Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

19. Religion - Identity - Human Values - Indian Context

V. Balambal

Professor of History, University of Madras, Chennai

Looking back from our vantage point in the 20th century, we see humanity slowly breaking the fetters that bound us physically, mentally and morally. The primitive human was uncultured and uncivilized but satisfied our three basic requirements - food, clothing and shelter. Their life is categorized as pre-history as there was no written source material. But after so many years, history was written by historians, anthropologists, scientists, archaeologists etc., based on various archaeological excavations. It is interesting to note that the prehistoric or tribal man had more connections with nature than the civilized man and his life solely depended on nature and nature's creations.

But a change occurred when man started having a settled life, looking into agriculture and cottage industries. In this period religion, a new phenomenon, entered his life. Slowly it rose to a dominant position, perhaps next to the three basic needs. In the beginning it was nature and ancestor worship.

In India religion plays an important role in the day to day life of the people. India has given birth to four religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jains and Sikhs; and accommodated Islam, Christianity, Torastrianism and Jewish religion. Hence along with many other diversifying factors, religions of India pose some crude problems in India. But the impact and influence of religion on the Indian people cannot be underestimated.

In a society every individual and thing has an identity. Identity is essential for survival. A person could be identified on the basis of his region, nation, language, caste, creed, sex, sect, occupation, political involvement, social activities, academic and cultural achievements and economic status. It should also be accepted that a woman, with equal or more qualification has a different identity in Indian society: Whether an individual is South Indian or North Indian; Indian or Sri Lankan or American; Tamilian or Bengali or Gujarathi; Brahmin or Sudhra; man or woman; doctor or Lawyer or engineer or clerk; and Congress party or Communist etc; a party leader or worker; social worker or organiser; decides one's identity in these spheres. Similarly in this long list of identifying characteristics, religion could be given a primary place as it plays an important part in the lives of the Indian. The identity issues cause chaos and clashes in society.

Sir Herbert Risely in his The People of India (p.33) enumerates seven distinct types of races in India such as Indo-Aryan, Turko-Iranian, Scylhio-Dravidian, Aryo-Dravidian, Mongolo-Dravidian, Mongoloid and Dravidian. E.J. Rapson in The Cambridge History of India (Vol. I, Chapter II), classified the races of India into four groups (i.e.) primitive tribes, Mongolians, Dravidians and Aryans. These four races were identified on the basis of their physical appearance. Each race has distinct traces of its cultures. Head hunting, totemism, and free disposal of the dead bodies are the special features of the tribals. The influence of the Mongoloids was not much felt in India till recent times. The Gurkhas are the best representation of their culture. The Dravidians are given the unique honour of being called as the indigenous people of India. But this is not a well proved hypothesis. Similarly, the Aryan question remains unsolved. Whether they are aliens or indigenous is still disputed. But is cannot be denied that both the Dravidians and Aryans had distinct features, customs, manners, practices of their own. Hence the Indian people could be identified based on the racial theory. The same thing applies to creed and sect in India.

With regard to sex, whether it is the creation of God, fate or nature, not only human beings but even animals, birds, insects, trees and plants have their sexual identity. Among human beings, apart from male and female, there is a third category known as 'eunuchs' whose identity makes their life miserable.

The curse of India is the caste system and the 'Varna' system of the Vedic period got diluted and resulted in distinct castes based on birth, causing much damage for the unity of India whether right or wrong, every Indian is identified on the basis of his caste.

No country is devoid of politics. Various forms of governments, parties, leaders and workers have become inevitable. Hence people have the political identity too. The political identity of a person contributes to his status too. In a society, family is the smallest unit and the family members are identified based on their relation, education, occupation. When it comes to bigger units like social organizations, the concerned people are identified based on their position and status in those organizations.

Education plays an important role in the life of the people. Regarding academics, they are identified on the basis of their qualification, designation and contributions to the educational field. Poets, musicians, dancers, painters, speakers and actors have their identity based on their talents. Most individuals are treated and respected according to their economic status. Rich and the poor, agriculturists and landlords, workers and industrialists have their own identity in the society.

More than the race, caste, creed, sect, sex, political, social, economic, occupational and academic status, religion plays a dominant role in identifying individuals. As India is a land of multi-religions, every one is identified as a Hindu or Buddhist or Jain or Sikh or Zorastrian or Jew or Muslim or Christian. Even an atheist gets his identity for denying religion. Everyone is bound by the respective religious code but causes confusion if he encroaches upon the religious code of others. Numerous religions of India contribute to the complexity of Indian culture. Gods are man-made but nature reigns supreme. For them, nature too is God. In the Hindu context even rivers, oceans, trees, plants, sand, stone, mountains, sky, space, air, wind, rain, storm, earth, planets, animals and birds are Gods. Most of the earliest Hindu Gods were nature oriented.

In the Indus region, excavations have proved the worship of Mother Goddess, Pasupati (Siva), animals, birds, water, Sun, fire and trees. Purification of the mind as well as body was stressed. The three faced deity sitting with crossed legs, wearing a horned dress was surrounded by tiger, buffalo etc., shows the significance of animals in worship.

In the Vedic age, more of nature worship was practiced, The Rig Veda mentions thirty three Gods. The description of these Gods show that the Vedic people wore associated with natural forces like wind, storm, air, sky, earth, river, fire, lightning, Sun, Moon, etc. They had the concept of heaven and hell. The first eleven Gods of heaven included Indra, Varuna, Surya, Savithri, Mitra etc. The second eleven Gods in mid air ware Vayu, Maruthi, Prajanya etc. The third eleven Gods on earth were Prithvi, Agni, Brahaspathi, Soma etc. These Gods were identified with some values attached to them. Indra was the most powerful God of the Rig Vedic times, and was worshipped as the God of Thunder Storm causing rain helping agriculturists. Varuna God of sky and wind was the God of truth and upholder of physical and moral order. It was believed that no sinner could escape his vigilant eye. Surya was the God of light, life, wealth and energy. Usha was the Goddess of Dawn. Mitra was a Solar deity associated with Varuna. Maruti was the Storm God associated with lightning, thunder, loud noise and roaring of the wind. Vayu was the God of air. Agni, the fire God was next in importance to Indra. As no ritual or ceremony went without fire, it was worshipped almost daily. Prithvi, the good earth was their favourite God. It is interesting to note that the Vedic people worshipped Soma an intoxicating liquor as a popular deity as it was identified as a wise sear and poet who invoked thought and hymns. Rivers were holy to the Hindus and the most prominent River Goddess was Saraswathi. The early Aryans treated birth and death equally. Yama, the deity of death and heaven was the good and kind ruler of the blessed world.

An analytical survey of the early deities, their values and functions reveals that (1) most of the deities were personification of nature; (2) there existed no priestly class; (3) there were more male Gods; (4) there was no temple or idol; and (5) most of them were unseen Gods.

But this situation changed during the Later Vedic and Epic periods. Brahma (creator), Vishnu (protector) and Siva (Destroyer) became the Hindu Trinity; priesthood, idol worship, temples, theory of Karma, caste system, sacrifices etc., came to be believed. Nature worship lost its original significance. With the passage of time, the Vedic religion degenerated and many complexities cropped up in it. Religion became expensive too. People wanted a change in the caste and ritual oriented religion. The answer was the establishment of two new faiths, Buddhism and Jainism, often considered to be the off-shoots of Hinduism.

Down south, the Tamils had more or less similar practices because of Aryan influence though they had their indigenous religions practices and customs. Regional Gods were worshipped. In Kurinji (hilly tracts) Muruga, in Mullai (pastoral lands) Tirumal, in Marudam (agricultural lands) Indra, Naidal (coastal lands) Varuna, and in Palsi (dry lands) Korravai (Sakti) were worshipped. It shows the keen relation between the land the religion of the Tamils. Temples and idol worship came in to being gradually. Every temple has a sacred tree and each God has a Vahana(vehicle) in the form of an animal or bird. Siva was worshipped along with sacred bull, Sakti with lion, Vishnu with serpent and eagle, Brahma with swan, Lakshmi with red lotus, Saraswathi with white lotus, Murga with peacock, Ganapati with mouse, Aiyappa with tiger, Indra with white elephant (Airavata) etc. Pipal and Neem trees, and tulsi plant are worshipped. during the Sangam age, there were temples for Airavatam, Sun, Vajra (Indra's war weapon), Moon etc. There are flowers and leaves specifically used in worshipping Gods and Goddesses, and grains used for preparing holy food for them. Naga (snake) worship continues till today. These facts reveal a close relation between religion and nature form time immemorial.

The simple but important human and moral values pronounced by Buddha and Mahavira were Eightfold path and Triratna. They stressed non-violence, truth, non-stealing, non-possession of thing, self-control, emancipation of women, Right views, Right aspirations, Right speech, Right Action, Right living, Right effort, Right mindfulness and Right concentration. A spirit of equality contributed to the spread of these religions. People who lost their identity because of their birth in some communities painted some identity because of these Seers.

Similarly Sikhism, as a mark of Bhakti Movement, promoted universal brotherhood, honesty, service and kindness, and condemned caste, idolatry, hypocrisy, selfishness and worldliness. India has accommodated Islam and Christianity, the two prominent religions of the world. People belonging to these religions have their identity and these religious preach some values too.

During the Muslim and British rule, conversions to Islam the Christianity became common and compulsory. It had its impact an Indian Society. Bhakti cult brought new waves in the social and cultural fields. Ramanand, Kabir, Nanak, Meerabai, Chaitanya, Vemana, Namdev, Twelve Alwars, Sixty Three Nayanmars, and Three Achsryas had established their identity throughout India. Their approach was not merely philosophical but devotional too. Hindu-Muslim unity was aimed at by most of them.

The Brahma Samaj, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, Theosophical Society etc., ;had worked in the right spirit for universal brotherhood, casteless society to uplift women and the downtrodden etc. Hence these religious institutions have established their identity not only in India but abroad also. In recent times, the commendable services rendered by Satya Saibaba Mission have attracted not only Hindus or Indians but also all religionists and all countrymen. He has established an international network for oneness of God and unity of mankind. Hare Rama Hare Krishna cult has also become famous. Rajnish culture is of different type.

The Aiyappa cult of recent times has brought together people from all walks of like. It is a sort of Bhakti cult open to rich and the poor belonging to all caste. To some extent, it promotes Hindu-Muslim unity too.

Hinduism believes in the Theory of Karma and Rebirth. It inculcates in the mind of the Hindus a sense of fear for doing wrong things. Of course atonement of sin in the form of going on pilgrimage, having holy bath, making donations to temples etc., is possible in Hinduism. In the past, the guilty persons were relieved of their sins if they lit perpetual lamps in temples or donated sheep, cows, buffaloes, land, gold, silver etc., to the temples. Perhaps the community benefited by these actions of the sinners, welfare activities were undertaken by the concerned people.

All religions insist on respect for elders, parents, teachers; kindness and service to the needy sick people; upliftment of women and downtrodden; It is interesting to note that respect for scholars and Gods were shown in the form of donating Brahmadeya, Chaturvedimangalam and Devadana lands to institutions concerned. Later during the British rule, the temple lands were brought under Hindu Religious Endowment Board to promote the interest of the temples.

Many festivals and rituals are performed in the temples which promote bhakti, unity, discipline and economic and cultural activities too. The festival fairs attract all religionists. Kumbamela Arupattumuvar, Navarathri (Dasara), Sivarathri, Vaikunta Ekadasi, Deepavali, Sankaranthi, Chitirai Festival etc., have not only religious but social and cultural significance. Deepavali signifies end of darkness and evil things and Sankaronthi or Pongal glorifies harvest and Sun God. Thus all Hindu festivals are closely associated with nature and human values.

The underlying principles of Hindu religions practices are closely connected with scientific principles on health and hygiene. Smearing of the house, temples and outside with cowdung by the Hindus keep them away from sickness. Importance is given to early bath, if possible in the running water. Hindu practices of Yoga, Pranayama, Suryanamaskar, Meditation etc., contribute to the betterment of body and mind, and inturn to the Soul too. The 'dos and don'ts' specified in Hindu culture go a long way in shaping the mind and body of individuals. Sanctity attached to the animals, feeding the crow before food etc., are samples of kindness towards animals and birds, in spite of having a religious colour.

The liberalism and toleration advocated by Hinduism are commendable. It welcomes anybody to its fold and allows anybody to go out of it too. Hence perhaps, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan calls Hinduism 'as a way of life'. People like Gandhi never wanted the partition of India on the basis of religion. Because of its liberal and tolerant nature only, Hinduism is still having Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism in its fold under our Republican Constitution.

Hindu religious institutions like Temples and Mutts are contributing to the welfare activities too. Many schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, orphanages, old age homes, destitute homes are taken care of by them. Flower gardens, trees, fruit gardens are also grown in the temple premises to cater to the need of the temple rituals and festivals. It results in employing men and women and keeping the environment clean and neat.

Last but not least is the promotion of fine arts. People should have a break from the confine in the form of attending to some fine arts. The religious institutions are the abodes of music, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, discourses, etc., which relieve the people from their fatigue. It gives food for their eyes and ears also in addition to the religious dealings. Some of the temples have been declared as protected monuments and temples at Khajursho, Konsrak, Kanchi, Tanjavur, Mathura etc., attract not only the Hindus but also the foreigners. Indian rulers from early times had contributed to the flourishing of these fine arts.

There is no doubt that Hinduism had some evil effects too in the form of casteism, superstition, orthodoxy, unwanted rituals and practices like life sacrifices, Sati etc., fundamentalism, communalism, untouchability etc., which are very harmful to the unity and growth of India. Though Indian culture has spread in far off lands, the evil aspects are also criticized. Hinduism devoid of all these evil practices would be an ideal religion, thereby its identity will be well established. The moral and human values it could infuse and promote would be commendable as everything is well associated with nature, intending to promote human welfare.

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