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Approach:

  1. Intro – give an overview of religion in Ancient India.
  2. Explain how developments in religion carried forward traditional strains as well as introduced new strains of unorthodoxy.
  3. Conclusion

Religion played an important part in the lives of the Indians from the earliest times. It meant a way of life which enables a human to realize his true nature and attain Moksha. It assumed numerous forms in relation to different groups of people associated with them. Religious ideas, thoughts and practices differed among these groups and transformations and developments took place in the various religious forms in course of time. It ranged from Pre Vedic and Vedic religion (giving rise to 6 orthodox schools of thoughts) to unorthodox sects of Buddhism, Jainism and Charvaka to theistic religion of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, etc.

Development along traditional lines: The origin of Indian religion is traced to Pre-Vedic times where people worshipped forces of nature like sun and moon. Vedas thrown light on religious practices of ritual offering of food and drinks to honour the Gods. Yajur veda talks about different aspects of sacrificial acts. The worship of Yakshas and Nagas and other folk deities constituted the most important part of primitive religious beliefs, in which Bhakti had a very important role to play. A large number of people worshipped Vasudeva Krishna exclusively as their personal God and they were at first known as Bhagavatas. Vaishnava poet-saints known as alvars (a Tamil word denoting those drowned in Vishnu- bhakti) preached single-minded devotion (ekatmika bhakti) for Vishnu and their songs were collectively known as prabandhas. Worship of the female principle (Shakti) and of Surya did not achieve equal importance as the other two major brahminical cults. The female aspect of the divinity might have been venerated in the pre-Vedic times. In the Vedic age respect was shown also to the female principle as the Divine Mother, the Goddess of abundance and personified energy (Shakti).

Development along Unorthodox lines: The Ritualistic domination of Brahmanas eventually led to a system of exploitation of other castes at their hands. Further, ill treatment of shudras and women coupled with new socio- economic conditions heralded by agricultural economy and circulation of coins provided fertile ground for new religions to come up and address the grievances of people. Buddhism, in 5-6th century BC, presented a simple set of principles of life and practical ethics that people could follow easily (8 fold path) Buddha criticized blind faith in traditional scriptures like the Vedas. Similarly, Jainism also did not believe in Vedas and opposed Brahminical hierarchy. It opposed the use of Sanskrit which was not a language of masses and instead preached in Prakrit. Charvaka school of philosophy rejected Vedic notions of Atman and Brahman. It held the view that matter is the ultimate reality since it can be perceived. Death, is end of humans and pleasure is the ultimate object in life.

Creeds of theistic character evolved almost simultaneously with the non-theistic religions. The important deities of these religions were not primarily Vedic ones. Influence of pre-vedic and post-vedic folk elements were most conspicuous in their origin.