creator, the deity Siva.

            Lingayat tradition was a reaction to specific features of Hinduism and can barely be assumed or understood aside from orthodox Hinduism. Its practices and beliefs are either taken over from Hinduism, or they illustrate a deliberate contradiction of Hindu principles or rites. Lingayatism preaches that all men and women, whatever their birth or position in society, are all equal. In noticeable opposition to Hinduism, there is no ritual interpretation of female inferiority. For the Lingayats, there is no heaven, no hell, no life after death. They believe that reward for virtue and punishment come in this life and one makes this world a heaven or a hell (Ishwaran 148).  In Sanskrit, Linga signifies a mark or a symbol; hence, the Siva Lingam is a symbol of the supreme being, Siva. The practice requires that followers, both men and women, carry the Siva Linga/Lingam around their necks or across their chests. Basavanna and other Lingayat preachers tried to fight the polytheistic notions of Brahmanic Hinduism through the Lingayat tradition (Basu 475). Basavanna’s monotheism not only ousted the Vedic deities (cherished by Vedic Hindu followers), but to Lingayats, also disclosed the dishonesty of the Brahmanic interpretations of the Hindu scriptures. Therefore, the Lingayat tradition preferred a social order free of the caste system and social slavery and as a result, it originally accepted men and women from all Hindu castes, as well as the lowest (Basu 475).

             There are three sacred areas in every Lingayat home. Their homes are very meaningful for them,  because the home is not only a place for living, but is the means of close connections between family and members. The first sacred area of every Lingayat home is a raised platform (gaddige) which serves as the family altar. On this altar are the images of the personal gods of each family member. At this altar, daily worship by the family as a whole, represented by a male member, forms the regular feature of domestic festivals. The kitchen is also a sacred place. On festive days, the first element of all food prepared is given to the priest, and a second part sacrificed to the gods. Food is treated with the utmost respect, as is the stove where it is prepared. The native stove (vali) itself is worshipped, and all food is eaten, after which the plate is washed clean by the priest, and the water used in ablution is itself drunk, that none of the holy food be dishonoured. The doorway is also sacred in the home of all Lingayats. It is very crucial that a bride steps across the doorway with her right foot at marriage. Each bullock is stopped at the door of each Lingayat house and made to step across the doorway with his right foot during the procession of bullocks. On a daily basis, the doorway is washed and worshipped by the women of the household, and special rites of worship are done on festival days.

          Sororate marriages are accepted among the Lingayats, but more commonly practiced is the marriage of a girl to her mother’s brother (Ishwaran 153). Cross-cousin marriages are ordinary and chosen. It also frequently happens that two families may perform an exchange marriage. Usually, marriages ensue right after puberty and they are comprehensively organized. The marriage of a girl is commonly arranged at, or considerably before, the beginning of puberty. A marriage which is formed by love is considered to have a poor possibility of success. Love is considered to come in the normal course of events after marriage; should it exist before, the marriage is likely to be damaged by struggle both between the partners and between each of the partners and the in-laws (Ishwaran 154). If an arranged marriage leads to separation, the elders accountable for the marriage are susceptible to harsh criticism and sometimes to open animosity. By all means the bride must be younger than the bridegroom. Men must marry women who are younger in age so that wives stay submissive to their husbands, and care for them in their old age. Culture commands that girls are born to be given away and they must be married as soon as they reach puberty (Ishwaran 155). The current system of arranged marriage has allowed them to endure. Partners in one’s own kindred circle are regarded as committed, admired, and trustworthy on whom spouses can rely throughout life (Ishwaran 155).

        In the early nineteenth century, a scholar named Jean Antoine Abbe Dubois who had spent thirty years collecting materials and articles connected to Hindu behaviour, customs and ceremonies, distinguished what he heard, read, and studied about the Lingayat tradition (Chekki 108). He observed that the sect of Siva is dominant in several states. They refrain from eating animal products, and rather than burning the dead, like most Hindus, they choose to bury them. They also do not acknowledge the laws pertaining to degradation, which in most cases are recognized by other castes. Dubois mentions a proverb that says “There is no river for a  Lingayat”, which means that the followers of this sect do not value ablutions (Chekki 108). In addition, he specifies that the Lingayat tradition rejects many principles of the Hindu religion, particularly the cycle of birth and rebirth. The Lingayats, therefore, have no anniversary festivals to celebrate or honor the dead (Chekki 108).

         Prominently, there are at least three extensive stages or aspects of the Lingayat research traditions which discloses the preceding analysis. The first phase commenced in the early nineteenth century and progressed until the first decade of the twentieth century, which consists of  a large majority of Western scholars (Chekki 125). These observers from the West, based on very narrow or no knowledge of the earliest sources, seized only an incomplete view of the Lingayat tradition and culture. These scholars, with a few special cases, presented inadequate, definitive, distorted, and deceptive accounts of the Lingayat tradition and society. The second phase of the Lingayat studies, which surfaced in the 1920s, incorporates two streams of domestic scholars. Based upon an extensive exploration and analysis of Virasaiva classics in Kannada and Sanskrit, they contributed a great deal to the understanding of Lingayatism as a significant religious sect (Chekki 125). Their knowledge of the initial sources, modern outlook, and experience as members of the community aided them to produce trustworthy analyses of the Lingayat tradition and philosophy (Chekki 125). Nevertheless, some of these studies needed impartial scientific examination. The third phase of the Lingayat research, set in motion since the 1960s, has taken place broadly in institutional settings such as universities and research institutes (Chekki 125).

       The present day Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition research has become more multidisciplinary by nature and today, diversified disciplines in the humanities and social sciences examine Lingayat/Virasaiva history, literature, religion, philosophy, society and culture (Chekki 126). An abundant portion of the publications in the Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition, especially in the Kannada language, still seem to be laudatory and repetitious (Chekki 126). They are for the most part explanatory and based on inner experience rather than fact, lacking critical analysis. An extensive number of studies are on Basavanna and his reform movement. A majority of the authors are men. Women authors, and writings on women saints and their contributions, are minimal (Chekki 126). The question, “are Lingayats a caste or a religion?”, has both sociological interpretation and realistic significance. The Government of India categorizes the Lingayats as Hindus. Lingayat leaders, nevertheless, urge their followers, when asked their religion, not to answer Hindu, but Lingayat (Ishwaran 149). Whether the rank and file Lingayat considers himself as a Hindu caste or a separate religion is a matter of practical concern. Moreover, the demand to train a new generation of researchers cannot be disregarded on purpose. Numerous aspects and features of the Lingayat/Virasaiva tradition are still in need of examination by researchers.


Basu, Rajshekhar (2002) “Lingayat.” In Karen Christensen and David Levinson, eds. Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, p. 475. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Boratti, Vijayakumar (2017) “War, Words, and Communities: Lingayats and World War I.” Economic and Political Weekly. Accessed February 3, 2020. doi:10.1017/9781108594646.008.

Copeman, Jacob, and Ikegame Aya (2012) The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge.

Chekki, Danesh A. (1997) Religion and Social System of the Vīraśaiva Community. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Chekki, Danesh A. (2012). “The Spiritual Path of Devotion: The Vīraśaiva Perspective.” Anthropos 107(2):555-560. Accessed January 30, 2020. doi:10.5771/0257-9774-2012-2-555.

Desai, Prakash (2019). “Quest for Egalitarian Socio-Spiritual Order: Lingayats and Their Practices.” Journal of Human Values 25(2):87-100. Accessed January 30, 2020. doi:10.1177/0971685819826729.

Gutridge, Bryan (2006) The Religion of Revolution: A Historical Study of the Virasaiva Movement. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Ishwaran, Karigondar (1966). “Lingayat Kinship.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 1(2):147-160. Accessed February 1, 2020. doi:10.1177/002190966600100206.

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Tamil Nadu



Parama Sakti


Siva Lingam





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Article written by: Jonalyn Saballa (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Banabhatta: Sanskrit author and poet

Banabhatta (commonly referred to as “Bana”) was a Sanskrit poet in 7th century India. Still to this day, he is considered to be one of the most respected prose poets of ancient India and is ranked highly among other Sanskrit prose writers and poets (Hueckstedt 1985:6). He was born in a village of Brahmin settlers called Pritikuta on the river Shona in the region Kanyakubja. Banabhatta’s mother, Rajadevi died when he was young, and so, he was raised by his Father until his passing when Bana was fourteen (Krishnamoorthy 3). Bana then chose to take on a life of wandering and travelling for many years until he returned to Pritikuta, where he was welcomed by the community, but only stayed for a short visit. A courier by the name of Mekhalaka delivered a letter to Banabhatta, summoning him to the Emperor Harshavardhana. Upon meeting Bana, the emperor became fond of him and bestowed Bana with many gifts and praise (Krishnamoorthy 4-6). One of Bana’s works, titled The Harsacharita, an autobiography and biography styled piece, outlines much of both King Harshavardhana’s life and accounts for many of their encounters together (Hueckstedt 1985:7). Bana spent his life creating many works of literature, his most famous being The Kadambari and The Harsacharita. It is also speculated that he may have written The Candisataka, a verse poem that praises the goddess Durga (Hueckstedt 1985:7). The exact year of Bana’s death is unknown, but most scholars believe he died prematurely, as he died with unfinished works, specifically, The Kadambari (Hueckstedt 1985:9).

In his youth, Banabhatta received a well-rounded education in both sacred and secular divisions. Bana’s teacher was the great Bharchu, who was said to be adored by the Maukhari emperors that ruled the area where Pritikuta was located (Krishnamoorthy 3). Bana’s solid education, wealth, and status created by his family lineage of Brahmins, and close association with the emperor, provided Bana with the tools to produce excellent writings. Banabhatta introduced the writing styles of biography and autobiography into classical Sanskrit literature, and is also regarded as the first poet historian and autobiographer in ancient India (Krishnamoorthly 1-2). There is some evidence to suggest that the tradition of romantic fiction in ancient Sanskrit that Bana writes in may be as old as Patanjali, a significant figure in Sanskrit linguistics, but Bana is regarded as the first poet to achieve great distinction for the quality of literacy (Krishnamoorthly 8). His work excelled in literary forms such as rhythm, compounds puns, paradox, hyperbole, metaphor, while using poetic significance contributing to themes of wonder and romance through fiction.

One of Banabhatta most influential works, The Kadambari, is a long romance fiction written in prose that is almost fourteen-hundred years old (Hueckstedt 1995: 152). The Kadambari explores many different literary techniques and poetic essences created by Bana and embodies the dominant culture of North West India in the seventh century while remaining a vessel for romantic and emotional fictional poetry. One of the most striking features is the narrative used, that frames stories within stories (see Hueckstedt 1995:152). Krishnamoorthy defines The Kadambari as “the most celebrated prose romance in Sanskrit literature” (Krishnamoorthly 1). Many commentaries and translations of The Kadambari exist, but many of the attempts at translation are flawed because of the difficult nature of translating Sanskrit language. Specifically, in order to accurately translate this work, a reader needs a highly developed understanding of Sanskritphonetics and syntax, as well as an advanced understanding of the mythical tales alluded to, and finally, a reader needs to understand alankarasastra (science of figure of speech) to understand what Bana is doing in stylistic terms (Hueckstedt 1995:153). Banabhatta died before finishing this piece, and it was left to his son to complete (Hueckstedt 1985:7).

Another famous work by Banabhatta is The Harsacharita, a biography of the Emperor Harshavardhana, and contains an autobiographical account of the author, Banabhatta himself (Datta 1339). The Harsacharita is arguably one of the most influential pieces of ancient Indian Sanskrit literature because of its uniqueness at the time it was created. The Harsacharita is the first work of its kind (biography and autobiography) and is the first attempt at historiography in Indian literature (Krishnamoorthly 1). It is an autobiographical account written about Bana in a romantic prose style that includes writing on his own ancestry, early life, encounters with Harsha, and the return to relatives (Hueckstedt 1985: 7-8). Although it is most likely that The Harsacharita was written before The Kadambari, The Harsacharita is often criticized for not disclosing some major events in the life of the emperor. Thus, many define The Harsacharita as incomplete, or perhaps is only a part of what Bana had written (Hueckstedt 1985: 8). This work left a “tradition of convention and theory” that was designed to serve the higher class as a pastime (Thomas 385).

While The Harsacharita and The Kadambari are both regarded as great works of literary art, there are some major stylistic differences between the two. First, The Kadambari is written in romantic prose, while The Harsacharita can be defined as a romantic biography and autobiography. Thus, the stylistic choices made by Bana to express these different types of writing are different as well. According to Thomas, these differences contribute to “The Kadambari evoking a more sympathetic judgement than The Harsacharita” (Thomas 385). He illustrates this by providing an analogy of a feminine/masculine duality to illustrate the differences in the two works. The Harsacharita, using reality and history, represents the maturity and masculinity of the author, while The Kadambari shows romance and mellowness. Thus, the latter is regarded as the feminine principle (Thomas 385). Additionally, to explain another difference between the two, akhyayika and katha are two classes of Sanskrit literature that are evident in Bana’s works. akhyayika refers to a ‘historical tale’, while katha refers to a ‘tale’ (Krishnamoorthy 13). Respectively, The Harsacharita and The Kadambari are seen as classic examples of the two (Kane XXII). For a work to be categorized as akhyayika, it must be divided into sections called uchchhvasas and must contain verses in vaktra and apravaktra meters. Additionally, akhyayika deals with historical accounts, whereas katha typically does not (Kane XXVIII).

On the other hand, the two works also show similarities. For instance, both exhibit Bana’s creative use of narrative. The Kadambari possesses a narrative that frames stories within stories, and The Harsacharita has a narrative that allows for biography and autobiography to be accounted for within the same work. Another similarity is the abrupt, and perhaps unfinished endings to both pieces (see Kane XXXV). Also consistent between these works is Bana’s conception of reality. The use of stylized characters, plot and landscape paired with notions of the supernatural and use of non-realistic backgrounds, suggests an “idealization of reality” that allows Bana to romantically express components of his own reality into works of prose (Hueckstedt 1985 10-11).

Even after his death, Bana remained extremely influential in terms of Sanskrit literature. The flawless use of literary techniques combined with the emotion and sentiment carried through romantic prose shown in Banabhatta’s writings changed what literature was in essence. His introduction of new forms of literature such as autobiography and historical prose and creative use of established techniques was significant in Sanskritic writing. Later generations looked upon Bana as an “embodiment of the goddess of learning” (Krishnamoorthy 1). One of the most significant features of Bana’s writing was his ability to express romance and emotion while simultaneously producing historical biographies. Other poets applaud Bana for the “mastery of content” and also, the “depth of insight into the human heart” (Krishnamoorthy 1-2). Bana’s wide exposure to travelling and education provided him with adequate knowledge of both historical tradition of ancient India and its mythological tales (Krishnamoorthy 8). Krishnamoorthy goes as far as to say that “the unique genius of language has been so artistically exploited by Bana that his achievement had perhaps never again been equalled in the history of Sanskrit literature” (Krishnamoorthy 12).


Datta, Amaresh (1988) Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature: Devraj to Jyoti, Volume 2. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi

Hueckstedt, Robert A. (1995) “Reviews of books — Kadambari (of Banabhatta): A Classical Sanskrit Story of Magical Transformations translated and with an introduction by Gwendolyn Layne with illustrations by Virgil Burnet.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115:152-54. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:10.2307/605346.

Hueckstedt, Robert A. (1985) The style of Bana: an introduction to Sanskrit prose poetry. Lanham: University Press of America.

Kane, P.V. (1918) The Harshacharita of Banabhatta Bombay: Motilal Banarsidas

Krishnamoorthy, K (1976) Banabhatta. New Delhi:Sahitya Akademi.

Thomas, F. W. (1920) “Reviewed Works: The Harshacharita of Bāṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvāsas I-VIII) by P. V. Kane; The Harshacharita of Bâṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvâsas IV to VIII) by S. D. Gajendragadkar; The Harshacharita of Bâṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvasas I-IV) by S. D. Gajendragadkar”

 The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 3. 384-89. Accessed February 2, 2020.

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Article written by: Brooklynn Rudelich (Spring 2020), who is responsible for this content.

Vaisno Devi

Vaisno Devi is a goddess in the Hindu religion.  She is worshipped in northwest India where her shrine is located on Trikut Mountain in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (Foulston and Abbott 193, 195).   Millions of pilgrims go there each year.  As a mother to her devotees, she is a protector and giver of benefits (Rohe 74).  She is therefore known as Mata Vaisno Devi, or Mother Vaisno Devi (Rohe 57, 68).  

     Hindu mythology explains that Vaisno Devi was created during the second age, the Treta Yuga, by the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi, and Mahakali.  These goddesses are manifestations of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi (Foulston and Abbott 194).  They came together and used their powers to create Vaisno Devi.  During the Treta Yuga the world was struggling with strife and the forces of the demonic world.  The world needed a guardian, therefore the creation of Vaisno Devi (Khanna 187).  

     There are a variety of myths about Vaisno Devi.  One myth in particular says she was born on earth as the daughter of a merchant named Ratnasagar and was named Trikuta.  Trikuta wished to marry Rama, one of the ten incarnations of Visnu, but was told by Rama himself that he could not marry her as he was faithfully pledged to Sita his wife (Foulston and Abbott 50, 194).  Not to be disappointed, Trikuta persisted, and eventually was told by Rama that if she could recognize him when he returned to her, he would marry her.  Rama later returned as an elderly man and was unrecognizable to Trikuta.  Rama then told her that he would return in the fourth age, the Kali Yuga, as Kalki, the last and final incarnation of Visnu.  Trikuta could then become his consort.  Until that time, Trikuta should stay on Trikut Mountain, where she ought to practice asceticism and would eventually become known as Vaisno Devi (Erndl 40-41). 

     Another myth describes Vaisno Devi’s appearance to a Brahmin priest thousands of years after her birth on earth.  The priest, Sridhar, was holding a ritual for the purpose of attaining a male son, when Vaisno Devi appeared to him (Erndl 41).  She told Sridhar to serve a feast for the villagers and those living around the village.  While inviting the villagers to the feast, Sridhar met a man by the name of Gorakhnath, the leader of an order of mendicants.  Gorakhnath mockingly told Sridhar that he would not be able to feed Gorakhnath and all his followers.  Nevertheless, the next day, everyone gathered for the feast and they were served by Vaisno Devi.  One of the mendicants, Bhairo, complained about the food, stating that he wanted meat and not the vegetarian food that Vaisno Devi was serving.  Vaisno Devi told him that as the food was being served at a Vaisnavafeast, he should not complain.  Bhairo became angry and reached for Vaisno Devi, but she disappeared and fled to Trikut Mountain (Erndl 41-42).  Bhairo, who looked at her with lust, pursued her (Rohe 60).  When she arrived at Trikut Mountain, she crawled into a cave and stayed there for nine months where she practiced asceticism.  When Bhairo found her, Vaisno Devi opened the back of the cave with her wand and crawled out with Bhairo continuing to pursue her.  She entered another cave and according to one version of this myth, transformed herself into the terrifying manifestation of the goddess Candi.  She then cut off Bhairo’s head.  As he was being decapitated, he repented, calling Vaisno Devi “Mother.”  His head can now be seen as a rock at the cave’s mouth where it is venerated by pilgrims (Erndl 41-42). 

     The mythology of Vaisno Devi has led to the worship of her at the Holy Shrine of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Ji on Trikut Mountain.  Pilgrims climb fourteen kilometers up the mountain to the mouth of the cave.  When the pilgrims reach there, they crawl through a ninety-foot tunnel which has a stream running through it called the Charan Ganga (Foulston and Abbott 196-197).  At the end of the tunnel is the most important aspect of the shrine, three jutting rocks or pindis (Erndl 39).  These three pindis, which are venerated by the pilgrims,each embodies the three cosmic manifestations of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi.  These three manifestations are the goddesses Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi, and Mahakali; they are referred to as the sakta trinity (Erndl 4).  The shrine of Vaisno Devi “is the only shrine in India to house natural forms of the three cosmic goddesses” (Foulston and Abbott 196).  Vaisno Devi, who in turn is the manifestation of the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi and Mahakali, holds their cosmic powers or saktis (Erndl 39).  They in turn each hold the powers of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi (Tewari 4).  A pilgrim goes to the shrine of Vaisno Devi only when the pilgrim believes Vaisno Devi has called him or her individually (Rohe 61-62).  It has been found that “undertaking the pilgrimage annually contributes to the well-being of her devotees” (Pandya 735).  

      Vaisno Devi is considered by her followers to be Mahadevi, the Great Goddess herself, since Vaisno Devi is the manifestation of the three goddesses and their three powers (Rohe 71).  In Hinduism, Mahadevi is the goddess who embodies sakti, the feminine power that creates and holds the universe together (Kinsley 133).  Mahadevi “oversees” the “cosmic functions” of creation, preservation, and destruction (Kinsley 137).  These three powers are present in the rocks or pindis representing the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi and Mahakali (Tewari 4).  Mahasarasvati holds the sakti of creation, Mahalaksmi holds the sakti of preservation, and Mahakali holds the sakti of destruction (Rodrigues 441).  

     Vaisno Devi is also considered to be one of two contrasting sides to Mahadevi; the other being the goddess Kali.  The contrasting sides are reflected in two different dispositions and personalities.  Kali is the harsh and bloody side of Mahadevi.  She is depicted with dark skin, often with a necklace of skulls around her neck, and is known for drinking the blood of demons.  She is carnivorous, and as such, she is associated with animal sacrifice.  Vaisno Devi is the peaceful and serene side of Mahadevi.  She is associated with vegetarianism, and is not worshipped with animal sacrifice (Erndl 4-5).  

     In Hinduism, vegetarianism is a form of ritual purity and it is because of this that Vaisno Devi and her shrine stand out among other Hindu shrines (Foster and Stoddard 113).  As illustrated in the second myth, Vaisno Devi serves only vegetarian food at the feast. This validates her status as a vegetarian. The name Vaisno is actually translated in northwestern India as “vegetarianism” even though it literally means “in the style or manner of Visnu and followers” (Foster and Stoddard 113).  Vegetarianism protects Vaisno Devi’s body integrity (Rohe 69).  She is closely associated with the god Visnu partly due to this vegetarian ideal (Rohe 66).  

     Vaisno Devi is also associated with virginity (Rohe 70).  Virginity, like vegetarianism, protects Vaisno Devi’s body integrity (Rohe 69).  The importance of her virginity is shown in the myth and is made apparent by Bhairo’s lust and pursuit of her.  A variation of this myth says it was the goddess Kali that Vaisno Devi transformed herself into when she killed Bhairo. This was so that she, as the goddess Vaisno Devi, would not spill someone’s blood.  The reason for this is because blood shedding is associated with sexual relations.  In order to preserve her virginity, Vaisno Devi transformed herself into the dark and terrible Kali to shed Bhairo’s blood (Rohe 69).  At her shrine, it is common for the pilgrims to abstain from alcohol, meat, and sexual relations (Rohe 70). 

      Vaisno Devi is also a mother as well as a virgin, and her devotees consider themselves her children (Rohe 70).  There is a legend that says she changed the Charan Ganga into a stream of milk when milk was not available in the local area (Rohe 69).  This myth validates her status as mother.  Since Vaisno Devi is Mahadevi, and therefore sakti, it is believed all beings were born from her (Rohe 70).

     Hindu art portrays Vaisno Devi as beautiful and serene.  She is commonly shown to ride a lion or tiger (Erndl 4).  She has eight arms and holds a conch, club, and discus as well as a bow and arrow, sword, and trident.  Her clothes are red; she is gentle but strong.  Beside her are her two guardsmen, the monkey god, Hanuman, and Bhairo (Erndl 4).  

      Partly due to variations in legends or myths about Vaisno Devi, it can be difficult to exactly pinpoint her nature (Rohe 60).  No Hindu text gives definite knowledge of her, and understanding of her varies according to each person (Rohe 57).  However, her shrine on Trikut Mountain adds an element of certainty to her devotees about her role as a goddess as it is a concrete place where they can go to worship her.  It is on Trikut Mountain, Vaisno Devi’s home, where she reigns as the divine feminine power, giving blessings and support to her devotees.  

References and Further Recommended Reading

Brown, C. MacKenzie (1990) The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Viking.

Erndl, Kathleen M. (1993) Victory to the Mother. New York: Oxford University Press.

Foster, Georgana, and Robert Stoddard (2010) “Vaishno Devi, the Most Famous Goddess Shrine                                               in the Siwaliks.” In Sacred Geography of Goddesses in South Asia, edited by Rana P. B. Singh, 109-124. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.                                                                            

Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Thornhill: Sussex Academic Press. 

Hardon, John A. (1968) Religions of the World: Volume 1. Garden City: Image Books.

Hawley, John Stratton, and Vasudha Narayanan (eds.) (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Khanna, Madhu (2018) “Here Are the Daughters: Reclaiming the Girl Child (Kanya, Bala, Kumari) in the Empowering Tales and Rituals of Sakta Tantra.”  In The Oxford History of Hinduism: The Goddess, edited by Mandakranta Bose, 173-198. New York: Oxford University Press.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kumarappa, Bharatan (1979) The Hindu Conception of the Deity. Delhi: Inter-India Publications.

Pandya, Samta (2015) “Pilgrimage and Devotion to the Divine Mother: Mental Well-being of Devotees of Mata Vaishno Devi.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 18:9 726-737. Accessed January 22, 2020. doi:10.1080/13674676.2015.1112771.

Pintchman, Tracy (ed.) Seeking Mahadevi:  Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess. Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism-The Ebook. Toronto: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Rohe, Mark Edwin (2001) “The Greatness of Goddess Vaisno Devi.” In Seeking Mahadevi Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess, edited by Tracy Pintchman, 55-76. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tewari, Lt. Col. Naren (1988) The Mother Goddess Vaisno Devi. New Delhi: Lancer International.

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Hindu Art







Ritual Purity




Vaisno Devi Mythology


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This article was written by:  Bernadette Remus (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Basava and the Lingayat tradition

Basava, also referred to as Basavanna, was a south Indian philosopher who is widely regarded as the founder of the Lingayattradition of Hinduism (Das 161). He is viewed as an early advocate for socio-religious reform, promulgating his teachings in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka (Ishwaran 2).

Although little is known about Basava’s early life, there are a few texts that provide details about his childhood. In addition to scarce historical records, the Basava Purana, written by Palkuriki Somanatha, provides a hagiographical account of his life. In addition, the Basavaraja Devara Ragale, a poem written in the 13th-century by Harihara, also provides important information about his life (Leslie 239). His poems, typically referred to as vacanas, have also provided extensive descriptions about his life and his beliefs (see Schouten 50-61).

Basava was born in a small village called Bagevadi to a Brahmin family (Ishwaran 1). His father was appointed by a local king to be the chief of his village. Though Basava was not born in a particularly wealthy family, he nonetheless enjoyed social privileges by virtue of his class and his father’s role in the village as the chief (Leslie 239). Over the course of his childhood, Basava engaged in activities that were traditionally prescribed for Brahmin males. Therefore, he was exposed to various religious rituals and also received formal religious education (Leslie 240).

However, despite the formalities that he had undergone, Basava grew increasingly disillusioned with the Brahmanical tradition in which he was raised (Schouten 2). In Harihara’s Basavaraja Devara Ragale, Basava was forced to participate in his sacred- thread ceremony – a crucially important initiation ceremony for twice-born males – at the age of eight. In contrast, according to the Basava Purana, he did not participate in his sacred-thread ceremony (Leslie 240). His father construed Basava’s reluctance to participate as egregiously disrespectful to tradition, creating friction in the relationship between Basava and his father (Rao and Roghair 58). Both accounts of his life relay a similar motif, namely his criticisms of the Brahmanical tradition at a very young age.

At the age of sixteen, Basava left his home village of Bagevadi and went to Kudalasangama, a popular pilgrimage site for Siva worshippers. The impetus for his decision to leave was marked by “a desire to escape… the religious ritualism and social prejudice of his environment” (Leslie 240). It was also at this time that Basava had become particularly fond of the Hindu god, Siva. Although several Saivite sects were prominent during this time, it is likely that Basava was exposed to the Lakulisa- Pasupata sect of Saivism in Kudalasangama (Das 162). He subsequently spent the next twelve years of his life in Kudalasangama where he extensively engaged in the service and worship of Siva. In addition, Basava continued to expand his education and also composed works of poetry (Das 162).

The socio-religious context in Karnataka during the 12th– century played an instrumental role in shaping Basava’s conceptions about the Brahmanical system of which he was particularly critical. A central facet of the Brahmanical system – the varna system – was construed by Basava to be an inherently oppressive system (Sahasrabudhe 225). In the Rg Veda, the Purusa – Sukta hymn situates the Brahmin class to be at the top of the social hierarchy, followed by the ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra classes. The class system was highly influential in Karnataka during this time, and the stratification of society closely followed the hierarchy implicit in the Purusa Sukta (Ishwaran 8). Devotion to god – bhakti – was a very popular mode of religious practice in Karnataka. This led to the creation of many temples that were primarily run by Brahmin priests. Due to the emphasis placed by the Brahmins on the importance of devotional practice, sudras felt that they were religiously obligated to donate their time and money to the priests (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, this led to the emergence of significant socio-economic and socio-religious disparities that were particularly conspicuous in Karnataka during this time. Basava was profoundly impacted by the segregation of worship that was commonplace in Siva temples. Devout sudras were unable to engage in the worship and service of Siva “in the company of the higher castes” (Ishwaran 7).  Basava viewed this unfair treatment by the Brahmins as prejudice masked under the pretext of notions about ritual pollution (Das 163). In his vacanas, Basava extensively articulates his concerns about the oppressive and exploitative Brahmanical system in place; moreover, he assigned culpability to the Brahmin priestly class for reinforcing this system (Schouten 55). Ultimately, the socio-religious context of the time served as the major impetus behind shaping many of the reformist attitudes that Basava later came to hold.

The next significant transition in Basava’s life is marked by his move away from Kudalasangama to a small town named Mangalavada (Leslie 242). Legendary accounts suggest that the Hindu god Siva had appeared in one of his dreams and instructed Basava to move to Mangalavada (Leslie 241). However, Basava was frightened by the notion of having to leave Kudalasangama given the profound impact the village had on his religious and spiritual development. Siva reappeared in a subsequent dream where he presented Basava with his own personal Siva linga, a symbol that represents Siva in Saivite tradition (Das 162). This reassured Basava that regardless of where he was, Siva would always be there for him, manifest in the form of a linga. Therefore, it is said that these dreams spurred his transition to Mangalavada because Basava viewed it as incumbent upon himself to “articulate his emotional commitment to [Siva]” (Leslie 242). In a place like Mangalavada, his message could reach a larger audience which would allow him to fulfill his goal.

            Mangalavada was a small town that was under the control of the Calukya empire in the 12th– century and was primarily inhabited by low class sudras (Leslie 242). Basava viewed this as an opportunity to promulgate some of his notions regarding religion and the importance of social reform. Over the course of the next several years, Basava regularly engaged with the people in his community through conversation and dialogue (Das 163). In addition, Basava regularly wrote works of poetry – vacanas – to disseminate his teachings to a broader audience (Leslie 242). In contrast to the Brahmanical system which valorized the use of Sanskrit as the principal way to communicate religious and spiritual topics, Basava instead decided to write in Kannada (Sahasrabudhe 223). He was a strong proponent of communicating religious and spiritual matters in the vernacular language in order to ensure that those teachings could be accessible to the greatest number of people. Sanskrit, however, was a language that was only accessible to relatively few people in society (i.e. primarily Brahmins), and therefore its use alienated the majority of people who had no knowledge of the language (Schouten 11). Thus, the preservation of the Kannada language and culture is heavily attributed to Basava due to his resistance to Sanskritic influences (Ishwaran 1).

In many vacanas, Basava presents arguments that undermine the intrinsically hierarchical nature of the class system (Schouten 51-52). Prejudicial attitudes towards lower class members of society (e.g. sudras) by the upper classes were commonplace (Ishwaran 8), and Basava argued that citing ritual pollution as a justification for such attitudes by the Brahmins was flawed. Central to Basava’s argument was his belief in the polluting origin of life (Schouten 59). The womb was traditionally regarded as a source of pollution, and because humans are born of the womb, one’s existence is plagued with pollution the moment they are born. Therefore, Basava concluded that “any pretension to high birth is meaningless” (Schouten 60) because regardless of one’s class, no one could escape the impurities associated with birth. In other words, the hierarchical nature of the class system, according to Basava, made no sense because of the common impure origin of human beings.

For many people, Basava’s ideals of social reform and equality were particularly impactful because he did not exclude anyone from his teachings on the basis of class or caste (Schouten 39). In addition, he espoused progressive views towards women, namely his recognition of women as individuals with rights (Sahasrabudhe 224). At the time, his acceptance for all people was construed as a radical departure from the traditional Brahmanical system because the egalitarian principles that Basava championed were, in many ways, contradictory to the views of the Brahmanical system (Das 163). This, in turn, was particularly attractive to lower class Hindus who had been traditionally alienated by the Brahmanical system.

In addition to his teachings about equality and social reform, Basava disseminated teachings about the nature of God and offered prescriptive approaches for the realization of God (Leslie 242). Because Basava was a devotee of Siva, many other Siva devotees, particularly from lower classes, found refuge in his teachings. Therefore, Basava was able to cultivate a large following which primarily consisted of Siva devotees – saranas – that distanced themselves from the Brahmin orthodoxy and instead embraced the inclusive model of Hinduism that Basava championed (Schouten 10). These saranas, according to Basava, no longer retained their class identity. This, too, was viewed unfavorably by the Brahmin orthodoxy, which, in contrast, stressed the immutability of one’s class (Das 163).

Due to a lack of royal patronage, Basava initially found it difficult to disseminate his teachings to a greater audience. The city of Kalyana – capital of the Calukya empire – had not yet divorced itself from the rigid Brahmanical orthodoxy; moreover, the Calukya leadership was generally apprehensive about Basava’s radical ideas because his ideas were met with strong contempt by the orthodoxy (Das 163). However, Bijjala, a powerful feudatory of the Calukya empire and a Saivite, was especially fond of Basava’s teachings (Leslie 242). The sustained decline of the Calukya empire coupled with poor leadership under Taila III led Bijjala to overthrow Taila III in 1162. Thus, he installed himself as the new emperor of the Calukya empire, paving the way for Basava to spread his teachings in Kalyana (Leslie 242). In addition to his religious endeavors, however, Basava was also a prominent political figure in the empire. He was appointed by Bijjala to serve as the chief minister of the empire, a position he held for thirty-six years (Ishwaran 6).

Basava continued to rally support from the people of Kalyana, with a particular focus on uniting Siva devotees and sudras. He later established the anubhava mandala, an institution that was central to accomplishing this goal. It served as a platform that enabled people from all walks of life to freely discuss spiritual, religious, and philosophical topics (Schouten 4). As time went on, a profound distrust of the Brahmanical system coupled with a growing sense of fraternity among Basava’s followers led Basava to formally establish the Saivite Lingayat sect (Ishwaran 2).

The monopolization of temples by the Brahmins was particularly disconcerting for Basava because it prevented many low-class Hindus from engaging in the worship of Siva (Ishwaran 7). Consequently, Basava reconceptualized the way people approached the worship and service of God – bhakti – to accommodate for the alienated peoples of society and to undermine the already waning influence of the priesthood. Basava explicitly declared that it was not necessary to visit a temple in order to worship God (Leslie 242). According to Basava, the linga is a manifestation of Siva; thus, it could serve as an object of worship. For many people, God was no longer a distant entity confined to the inner depths of temples. One could now freely worship Siva without concerning themselves about the mandates of orthodox tradition. In recognition of the all-encompassing presence of God, Basava believed that one could transform any object into a linga that could be worshipped if their devotion was strong enough (Rao and Roghair 33). The significance of the linga for practitioners of the Lingayat tradition continues to persist in contemporary practice, as well. Children will often undergo an initiation ritual (diksa) where a guru will present the child with a linga; moreover, one is expected to wear the linga around the neck for the rest of their life and worship it five times a day (Rao and Roghair 8).

There are two cornerstone principles of Lingayatism – kayaka and dasoha – that Basava argued were valid forms of worship and service to God. From God’s perspective, one’s profession did not dictate his or her worth in the eyes of God. Manual labor – kayaka –  was looked down upon by the orthodoxy, but Basava emphasized that the precise nature of one’s work did not matter, insofar as one did his or her work with effort and honesty (Leslie 243). The principle of kayaka was wildly popular because it gave people the reassurance that doing their work dutifully was a viable path toward God (Das 164). Dasoha refers to a concern for the wellbeing of others in one’s community (Ishwaran 10). A portion of one’s earnings, according to Basava, should be used to improve the lives of other people, regardless of their class affiliation. The principle of dasoha was therefore adopted by many people in Kalyana who no longer donated their earnings to the priesthood (Leslie 243).

Basava’s rising influence in Kalyana was inevitably met with protest by the orthodoxy who accused Basava of exploiting his political power and his position as chief minister of the Calukya empire (Das 163). In order to dismantle Basava’s influence in Kalyana, the orthodoxy believed that altering Bijjala’s perception of Basava could create a significant rift between both individuals. Consequently, Basava was accused of inappropriately using empire funds to support saranas who needed financial support. In addition, he was also accused of “polluting the royal court” (Leslie 244) through his interactions with sudras and untouchables. Accusations against Basava continued to climb, further exacerbating social tensions between the Brahmins and the saranas. Though these social tensions were not initially manifest in the form of violence, this dramatically changed after a sarana man was said to have married a Brahmin woman. The orthodoxy was fiercely critical of this wedding because the man was an untouchable (Schouten 49). Thus, the wedding was construed as an affront to the established orthodoxy, and the married couple was subsequently put to death by the Brahmins (Das 164). The saranas felt betrayed by Bijjala because he ordered the death of the couple, and violence soon flooded Kalyana (Schouten 50). Meanwhile, Basava was accused of organizing an insurgency against Bijjala’s empire, further heightening tensions (Leslie 244).

As conflict continued to escalate in Kalyana, Bijjala’s army intervened and killed many of Basava’s followers. Distraught by these events, Basava decided that he could no longer witness the terror that had unfolded in Kalyana (Ishwaran 85). He moved back to Kudalasangama where he died a few years later in 1167 (Das 164). Meanwhile, the growing resentment the saranas had towards Bijjala ultimately led to Bijjala’s assassination (Rao and Roghair 13).

The future of the Lingayat sect was uncertain following Basava’s death. His leadership was crucially important in maintaining cohesion within the sect and a sense of fraternity. However, his absence left the Lingayat tradition susceptible to Brahmanical influences (Schouten 15). The so-called Brahmanization of the Lingayat sect was manifest in a number of ways. For instance, temples dedicated to Siva had been built and the Brahmanical practice of donating money to priests had also surfaced in the tradition (Ishwaran 4-5). Over the next few centuries following his death, steps were taken by influential adherents of the Lingayat tradition to ensure that the distinctive identity of the sect was not eroded upon by Brahmanical influences. Many of Basava’s vacanas and other writings had been consolidated; moreover, these texts were given canonical status in Lingayatism (Ishwaran 4). Another significant development in the tradition was the establishment of the Virakta monastic system (Schouten 15). Moreover, this system was  important in preserving a sense of community in the sect by facilitating religious discussion amongst its followers in addition to providing Lingayat education (Ishwaran 4). Collectively, these developments were able to resist Brahmanical influences and thus enabled the tradition to retain its unique identity.


Das, Sisir K. (2005) A History of Indian Literature, 500-1399: From Courtly to the Popular. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Ishwaran, K (2019) Speaking of Basava: Lingayat Religion and Culture in South Asia. London: Routledge.

Leslie, Julia (1998) “Understanding Basava: History, Hagiography and a Modern Kannada Drama.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61:228-61. Accessed February 3, 2020. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00013793.

Michael, Blake R. (1983) “Foundation Myths of the Two Denominations of Virasaivism: Viraktas and Gurusthalins.” The Journal of Asian Studies 42:309-22. Accessed February 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/2055116.

Rao, Velcheru N., and Gene Roghair (2014) Siva’s Warriors: The Basava Purana of Palkuriki Somanatha. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sahasrabudhe, M (1979) “Mahatma Basavesvara – A Social Reformer.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40:221-26. Accessed February 3, 2020.

Schouten, Jan P. (1995) Revolution of The Mystics: On the Social Aspects of Virasaivism. Delhi:  Motilal Banarsidass

Srinivas, Mysore N. (1976) The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Basava Purana

Basavaraja Devara Ragale

Palkuriki Somanatha



Dodda Basavanna Gudi

Calukya Dynasty

Basava Jayanthi

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Bhadra Pandya (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Max Muller

German grammarian, Orientalist, mythographer, Friedrich Max Muller, better known simply as Max Muller was born on December 6th, 1823 to Wilhelm Muller and Adelheide Muller. Muller’s parents, who were already well known and respected themselves, gave birth to and raised him and his older sister, Augusta, in a small town called Dessau, in the capital of Duchy of Anhalt-Dessau, located today in Germany. Muller’s father was an esteemed poet, with one of his poems even being set to the very well known songs Die Schone Mullerin and Die Winterreise, also known as The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter and The Winter Journey, composed by Franz Schubert (New world Encyclopedia)  Muller’s mother, Adelheid, was the oldest daughter to one of the chief ministers of Anhalt-Dessau, Adolf von Basedow. Sadly, Adelheide would become a widow before Max and Augusta were old enough to comprehend their father’s passing. Even though their parents’ marriage only lasted six short years, the Muller children would have to learn to live with the grief of their father’s sudden passing as well as their emotionally unstable mother. As a result, they lived in the shadow of their father’s death, and their whole life became dominated by their mother’s sorrow (Bosch 11).

As a young child, Muller shared his father’s passion for poetry and music. However, in his later years, when Muller decided to expand his knowledge and attend Leipzig University, he chose a different pattern of thought and completed his PhD. in philosophy. Even though Muller achieved his doctorate of philosophy, he still expressed a love for language. After having a brief introduction to Greek and Latin, Muller changed his direction to more oriental focused languages, stating in his unfinished autobiography, “It seemed to me more and more to narrow a sphere” (Bosch 22). For this reason, Muller changed his path and started learning more about Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and the language he is most well known for, Sanskrit. Looking back on Muller’s career, it can be assumed that he became disinterested with the common languages of Greek and Latin because anyone could study those languages, so he changed his direction to more complex and mysterious foreign languages. Muller was even said to believe that the study of ancient Sanskrit would lead him back to the common origin of the Indo-European people (Bosch 8). Throughout Muller’s time at Leipzig University, he took many different philosophy and language classes. He met many prestigious instructors and professors, but the one who seems to influence many of Muller’s early studies is Hermann Brockhaus. Brockhaus started his career as a professor at Leipzig University the same year that Muller began his studies, and he became the first professor of Sanskrit to teach at the university (Bosch 22)

In 1844, only one year after completing his PhD., Muller followed German philosopher Friedrich Schelling to Berlin, where he began to translate the latter part of the Vedas known as the Upanisads. While rendering these divine texts, Muller continued to expand his knowledge by continuing his study of Sanskrit, this time under the direction of another well-known scholar Franz Bopp (Bosch 27). Being a real scholar, Muller, during his time in Berlin, also completed and published his first of many translations, translating a collection of Indian moral tales called The Hitopadesa to German, which he dedicated to one of his many influences, Hermann Brockhaus. Muller was known as a very intellectual man within the professional community, which meant he had to improve his knowledge continuously. As a result, in 1845, Muller packed up and moved to Paris, France, following a very well known Vedic intellectual, Eugene Burnouf (Bosch 29). Burnouf, whose main topic of the study was the very well known Vedas, would later go on to encourage Muller to translate the Rig Veda ultimately.

            After he settled down in Paris, Muller began to notice his expenses were becoming far too costly, and the money that his mother had collected up for him was running out fast. Living in a flat graciously provided to him by a friend named Baron von Hagedorn, Muller began to live as inexpensively as feasible, avoiding auditoriums and cafes since they were costly, especially since he was a foreigner. Muller, even at one point, wrote to his mother saying, “With 12000 francs a year one could live here nicely; I am afraid I shall hardly work my income up to that. I am, on the whole, well, though I must live most economically and avoid every expense that is not actually necessary” (Bosch 30). Although broke, and working long, exhausting hours at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Muller still found time to attend the courses of Eugene Burnouf, accompanied by two other Sanskrit students, Theodore Goldstucker and Rudolph Roth. Together, the three of them studied the hymns from the first book of the Rig Veda in small classes led by Professor Burnouf. (Bosch 30) Combined with Muller’s initiative as well as his knowledge, Burnouf encouraged Muller to translate the complete Rig Veda. Burnouf reminding him, “Don’t publish extracts from the commentary; if you do that, you will publish what is easy to read and leave out what is difficult” (Bosch 31). Even still, Muller faced the problem of finances after becoming discouraged with the uncooperative and unfavourable responses from the publishers themselves.

Still trying to find a publisher, Muller wrote to many different people in London, Germany, and Russia trying to find a noteworthy person to give him the funds needed to publish his book. Finally, after months of searching, Otto Boehtlingk, who happened to also study Sanskrit, became very interested in helping Muller out financially. After Muller had found out that the contract between the two scholars would benefit Boehtlingk more than himself, Muller made the conscious and hard choice to keep looking for a publisher. Taking a precarious chance, Muller decided to use up the last of his funds to travel to London, where he met with Horace Hayman Wilson, Boden Professor of Sanskrit studies and Librarian of the East India House (Bosch 34). Muller would later go on to dedicate his book entitled A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature to Wilson, who he called “his pupil and friend” (see Muller’s dedication page). Wilson, who Muller had been corresponding with for quite some time, consented to help Muller out as much as he could, and their initial three-week project turned into a project of a lifetime, with Muller permanently moving to London.

Finally, after a long and unpleasant wait, Muller got his “Grand edition of the Rig Veda” published in 1849. Muller would go on to marry his dedicated wife, Georgina Muller-Grenfell, whose father deliberately banned the two from getting married years before (Bosch 14). In the years to come, Max would experience many more successes, including the birth of his son Wilhelm Max Muller, becoming a professor of comparative philology at Oxford University, and translating many more well known Sanskrit texts. Looking at a few of his later writings, one can genuinely see that Muller continued to expand his knowledge until the day he died. Muller dedicated a large portion of his life to translating a portion of five books out of a fifty-volume book series entitled Sacred Books of The East (New World Encyclopedia). Being the editor-in-chief, this series alone made Muller one of the most respected people in India, and to this day, Muller is still regarded as a friend of India (Stone 4).

 Throughout Muller’s life, he had many significant accomplishments, whether in his personal or professional life.  The trials and tribulations that he received in his early life compared to his accomplishments later in life can be seen as inspirational to many. Muller indeed had an intense devotion to his education and career, one could say that all of us strive to have something similar. Max Muller, sadly would never get to see the impact he left on religion and language, but the effects can unquestionably be seen throughout the religious studies community.


Bosch, L. van den. (2002). Friedrich Max Müller: a life devoted to the Humanities. Leiden: Brill.

“Müller, Friedrich Max. (1823–1900).” In The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, edited by Robert E. Jr. Buswell, and Donald S. Jr. Lopez. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Müller, Friedrich Max 1860 A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature So Far as it Illustrates the Primitive Religion of the Brahmans by Max Muller, London: Williams and Norgate.

Müller, Friedrich Max, and Hermann Oldenberg (1891) Vedic Hymns: Hymns to the Maruts, Rudra, Vâyu, and Vâta, translated by F. Max Müller. Vol. 32. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Max Müller,” New World Encyclopedia, // (accessed February 3, 2020).

Stone, Jon, ed, The Essential Max Müller: On language, mythology, and religion. Springer, 2016.

Related topics for further investigation

The Rig Veda

The Sacred Books of The East

A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature

Vedic Hymns: Hymns to the Maruts, Rudra, Vâyu, and Vâta


Buddhist Mahayana Texts


Wilhelm Muller

Eugene Burnouf

Hermann Brockhaus

Otto Boehtlingk

Horace Hayman Wilson

Oxford University

Leipzig University

Comparative Philology

The Sanskrit Language

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This article was written by Azlyn Olson (February 2020), who is solely responsible for its content.


Banaras is a sacred city that has a rich history. The city goes by various other names such Varanasi and Benares. The city is also called Kasi, which can be translated to the city of light, emphasizing its reputation among Hindus (Eck 3). Originally, the city was called Varanasi, which was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kasi; this is elucidated in Buddhist literature, in the Jatakas (Eck 45). Evidence from the Mahabharata suggests the name Varanasi has its roots in its proximity to the Varana river and the Asi river, which eventually combine into the Ganges river system (Sukul 16). Early Vedic literature such as the Vamana Purana, associates the two rivers as originating as body parts of the cosmic being Purusa, with the Varana river representing a right foot and the Asi river a left foot (Eck 27).

Evidence of the location of Banaras along the banks of the Ganges river, date back to 2nd century BCE. and further evidence suggests this locality continued through the Gupta period in the 6th century CE (Sukul 3). The ancient city was filled with narrow streets, houses, gardens, and temples and has been confirmed through excavations of the much older, northern area of Varanasi situated on Rajghat plateau (Sukul 5-6). This city layout continued in later times as Varanasi expanded. It was common in northern India to build cities with this type of city planning structure (Sukul 6-7).

An early morning puja to the river goddess Ganga attracts tourists and locals in Banaras.

Following the year 1035 CE a series of outside influences affected Varanasi. This included looters, and attempted campaigns against the city by Muslim conquerors (Sukul 4). These early influences also led to pockets of Muslim communities springing up within Varanasi while under Hindu rulers, from the 11th and 12th centuries (Sukul 5). Later, there were other Muslim conquerors who came and looted the city, while also destroying many temples; again this Islamic influence is characterized by the Muslim communities present today in much of northern Banaras (Sukul 6).

Buddhism was also prominent in the region, particularly in Sarnath, but also in the nearby Varanasi where the Buddhist tradition flourished up until the 12th century when the region was conquered by Qutb-ud-din Aibak (Eck 57). During this period both cities had sacred sites destroyed, however the Buddhist tradition in these areas did not recover (Eck 57). In the 500-year occupation of Muslim rule starting from the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 CE, a general loss of religious history is recognized through the destruction of many sacred sites (Eck 83). However, despite many important sites being destroyed, the region still served as a hub of religious and intellectual endeavors (Eck 84). Even through British occupation starting in the late 18th century, the Hindu tradition in the region remained strong (Eck 92-93).

The earliest speculated reign of Aryans in the kingdom of Kasi is between 1800 BCE and 2000 BCE. This reign is assumed to have followed a conquest led by Videgha Mathava, which is mentioned in the Shatpatha Brahmana (Sukul 18). It is speculated that this conquest was the start of the prominence of Aryan influence in the region over the indigenous inhabitants (Sukul 17). Following this, Varanasi went through a progression of control under different kings. Notably king Dhritarashtra is recognized as one of the earliest rulers (Sukul 23). During this period, the city became a hub of commerce, artisan trades, agriculture, asceticism, and philosophy, all under the influence of Vedic teachings (Sukul 24). Naturally these Vedic teachings affected the entire political structure of Varanasi with different classes being associated with certain roles in society. These Vedic influences tie into the sacredness of the city particularly its association with Siva, other deities, and prominent myths.

Even before Aryan influence in the area, non-Aryan groups living around Varanasi already had an established mythology. Ancient deities associated with aspects of nature such as trees and pools existed throughout the region (Eck 51). These deities varied greatly among different localities and were not worshipped in grand temples as seen with some Vedic deities (Eck 51). Aspects of worship in these early non-Aryan traditions are still present today. For example, many of the food offerings associated with these deities have been translated into use in Puja ceremonies (Eck 52). Similarly, blood offerings have changed to smearing icons with red vermillion coloring (Eck 52). Many of these local deities or yaksas became associated with greater Vedic deities. For example, many yaksas became part of groups, or ganas, associated with Siva, they were essentially seen as henchman of Siva (Eck 61, 68).

As Aryan influence increased, myths of greater Vedic gods became further established in the region. Among this range of mythological accounts, Siva searching for a home in Varanasi stands out. The myth tells of a recently married Siva looking for a suitable home for himself and his new wife Parvati (Eck 53-54). Siva finds Varanasi to be the only suitable location, however the city was already under control by king Divodasa (Eck 54). In order to oust the king from the city Siva sends deities from the entire pantheon to help him. One myth tells of Siva sending a deity named Nikumbha to aid him (Eck 54). Nikumbha builds a following of worshippers in Varanasi and eventually tricks the king into destroying one of his shrines (Eck 54). The destruction of this shrine forces the king to leave the city as he becomes cursed (Eck 54). In another account, after many deities fail to oust the king and end up staying behind in the city, Siva calls on Visnu. Visnu takes the form of a Buddhist monk, causes disorder in the city and counsels the king (Eck 155). The king, under the counsel of Visnu and seeking an end to the chaos, eventually creates and worships a linga for Siva in exchange for a high place in heaven, thus leaving Varanasi for Siva (Eck 155).

The sacredness of Varanasi is extoled by a popular myth in the Kasi Khanda, of Siva being cleared of sin when he first enters the region. The myth follows Siva taking the form of Bhairava and cutting off one of the five heads of Brahma after he was slandered by him (Eck 108). It is seen as a major sin to kill a Brahmin, and this sentiment was represented by Bhairava being unable to get the decapitated head of Brahma off his hand (Eck 108). Bhairava travels across India until he eventually reaches Varanasi where the head finally drops from his hand (Eck 108). This myth ties into the idea that one goes to Varanasi to cleanse themselves of sin and relates to the pilgrimage traditions in the region (Eck 108).

Of the many mythological accounts surrounding Siva and Banaras, there is a clear connection between the two. Within Banaras there are hundreds of temples and lingas, which are emblems of Siva, dedicated to him that are worshiped by Hindus (Eck 103). Furthermore, based on the mythology there is a clear connection of the entire pantheon of deities to Banaras. Many other gods such as Visnu, Devi, Durga, Hanuman, Ganesa, among others are worshipped vehemently in Banaras. A noteworthy deity is Kala Bhairava who is considered a form of Siva, and in some representations as a son of Siva (Eck 190). Bhairava is a manifestation of the terrible qualities of Siva, and Kala is etymologically related to death and fate (Eck 190). This combination of qualities warrants the role of the deity as the god of death and officer of justice in Varanasi (Eck 190-192). Yama is another well-known god of death in the pantheon of deities, but is unable to enter Varanasi, thus Bhairava fills the role and punishes and collects souls (Eck 193). It is said that all those who die in Varanasi will face the punishment of Bhairava or bhairavi yatana (Eck 193).

Smoke rises from the cremation pyres in Banaras.

Themes of life in accordance to Hindu tradition are prominent in Banaras, represented by mythological accounts and everyday life within the city. Banaras is referred to as a great mine that carries the jewels of dharma, artha, kama, and moksa (Eck 306). Respectively, each of these names corresponds to one of the aims of life in the Hindu tradition. Kama is related to the pursuit of pleasure, passion and desire (Eck 306). Kama goes beyond sexual pleasure, it can be applied to anything people do, as long as what they pursue is based on their love for doing their activities (Eck 307).  The pursuit of kama is evident in the rich traditions of music, and dance of Varanasi as well as in the mythological accounts of Siva who, although he was an ascetic, loved and pursued Varanasi with a fierce passion (Eck 309-310). Artha is referred to as a purpose, it usually refers to the pursuit of something useful that provides power and wealth (Eck 310). The Kasi Khanda suggests that the power of the universe originates in Kasi (Eck 310). In relation to wealth, as noted earlier, Varanasi has been a hub of commerce and wealth throughout its history (Eck 310). Dharma is related to living in accordance with the cosmic order or laws in Hinduism, this includes many rites involving the stage in one’s life cycle, sacrificial rites, rites for death, among others (Eck 314). Varanasi is viewed as bringing these various rites to fulfillment and amplifying the benefits of any ritual action (Eck 315). Simply to live in Banaras may be seen as fulfilling dharma (Eck 322). From these notions we can see that Banaras extols these themes of life present in the Hindu tradition.

Cows wander the steps at the banks of the river Ganga at the cremation grounds of Banaras.

The theme of death is strong in the city of Banaras, it is seen as common, inevitable, and as a process of transformation (Eck 325). Manikarnika, viewed as a sanctuary of death, home to the main cremation pyres in the city, lies in the center of Banaras (Eck 324). Death in Varanasi offers moksa or liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and death (Eck 325). This last stage of life may be associated with renouncers and ascetics but is also pursued by others. Many come to Varanasi anticipating their coming death and wait in hospice (Eck 329). In this sense Varanasi is seen as the final destination in a pilgrimage represented by life and is pursued by Hindus from various different backgrounds (Eck 329). When death comes it is thought that Siva will say the taraka mantra, to the deceased granting them liberation from samsara (Eck 332).

There are a number of rituals and festivities in Banaras, all cannot be covered here. The cremation rite known as antyesti or the last sacrifice, may be one of the more well-known rituals of Banaras (Eck 340). It involves a procession of people carrying the deceased through the streets and chanting, then dipping the body in the Ganges river, after this, the body is adorned with flowers and sandalwood oil (Eck 340). A chief mourner, who is usually the eldest son of the deceased, takes twigs that come from the holy kusa grass; these twigs are lit by an eternal sacred fire (Eck 341). Flaming twigs in hand, the chief mourner circles the pyre counterclockwise then lights the pyre (Eck 341). Once the body is almost completely cremated the chief mourner cracks the skull of the deceased by hitting it with a bamboo stick (Eck 341). This is viewed as releasing the soul from the body (Eck 341). Finally, water from the Ganges river is put in a clay pot and thrown over the left shoulder of the chief mourner onto the remaining embers (Eck 341). The chief mourner then walks away without looking back (Eck 341). What follows the cremation is eleven days of offerings of rice balls to the dead (Eck 341). Finally, on the twelfth day, it is believed that the soul of the deceased has reached the heavens (Eck 341-342). Many of the festivities that take place in Banaras are based on the time of year and the seasons. Some of these festivities include the Makara Samkranti, which is akin to a winter solstice celebration, the Maha Sivaratri, which celebrates the marriage day of Siva, and the Chaita Navaratri, which celebrates the new year in the Hindu calendar, among countless other festivities (Singh, Pravin, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute 70-71).


Eck, Diana L (1983) Banaras: City of Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hertel, Bradley R., Humes, Cynthia A., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1998) Living Banaras: Hindu religion in cultural context. New Delhi: Manohar.

Parry, Jonathan P (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singh, Rana P. B., Pravin, Rana S., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide. Varanasi: Indica Books.

Sukul, Kuber N (1974) Varanasi down the ages. Patna: Kameshwar Nath Sukul.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Chaita Navaratri






Five Faces of Siva





Makara Samkranti




Rajgat Plateau





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Zahin Mohammed (Spring 2020) who is entirely responsible for its content.

Bikram Yoga and Bikram Choudhury

Bikram Yoga is a style of hatha yoga that was developed by Bikram Choudhury (Frey 1). Hatha Yoga emphasizes the outcome of yoga’s “…physical effects [such as] weight loss, physical stress reduction, muscle toning, and flexibility” (Fish 191). Additionally, it does not focus on the meditative aspects of yoga. These characteristics of the Hatha style of yoga are pronounced in Bikram Yoga and heightened. The purpose of Bikram Yoga is for the transformation of adults to improve health, rejuvenate the body, become fit, and therefore be “healthy”. These words are put in quotations as the controversy behind this style is vast. Varying research, which will be discussed further on, has been conducted and provides both negative and positive results from individuals that have performed this style of yoga. Moreover, beyond the controversy that has been publicized about the style, Bikram Choudhury himself has received negative public awareness, specifically in North America. This is owing to his methods of teaching, claims for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR’s) on the yoga style, and sexual assault and rape allegations that have been brought forth by previous students. While Bikram Yoga is still widely debated and its reputation has fluctuated, the popularity of this style cannot be questioned.

Bikram Choudhury was born in Kolkata/Calcutta, India in 1946 (Frey 1). Before Yoga encapsulated Choudhury’s life, he was well known for his weightlifting until a knee injury prevented him from continuing with his passion (Fish 194). It was then, when Choudhury was desperate for healing, that he met his yoga guru, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, who promised Choudhury he could fix his injury through yoga (Singleton 2010). He trained Choudhury at his College of Physical Education in Calcutta, which focussed on the modern and upcoming popular Hatha Yoga (Singleton 134). This style focussed on postures (asanas), muscle manipulation, and the physical culture of Yoga. Ghosh claimed that this style was a “weights-free method of physical training through will-power…” (Singleton 133). Miraculously, Choudhury’s injury healed. From this, there are claims that he participated in the National India Yoga Championship in which he won gold consecutively for several years (Frey 2012) and became a world champion yogi by the age of seventeen. This began the journey of Choudhury’s entrepreneurial yoga empire, which lead to the claim of a special invitation from President Richard Nixon in the 1970s for Choudhury to visit the United States of America (Fish 194). From this visit, Choudhury states to have helped Nixon with his injuries, as well as Shirley MacLaine, who was a famous actress, and obtained a green card as a thank you from the President.

From Choudhury’s acceptance into the U.S. began the creation of transnational commercial yoga, which as Fish (2006) states, is the yoga franchisee equivalent to McDonald’s. In 1974, Choudhury founded the Bikram Yoga College of India (BYCI) in Beverley Hills, California. Choudhury soon coined the name “Bikram Yoga” as he taught a very specific form that included 26 different postures (asanas) and 2 different breathing exercises (pranayamas), which were taught in ninety-minute durations (Fish 194). Additionally, Bikram Yoga is synonymous with Hot Yoga (Pizer 2018). This is due to the yoga practices being taught in studios that are heated at a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius), which is above the normal temperature of the human body. Heat was said to be used because it was believed that the “inner heat” (tapas) produced through a physical activity could purify an individual and destroy imperfections of mental and sensorial faculties (Singleton, 175). Therefore, Choudhury believed that increasing the heat an individual was exposed to would produce more sweating, therefore leading to better physical health by cleansing one’s body and enhancing performance through the loosening of muscles (Pizer 2018). In 2006, Fish (194) reported that there was approximately 800 franchises of Official Bikram Studios, which operated in 33 different countries.

With the creation of this college and the popularity that exploded in the west of this particular style, he soon began to exploit North American’s for their wealth and became a multi-millionaire as a result (Pizer 2018). The new modern yoga that Bikram popularized was vastly different from traditional yoga practices. As stated previously, it “[did] not emphasize lineage or the rootedness of the tradition in the religious context, [but] [focussed] instead on the physical benefits of the practice with respects to fitness, beautification, and the like” (Singleton and Byme 173), which was exactly in-line with North American trends of being slimmer and fit during this era. His infamous teacher training classes cost individuals approximately ten-thousand dollars each for a nine-week course. Choudhury’s way of teaching, style of yoga, and exploitation of students (sisya) abandoned the rules of traditional yoga, which was primarily focused on “… dealing with aims, celibacy, scriptural study, and retreat from society or social norms” (Jain 10). Furthermore, the benefits from Bikram yoga began to reflect the dominant self-development desires of Choudhury. He transformed the teaching of yoga from “… the traditional guru-disciple relationship, usually in the isolated context of an ashram, [instead] to [marketing] yoga to mass audiences” (Jain 7) to obtain wealth.

In 2002, Bikram Choudhury attempted to obtain Intellectual Property Rights for his 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises (Fish 192). This took fruition after Choudhury became irate that studios were taking profits away from him by using his style of yoga, and in non-certified Bikram studios (Fish 195). Beyond the substantial profit he obtained from holding mass studios offering teacher training, Choudhury began franchising Bikram Yoga. Individuals that successfully passed, and paid, for the BYCI teacher training were allowed to open up Bikram Yoga studios by paying continuous franchisee and royalty fees to Choudhury (Fish 2006). Although groups such as the Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) initially fought Choudhury, claiming that yoga was knowledge of the public and not the private domain, Choudhury was able to settle these claims outside of court with a non-disclosure agreement between the parties (Fish 2006). Furthermore, in the present day, the Indian government is creating a digital library of all yoga mechanisms and yogic knowledge to preserve the public domain of yoga. This act has been described by Fish (2006) as a “reverse patent”, as it aims to preserve yoga for all people (i.e. the public) and to eliminate the possibility of yoga to become possessed by a singular individual or entity (Fish 2006).

As Bikram Yoga became increasingly famous, sexual assault and rape allegations, as well as the harmful dynamics from the classes, began to proliferate from former students and former legal representatives of Choudhury (Pizer 2). A quote from a student that attended a Bikram class publicly stated to a recognised U.S. magazine that Choudhury would introduce the class as follows: “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber, where you’ll kill yourself for the next ninety minutes”. Furthermore, students disclosed the intensity of the classes describing how Choudhury would make fun of students for their weight and appearance and did not allow bathroom breaks during lessons Additionally, students claimed that the physical expectations and heat conditions caused several participants to faint or vomit in class and feel severe pain during and after lessons. Bikram Yoga did not have beginner, intermediary, or expert classes and the students that failed were humiliated publicly in front of everyone in the mass studio. The sexual assault and rape claims came from six of Choudhury’s previous students and his previous lawyer. Choudhury denies all claims. The accumulating costly allegations eventually led Bikram Choudury Yoga Inc. to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, listing more than $16 million in legal judgments (Yerak 1). In 2017, an arrest warrant was issued for Choudhury in California, but Choudhury successfully fled the United States and has yet to pay Jafa-Bodden (Pizer 2018).

The controversy surrounding Bikram Yoga and Bikram Choudhury himself is exponential, but perhaps even more thought-provoking is the mixed results researchers have produced in verifying if this extreme style of yoga does in fact have the positive effects on the human body it claims to generate. Hewett (355) conducted a randomized experiment using an experimental and control group to compare the effects of Bikram Yoga on perceived stress, self-efficacy, and health-related quality of life in adults. Results were in favour of Bikram Yoga and concluded that individuals experienced improved perceived stress, general self-efficacy, and had an increase in overall health. Moreover, Abel’s (37) study on the physiological effects of Bikram Yoga continued the positive regard with findings that concluded participants had lower heart rate and blood pressure.  However, negative results from research have also been provided. Cramer’s (3) study indicated significant adverse effects on the human body due to postures performed in Bikram Yoga such as the headstand, shoulder stand, and the lotus position. Cramer (3) claimed that these positions have “… adverse [affects] [on] the musculoskeletal system and included fractures, ligament tears, joint injuries, fibrocartilaginous injuries, …” etc., as well as produced glaucoma and osteopenia in some cases. Cramer (6) continued to state that “Bikram yoga [was] the yoga [practice] that [was] most often associated with adverse events”. This study concludes by warning individuals to avoid forceful yoga practices such as Bikram Yoga, especially if they are beginners, are elderly, or have medical conditions (7).


Abel, Lloyd, Williams, and Miller, K. Brian (2012) “Physiological Characteristics of Long-Term Bikram Yoga Practitioners.” Journal of Exercise Physiology 32:39-15. Accessed January 31, 2020. ISSN:1097-9751


Cramer, H., Krucoff, C., and Dobos, Gustav (2013) “Adverse Events Associated with Yoga: A Systematic Review of Published Case Reports and Case Series.” PLoS ONE 1:8-10. Accessed January 31, 2020. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075515

Fish, Allison (2006) “The Commodification and Exchange of Knowledge in the Case of Transnational Commercial Yoga.” International Journal of Cultural Property 189:206-13. Accessed January 31, 2020. doi: 10.1017/S0940739106060127

Frey, Rebecca, J. (2012) “Bikram Yoga.” The Gale encyclopedia of fitness. 1:5-249. Accessed February 22, 2020.

Hewett, Pumpa, Smith, Fahey, and Birinder, S. Cheema (2018) “Effect of a 16-week Bikram yoga program on perceived stress, self-efficacy and health-related quality of life in stressed and sedentary adults: A randomised controlled trial.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 352:357-21. Accessed January 31, 2020. doi:

Jain, Andrea (2016) “Modern Yoga.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Accessed February 22, 2020. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.163

Pizer, Ann (2018) The Difference Between Bikram and Hot Yoga. New York: Dotdash

Singleton, Mark (2010) Yoga body: The origins of modern posture practice. New York: Oxford University Press USA – OSO.

Singleton, Mark, and Jean Byrne (2008) Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Routledge.

Yerak, Becky (2017) “Bikram Choudhury’s Yoga Business Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy; Hot Yoga Pioneer Bikram Choudhury Is Facing Millions in Legal Judgments.” Wall Street Journal. Accessed January 31, 2020.  

Related Research Topics

Bishnu Charan Ghosh

Hatha Yoga

Postural Yoga

Modern Yoga

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Leila Methot (Spring, 2020) who is entirely responsible for its content.

Death rituals in Bali

            While many parts of the world might deem the death rituals carried out by the Balinese to be strange or unorthodox, these rituals are deeply rooted in the beliefs of Hinduism and play a central role in completing what is known as samsara, or the cycling of rebirth (see Hooykaas 22). In Hindu tradition, it is believed that the spirit of a deceased person, known as preta, becomes trapped in the realm of the living, roaming freely to haunt people until it is freed from this realm and allowed to enter the spirit realm (Hooykaas 22). In order to release the soul from the realm of the living so it may transcend to the spirit realm, certain rituals must be completed. Pitra Yadnya, or the rituals for the ancestors, are a common practice in Balinese tradition in order to allow the soul to transcend this reality (Hooykaas 22). In Balinese tradition, it is believed that once the spirit is liberated from the body through an elaborate series of rites, the soul then becomes fused with the collective ancestors who are worshipped in the village temples (Warren 43). Not only do the death rituals practiced in Bali serve to free the spirit from the body and allow it to pass into the ascendant realm, but they are also crucial as they protect the family and community from the dangers associated with the passage between realms (Warren 43). In comparison to Western death traditions, Balinese death rituals are more of a celebration of the rebirth of life rather than mourning for the loss of life, as a result of the contrast in beliefs of the Balinese.

            Pitra Yadnya, also known as ngaben, is comprised of many different elaborate rituals which contribute to the release of the soul from the living realm to the realm of the ancestors. Ngaben, referring to a cremation ritual, is considered to be the most critical death ritual in the Balinese tradition (Gupta 254). Before ngaben is performed, the corpse is washed, and the patulangun, a form of a cremation bier which typically depicts an animal, is prepared for the ceremony (Warren 44). Preparation for the ritual is often a community effort as the fellow people of the village often help to construct the bier and make a large number of ritual offerings required to prepare the spirit for its journey to the soul realm (Stephen 441). It is not uncommon for the body of the deceased to be buried for some time while the bier is prepared, and the family makes ritual offerings (Warren 44). Historically, burial before the cremation has been looked upon negatively as it has been associated with the lower classes as it is typically the result of not having the funds or resources to perform a quick ngaben; however, prior burial has become more positively accepted in Bali (Warren 44). This positive perspective on burial prior to ngaben could be the result of the belief that the deceased should be allowed to rest with the earth mother-goddess before the cremation; however, the body should not be left for more than a year (Warren 44). Once the family has accumulated the wealth and resources for the ritual, the ngaben can then begin.

A recently buried woman’s corpse is fed through a bamboo tube in a Balinese village burial rite.

The family will then consult a brahmin, or Hindu priest, in order to select an auspicious day for the ngaben to occur on (Williams 2016). It is especially important to select an auspicious day for the ritual in order to help guide the spirit to the best rebirth possible (Stephen 427). Once the day of the ngaben has arrived, the family will go to the gravesite and perform a ritual known as ngawagen, meaning the awakening, in order to recall the spirit of the deceased person to inherit a symbolic body, known as the pangawak (Stephen 440). After the spirit has been recalled into the symbolic vessel, it is carried home where it is welcomed as though the deceased person has returned from a long absence, which is known as penyapa, meaning ‘greeting’ (Stephen 440). Relatives of the deceased then come to the house to make offerings of food and drink to the deceased (Stephen 440). In cases where the body is not buried prior to cremation, such as the body of a brahmin or the body of someone from a wealthy family, the ritual of ngawagen is omitted (Stephen 440). Instead, the ritual begins with recalling the soul from the pura dalem, meaning the village temple associated with the spirits of the dead, to re-inhabit the body for the ritual (Stephen 440). From this point forth, the only difference between the ritual procession for an immediate cremation and one for a person who had been buried already is the presence of a physical body in the immediate cremation instead of the use of a symbolic body.

After the spirit has been recalled, the bier and tower in which the corpse is to be carried to the cemetery are placed on the main road in front of the house (Stephen 442). The body is then washed with holy water and decorated with jewelry and flowers before being wrapped in white cloth by male relatives and placed in a plain wooden box (Stephen 442). The box containing the body is then placed in the bier with other rituals objects which symbolize the different aspects of the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical aspects of the deceased (Stephen 443). A ritual known as ngaskara is then performed in order to reunite the body and the spirit of the deceased individual, which is believed to bring the person back to life for a brief period (Stephen 443). This is symbolized by the pedanda, or priest, lighting a lamp at the conclusion of the ngaskara ritual to show that the deceased has come to life again (Stephen 443). During this ritual, the gamelan orchestra provides musical entertainment for those present (Bakan 1999:9). Once the lamp is lit, the family will wait in anticipation for the lamp to go out, symbolizing that the soul has departed on its journey to the spirit realm (Stephen 443). Once the spirit has begun its journey to the spirit realm, it is time for the body to begin its journey to the cemetery.

The tower holding the corpse is carried to the cemetery for cremation in this royal funerary rite in Bali, Indonesia.

The procession to the cemetery is known as pengutangan, in which multiple strong men carry the tower and animal sarcophagus through the town to the cemetery for cremation (Stephen 443). This event is known to be quite public and particularly energetic (Stephen 443). The gamelan orchestra is once again providing entertainment, this time playing rousing music to keep the mood of the ceremony upbeat (Bakan 1999:11). Throughout the procession to the cemetery, the men carrying the tower are frequently spinning the sarcophagus, which is suspected of confusing the evil residents of the lower realm so that they may not drag the soul of the deceased down with them (Stephen 444). In order to prevent the body from falling out of the casket, a family member typically rides atop of the tower as well (Stephen 444). Once the corpse arrives at the cemetery, the coverings are cut open to reveal the face, and the body is washed with copious amounts of holy water (Stephen 444). The body is then wrapped in many layers of fresh cloth, and the symbols of the deceased physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional aspects are placed in the casket with the body, and the funeral pyre is lit beneath the sarcophagus (Stephen 444). While the corpse burns, the gamelan orchestra plays the beleganjur, which is a Balinese battle song believed to ward off evil spirits and help guide the soul to the spirit realm (See Bakan 2011 for more) (Bakan 1999:71). While the cremation has now taken place, this does not mark the conclusion of ngaben.

The corpse is set ablaze in this public royal cremation in Bali, Indonesia.

Once the fire has burned down, the ashes are collected, and any remaining bones or pieces of symbolic items are ground up into a fine paste (Stephen 445). More offerings of food are then made to the departed before the ashes are carried to the ocean for the ritual of nganyut, meaning to cast away into water (Stephen 445). The ashes of the deceased are then cast into the ocean so that they may become one with the elements once again (Stephen 445). Once the family returns to the village, two final rituals are completed to close ngaben. The first is known as mapegat, which is a ceremony where the family severs their ties to the deceased (Stephen 445). The second is called caru, which is a ritual in which the area used for ngaben is cleansed in order to eliminate any negative forces (Stephen 445). At the conclusion of ngaben, the family will continue to make ritual sacrifices in order to regain their ritual purity as death within the family is considered to be ritually polluting (Hooykaas 22).

After having analyzed the Balinese death rituals, it can be seen that there are some differences present between Balinese rituals and orthodox Hindu traditions. One difference between Hindu death practices and Balinese death practices is that if the cremation cannot be performed within two days of death in Hindu traditions, the body may be placed on ice (Gupta 254). In contrast, it is common practice to bury the body for some time in Balinese traditions (Warren 44). Another difference between the Hindu traditions and Balinese is that in Hindu traditions the family is not supposed to severe ties with the deceased until one year has passed, as it is believed that after one year the soul has moved on into another form (Gupta 256). In contrast, the Balinese severe ties at the closing of ngaben in the ritual known as mapegat (Stephen 445). While some differences may be present between the Balinese and Hindu death rituals, both have a powerful influence on Hindu traditions and culture.

In Hindu cultures, the colour white is closely associated with death (Gupta 256). As a result, it is common practice to wrap the body in white cloth, and newly widowed women are expected to wear white clothing during the period of mourning (Gupta 258). Widowed women are also expected to wear a white sari, no makeup, and no jewelry for the remainder of their life to symbolize their mourning (Gupta 258). This understanding can also explain why it is considered to be inappropriate to present a newly wedded couple with an article of white clothing as a gift, as this is seen as an inauspicious action (Gupta 256). In Hindu culture, regular offerings are also made to the deceased person to soothe the soul, which is especially important if the cremation ritual cannot be performed immediately (Warren 43). These offerings to the soul, as well as the gifts presented to the mourning family by other members of the community, highlight the high level of interdependence present in Hindu culture and the secure connections between the living and the dead (Warren 46). Death rituals in Hindu tradition also serve as a way of remembering the deceased, as tradition mandates that any negative feelings towards the person will be disregarded after their passing as the deceased is to be valued no matter what (Gupta 256). In summary, the death rituals practiced in both Balinese tradition and other Hindu traditions are an essential part of the completion of samsara, which is a central value in Hinduism as it shapes many of their beliefs and aspects of their culture (Stephen 427).


Bakan, Michael B. (1999) Music of Death and New Creation: Experiences in the World of Balinese Gamelan Beleganjur. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bakan, Michael B. (2011) “Preventive Care for the Dead: Music, Community, and the Protection of Souls in Balinese Cremation Ceremonies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Medical Ethnomusicology,Edited by Benjamin D. Koen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gupta, Rashmi (2011) “Death Beliefs and Practices from an Asian Indian American Hindu Perspective.” Death Studies 35:244-266. Accessed February 1, 2020. doi:10.1080/07481187.2010.518420

Hooykaas, Christiaan (1973) Religion in Bali. Leiden: Brill.

Stephen, Michele (2010) “The yogic art of dying, Kundalinī yoga, and the Balinese ‘pitra yadnya’.” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 166:426-474.

Warren Carol (1993) “Disrupted death ceremonies: popular culture and the ethnography of Bali.” Oceania 64:36-56. Accessed February 1, 2020. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.1993.tb02446.x

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Gamelan orchestra

Pancha Mahabhutas






Dewi Pertiwi



Pitra Yadnya



Pura dalem







Hindu wedding rituals

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Article written by: Kieran Meadows (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.


            Ngaben, also known as pitra yadnya and pelebon, which translates to “turn to ashes,” is a cremation ceremony practiced on the island of Bali in Indonesia. The ceremony is not a mourning ceremony because the dead are not viewed as deceased; instead it is believed that they are asleep and will be reincarnated (Williams 193). Death rituals are central events in the village community and family that often go on for years, from burial to the final “purification” of the deceased. As of recently rituals are usually collective and condensed in order to save expenses, which are extensive, with over a hundred corpses being cremated at the same time (Hobart 2014, np). Because of the economic costs of the rituals, some families bury the deceased while they wait to gain the economic stability to perform the ritual. However, families should not wait longer than a year to perform the ritual (Williams 194). A Brahmin must decide the most auspicious day for the event to take place. The family of the deceased will make a coffin that will be used to transport the corpse, as well as a replica coffin. These replicas are contemporary vehicles for the dead and can take the form of lions, winged elephant fish or bulls (Hobart 2014, np). The replicas are made out of bamboo, wood and paper.

The night before the ceremony a large wooden drum, a kul-kul, is struck to inform people that they should assemble at the house of the deceased (Williams 194). The ceremony begins with the descendants performing a small rite at the household gate, requesting the spirit to leave. If the body was buried and unearthed, it is vital that the remaining bones, corpse or effigy of it is arranged in a special pavilion in the household. Two temporary bamboo altars, which are dedicated to Surya and Brahma are set up next to the pavilion. The corpse is washed and cleansed to ensure the deceased will be reincarnated in an intact and beautiful body. The accompanying mantra ngereka is recited by a Brahmin to reinforce the act of washing and rejecting any separation of body and mind. An anthropomorphic figure made of Chinese coins is laid to the side or on top of the body or its substitute to ensure that the bones are well proportioned. A vessel of palm leaves with a banana sprout is placed nearby to symbolize the concept of rebirth. A magical cloth, known as a kudrang, with sacred syllables is laid over the body so the deceased is appropriately clothed for their journey to the afterlife. After the cleansing rite a coconut-oil lamp is hung in front of the entrance of the house and is lit every night to show the roaming spirit its home and to beckon it onwards (Hobart 2014, np).

The actual cremation takes place in the graveyard and requires one or more Brahmin to make holy water (Hobart 2014, np). The deceased is transferred to the replica coffin while the Brahmin recites prayers and mantras(Williams 195). During cremation, the visible body and the social role grafted on it are disintegrated by the fire sacrifice, and it is believed that the bodies five primary elements water, earth, fire, wind and space are returned to mother Earth, Ibu Pertiwi. The ashes of the body remains are subsequently collected and stored in a coconut shell, and typically 12 days later they are brought to the river or sea, which is considered sacred, and released into the water (Williams 195). This final step of the ritual is the final form of purification of the soul.

Ngaben rituals differ from different regions and communities in Bali, however there are a lot of similarities. In some communities burying the dead is sometimes interpreted as “impure.” However, in other regions it is also believed that the body should not be cremated too early or else the soul will feel the burning of the flames. It is widely believed that upper varnas frequently die before their time because they practiced cremation without prior burial (Warren 44). In the past it is believed that all but priests and kings were buried initially, however according to the Parisada Hindu Dharma, the faster the process, the better, so the idea of immediate cremation was made preferable as times changed (Warren 45). Some traditionalists still believe that it is important to return to the Ibu Pertiwi before being cremated. It is also widely believed that Brahmins must never be buried and should be cremated immediately. This immediate cremation practice is because it is believed that Brahmins have already died once upon their entry into priesthood; this process is known as mati raga (Warren 44). 

Drawatik (185-188) studied the Pacung village in Bali. The Pacung villagers carry out a primary burial, mepegat, followed by the secondary symbolic burial ritual, metuun. The primary burial is carried out directly after death, and the second ceremony is conducted 42 days after the first one. In Pacung, if someone dies during the day, the corpse should be buried before the sun sets and if they die during the night, the community should wait for the following day. The mepegat ceremony does not have to be carried out on an auspicious day as is done in other communities. In the event that the relatives live far away and cannot reach their home village within a day, the corpse cannot be kept at home for more than three days. For the actual burial, a bamboo litter is made, on which the corpse is placed for the mepegat ceremony. The goal of this ceremony is to cut off the relationship between the deceased and their relatives. This separation is symbolized by white strings of cotton that are cut through by using a small piece of resin that has been set on fire. The dead person is provided by the relatives with 11 Chinese coins symbolizing the means of payment for the piece of ground in which the corpse will rest. On top of the corpse the relatives put personal belongings of the deceased as a token of their affection. The corpse is laid out with the head pointed to the north-east and the feet to the south-west. A male corpse is arranged with the face downward and a female corpse with the face upward. Such positions refer to the belief that the male symbolizes the sky and the female symbolizes the earth. The difference in the orientation of the corpse at Pacung to those in the other regions possibly relates to the Sambu sect. In the Sambu sect, death is associated with the north-east where the God Sambu, who is identical to death, resides. Eleven days after the burial ceremony a permanent grave made of cement is built to avoid a possible further digging up of the ground for another burial. The metuun ceremony is a kind of second burial ritual in which the soul of the deceased is invoked to return because it needs to be purified before returning to embang, the eternal world where the souls of those who are dead reside. In case the family needs more time, than the advised 42 days, to accumulate wealth for the ceremony, they are given one year to conduct a ceremony and the date is set by the village. If they are still unable to perform the ceremony after this year, it is the village’s obligation to do so. At the beginning of the ritual Bhatara Ratu Gede Dalem is asked to grant holy water, tirta, so that the deceased’s soul can be purified. A small manikin, jejeneng, which symbolises the deceased, is ritually cleansed and then dressed in white at a site dedicated to the dead, merajapati. The soul of the deceased is then called to enter the jejeneng, which is  carried home and put on the bed of the deceased where a purification ritual is carried out.

A newly-buried corpse is fed through a bamboo tube in a village ceremony in Bali.

Stephen (441-444) discusses her first hand experience of the nine important rituals she witnessed during a Ngaben in 2008. The first step, mandak ke pura dalem, occurred at eight thirty in the morning, with the family going to the Pura Dalem, the temple of death, to collect the spirit of the deceased. The second ritual, melaspas petualangan, occurs around an hour afterwards. The Brahmin prepares holy water, while the casket and the replica are placed in the main road. The men, who were preparing to carry the casket, prayed in front of the Brahmin and received the holy water when it was ready. Mandusan, the third step which is performed by a Brahmin, is the cleansing and decorating of the corpse. The body is cleaned with holy water, finger and toenails are cleaned, hair is washed, oiled, scented and combed. The body is then decorated with jewelry and flowers, while members of the family then place money and gifts on the body. The body is then wrapped in a white cloth and placed in a plain wooden box. Natab, ngaskara, pemerasan was the fourth step. The plain wooden box was decorated with ritual objects symbolizing different components of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the deceased. Ngaskara was performed by a pedanda buda, with the goal of the ritual to reunite the body and soul of the deceased. It was believed that the deceased was brought back to life for a few minutes and this was symbolized by the lighting of a lamp. When the soul of the deceased had reached the other world, the lamp would go out. Ngaskarahad the pedanda make holy water while the gamelan orchestra played various songs; there was a wayang lemah, a shadow puppet performance, and topeng, masked dances. Pemerasanwas a prayer between the grandchildren or descendants that took place while waiting for the spirit to depart. The fifth step, kesetra/pengutangan, which took place at two in the afternoon. This step is the most available to public scrutiny as it is the carrying of the deceased and replica to the cemetery. The gamelan orchestra continues to play music while there are many offerings of meat required to prevent the chthonic forces from ruining the parade. The men carrying the casket and replica are in such a trance that it is believed they are possessed by these forces and are being pushed, shoved and twirled by them. Once at the cemetery the sixth step, ngenargiang tirta ring setra, takes place. The corpse is placed in the animal shaped replica with the coverings cut open to reveal the face of the deceased. The body is treated with more holy water and the vessels used to pour the holy water must be broken immediately after use. The body is then covered with more layers of new cloth. Finally the piranti, the various symbols of the physical and spiritual components of the deceased that were placed on the body, are put underneath the replica. The eldest son of the deceased then lights the funeral pyre. After the cremation fire burned down the seventh step took place, nuduk galih lan ngreka. The remaining bone fragments were retrieved from the ashes and arranged in the form of a human body. Some of the bone is then grounded up into a paste inside of a special earthenware container. The paste is then placed in a container referred to as a suku tunggal. Stephen (445) discusses the penultimate step known as pamraline and the final step, nganyut. Pamraline begins with the pedanda buda beginning his ritual to make more holy water. When ready, the holy water is sprinkled on the paste inside of the suku tunggal, which is held by a female relative. The suku tunggal is then circumambulated three times in a clockwise direction around a pile of offerings and the temporary altar dedicated to Surya. The procession then proceeds to the mrajapati temple where the family placed food on dapdap leaves, offering it to the departing spirit. Nganyut takes place at the sea, where the suku tunggal, along with the ashes, are cast into the ocean. Two final rituals take place at the village, mapegat whichcuts ties with the deceased, and caru which cleanses the area used during ngaben to rid them of negative forces.

Public Cremation in Bali

The fate of the soul is symbolically tied to the fate of the body (Warren 43). Death rituals affect the transformation and placement of the soul, and the protection of the family and community from the dangers associated with its passage. In Balinese death rituals the elaborate set of rites that are performed break the soul from its material bonds and allows it to become fused with the ancient ancestors worshipped in temples and houses. The essence of the soul is then reincarnated back into its own community and descent group (Warren 43).

References and recommended readings

Drawatik, Marini (2008) “The Burial System at Pacung.” Burials, Texts and Rituals Göttinger Beiträge Zur Ethnologie, 185-188.

Geertz, Hildred (2004) The life of a Balinese temple: artistry, imagination and history in a peasant village. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Hobart, Angela(2014)Retrieving the Tragic Dead in Bali,” Indonesia & the Malay World. Vol. 42 Issue 124, 307-336.

Lansing, John Stephen (1995) The Balinese. Toronto and Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Stephen, Michele (2010)  “The Yogic Art of Dying, Kundalinī Yoga, and the Balinese “pitra Yadnya”.” Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 441-445.Brill.

Warren, Carol (1993) Disrupted death ceremonies: Popular culture and the ethnography of bali. Sydney: Oceania.

Williams, Victoria (2016) Celebrating Life Customs Around the World: from Baby Showers to Funerals [3 Volumes], 193-196. Westport.

Related topics


Indian Ngaben

Pitru Paksha

Raj Ghat

Rasam Pagri

Zoroastrian Funerals


Article written by: Michael McTighe (February 2020) who is solely responsible for this content


Wendy Doniger is a prolific scholar specializing in the study of Sanskrit and Hinduism. Doniger has published 21 interpretive works, 9 translations, 16 edited volumes, contributed to 4 different encyclopedia articles, and written 374 articles on a range of topics primarily focusing on the Hindu tradition. Her interpretive works discuss topics ranging from sexuality to mythology, and approach each topic with a unique modern perspective. Doniger’s writing style appeals to a wide audience as she is responsible for writing three of the most popular Penguin classics which discuss Hinduism (Gigerenzer). Doniger continues to take revolutionary strides today not only in her interpretive works but also in her translations. She has been credited with transforming the way the Kama Sutra is understood with her latest translation (Smith). At a young age Doniger participated in some fieldwork in India as well as Russia but otherwise has remained a dedicated teacher at a series of different universities including Harvard University. Doniger remains one of the most important Indologists today due to her many contributions to the field.

            Wendy Doniger was born in New York City on November 20th 1940. She has an older brother, her senior by 10 years, named Jerry, and a younger brother, born 10 years after her, named Tony (Doniger 2019: 98). Her father was Eleazar Doniger, who later changed his name to Lester Lawrence Doniger upon his arrival at Ellis Island. Lester was born in Raczki, a small town which was sometimes in Russia, but was also on occasion part of Poland or Germany. Lester was born in the year 1909, however when exactly is unknown as the birth dates of Jewish children went unrecorded (Doniger 2019: 7). Lester was Jewish, but he was a Jewish man with little faith. He would make a point of obeying the Talmudic law, but this was done to preserve a sense of identity and a connection to his family (Doniger 2019: 27). Lester worked as a publisher, using an English degree he received at NYU night school (Doniger 2015: 7). This had a large impact on Doniger, Lester would read all of her early works and help Doniger improve them (Doniger 2015: 16).

Her mother Rita Roth, was born in New York City June 9, 1911. However, shortly after her birth Rita’s parents moved to Vienna where Rita spent most of her early years (Doniger 2019: 13). Rita was a staunch atheist, although her family in Vienna was Jewish (Doniger 2015: 7). It is Rita’s influence, however, which led Doniger to the study of Hinduism. It was Pete Seeger, a friend of Rita’s, who taught Doniger her first Sanskrit words (Doniger 2019: 48). Rita also supplied Doniger with many books, all seeming to relate to India or Hinduism in some way. At the young age of 6 Doniger was given copies of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the latter speculated to be heavily influenced by Indian philosophy. At the age of 12 Doniger was gifted A Passage to India, the book which Doniger recounts as inspiring her to travel to India and to study India. Lastly, at the age of 13, Rita gave Doniger a copy of Aubry Menen’s satirical retelling of the Ramayana (Doniger 2015:2-3).

Wendy Doniger went to Great Neck Highschool. One of her classmates was Barbra Stoler Miller. Miller, like Doniger, went on to earn a PhD in Sanskrit (Doniger 2019: 68-69). Through much of highschool, Doniger followed her mother’s footsteps and acted as a political activist, advocating for the benefits of communism as a political system (Doniger 2015: 6-7). In highschool Doniger aspired to become a ballet dancer, and for a time studied with George Balanchine and Martha Graham. Doniger credits two high school teachers with helping her grow and become who she is today. First, Anita Lilenfeld, who directed Doniger towards the study of Sanskrit after she expressed interest in ancient languages. Second, Jack Fields, a teacher who helped foster Doniger’s writing as well as supported the subject matter which she chose to write about (Doniger 2015: 4-6).

After highschool Doniger attended Radcliffe College, the female counterpart to the all male Harvard College. Here at Radcliffe, Doniger began the study of Sanskrit at 17 years old. She studied under Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls, who taught her Sanskrit and Indian culture, including Indian history, literature, and religion. Doniger went on to write her PhD dissertation on the Puranas and the myths of Siva found in them. This dissertation later became her first book titled Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Doniger graduated from Radcliffe summa cum laude and received the Jonathan Fay Prize(Doniger 2015:11-12).

After graduating from Radcliffe, Doniger left to live in India for a year. She was sent by Ingalls, her supervisor,  to work alongside Rajendra Chandra Hazra, the world’s leading expert on the Puranas at the time. Hazra quickly informed Doniger that he would not teach women, and this was the end of Doniger’s official studies of Sanskrit in India. Instead, Doniger took the six thousand dollars awarded to her from the American Institute of Indian Studies and used the money to travel throughout India for a year (Doniger 2015: 12-13).

Upon Donigers return to North America from India she married an old highschool sweetheart named O’Flaherty. Due to this, a bulk of her work is published under the title Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (Doniger 2019: 118). Doniger then moved to Oxford with her then husband and stayed there from 1965 to 1975. She wrote her DPhil dissertation with Robin Zaehner and wrote her topic on the concept of heresy in Hinduism. Her dissertation later became the second book she published titled The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Doniger 2015:14-15). Much of this book was written in 1971 when Lester, Doniger’s father, passed away and Michael, Doniger’s son, was born only months later. Due to these events Doniger experienced the combined effects of depression at her father’s passing and postpartum depression following the birth of Michael. As a result of this Doniger was admitted to Waneford Hospital where she was given access to a typewriter and used her work on Hindu concepts of evil to work through her own depression (Doniger 2019: 120).

From 1968 until 1975 Doniger would lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In 1975, Doniger left her tenured lectureship and followed her husband to Berkeley. Doniger cites this instance as the point in which both her marriage and career began to fall apart, it was in the year 1978 that Doniger quit teaching in Berkeley and moved to Chicago, taking her son with her and leaving her husband (Doniger 2019:120). She has remained in Chicago from 1978 up to the present, teaching a variety of classes in the history of religions department and acting as chair for the same department. Doniger had a close relationship with Mircea Eliade, he was the only official reader for her dissertation. Eliade went on to publish two essays from it in History of Religions, a journal which he had founded in 1961. It is notable that Doniger is now the senior editor of the History of Religions. She also had an appointment in the Committee on Social Thought, a group of scholars all specialists in their field within the humanities (Doniger 2015: 19).

            Doniger’s impact on Indology is not limited to her many lectureship positions at prestigious schools. The many books and articles which Doniger has published have each had resounding effects on the field. One of Doniger’s most recent books titled The Hindus: An Alternative History received extensive media attention due to its negative reception in India. The book was published in 2010 and highlighted the aspects of Hinduism which were less popular. Some of the topics discussed in the book include more humorous tales of gods, less pious versions of folk tales, and protests against different civil issues such as the mistreatment of women. Shortly after the book’s publication a right wing Hindu group demanded that the book cease publication and that the remaining copies be destroyed (Doniger 2015:22-23). Four years later Penguin India agreed to cease publication of The Hindus: An Alternative History. There is an Indian law which allows any book deemed offensive to Hindus to be taken as a criminal offence (Joshua). It was using this specific Indian law that Doniger’s book was eventually forced to withdraw from the Indian market. The decision to pulp The Hindus: An Alternative History was still met with some resistance. Different prominent Indian figures such as Arundhati Roy spoke out against this, criticizing Penguin India for backing down so easily (Buncombe).

            Outside of the books previously mentioned, Doniger has published and translated some works that have had resounding impacts on the field of Indology. Some of her most popular interpretive works include The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, a book which engages with a variety of religions while simultaneously analyzing patterns and themes throughout, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, which focuses on the interaction between myth and everyday Hindu lifeand Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes, which aims to demonstrate the universal art of storytelling.Among her most popular translations there are the Kama Sutra and the Laws of Manu. Each of these works garnered significant respect in the ways in which they brought new light to old Sanskrit texts.

Bibliography and Recommended Reading


Doniger, Wendy (2019) The Donigers of Great Neck: a Mythologized Memoir. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2010) The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. New York: Columbia University Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2009) The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin.

Doniger, Wendy, and Brian Smith (1991) The Laws of Manu. London: Penguin UK.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1995) Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1982) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1981) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Doniger, Wendy (2015) “A Life of Learning” ACLS Occasional Paper. 72: 1-24. Accessed January 28, 2020.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980) “Inside and outside the mouth of God: the boundary between myth and reality.” Daedalus: 93-125.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1971) “The origin of heresy in Hindu mythology.” History of Religions 10, no. 4: 271-333.

Shinn, Larry D. (1981) “Precision or Reductionism: Whence Myth Studies?” Religious Studies 17, no. 3 : 369–76.

News Sources

Arora, Kim (2014) “Penguin to destroy copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’” The Times of India. Accessed January 28, 2020.

Buncombe, Andrew (2014) “Arundhati Roy criticises Penguin for pulping The Hindus: An Alternative History” Independant. Accessed January 28, 2020.

Gigerernzer, Thalia (2009) :Q&A with Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor and author of The Hindus” UChicago News. Accessed January 28, 2020.

Joshua, Anita (2014) “Penguin withdraws book on Hinduism” The Hindu. Accessed January 28, 2020.

Rothstein, Edward (2005) “The Scholar Who Irked the Hindu Puritans.” The New York Times. Accessed January 29, 2020.

Smith, Dinitia (2002) “A New Kama Sutra Without Victorian Veils.” The New York Times, Accessed January 29, 2020.

Related Topics

  • Mircea Eliade
  • Kama Sutra
  • Laws of Manu
  • Siva
  • Sanskrit
  • Puranas
  • Robin Zaehner
  • Ramayana

Related Websites

This article was written by Stella Y. MacMahon (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.