Ancient India Religion

Defining Features of Ancient India Religion

Ancient India religion was a polytheistic union of deities and religious practices of the conquering Aryans and the conquered Dravidian dasas (slaves).

Began when: 3,000 – 4,000 years ago

Founded by: Dravidians & Aryans

Holy book(s): None known & Vedas

Range: Indus Valley and beyond

Indus Valley / Harrappan Religion

In ancient India religion is evidenced through carvings, statues/idols, and architecture excavated from the remains of surprisingly advanced settlements along the life-bringing Indus River. The human search for the divine mirrored that of many early civilizations. Central to its worship was a mother goddess figure and its consort: a distinctly Indian horned god in a yoga posture.

Also found among the rubble of Indus Valley excavations was the prototype of the Shiva lingam — phallic-shaped rocks, similar to those used today by Shiva’s devotees. The religion of ancient India's Dravidian peoples contained worship of many gods, but does not appear to have made use of temples for them.

Ancient Aryan Gods

Light-skinned Aryans, or Noble Ones, came riding into an India they conquered around 1500 BC, causing changes to ancient Indian religion as well. They did not worship the Dravidian gods, but instead brought with them their own system of worship built around three primary gods embodying the forces of nature. These ancient Indian gods are still worshipped by some Hindus today:

  • Indra: god of weather and stars; one-time king of gods
  • Agni:  fire god
  • Varuna: sky god

Offerings were given by way of fire in this early religion of India. But contrary to the modern Hindu religious beliefs, early Hindus' hope and emphasis was on making life better in this world. In ancient India religion gave little attention to the concept of an afterlife, if the early Vedas are any indication.

The Vedas of Ancient India

Hinduism’s earliest scriptures, the Vedas, were sacred hymns chanted by priests. This “sacred knowledge” was the foundation of the ancient Hindu religion. These Vedas identify important gods like Indra and tell us about their nature and, indeed, the supposed nature of the world itself:

“The chief wise god who as soon as born 

surpassed the gods in power;

Before whose vehemence the two worlds trembled by reason

of the greatness of his valor: he, O men, is Indra.”

Here, Indra is said to be “born.” In ancient India religion embraced gods before him, gods after him, gods of the fallen Dasas ("slaves" -- the Aryan term for the conquered Dravidians). There was shining Agni, falcon of the sky, and the “all-knowing” guardian Varuna. 

A Marriage of Gods & Its Polytheistic Offspring

These gods of the Aryans — Indra, Agni, and Varuna — with their companion gods and goddesses came to the land of India and joined with the deities of the Dravidian peoples dwelling there.

And so the earliest Hindu pantheon of Indian gods was born. The religion of India created an elaborate system of sacrifices due them, resulting in a diverse and confusing array of deity choices, as well as a defined system of priesthood, or Brahmans ... the beginnings of a caste system.

This union in ancient India religion was not one of equal partners. The Hindu religion became a means through which the social reality between the light-skinned Aryan conqueror and the dark-skinned Dravidians was both defined and reinforced as a highly complex caste system. 

Later, an ideology would be added to further legitimize the degradation (or even invisibility) of entire segments of the populace. This would come by way of the Upanishads and its doctrine of karma. Thousands of years later, this caste system still exists, despite attempts to eradicate it throughout the history of India, politically and via offshoot religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

Even religions that were casteless in their place of origin, like Christianity and Islam, seem to have absorbed caste once they were planted in Indian soil, however opposed their theology is to such concepts. For instance, caste-ism is the antithesis of Christianity, yet Dalit Christians are among the most discriminated against members of Indian society, within the greater culture and within the faith itself, much to its shame.