October 2010: Shan matha or Six modes of worship as the basis of Hindu religious practice

Aachaarya Shankaraa (of 7-8 century CE) consolidated various religious practices then prevalent in the 4 corners of India into a framework of Shan Matha or 6 Modes of Worship (Shan = 6, matha = Modes of worship). They are Gaanapathya – worship of Ganesha, Koumaara – Worship of Kumaraa or Murugaa, Saiva – Worship of Siva, Vaishnava – Worship of Vishnu, Saaktha – Worship of Ambaa and Soura – Worship of Surya.

This framework consolidated the religious practices then prevalent in the masses. He also tried to establish Vedaa-s and shaastraa-s (Hindu dharmaic scriptures) as the foundation for the practice, philosophy and interpretation of these six modes of worship. Majority of religious practices of a wide and heterogeneous land became validated and authenticated according to this framework. At the same time, he recognized that there are many features of Hindu religious practices of his times that did not fall into either his framework or the basis of shaastraas, and accommodated them in his vision. This helped in building up the Hindu Dharmaa as an inclusive religion in contrast to the Semitic religions. This character has not been lost even today. This also explains why there is so much of heterogeneity in the day-to-day practices of religious and cultural aspects of the Hindu society, and in fact how it is inevitable to be so.

His efforts and understanding of the complexity of Dharmaa at least 3500 years prior to him was almost superhuman in that the resulting framework continues to thrive almost 1500 years after him. Hence, we can see Siva and Vishnu being worshiped at Mangal Mandir, Silver Spring, Maryland using the same Vedic hymns or suktaas that the Rishis or seers sang to Them 5000 years ago. Temples came later to the society, but the Devathaas have been the same all along. The Shaanthi mantraas (prayers for peace) from Upanishads recited during BalGokul morning prayers by the next generation of Hindu kids on the banks of Potomac are the same ones young Hindu students recited 3500 years ago on the banks of Ganges, Sindhu (Indus) and Narmada rivers. The procedures may have changed but not the purpose. This monumental preservation of continuity was effected by a few personalities, Shankaraa being the prominent one in the first millennium CE.

His efforts were just a nodal point in the ever-evolving processes of worship and religious practices in Hindu Dharmaa – he did not invent anything new! Shankaraa was followed by dozens of religious pioneers and leaders who expanded the scope of these six modes of worship to suit their societies and times. Endangerment from invading Mongolian and Muslim forces from other parts of Asia, and the results of colonization efforts from European nations had their role in necessitating adaptation. These factors in turn churned out religious movements and leaders who redefined the practice of worship in Hindu Dharmaa. Even today, this adaptation and evolution are part of an ongoing process. Planned project work by the students in 2010-2012 will illustrate some of these processes.

One = Many = Brahman, Satyam (Truth), Reality, Param (Absolute), Ritham

Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses – Devathaas – are considered to be different Forms of the One known as Brahman. This Formless One is acknowledged by the Vedas and other saastraas as the basis for Many. Started as 33 thirty three Forms of Gods in Vedas, these represent the Cosmic Powers of Brahman are operationally different in functions and aspects. Over the period of time, many of these Cosmic Powers were consolidated to Devathaas of Shan Mathas we are familiar with now: Siva & Rudra, Naaraayanaa & Vishnu, Brahmaa & Brahmanaspathy, Ganapathy, Murugaa, Paarvathi & Shakti and Her Forms etc.

It is a common saying that just like all the waters of the rains reach the ocean in the end, so are the paths and Gods defined by different religions merge with That One which is not definable. It is not at all correct to say that Siva-Vishnu-Brahma, commonly called as Trimurthis, are the leaders of a ‘pantheon of gods in a polytheistic religion’. It is important to know that these Three Devathaas are primary deities of Hindu Dharmaa, and along with other deities they are considered as different Forms of One Reality / Divine / Absolute / Brahman.

A devotee or Bhakthaa of Siva considers Siva as Brahman-in-Form. A vaishnavite (Bhakthaa of Vishnu) will vehemently argue that Brahman is Vishnu or Sri Krishna. These two are the predominant Hindu traditional and philosophical streams that flow through the Hindu population any where in the world. Thus you see in Maryland, a landmark temple is named a Siva Vishnu temple where the two deities are equally worshiped with deep religious fervor. Inherent in this difference is the understanding that either way of worship only points to the worship of That One underlying Reality, Brahman. This also means that any religion from any culture, whether they have a named or a nameless God, only talk about some aspect of this One, this underlying Reality known as Brahman.

Different strokes and different colors of Hindu Dharmaa

Majority of the Hindus worship one or other form of Devathaas of Shan Matha – Forms of Siva family (the First Family of Hindu Dharma consisting of Siva, Paarvathi, Ganesha and Muruga), Vishnu and His avataars, Ambaa and Her Forms etc. Many practices of this worship may have originated directly or indirectly from vedas and other shaastraas; there seems to be equal number of those that do not.

There are groups and communities of priests or scholars who still maintain the ritualistic Vedic practices that would take most part of their days. A purely Vedic mode of worship will involve ‘havans’ using Agni – the Cosmic Power of Fire. Agni is considered to be the priest and conduit between Man and Devathaas. Hence, pre-defined food, herbs and other things are offered to Agni for obeisance to Devathaas . They are mostly supported by traditional Maths (plural of ‘math’; ‘ma’ as in mud) or monasteries of different flavors. Most priestly trainings to carry out practices for temples and individual religious services in society, orthodox seats of scholarship and religious policy making, and scholarship in samsrkit, prakrit, and saastraas originate and remain established in these ‘Maths’.

These traditional ‘Maths’ are different from ‘Ashrams’ which serve people of different origins, countries and cultures, inclinations and spiritual objectives. Ashrams are essentially modern derivatives catering to the 20th -21st century life styles. Usually the Ashrams represent a movement centered on one or more spiritual personalities, sadhus, God-men and God-women who live their lives promising spiritual deliverance and up-liftment to their disciples, based on some principles of yoga, vedantha and their own life experiences.

In many villages, towns and diverse regions across India, Nepal and Bali, Hindus worship the Forms of the Devathaas of Shan Matha (explained earlier) in ways that may not be easily recognized by those from other parts. The modes of their worship may not have any basis in the established shaastraas, and priestly traditions. These practices are also accepted as conventional worship of Divinity in Hindu Dharmaa.

There are also numerous sects in various regions in and out of India that have their own languages, deities and sub-cultures. These include many tribal groups dating back to thousands of years in Indian sub-continent, other Hindu groups who migrated to south east Asian regions in the last 1500 years and whose practices have evolved and adapted to their new homes over the centuries, regions where there is a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu practices etc. At some level, they identify themselves as Hindus and their deities with Hindu Devathaas.

Thus we see very clearly that the word “Hindu” encompasses a great diversity and gradient in the nature and cohesiveness of religious practices. We will study about the diversity of Hindu religious practices next year (2011-12). Anthropology of non-majority Hindu religious populations spanning many countries and cultures is an interesting field of study in itself.

Hindu Dharmaa accepts such diversity of religious practices both in their roots and forms. In many religions, such diversity of practices would have resulted in condemnation by a central governing body, inquisitions, and banishment. There is no central church, or one Holy Book of religious authority or one place of geographical reference or one person to carry the authority-of-the-pulpit or one group of people to issue orders to be enforced by rest of the people. There is no legitimizing body to behold or condemn religious practices in Hindu Dharmaa. This type of freedom allows diversity and flexibility; provides a ‘adaptive fitness’ enabling evolution as the society develops over 5 millenia. Hence all the above types of worship are accepted as parts of Hindu Dharmaa.