(This article was published on 13 Feb 2010, in merinews.com- http://www.merinews.com/article/spiritual-evolution-of-hinduism/15797852.shtml)
When we browse through the philosophical concepts and spiritual manuals of various Hindu schools and sects, we can see that the spiritual evolution conception of God can be broadly classified into 3 stages.
First, the Vedic (which includes Veda Samhita, Aranyakas, Brahmanas and Upanishads). Second, the Agamic or tantric (which includes various tantric texts of various schools such as Shaivas, Shaktas, Vaishnavas and Ganapathyas). Although Aghoras, like Naths, form a separate category themselves, they can be clubbed in Tantras under Vamachara (Left hand Path). The third stage is the Puranas.
The usual division of Hindu philosophy (Astika schools) is into 6 schools: Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaishesika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. All of them can be traced back to the Gita, Upanishads and Itihasas. For one, Mimamsa and Vedanta take the Vedas as the ultimate authority. The ideas of Yoga and Sankhya are mentioned in the Upanishads and Gita. Yoga is a practical application of Samkhya. Mimamsa is ritualistic aspect of Vedic Knowledge. The Vedanta is based on the Prashtana Trayi (Upanishads, Gita and Brahma sutra). Thus, the Astika schools are just the extension and independent development from the Vedic stage.
In the Vedic stage, we first find the evolution of period of Mantra Samhita. The Samhita consists of Mantras that are the spiritual truths realized by rishis in meditation and expressed in human language. That is the reason that the Vedas are called “Apaurusheya” and “Drashtya.” Apaurusheya means divine origin, that is not created by humans. The rishis visualized these truths in meditation, hence they are called “Drashtya.”
It appears that, Rishi’s mainly worshiped 5 elements, Agni being most prominent. They attained highest realizations using upasana the 5 elements. In Rig vedic period, Agni is clearly the Internal Bhuta Agni. By Yajurvedic period, Agni seems to have materialized into external fire of Yagnya. This seems to suggest that spiritual methods were discovered and/or invented to help common people. These common people were not spiritually advanced enough to worship the Bhuta Agni, so external fire worship was conceptualized to help them spiritually advance to a stage where they could worship the internal fire directly.
The Brahmanas are detailed manuals for conducting Yagnyas. Every fire ritual includes Jap and Dhyan. Doing Jap and Dhyan in a fire ritual will purify the fire element in the body to begin with, whereas Pranayam purifies the air element in the body. This pranayam was codified and developed in the Yoga school in the later age. Doing a fire ritual not only purifies the Sadhak but also amplifies the effect of the Jap and Dhyan done.
The Upanishads sages concentrated more on laying down proper philosophical explanations for the various spiritual experiences mentioned in Samhita. Upanishad means “Near Guru”; they are teachings from Guru to Shishya. They give the meanings and interpretations of other aspects of Vedas.
The later development of Astika schools not only takes inspiration from the Vedas but can also be traced back to Upanishads and Gita. So we find a continuous development of Vedic thought and practice, even while they became less prominent day by day in practice, even though they dominated the Philosophy. Shankaracharya, the first person to codify Vedic thoughts and write commentaries on them, was also a SriVidya upasak, a tantric path of Maa Lalita Mahatripurasundari. Ramanuja and Madhava were proponents of Bhakti, derived from its Puranic version.
These clearly establish that even during the time of Adi Shankara, Vedic and Tantric methods were used in an integrated way. Some scholars believe that Tantra is contradictory to Vedas, but this claim is far from true. If we examine basic Tantric texts, we clearly see that they do not differ from Vedic thoughts. In fact, Tantric texts are mainly practical manuals. They explain different ways of attaining siddhis and realizations of spiritual truths.
The differences, if some do exist, are merely in the practical approaches and not in Spiritual truths between Veda and Tantra.
The Vedas were composed over a few millenia and have been passed down to the present age. The Agamas are of comparatively recent origin. Agamic texts are similar to Vedic texts in the sense that they are also collections of spiritual experiences of Sadhakas. They were also passed from Guru to Shishya. It appears that after the Upanishadic period, there was a need to expand the domain of spiritual practices and explore new ways and Siddis. This led to individual sadhakas pursuing deep sadhana to understand different aspects and tap different energies of the cosmos.
A simpler fire ritual - Homam - was designed. The Vedic mantras had given more importance to intonations. But Agamic mantras had more to do with intent than intonations. The spiritual diagrams, the Yantras, were conceptualized. Deities are nothing but personification of different energies. They represent different aspects of the cosmos. As the source of the whole Universe is the primordial sound OM (Shabda Brahman), mantras are mediums for tapping different energies of the universe.
Mantras are the subtle bodies of the deities. Every mantra meditated upon creates a particular visualization corresponding to that aspect of Cosmos. A sadhaka who does a jap of mantra first purifies his ego which will create a void in him. Then the deity of the mantra can fill him fully. His whole personality will be transformed. And hence, the Mantra is the subtle body of that deity. Similarly, we could invoke the deity either in fire (Homam) or in Yantras. During the Agamic period, Agni was not directly worshiped, but he was used as a medium where different cosmic energies can be invoked.
The third stage, the Puranas, appears to be compilations done specifically for the masses. The spiritual truths have been symbolized in the form of stories. Even the spiritual Sadhanas have been included inside the stories. These were composed specifically for people who are yet to involve themselves in sadhana. The latter day Bhakti traditions derive heavily from Puranic literatures.
The mantras, Yantras and the icons/idols are not only representations of deities but also the abodes of subtle bodies of deities. During the Vedic period, Mantras alone were enough to visualize and invoke the Deities (cosmic energies). But by the time of Agamas, Yantras were used along with Mantras in the process of Sadhana. It was only during Puranic age that personifications of cosmic energies were complete. The icons and human representations of divine energies were materialized during this age. What is important to note here is that the images and idols of deities are not products of whims and fancies of some superstitious people, but were representations of cosmic visions which genuine sadhakas had experienced.
One important conclusion can be derived from the evolution of representations of deities. It appears that people’s spiritual level in the Vedic period was more advanced than that during the Agamic or Puranic. And hence, with the Kali Yuga set in, and the spiritual level successively deteriorating, new methods and simler tools were introduced to assist the masses. And as a result, aids to help in Visualizations were successively introduced.
There is a lack of research in this direction. If more research is done in this aspect of “spiritual evolution,” many misconceptions about Hinduism will be cleared.