The relevance of Upanayana in Modern times

The ideal set before the Brahmins in the Dharmasastras was one of poverty, simple living and high thinking, of forsaking the active pursuit of riches and cherishing cultural preservation and advancement. Manu lays down the general rule that when not in distress a Brahmin should acquire wealth only just sufficient to maintain himself and his family.1 The Mahabhasya of Pantanjali quotes as an agama (Vedic passage) the words ‘a Brahmana should study and understand without any motive (of profit) dharma, the Veda with its six subsidiary lores. According to Manu, a Brahmana should always and assiduously study the Veda alone; that (Veda study) is his highest dharma; everything else is inferior dharma (4.147).2 In another verse Manu says that the study of Vedas is the highest tapasya of a Brahmin (2.166) and a dvija (twice born) who not having studied the Vedas, tries to acquire other forms of learning is degraded to the status of Shudra with all his progeny, even in his life. (Manu Smriti 2.168).3 These statements in the Dharmasastras shows that study of the Vedas was the summum bonum for a Brahmin and this began after he underwent the samskara (sacrament) of Upanayana.

Meaning of Upanayana

The literally word of Upanayana means ‘leading or taking near and originally meant taking near the acharya for instruction.4 In the Atharva Veda the word Upanayana is used in the sense of “taking charge of a student. Here it is meant the initiation of a child by a teacher into sacred lore. Even in the Sutra period the proposal of the student for studentship and its acceptance by the teacher is the central point in the Upanayana samskara. But later on, when the mystic significance of the Upanayana increased, the idea of the second birth through the Gayatri mantra overshadowed the original idea of initiation for education.5

Main purpose of Upanayana

The commencement of Vedic studies was the original purpose of undergoing the Upanayana samskara. In the most ancient times, it was probable that the father himself always taught his son but later the student went to a guru and stayed in his house for studies. Accordingly , the would-be student would go to a teacher with a samidh (fuel stick) in his hand and tell that he desired to enter the stage of studenthood and begged to be allowed to be a brahmachari living with the teacher. The teacher who accepted the pupil instructed him the Savitri (Gayatri) mantra and started teaching him the Vedas. The student had certain duties to perform like tending his guru’s cattle, refraining himself from singing and dancing, sleeping on a cot, consuming honey, etc. He was supposed to earn his food through begging. For undergoing the Upanayana, there was no elaborate ceremonies like those described in Grhya Sutras.6

Originally education was the main purpose of undergoing the Upanayana samskara and ritual or ceremoniously taking the initiate to the teacher an ancillary item. It was not only at the first initiation of a boy but at the beginning of every branch of the Veda, that Upanayana was performed. In the Upanishads we come across a number of cases where a person underwent the rite of Upanayana when approaching a guru for learning a new branch of philosophy.7

Yajnopavita reduced to cord of threads

Today the person who undergoes the Upanayana ceremony starts wearing a sacred thread called janivara or janeoo consisting of three or six threads across his left shoulders and under his right arm. The sacred thread as such is not mentioned in the Grhyasutras. It was a later substitute for the upper garment called yajnopavita, which was put on at the time of a sacrifice.

The root meaning of the word yajnopavita implies that it is a covering for the body (upaviti) to be donned during the ceremonies (yajna). A deer skin served as a covering (upaviti) for the body of the twice born during his prayer hours as a protection against cold.8

The earliest reference to Yajnopavita is found in Taittiriyaranyaka (2.1) where it is described as consisting of the skin or the cloth worn in a certain manner. However during the time of Manu it seems to have become a mere thread twisted in a particular manner. According to Medhatithi it is called Yajnopavita because it is connected with sacrificial performances. The Grhyasutras also do not seem to speak of habitual wearing (of sacred thread). Apastamba has declared that it should be worn while saluting teachers, old men and guests and also when doing homa, japa, meals, achamana and recitation of the Vedas.9

According to P.V.Kane, from the fact that many of the Gryasutras are entirely silent about the giving or wearing of the sacred thread in Upanayana and from the fact that no mantra is cited from the Vedic literature for the act of giving the yajnopavita (which is now the centre of the Upanayana rites), while scores of Vedic mantras are cited for the several component parts of the ceremony of Upanayana, it is most probable, if not certain that the sacred thread was not invariably used in the old times. Originally the upper garment was used in various positions for certain acts and the cords of threads came to be used first as an option and later on exclusively for the upper garment.10

Upaakarma, new session for Vedic studies

Dharmashastras refer to a rite called Upaakarma or Upaakarana which means opening, starting or beginning. In several sutras, Upaakarma is spoken as adhyaayopakarma or adhyaayopakarana and adhyaaya means the study of the Vedas. This rite was performed as a beginning of the session in the year for Vedic study.11 In modern times without knowing the significance of this rite, Brahmins change their sacred thread on the day of Upaakarma.

Sacred thread, a decorative badge

Earlier Upanayana was a voluntary ceremony. Whoever desired to learn approached his guru and performed the initiation ceremony and Upanayana was confined to literary and priestly families only.12 Later as new branches of learning evolved, it was felt that to preserve the sacred literature the service of the entire community had to be utilized and hence Upanayana was made a compulsory samskara. Also, it was believed that Upanayana possessed sanctifying power.13 But when Upanayana became a compulsory samskara people gradually forget its real purpose and in the words of Raj Bali Pandey, the Upananaya became a ceremonial farce and the sacred thread an insignificant decorative badge.14


  1. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol 2, part I, 1941, p.110
  2. Ibid, p.107
  3. Rabindra Kumar Pana – Manusmrti (II & III chapters), Edited and translated, Paramamitra Prakashana, New Delhi, 1999
  4. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.268
  5. Raj Bali Pandey – Hindu Samskaras, A Socio-religious study of the Hindu Sacraments, Vikrama Publications, Banaras, 1949, pp:194-95
  6. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, pp:271-283
  7. Raj Bali Pandey – Op.Cit, pp:196-198
  8. V.Raghavendra Rao – Evolution of the Yajnopavita, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, vol 39, no 1, July 1948, p.49
  9. Mahamahopadhaya Ganganatha Jha – Yajnopavita, Sir Asutosh Memorial Volume, p.62
  10. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.291
  11. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol 2, part II, 1941, p.807
  12. Raj Bali Pandey – Op.Cit, p.207
  13. Ibid, p.209
  14. Ibid, p.196

Is Shraddha rites in concurrence with Hindu philosophy and Reason?

Shraaddha is a ceremony performed by a son for the gratification of his departed father, paternal grandfather and paternal great grandfather who are identified with the three orders of superintending pitr deities namely Vasus, Rudras and Adityas and combines three aspects –

  • homa or food oblation into the sacred fire by uttering mantras
  • feeding of Brahmins
  • the offering of pindas (rice balls)1

Genesis Shraaddha rite

According to Raj Bali Pandey, during ancient times survivors cherished mixed sentiments towards the dead whom they believed proceed to the realm of dead after their earthly life ended. First there was the sentiment of dread. It was believed that the deceased had still some kind of interest in his family property and relatives whom he would not like to quit and therefore was lingering about the house. It was also supposed that because he was alienated from the survivors by death, he might cause injury to the family and so attempts were made to avoid his presence and contact. The next sentiment was of love and affection towards the deceased. The survivors thought that it was their duty to help the dead in reaching his destination after death and hence provided him with food and other articles necessary for a traveller so that he should resume his journey to the next world. The next world was believed to be a replica of this world and every thing necessary for starting a new life was presented to him. For example, food was offered and also an old cow or a goat to serve as a guide in his journey to the world of the dead. Earlier these things were consumed in fire with the dead but later presented to Brahmins who were supposed to send them in the realm of the dead through some mysterious agency.2

The seed of the shraaddha rite can be probably attributed to the Atharva Veda which tells us that the dead man is conducted upward by the Maruts and meet the fathers who reside in the company of Yama. The idea that the dead in heaven are nourished by the piety of the relatives on earth is also found in the Atharva Veda. Accordingly, such nourishments may either be buried with the dead so that the grains of corn and sesame, so buried may turn into wish-cows in heaven, or the nourishment may be conveyed through subsequent offerings.3

Ignorance of basic science and devoid of rational thinking

The performance of shraaddha rite in modern times even by highly educated Hindus points to their ignorance of basic science which they had read in high school and their lack of rational thinking. Today it has been proved by science that the only habitable place for human beings in the solar system is the earth and to believe in pitr loka will be sheer stupidity.

According to Matsya Purana and Agni Purana being gratified by rice balls offered by their descendants these pitrs bestow them with long life, learning, progeny, wealth, happiness, kingdom, heaven and moksha.4 No sane person can believe that offering made here can reach persons living in another world. These claims was derided by the philosophers of the Charvaka system who used to say that if men in heaven are gratified by our offerings the shraddha here, they why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the house top5 or the need to give food packets for travellers as someone else in the house could eat on their behalf during lunch time.6 Also it looks strange that these pitrs who are capable of giving various boons to their descendants are eager for these rice balls to satisfy their hunger.

The proponents of shraddha say that it is the duty of a son to perform shraddha. Yes, a son has obligations towards his parents, but when they are alive. Saying that we have duties towards the dead is like saying that we have duties towards the unborn and that the unborn are to be fed, clothed and educated and provided with recreation. Will it not sound absurd? If at all a son has a duty after the death of his father it is to take care of his mother and other siblings if they were dependent upon the deceased father. Also, to repay any debt his father had occurred, that too if the son is able to do so.

Shraaddha contradictory to Hindu philosophy

Shraaddha is contradictory to the sayings of Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and the philosophy of Advaita. According to P.V.Kane a firm believer in the doctrines of karma and punarjanma may find it difficult to reconcile that doctrine with the belief that by offering rice balls to his three deceased paternal ancestors a man brings gratification to the souls of the latter. In Bhagavad Gita chapter two, verse 22 and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.4, it is said that the spirit leaving the body enters into another and a new one. But the doctrine of offering rice balls to ancestors requires that the spirit of the three ancestors even after a lapse of 50 or 100 years are still capable of enjoying in an ethereal body.7 Hence according to the learned scholar the worship of ancestors by means of shraddha was probably a very ancient institution and the doctrine of punarjanma and karma were comparatively later ones and that Hinduism being all embracing retained the institution of shraddha while also adopting the doctrines of metempsychosis.8

Adi Shankaracharya in his Advaita philosophy propounds that Brahman is the only reality and declares the whole world to be an imposition of avidya. Ultimate reality is one and without any relation and so all the smacks of multiplicity must be due to the influence of avidya and the Vedas and sastras which deal with multiplicity of the world, however full of wisdom must be stigmatised as such. They lose their validity and authoritativeness when true knowledge springs.9

Contradictory injunction in texts

The texts which give information about Shraaddha is full of contradictory injunctions. For instance, Gobhila Smriti says that the husband should not offer pinda to his wife even if she dies sonless, nor a father to his son and an elder brother to a younger brother. But Baudhayana and Brddhasatatapa allow a shraddha to be performed by anyone for any relative with affection particularly at Gaya.10

Shraaddha for the sake of livelihood

Haradatta commentator of Apastambha Dharma Sutra holds that feeding to the Brahmins is the principle act of shraddha.11 Shraaddha according to Brahmapurana is “whatever given with faith to Brahmanas intending it to be for the benefit of pitr at a proper time, in a proper place, to deserving persons and in accordance with the prescribed procedure”.12 According to Vayu Purana, at the time of Shraaddha the ancestors enter the invited Brahmanas after assuming an aerial form and that when the best of Brahmanas are honoured with clothes, food, gifts, eatables, liquid, cows, horses and villages, pitrs become pleased.13 Similarly Manu prescribed the shraddha rite (ancestor worship) for the good of mankind wherein the objects of worship are the fathers, while the Brahmans who are fed on their behalf are for the purpose of ahavaniya that is the Brahmanas are as if they are the sacred fire into which oblations are made.14 All these statements contained in the dharma sutras shows that the importance given to shraaddha rite was to provide a livelihood to a particular community though the rites went against the tenets of Hindu philosophy.

A Primitive Belief

According to Raj Bali Pandey in no other field of Hinduism the primitive beliefs regarding life and death survive so insistently as in the naive funeral operations. The next world is nothing but the replica of this earth and the needs of the dead are the same as those of the living. Throughout the ceremonies the prayers are offered for sensuous enjoyments and ease of the dead. We do not find any indication of the desire for his or her spiritual benefit, salvation or beatitude. The prayer for freedom from the cycles of birth and death is very casual and could be discovered only in the latest phase of the ritual. The whole performance is of the most primitive kind and speaks of a period of remote antiquity.15

Alternative to Shraaddha

P.V.Kane says that it is a good practice to set apart at least one day in a year for the remembrance of one’s near and dear relatives that are no more, to invite relatives, friends and learned people to a dinner in memory of the dead and to make monetary gifts on poor but learned persons of character and devoted to the practice of plain living and high thinking. This will be in keeping with our past traditions and will also give a new orientation to and infuse new life into practices and usages that have become lifeless and meaningless to many people.16

Many texts describe the procedure of Jivat Shraaddha or Jiva Shraaddha which a man was allowed to perform for the benefit of his own soul while he was himself alive.17 As usual the rite consists of offering oblation to fire and feeding of Brahmins. As an alternate, children could celebrate the birthdays of their aged parents by inviting friends and relatives and if financially stable donate money to orphanages or old age homes on behalf of their parents. Today most parents suffer the pangs of separation and loneliness. Instead of performing shraaddha after death, children could spend quality time with their parents when they are still alive and assist them in their mundane activities.


  1. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol IV, 1953, pp:334-35 and B.Narayan Aiyangar – Sraddha (Brahman Ancestor Worship), Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, vol III, no 3, 1911-12, p.80
  2. Raj Bali Pandey – Hindu Samskaras, A Socio-religious study of the Hindu Sacraments, Vikrama Publications, Banaras, 1949, pp:409-12
  3. R.C.Majumdar Edited, The History and Culture of the Indian People, The Vedic Age, 1952, p.445
  4. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.335
  5. S.Radhakrishnan – Indian Philosophy, vol I, 1923, p.283
  6. Ibid, p.282
  7. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.335
  8. Ibid, p.339
  9. Satindra Kumar Mukerjee – Sankara on the relation between the Vedas and Reason, The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol 6, Calcutta, 1930,p.113
  10. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, pp:364-65
  11. Ibid, p.349
  12. Ibid, p.334
  13. Ibid, pp:339-40
  14. B.Narayan Aiyangar – Op.Cit, p.80
  15. Raj Bali Pandey – Op.Cit, pp:479-80
  16. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.550
  17. Ibid, p.542

Hemu, the ephemeral Hindu Sultan of medieval India

From about 1193 A.D. onwards Delhi was ruled by Turks belonging to various dynasties till 1451 when the Afghans under Bahlul Khan Lodi captured Delhi. In 1526 Babur defeated the Afghans in the first battle of Panipat and commenced the Moghul rule in India. His son Humayun was overthrown by Sher Shah Sur in 1540 and he re-established the Afghan rule over Delhi. But within ten years of Sher Shah’s death his descendants lost their empire through family quarrels and rebellion by nobles. The last Sur ruler Adil Shah was entirely devoid of energy or capacity and devoted himself solely to the pursuit of pleasure and handed over the responsibility of governance to his prime minister, Hemu.

From Hawker to Diwan

Hemachandra or Hemu Bhargav was born in a poor family in Machheri in Alwar (Rajasthan) and later shifted to Rewari (Haryana). His father Puran Das was a man with religious bent of mind who left his home to Mathura when Hemu was still in his teens. Hence Hemu had to sell salt in the streets of Rewari to support his family. Later he went to Delhi and became a weighman and in due course a government contractor. In his new capacity he came in contact with the highest officials of the state and also Islam Shah, the successor of Sher Shah; who impressed by Hemu’s intelligence and sincerity appointed him as superintendent of markets (shahana-i bazar). It was an important post and Hemu used to inspect and examine all the important commodities. He also prepared rate lists and inspected weights, etc. Beside he got an opportunity to pay frequent visits to the king in order to apprise him of the trade and commerce situation in the country. The king sought his advice not only in matters relative to trade and commerce but also in those pertaining to diplomacy and statesmanship. Later Islam Shah appointed him as the head of the department of intelligence and post (daroga-i-dakchouki). Adil Shah, the successor of Islam Shah was a weak, indolent, pleasure seeking and sensual king. He handed over the responsibility of governance to Hemu by appointing him as Diwan (Prime Minister). Taking advantage of the incompetency of Adil Shah a number of Afghan chiefs revolted against him. Punjab became independent under Sikandar Shah, Delhi and Agra under Ibrahim Shah and Bengal under Muhammad Shah. Only the region from Agra to Bihar remained in the hands of Adil Shah. Each of these four rulers were anxious to establish his supremacy over the others. Sikandar Shah marched against Ibrahim Shah and after defeating him took control over Delhi and Agra. Hemu had to fight constantly in order to put the rebel chiefs and always won victories sometimes against heavy odds.

An efficient administrator and general

Hemu was a highly efficient civil administrator and possessed much more intelligence than the average administrators of the martial races. He was also a military genius and wielded the sword better than the Rajputs and Turks. Far sighted in his strategic plans, keen-eyed and quick in his tactical decisions, cool in holding his strength in reserve and fearless of danger in encouraging his troops by his personal example, he fought 22 battles on behalf of his master and was victorious in all of them. Among those defeated by Hemu was Ibrahim Sur who after being driven out of Delhi and Agra by Sikandar Sur challenged Adil Shah who sent Hemu to face him. Hemu defeated him twice; once near Kalpi and again near Khanua and compelled Ibrahim Sur to seek refuge in the fort of Bayana which was also besieged by Hemu. But as Muhammad Sur of Bengal marched against Adil Shah, Hemu was recalled to face the former. Hemu defeated Muhammad Sur at Chhapparghatta twenty miles from Kalpi and Muhammad Sur fled. Others defeated by Hemu include chiefs like Taj Kararani and Rukn Khan Nuhani.

Humayun returns back

The rivalry and hostility among the Afghans afforded Humayun who was living in exile a good opportunity to recover his throne. From Kabul he started his Indian expedition in November 1554 and occupied Lahore without any opposition in February 1555. He then marched towards Delhi and defeated the Afghans first at Dipalpur, then at Machiwara and finally at Sirhind and took possession of Delhi in July 1555. But in January 1556 Humayun died Akbar was formally proclaimed Padshah at Kalanaur. Tardi Beg was appointed governor of Delhi. Adil Shah sent Hemu to reconquer Delhi and retired to Chunar. Hemu advanced by way of Gwalior and Agra to old Delhi. Iskandar Khan Uzbeg, governor of Agra took fright and retired towards Delhi without fighting and losing about 3000 of his men during the retreat. Hemu occupied Agra with its treasure and equipment’s and proceeded towards Delhi. Tardi Beg Khan, governor of Delhi offered feeble resistance at Tughlaqabad five miles east of the Qutb Minar on 7th October 1556, but was defeated. He fled with Iskandar Khan towards Sarhind. Ali Quli Khan Shaibani, governor of Sambhal also abandoned his charge and joined the fugitive.

Hemu ascend the throne of Delhi

The entire country from Gwalior to river Sutluj passed under the control of Hemu. He distributed the spoils of war among the Afghans and with their concurrence, declared his independent status in a practical manner by ascending the throne, with the imperial canopy raised over his head, issued coins in his name and assumed the historic name Vikramaditya. Hemu became the first and the only Hindu to occupy the throne of Delhi during the medieval period of our history.

According to A.L.Srivastava, European scholars along with medieval Muslim chroniclers find fault with Hemu for usurping power. But Hemu only repudiated Adil Shah’s authority, though rebellion and even use of force is legitimate against foreign rule. If foreigners like Humayun and the descendants of Sher Shah could advance claims to the sovereignty of India, Hemu who was a real native of the soil, had an equally legitimate if not better claim to rule over his ancestral land. No praise can be too great for Hemu’s bold endeavour to re-establish indigenous rule at Delhi after more than 350 years of foreign domination.

Second Battle of Panipat

The news of the fall of Delhi and Agra alarmed the Mughuls and they advised their sovereign then encamped at Jalandhar to retire immediately to Kabul as their number was not more than 20,000 while Hemu’s army was reputed to be one lakh strong and was flushed with its recent success. But Bairam Khan decided in favour of recovering Delhi and Akbar agreed. Akbar left Jalandhar on October 13th to face Hemu. At Sarhind the governor of Agra, Delhi and Sambhal joined Akbar and counselled him to retreat to Kabul. Bairam Khan however took prompt steps to silence them by putting Tardi Beg Khan to death.

Hemu sent forward his advance guard with a pack of his artillery to encounter that of Akbar’s which was proceeding rapidly under the command of Ali Quli Khan Shaibani. But Hemu’s advance guard was defeated and his artillery captured.

Within a week or so the two armies met on the historic field at Panipat on November 5th 1556. Bairam Khan commanded 10,000 strong Moghul army from a long distance in the rear and placed Ali Khan Quli in charge of the centre, Sikandar Khan Uzbeg in charge of the right wing and Abdulla Khan Uzbeg in charge of the left wing and Akbar was kept at a safe distance behind the army. Hemu’s fighting force consisted of 30,000 Rajput and Afghan cavalry and 500 war elephants which was protected by the plate armour and had musketeers and cross bowmen mounted on their back. However, he had no guns. Hemu took his position in the centre and gave charge of his right wing to Shadi Khan kakkar and left wing to Ramyya, his own sister’s son. In spite of the loss of his artillery in the preliminary engagement, Hemu boldly charged the Moghuls and overthrew their right and left wings. He then launched an attack on their centre and hurled his war elephants against them. But the defeated Moghul wings collected themselves and moving to Hemu’s flanks attacked them. Hemu’s advance was also barred by a deep ravine in front of it. Ali Quli Khan made a detour and attacked Hemu’s centre from behind. Hemu continued fighting fiercely when a stray arrow struck his eye and blood started oozing out. But Hemu pulled the arrow out, bandaged the eye with a scarf and ordered the fight to go no but later fell down into the houda unconscious. His army presuming that its leader was dead was seized with panic. An Indian army never could survive the loss of its leader on whose life its pay depended. Hence Hemu’s soldiers at once scattered in various direction and made no further attempt at resistance. Hemu’s elephant driver tried to take his unconscious master beyond the reach of the danger but was overtaken by a Moghul officer named Shah Quli Mahram who conducted Hemu to Akbar.

Akbar the ‘Ghazi’

Bairam Khan desired Akbar to earn the title of Ghazi or slayer of the infidel by flashing his sword on the captive. Akbar obeyed his guardian and struck Hemu on the neck with a short sword. The bystanders also plunged their swords into the bleeding corpse. Hemu’s head was sent to Kabul to be exposed and his trunk was hung at one of the gates of Delhi. The official story of magnanimous sentiment of unwillingness of Akbars part to strike a helpless prisoner seem to be a late invention of court flatterers. This view is also reiterated by V.A.Smith who writes that at the time of the second battle of Panipat, Akbar was a boy merely 14 years of age and that since his birth he had been reared among scenes of violence and bloodshed by Muhammadans who regarded the killing of a Hindu infidel as a highly meritorious act whether the killing took place in the heat of a battle or in cold blood. Is it possible that the boy Akbar in such a position would have felt any scruples, doubts V.A.Smith. Bairam Khan was the young prince command-in-chief, his personal guardian and the only man who could convert his potential kingdom into a reality. Is it likely that in the circumstances a boy of 14 would set up his private opinion against that of his guardian and all the bystanders, questions V.A.Smith

Hemu’s father refuse to convert to Islam

After Hemu’s death an unsuccessful attempt was made to capture his wife and she escaped to the jungle of Bejawada. Hemu’s aged father was captured and brought before Nasir-al-Mulk who asked him to convert to Islam. Hemu’s father answered that for eighty years he has been worshipping his god and why should he change it now that too merely from fear of losing life. He was immediately killed.

Greatest of the Great

Rana Pratap and Shivaji defied the Moghuls and won an everlasting fame. No doubt they were great, but Hemu was greater still as he occupied the throne of Delhi; the choicest treasure of India which is considered a rare thing achieved by a Hindu during medieval times. Also, unlike Rana Pratap and Shivaji, Hemu did not had a martial background or like Rana Pratap inherited a kingdom nor like Shivaji had a father who was a high-ranking military officer in the court of Bijapur. Hemu by sheer merit and personality without any advantage of birth or fortune dominated the political stage of north India during the heydays of Muslim rule in India. Hence Raoji Nemchand Shah opines that Hemu deserves to be remembered for all times not because he was a monarch of Delhi but because he had the courage and nobility and had set an example that Hindus are not easily threatened and that they too can conquer and defeat the Moghuls. In the words of K.R.Qanungo, no Hindu had ever been covered with so many glorious wounds on the field of battle except Maharana Sanga and no Rajput wielded the sword so bravely against foreign invaders as this humble Hindu of Rewari did on the field of Panipat. It was not easy to command the Afghans and the Turks who were religious fanatics. Moreover, the Afghan nobles were highly individualistic and fiercely loyal towards their respective tribes. If at all they worked under Hemu, it was because he was sagacious, courageous, confident and possessed administrative skills and leadership qualities. Despaired due to continuous brutal subjugation by successive Muslim rulers of Delhi, Hindus saw a silver lining in Hemu. If not for an accident in the battle which turned victory into defeat, Hemu might have founded a Hindu ruling dynasty instead of the Moghuls in Delhi. If he had succeeded, the history of India would have been different but destiny proved otherwise.

A forgotten Hero

Hemu who was born in humble life, made his way to the throne of Delhi by dint of sheer ability and military skill- a unique episode in the history of India during Muslim rule. Unfortunately, Hemu’s history has been written almost wholly by his enemies who dreaded him most and far from doing justice to his greatness, they have tarnished his name. According to Jadunath Sarkar Hemu’s honesty and devotion to the interests of the state and his strictness in putting down slack and corrupt public servants antagonised the degenerate old official nobility and his memory has been blackened by their false aspersion and the partisan writings of Akbar’s court flatterers. Hence R.C.Majumdar opines that it is time to resuscitate the memory and give a true account of the life of Hemu, really a great hero, whose dreams and achievements have been forgotten by his countrymen.


  • R.C.Majumdar- Himu: A Forgotten Hindu Hero in The History and Culture of the Indian People, The Mughul Empire, vol vii, Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan
  • Jadunath Sarkar – Military History of India, Calcutta, 1960
  • K.R. Qanungo – Sher Shah and his Times, Orient Longmans Limited, 1965
  • Kripal Chandra Yadav – Maharaja Hema Chandra, A Profile in Haryana: Studies in History and Culture, Kurukshetra University, 1968
  • Vincent A Smith – The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the battle of Panipat, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, July, 1916
  • Raoji Nemchand Shah – Shah Hemu Vikramaditya, the Emperor of India, Bharatiya Vidya vol x, 1949
  • A.L.Srivatsava – The Mughul Empire, Shivlal Agarwal & Co, Agra, 1959
  • H.A.Phadke – Haryana: Ancient and Medieval, Harman Publishing House, New Delhi, 1990

A brief account of the Naga tribe, Naga royal families and the Naga cult

The Nagas were a powerful and wide-spread people who appear to have been living in different parts of India from very early times. From Kashmir, Tibet or Nepal to the Malabar and Konkan coast in the south; from Gujrat to Bengal and Assam; from Ceylon to Java, Sumatra and Cambodia, there are very few places indeed where we do not meet frequently with individual or local names of which the word Naga forms a part, or where the ruling dynasty is not believed sometimes to have been associated with a Naga clan.

Origin of the Naga tribe

In the early period of Indian civilization people were divided into totem-groups. In Sanskrit literature we find such totem-names as the Vanaras – the monkey tribe, the Ajas – the goat tribe, the Vrshnis – the ram tribe, the Matsyas – the fish tribe, the Garudas – the kite tribe and the Nagas – the serpent tribe, etc. Of these, the Nagas seems to have been widely prevalent as we find them in historic times occupying the north-east, the north-west, the central and the south Indian provinces.

The Sanskrit word Naga means a snake. In post-Vedic early Sanskrit literature the Nagas are referred to as a class of semi divine being with their bodies half-man and half-snake and classed along with other semi divine being like Kinnaras, Gandharvas and Yakshas. They are described as possessing immense wealth, living in luxurious and magnificent cities in the neither region and their women noted for their enrapturing beauty and charm. The Nagas were martial, matriarchal and seafaring people. Holding both banks of the great river Sindhu, the Nagas along with Asuras must have access to the sea from a very early period. The churning of ocean is an allegorical description of sea borne commerce in its early days and Mandara mountain, said to have been used in the churning process represented a ship.

Children of Kashyapa and Kadru

According to the Puranas the race of the Nagas is said to have sprung from Kadru, the wife of sage Kashyapa. They inhabited Patala (the regions below the earth) or a portion of it called Nagaloka of which the capital is Bhogavati. The Nagas supported both the Devas (Manavas) and the Asuras depending upon their relations with them. Sesha and Vasuki Nagas were the allies of Vishnu. In Rigveda there is reference to Naga rishis like Arbudkadraveya Naga (Rig Veda 10/94), Jatakarna Erwata (Rig Veda 10/76) and Sarprajni (Rig Veda 10/183) who composed hymns.

In Buddhist scriptures the Nagas are depicted as a highly civilized race and many of them converted by the Buddha to his faith. The erection of ancient monuments is attributed to them for they were regarded as clever architects and artificers. They are spoken as the custodians of the relics of the Buddha.

Patala or Rasatala, the abode of Nagas

The abode of the Nagas is said to be Rasatala and its capital was Bhogavati. According to Nundolal Dey, the Nagas were Huns living in Rasatala, which is the Sanskritised form of Rasa – tele, the valley of the Rasa or the Jaxartes. Hence Rasatala is a place situated on the north and west of the Hindukush mountains and it comprised the valley of Oxus and Jaxartes. The capital of the Nagas, Bhogavati is a Sanskritised form of Bakhadhi mentioned in the Avesta which was the ancient name of Balkh.

Original inhabitants of Kashmir

According to Nilamata Purana, the first occupants of Kashmir were the Nagas who were living in the mountains surrounding the lake Satisar (lake of Sati) and their king was Nila. The valley of Kashmir was once a big lake and was drained by Lord Shiva and Kashyapa was asked to people the land thus claimed and Kashyapa is said to have settled the Nagas in Kashmir valley. A demon Jaladbhava (born of water) was living inside a vast lake Satisar and killing the Nagas living in the mountains. The Nagas appealed to sage Kashyapa who drained the lake and Vishnu killed the demon. Hence the valley that emerged from under the water was Kashmir, a name said to be the corrupt form of Kashyappur or Kashyap Mar.

Matrimonial alliance with other tribes

The Nagas were living in the Vindhya region and were constantly at war with their traditional enemy, the Gandharvas. Later Ikshavaku king, Purukutsa, son of Mandhata sided with the Nagas and defeated the Gandharvas and married a Naga princess, Narmada.

Later the Haihaya king Kartavirya Arjuna captured Mahishamati from the Karkotaka Nagas and made it his capital. During the Mahabharata period we have reference to Aryaka, a Naga chief who was the grand-father of Sura, the king of Surasenas. Sura was the father of Kunti and Vasudeva, the latter being the father of Sri Krishna. Arjuna had married Ulupi the daughter of a Naga king at the foot of the Himalayas near Haridwar and had a son Iravan. Later he married Chitrangada, daughter of Chitravahana, the Naga king of Manipur by whom he had a son Bhabruvahana.

Nagas invade Hastinapura

Taking advantage of the weakened condition of the Pauravas as the result of the Mahabharata war, Takshaka king of Nagas marched against Hastinapura and king Parikshit died in an attempt to check their advance. However, M.S.Mate give a different version for the conflict between the Nagas and the Pauravas. The region of Khandavprastha was the home of the Nagas and Dhritarashtra allotted the land between Yamuna and Khandavprastha to Pandavas and in order to acquire space for their capital, Arjuna and Krishna set fire to the forest and it destroyed not only trees but also numerous Naga inhabitants. Parikshit also attempted to acquire some forest land for expansion of the capital and this led to a dispute with the Nagas and Parikshit lost his life. Parikshit son Janamejaya to avenge his father’s death invaded Takshashila and slaughtered countless Nagas. It was through intercession of Astika (Astika was the son of Janatkaru, (sister of Vasuki, the king of Nagas) and sage Jaratkaru) that Janamejaya stopped this slaughter. Takshaka appears to have escaped safely. This slaughter of innumerable Nagas has been mythologized into the sarpasatra (snake sacrifice) of Janamejaya.

Naga Royal families in historic period

The existence of the Nagas in different parts of India in the earliest and medieval period is evidenced not only by epigraphic, numismatic and literary records but also by numerous localities named after the Nagas and a large number of families including many royal houses with the cognomen Naga. According to scholars one of the earliest historical Naga royal lines was the dynasties represented by Shishunaga and Naga Darshaka kings of Magadha.

The Bharasiva Nagas of Padmavati

The Nagas began their political career sometime the close of the 2nd century A.D. and emerging into prominence when the foreign Kushana power was disintegrating, succeeded in driving them out from the Gangetic valley. The Naga house probably originated at Vidisha in east Malwa from where they moved to the north up to Padmavati, Kantipuri and Mathura and were on of the leading powers in ousting the Kushanas from the Gangetic valley. Vrisha was the first prominent Naga ruler of Padmavati and was followed by some eleven rulers, the last being Ganapati Naga exterminated by Samudra Gupta. The Vakataka record mention Maharaja Bhavanaga as the maternal grand-father of Rudrasena I, whose grand-son was a contemporary of Chandragupta. According to A.S.Altekar, this Bhavanaga belonged to the Bharasivas Naga family of Padmavati and must have flourished from 310-345 A.D. The Bharasiva Nagas were one of the most important powers that flourished on the ruins of the Kushana empire. According to K.P. Jayaswal, the Naga rulers became the leaders of a movement for freedom from the Kushan rule and revival of Hinduism. They revived Ashvamedha sacrifice after a lapse of some four centuries, popularised the nagara style of architecture and restored the sanctity of river Ganga and made worthy to be sculptured at the doors of the temples of the Vakatakas and the Guptas as a symbol of purity.

The rise of the Guptas saw the end of Naga dynasties and the Allahabad Pillar Inscription mention that Samudra Gupta exterminated Naga rulers like Ganapatinaga and Nagasena.

Nagas in Central India

The next important revival of the Nagas particularly in central India seems to date about 9th century A.D. In 800 A.D., Maharaja Tivaradeva of Sripura in Kosala most probably defeated a Naga tribe. Sometimes after this period we also note two references to Nagas in the inscriptions of Bengal. The Ramganj record of Mahamandalika Ishvara Ghosha introduces us to a Ghosha Naga family of Dekkari which was to be assigned to 11th century A.D. The Bhuvaneshvara Prashasti of Bhatta Bhavadeva, the minister of Harivarmadeva in 12th century A.D. also refers to destruction of Naga kings by him. It was in the period 10th to 12th century A.D. that the different branches of the Sendraka, Sinda or Chindaka family which called themselves Lords of Bhogavati and Nagavamshi gradually spread themselves over different portions of central India particularly Bastar.

Naga Royal families in the South

After their fight with the Haihayas, one set of Nagas went to Assam and the rest to Kerala. Later they assisted Parashurama in his fight against Kartavirya Arjuna. The Keralotpatti says that Brahmanas settled by Parashurama in Kerala were driven out by the Nagas and Parashurama resettled the Brahmanas after conciliating with the Nagas by giving some lands to them and by making Brahmanas take to their system of serpent worship. In south India Kerala was the headquarters of the Nagas and Naga worship still prevails here and, in the garden, attached to the houses of the Nayar community a sarpa kavu that is a Naga shrine is invariably found.

According to Kanakasabhai Pillai, the earliest inhabitants of south India were the Villavar (bowmen) and Minavar (fishermen) and they were conquered by the Nagas and only later south India was occupied by the Dravidians. It is also said that in the course of time the Nagas were subdued in course of time by the powerful kings from the north and eventually lost their individuality by intermarriage with the foreigners. The Pallava king Vira Kurcha married a Naga princess. Killi Chola married the Naga maiden Pilivalai, the daughter of Valaivanan. From the evidence of early Tamil works it appears that Puhar, the Chola capital at the mouth of river Kaveri was in more ancient times the capital of the Nagas.

It is believed that the Shatavahanas were Brahmanas with a admixture of Naga blood. The Naga connection is suggested by names like Naganika and Skanda Naga Shataka.

However, Karunakana Gupta says that the mere use of Naga symbols or the use of the appellation Naga in their nomenclature does not justify our identification of any particular dynasty with the Naga kula (tribe). This is because many dynasties which described themselves as Naga kulas did not necessarily use the word Naga as part of their names, for instance the Ghosha dynasty of Bengal. Also, those dynasties not belonging to the Naga kula issued coins with Naga symbols.

Assimilation of the Nagas

From the end of the first millennium references to Nagas, Naga ruling families and Naga rulers become extremely rare. In the early part of 20th century scholars who showed interest in documenting the various tribes/races of India or census reports failed to mention the Nagas except those living in the North-East. (The Nagas of North-East are of Mongolian origin and their beliefs, customs shows that they are in no way even remotely connected to the Nagas mentioned in ancient Indian literature). This shows that the original Nagas were assimilated into the Hindu fold and they were probably given the status of Kshatriya caste. The Nagas were assigned important roles into Hindu iconography via Hindu mythology. Shesha Nag became the bed of Vishnu while Vasuki was coiled around Shiva’s neck.

The Naga cult

Snake worship was the earliest form of religion prevalent among men in all parts of the globe as serpents are indigenous almost everywhere. The chief factor in the universality of this phase of superstition is the dread inspired by a mysterious creeping creature; silent and stealthy in its movements and able to cause almost instantaneous death by merely pricking the skin of its adversary. Thus, the Naga cult originated due to the fear of snake bite. Buddha also figures as advising the Bhikshus to worship the royal families of the Nagas to get protection against snake bite. The Naga cult probably arose among the cave-dwellers of the hill country and later in south India was coalesced with that of Murugan who was identified with Subramanya of the Vedic people.

Archaeological evidence of Naga cult

The earliest evidence of the serpent cult in India has been reported from the archaeological excavation at Chirand, a Neolithic site in Bihar. Among the host of terracotta figurines of animals and birds found at Chirand the discovery of the terracotta figurine of a snake is very significant. This terracotta figurine has been identified as the earliest representation of the serpent cult dating back to the early part of the third millennium B.C. Some form of Naga worship was also practised at Harappa as among the finds there we find a clay amulet which depicts a snake before a low stool on which some offering perhaps milk is placed. A faience tablet shows a seated deity, worshipped on either side by a kneeling man. Over the head of the deity a cobra with head raised and hood expanded is shown. A snake appears on painted pottery. These representations indicate that the cult of snake veneration was prevalent in Harappa.

Ahi Budhnya acquires divine status

In the Rig Veda Vritra is represented as one of the most powerful enemies of Indra and the Devas and identified with Ahi or the serpent. Towards the end of the Rigvedic period the snake god is absorbed in the Vedic pantheon in the form of Ahi Budhnya. Hence U.N.Mukerjee argues that Naga worship as we know it today originated in the Vedic period and reference to Ahi Budhnya the serpent of the deep has been made twelve times in the Rigveda itself. This Ahi Budhnya is a divine being and is invoked to rejoice and gladden the hearts of his worshippers. His blessing is desired as a boon for suppliants.

In the Atharva Veda and the later Samhitas, serpents appear as semi-divine beings and in the Asvalayana Grihya Sutras the divine serpents have been for the first time termed as Nagas. Sarpabali or sacrifice to the serpents is distinctly laid down here and the ritual has been described in detail in this sutra. The Naga was regarded sometimes as the spirit of the departed ancestor and sometimes as the guardian of treasures in later times. Probably the serpent worship was so popular that not only Shaivism, but also Vaishnavism, Buddhism and even Jainism had to admit the serpent in a subordinate capacity in their own religious system. Many Naga images have been found in Mathura, Rajagriha and other places. Most of the Naga images found at Mathura belong to the Kushana period. The Nagas were propitiated for progeny and for healing diseases particularly loathsome one like leprosy, sores, etc.

The important Nagarajas

Eight lords of the Nagas are mentioned in the Agamas, the chief of those is Ananta or Shesha or Adisesha on whose fold Lord Vishnu is supposed to sleep. In an inscription of the 12th century A.D. (Madras Epigraphical Report for 1910, page 117, para 60) the eight Nagas, Sesha, Vasuki, Takshaka, Karkotaka, Abja (Padma), Mahambuja (Maha Padma) Sankhadhara and Kulika are invoked to decide about the auspicious or inauspicious nature of the grant.

Among the Nagarajas, Shesha or Ananta figures first. Eldest among the children of Kadru he is the chief of the Nagas. He became an ascetic and sought refuge in penance. He is also associated with Varaha or Adivaraha, an incarnation of Vishnu. Next to Shesha is Vasuki who is associated with Lord Shiva and is represented as hanging freely around his neck. The cult of Vasuki is very popular in regions like Gujarat, the Delhi area and in the valley of western Himalayas. Similarly, the worship of Naga Karkotaka is popular in Nepal, Kashmir and parts of Uttar Pradesh. A dynasty of kings who ruled over Kashmir for about two centuries from 7th to 9th trace their descent from Naga Karkotaka. Another popular Nagaraja is Takshaka who has a shrine near Naoli in Madhya Pradesh and is worshipped along with Dhanvantri, the tutelary deity of Hindu medicine.

Naga Pratishtana

In south India the Naga Pratishtana rites are performed wherein a cobra (Naga) is engraved on a granite stone and consecrated in temples and other places on a specially prepared platform (Naga Katte) under the shade of the pipal and the margosa trees. A ceremony called ‘the marriage of the pipal tree’ is performed amidst great rejoicing. The connection of the Nagas with the pipal and margosa trees is evidently a relic of the ancient tree and serpent worship.

Naga Panchami, the festival of Nagas

Naga Panchami the great festival of snakes is celebrated all over India on the fifth day of the Hindu month of Shravana (July-August) in honour of the sons of Kadru who were believed to be born on the fifth day of the Shravana. On that day women offer flowers and fix incense sticks at snake holes (ant hills) and pour milk into them.

The famous serpent temple of India

Kumara, Muruga or Subramanya has close association with the snake and the most famous serpent temple of India situated in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka is itself called Subramanya. Subramanya is an appellant of the serpent king Sesha in south India. In the Hindu month of Margashira (November-December) an annual festival called Subramanya Shashti or Kukka Shashti takes place where people of all caste participate. Here a dance ritual called Nagamandala takes place in honour of the snake god. This dance accompanied by music takes place round about a huge mandala which is a design drawn on floor in coloured rangoli depicting an enormous snake coiled and entwined.

The names – Nagaraja, Nagamani which Hindus of present day keep, place names like Nagpur, Nagapattanam which exists even today in India and the celebration of festival like Naga Panchami all over India shows the strong legacy left by the once Naga community, one among the inhabitants of ancient India.


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Varuna, the pre-eminent God during the formative Vedic religion

The adherents of Vedic religion had classified their gods under three spheres namely aerial, celestial and terrestrial. Judging the popularity of the gods on the basis of the number of hymns addressed to them, Indra, the god belonging to aerial sphere comes first followed by Agni and Soma. But during the early phase of the Vedic religion, Varuna though celebrated only in ten hymns reigned supreme among the gods worshipped by the Vedic people. The reason for this was because Varuna, a god belonging to the celestial sphere symbolised the sky. The sky pours water and bring life in the vegetation. The sky holds the sun, the moon and the stars and brings the day by bringing the sun out from beneath the sea. So, the Varuna or the sky was adored as a great deity. In the next stage of evolution, we find the pantheon comprises of two gods, the Varuna and the Mithra. The Mithra is the sun and the usherer of the day and giver of light and life. From this time onwards the dual deity Mithra-Varuna came to be the favourite god of the Vedic people and there are about 23 hymns in the Rigveda addressed to Mithra-Varuna together. Both Mithra and Varuna are spoken of as righteous and promoters of religion.

A Universal Monarch

In the Rigveda, Varuna is called king of both gods and men. He is a universal monarch (samraj) with several epithets like ‘asura’, ‘mayin’, ‘rtavan’, ‘dhrtavrata’, etc. As an upholder of the physical and moral order, Varuna has attributes of a higher moral character than any other gods and hence men call upon him for pardon and purity. He is the upholder of ordinances which are fixed and unassailable. The Varuna hymns which are predominantly ethical and devout in tone give us the most exalted poetry in the Rigveda. In the Mahabharata and the Puranas, Varuna is referred as the son of Aditi and called lokapala. His father sage Kashyapa installed him in the west as the ruler of all directions, aquatic animals and waters. Varuna is also called Pracetas, Amburaja, Jalapati, Uddhama, Yadahpati, Viloma and his vahana (vehicle) is Makara (crocodile). Varuna is also worshipped for the sake of rain. There are two special reasons for Varuna’s connection with water- the first one is his characteristic punishment for the wrongdoer is dropsy- which is formation of water in the cavities inside the middle region of the body and second reason is the setting sun whose presiding deity is Varuna, appears to go down into the sea.

Identified with Serpent God

According to Manomohan Ghosh, Varuna originally was a serpent god and Varuna panchami described in Nilamata Purana is in reality identified with the festival of Nagas, Nagapanchami. Varuna has been mentioned as Nagaraja in Buddhist works like Mahavyutpatti and the Jatakas. In a Napalese legend also Varuna appears as a great Naga.

Varuna cult superseded by Indra cult

The Varuna cult in the Vedic religion is more ancient than the Indra cult. With regards to the evolution of the Indra cult R.N.Dandekar opines that Indra was a human hero who attained godhood by virtue of his miraculous exploits of defeating the sworn enemies of Devas (Manavas) that is the Asuras. A critical study of the Rigveda shows that there are three distinct phases of relation between the ancient Varuna religion and the new Indra religion. Some passages in Rigveda glorify Varuna as the world sovereign which represent the first phase. In the second phase we find hymns in the Rigveda which clearly indicate that Varuna religion was being pushed into the background and the Indra religion was aggressively coming to the forefront. We find hymns which refer to Agni abandoning Varuna and going over to Indra. In the third phase the followers of Varuna tried to bring about an honourable compromise between the two religions. They argued that after victory is won by the war god Indra, Varuna is needed to establish law and order and thier slogan was Indra conquers and Varuna rules. This attempt to compromise was made particularly by the Vasishtas. Though superseded by Indra, Varuna continued to be the deity for whom rituals were held for the expiation of faults. In Atharvaveda, Varuna is conceived of as a God who chastises the sinners as well as pardons those who ask for forgiveness.

Mazdaism inspired by Varunaism

Manmohan Ghosh opines that the cult of Varuna was carried to Iran sometimes in the Vedic age or before and Zarathustra’s conception of Ahura Mazdah was inspired by Varuna’s cult minus some of its unacceptable features like human sacrifice. As we know the Shunashepa legend recorded in the Aitareya Brahmana points to human sacrifice offered to Varuna. Zarathustra suppressed the name of Varuna as it was associated with bloody rites like human sacrifice and applied to his Supreme deity the generic name of Asura (Ahura), the title of Varuna with Mazdah (the wise).

Varuna identified with Supreme Reality

There are about eleven hymns in Rigveda in which Indra and Varuna have been invoked together. In these hymns Indra and Varuna are called the two monarchs of the universe who are called upon to render assistance in battle and grant victory. According to Usha Choudhuri, in the Vedic vision as well as in the entire subsequent thought, the bright aspect (Sathvika) of the Reality is considered to be the Supreme. As Indra represented the bright aspect, the Purusha, in comparison to Prakriti represented by Varuna, the former gained supremacy over the latter. From the philosophical point of view, Indra and Varuna when explained on microcosmic lines represent the Jivatman and the Kundalini Shakti respectively; that is, one is consciousness (soul) and the other is the gross form of consciousness (body). Thus, Indra and Varuna represent the positive and negative aspects of the cosmic reality. This positive and negative aspect are complementary to each other and at the same time identical with the Supreme Reality.


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