Category Archives: c. Hinduism and Modernity

The Bardic Tradition in Hinduism

Bards, in the English Oxford Dictionary, are defined as poets who recite epics and are tied to a certain tradition. India’s bards were not merely poets, rather, they had numerous duties which were much more intricate. Bards were genealogists, astrologers, praise poets, historians, court minstrels, and artisans (Balfour 341). They were responsible for reciting genealogies at weddings, keeping family history and lineage, and performing praise-poetry to deities and chiefs. They would also recite history and myths during festivals or rituals. In the past, they would announce and salute their kings in a social setting, and were regarded as sacred or Brahmin-like. Possessing a sacred status allowed bards to find employment guarding caravans or travellers, and to witness contracts and financial arrangements by threatening self-mutilation (traga) if one were to renege (Snodgrass 2004: 276). In 1885, it was reported that bards were found all over India, but were concentrated in Rajputana (modern day Rajasthan), and that every family of importance in Rajputana had at least one bard to announce their tittles and achievements (Balfour 342). As a result of British colonial rule and laws, many services that bards would have provide are now obsolete, such as announcing tittles for their kings, as India is no longer a monarchy. Rajasthan is one area that maintained bardic tradition and culture. As a result, many bards still reside and make a living there today (Snodgrass 276). Modern bards make a living as musicians, puppeteers, genealogists, religious teachers, agriculture farmers, and reciters of historical knowledge.

Bardic hierarchy was dependent on how close to centres of wealth and power they were, and the reputation of a king often depended on his bard. A king or warrior would desire a loyal, talented bard, to ensure “his name will survive his death” (Hardy 112). The relationship of bards and their patrons was one of gifts in exchange for services (Basu 85). Jeffery Snodgrass reports a myth told to him by Narayan Bhat, a Rajasthan bard, that illustrates the powerful influence bards possess due to their mastery of language (Snodgrass 2004: 270). In the myth, Man Sing, king of Jaipur, gifts his bard with an elephant for praising his son’s birth. The bard was upset that he had an elephant but not the equipment to ride it and the king noticed, asking him what more he would want. The bard explained and the king was enraged, to which the bard replied that the king should shove the elephant up his ass (Snodgrass 2004:271). Man Singh then had to travel to a wedding without his bard to accompany him, where all of the other guest bards were reciting praise poetry. This elevated all other guests above Man Singh. The bard had come secretly, and was then spotted by the king, distressing him. He feared the bard would insult him in front of everyone. To avoid this, the king motioned to the bard that he would receive 4 elephants if he raised his honour. The bard created a verse that compared Man Singh to Visnu, able to destroy Ravana’s fortress, a member of the solar system himself This won the competition and impressed all the other kings. The bard received his four elephants for his work. (Snodgrass, 2004: 272). The myth exemplifies the influence of bards on kingly reputation, the interdependence of kings and their clients. Bards used their influence over reputation in other ways, being masters of language and regarded as sacred, some bards were said to have “the power of the ‘word’, the corpus of sounds by which the moral order of society is maintained and altered” (Kamphorst 228). Certain bards were regarded as rsi-poets, able to curse, predict the future, or cure ailments. Others would simply jest and satire a person publicly for disgrace or mistreatment. In this way, bards would promote Dharmic behaviour through their mastery and clever use of language (Basu 220).

Modern Rajasthan, an Indian state that has maintained strong bardic identity, holds two main classes of bards: Bhats and Charans. These words are derived from Sanskrit roots. In the Dictionary of Spoken Sanskrit, Bhat comes from a Sanskrit translation meaning ‘scholar’ or ‘lord,’ while Charan is said to mean ‘god’s feet’ or ‘son or daughter of the goddess.’ These definitions introduce an important concept regarding the status of these two Bardic classes, that Charans are perceived as elite over the Bhats (Kamphorst 225). In Hindu mythology, there is a story of how Mahadeva (Siva) created a Bhat to attend to his lion and bull, but every day the bull was killed by the lion. Mahadeva, tired of creating a bull daily, created Charan, equally devout as the Bhat but of bolder spirit, to watch over the lion and the bull. From that date on the bull was never slain again (Balfour 341). This gives Charans a strong identity, that allegorically they are guardians of justice, in the from of the bull, against savage violence, as the lion (Kamphorst 225). This myth highlights differences in the tradition of the two classes, such as their claim of different ancestry, and subsequently their identity as separate Indian castes.

In Rajasthan today, Bhats are low caste bards who mainly make a living as entertainers. Most commonly they are puppeteers who make a profit by selling their puppets to tourists after a show. They claim descent from Brahmins who composed Sanskrit verses of praise on stone tablets in temples (Snodgrass 2004: 275). They currently serve an untouchable caste of leather workers called Bhambhis through jokes, dramas, stories, and music. If they share food with these patrons, they are moved into the lowest caste with them in the view of Brahmin and other orthodox adherents (Snodgrass 2004:273). The Bhats perceive themselves, however, as equal if not greater than Brahmins. This is a result of their culture of language and learning: they create myths that make the other castes of society seem dependent on their skill over words. In their view, remembering history is a process that keeps the past alive and is an act of reconstruction (Snodgrass 2004: 282). This also identifies them with the Brahmin, as the ideology behind Hindu ritual sacrifice is to reconstruct the dismemberment of Purusa.

Colonialism had a large impact on the livelihood of these bards. The need for bards as messengers and negotiators faded as Britain demilitarized regions of India. Their function as guardians of caravans and contracts dissipated as railways replaced caravan routes, and acts of self mutilation (traga) were outlawed. Replacing feudal landholding and the patron-client economy with commercialization deprived bards of their property, status, and income (Snodgrass 2004: 277). Modernization extinguished many bardic duties, though some have survived in new contexts. Genealogies are still recited at weddings; also, hotels, restaurants, nobles, and militants hire Bhats to present history and epics through puppeteering and storytelling. This allows them to make a living through an art of their past. They are also employed at folklore festivals, singing and poetry competitions, and maintain some of their power over reputation during elections. When the Babri Masjid Mosque was destroyed in 1992, the Baharatiya Janata Party hired Bhats to spread anti-Muslim sentiment and help them gain popularity to win the upcoming election (Snodgrass 2004: 279).

Charans are an elite bard caste in western India that identify with the Ksatriya, rather than the Brahmin varna. The root of the word Charan can be traced back to the Rajasthan words caranau (to graze or wander), uccaraṇ (the art of recitation, verbal expression), or chahaṛ (love, justice). Each of these relate to Charan lineage and identity as cattle and horse traders, linguistic masters, and agents of loving devotion (bhakti) to goddesses (devi) (Kamphorst 224). Charans fulfill the same roles as Bhats, while possessing a unique identity of their own as more courageous and fierce. The Mahadeva bull myth is likely the origin for this difference. Their courage is attributed to their role as royal bards who would ride into battle with their kings. Being on the battlefield allowed them to create ballads that would commemorate the deeds of their warriors. Charans have distinct literature on this; Vira kava, a genre of warrior and king hero praise, and panegyrics: praise of battle-field bravery, victory, royal generosity, and sacrifice (Basu 83). Charans experienced significant loss of their culture, as Bhats did, during colonization. When Europe colonized India there were no longer frequent battles over territory, the result of this was evident in Charan literature. They could no longer compose praise about the best warriors, so they began to glorify the best hunters. Eventually, modernization caused them to become praise poets of their own caste (Basu 90).  Praising themselves and their tradition allowed them to become unique. As bardic tradition came to an end throughout much of India during British rule, they maintained an active and strong culture. Ancient bardic tradition and practices still thrive daily in Kacch, and a festival dedicated to Charan lineage takes place there every year.

In Kacch, to applaud, glorify, adore, or eulogize the qualities of an exalted being is considered a vocal art. Charans have mastered this art and made it a part of their social identity (Basu 81). 35000 people in Kacch identify themselves as Charans, which entails: having the ability to compose poetry, recite in many different styles, remember history, love the play of words, and be inclined to asceticism. They have a uniform dress code and claim that Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge, language, and learning, gifted them with their nature. Charans are mainly praise-poets, who doubled as herders, agricultural workers, and artisans. In Kacch they played a larger role in ritual over Brahmin priests. During Navaratri, a 9 night goddess festival, a buffalo is sacrificed and a Charan women would be the first to drink its blood and become host to the goddess for the rest of the royal sacrifice, embodying her. Charan Matajali are human-goddesses, said to have the power to destroy enemies, spontaneously produce water, and uphold the moral status of kings by cursing or rewarding their actions. Some Charan women are deified after death, Ai Sri Sonal Mataji is one of these women who was born in 1920, and passed away in 1975. Sonal Mataji was born into a time of colonial rule in India and was a guide for her people during the changes brought with modernization (Basu 89). She emphasised a vegan diet, meditation, asceticism, anti-alcoholism, and rejected blood sacrifice. The Charan Caste Council created a festival that begins on her birthday, and last two days each year: the Sonal Mataji. The festival allows these bards to keep many of the traditions used by their ancestors in the past. It begins with ritual praise worship, and is followed by praise poetry of the goddess. Lectures are then given on the history of the Charan caste: their origin in the peaks of the Himalayas, their descent down from the mountains, the breeding of cattle, attaching themselves to patrons, their role as warriors, and lastly their establishment in Kacch. The Following Speeches relate these stories to present morals that are expected of these bards today: to be loyal, have dharmic action, and to sacrifice oneself for moral cause. Many performances of poetry, song, and recitals are performed over the two days, creating a sense of belonging that embodies loving devotion (bhakti) to the goddess (Basu 96). This is a modern example of bardic tradition that flourishes today.

An example of Bardic tradition in the past is a 19 night long story that was recorded by a scholar in 1965 (Beck 13). Olappalayam was a village in south India when Brenda Beck conducted her fieldwork. The story is called The Elderbrothers’ Legend, and was conducted by firelight in the evenings with costumes, body paint, drums, and poetic recitation. The story referenced places in past that still exist today, providing geographical information about specific areas and their history. The story also revealed the relationship of kings with their subjects, and illustrated the ethnic and moral code of the area. Beck reported that local ritual, praise, and mannerism, mirrored practices within the story, stressing how important bards are in transmitting Hindu ideology and behaviour. Beck also stated that the story encompassed the regions unique culture and history, revealing the devastating loss of culture from modernization which make it difficult for these stories to be told in the same way today. (Beck, 17)

Bardic tradition is an important aspect of Hindu culture that has experienced drastic change during the period of colonization and industrialization of the world. In the past, bards were considered a sacred order and thus could work as grantors. They were messengers, exclusive educators, court minstrels, could dictated a nobles’ popularity, and would ride into battle reciting warrior praise. In exchange for their service they would receive gifts, such as animals and land. In modern society, they make a living mostly as teachers and agricultural workers, while performing poetry and history on the side. Most bards are now found around Rajasthan, and view themselves as a third social body in the caste system. Genealogies and recitation of family history is part of Hindu weddings still today, and a few bards still make a living as story tellers through theatre (Snodgrass 2004: 278). Some areas of India have defended their bardic lineage and still practice it today, such as the Charans. Overall, bards continue to serve Hinduism by spreading mythology, composing praise, promoting dharmic behaviour, and keeping history alive across generations.


Balfour, Edward (1885) The cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia,             commercial, industrial, and scientific; products of the mineral, vegetable, and animal             kingdoms, useful arts and manufactures, volume 1. London: London B. Quaritch.

Basu, Helen (2005) “Practices of Praise and Social Constructions of Identity: The Bards of         North-West India” Archives de sciences sociales des religions, Vol. 50, No. 3: 81-105.

Beck, Brenda (2011) “Discovering a story.” In Studying Hinduism In Practice. New York:   Routledge. pp.10-23

Hardy, Friedhelm (1995) The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love and Wisdom. Cambridge:                 Cambridge University Press.

Kamphorst, Janet (2008) In praise of death: history and poetry in medieval Marwar (South Asia). Leiden: Leiden University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffery (2006) Casting Kings: bards and Indian modernity. New York: Oxford            University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffrey (2004) “The Centre Cannot Hold: Tales of Hierarchy and Poetic Composition               from Modern Rajasthan.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10,     No. 2. pp. 261-285

Related Topics for Investigation

Cand Literature  

Vira Kavya Literature


Charani Deval


Bhil History

Websites Related to The Topic

Article is written by: Ashley Rewers (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sexuality in Hinduism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Kamasutra

Ashram vyavastha






The marriage of the Pandeva’s

The Ramayana

The Mahabharata


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


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




Hinduism and Feminism

Discussions of gender within Hinduism are particularly interesting because “Hinduism is marked by a heritage of patriarchal hierarchy” with “a strong matriarchal mythology” (Joshee 73). Although the trinity in Hinduism [Brahma, Visnu and Siva] is male, “their power cannot be enacted without the female aspect” or sakti (Joshee 73-75). Elements of Hinduism, such as sakti, can empower women, however, most uphold patriarchal ideals and gender roles. Feminism defines patriarchal societies as those that “control” women in three elements, “sexuality, reproduction and labour” (Desai 1676). The oppression of women is integral to the operation of this patriarchal society. Although there are some similarities between Hinduism and feminism and feminism in other parts of the world, the patriarchy manifests itself differently everywhere. As a result, there are contextual differences in the gender inequalities and the conversations around these inequalities. For the purposes of this article, feminism will be defined as the movement towards liberation in a patriarchal society through advocating and implementing change with the intent to create social, political and economic gender equality.

In Vedic times, women were able to participate in religious rituals, become educated, and marry at an older age. Their status “systematically deteriorated” so by the time of the epics it is evident that women were not appreciated or equal to men in the same way (Dhruvarajan 44). The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Laws of Manu propagate the ideal of “loyal and obedient wives whose only goal in life is to please their husbands” (Gross 74). Wives and women are seen in this text as needing to be under the control of and dependent on a man, their father in childhood and after that their husband. It is interesting to note that in the alternative oral retellings of the epics, patriarchal norms are disturbed (Sugirtharajah 100).

Entering into the wife role has traditionally been accompanied by a dowry. After marriage, if a woman is not able to produce a son, her husband is permitted to remarry by the Dharma Sastras (Chakravarti 2249). Stridharma is the duty of the wife to her husband. Despite such cultural and social practices, marriage is seen in the Hindu tradition as two halves, the husband and wife, joining as complementaries and “considers husband and wife spiritually one” (Nayar 210).

It has been suggested that “Aryan hegemony” dominated “Dravidian matrilineal traditions” and thus powerful goddesses were incorporated as secondaries to gods in the “Aryan patriarchal religion” (Dhruvarajan 45). This interaction with the Aryans could be one reason for the degeneration of the status of women. It has been also suggested that “the erosion of the position of women” can be associated “with the coming of Islam and the Mughal Empire” (Joshee 73). However, some suggest the status of women would have been better under Muslim law than Hindu law, at the time. A ruler of the Mughal Empire, Akbar, at one point attempted to abolish the practice of sati, making him the first to do so (Joshee 74).

Sati was the old Hindu tradition of the immolation of the widow on her late husband’s funeral pyre. Although the practice of sati may be classified as “murder of the cruellest kind”, some satis died with “courage and exaltation”, depending on the consent or willingness of the women (Nayar 446-447). Devout Orthodox Hindus believed that the practice of sati ensured the woman, her husband and their families would be rid of bad karma and “would be in paradise for 35 million years” (Nayar 256).

The social and cultural elements above illustrate the role of women predating the rise of feminist thought in India. In the 12th century, Mahadeviyakka, a female ascetic of the Virasaivism movement, did not conform to traditional gender roles and chose living naked and without a husband or male companion. She claimed to be “transcending” gender roles, therefore “attained to peace (Olson 498). Mahadeviyakka however is a rare example from India’s past of independent female thought and it is not until the 19th century that feminist thought and movements worked to elevate women’s social status.

19th century feminism was mainly focused on the gender inequalities faced by upper caste women and issues such as child marriage, sati and education. In 1818, Raja Ram Mohan Roy brought sati to the public’s attention. He distributed pamphlets that argued against claims for textual pro-sati evidence and petitioned for legal action on sati, mentioning that women were being “induced by the persuasion of their next heirs” (Sarma 19). Because of these actions, a government order abolished the practice of sati in 1829. In 1848, Mahatma Phule started a school for untouchable girls and a home for the upper caste widows who were socially outcaste because of illicit sexual relations. He claimed that the “‘softer’ forms of gendered domination that the upper caste women faced were no less oppressive than the expropriation of manual and sexual labour experienced by the lower caste women” (Ghosal 795). Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Mahatma Phule were among the first to introduce feminist notions and challenge societal gender norms (Rani 64). With the influence of Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj in 1872, Act III prohibited polygamy, permitted widow marriage and promoted higher education for girls (Rani 64).

Anandamayi Ma, a female guru in the early 19th century, provides an interesting example of the ideal wife role in Hinduism. Apparently there were no sexual relations in their marriage, Ma and her husband still loved and cared for each other. Ma was spiritually gifted and therefore was her husband’s guru (Lipski 7). Some unmarried girls could avoid disappointing their family by becoming spiritually devoted to Ma (Hallstrom 204). She still recommended women maintain their traditional role as the ideal wife (Hallstrom 210).

At the end of the 19th century, women leaders became more active in the feminist movement in India. With these leaders came the development of women’s groups and organizations. 1915-1925 saw the formation of Women’s India Association, the National Council of Women of India, Annie Besant’s Home Rule League and the All-India Women’s Conference (Rani 64). Annie Besant supported uplifting the status of women in India, while advocating for women to maintain their traditional Hindu roles. She supported feminism only to the extent that women would remain mainly absent from the public sphere. For example, she opened a school for girls, but only so they could learn to be better wives (Anderson 31). In 1921, women gained the right to vote in the Madras and proceeded to campaign for further political equality (Rani 64).

Mahatma Gandhi brought feminism into the movement for Indian independence [India gained independence in 1947], yet also advocated for women’s ideal role as serving her family. According to Gandhi, Sita from the Ramayana was an ideal wife and devotee (Dhruvarajan 44). Gandhi “worked for the Indian women’s emancipation tirelessly” and saw their political involvement as integral to the rise of women’s status (Baruah 13). He even said that “women is more fitted than men…. to take bolder action in ahimsa” (Sarma 6). He was greatly supportive of women’s freedom in India and within Hinduism because he believed daughters and sons should be treated with “perfect equality” (Sarma 8). He favoured a meritocratic shift, in which persons were valued without regard for gender. These radical notions not only brought about political and social change in the status of women, but also instilled a sense of “strength and power” in the “souls” of Indian women (Sarma 10). It was during this time of social reform that women were more encouraged to join the political sphere.

Post-independence India carried this view forward in legislation and under article 15(1) in the Indian Constitution there cannot be “discrimination by the State on the grounds of…sex” and 15(3) allows “special provisions” for women and children (Kalyani 75). At this point, feminism in India was largely removed from political discourse. It was seen to have been successful in achieving the original mandate. This decline also occurred in the western feminist movement after the suffragette or first wave movement (Kumar 20). It was not until the 1970s that feminism in India experienced a revival and could be because of a growing discontent amongst women regarding their involvement, or lack thereof, in India’s post-independence development. This position generally blames “patriarchal culture” for ”diluting freedom and equality”, therefore even though the constitution guaranteed equal rights after independence, women were not equally represented in the government (Rani 65).

The Committee on the Status of Women in India was established in 1971(Ghosal 799). Their report, Towards Equality, brought forward gender inequality issues into the political sphere (Ghosal 780). This report gives reasons why reserving seats for women would be of benefit to India and provides counter arguments outlining the fallacies in the opposition to this reservation. In the report it states that “[o]nly a system of reservations…will help to broaden the base of women’s representation” (Thakur 237).

In 1979 the “campaign against dowry murders” was the first time that dowry deaths were referred to as murders. Prior to this they were legally referred to as suicides (Kumar 22). In the 1980s, feminists like those involved in the “campaign against dowry murders”, influenced the government to pass and strengthen legislation regarding domestic violence. Additionally, feminists wrote simple manuals intended to help women escape domestic violence (Gangoli 103). Discussions around domestic violence and the uncommon practice of sati were further fueled by”the death of a young woman in Rajasthan in 1987” (Kumar 28). Following this, The Commission of Sati Prevention Act was enacted to prevent the practice and glorification of sati. The act clearly states that the practice of sati is “nowhere enjoined by any of the religions of India as an imperative duty” (

In 1990, the National Commission of Women was established to provide the State with information regarding the adherence to the laws regarding women and the progress made towards gender equality in India. The original constitution was amended in 1992 to mandate a reservation of one third of seats for women in local level elected bodies (Rani 66). Although women have been constitutionally allowed to hold parliamentary positions after independence, women have always held less than 8% of the parliamentary seats in India (Kalyani 8). The laws may change, but these changes do not always change the social, political and economic status of women in India. This is shown in the laws regarding violence against women, especially marital rape. In a 1996 UN report, 74% of judges prioritized women preserving their family, “even if she faces violence” (Kalyani 76). Marital rape is not an offense. The law defines rape as only “penetrative intercourse” and unless there is physical injury to the husband due to the victim’s resistance, the victim “is generally assumed to have consented to it” (Kalyani 75). 65.3% of women reported abuse in this 1996 UN report and the majority of these cases were not public abuse (Kalyani 73). Feminists offered considerations which were presented by a committee for amendments to this law, including expanding the provision on hospital and police rape. Because of these recommendations, child rape and child marriage were made legally separate categories. Child marriage is “reprehensible” and child rape within this marriage is seemingly impossible because “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife is not rape” (Gangoli 86).

The UN report also showed that for every 927 women in India, there are 1000 men. This population gap has only gotten worse in the last 70 years, despite development progress made by India as a whole (Kalyani 8-12). The “50 million missing campaign” works to solve this gap [see websites below Bibliography], these women are not missing persons, but instead have been eliminated from the population due to “female infanticide”, “dowry-related murders” and “maternal mortality rate” (Banerji).

In 2014, feminists at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Technology and Ambedkar University Delhi were asked to illustrate their own experiences with gender inequality in India through signs that were photographed in the campaign “#INeedFeminism”. One participant’s sign reads “I need feminism because I want my parents to know that it’s no sin to be me; to be a girl. That being a man does not give my brother an edge over me” [see websites below bibliography]. Another campaign has expanded on this with signs for why “India needs feminism”. The feminist movement sees a necessity for further improvements to be made regarding issues such as human trafficking, the Harijas or third gender, and sexual harassment or eve teasing.

Feminism continues to evolve to meet new challenges and strive for gender equality in every sector. For example, Reshma Saujani, a Hindu Indian American lawyer and politician started the organization “Girls Who Code” to minimize gender inequalities in the technology sector (Chanen 11). She aims to empower young women by providing an opportunity for them to learn to code.

Women are now able to learn the Vedas, partially because of western scholar influences and therefore increased access to religious information. Although some religious rituals are still restricted to men, women do assist or participate with some, if not most of the rituals, and there are rituals exclusively for women (Wadley 123). There has also been a significant rise in female gurus, who do not conform to traditional women’s roles of wife and mother, as they devote themselves to a life of asceticism (Wadley 123). This path counters the social norms and may not be accepted by the woman’s family.

Women in India are actively involved in addressing gender inequalities and changing the patriarchal society; they may even use traditional elements of Hinduism to do so. For example, a grassroots feminist movement began in 2002 known as “The Mahila Shanti Sena” and uses Ghandian principles of sakti as a “creative, transformative power” (Joshee 77). In this way, they are able to inspire women to have a role in politics by using a “positive and culturally appropriate model” (Joshee 81). They focus on non-violence so “when the United States army went to Iraq”, The Mahila Shanti Sena organized “rallies, formed human chains and created handbills” to bring attention to the harmful effects of war, particularly for “women and children” (Joshee 77). The power of sakti is used to empower women to be active, nonviolent initiators of change in their own communities. Hinduism and feminism continue to interact symbiotically to improve the status of women in patriarchal society, building on the advances outlined above made by feminists in the 19th and 20th century.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Anderson, Nancy Fix (2002) “‘Mother Besant’ and Indian National Politics.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 30(3):27-54. Accessed March 31, 2016.

Banerji, Rita (2009) “Female Genocide in India And The 50 Million Missing Campaign.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and The Pacific 22. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Baruah, Arunima (2003) Women in India (An Exhaustive Study). New Delhi: Anmol.

Chakravarti, Uma. 1995. “Gender, Caste and Labour: Ideological and Material Structure of Widowhood.” Economic and Political Weekly 30 (36):2248-56. Accessed February 6, 2016

Chandra, K. (2007) Women Marriage in India Past and Present. New Delhi: Cyber Tech Publications.

Devi, D. Syamala (1994) “The Contribution of Women Parliamentarians in India.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 55(4):411–16. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. (1999) “Hinduism and the Empowerment of Women.” In Gender and Society in India Volume One. edited by R. Indira and Deepak Kumar Behera, 33-49. New Delhi: Manak Publications.

Gangoli, Geetanjali (2007) Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies and Violence in India. Burlington: Ashgate.

Ghosal, Sarbani Guha (2005) “MAJOR TRENDS OF FEMINISM IN INDIA.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 66(4):793–812. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Gordon, Leslie A., Deborah L. Cohen, Jill Schachner Chanen, Martha Neil, and Stephanie Francis Ward. (2012) “Opening Statements.” ABA Journal 98(10):10-13 Accessed March 31, 2016.

Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma 1896-1982. New York: Oxford University Press.

Joshee, Reva and Karen Sihra. (2013) “Shatki as a Liberatory and Educative Force for Hindu Women.” In Gender, Religion and Education in a Chaotic Postmodern World. edited by Zehavit Gross, Lynn Davies, and Al-Khansaa Diab, 73-83. New York: Springer.

Kumar, Radha. (1989) “Contemporary Indian Feminism.” Feminist Review 33:20–29. Accessed March 27, 2016.

Lipski, Alexander (1988) Life and Teaching of Sri Anandamayi Ma. Delhi: Morilal Banarsidass.

Menon-Sen, Kalyani, and A. K. Shiva Kumar (2001) Women In India: How Free? How Equal?. Report commissioned by the Office of the Resident Coordinator in India: United Nations. Accessed February 28 2016.

Nayar, Pramod K. (2013) Women in Colonial India: Historical Documents and Sources. New York: Routledge. Volume III and V.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. P. 498

Pechilis, Karen (2004) The Graceful guru: Hindu female gurus in India and the United States. New York; Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Rani, Celine A. (2002) Emerging Pattern of Rural Women Leadership in India. Delhi: Kalpaz Publications.

Rath, Sharada and Jyotirmati Samantray (1999) “Women’s Movement: A Crave for Gender Equality.” In Women in India A Search For Identity, edited by Sharada Rath and Navaneeta Rath, 233-248. New Delhi: Anmol.

Sarma, Bina sKumari (2006) Role and Status of Indian Women Through the Ages. Kolkata: R. N. Bhattacharya.

Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002) “Hinduism and Feminism: Some Concerns.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18(2):97-104. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Thakur, Bharti “Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India” In Women in Gandhi’s Mass Movements, 235. Bharti New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications.

Wadley, Susan S. (1977)Women and Hindu Tradition.” Signs 3(1):113-125. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Related Topics



Raja Mohan Roy

Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Independence

Anandamayi Ma

Annie Besant

Politics in India

Women in Hinduism


Noteworthy Websites


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

Prakrti: Material Consciousness

The Sankhya Hindu philosophy is one of the six orthodox darsanas (world outlooks). It is considered orthodox because of its adherence to the Vedas and the caste system. In the Sankhya philosophy, prakrti is part of a dualistic philosophy that explains the states of consciousness by listing the components of reality. The Sankhya darsana explains the creation of the world with the intertwining of purusa and prakrti, resembling explanations in the Vedas. The materiality of the world is the workings of prakrti (Larson 167-168). The identification with all material things is what the Sankhya darsana explains as material consciousness. This sense of consciousness cannot be the true self because it is corrupted. Purusa is the true self and can only be achieved when all senses of prakrti are removed. Yoga is applied to the Sankhya darsana to attempt to reach moksa (full liberation) (Burley 36-38).

To list the components of reality that make up the cosmos, Sankhya philosophy begins by dividing pure, real consciousness from the illusion of consciousness that is within all entities of the cosmos. These separate states of consciousness are purusa and prakrti. Purusa is pure consciousness that can only be attained when prakrti returns to it dormant state. To achieve complete consciousness, the Sankhya philosophy promotes the advancement through the different elements of prakrti to realize that the material consciousness is false. Once all false identifications are let go, prakrti is dissolved and purusa is achieved. Reaching the state of purusa is to be free of all false identification (Jacobsen 8).

Prakrti is composed of twenty-three tattvas. Tattvas are elements that can be listed ranging from their coarseness to how subtle they are. As the progression from the coarse tattvas to the subtle ones occurs, the proportions of the three gunas changes (Parrot 60-63). These gunas (qualities) are tamas, rajas, and sattva; each guna is attributed a different set of qualities. The sattva guna is the quality of enlightenment, intelligibility and clarity. The tamas guna is classified as vague and dull, and the rajas guna is passion and activity (Ramakrishna Rao 64-65). Within one’s life, they will experience all three gunas in different proportions. When one is not distracted with the tamas and rajas gunas, the clarity that is the sattva guna is able to dissolve the illusion of consciousness created by prakrti (Jacobsen 8).

The twenty-three tattvas of prakrti can be divided into five categories. The mahabhutas are the coarsest elements; they are; earth, fire, water, air, and space. All materiality of the world is based on these five elements, so the manifestation of prakrti relies on the identification with these elements. The subtle tattvas are what is absorbed through the senses (odor, flavor, texture, sound, shape and color) (Larson 236-237). The tattvas that are necessary for the continuation of material life are the five action tattvas; reproduction, excretion, motion, communication, and accumulation. The five knowledge senses allow one’s ego to identify with the grosser tattvas; these elements of knowledge are the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell). These twenty tattvas make up the materiality of the world. Without the identification and connection that one has with these tattvas the manifestation of prakrti would not be able to occur. Because materiality is intertwined with purusa in the creation of the cosmos prakrti is an evitable part of life. The last three tattvas, that compose citta are essential to the separation of material consciousness and the internal liberation that lies hidden amongst the tattvas that are prakrti.

The material consciousness that is made up the twenty tattvas must be combined with of the last three tattvas is called citta. Citta is attributed to the mind and thought; it is the perceived enlightenment of prakrti. Without the mind to identify with the world there is no consciousness, perceived or real. Citta is comprised of three elements manas, anhankara, and buddhi (Larson 236). Manas is the inner agency that persuades one to believe in the material consciousness that is prakrti. Anhankara is one’s ego. The ego identifies with the heavier tattvas making full liberation a difficult concept to believe. Anhankara generates a false sense of self that is based solely on the materiality of the world around (Parrot 70-72).

The buddhi is the subtlest tattva. This part of citta allows one to realize that the manas and anhankara use the grosser tattvas to create material consciousness and that is not its true self. The ability to discriminate between the false sense of self that is prakrti and the ability to gain true consciousness is what makes buddhi the greatest tattva [Buddhi is often referred to mahat, which means the great or highest intelligence]. To achieve purusa, the sattva guna must be in its highest proportion. In this state of clarity one is able to wish to achieve pure consciousness. The awareness that buddhi has of material consciousness allows one to escape from the false identifications made by manas and anhankara. When one stops falsely identifying they are released from prakrti and are able to achieve the pure consciousness that is purusa. Purusa never stopped functioning when prakrti was present; it acted as an observer, waiting for the right moment to be revealed (Sharma 149-153). The Sankhya darsana promotes that advancement through the different elements of prakrti to the so that the identification of the true self is not another false identification. One must experience the material consciousness so that when it is time to identify the true self it will not mistaken it for something else (Ramakrishna Rao 61-63).

When purusa is realized all traces of prakrti disappear. The tattvas engulf into themselves and essentially disappear; this is possible because the Sankhya darsana presents both purusa and prakrti as transcendental, but real entities. When the material consciousness that is prakrti is gone, one is then left with their true self. Liberation is widely known as moksa in Hinduism, but is also referred to as kaivalya in the Sankhya orthodox philosophy. When kaivalya is attained one is fully liberated for all materiality. When one is advancing through the tattvas that make up prakrti it is important that they do not become consumed in them; the ultimate goal is to become liberated from prakrti, not to master living in a world of it. The Sankhya darsana adopts this philosophy while other sects of Hinduism focus on the mastery of the tattvas. Prakrti is escapable if one wishes to find true liberation. Sankhya darsana tells of the difficulty that is prakrti, but encourages and supports that finding one’s true self is much more fulfilling than the materiality of prakrti (Widgery 234-237).



Burley, Mikel (2006) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. Online: Taylor and Francis.

Larson, Gerald James (1998) Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning. London: Motilal Banarsidass.

Parrot, R. J. (1986) “The Problem of the Samkhya Tattvas as Both Cosmic and Psychological Phenomena.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 14: 55-78.

Ramakrishna Rao, K.B (1963) “The Gunas of Prakrti According to the Samkhya Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No. 1: 61-71.

Sharma, Chandradhar (1997) A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Widgery, Alban (1930) “The principles of Hindu Ethics.” International Journal of Ethics Vol. 40 No. 2: 234-237.


Related Research Topics

Sankhya Philosophy









Related Websitesṛti


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

The Sacred Lotus Symbol

The lotus is an iconic flower, originating in Southern Asia, which has claimed a place as a prominent symbol in ancient history, remaining as such today. It is through a combination of religious and symbolic connotations, nutritional and medicinal applications, and sheer aesthetics and laudability in its natural life cycle that have facilitated the lotus’s significance. While there are many species of lotus flowers across Asia, the Hindus’ Sacred Lotus is scientifically known as the Nelumbo nucifera. This perennial flower grows in the muddy waters of shallow pools throughout Asia (Kew n.d.). It possesses a unique nanostructure of its leaves which provides an uncanny self-cleaning ability, allowing the flowers to emerge from the mud without tarnish (Kew n.d.). This natural trait has facilitated symbolic reference towards the flower; rising out of the mud, untouched by the filth, resonated with ancient thinkers, philosophers, and religious peoples. Furthermore, beyond its life cycle, the lotus holds many unique properties which benefit human nutrition and health. Studies have found that this ancient plant, consumed throughout Asia, is highly nutritious and retains a number of medicinal properties from gastrointestinal regulation to bad breath remedy to insomnia reduction (Zhang et al 323,324). The relevance to health and wellness worked well with the divine reference in ancient Vedic scripture, where the lotus gained connections to the gods, to build the foundations of an icon.

Even as far back as the holy sruti texts of the Rgveda, the lotus finds its home in Hinduism’s spiritual origins. One translation of the Rgveda expresses the first mention of the lotus in the form of a metaphor (RV 5.LXVIII.7-9). The verse seems to describe a well wish for an unproblematic delivery of a child. One interpretation is that the metaphor of the wind ruffling the lotuses evokes auspiciousness in regard to the delivery (Garzilli 295). The lotus also appears in connection to the birth of Agni in Rgveda hymn XVI (Garzilli 300). There Agni is recognized as one of the two most worshipped gods of the scripture alongside Indra, God of Thunder. This initial reference to birth and divinity can be seen as a starting point for the symbolism of the lotus in later literature and practice. Although its presence in the sacred text elevates it to a status of divinity, its connection with the gods does not end with Agni and the Rgveda; rather it appears again and again throughout Hindu scripture.

Laksmi is the consort of Visnu, one of the most renowned gods in the Hindu pantheon, and she appears in each of Visnu’s reincarnations as his wife, should he have one. She is seen by the followers of Visnu as the “mother of the world” (Kapoor 1083), and maintains a close connection with the lotus, having her abode within the flowers themselves (Mahabharata LXVI). The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism details the story of her birth: from the great churning of the sea, Laksmi was brought forth inhabiting the lotus and was “…covered in ornaments and bearing every auspicious sign…” (Kapoor 1083). She held lotus flowers in each hand and was called the Goddess Padma, meaning Lotus. Laksmi holds many names and many titles, just as the sacred flower does; she is the goddess of wealth, auspiciousness, fortune and luck. The auspiciousness of the lotus may be due in part to the connection between the flower and the great goddess of luck. Indeed, followers of Vaisnavism, one of the main sects of Hindusim, hold Laksmi in high regard, believing she is the very power of Visnu to govern and protect the universe (Encyclopedia of Asian History 1988). As the goddess of the Lotus, this symbol becomes specifically significant to the Vaisnavas, although its significance is by no means confined to them.

Beyond the auspiciousness and fortune of the lotus in its connection to Laksmi, the creator god Brahma ties in early references of the lotus to the concept of rebirth. Though there are many stories regarding the origins or birth of Brahma, one depicts the god being born on a lotus flower from the navel of Visnu, the great unifying principle (Coulter and Turner 105-106). In fact, it is common for Hindu gods and goddesses to be depicted sitting on a lotus throne, as a gesture of divinity, purity, and a power (Lee and Nadeau 69). Even beyond its connection to the creator god, the lotus is one of Visnu’s four attributes, standing as a symbol of creation (Timalsina 70). Furthermore, the sacred plant and deity, Soma, is believed, by some, to be the Sacred Lotus (MacDonald 150-152). Referenced in the Rgveda, (RV 8. XLVIII.3-4,11) Soma is deified, worshipped, and even expressed as offering immortality.  There are numerous theories on the true identity of Soma and the Lotus would indeed be a likely candidate with its medicinal properties and previously established connection to the divine.

Each of the factors mentioned have played a role in the Sacred Lotus becoming an icon of Hinduism. The flower’s natural life cycle and biological properties make it both admirable and valuable. Its presence in the Vedas and its connection to popular deities, including its potential identity as a deity (i.e. Soma), make it sacred and spiritual; these aspects, and more, have elevated the wild flower of Asia to an icon of the Hindu faith. And yet, beyond its religious connotations, the sacred symbol of the lotus has spread, with the Hindu tradition, into the very culture of India.

In Indian art and architecture there are 8 symbols of auspiciousness. Among other key symbols like the conch shell (sankha) and the wheel (cakra), the lotus (padma) is incorporated into Indian art, bearing powerful symbolism in regard to divinity, purity, and auspiciousness (Gupta 30). Throughout numerous temples and shrines erected to worship various gods such as Siva and Surya are stone carvings, motifs, and statues accents by the image of the lotus (Harle 139, 144). Beyond the presence of lotus imagery, there is a further, subtle connection between Hindu architecture and the lotus in the very structure of Hindu temples. Rising up in tiered domes, or buds, the temples are said to resemble Mount Meru, a sacred cosmic center in Indian religions (Gupta 30). The mountain itself holds extensive symbolic reference to the cosmic lotus, standing as point of origins of creation and divinity (Mabbett 71,72). The intertwining of lotus imagery and symbolism into such a vast range of concepts as mountains to temples to health to the divine creates a picture of the depth of the symbol’s place in Hinduism.

As the powerful symbolism of the lotus transcends the centuries, it ultimately finds its place in the modern day as an icon for businesses, a symbol of peace or tranquility, a reference to Indian religion, and more contemporarily so, as an image of a movement sweeping Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a popular political party in contemporary India with a unique platform of defining “. . . Indian culture in terms of Hindu Values. . .” (Britannica 2014). The party poses the lotus as their logo, utilizing the religious symbol to gain the favor of Hindus (Malik and Singh 321). For the Hindu population, standing behind a banner bearing the Sacred Lotus of India, a central icon in the ancient tradition, may mean standing behind Hindutva, or Hindu national identity, embodied in the sacred meaning of the lotus. This connection between the divine flower and the national identity of India reveals just how deep the roots of the lotus symbol are. Even before the rise of the BJP party, the lotus held the title of national flower for its sacred symbolism, according to the Government of India (Government of India 2016). The connection between the Indian subcontinent and the lotus, beyond any single faith, expresses the significance of the flower even beyond its place as a religion icon.

To this day, the lotus stands as a symbol related not only to Hinduism, but also to numerous other religions, historical and modern alike. The lotus appears historically in ancient Egyptian religion where it held connections to birth, including that of the sun god, Ra (Renggli 220), and was used as an apparent hallucinogen (Sayin 291). Buddhists adopted symbolic meanings of the lotus very similar to the Hindus, viewing it as a representation of one’s personal journey through the muddy waters of samsara towards blossoming, pure and perfect, into Nirvana (Prasophigchana 103-104). The lotus is also representative of enlightenment through the idea that those who have attained it will rise above the world like a lotus rises above the muck and filth. Jains also view the lotus as a sacred symbol of purity and power. Within the tradition are 14 auspicious dreams and eight auspicious marks, the lotus claiming a place in both lists (Fischer and Jain 22). The Jains also maintain the portrayal of their founders (tirthankaras) as seated or standing on lotus blossoms, as seen Hinduism with respect to their gods (Lee and Nadeau 69). As the religions of India spread across the globe, the iconic image of the lotus continued to diversify and grow, maintaining its significance while transforming with the times. From the Rgveda to Indian Politics, the sacred flower of Hinduism has certainly left its mark on history and continues to do so today.


Coulter, C.R. and Turner, Patricia (2000) “Brahma.” Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities pg 105-106. North Carolina: MacFarland & Company Inc. Publishers.

Brittanica (2014) Bharatiya Janata Party. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

Fischer, Eberhard and Jain, Jyotindra (1978) Jaina Iconography. Part 12: 22. Leiden: Brill

Garzilli, Enrica (2003) “The Flowers of Rgveda Hymns: Lotus in V.78.7, X.184.2, X.107.10, VI.16.13, and VII.33.11, VI.61.2, VIII.1.33, X.142.8. Indo-Iranian Journal. Volume 46, Issue 4: 293-314. Dordretch: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Government of India (2015) “National Symbols.” National Portal of India. New Delhi: National Informatics Center.

Gupta, Swarajya Prakash (2002) Elements of Indian Art. 29-30. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Harle, J.C. (1994) The Arts and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Kapoor, Subodh (2000) “Laksmi.” The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Volume 3. Edited by Subodh Kapoor. 1083-1087. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kapoor, Subodh (2000) “Symbolism.” The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Subodh Kapoor. Volume 4: 1171-1714.  New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kew (n.d.) “Nelumbo nucifera.”  Kew: Royal Botanical Gardens. Surrey: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Lee, Jonathan H.X. and Nadeau, Kathleen M. (2011) Enclypedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife. Edited by Jonathan H.X. Lee and Kathleen Nadeau. Volume 1: 22. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mabbett, I.W. (1983) “The Symbolism of Mount Meru.” Chicago Journals. Volume 23, Issue 1: 64-83. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, Andrew (2004) “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma (Nelumbo Nucifera Gaertn.) Based on Scriptural and Iconographic Records.” Economic Botany. Volume 58: 147-150. Texas: Economic Botany.

Mahabharata. “SECTION LXVI. Sambhava Parva.” Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-96).

Malik, Yogendra K. and Singh, V. B.  (1992) “Bharatiya Janata Party: An Alternative to the Congress (I)?” Asian Survey. Vol. 32, Issue 4: 318-336. DOI: 10.2307/2645149

Prasopchigchana, Sarunya (2011) “Symbolic Representation in Buddhism.” International Journal on Humanistic Ideology. Volume 4, Issue 2: 101-111. Cluj-Napoca: International Journal on Humanistic Ideology.

Renggli, Franz (2002) “The Sunrise as The Birth Of A Baby: The Prenatal Key to Egyptian Mythology.” Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health. Volume 16, Issue 3: 215-235. Forestville: Association for Pre & Perinatal Psychology and Health.

Rgveda. “HYMN LXXVIII. Aśvins.” Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896).

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

Sayin, H. Umit (2014) “The Consumption of Psychoactive Plants During Religious Rituals.” Neuroquantology. Volume 12, Issue 2: 276-296. Bornova Izmir: Nova Science Publishers.  DOI: 10.14704/nq.2014.12.2.753

Timalsina, Sthaneshwar (2012) “Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions.” International Journal of Hindu Studies. Volume 19, Issue 1: 57-91

_____ (1988)”Vaishnavism.” Encyclopedia of Asian History. Charles Scribner’s Sons (1988). World History in Context.

Zhang, Yi , et al, (2015) “Nutritional composition, physiological functions and processing of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) seeds: a review.” Phytochemisrty Reviews. Volume 14, Issue 3: 321-334. Netherlands: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/s11101-015-9401-9


Recommended areas of Research:

Padma (Sanskrit word for Lotus)

8 symbols of auspiciousness

Visnu & Laksmi

Mount Meru


Nelumbo nucifera


Useful Websites:


Useful Books:

The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent by James C. Harle

Elements of Indian Art by Swarajya Prakash Gupta



Article written by: Jessica Knoop (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its contents.


Dalits and the Dalit Movement

Just as in any functioning society, Hindus in India are organized into groups, and the daily interactions that go on within the groups are facilitated by the social class to which one belongs. While outsiders studying the system may see it as extreme and difficult to understand, Hindu lives have functioned within the social system they know and participate in. The caste system in India dates back as far as around 1400 BC, when the Vedic Aryans migrated into Punjab, India and enslaved the groups already inhabiting the land, including the Dravidians. Before migrating to India, the Aryans already had a system of clan divisions, and when they conquered the people they met in India they segregated them from themselves by race, calling themselves the “Arya Varna” (meaning “master class”), and the slaves the “Dasa Varna” (meaning “slave cast”) (Raj 2-3). This simple distinction was the basis for the system that would grow and develop, eventually forming the modern caste system used by Hindus in India today. The social system, based on ethnic, economic, and religious segregation, divides the people into four main classes, or varna. In Sanskrit, varna means “colour”, and it was speculated that this emphasized the segregation of the coloured races, dating back to the Aryans and the conquered peoples. However, this has since been challenged, and it has been suggested that colour was simply used as a means to distinguish people, not relating to ethnicity at all, but more in the way that one could distinguish the color “pink” from “purple” or “white” from “black” (Varna 2016).

The class system is set up with a basis of four main classes (or varnas): the Brahmins, the Ksatriyas, the Vaisyas, and the Sudras. Each class functions according to the expectations they know to be true for their class; expectations which have both evolved and emerged as the history of Hinduism developed. The origins of the four specific varnas are unclear, and different myths and stories have arisen depicting their creation. In one hymn, the Purusasukta, the varnas are said to have developed from the parts and limbs of Purusa. In this depiction, the Brahmin are said to have come from the mouth, the Ksatriya from the arms, the Vaisya from the legs, and the Sudra from the feet (Davis 52). This imagery clearly demonstrates the places each class holds in society. The four classes are also mentioned in the Rg Veda (one of the most influential Hindu texts), but in the form of three classes called Brahma, Ksatra, and Visa (Ghurye 44). The Brahmin class is the uppermost class, consisting of the elite priests. The Brahmin are responsible for the upholding of dharma, as they themselves are held to a high standard of moral behavior. The Brahmins are distinguished from the Ksatriyas by their ritual knowledge. A Brahmin is able to perform rituals, and can offer up prayers for others, especially in the matter of protection of his king (Ghurye 47). The Ksatriyas form the militant class of India. They are able to carry weapons and it is expected that they would protect the rest of the people in this way. There are some stories of Ksatriyas acting as priests, and the tensions between the Brahmins and the Ksatriyas led to conflict every now and then as they each challenged the authority of the other class. Still, the two classes are known to work closely with each other in order to ensure the function and protection of daily society (Ghurye 50). The Vaisyas constitute the third class, known to be farmers and labourers. This class, best known as “the tenders of cattle”, are in a position of uncertainty. The two upper classes can easily be grouped together, as they both display their authority over Indian society, but the Vaisyas can be grouped either up or down, depending on the behaviour or the situation being analyzed (Ghurye 63). In some situations they are seen as an upper class, while in others they are grouped along with the lowest class, the servants. This makes the lines between the classes hard to distinguish at times, and certainly provides an insight into the complexity and difficulty that comes along with trying to understand the caste system. The fourth class is the Sudras, the lowest of the four. The Sudras are a class destined for tedious, unskilled labour, and service of the upper three classes (Davis 52). Participation and placement in the classes are determined by Jati, meaning one’s birth group, from the Sanskrit word “jata”, meaning “born” or “brought into existence” (Jati 2016). In this way, it is understood that birth determines one’s place in the caste system.

Not included in the four varnas are a fifth class, a class so low in the caste system that they are referred to as “Untouchables”, and therefore excluded from the four-varna system. This class, the Dalits, occupy the lowest of the low in Hindu Indian society, and are highly discriminated against in all aspects of life. They are segregated and given the label of poor status in the economy, politics, employment, and so much more (Kaminsky and Long 156-157). As an outsider analyzing the system, it is important to acknowledge the role that the Dalits play in the interactions among the groups, but from a Hindu point of view, the Dalits are totally unacknowledged (Sadangi 18). The people that occupy this class are viewed by the rest of the classes as polluting, and are therefore given the “polluting” tasks in daily life. Ritual purity is an extremely important concept in Hinduism, and tasks are typically assigned levels of purity or pollution. It is of utmost importance that the upper classes maintain their ritual purity, especially the Brahmins, as they need to be ritually pure in order to perform their rituals. The tasks that are too polluting for the four varnas to participate in are given to the Dalits, as they are already polluted in their fundamental status. Besides occupation, Dalits are excluded from all aspects of daily life of Hindus of the other classes, including social and sexual contact, and eating. Contact between the Dalits and the four varnas is controlled and regulated, and eating among the groups is completely and wholly separated (Shrawagi 2006).

While there are multiple terms used today to describe the “untouchables”, including Harijan, the term “Dalit” itself, although in existence for hundreds of years, was not always used to classify the excluded class, and was popularised fairly recently by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Mohanty and Malik 114). Ambedkar effectively attacked the Indian caste system in his adult life, basing his entire campaign on the sole foundation of social equality (Jagannathan 2015). Born a Dalit himself, Ambedkar has successfully created a new definition for the term “Dalits” as a group of people who are “economically abused, politically neglected, educationally backward, and oppressed in religious and cultural ground because of caste discrimination in society” (Mohanty and Malik 114). The Dalit movement in India really began when India gained independence, but the Dalits were still denied any independence or equality in the new society (Sutradhar 91). This desire for equality urged members to begin pushing back against the upper classes. The upper classes traditionally starved the Dalits in social interaction, education, and the economy, believing that if they could maintain their powerless position in society and prevent them from furthering their education of equality and human rights that they could prevent any notions of dissent against the system, and continue to render the Dalits defenseless against the discrimination imposed on them (Sutradhar 94). However, the Dalits, after enduring centuries of abuse and oppression, began to feel angry about their position in society. They were working the land and serving the upper classes with no enjoyment of the fruits of their own labour. Thus, the Dalit movement was born, and fostered in the minds of those fighting for equality among the classes.

Jyotiba Phule was the first to emphasize the importance of the education of Dalits when it came to the Dalit’s movement, recognizing that with education would come the ability to reason and develop rationale, as well as the ability to carve out a place for oneself in politics and the socio-economic world (Sutradhar 96). This sentiment was carried even further by Dr. Ambedkar, who (along with another great thinker, Gandhi) fought for Dalits’ equality. While Ambedkar deeply desired equality among the classes, he recognized the importance of the caste system in daily social structure, and acknowledged the fact that a whole organization of society cannot change overnight without total chaos and disarray ensuing soon after. In this way, he recognized the need for separate-caste marriages, and pushed for smaller movements toward equality. By doing so, he hoped that eventually the Hindu caste system could gradually transition from one embedded in inequality to one with equality at the forefront, redefining daily interactions and social structures.

The Dalit movement is one that has been going on for years, heightening especially in the 1970’s, but is largely ignored in the grand scheme of things (Sutradhar 97). The feelings of exclusion and oppression felt by the Dalits in India continue to motivate them to keep quiet. The feelings of embarrassment and dedication to the caste system that is so deeply entrenched in Hindu thought and beliefs, and the acceptance of the way things are prove to be huge obstacles in the continuation and growth of the movement, not only in India, but on the world stage. Still, thinkers such as Phule, Ambedkar, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan fed the fire that drives the movement. Radhakrishnan had spoken out against the caste system directly, attacking its values. He emphasized the need to abolish the system (and the idea of untouchability) in order to achieve a modern nation with democracy and human rights for all (Minor 386). Today, in a world so focused on human rights, equality, and liberty of all people, the Dalits movement begs for people all over the world to recognize the needs of their friends in India. In order to see change there must be pressure put on the Indian government both nationally and internationally, and Dalits must come together with non-Dalits in order to achieve a global movement to push for human rights in India to transcend the caste system (Bishwakarma 2015). Until then, over one-sixth of the population of India will continue to live in oppression under the caste system, born into the fate of a Dalit life (Overview of Dalit Human Rights Situation nd).



Bishwakarma, Dil (2015) “ICDR President’s Opening Statement from First Global Conference.” International Commission for Dalit Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Davis, Marvin (1983) Rank and Rivalry: The Politics of Inequality in Rural West Bengal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ghurye, Govind S. (1969) Caste and Race in India. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd.

Jagannathan, R. (2015) “Rescuing Ambedkar from Pure Dalitism: He Would’ve Been India’s Best Prime Minister.” Firstpost. Accessed February 28, 2016.

— “Jati.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Edited by Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Kaminsky, Arnold P., and Roger D. Long (2011) India Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic. California: ABC-CLIO.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) “Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social System.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 1.2. Springer. 386-400.

Mohanty, Panchanan, and Ramesh C. Malik (2011) Ethnographic Discourse of the Other: Conceptual an Methodological Issues. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

 Raj, Ebenezer S (1985) “The Origins of the Caste System.” Transformation 2.2. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 10-14.

Sadangi, Himansu Charan (2008) Emancipation of Dalits and Freedom Struggle. Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

Shrawagi, Rohit (2006) Purity vs. Pollution. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Sutradhar, Ruman (2014) “Dalit Movement in India: In the Light of Four Dalit Literatures.” IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences. 91-97.


Related Topics for Further Interest



Dharma Sastras



Havik Brahmins


Laws of Manu






Rg Veda



Websites Related to the Topic


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

Female Ascetics in Hinduism

Women in Hindu society generally take on a role of and are identified as householders, thus providing for a husband and family. However, some women, though a clear minority, choose a different life path which is the life of the ascetic. An ascetic is regarded as someone who abstains from worldly pleasures often in search of spiritual goals through renunciation (Denton 2). Ascetics seek to free themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely and thereby reach salvation. Although there are a variety of ascetic forms such as celibacy and tantrism, renunciation and the sannyasas or sannyasinis are the most recognizable.

The term sannyasa (male) or sannyasini (female) means ‘abandonment’ or ‘laying aside completely’. Entry into this lifestyle involves a dramatic ritual to symbolically discard the world in which they currently live. To take on the role of a sannyasini one must establish their ritual death. This is done by figuratively cremating oneself or performing their one’s own funeral rites and also by uttering the phrase “None belongs to me, to none do I belong” or a simpler yet no less powerful phrase “I leave absolutely everything behind” (Denton 94). Initiation ceremonies into ascetic life differ from one ascetic to the next, but ritual details such as offering balls of rice to ancestors and creating grass statues of themselves which they later burn to symbolically represent cremation, remain consistent elements to the initiation process (Leslie 219). This initiation ritual into asceticism marks the rejection or separation from householdership; a commitment to a particular path towards ideals such as liberation (moksa), acquiring knowledge of the Absolute (Brahman) or salvation (mukti) through union; and the admittance into a community of fellow ascetics. This initiation process completely relieves a woman of their original social identity and alters the former relationship they had with householder women. They thereby embrace a new set of values far different than those of the ideal woman, wife and householder in Hindu society (Leslie 214). As the practice of world renunciation is seen as a primarily masculine way of life usually for male twice-borns, females who take on the path of renunciation are seen as ones who have left the orthodox norm behind. However, they may often be found to say what is in the minds of many orthodox housewives in regards to their disagreement with family life, ties and what is expected of women at the householder stage (Clementin-Ojha 1988). Some ascetic women have declared nothing but relief over their choice to leave householdership. As one renouncer-ascetic (sannyasini) stated, “In the householder life, you know great pleasure and sorrow, but you cannot know peace. That life is in a state of constant change and so your mind cannot become still. In the ascetic life, you are single-minded and so you can achieve salvation” (Leslie 215). Each sannyasini is different in their pursuit of activities or religious path in that some focus on study, meditation and wandering, where others are found to focus on preaching and teaching ascetic values, hymns and sermons to householder disciples who visit (Denton 95).

An interesting fact about ascetic women and girls is their variation in appearance. One may choose to wear a white sari while others wear red; some tie ochre (gerua) cloth around their torso whereas others may choose to wear white or bright yellow (kesar). In regards to hair, some ascetics choose to have their heads shaven, others with loose and flowing hair; some will trim the hair at earlobe length and oil it and others form it into matted strands (jata) by rubbing ashes into the hair (Leslie 218). The vast majority of ascetic women fall in a cluster around the age of 60, but in the city of Varanasi there is a diversity in the age group of ascetics which correlate well with two types of asceticism, celibacy and renunciation (Denton 122). Since the majority of younger ascetics are unmarried and from high-caste families, it suggests that their families cannot afford dowries thereby leaving their daughters unwed and undesirable. This causes families to send their daughters to Varanasi where young girls will enter brahmacarya or celibacy, which guards their purity and guarantees them a ritual standing higher than that of an ordinary orthodox householder (Denton 123). While the younger ascetic females are free to leave Varanasi and ascetic life at any time, most choose to stay in the city or frequently travel to other city centres where ascetic festivals and feasts occur (Leslie 220). Cities such as Varanasi give proof that although ascetics may give up traditional values of the Hindu social world, they do not necessarily give up society and can actually be found to be comfortable with and accepted by others.

Ascetics tend to put forward a religious reason as to why they chose this life path of worldly renunciation to find their salvation (Clementin-Ojha 1988). However it is difficult to describe a religious practice of a female renouncer because in choosing the life of the ascetic one is no longer committed to a specific path (Leslie 22). A female renouncer-ascetic may follow a “path of knowledge” (Leslie 221) by engaging in the repetition of a mantra or “sacred utterance” (Rodrigues 70) and focusing on meditation. Some may also choose to devote the hours in the day to yoga or sitting in the lotus posture, while others may offer rituals of worship to a goddess such as Durga (Leslie 221). Since renunciation itself bestows such large amounts of freedom upon each individual that one can choose how they devote themselves to a religious path and how they explain their beliefs as well.

The life of a renouncer-ascetic may cause orthodox Hindus to put these women under criticism and scrutiny. Dharma is righteousness, duty, morality, law, social obligations or particular religious teachings (Rodrigues 546) that an individual is expected to follow in Hindu society. To not live according to one’s dharma is considered to be a main offense in Hindu tradition. Women who renounce the life of the householder and the orthodox traditions expected of them are considered to be adopting ‘adharmic’ behavior. They can be seen as rebels, as renunciation from the world is considered to be an effort at achieving their own individual freedom instead of following the life that the orthodoxy had prescribed for them (Clementin-Ojha 1988). Female renouncer-ascetics have strong beliefs, but do not use these beliefs as a way to criticise traditional aspects of Hindu society. By living amongst orthodox Hindus, ascetics show and encourage other members of society to respect their svadharma (one’s own dharma) as they respect the orthodox traditions and its stri-dharma (woman/wife’s code of righteous behavior (Rodrigues 564). Not only do these ascetic women respect the traditions of Hindu society, they often discourage other females to do what they themselves have done by leaving householdership. In research conducted by Catherine Clementin-Ojha, the late Svami Karapatri, a supporter of orthodoxy but also an ascetic, upheld that women could obtain a higher state of consciousness and could become ascetics and guides. However, he did not allow women into his ascetic order and denied that there have never been a “single real sannyasini in India” (Clementin-Ojha 1988).

Although not as common or influential, two other types of female asceticism exist: celibacy and tantrism, both different phenomena from renunciation. Celibate asceticism or a celibate student (brahmacarya) is often one of the first stages of life (asrama) prescribed for twice-born males. It can also occur in a number of other ways, such as a female choosing an institutionalized lifestyle of celibacy and regarding themselves as brahmacarinis, like the classical rite into studentship, or the first twelve years prior to initiation into sannyasa (Denton 96). Celibacy is the intention to remain pure for as long as possible and avoid pollution. Tantric asceticism on the other hand relies mainly on oral tradition. However, there is no ritual of initiation into tantric asceticism as there is for orthodox renunciation and celibacy. Those who define themselves as tantric undertake a “fierce discipline” (Leslie 225) and are said to have achieved powers (siddhi) by practicing difficult acts. It is believed that these acts include sex rituals (maithuna) and a disciplined relationship between themselves and their teacher (Leslie 225). Unlike renunciation, tantric asceticism acknowledges full liberation but also full divinization, putting emphasis on finding a state of bliss (ananda) or madness (pagalpan).

Evidently the life of a female ascetic in Hinduism is a complex, underappreciated and understudied phenomenon in Hindu society. With only little research conducted on the life of female ascetics, mostly over the past few decades, it is hard to determine what truly prompts a Hindu woman to leave the orthodox life of a householder, wife and mother, but it is exceptional to see that these women are willing to defy the norms of traditional Hindu female expectations and let themselves become equal with their male sannyasa counterparts and live out their svadharma and find liberation at their time of physical death.


References and Further Recommended Readings

Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu Tradition: Rules, Roles and Expectations. New York: Routledge Hindu Studies Series.

Chowdhry, Prem (1996) “Marriage, Sexuality and the Female ‘ascetic’: Understanding a Hindu Sect.” Economic and Political Weekly 31.34 2307–2321.

Clementin-Ojha, Catherine (1988) “Outside the Norms: Women Ascetics in Hindu Society.” Economic and Political Weekly. 23(18): WS34-6

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Cranbury: Farleigh Dickinson University Press

Mitra, Kana (1983) ‘Women in Hinduism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 20(4), 585

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism – the eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Teskey Denton, Lynn (2004) Female Ascetics in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Related Topics





Women in Hinduism

Women’s Roles in Hindu Society


Related Websites


Article written by: Kenzie Campbell (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ahimsa (The concept of Non-harming in Hinduism)

Ahimsa, which literally translates as “non-violence” or “non-injury”, refers to non-violence towards both human and non-human beings physically, mentally, and spiritually (Ghosh 13).  The idea of Ahimsa had been educed from two related yet unique sources; among traditional Hindu thinkers, rather than the idea of non-violence, it was the idea of not hurting living beings as all living beings were divine (Parekh 196).  Another source where Ahimsa may have derived is from one of the 10 Buddhist Parami (perfections), namely metta (benevolence).  Both ideas present a similar concept; that all life is sacred and no harm should be done unto each other (Parekh 196).  Ahimsa also has its roots in the belief of samsara (eternal cycle).  Traditional Hindu thinkers believe that the soul of an individual can be reincarnated into an animal, thus the killing of an animal would in actuality be the killing of a person.  This belief is particularly in reference to cattle, whom they claim are sacred animals (Schneider 87).

Although the exact origin of the term is unknown, Ahimsa is found in many Hindu scriptures, and predates Aryan culture.  Its earliest known origin in texts can traced back to the Rgveda conception of rta (that which is properly/excellently joined; order, rule; truth) (Heimann 331).  Rta is closely affiliated with dharma (duty), demanding that every living and non-living being follow the cosmic order of their existence in such a way that it does not avert others from being able to follow their own laws of existence (Heimann 331).  In the Mahabharata, the concept of Ahimsa does have exceptions to the rule of non-violence; ksatriyas (warrior caste) who would fight in battle would have their sins dissipated by their acts of heroism in battle in order to secure the advancement of all beings.  A king may also destroy those who may deserve to be destroyed, in order to protect the people of his kingdom. (Ghosh 47).  The Bhagavadgita, in the Mahabharata, is a significant scripture in the Hindu tradition that regards the concept of Ahimsa.  In the epic, Arjuna’s refusal to fight his former allies and loved ones in battle was from the desire for Ahimsa (Ghosh 52).  Ahimsa has multiple variations of its name and definition in many Hindu scriptures, although not all scriptures mention or contain much insight on the concept itself, they do appear in the Upanisads, Brahmanas, Dharma Sastras, Tripitakas (Buddhist canonical literature), Dhammapada (Buddhist scripture), Yajur Veda, and other Hindu scriptures [For more information concerning the concept of Ahimsa in the Rgveda, Upanisads, Bhagavadgita and Mahabharata, see Klostermaier (1996) and Ghosh (1989)].

Traditionally, Ahimsa in Hinduism was not the highest ideal, as animal sacrifice in some rituals was, and still is, part of Hindu tradition.  The later traditions of Buddhism and Jainism would eventually hold the concept (in particular, the Jains) as one of its most important virtues, with complete abstinence from harm necessary in order to reach their ultimate goal of moksa (liberation) (Klostermaier 228).  Although Ahimsa was not considered the highest ideal in Hindu tradition, it was still encouraged among Hindus because the avoidance of harm to both humans and animals would bring the individual closer to moksa (Framarin 286, 288).  Historically, it was not until Emperor Ashoka (268-233 BCE) popularized the concept of Ahimsa through his conversion to Buddhism and by stressing the sanctity of animal life that the concept truly spread through India and Asia (Sharma 60).  Again, the concept of Ahimsa does not refer only to the act of physical non-violence, but mental and spiritual non-violence as well.  Spiritual non-violence, which is making peace with one’s self, is of the utmost importance in Hindu religious tradition to achieve.  Once spiritual non-violence is attained, the body and mind follow effortlessly (Sharma 58).  Ahimsa is also an important part of Patanjali Yoga, in which Ahimsa is the first of five yamas (moral restraints), along with satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (sexual abstinence), and aparigraha (freedom from covetousness).  All five yamas must be practiced in order to achieve a state of inner peace (Klostermaier 232).  Ahimsa is considered an important and universal concept in the Yoga Sutras as well, and asserts that Ahimsa should not only be observed towards certain circumstances in time, but that it be observed universally (Klostermaier 234).  Though Hindu tradition acknowledges the concept and practices of Ahimsa, classical Indian tradition scholars believe that Ahimsa did not mean a total abstinence from harm for them, but rather to encourage alpadroha (minimum violence possible that one is responsible for).  Likewise, in Buddhist and Jain tradition, minimal violence as possible is an accepted reality, and those tolerant of minimal violence typically were also tolerant of war and the justifiable treatment of criminals (Parekh 197).

In Buddhist tradition, Ahimsa is not considered a doctrine, nor is it a theory.  It is not a doctrine, as it is not adopted, discussed or defended in Classical Indian Buddhism literature.  It is not considered a theory, as the act of Ahimsa does not enable a better understanding of the nature and structure of the cosmos.  Although Buddhism does not define Ahimsa as a doctrine or a theory, it is indeed considered a cardinal virtue (Chinchore 103).    A Buddhist will recognize his relationship to living beings as being so essential and symbiotic that any act of violence towards another being will certainly harm themselves.  Additionally, the act of non-violence in a Buddhists life is one virtue that contributes in bringing them closer to their ultimate goal of nirvana (a state of perfect happiness) (Ghosh 58).  Although there are some differences in the concept of Ahimsa among the three traditions, the idea of Ahimsa itself stays relatively the same.  As such, all three traditions believe that in order to achieve Ahimsa, one must begin at the mind, as the determination for doing anything begins at the mental level first (Ghosh 59).  In contrast between the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, a notable difference in the concept of Ahimsa is in regards to animal sacrifices.  According to scripture, Lord Buddha claims animal sacrifices are undesirable and unnecessary in order to perform sacrifices, and rather than doing harm to animals, one can instead offer clothing or food such as rice as offerings (Ghosh 64) [For more information regarding Buddhist practices of Ahimsa, see Ghosh (1989)].

Jainism, founded by Mahavira in 5th century BCE, holds the concept of Ahimsa as its most important concept, and base their traditions around this fundamental principle.  Multiple agamas (Jain canonical literature) emphasize that any act of violence towards any living being will increase their sins in the next life, and to eliminate these sins, one must not commit any acts of violence whatsoever (Sharma 61).  Jainism considers Ahimsa as both a doctrine and an elaborate theory, and consider Ahimsa as a vrata (vow, promise).  In addition to their dedication to the practice of Ahimsa, Jains typically perform tapas (asceticism) in order to achieve moksa (Cort 721).  Because Jainism holds the concept of Ahimsa as a much more important and complex idea than either Hindu or Buddhist tradition, Jain tradition adopts the concept quite literally, and as a result, some of its practices of asceticism are considered more extremist or obsessive in nature in dedication to this concept (Chinchore 105).  Jainism practice also involves strict dietary restriction; the killing or eating of an animal would bind one to karma, which keeps one tied to the cycle of rebirth (samsara).  Certain plants may not be consumed in order to avoid the possibility of killing microscopic organisms that may further bind them to karma, and retract them from moksa [For more detail regarding Jain philosophy and its practices of asceticism, see Cort (2002)] (Cort 723-724).

Outside of the religious traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, Ahimsa holds importance in civil and religious law as an ethical doctrine in Hindu tradition, and re-emerged in popularity during the beginning of the 20th century through Mahatma Gandhi.  The concept of Ahimsa, in essence, “sows the seed of tolerance” among others, promoting a sense of equality (Heimann 333).  Mahatma Gandhi coined and developed the term satyagraha (truth) derived from his principles of Ahimsa, and came to popularize and modernize the concept of Ahimsa in ethical and political terms (Parekh 198).  Through his popularity and political influence, Gandhi gave the concept of Ahimsa multiple definitions under different circumstances; a thief that would attack a man was committing an act of Himsa, but a surgeon using a knife in order to save a human being was not committing an act of Himsa, as the act was attempting to alleviate the pain the individual felt (Parekh 198).  Rather than practicing Ahimsa through the literal translation of what it means, Gandhi emphasized that Ahimsa has both ‘narrow’ (negative) and ‘broad’ (positive) categorical definitions of the term.  In its narrow sense, Ahimsa was the literal practice of non-violence, but in its more broad definition, it meant the promotion of well-being to all living things (Parekh 198).  This difference in definition of the concept was brought forth because rather than being concerned with the direct harming of another being, Gandhi was more focused on the daily suffering that occurs around the world that was a result of social, economic and political exploitation (Ghosh 118).  Gandhi was not without criticism and controversy, however; Indian scholars considered Gandhi’s concept of Ahimsa as a radical redefinition and distant from the traditional Hindu concept of Ahimsa.  For this reason, critics would argue that Gandhi was hypocritical of his concept through his own actions; an injured calf in Gandhi’s possession was euthanized at Gandhi’s request in order to alleviate the calf of suffering.  In turn, this caused Gandhi’s critics to reiterate the Indian doctrine of Ahimsa in which any act of killing was unjustifiable, regardless of how much pain the creature was in, and that Gandhi’s Western influence of the alleviation of pain was a more vital concept to Gandhi rather than the absolute preservation of life that held true to the classical Hindu traditional thinking of the definition (Parekh 203).

The concept and practice of Ahimsa is dynamic in its source, and the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism contribute their own understanding of how non-violence is defined (Sharma 64).  The definition of Ahimsa is truly broad in its context, but there is an important similarity in the concept of Ahimsa among the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions: that the prana (life force) is universally sacred and vital to the cosmos for all living beings (Walker 149).



Amore, Roy C. (1996) “Peace and Non-violence in Buddhism.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  p. 240 – 259.


Chinchore, Mangala (2005) “Conception of Ahimsa in Buddhism: A Critical Note.”  Annals of  the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 85 No. 1: 103-109.


Cort, J. E. (2002) “Singing the Glory of Asceticism: Devotion of Asceticism in Jainism.” Journal of The American Academy Of Religion Vol. 70, No. 4: 719-742.


Framarin, Christopher (2011) “The value of nature in Indian (Hindu) traditions.”  Religious Studies 47 #3 (September): 285-300.


Ghosh, Indu M. (1989) Ahimsa: Buddhist and Gandhian.  Delhi: Balaji Enterprises.


Hay, Stephen (1996) “Gandhi’s Non-violence: Metaphysical, Moral, Political and International Aspects.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  p. 278 – 295.


Heimann, Betty (1932) “Substance of the Lecture on the philosophical aspect of Ahimsa.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 13, No. 3: 331-334.


Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1996) “Himsa and Ahimsa Traditions in Hinduism.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 227 – 239.


Parekh, Bhikhu (1988) “Gandhi’s Concept of Ahimsa.”  Alternatives XIII: 195-217.


Ravindra, Ravi (1995) “Ahimsa, transformation, and ecology.” ReVision Vol. 17, No. 3: 23-34.


Schneider, Burch H. (1948) “The Doctrine of Ahimsa and Cattle Breeding in India.” The Scientific Monthly Vol. 67, No. 2: 87-92.


Sharma, Satish (1999) “Peace and nonviolence in the Indian religious tradition.”  Peace Research 31 #1: 58-65.  Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite University.


Walker, Claire (1994) “What do we mean by non-violence?” Journal of Religion and Psychical Research Vol. 17, No. 3: 146-150.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Aryan Culture









Dharma Sastras



Yajur Veda




Patanjali Yoga







Mahatma Gandhi




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Nicholas Urquhart (March 2015) who is soley responsible for its content.

River Goddesses

Evidence of the importance of femininity in the Hindu religion dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization in 2500 BCE (Rodrigues 31), the source of thousands of terracotta female figurines (Hawley and Wulff 1). Further evidence lies in Vedic scripture that dates back to 1500 to 1000 BCE (Rodrigues 496). Vedic literature is still revealed today and has with numerous references to goddesses and women (Hawley and Wulff 2). Evidently, Hindu goddesses were and still are embedded in all aspects of life and land (Foulston and Abbott 1). This close association between India’s geography and the divine is an ongoing theme throughout the Hindu religion. This is evident when one listens to the traditional stories told and heard throughout India (Eck 11). Pilgrimages, rituals, and festivals related to India’s landscape still continue today and help illustrate how symbolic the geography of India really is.

Hindu goddesses are known to represent seemingly complex notions such as power and energy. These same goddesses can be found manifesting in simple forms such as water and rivers throughout India (Foulston and Abbott 2). The symbol of water signifies potentiality, fluidity, and a vehicle for creation (Baartmans 210). Water, according to the Vedas is all encompassing; it is foundational to the universe (Baartmans 214-215). Rivers, as sacred entities, are said to be known as “the great descenders” (Eck 18-19). In fact, the latter portions of the Rg Veda claims that anyone bathing where the Ganga and Yamuna meet will rise to heaven (Eck 145). Further evidence for this lies in the Padma Purana, as it states that bathing and drinking in the junction between the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati allows one to achieve freedom (Eck 147). The belief that these river goddesses can grant access to heaven or freedom, which are common goals in Hinduism, demonstrate the extent to which Hindus believe in the power of these goddesses.

India’s rivers and their goddesses are intricately entwined. They form trivenis, or “triple-braids,” as they meet in different forms throughout the land (Eck 7). These trivenis are often interpreted symbolically as “sacred crossings” or tirthas and represent “spiritual ladders to heaven” (Eck 10, 140). The rivers are pilgrimage sites for both humans and the goddesses (Eck 167). Humans visit these holy sites to gain freedom and a deeper devotion to their faith. The river goddesses visit other rivers seeking support when exhausted by their own pilgrims (Eck 167).

River goddesses are referenced by the Vedas as “mothers” (Eck 166). The seven “mother-rivers” are the oldest collection of rivers in India (Eck 167). In modern India, the focus of worship lies around the seven rivers known as the saptanadi: the Ganga, Yamuna, Sindu, Narmada, Godavari, Krsna, and the Kaveri (Eck 168). The water belonging to these river goddesses is said to be analogous with milk belonging to the mothers themselves, as well as soma (Eck 138), a sacred plant and intoxicating beverage (Rodrigues 67). It is the mantras, or sacred verses, (Rodrigues 168) of these rivers and goddesses that are recited while performing modern Hindu water rituals.

Ganga, the holiest of all Hindu rivers (Oestigaard 130), is also known as the goddess “Mother Ganga” (Eck 131). According to myth, the water of Ganga divides into many streams as it descends from the heavens (Kinsley 188). Therefore, Ganga and the rest of the Hindu sacred river goddesses are said to have a divine descent from heaven (Eck 138 – 140). Together, the Ganga and Sarasvati Rivers purify, nourish and fertilize the land of India (Kinsley 57). Today, Hindus worship Ganga by bathing along her river and offering flowers, oil lamps, and even ashes of loved ones while performing sraddha rites, or death rites (Eck 163), in her waters (Eck 131-132). Ganga Dusehra is a ten-day celebration of Mother Ganga on the tenth day of the third month, Jayeshta (Dwivedi 27). During this festival, Hindus bathe in Ganga’s waters, take her clay home with them, chant her name, and meditate along her banks (Dwivedi 28). Bathing in Ganga’s waters is also regarded as a purifying practice during other festivals, such as Makara Sankranti, a harvest festival (Dwivedi 32-33).

Bas-relief of the Hindu river goddess Ganga at the Ellora Caves (Ellora, India)
Bas-relief of the Hindu river goddess Ganga at the Ellora Caves (Ellora, India)

Now extinct, the river Sarasvati used to be associated with her cleansing properties (Eck 145). Today, the goddess Sarasvati is largely recognized as being associated with the theme of arts and learning (McDermott 3608), creativity and knowledge (Ludvik 1), oral artistry and culture in general (Kinsley 55). Sarasvati is also either the daughter or wife of Brahma, the source of creation (Kinsley 55). As a river, Sarasvati is commonly known as representing both purity and abundance. According to Vedic literature she is also known as a “healing medicine” (Kinsley 56). Currently, Sarasvati is celebrated on the fifth day of the twelfth month, Phalguna, during the spring festival called Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 30). During the celebration, Hindus will often wear bright colors, especially yellow, to welcome the arrival of the spring season and honor Sarasvati (Dwivedi 30). Hindus tend to partake in ancestor worship, Pitri-Tarpan, and rooftop kite flying on Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 31).

Myth claims that Krsna, a highly worshipped deity, was forced to grow up in and came to love the lands surrounding the Yamuna River (Eck 170). Many believe that Ganga’s love for Krsna stems from the mergence of Ganga and Yamuna at the site of Prayag (Eck 170). This union is also regarded as sacred to the Hindu religion as death in this location was once thought to be fruitful (Dwivedi 138). Also taking place in Prayag is Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering (Gupta 1329). Every twelve years Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain take turns hosting Kumbh Mela celebrations in which millions participate in the purifying practice of bathing at the union of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers (Gupta 1329). It is regarded as highly sacred to do so when the planets align correctly and a full moon is present (Gupta 1329). Yamuna is recognized as the “daughter of the sun” and the “waters of love” (Eck 169-170). Many Hindus sing hymns and visit Divya Shila, the Divine Stone, and the Ma Yamuna temple at Yamunotri to worship the image of Yamuna (Eck 169-170).

Narmada runs through central India and is known to have the most sacred sites along its riverside (Eck 467). Although there are many myths on the subject of Narmada’s creation, it is widely accepted that both the river and goddess were formed by the very sweat of divine Siva’s face (Eck 172). Another common belief is that Narmada’s main role on earth is to relieve mortals of their sins (Eck 173). Parikrama or Pradakshina, meaning circumambulation, is the highly recommended pilgrimage of the Narmada (Eck 170). It is common for Hindus to divide this nearly nine hundred mile hike into sections. By doing so, what would be a three year journey, is instead, completed over one’s lifetime (Eck 171). Shri Narmada, within the Narmada Mandir temple, is a sacred shrine dedicated to Narmada. Offerings such as white candy Prasad, incense, and split coconuts are brought here to worship Narmada (Eck 173-174).

According to legend, the river and goddess, Godavari, descended to earth on a hill called Brahmagiri as a form of Ganga. Godavari is also known by the name, Gautami, due to a myth involving the sage, Gautama (Eck 175). In this myth, Gautama killed a cow, committing the worst sin possible according to the Hindu religion. Godavari is now commonly referred to as Gautami because of her heavenly descent that relieved Gautama’s sin (Eck 176). Pilgrims today commonly visit a well on top of Brahmagiri, a shrine dedicated to Siva, the ritual bathing site, the Chakra Tirtha, and the Gangadvara, a symbolic representation of the “Door of Ganga”, through which they worship Godavari (Eck 176). Another common pilgrimage to worship the deity Godavari, is to Nasik, famous for the settlement of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in the Ramayana (Eck 177), a prominent Hindu epic (Eck 470). This site hosts millions of Hindu pilgrims for mela, or bathing festivals (Eck 467) During mela, the waters are infused with numerous floating lights (Eck 178).

The river Kaveri is said to be the goddess, Vishnumaya, a deity worshipped by lower castes (Hoeppe 126), in liquid form. According to the Puranas, Kaveri was sent by Visnu to water the land as she descends from the heavens and becomes a symbol for blessing (Eck 179). The Kaveri River is the site of many famous Hindu pilgrimage temples such as, Shrirangapattanam, Shivasamudram, and the most well known temple of Visnu on the island of Shrirangam (Eck 180).

Pushkaram is a popular Hindu festival in which the twelve main rivers and their goddesses are celebrated at different astrologically determined times once every twelve years (Dalal no page). The seven “mother-rivers” (Eck 167), previously mentioned, are included in these twelve as well as the Bhima, Tapati, Tungabhadra, Indus, and Pranahita Rivers (Dalal no page). Other minor rivers may be worshipped such as the Tamraparni and the Sangutirtham, but these are less popular (Dalal no page). Ancestor worship, bathing, and making offerings is said to grant spiritual benefits because it is believed that the divine bathe in these rivers during this festival (Dalal no page).

Performance of sraddha or visarjana, the “committal of ashes to the river” is commonly done on the rivers of India (Eck 163). Prayaga, Kashi, and Gaya, the tristhali or “three places”, are popular sites for these death rituals (Eck 163). Many myths surround these acts, but one of the most widespread beliefs is that the rivers can grant liberation or moksa (Eck 147). In the past, one of the death rituals was to commit suicide at Prayaga in hopes to obtain moksa (Eck 165). A common tradition is to honor the loved one’s ashes, release and sink them in the river, and offer rice balls, pindas, to connect the deceased with their deceased ancestors in heaven (Eck 164). It is said that for ten days following a death, one rice-ball a day is to be sacrificed on an altar bordering a river (Oestigaard 158).

The importance of water is displayed in verses dedicated to various deities and also in its life-giving contribution to creation of the universe (Oestigaard 239). With ritual purity and pollution playing such a large role in Hinduism, water and rivers, as life-giving elements, are especially prone to pollution. Pilgrimages, daily bathing, relieving of sins, and countless offerings to the rivers and their goddesses are all efforts to achieve and maintain purity. The consequences of these acts can have negative, polluting effects on the rivers and goddesses themselves (Eck 183-184). In Hinduism, death is regarded as the greatest source of impurity (Oestigaard 241). With that said, India’s rivers and river goddesses face a dilemma both physically and spiritually, as clothes and charcoal from death rituals (Oestigaard 199) are constantly polluting the sacred rivers, with the Yamuna River being the most polluted of them all (Eck 184). Although impure objects should not be cast into the water, it is still a daily occurrence (Narayanan 184). Despite the ongoing restoration efforts, “the rivers that are said to have descended to earth as sources of salvation are now, in their earthly form, in need of salvation themselves” (Eck 188).



Hawley, John Stratton (1998) “The Goddess in India.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. pp. 1-28.

Baartmans, Frans (2000) The Holy Waters: A Primordial Symbol in Hindu Myths. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Dalal, Roshen (2010) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. New Delhi: The Penguin Group.

Dwivedi, Anil Kumar (2007) Encyclopaedia of Indian Customs and Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Eck, Diana L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Random House, Inc.

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

Gupta, Om (2006) Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (In 9 Volumes). Delhi: Isha Books.

Hoeppe, Gotz (2007) Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India. New York: Berghahn Books.

Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Ludvik, Catherine (2007) Sarasvati, Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.

McDermott, Rachel Fell (2005) “Goddess Worship: The Hindu Goddess.” In Lindsay Jones, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. p. 3607-3611. Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning.

Narayanan, Vasudha (2001) “Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions.” Daedalus, Vol. 130, No. 4: 179-206

Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life-Giving Waters: Cremation, caste, and cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.

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


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Water rituals

Hindu goddesses

India’s geography

Pilgrimages in India

Water in India

Rivers in India


Mother rivers

Seven sindhus










Sraddha rites

Ganga Dusehra

Makara Sankranti

Vasant Panchoumi



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Ritual purity


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Article written by: Jaelee Kryzanowski (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.



Hinduism and Animal Rights

 Within South Asia, where Hinduism is prevalent, animals are treated with a certain level of respect. Many Hindus, particularly the upper class Brahmins, opt for a vegetarian lifestyle, mainly so that no harm will be inflicted upon any animal. [For more information see Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It [Phelps (2013)]. Refraining from eating meat also serves the very important purpose of maintaining ritual purity. Priests and other high-ranking religious figures must absolutely adhere to a vegetarian lifestyle in order to achieve of a high level of purity, which will allow them to fulfill their priestly duties. [For more information see How to Become a Hindu: A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus, Subramuniyaswami (2002)]. Many Hindus believe that performing priestly duties requires a significant level of spiritual consciousness that cannot be attained with a meat-based diet. This vegetarian lifestyle is not merely a modern movement, rather, Hindus have been following this practice since the Vedas first appeared, thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The Vedas promote vegetarianism primarily because all animals are said to have once been human, or have the potential to become a human again. This is because Hindus believe in reincarnation. Maiming or killing an animal is frowned upon because humans share the same life force as all the animals residing on earth (Puskar-Pasewicz 87). Evidently, it is clear that animals receive a very high status in the Hindu faith. However, it is important to note that there are occasions where violence is permitted. If one wishes to make an offering to the gods, sacrificing an animal is usually permitted, but only if there are significant benefits derived from doing so (Dombrowski 22).

To Hindus who promote vegetarianism, one may ignore the Vedic scriptures and continue to harm animals and eat meat, but this comes at a cost. As mentioned earlier, purity and spiritual consciousness will be greatly inhibited by opting for a meat-based diet. Without an adequate level of spiritual consciousness, one is unable to attain the ultimate Hindu goal of moksa, which is essentially freedom from the painful cyclical rebirth that an individual faces after death. Attaining moksa is achievable only by recognizing that we are all one with the divine; this recognition requires a high level of spiritual awareness (Bhattacharyya 181-182). By saying that we are all one with divine, we must realize that this definition includes all living beings, not just humans. While many other religions believe in immortal souls that are invested with the divine, Hinduism acknowledges the existence of a soul in all living things (Edwards, 136). If one does decide to harm animals, one will risk developing bad karma. Karma can essentially be seen as the collection of one’s actions, whether good or bad, which will influence the person’s subsequent lives. So if one gathers a lot of bad karma, they are basically harming themselves in the future. Likewise, if someone behaves in a proper manner, particularly towards other living beings, good karma will develop. One of the most significant points about karma to know is that it is something that cannot be erased; that is, if you have developed a lot of bad karma, the only way to ensure a better life is by performing acts that promote good karma (Thirumalai 117). Indeed, proper treatment of animals is seen as critical if one wishes to achieve the ultimate goal of moksa, or at the very least, to ensure a better subsequent life.

For centuries, many animals residing in Southeast Asia have benefitted from the Hindu belief system. The Hindu desire to achieve moksa had allowed many animals to roam freely and avoid harm. However, within the past several centuries, the rise of modernity and globalism has led to a change of values within many Hindu countries. Prior values of the upper classes, such as vegetarianism, are at risk of being erased (Phelps 201). The Hindu perspective of the treatment of animals is beginning to radically shift. Animals that were once treated with respect are now being treated as a commodity. Since karma and moksa are significantly impacted by how we treat other living beings, the transition from vegetarianism to eating meat can potentially be seen as the slow destruction of the Hindu faith itself. Seeing this clear threat, an organization has appeared within India called the “Hindu Renaissance Movement.” This movement has the primary goal of encouraging faithful Hindus from all castes to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle in order to conserve the Hindu identity (Phelps 201-202). This movement is very important because, traditionally, only the upper caste of Hindu society would refrain from meat, while the lower castes had frequently consumed meat (Muesse 81). The emphasis for all castes to refrain from meat is an indicator of the changing ideals that are occurring within South Asia today. Although there is a shifting attitude due to the west’s influence, it is important to note that some animals are still privy to a life free from slaughter due to their high status. One well-known example of a high-status animal is the cow, which Hindus believe symbolizes the whole animal kingdom. The cow is symbolic of all mothers, due to its ability to provide us with many forms of sustenance, such a milk, dried dung, and even urine, which is seen as a cleansing agent (Muesse 81).  Even if a Hindu has made the transition from vegetarian to meat-eater, the cow would still not be harmed because of the severe karmic consequences. In ancient Sanskrit texts, cows were seen as symbolic of the Brahmin; therefore, killing a cow is considered to be equally as bad as killing a member from the Brahmin class (Doniger 658). The significance of the cow is important to note when considering one of the most disastrous consequences of modernism: pollution.

Since the rise of modernism, pollution within our world had become rampant. Many modern products are composed of such things as plastic and metal, which do not decompose easily. With waste found in nearly every part of the globe, many animals are at a serious risk of consuming litter and subsequently suffering an excruciating death. One such animal that has been the victim of pollution is the cow. In South Asia, particularly India, it is forbidden for cows to be killed because of their high status, so many cows are instead allowed to roam the streets freely. It is assumed that cattle can freely graze on grass until they die of old age. Unfortunately, investigations have shown that many cattle have an abundance of plastic bags within their stomachs, which not only have no nutritional value, but also are also not digestible (Thumb 235). Although Hindus have a high level of respect for cows, their refusal to slaughter them has indirectly led many cows to suffer slow and painful deaths. Additionally, allowing animals to roam free in India has led to many car accidents, which as result has led to many human and cow deaths (Thumb 235-236).

Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India

In relation to animals, Hindus are quite peaceful; however, there are occasions when animals are sacrificed. Throughout the Vedas, sacrifice is seen as something that should occur, going so far as to suggest certain animals that would be ideal for sacrifice. [Animal Sacrifices, see Regan (1987)]. Even though the tradition of sacrificing animals has ancient roots, it has not disappeared. There are still many festivals and events within Hinduism that require animal sacrifice. It is important to note at this point that sacrifice does not necessarily pertain to the killing of an animal, although that still can occur at times. Animal sacrifices are usually symbolic acts. A major component of a sacrifice is the ritual, not the harming of an animal. In the rare instances when an animal is killed, Hindus explain that it is not an ordinary killing because there is no hate directed toward the animal (Regan 202). Essentially, even on occasions when an animal is killed, it is seen as a justifiable act. Perhaps by looking at the relationship that Hindu followers have with their pets, this concept can be solidified. Pets are very popular in Hindu culture. Families that own pets treat them as if they are members of their own family. Many pets are fed and taken care of quite well because it is seen as a religious duty to care for animals, especially if one is responsible for them. By faithfully taking care of one’s pet, Hindu followers will achieve good karma (Regan 201). This interaction between persons and their pets conveys the idea that Hindu followers have good intentions within their relationships with all animals.

In addition to an individual’s relationship with animals, there have also been many Hindu organizations and groups that have arisen to protect animals and vegetation. One well-known group, which has existed for nearly half a millennium, is the Bishnois group from western India. This group was founded on the idea that harming the environment will ultimately harm the individual. [For more information see Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability, Jain (2013)]. This notion was so deeply ingrained within this community that many have died in defense of this cause; it was better to sacrifice oneself than to develop bad karma. One well-known historical example of the Bishnois’ devotion to animal conservancy is found in the 1940s, before India’s independence from the British Empire. A group of British soldiers were traveling by train through a Bishnois village. One soldier decided to fire several shots at the nearby animals. As soon as the Bishnois people realized what was occurring, they attacked the train. Even with the arrival of modernity, the Bishnois are still very passionate about animals and the environment; in 1975 the Bishnois established one of the most well-known Hindu animal rights organizations, the Jeev Raksha (Jain 70). This organization is indicative of the idea that Hindus are in staunch opposition to any killing of animals, with the exception of sacrifice. Although this organization is localized, there are many other Hindu organizations that operate on an international level. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) is unique in the sense that it has its focus on US and international policies. Issues such as the proper treatment of cattle are advocated for on a frequent basis (Flueckiger 223). With the mass consumption of meat in the western world, companies have turned a blind eye to the treatment of animals before and during their slaughter. Although HAF will not likely be able to influence millions of individuals to convert to veganism, they can influence the treatment of the animals.

Finally, although one may only speculate on the future of animal rights within Hinduism, the rise of animal conservancy organizations suggests that proper treatment of animals will likely exist far into the future. However, it is quite likely that maintaining animal rights will require more effort due to western influences and due to the ever-increasing amount of pollution, which continues to indirectly harm all life.



Bhattacharyya, Ashim K. (2006) Hindu Dharma: Introduction to Scriptures and Theology. Indiana: iUniverse, Inc.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. (1988) Hartshorne and the Metaphysics of Animal Rights. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2009) The Hindus: An Alternative History. Westminster: Penguin Books.

Edwards, Linda (2001) A Brief Guide to Beliefs: Ideas, Theologies, Mysteries, and Movements. Westminster: John Knox Press.

Flueckiger, Joyce (2015) Everyday Hinduism. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jain, Pankaj (2013) Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Muesse, Mark (2011) The Hindu Traditions: A Concise Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Phelps, Norm (2013) Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation is So Hard and How We Can Win It. Brooklyn: Lantern Books.

Puskar-Pasewicz, Margaret (ed.)(2010) Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Regan, Tom (1987) Animal Sacrifices. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Subramuniyaswami, Sivaya (2002) How to Become a Hindu: A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus. Hawaii: Himalayan Academy Pubns.

Thirumalai, Madasamy (2002) Sharing Your Faith With a Hindu. Michigan: Bethany House Publishers.

Thumb, Tom (2009) Hand to Mouth to India. Road Junky Publishing.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Blood sacrifice


Chambhar caste


Gadhimai Mela







Shakahara Vrata


Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam



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Article written by: Kyle Klassen (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.