Chapter 8 – Religion and Philosophy in Ancient India: Folk Cults, Vaishnava Movement in the South and Shaivism (For CBSE, ICSE, IAS, NET, NRA 2022)

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Creeds of theistic character evolved almost simultaneously with the non-theistic religions. The important deities of these religions were not primarily Vedic ones but those that came from unorthodox sources. These sects in course of time came to have a significant impact on the popular forms of Buddhism and Jainism.

Folk Cults

The worship of Yakshas and Nagas and other folk deities constituted the most important part of primitive religious beliefs, in which Bhakti had a very important role to play. There is ample evidence about the prevalence of this form of worship among the people in early literature as well as in archaeology.

Vasudev/Krishna worship

  • A sutra in Panini՚s Ashtadhyayi refers to the worshippers of Vasudeva.
  • The Chhandogya Upanishad speaks of Krishna, the son of Devki, a pupil of the sage Ghora Angirarsa who was a sun-worshipping priest.
  • A large number of people worshipped Vasudeva Krishna exclusively as their personal God and they were at first known as Bhagavatas.
  • The Vasudeva-Bhagavata cult grew steadily, absorbing within its fold other Vedic and Brahminic divinities like Vishnu and Narayana.

Vaishnava Movement in the South

  • The history of the Vaishnava movement from the end of the Gupta period till the first decade of the thirteenth century AD is concerned mainly with South India.
  • Vaishnava poet-saints known as alvars preached single minded devotion for Vishnu and their songs were collectively known as prabandhas.


Unlike Vaishnavism, Shaivism had its origin in antiquity. Panini refers to a group of Shiva worshippers as Shiva Bhagavatas, who were characterised by the iron lances and clubs they carried and their skin garments.

Shaiva Movement in the south

  • The Shaiva Movement in the south flourished at the beginning through the activities of many of the 63 saints known in Tamil as Nayanars.
  • Their appealing emotional songs in Tamil were called Tevaram Stotras, also known as Dravida Veda and ceremonially sung in the local Shiva temples.
  • The Nayanars hailed from all castes. This was supplemented on the doctrinal side by a large number of Shaiva intellectuals whose manes were associated with several forms of Shaiva movements like Agamanta, Shudha and Vira-shaivism.
Shaiva Movements

Minor Religious Movements

  • Worship of the female principle and of Surya did not achieve equal importance as the other major Brahminical cults.
  • In the Vedic age respect was shown also to the female principle as the Divine Mother, the Goddess of abundance and personifies energy.
  • In Vedic and epic mythology, Sun and his various aspects played a very important part.
  • The East Iranian form of the solar cult was introduced in parts of northern India in the early centuries of the Christian era.
  • But it was only at a comparatively late period that god figured as the central object in religious movements.

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