Was Vallabhacharya’s sect, a continuation of the Vishnusvami’s sect?

In about 1500 A.D. the theory of the four Vaishnava Sampradayas (traditions) took shape in north India and these Sampradayas were- the Sri Sampradaya founded by Sri Ramanujacharya, Brahma Sampradaya founded by Madhvacharya, Rudra Sampradaya founded by Vishnusvami/Vallabhacharya and Sanakadi Sampradaya founded by Nimbarkacharya.

Vishnusvami, the founder of the Rudra Sampradaya was an acharya of the bhakti marga who belonged to south India. He is said to have written commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavata Purana and the Vedanta Sutras though none are available today. What we know of Vishnusvami’s system is not from his own works but from those of others. Vishnusvami like Madhvacharya is a dualist and his system is precisely like the Madhva system with one exception. While the Madhvas do not worship Radha, Vishnusvami was the first Vaishnava acharya to recognize Radha as an object of worship along with Krishna. In Maadhavacharya’s (or Vidhyaranya who lived in 14th century A.D.) Sarvadharshanasangraha, there is a reference to Vishnusvami’s devoted adherent, Srikanta Misra and to a work by him named Sakara Siddhi, the teachings of which are clearly dualist.

Probable date of Vishnusvami

Bhakta Mala, a work by Nabhaji records that Vishnusvami’s successors were Jnanadeva, Namadeva, Trilochana and Vallabha. Jnanadeva is the author of a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and his work is dated 1290 A.D. On the basis of this information, J.N.Farquhar says that Vishnusvami was probably Jnanadeva’s senior by some 30 to 40 years. But according to C.Hayavadana Rao assigning this date seems too early for this would make Vishnusvami practically a junior contemporary of Madhvacharya, whereas the system of Vishnusvami apart from its philosophical aspects had nothing to distinguish it from Madhva’s. Hence the date of Vishnusvami would have to be fixed after Madhvacharya (1238-1317 A.D.) and may be assigned to about the close of 13th century A.D., says C. Hayavadana Rao.

The sect of Vishnusvami was widespread and popular for centuries. The sectarian mantra of the Vishnusvamis are said to be Om Rama-Krishnaya Namah and Om Rama-Krishna Hari. With the rise of Vallabha sect in the beginning of 16th century A.D., the sect of Vishnusvami was almost completely absorbed by the Vallabhas.

Vallabhacharya’s sect associated with Rudra Sampradaya of Vishnusvami

Though there is no connection in doctrines between the Vishnusvami sect and the Vallabha sect, tradition however identifies the Vallabha sect as a successor of the Vishnusvami sect. But no evidence for this, however is found in Vallabhacharya’s own writings. Nowhere in his writings, Vallabhacharya mentions Vishnusvami as his spiritual father. In fact Vallabhacharya acknowledged no human teacher and says that he learnt his system directly from Lord Krishna. In one or two places Vallabhacharya actually criticized the teachings of Vishnusvami as defective. Also Vishnusvami’s philosophy is dualistic and he regards Radha as a woman and Krishna’s mistress at Brindavan, while Vallabhacharya’s philosophy is monistic and he holds Radha to be the eternal spouse of Krishna. Though it is generally held that the Rudra Sampradaya covers the Vallabha sect, the Vallabhacharis themselves altogether repudiate the title.

Reason behind this association

Some of the reason for connecting these two sects may be-

The traditional belief in the existence of only four recognized Vaishnava Sampradayas in the age of Kali made it obligatory for every new faith to have a link with one of them even if one wants to start a Sampradaya of his own. For instance Madhvacharya who was initiated into the Advaita Sampradaya of Shankara later promulgated the Dvaita doctrine which was directly opposed to Advaitism. Hence it is very likely the tradition of connecting the Vishnusvami Sampradaya with Vallabha’s sect sprang up among the followers of Vallabhacharya in order to meet the criticism of its opponents that it was without a succession (Sampradaya) of any kind.

It is possible that Vallabhacharya’s own family belonged to the Vishnusvami’s Sampradaya or that Vallabhacharya was influenced to some extent in his early life by the teachings of Vishnusvami.

Another reason for this connection between these two sects may be due to the fact that a large number of followers of Vishnusvami sect joined the sect of Vallabhacharya, which perhaps meant its absorption almost into the sect of Vallabhacharya.

According to J.N.Farquhar, the idea that the two sects are one can be traced back to the middle of the 17th century and was probably one of many means employed by the Vallabhas in the process of absorbing the followers of the Vishnusvami sect.


  • Bhai Manilal C Parekh – Sri Vallabhacharya, Life, Teachings and Movement, Sri Bhagavata Dharma Mission, Rajkot, 1943
  • J.N.Farquhar – An outline of the Religious Literature of India, Oxford University Press, 1920
  • C. Hayavadana Rao, Edited – The Srikara Bhashya by Sripati, vol- 1, Bangalore, 1936
  • O.B.L.Kapoor – The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Caitanya, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishing Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1994

Can Purva Mimamsa be considered as a Philosophical System?

Philosophy is the study of the search of Truth and is classified under several branches like Metaphysics, Logic, Aesthetics, Epistemology, Ethics, Political Science and Axiology. In India we have a number of philosophical systems grouped under various categories like-

Nastika (not owing allegiance to the Vedas) – Buddhism, Jainism and Charavaka systems

Astika (owing allegiance to the Vedas)- Nyaya, Vaishesika, Samkya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta)

Schools of Vedanta

Shankara’s Advaita

Ramanuja’s Visishtadvaita

Madhva’s Dwaita

Nimbarka’s Dwaitadvaita

Vallabha’s Shuddhadvaita

Bhaskara’s Aupadhika-bheda bheda

Srikantha’s Visishta Shivadvaita

Sripati’s Vishesadvaita and

Baladeva’s Achintya bheda bheda

Schools based on Agamas

Trika or Kashmir Shaivism

Shaiva Siddhanta


Though it is generally held that there are six system of darshanas owing allegiance to the Vedas, only two of them Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa can be said to be directly based on Vedic scriptures, the former with the Vedic Samhitas and Brahmanas and the latter with the Upanishads; while the remaining four were only indirectly and in many cases in a forced manner connected with the Vedas. Also out of these six systems, only Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta), Samkya and Vaishesika deal with metaphysics whereas the Purva Mimamsa is mainly a methodology of interpretation of scriptural texts, the Yoga teaches physical, mental and spiritual discipline and the Nyaya is a system of logic and epistemology.1

The word Mimamsa had from the remotest times to the times of the Upanishads been employed to designate discussions on doubtful points in rituals or philosophy.2

The origin of the Mimamsa doctrine goes back to the Brahmana period. The very word Brahmana stands for the considered opinion of a priest or recognized authority. The result of these discussions were systematized and considerably amplified in later times as shown by the important class of literature known as Kalpa Sutras. But it remained essentially a system of ritual exposition. In still later times, owing obviously to the conspicuous development of other systems of philosophy, the Purva Mimamsa also came to be a fully fledged philosophical doctrine with its own ontology and epistemology in addition to being a systematization of ritual.3

Its primary source is represented by the sutra of Jaimini (300-200 B.C.) consisting of 12 chapters. The earliest extant commentary on it was written by Shabara Svamin (400 A.D.) and it was explained in two somewhat different ways by Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara in about 7th century A.D.4

Main content of Purva Mimamsa

For Vedic sacrifices to be performed correctly, their description given in the Brahmana literature has to be correctly comprehended. This required the correct interpretation of the Brahmana literature which was the main goal of Purva Mimamsa.5

Hence the purpose of Purva Mimamsa is the inquiry into dharma as opposed to the purpose of the Vedanta which is to investigate the nature of Brahman. The Purva Mimamsa defines dharma to be those duties that are prescribed by injunctive passages which urge men to action. The next question is what is the source of these injunctions. The answer is that it is the eternal, infallible and self-existent Vedas. It is this theory that the Vedas have existed from all eternity, was not created by any person, human or divine which was propounded by Purva Mimamsa system.6

Does Purva Mimamsa deal with Metaphysics?

Prof. K.T.Pandurangi opines that it is not clear whether Purva Mimamsa developed its own concepts of metaphysics and ontology in its early stages.7 With regards to questions like creation, God, individual soul and liberation; both Prabhakara and Kumarila, the commentators of Purva Mimamsa deny the existence of a personal God who created the world. Their position is that the world is without beginning and not created.8

The Purva Mimamsa treats God with scant respect for according to it, the Vedic ritual which is its chief concern operates automatically and autonomously. God is subservient to the ritual performance and is often regarded as even superfluous. It has been well said that according to Purva Mimamsa, gods can be regarded only as hypothetical entities which one has to assume because they are essential for the ritual act. Incidentally the Vedic ritual does not also seem to bother about the ‘moralness’ of the character of the sacrificer and the officiating priests for the purpose of the sacrificial act.9

The topic of God and the creation of the world naturally introduce the topic of the existence of the individual self, but Jaimini’s system contains no sutra to establish the existence of a soul.10

But later Purva Mimamsa had to accept the existence of the soul for without it who could perform the Vedic commandments and what would be the meaning of these Vedic texts which speak of men as performing sacrifices and going to heaven thereby? The soul according to them was something entirely distinct from the body, sense organs and buddhi and it was eternal and many.11

The Purva Mimamsa was also not interested in liberation. Performing karmas faithfully is a way of life as well as a goal of life for Mimamsakaras. A man should find fulfillment of his life in discharging these duties. However due to the impact of other systems of Indian philosophy and a general trend for the concept of liberation in Indian culture, they formulated the concept of liberation.12 According to Purva Mimamsa liberation or Kaivalya (a state of the absence of both bliss and sorrow) could be achieved by withdrawal from kamya sacrificial activities and prohibited activities. But nitya and naimittika karmas had to be performed.13

Purva Mimamsa contains philosophy of little value

According to S.N.Dasgupta, the Mimamsa Sutra deals mostly with the principles of the interpretation of the Vedic texts in connection with sacrifices and very little of philosophy can be gleaned out of them.14 Even in the field of epistemology, the svatah pramanaya (self-validity) of knowledge which was the cornerstone of the Purva Mimamsa’s philosophy was later modified and the Mimamsakaras accepted the Nyaya view of perception (sense contact) with slight modification.15

Similar is the view of P.V.Kane who says that the Purva Mimamsa has not much to teach and does not rise through high level on the burning questions of philosophy such as the creation of the world, a personal God, the moral government of the world, on the soul, etc. But still it has considerable claims to be regarded as a system as it has elaborated rules for the interpretation of (Vedic) texts, he adds.16

Is the study of Purva Mimamsa obligatory for studying Vedanta?

Most of the commentators of Brahma Sutra except Shankaracharya agree that a previous study of Purva Mimamsa is necessary before the Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta) can be taken up on the ground that when a person realizes that the fruits of following the karma kanda is limited and transitory, he develops inquisitiveness about acquiring the knowledge of Brahman.17

It is like asking a patient to first get examined by a quack and after realizing that he would not cure you, later to visit a qualified doctor. When all the acharyas had formulated their philosophies based on prasthanatraya (Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita) and had realized the inadequacy of karma kanda in realizing Brahman what was the need of every individual to go through the contents of karma kanda? Was it not a waste of time especially with the uncertain and limited life span of human beings? The acharyas (except Shankara) also wanted men to continue with rituals with a condition that it should be done without the desire of acquiring fruits and this would purify their mind and prepare them for acquiring Brahmajnana, that is reality of Brahman. All Vedic sacrifices were carried out with the aim of fulfilling a specific goal. But doing a task without a goal is like making a chair or shoe without any intention of using it. Moreover, how can one get their mind purified by performing sacrifices which involve killing animals? Also how can an individual involve himself in karma (activity) in a sacrifice, where the Ritviks are actually doing the job, while being the sponsor the individual is a mute spectator.

Purva Mimamsa clearly says that the duties mentioned in the Vedas for an individual have to be carried out from birth to death. If an individual spends time in these activities when will he have time to reflect, contemplate or introspect on large issues like salvation? Another question is what about the path to be chosen by the masses for salvation as the Vedic sampradaya denies them to study Vedas or perform sacrifices?

Conditions for acquiring Brahmajnana

According to Shankara a person is entitled to inquire into Brahman when he has passed through the four fold discipline of viveka (discrimination), vairagya (renunciation), satasampat (virtues like tranquility, sense control, faith in the path of jnana marga, perseverance, focus of mind and withdrawal from the world) and mumukshatva (intense desire for enlightenment).18

Shankaracharya’s view on studying Purva Mimamsa

In his commentary on Isavasyopanishad Sri Shankaracharya now and again touches on the following point which is of much importance in understanding his view on the relevance of studying Purva Mimamsa. The Veda inculcates he says two independent lines of conduct- one of karma or activity and the other of jnana or withdrawal from the world. The first forms the subject matter of the liturgical portion of the karma kanda and the second of the Upanishad or the jnana kanda of the Vedas. The teaching of the jnana kanda is whole in itself and should not be considered as subsidiary in any way to the teachings of the karma kanda. Nor should it be imagined that both these teachings can be concurrently followed by anybody for there is a fundamental antithesis between them. The karma kanda presupposes a belief in variety as ordinary experienced, while the jnana kanda denying all this variety insists on the truth of only the unity underlying it. Thus the two paths of karma and jnana are opposed to each other.19

Shankaracharya suggests that Purva Mimamsa might or might not be studied as its inadequacy for obtaining final release makes its previous study unnecessary. In spite of Shankara’s clear explanation attempts have been made to reconcile these two apparently irreconcilable systems of Philosophy by Shankara’s own disciple, Sureshvaracharya in his Sambandha Vartika.20

Mimamsakaras opposed Sannyasa doctrines

It was the inadequacy of the Vedas to satisfy the spiritual aspirations that led to the emergence of Sannyasa doctrines with its emphasis on contemplation and meditation.

But orthodox Brahmanas did not take kindly to the institution of ascetics. Paramount importance was attached to the householder’s life. Living on alms or charity was condemned and an exception was made only for the student community. Besides, acceptance of gifts was forbidden for all castes except the Brahmins. Whatever might be the attitude of the orthodox Brahmanas towards asceticism, they could not prevent the emergence of ascetic orders. It was however recognized as the last stage of life and a person who adopted ascetic life without fulfilling his obligations to family and society was looked upon as an offender. As a result indiscriminate ordination to ascetic life was restrained.21

In course of time, ascetic life came to command spontaneous respect and honour and homeless ascetics were classed in a position of privilege beyond the jurisdiction of royal authority and social law. Gradually the liberty to adopt the ascetic life from any stage became so prevalent that the Brahmanas could not withhold recognition from this custom and convention. Centuries later Sri Shankaracharya had to defend this custom and justify the freedom from the observance of the three fold antecedent stages as a necessary condition of ascetic life and he relied on a text of the Jabalopanishad in support of his contention. He had to wage a war against the Mimamsakaras who continued to denounce the ascetic order of life.22

Karma Kanda dominates in schools of Vedanta

As we know Sureshvaracharya was previously a Mimamsaka with a name Mandana Misra who being defeated by Shankaracharya in a debate became the disciple of Shankaracharya who renamed and appointed him as the head of Sringeri Matha. Probably Sureshvaracharya who had not completely lost faith in ritualism tried to reconcile karma with jnana. Also other Vedanta Acharyas who sympathized with the priestly class allowed their adherents to continue with karma (rituals) so much so, that in the schools set up by them they teach contents of karma kanda more than Vedanta.


  1. R.N.Dandekar – Insights into Hinduism, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1979, p.386
  2. P.V.Kane – A Brief Sketch of the Purva Mimamsa system, ABORI, vol- 6, No.1, July 1924, p.3
  3. M.Hiriyanna – Essentials of Indian Philosophy, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1949, pp:129,130
  4. Ibid, p.130
  5. K.T.Pandurangi – Critical Essays on Purva Mimamsa, Vidyadhisha Post-Graduate Sanskrit Research Centre, Bangalore, 2013, 238
  6. P.V.Kane – Op.cit, p.20
  7. K.T.Pandurangi – Op.cit, p.238
  8. P.V.Kane – Op.cit, p.22
  9. R.N.Dandekar – Op.cit, pp: 121,122
  10. P.V.Kane – Op.cit, p. 22
  11. Surendranath Dasgupta – The History of Indian Philosophy, vol-1, Cambridge University Press, 1922, p.399
  12. K.T.Pandurangi – Op.cit, p 531
  13. Ibid, p.521
  14. Surendranath Dasgupta Op.cit, p. 405
  15. Ibid, pp:372,376
  16. P.V.Kane Op.cit, p. 27
  17. C.Hayavadana Rao, Edited – The Srikara Bhashya by Sripati, vol- 1, Bangalore, 1936, pp: 107,108
  18. Ibid, 106
  19. Isavasyopanishad with commentary of Sri Shankaracharya, Edited and translated into English by M.Hiriyanna, p.iv
  20. C.Hayavadana Rao, Op.cit, pp:108,109
  21. Satkari Mookerjee – Buddhism in Indian Life and Thoughts in Cultural Heritage of India, vol-1, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1958, pp: 586,587
  22. Ibid, 587

Monks (Sannyasis) and Monasteries (Mathas) in Ancient India – A brief summary

Ancient Hindu thinkers had divided the lifespan of men into four stages; Brahmacharya, Gruhastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa and wanted men to obtain Dharma, that is education in the first stage of Brahmacharya, gain Artha and seek Kama, that is material prosperity and enjoy sensual pleasures in the second stage of Gruhastha and seek Moksha, that is liberation in the last two stages of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. This concept was called Ashrama Dharma.

The word ashrama is derived from shram, to exert, to labour and etymologically means ‘ a stage in which one exerts oneself’.

Sannyasa, a pre-Vedic and anti-ritualistic doctrine

According to R.N.Dandekar different religious cults prevailed in different regions of India of which were the Muni-Yati cult, Bhakti cult and the Rishi cult (Vedic cult). The Muni-Yati cult emphasized on Yoga, Tapas and Sannyasa. Similar view is expressed by Swami Niranjananda Saraswathi who says that in ancient India there were two Paramparas or traditions for spiritual advancement. One was the rishi parampara developed out of Vedic culture and another was Sannyasa parampara which owed its origin to the Dravidian ascetics called Yatis of the tantric culture and which existed in India earlier to the rishi or Vedic culture. While the rishi parampara was bound by social, family and religious obligations, the Sannyasa parampara was not. The Sannyasis did not believe in rituals, had no family or social ties, no caste, creed or religion and no political ideology. The Sannyasa parampara was conceived to be the direct path to moksha, while the rishi parampara was an indirect path. In course of time when the Sannyasa parampara gook on a definite shape, the rishi parampara receded into the background.

Passages in Taitariya Samhita (vi.2.7.5) and (ii.4.9.2), Aitareya Brahmana (35.2), Kathaka Samhita (viii.5) and (iv.10), Kausitaki Upanishad (111.1), Atharvaveda (11.5.3), Tandya Mahabrahmana (viii.1.4) suggests that Yatis were people who incurred the hostility of Indra who slaughtered them and threw their bodies to wolves. In Rigveda (viii.17.14) Indra is said to be the friend of Munis and in Rigveda (x.136.4), Muni is said to be the friend of all gods. So it appears that even in the times of the Rigveda, persons who led a life of poverty, contemplation and mortification were known and were honoured and called Munis, while persons corresponding to them among non-Vedic people were probably called Yatis.

We find the term Samana-Brahmana in Buddhist literature, Ashoka’s inscription and also being referred to by Megasthenes. The word Shramana occurs in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad along with the word tapasa. Shankara explains Shramana as Parivraj and tapasa as Vanaprastha. We find this term in Taittiriya Aranyaka also which shows that Shramans existed during the time of Brhadaranyaka Upanishad and Taittiriya Aranyaka and that they were naked and chaste. According to S.D.Laddu, the cult of sacrifice and all that went with it in the course of time was not looked upon very favourably by the Upanishad sages. The reason for this opposition to the Vedic cult lay mainly in its excesses of ritual formalism and also with cruelty in animal sacrifice. Shramanism developed differences with Brahminism mainly on the points of sacrificial himsa, caste-wise division and belief in Vedic authority; there being general agreement between the two on other essential doctrines like the karma theory. The Shramanas therefore drifted more and more apart from Brahmanas wherever and whenever Vedic sacerdotalism dominated the lives of the latter. Pundit Har Dutt Sharma opines that the Shramana were the same as the Yatis who were killed by Indra and they were the earliest dissenters from the orthodox Vedic religion.

Dharmashastras not favourable to Sannyasa

As originally Sannyasa was the doctrine of the dissenters from the orthodox ritualistic life of the Vedicists, the fourth stage of Sannyasa was not always looked upon with favour. Though not directly opposed, the householder’s life was considered as ideal. In Mahabharata, we find that Yudhisthira after the great battle was disgusted with the world and wanted to become an ascetic. But he was dissuaded by his brothers and wife. One of his brothers, Bhima says that according to scriptures a man should enter Sannyasa if a calamity befalls him, or when he is old or is harassed by his enemies. Bhima also says that Sannyasa was started by men devoid of fortune, paupers and atheists. Speaking on the issue, Arjuna relates a story that in the days of yore some Brahmanas had entered Sannyasa from Brahmacharya. Indra denounced the conduct of these Brahmanas and made them return to the Gruhastha stage. These stories show that in ancient times asceticism was looked upon with disfavour.

The Dharmashastra writers also maintain the same view. Thus Gautama says that of the four ashramas, that of the householder is the source, the others being unproductive. Vasishta also holds the order of householder as the most distinguished among the four and compares the householder to an ocean and other orders to river.

According to Baudhayana Dharmasutra (11.6.17) it was Asura Kapila, son of Prahlada, who in his rivalry with the gods made these distinctions to which a wise man should pay no heed. What Baudhayana means appears to be that there is really one ashrama viz, that of the householder, that Kapila devised the scheme of four ashramas so that those who became Vanaprasthas and Parivrajakas would perform no yajnas and thereby gods would lose the offerings they received from men and become less powerful.

On the whole the tendency of most of the Dharmashastra works is to glorify the status of an householder and push into the background the two ashramas of Vanaprasta and Sannyasa, so much so that certain works say that these are forbidden in the Kali age.

The establishment of ashrama theory

The establishment of the theory of ashramas does not seem to have taken place before the time of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad wherein we find the term ‘atyashramin’. In the oldest Upanishad there is evidence of only the first two or three ashramas, viz, that of a student, that of a householder and that of a Yati or a Muni. All the four ashramas were known by their specific names to the Jabalopanishad.

Panini (300 B.C.) knew Bhikshu-Sutras which was composed by Parasharya and Karmanda. As sutra works about bhikshus were composed before Panini, this ashrama of bhikshus must have been an established institution centuries before Panini.

Different points of view on Ashrama dharma

With reference to the four ashramas, there are three different points of view, viz, Samuccaya (orderly coordination), Vikalpa (option) and Badha (annulment or contradictions).

Those who hold the first view say that a person can resort to the four ashramas one after another in order and that he cannot drop anyone or more and pass on to the next nor can he resort to the householder’s life after becoming a Sannyasin. Manu is the prime supporter of this view. This view do not regard marriage and sexual life as impure or inferior to asceticism and on the contrary places it on a higher plan than asceticism.

The second view is that there is an option after Brahmacharya that is a man may become a Parivrajaka immediately after he finishes his study or immediately after the householder’s way of life. This view is put forward by the Jabalopanishad, Vasishta, Yajnavalkya and Apasthambha Dharmasutra.

The third view holds that there is really one ashrama namely that of the householder (Bramacharya being only preparatory to it) and that the other ashramas are inferior to that of the householder. Gautama and Baudhayana are upholder of this view. Manu, Vasishta, Daksha, Vishnu and many others praise the ashrama of the householder as the highest as one begets offspring only in this ashrama.

Vanaprasta and Sannyasa fused into one ashrama

The duties and regulations prescribed for Vanaprastas are practically the same as those for Sannyasins. For example the rules laid down in Manu Smrti for forest hermits (Vanaprastas) are almost the same as those for Parivrajakas (Sannyasins). Both have to observe celibacy and restraint of senses, both have to regulate the intake and quality of food, both have to contemplate on the passages of the Upanishads and strive for the knowledge of Brahman. There are also some differences. The Vanaprastha could be accompanied by his wife at least in the beginning, a Sannyasin could not be so. A Vanaprasta has to keep fires, perform the daily and other yajnas at least in the beginning, but the Sannyasin is one who has given up his fires. The Vanaprastha had to concentrate upon tapas, upon inuring himself to privations, severe austerities and self-mortification, while the Sannyasin was concerned principally with Samyama (restraint or quiescence of senses) and contemplation of the highest Reality as stated by Sri Shankaracharya in the Vedanta Sutra (iii.4.20)

Owing to the great similarity and virtual fusion of the two ashramas the stage of Vanaprasta came to be gradually ignored and people passed from the householder’s life directly to the life of Sannyasa. In course of time no one probably became a Vanaprasta and therefore having recourse to the stage of Vanaprasta came to be forbidden in the Kali age.

Meaning of Sannyasa

The meaning of the word ‘Sannyasa’ is resignation, renunciation or abandoning. That is one who abandons worldly affairs and devotes himself to meditation and the study of Aranyakas or Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gita defines Sannyasa as the renunciation of actions done with some purpose in view. But as all the actions done according to the Vedic ritual lead to some desired fruit, it comes to the renunciation of all the ritualistic actions.

Different terms for Sannyasis

A person who belonged to the last ashrama is variously called Parivrat or Parivrajaka (one who does not stay in one place but wanders from place to place), Bhikshu (one who begs for his livelihood), Muni (one who ponders over the mysteries of life and death) and Yati (one who controls his senses). These words suggest the various characteristics of the man who undertakes the fourth ashrama.

Eligibility for Sannyasa

Most Upanishads and Dharmasutras are of the opinion that a man after finishing his student career should enter a householder’s life. After this he should go to the forest and then enter the stage of Sannyasin. According to Jabala Upanishad one should enter Sannyasa the very day he is free from passion. According to Baudhayana Dharmasutra and Vaikhanasadharmaprashna, the time for entry to Sannyasa is after a man is 70 years of age, when he has either no children or is a widower. According to Mahanirvanatantra nobody should enter Sannyasa leaving his old parents, devoted wife, his children and his relatives. One who does so commits a great sin; the sin of murdering his parents, his wife and a Brahmana. According to Arthashastra, a man should renounce the world when he is free from passions and has taken the permission of religious men. And before entering into Sannyasa, he should make provision for his wife and children, otherwise he is liable to punishment.

According to Narada Parivrajaka Upanishad, a blind man, a eunuch, a child, a dumb man, heretic, one who accepts fees for teaching the Vedas, a bald man are not entitled to enter Sannyasa even if they possess vairagya.

Caste eligibility for becoming an Sannyasin

Most of the medieval writers and works such as Medhatithi on Manu, the Mitakshara, the Mandanaparijata, the Smrtimuktaphala uphold the view that only Brahmins can resort to the fourth ashrama, while works like the Smrticandrika, the Jabalopanishad, the Yajnavalkya Smrti and Kurma Purana allows all Dvijas (Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaishyas) to become an ascetic.

As far as the Smrti texts and the medieval works are concerned, a Shudra could not become a Sannyasin. The Shantiparva (63.11-14) is quite clear that a Shudra cannot be a bhikshu. But there are clear indications that Shudra did assume even in the times of ancient Smrtis the ascetic garb and mode of life. The Vishnu Dharmasutra (v.115) and Yajnavalkya Smrti (11.241) prescribes a fine of one hundred panas for one who gave a dinner to Shudra ascetic in rites for gods and manes. According to Srikara’s bhashya on Vedanta Sutra (I/3/34) the order of Sannyasa, the peculiar rules of which are recommended by Vedic texts, is only for the three varnas, while mere nyasa (abandonment of worldly pleasures and desires) can be resorted to by women, Shudras and mixed castes.

Life of a Sannyasin

The Sannyasa Paramahamsa, the Daksa Smrti, the Narada Parivrajaka Upanishad and the Vaikhanasa Dharma Prashna enjoin that a Sannyasin should wander alone without any fixed abode. As long as he is alone, he is a bhikshu, two make a pair, three a village and more a town. By contact and proximity the Sannyasis will certainly talk on politics or alms or will indulge in affection, back-biting and envy. It is only during the rainy season the ascetic is allowed to stay in a place for four months. According to Manu a Sannyasin should beg once in a day. He should feel no dejection if he gets no alms nor should he be pleased when he gets them. According to Baudhayana Dharmasutra, a Muni (an ascetic) should eat eight morsels of food, a forester (Vanaprastha) sixteen, a householder 32 and a student has no limit for consuming food.

According to the Paramahamsa Upanishad, an ascetic should have no garments, he should not bow down to anyone; he should not pray to gods or to the manes, he should have nothing to do with mantras, meditation or worshiping. In his actions he has neither a goal nor a non-goal. He is neither sorry in pain nor desirous of pleasure. He abandons all attachments and is indifferent to all good or bad things. He neither hates nor loves anything. He becomes steadfast in knowledge and his Self resides forever in the Supreme Self.

Different kinds of Sannyasins

In Manu Smrti we find only two terms, Yati and Vedasanyasika. The Vedasanyasika performs sacrifices, sustains his daily life by gleaning corn and prays for the realization of the Soul. The Jabala Upanishad mentions Parivraj, Atura and Paramahamsas. A Parivraj wears discoloured clothes, is shaven, has no possessions, is pure, does not observe enmity towards anyone, lives upon begging and tends to become one with Brahman. An Atura can renounce merely by thought or by speech. In many works ascetics are divided into four classes like the Kuticaka, the Bahudakas, the Hamsas and the Paramahamsas.

The Kuticakas are the one who resorts to Sanyasa in his own house or in a hut erected by his sons, wears the sacred thread and begs food from his sons or relatives. The Bahudakas wear ochre coloured garments, begs food at seven houses inhabited by well conducted men. The Hamsas stay not more than one night in a village or five nights in a town for alms, fasts for a month or always perform the Candrayana penance. The Paramahamsas beg food from all varnas, treat all alike, always stay under a tree or an uninhabited house or in a burial place and either wear a garment or are naked. They are beyond the pairs of dharma, adharma, truth and falsehood, purity and impurity. Some of the famous Paramahamsas are Samvartaka, Aruni, Shvetaketu, Durvasa, Rbhu, Nidagha, Jadabharata, Dattatreya and Raivataka.

Establishment of Monastic order

Before the advent of Buddhism, men with ascetic bent of mind used to retire to hermitages in the forests to end their remaining days in solitary recluse and lonely contemplation. Buddha founded the monastic order called Sangha which opened asceticism to men of all castes and to both sexes at any stage of their life. The Buddhist monks known as Bhikshu or Bhikku lived together under a common roof, obeying a common head and following a common code of disciplinary rules. In due course the Buddhist Viharas became the first centres of free education in India. The monastic centre as an educational institution was the contribution of Buddhism to Indian asceticism.

Beginning of Hindu Monasteries

Hindu monasteries called Matha probably owed their origin to the example of Buddhist monasteries called Vihara. The foundation of mathas received a great fillip after Sri Shankaracharya established four monastic institutions called Matha at Puri, Dwarka, Sringeri and Badri in the 8th century A.D. for the propagation of his system of Vedanta. Later other acharyas like Sri Ramanujacharya and Sri Madhvacharya established their own mathas.

Sri Shankaracharya divided all the Sannyasins of India into ten main groups who were collectively known as the Dasanama Sannyasa order. The Dasanami Sannyasins were Giri, Puri, Bharati, Aranyam, Vanam, Saraswathi, Tirtha, Ashrama, Sagara and Parvata. Each Sannyasin was supposed to bear one of the above distinctive titles after their Sannyasa name. Shankaracharya allocated the ten groups of Sannyasins to the four mathas. Saraswathi, Bharati and Puri to Sringeri, Tirtha and Ashrama to Dwarka, Giri, Parvata and Sagara to Badri and Vanam and Aranyam to Puri matha. Whereas previously Sannyasins had been totally renunciate having no duty or mission in the world, in the new order, the Sannyasins were inspired to propagate and uphold the Vedic dharma and to guide and uplift the society through their teachings.

Originally a matha started by a Sannyasin like the great Sri Shankaracharya must have had no property, as ascetics were prohibited by the shastras from possessing property, except such articles of personal use as cloths, sandals, religious books, etc. Besides, Sannyasins were required not to stay long in one place. So people built shelter for them, in order to accommodate them when they visited their town or village and these were probably originally called matha, which in its narrow sense means a place where an ascetic resides. In its wider sense it means an institution where a teacher presides and instructs several disciples in religious and analogous tenets, practices and dogmas.

The head of a matha is called Svami, Mathapati, Mathadipati or Mahanta. The head of the matha is usually appointed according to the custom and practice of each matha. In many cases temples are associated with or affiliated to the mathas and throughout the centuries both have been supplementary to each, both ministering to the religious and spiritual wants of the people. From at least medieval ages Hindu temples and monastic centres of Hindu ascetics have been discharging this function of serving as educational institutions not only for their ascetic inmates but also for the lay public.

Different sects of Sannyasis

Till the end of the 8th century A.D. the ascetic world of India was mainly composed of Buddhists, Jaina, Pashupata and Kapalikas. The Pashupata and Kapalika ascetics used to live in local temples of Shiva. Non-denominational ascetics, that is ascetics who were neither Pashupata or Kapalika lived a solitary existence.

Dasanami order

In the 8th century A.D. Shankaracharya established the Dasanami order who are also known as Vedic Shaivas. The Dasanami Sannyasins were Giri, Puri, Bharati, Aranyam, Vanam, Saraswathi, Tirtha, Ashrama, Sagara and Parvata.

Jogis or Nathapanthis

Another sect of monks are Jogis whose names generally end in Natha and they are tantric Shaivas. As there are many features in common between the Kapalikas and the Jogis, G.S.Ghurye believes that the Jogi order was a transformation of the Kapalika order. There are two principle orders among the Jogis, Nathapanthis and Aghorapanthis. The Nathapanthis are the followers of Gorakhnatha. They do not observe caste restrictions and even admit female pupils. The chief deity at a Nathapanthi monastic centre is Bhairava.

The Aghoris

The Aghoripanth was founded by Brahmagiri, a disciple of Gorakhnath. The Aghoris worship Shiva. They move about all year round and are found all over India. No food is prohibited to them and they can even eat decomposed corpses. They smear their bodies with ashes from the funeral pyre, wear Rudraksha mala and a necklace of bones.

The Veerashaiva/Lingayath sect

In 12th century A.D. Sri Basaveshwara established the Lingayath sect which ordained people including women and belonging to all castes and professions. The ascetics of this sect are called Jangamas.

Reformist sects of Shaivas

Among the Shaiva ascetics, the Udasis and the Nirmalas are reformists who do not attach any importance to rules about admitting Shudras and females to asceticism. Srichandra was the founder of the Udasi sect while the founder of Nirmala sect was Guru Govind Singh.

Naga Sannyasins

The Dasanami Sannyasins are divided into two categories, Shastradharis (scripture holders) and Astradharis (weapon holders). The former are learned ascetics and the latter are militant ascetics. The Astradharis are recruited from all ten orders and are known as Naga Sannyasins as they generally remain unclothed all year round. Traditionally only those who are unmarried, widowers or who have no family obligations were recruited. Their initiation ceremony takes place during the Kumbh Mela and their initiation rites are different from the Shastradhari Sannyasins. The Naga ascetics of the Dasanamis are drawn mostly from the Shudra caste.

Akharas, the quarters of Naga Sannyasins

The head-quarters of Naga Sannyasins are known as Akhara, the literal meaning of the word Akhara is ‘a place for training in arms’. The main Akharas are Ananda, Niranjani, Juna or Bhairon, Avahan, Atal and Mahanirvani. Formerly the aim of these akharas was to protect the traditional culture. The Sannyasins took up arms when Hindu pilgrims were tortured during the Pathan, Mughal and British periods.

Monks belonging to the Vaishnava sampradaya

The main Vaishnava sects are the Sri sampradaya founded by Sri Ramanujacharya, Hamsa or Sanakadi sampradaya founded by Nimbarkacharya, Brahma sampradaya founded by Madhvacharya and Rudra sampradaya founded by Vallabhacharya /Vishnusvami.

While the Shaiva ascetics are known as Sannyasis, the Vaishnava ascetics are known as Vairagis or Bairagis.

The Ramavats

The most important Vaishnava sect is that of the Ramanandis who are otherwise called Ramavats. Ramananda accepted disciples irrespective of their caste affiliation and also women. This latter led to the establishment of a number of reformist Vaishnava sects like the Kabirpanthis, Dadupanthis, Radhavallabhis, Dhamis, etc. Just like the Naga Sannyasis belonging to the Shaiva sect, there are fighting Sannyasis among the Vaishnava ascetics who are known as Akhadamallas.

Sannyasa and Mathas, a Paradox

According to G.S.Ghurye, asceticism as an individual practice gets modified to some extent when it brings together more individuals than one. Two or three ascetics living together or moving together demonstrate that the ascetic ideal of complete withdrawal (from worldly life) is already partially defeated. The place where the ascetics live together form a monastic centre with rules for regulating the conduct of monks. Thus asceticism leading in its growth to monastic life creates the paradoxical phenomenon of social organization for those who not only negativated but also renounced social connections and individual wants.

Originally the injunctions about complete restraint and abandonment of sexual life and total lack of property were faithfully followed by ascetics. Following the establishment of mathas pious devotees bestowed considerable donations on these mathas. In course of time these mathas went on increasing and huge properties came to be under the control of the pontiffs of these several mathas. Many mathas began to quarrel among themselves as to their jurisdictions and their right to claim monetary payments from the people and to exercise spiritual authority in matters of expiations, excommunications and other issues. To support the claims of various mathas, pedigrees of teachers and pupils appear to have been fabricated. Most of these mathas have large endowments or incomes which are spent in pomp and show like keeping golden images and paraphernalia. Very few of the heads are really learned even in ancient Sanskrit literature in all its branches. They are obscurantists and generally oppose all ideas of reforms.

Also the heads of these mathas often go to courts on questions about dignity, jurisdiction and properties.

The rule of ahimsa enjoined upon ascetics became perverted when in the latter part of 16th century, Madhusudana Saraswathi organized a corps of ascetic fighters to defend the lives of Hindu ascetic who were harassed and even killed by Muslim fakirs. During the latter half of 18th century these Sannyasis fought against themselves (against Vaishnava saints) and caused depredations in the province of Bengal.

The most serious inroad, however, on the ideal of Sannyasa was made when people professing to be ascetics were allowed to have wives or concubines.


  1. Swami Niranjanananda Saraswathi – Sannyasa Darshan – A Treatise on traditional and contemporary Sannyasa, YoganPublications Trust, Bihar, 1993
  2. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmashastras, vol-2,part 1, BORI,Poona,1941
  3. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmashastras, vol-2,part 2, BORI,Poona,1941
  4. R.N.Dandekar – Insights into Hinduism, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1979
  5. B.N.Luniya – Life and Culture in Ancient India, Lakshmi Narain Agarwal, Agra, 1989
  6. S.D.Laddu – Shramana vis -a -vis Brahmana in Early history, AOBORI, vol 72/773, No.1/4, Amrtamahotsava (1917-1992)
  7. Pundit Har Dutt Sharma – Contributions to the history of Brahmanical asceticism (Sannyasa) Poona Oriental Series, no.64, Poona, Oriental Book Agency, 1939
  8. G.S.Ghurye – Indian Sadhus, The Popular book depot, Bombay, 1953
  9. Sudhakar Chattopadhyaya – Social Life in Ancient India (in the background of Yajnavalkya Smrti), Academic Publishers, Calcutta, 1965

Evolution of Lord Ganesha as the God of Hindus- A brief summary

Ganesha holds a unique position in the religious ideology of the Hindus. As a rule all religious rites must begin with the worship of this god.1 But the origin of Ganesha is veiled in mystery and the date of worship of this deity is rather a very vexed problem to the students of Indology.2 Fortunately due to the persistent efforts of scholars, we are now able to trace the evolution of Ganesha as the popular deity of the Hindus.

Elephant, totem of the Hastika tribe

Panini (6th or 5th century B.C.) refers to a tribe Hastinayanas as occupying the area near the confluence of the Swat and the Kabul with their capital at Puskaravati. Greek historians of 4th century B.C. mention a king named Astes (Hasti) as ruling over a people called Astakenoi (Hastikas) living in the region of Puskaravati. According to Strabo, the Hastikas lived the region between river Kabul and the river Indus.3

The name of their king- Hasti and their capital and other places in their country were all associated with elephants. It is therefore not unlikely that the elephant was extremely sacred to them and might have been their totem as well. After conquering them the Indo-Greek rulers possibly introduced elephant on their coins to win over the loyalty of the Hastikas.4

Sculptural evidence of Ganesha’s worship

But it took a couple of centuries more to fashion the images of Ganesha in stone and clay. The first images of Ganesha were also produced when images of different divinites of diverse pantheons came to be carved on a large scale under the Kushanas.5 To give a few instance, two images of Ganesha Nos 792 and 964, assigned to 2nd and 3rd century A.D. and belonging to the Kushana period are preserved in the Mathura museum. Another 5th century A.D. image from Mathura is in the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas city, USA. In Maharashtra two images of Ganesha have been discovered; one found at Hemalapuri in Nagpur district has been dated 4th century A.D. and the other from Ter in Osmanabad district is dated 3rd century A.D. A terracotta image of Ganesha was found at Veerapuram in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh which is dated to pre-300 A.D.6 At Badami (in Karnataka) we find the image of Ganesha dated around 6th century A.D.7 In the Brihadishvara temple at Tanjore built by Chola king Rajaraja I in about the beginning of the 11th century A.D. one can find different forms of dancing and seated Ganapatis.8

Ganesha images in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, two images of Ganesha were discovered at a place called Gardez and Sakar Dhar. The image at Gardez is dated early 6th century A.D. and is now worshipped by the Hindu residents of Kabul at Dargah Pir Rattan Nath. An inscription on its pedestal records that this Maha Vinayaka was consecrated by Shahi king Khingala. The image at Sakar Dhar is made of marble and is dated 4th century A.D. 9

Epigraphical evidence of Ganesha’s worship

An inscription in praise of the elephant headed god and dated 862 A.D. is found on a column at Ghatiala near Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The column is crowned by four images of Ganesha seated back to back and facing the four cardinal points. This shows that by 862 A.D. Ganesha in the form of the elephant headed god had risen to that exalted position where he was worshipped independently and invocated for success.10 Ganesha is known in Tamil as Pillaiyar and the earliest references to the worship of Ganesha in south India belongs to the 7th century A.D. An inscription mentions one Paranjoti who brought an image of Ganesha from Vatapi and installed it at Kanapaticcuram.11 The Nidhanapur plate of Bhaskaravarman which is dated about the middle of 7th century A.D. refers to the elephant faced Ganesha.12

Literary evidence of Ganesha’s worship

Amarasimha the author of Amarakosha which is dated 7th century A.D. gives us the following synonyms for Ganesha- Vinayaka, Vighnaraja, Ekadanta, Heramba, Lambodara, Ganadhipa, Dvaimatura and Gajanana. Bhavabhuti of the same period speaks not only of the god Heramba but also refers to the elephant head of the god Vinayaka. Banabhatta talks of the elephant headed Vinayaka associated with obstacles. Dandin also refers to the elephant-faced god Ganesha in his Dashakumaracharita. The work Visnudharmottara speaks of the elephant faced deity Ganesha in the 5th century A.D. Hala who is placed in the 1st century A.D. in his Gathasattasai refers to the worship of Ganapati and his trunk. From these literary evidences it becomes clear that as early as the 1st century A.D. the elephant headed god, Ganesha entered into Hindu pantheon.13

Meaning of Ganapati

According to Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, the myths about Ganapati are very complex. But the literal meaning of the name is quite simple. It is gana and pati, i.e., the chief or protector of the gana. Gana means group or assemblage or corporation.14 In the view of R.G.Bhandarkar, Rudra had his hosts of Maruts, who were called his ganas and the leader of these ganas was Ganapati.15

Ganapati first worshipped by Tantrics

Ganesha was zealously worshipped by the tantrics both Hindu and Buddhists and many Agamas (like Tantrasara, Saradatilaka Tantra, Rudra Yamala and Mahanirvana Tantra16) were written on the praise and worship of this god. These tantrics furnished Ganesha with shaktis, evolved a large number of mantras and used these for accomplishing various ends. They regarded Ganesha as the ‘mantra pati’ and sometimes worshipped him for saving themselves from black magic practiced against them by others. Ganesha was also popular with the Vamachara tantrics which is amply evidenced by his names, ‘Ucchista-Ganesha’, ‘Ucchista-gana’, ‘Guhyacara-rata’, ‘Guyagama-nirupita’ and ‘Madaghurnita-locana’ as occurring in the Ganesha-Sahasranama-Stotra.17

The Yajnavalkya Smrti mentions that among the things to be offered to Vinayaka it includes fish and meat (both raw and cooked), wine, radish, cakes and sweets (modaka).18 As we know offering of flesh and wine was practiced in tantrism.

Ganesha desisted by the orthodox?

A verse in Manu Smrti (3.164) instructs that those who performed the ganayaga should be excluded from the funeral feasts (shraddhas). The Brahmavaivarta Purana mentions there was a fight between Ganesha and Parashurama wherein the latter hurled his battle-axe at Ganesha who lost his tusk. As Parashurama was the aggressive champion of the priest-class supremacy Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya infers that Ganesha had for his main enemy the priestly class of his times. Also the malice which the early priestly class literature (including the Manu Smrti) had for him seems to confirm the suggestion.19

Ganesha’s incorporation into Vedic fold

Probably the growing popularity of Ganesha led the orthodox section to bring him into their religious fold. This was achieved by connecting Ganesha with Vedic deities in the Puranas, by interpolating the Vedic texts with references to Ganesha and by infusing Vedic ideas with Ganesha worship.

According to Hazra, as Ganesha’s association with tantricism was not favourable to the Varnashrama dharma, the Ganesha Purana was written to infuse Ganapatyaism with Vedic ideas. This work describes Ganesha as Trayimaya and regards him as the sources of the Vedas, identifies him with the Vedic sacrifices and calls him Yajnapati.20 But this development was at a later stage as there is no mention of Ganesha as a distinct deity in either of the two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.21 The Mahabharata story of Ganesha having served as a scribe of Vyasa while the sage was composing the great epic has been unanimously accepted as a late interpolation.22

Contradictory accounts in the Purana

With regards to the Puranas, the early Puranas like Markandeya, Vishnu and Vayu do not refer to him. Even the stories narrated in the later Puranas are not in agreement as to the way in which he lost his tusk. Whether again it was the right or the left tusk he lost is not definitely agreed upon. Some accounts declare that he lost his tusks in his encounter with Skanda; others assert he had a tussle with Parashurama. There is also no agreement as to the way he lost his natural head and got an elephant head substituted. The popular account makes Shiva cut off his head in anger. The Brahmavaivarta makes Vishnu responsible for the change in Ganapati’s head and also makes him an incarnation of Krishna. There is also no unanimity as to whether he is married or not.23

Interpolation in Vedas to accommodate Ganesha

From the use of the terms Ganapati and ganas in the RV (ii.23.1) and (x.112.9), Yajur-Veda and the Taittiriya Samhita, many scholars have concluded that the references are to the familiar elephant-headed Ganesha. This conclusion according to Y.Krishan is wrong as the Aitareya Brahmana (I.21) and the Kausitaki Brahmana (viii.5) makes it clear that in the Rig Vedic hymn (ii.23.1), the term Ganapati is addressed to Brahmanaspati or Brhaspati.24 Sayana also variously explains in his commentary the term, gana found in different places in the Vedic texts. But in none of the places he takes the word to mean the pot-bellied god Ganesha.25

According to Hazra in the Ganesha Purana, Ganapati is called Brhaspati and Brahmanaspati and the Rigveda mantra ‘gananam tva ganapatim’ is applied to him. It is probable that as Ganapati-Vinayaka, being a non-Vedic deity has no Vedic verse addressed to him, his devotees of the Vedic fold applied the above mantra to him and thereby connected him with the Rigveda. It may be due to the application of this mantra that Ganapati came to be known as Brhaspati and attained fame as a god of learning and wisdom.26

With regards to the view of a scholar (Hans Raj) that Ganesha is an epithet of Rudra, a form of Agni, Y.Krishna says that in Vedic literature, Agni means fire and is quite different from the Vedic Rudra. Only in the Brahmanas that Rudra is identified with Agni; that is the sacrificial fire as distinct from the god of fire. In post-Vedic mythology, it is Skanda and not Ganesha who is considered as the son of Agni.27

Ganesha finds no mention in the Vedic ritualistic practices of Vishvedevah sacrifices consisting of offerings in devayajna (sacrifice to gods), bhuta yajna (sacrifice to various spirits or beings) involving baliharana (offering but not in fire) and pitr yajna (sacrifice to manes). Ganesha also does not occur in Vedic shanti rites which are performed specifically to avert evil by appeasing the wrath of gods.28

References to Ganesha in the gayatri mantras in Maitrayani Samhita, Taittiriya Aranyaka and Mahanarayana Upanishad are held to be the productions of some later age. Rajendra Mitra has observed that these mantras have the mystical character of the mantras to be found so abundantly in the tantras and the presupposition is that they belong to the same age with the earliest of the tantras, that is at best the beginning of the christian era.29

All these show the desire of the Vedic followers to incorporate Ganesha into their religious ideology.

From Malevolent Spirit to removal of obstacles

According to P.V.Kane there were two stages in the development of the cult of Vinayaka or Ganesha. In the Manava Grhya Sutra it is said that the Vinayakas are four, namely Shalakatankata, Kusmandarajaputra, Usmita and Devayajana. They are evil spirits and people who are seized by them have bad dreams and see in them inauspicious sights. The Manava Grhya Sutra then prescribes propitiatory rites to remove the effects of Vinayaka seizure. The Baijavapa Grhya Sutra mentions four Vinayakas, namely Mita, Sammita, Shalakatankata and Kusmandarajaputra and describes seizer by them and its effect in the same way as the Manava Grhya Sutra. The Vinayakas are at this stage malevolent spirits who dangers and obstacles of various kinds. In the cult various elements from the terrific aspects of Rudra were probably first drawn upon and amalgamated with other elements drawn upon from aboriginal cults.30

The next stage is indicated by Yajnavalkya Smrti (dated 300 A.D) where Vinayaka is said to be one appointed by Brahma and Rudra to the over-lordship of the Ganas. He is represented not only as causing obstacles, but also as bringing success in the actions and rites undertaken by men.31

The Ganapatya sect

It was chiefly the tantrics who took up the worship of Ganapati in right earnest and became an incentive to the growth of the Ganapatya sect.32 Even earlier than the 7th century A.D. the position of Ganapati as a supreme deity was recognized by a section of people and in the Narayanopanishad (the date of which according to J.N.Farquhar is between 550-900 A.D.) there is the Ganapati Gayatri. The Devi Purana looks upon Vinayaka as superior to Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and others.33 According to R.G.Bhandarkar the Ganapatya cult must have come into existence between the end of the 5th and 8th century A.D.34 The Ganesha Samhita is possibly a work belonging to the Ganapatya sect.35

Anantanandagiri’s Shankaradigvijayakavya and from its commentary called Dindima composed by Madhava-Vidyaranya and Dhanapati gives information about the six sub-sects of the Ganapatyas with whom Sri Shankaracharya entered into debate. These sub-sects were Maha-Ganapati, Haridra-Ganapati, Uchchhishta-Ganapati, Navanita-Ganapati, Svarna-Ganapati and Santana-Ganapati.36 The Ganapatya sect decayed towards the close of 14th century A.D. Though the sect decayed the position of Ganesha, the god of success, adored by all Hindus became firmly established.37

How Ganesha came to have an Elephant head

According to R.G.Bhandarkar, Rudra-Shiva and the gods allied with him were connected closely with forests and wild places, in which elephants also were found. The hide worn by Rudra and by his consort also in one of her forms was the hide of an elephant and it perhaps suited the fancy of some men to place the head of that animal over the body of a god originally mischievous.38 R.C.Hazra is of the view that the elephant head must have been added to Ganesha due to his identification with some popular deity conceived and worshipped for immunity from the havoc created by wild elephants.39 As mentioned earlier by M.K.Dhavalkar, the elephant was the totem of the Hastika tribe of north-western India and probably the god might have been fashioned with an elephant head.

In the view of Y.Krishan Indian pantheon is essentially anthropomorphic in character and animals as a rule are the vahanas or mounts of Indian deities. In ancient Egyptian zoolatry, the divine can manifest itself in animals and birds. Hence Y.Krishan suggest that the concept of an elephant-headed god was an importation from Egypt via the Hellenistic kings of the Middle-East and the Indo-Greek of North-Western India.40

Mushika, the Vahana of Ganesha

The rat which is the vehicle of Ganesha in later representations is conspicuously absent in early sculptures. Perhaps the earliest representation is in the temple at Muktesvar in Bhubaneswar which belongs to 10th century A.D. In south India the rat does not occur before the 12th century A.D.41

We do not know exactly how Ganesha came to have a mouse as his vahana (mount). It may be either Ganesha came to be connected with agriculture and was consequently furnished with a rat as his vahana or some agricultural deity riding a rat was identified with him. The comparatively late age of the connection of the rat with Ganapati goes against the belief of some scholars that Ganesha was originally a Dravidian deity worshipped by the aboriginal population of India who were sun-worshippers and that Ganesha on his vahana, the rat, symbolized a sun-god overcoming the animal, which in ancient mythology was a symbol of the night.42

Ganesha worship by Jains

Ganesha appears rather late in Jaina literature and art, being particularly favoured by the Svetambara sect. In Digambara literature there is no reference to making his image. Ganesha’s images have been found in the Jaina caves at Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Orissa. The earliest reference to Ganesha in Jaina literature is to be found in Hemachandra’s Abhidana-Chintamani dated 12th century A.D.43

Worship of Ganesha abroad

In Afghanistan the worship of Ganesha began at an early period as elephants were considered sacred in its eastern parts. From there it spread into Central Asia, Tibet and thence to China where the god was worshipped by the Buddhists. From China, the worship of Ganesha was introduced into Japan in the 9th century A.D. by Kobo Daishi, a Buddhist monk. In Central Asia and Far-East, the god was worshipped as Vinayaka by the Buddhists, but in South-East Asia the worship was offered by the Hindus. In Cambodia and Vietnam he was known as Ganesha when worshipped independently but when he was seated with Shiva as his attendant, he was known as Vinayaka.44

In the religious history of India, Ganesha has come a long way. From being the totem of a tribe, he was espoused by the tantrics and zealously worshipped by them. Ganesha entered the Vedic pantheon as a malevolent spirit and emerged as a God of removal of obstacles. Today Ganesha is worshipped all over Asia and venerated by the Hindus, Buddhists and the Jainas.


  1. N.R.Bhat – Shaivism in the light of Epics, Puranas and Agamas, Indica Books, Varanasi, 2008, p. 476
  2. Kali Kumar Datta – Date of Ganesa Worship, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol-22, 1959, p.150
  3. M.K.Dhavalkar – Origin of Ganesha, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol – LXXI, 1990, pp:16,17
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid, p.23
  6. Ibid, pp:4,5
  7. Ibid, p.23
  8. H.Krishna Sastri – South Indian Images of Gods and Goddesses, Madras Government Press, 1916, p. 176
  9. M.K.Dhavalkar – Op.Cit, pp: 5,6,7
  10. Ibid, p.3
  11. N.R.Bhat – Op.Cit, p.478
  12. Kali Kumar Datta – Op.Cit, p.156
  13. Ibid, pp:154,155,156
  14. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya – Lokayata – A Study in ancient Indian Materialism, People’s Publishing House, 1968, p.129
  15. R.G.Bhandarkar – Vaisnavism, Saivism and minor religious system, Indological Book House, Varanasi, 1965, p.147
  16. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Editor, The Cultural Heritage of India, vol-5, The Ramakrishna Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1934, pp: 142,143
  17. R.C.Hazra – The Ganesha Purana, Dr. R.C.Hazra Commemoration Volume -Part I, All India Kashiraj Trust, Varanasi, p.223
  18. R.C.Hazra – Ganapati worship and the Upapuranas dealing with it, Dr. R.C.Hazra Commemoration Volume -Part I, All India Kashiraj Trust, Varanasi, pp: 235,236
  19. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya – Op.Cit, pp: 131,132,133
  20. R.C.Hazra – The Ganesha Purana, Op.Cit, p.223
  21. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Editor, Op.Cit, p.142
  22. J.N.Banerjea – Pauranic and Tantric Religion (Early phase), University of Calcutta, 1966, p.151
  23. U.Venkatakrishna Rao- The Ganapati Cult, QJMS, Vol- 41, 1950-51, pp: 94,95,99
  24. Y.Krishan – The Origin of Ganesha, Artibus Asiae, vol 43, No- 4 (1981-1982), p.290
  25. Kali Kumar Datta – Op.Cit, p.151
  26. R.C.Hazra – Ganapati worship and the Upapuranas dealing with it, Op.Cit, pp:239,240
  27. Y.Krishan – Is Ganesa a Vedic God?, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol – 71 no.1/4, 1990, p.69
  28. Ibid, p.70
  29. Kali Kumar Datta – Op.Cit, p.152
  30. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmashastras, vol – 2, part I, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1941 p.214
  31. Ibid
  32. R.C.Hazra – Ganapati worship and the Upapuranas dealing with it, Op.Cit, p.242
  33. Ibid, p.239
  34. R.G.Bhandarkar – Op.Cit, p.148
  35. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Editor, Op.Cit, p.143
  36. J.N.Banerjea – Op.Cit, p.154
  37. J.N.Farquhar – An Outline of the Religious Literature of India, Oxford University Press, 1920, p.271
  38. R.G.Bhandarkar – Op.Cit, 149
  39. R.C.Hazra – Ganapati worship and the Upapuranas dealing with it, Op.Cit, p.237
  40. Y.Krishan – The Origin of Ganesha, Op.Cit, p.300
  41. M.K.Dhavalkar – Op.Cit, p.24
  42. R.C.Hazra – Ganapati worship and the Upapuranas dealing with it, Op.Cit, p.241
  43. Y.Krishan – The Origin of Ganesha, Op.Cit, pp: 299, 300
  44. M.K.Dhavalkar – Op.Cit, p.24

Meat/Flesh consumption in Ancient India, a brief summary

In the early epochs of the Vedic age and in the period of the Brahmanas and the Sutras, the killing of animals and consuming its flesh was quite common and was cleverly associated with the institution of the sacrifice.1 In the Rigveda frequent reference is made to the cooking of the flesh of the ox for offering to gods particularly Indra. For example in Rigveda X.86.14, Indra is made to say ‘They cook for me 15 plus 20 oxen’. In Rigveda X.91.14, it is stated that for Agni were sacrificed horses, bulls, oxen, barren cows and rams. In Rigveda X.79.6, it is suggested that the cow was cut up with a sword or axe.2

The great usefulness of the cow and the ox for agricultural purposes, in the family economy and as means of exchange must have powerfully contributed to making the cow a divinity.3 Hence in the Rigveda verses; I.164.27, IV.1.6, VIII.69.21, X.87.16, the cow is called aghnya– one that does not deserve to be killed. So it may be argued that in the times of the Rigveda only barren cows if at all were killed for sacrifices or meat and cows yielding milk were held to be not fit for being killed.4

Dharmasutras allowed meat consumption

All ancient Dharmasutras allowed taking of life for food and in sacrifice. Not only other animals, but even the cow was killed on certain occasions like Shraddha (mentioned in Apasthamba Dharmasutra II.7.16.25), for a distinguished guest in Madhuparka (mentioned in Astvalayana Grhyasutra I.24.22-26 and Vasishtha Dharmasutra IV.8), in the Ashtaka shraddha (mentioned in Hiranyakeshi Grhyasutra II.15.1, Baudhayana Grhyasutra II.11.51, Vaikhanasa-smarta-sutra IV.3) and a bull in the Shulagava sacrifice (mentioned in Ashvalayana Grhyasutra IV.9.10).5 The Apasthamba Dharmasutra (II.2.5.15) forbids the use of flesh to a teacher of the Veda in the months from Upakarma to Utsarjana. This shows that even Brahmanas who alone would ordinarily be teachers could take meat in the other months of the year.6 The most interesting prescriptions of flesh food are met with in connection with the Annaprashana ceremony (the first feeding of the child with solid food, generally taking place in its sixth month). According to Sankhyayana Grhyasutra, if the first solid food that is given to the child is goat’s flesh, it conduces to nourishment; patridge flesh gives holy lustre; fish swiftness and boiled rice with ghee endows splendour.7

Meat compulsory in Shraddha

The general rule in shraddha is that flesh is compulsory and only in its absence is vegetable food allowed. In Ashtaka ceremony the parts of the cow killed other than the omentum are given to the Brahmanas.8 The Apasthamba Dharmasutra says that pitrs are gratified for a year by the offering of cow’s flesh in a shraddha and that by the flesh of a buffalo, the gratification of pitrs extends to more than a year.9 The Visnudharmottara Purana (I.140.49-50) asserts that he who does not partake of flesh food in a row of diners at a shraddha goes to hell. The Kurma Purana (II.22.75) says that the Brahmana who is employed for the performance of a shraddha and does not eat flesh offered therein becomes a beast for 21 births.10

Offering of flesh to Gods

The Markandeya Purana gives the story of the birth of Dattatreya, calls him a yogin and asserts that he was offered wine and meat by his devotees (19.10-12).11 The Yajnavalkya Smrti states that among the things to be offered to Vinayaka it includes fish and meat (both raw and cooked), wine, radish, cakes and sweetmeats (modaka).12

Deification of the Cow

The formidable onslaught led by Buddhism and Jainism against himsa in general, that is against all killing, helped in particular the formulation of a ban on cow slaughter and beef eating. Also the rapid growing power and vitality of the Krishna cult induced increasing veneration for and virtual deification of the cow.13 According to Bhairabi Prasad Sahu, the veneration of cattle seems to be the outcome of their immense economic importance. The inviolability preached in didactic works appears to have been inspired by utilitarian needs. The cow is a multi purpose animal. Among its positive contributions milk, fuel, fertilizers, traction power, hide and beef immediately attract attention. Milk and beef are important, but traction power upon which cereal production depends is more important. The sacredness to the cow springs therefore from its utility rather than from the tradition of ahimsa.14

It is remarkable that even the works, Mitakshara and the Kalpataru written about 1100-1120 A.D. do not clearly say that in the Kali age flesh eating at shraddha is totally prohibited at least by Brahmanas. It was only in the works of the 12th and 13th century A.D. onwards the offering of flesh in Madhuparka and in shraddha came to be totally condemned.15 But offering of animals in sacrifices continued even during the 12th century A.D. It is said that Madhvacharya (1238-1317 A.D.) felt disgusted with the slaughter of animals in Vedic sacrifices and totally dispensed with living animals as sacrificial victims and replaced it with animal-form made of rice floor.16 According to B.N.K.Sharma, the new type of Vedic sacrifices with floor-made animals (Pista Pashu Yajnas) instead of living animals, introduced by Madhvacharya in all probability was partly due to the moral pressure and influence of Jain ideas.17


  1. V.M.Apte – The Cows in the RGVeda, The Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, vol XLV, no.1, July 1954, p.22
  2. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol II, part 2, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poone, 1941. p.772
  3. Ibid, p773
  4. Ibid, p.772
  5. Ibid, pp: 776.777
  6. Ibid, p.777
  7. V.M.Apte – Social and Religious Life in the Grihya Sutras, The Popular Book Depot, Bombay, 1939, p.101
  8. Ibid, p.100
  9. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol IV, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poone, 1953. p.422
  10. Ibid, p.423
  11. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol II, part 2, p.726
  12. R.C.Hazra – Ganapati worship and the Upapuranas, Dr. R.C.Hazra Commemoration Volume -Part I, All India Kashiraj Trust, Varanasi, p.236
  13. V.M.Apte – The Cows in the RGVeda, Op.cit, p.23
  14. Bhairabi Prasad Sahu – Patterns of Animal use in Ancient India, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol-48, 1987, p.67
  15. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol IV, pp: 424,425
  16. C.M.Padmanabhachar – The Life and Teachings of Sri Madhvacharyar, Madras, 1909, pp: 147,148
  17. B.N.K.Sharma – Philosophy of Sri Madhvacharya, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1962, p.12