The Universal Religion
In the dim past what we call Hinduism today was prevalent all over the world. Archaeological studies reveal the existence of relics of our Vedic religion in many countries. For instance, excavations have brought up the text of a treaty between Rameses II and the Hittites dating back to the 14th century BC In this, the Vedic gods Mitra and Varuna are mentioned as witnesses to the pact. There is a connection between the name of Rameses and that of our Rama.
About 75 per cent of the names of places in Madagascar have a Sanskritic origin.
In the Western Hemisphere too there is evidence of Hinduism having once flourished there. In Mexico a festival is celebrated at the same time as our Navaratri; it is called "Rama-Sita". Wherever the earth is dug up images of Ganapati are discovered here1. The Aztecs had inhabited Mexico before the Spaniards conquered that land. "Aztecs" must be a distorted form of "Astikas". In Peru, during the time of the holy equinox [vernal?] worship was conducted in the sun temple. The people of this land were called Incas: "ma" is one of the Sanskrit names of the sun god. Don't we call Rama "lnakula-tilaka2?"
There is a book containing photographs of the aborigines of Australia dancing in the nude (The Native Tribes of Central Australia, by Spencer Killan, pages 128 & 129). A close look at the pictures, captioned "Siva Dance", shows that the dancers have a third eye drawn on the forehead3.
In a virgin forest in Borneo which, it is said, had not been penetrated by any human being until recently, explorers have found a sacrificial post with an inscription in a script akin to our Grantha5characters. Historians know it as the inscription of Mulavarman of Kotei4. Mention is made in it of a sacrifice, the king who performed it, the place where the yupa was installed. That the king gave away kalpavrksas as a gift to Brahmins is also stated in this inscription. All such details were discovered by Europeans, the very people who ridicule our religion.
Now something occurs to me in this context, something that you may find amusing. You know that the Sagaras5 went on digging the earth down to the nether world in search of their sacrificial horse. An ocean came into being in this way and it was called sagara after the king Sagara.
The Sagaras, at last, found the horse near the hermitage of Kapila Maharishi. Thinking that he must be the man who had stolen the animal and hidden it in the nether world they laid violent hands on him. Whereupon the sage reduced them to ashes with a mere glance of his eye. Such is the story according to the Ramayana. America, which is at the antipodes, may be taken to be Patala or the nether world. Kapilaranya (the forest in which Kapila had his hermitage), we may further take it, was situated there. It is likely that Kapilaranya changed to California in the same manner as Madurai is sometimes altered to "Marudai". Also noteworthy is the fact that there is a Horse Island near California as well as an Ash Island.
Another idea occurs to me about Sagara and sagara. Geologists believe that ages ago the Sahara desert was an ocean. It seems to me that Sahara is derived from sagara.
Some historians try to explain the evidence pointing to the worldwide prevalence of our religion in the past to the exchange of cultural and religious ideas between India and other countries established through travels. I myself believe that there was one common religion or dharma throughout and that the signs and symbols that we find of this today are the creation of the original inhabitants of the lands concerned.
The view put forward by some students of history about the discovery of the remnants of our religion in other countries these relating to what is considered the historical period of the past two or three thousand years - is that Indians went to these lands, destroyed the old native civilizations there and imposed Hindu culture in their place. Alternatively, they claim, Indians thrust their culture into the native ways of life in such a way that it became totally absorbed in them.
The fact, however, is that evidence is to be found in many countries of their Vedic connection dating back to 4,000 years or more. That is, with the dawn of civilisation itself, aspects of the Vedic dharma existed in these lands. It was only subsequently that the inhabitants of these regions came to have a religion of their own.
Greece had an ancient religion and had big temples where various deities were worshipped. The Hellenic religion had Vedic elements in it. The same was the case with the Semitic religions of the pre-Christian era in the region associated with Jesus. The aborigines of Mexico had a religion of their own. They shared the Vedic view of the divine in the forces of nature and worshipped them as deities. There was a good deal of ritual in all such religions.
Now none of these religions, including that of Greece, survives. The Greek civilization had once attained to the heights of glory. Now Christianity flourishes in Greece. Buddhism has spread in Central Asia and in East Asia up to Japan. According to anthropologists, religions in their original form exist only in areas like the forests of Africa. But even these ancient faiths contain Vedic elements.
Religious and philosophical truths are often explained through parables, stories, so that ignorant people can understand them easily. Since metaphysical concepts are difficult to grasp, either they have to be told in the form of a story or they have to be given the form of a ritual, that is they must find expression as religious acts. For the common people the performance of a rite is a means of finding the truth present in it in the form of a symbol. I do not, however, agree with the view that all rituals are nothing but symbolic in their significance and that there is no need to perform them so long as their inner meaning is understood.
Ritual as ritual has its own place and efficacy. Similarly, I would not say that stories from the Pural)as are nothing but illustrations or explanations of certain truths or doctrines. As stories they are of a high order and I believe that they really happened. But, at the same time, they demonstrate the meaning of certain truths. As for rites, their performance brings us benefits. But, in due course, as we learn to appreciate their inner meaning we shall become purified in mind. This is the stage when we shall no more yearn for any benefits from their performance and will be rewarded with supreme well-being (that is, liberation).
It is likely, though, that, with the passage of time, some stories or rites will become far removed from their inner meaning. Or, it may be, the inner meaning will be altogether forgotten. So it must be that, when new religions took shape abroad, after the lapse of thousands of years - religions not connected with the Vedic faith that is the root - the original Vedic concepts became transformed or distorted.
You must be familiar with the story of Adam and Eve which belongs to the Hebrew tradition. It occurs in the Genesis of the Old Testament and speaks of the Tree of Knowledge and God's commandment that its fruit shall not be eaten. Adam at first did not eat it but Eve did. After that Adam too ate the forbidden fruit.
Here an Upanisadic concept has taken the form of a biblical story. But because of the change in time and place the original idea has become distorted - or even obliterated.
The Upanisadic story6 speaks of two birds perched on the branch of a pippala7 tree. One eats the fruit of the tree while the other merely watches its companion without eating. The pippala tree stands for the body. The first bird represents a being that regards itself as the jivatman or individual Self and the fruit it eats signifies sensual pleasure. In the same body (symbolised by the tree) the second bird is to be understood as the Paramatman. It is the support of all beings but It does not know sensual pleasure. Since It does not eat the fruit It naturally does not have the same experience as the jivatman (the first bird). The Upanisad speaks with poetic beauty of the two birds. The one who eats the fruit is the individual Self, jiva, and the one who does not eat is the Supreme Reality, the one who knows himself to be the Atman.
It is this jiva that has come to be called "Eve"8 in the Hebrew religious tradition. "Ji" changes to "i" according to a rule of grammar and "ja" to "ya". We have the example of "Yamuna" becoming "Jamuna" or of "Yogindra" being changed to "Joginder". In the biblical story "jiva is Eve" and "Atma" (or "Atman") is "Adam". "Pippala" has in the same way changed to "apple". The Tree of Knowledge is our "bodhi-vrksa". "Bodha" means "knowledge". It is well known that the Buddha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. But the pipal (pippala) was known as the bodhi tree even before his time.
The Upanisadic ideas transplanted into a distant land underwent a change after the lapse of centuries. Thus we see in the biblical story that the Atman (Adam) that can never be subject to sensual pleasure also eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. While our bodhi tree stands for enlightenment, the enlightenment that banishes all sensual pleasure, the biblical tree affords worldly pleasure. These differences notwithstanding there is sufficient evidence here that, once upon a time, the Vedic religion was prevalent in the land of the Hebrews.
Let me give you another example to strengthen the view that however much a custom or a concept changes with the passage of time and with its acceptance by people of another land, it will still retain elements pointing to its original source. Our Tiruppavai and Tiruvembavai are not as ancient as the Vedas. Scholars ascribe them to an age not later than 1,500 years ago. However it be, the authors of these Tamil hymns, Andal and Manikkavacakar, belong to an age much later than that of the Vedas and epics. After their time Hindu empires arose across the seas. Even the Cola kings extended their sway beyond the shores of the country. More worthy of note than our naval expeditions was the great expansion in our sea trade and the increase with it of our foreign contacts. As a result, people abroad were drawn to the Hindu religion and culture. Among the regions that developed such contacts, South-East Asia was the most important. Islands like Bali in the Indonesian archipelago became wholly Hindu. People in Siam (Thailand), Indochina9 and the Philippines came under the influence of Hindu culture. Srivijaya was one of the great empires of South-East Asia.
[Here the Paramaguru briefly touches upon the stages representing the emergence of various religions.] In primeval times the Vedic religion was prevalent everywhere: this was the first stage. In the second stage new religions emerged in various parts of the world. In the third stage these decayed and their place was taken by Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. In the subsequent stage the Hindu civilization became a living force outside the shores of India also, particularly in South-East Asia. This was the period during which great temples reminding us of those of Tamil Nadu arose with the spread of our religion and culture: Angkor-vat in Cambodia; Borobudur in Java, Indonesia; Prambanan, also in Java. Now it was that our Tiruppavai and Tiruvembavai made their passage to Thailand.
Even today a big festival is held in Thailand in December- January, corresponding to the Tamil Margazhi, the same month during which we read the Tiruppavai and Tiruvembavai with devotion. As part of the celebrations a dolotsava (swing festival) is held. A remarkable feature of this is that, in the ceremony meant for Visnu, a man with the make-up of Siva is seated on the swing. This seems to be in keeping with the fact that the Tiruppavai and Tiruvembavai contribute to the unification of Vaisnavism and Saivism.
If you ask the people of Thailand about the Pavai'0 poems, they will not be able to speak about them. It might seem then that there is no basis for connecting the Thai festival with the Pavai works merely because it is held in the month corresponding to the Tamil Margazhi. But the point to note is that the people of that country themselves call it "Triyampavai-Trippavai."
Those who read the Bible today are likely to be ignorant about the Upanisads, but they are sure to know the story that can be traced back to them, that of Adam and Eve. The Thais now must be likewise ignorant about the Pavais but, all the same, they hold in the month of Dhanus" every year a celebration called "Triyampavai-Trippavai." As part of it they also have a swing festival in which figures a man dressed as Siva. Here the distortions in the observance of a rite have occurred during historical times - one of the distortions is that of Siva being substituted for Visnu. Also during this period the Thais have forgotten the Pavais but, significantly enough, they still conduct a festival named after them. Keeping these facts before you, take your mind back to three or four thousand years ago and imagine how a religion or a culture would have changed after its passage to foreign lands.
It is in this context that you must consider the Vedic tradition. For all the changes and distortions that it has undergone in other countries during the past millennia its presence there is still proclaimed through elements to be found in the religions that supplanted it.
How are we to understand the presence of Hindu ideas or concepts in the religious beliefs of people said to belong to prehistoric times? It does not seem right to claim that in the distant past our religion or culture was propagated in other countries through an armed invasion or through trade, that is at a time when civilization itself had not taken shape there. That is why I feel that there is no question of anything having been taken from this land and introduced into another country. The fact, according to me, is that in the beginning the Vedic religion was prevalent all over the world. Later, over the centuries, it must have gone through a process of change and taken different forms. These forms came to be called the original religions of these various lands which in the subsequent period - during historical times - came under Buddhism, Christianity or Islam as the case may be.
Notes & References
Baron Humboldt quoted in Har Bilas Sarda's Hindu Superiority.
"Inakula-tilaka", ornament of the solar dynasty. For the correct meaning of the word "tilaka", see Sanskrit Glossary.
Signifying the third eye of Siva.
Kotei or Kutei district is in East Borneo.
Sagaras are the 60,000 children of Sagara of the solar race. It was their descendant Bhagiratha who performed austerities and brought the Ganga from the heavens to redeem his ancestors who had been reduced to ashes.
The story is told in the Mundakopanisad.
"Pippala" is the pipal or Ficus religiosa.
The meaning of the original Hebrew word is indeed "life".
Now it consists of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Pavai poems or works mean the Tiruppavai and Tiruvenibavai.
Dhanus, solar month, same as Margazhi in Tamil.