Although the term “medieval” does not apply to the history of India in the Western sense of an interlude between Classical and early modern times, scholars have used that term to designate the era between the end of the Gupta dynasty (ca. 500) and the Mongol invasion of India in the fourteenth century—a thousand-year period that roughly approximates the Western Middle Ages. The dissolution of the Gupta Empire at the hands of Central Asian Huns, an event that paralleled the fall of Rome in the West and the collapse of the Han Empire in China, destroyed the remains of South Asia's greatest culture. Following this event, amidst widespread political turmoil and anarchy, India reverted to a conglomeration of fragmented, rival local kingdoms dominated by a warrior caste (not unlike the feudal aristocracy of medieval Europe). Ruling hereditary chiefs or rajputs (“sons of kings”) followed a code of chivalry that set them apart from the lower classes.

The caste system (see chapter 3), which had been practiced in India for many centuries, worked to enforce the distance between rulers and the ruled. And as groups were subdivided according to occupation and social status, caste distinctions became more rigid and increasingly fragmented. Extended families of the same caste were ruled by the eldest male, who might take a number of wives. Children were betrothed early in life and women's duties—to tend the household and raise children (preferably sons)—were carefully prescribed. In a society where maleswere masters, a favorite Hindu proverb ran, “A woman is never fit for independence.” The devotion of the upper-caste Hindu woman to her husband was dramatically expressed in sati, a custom by which the wife threw herself on her mate's funeral pyre.

Early in the eighth century, Arab Muslims entered India and began to convert the native population to Islam. Muslim authority took hold in northern India, and Muslims rose to power as members of the ruling caste. During the tenth century, the invasions of Turkish Muslims brought further chaos to India, resulting in the capture of Delhi (Map 14.1) in 1192 and the destruction of the Buddhist university of Nalanda in the following year. Muslim armies destroyed vast numbers of Hindu and Buddhist religious statues, prohibited by Islamic law. Islam ultimately supplanted Hinduism and Buddhism in the Indus valley (modern Pakistan) and in Bengal (modern Bangladesh). Elsewhere, however, the native traditions of India itself prevailed. Indeed, most of India—especially the extreme south, which held out against the Muslims until the fourteenth century—remained profoundly devoted to the Hindu faith. Today, approximately 85 percent of India's population is Hindu. Buddhism, on the other hand, would virtually disappear from India by the thirteenth century.

Map 14.1 India in the Eleventh Century.
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Unique in having no historical founder, Hinduism teaches that all individual aspects of being belong to the same divine substance: the impersonal, all-pervading Absolute Spirit known as Brahman. Pantheistic Hinduism, as defined in the principal religious writings, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita (see chapter 3), would seem to be contradicted by the sheer numbers of Hindu gods and goddesses worshiped in India. The growing devotion to the gods that took place between the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries was the result of a process of syncretism by which Hinduism accommodated a wide variety of local and regional deities, along with India's ancient nature gods and mythological beings. Although the worship of many gods suggests that Hindus are polytheistic, in reality, India's gods are perceived as the facets of a diamond: they exist as individual aspects of the One, more specifically, as avatars (“incarnations”) of Brahman. Much in the way that Christians regard Jesus as the incarnate form of God, Hindus believe that the avatars of Brahman assume various names and forms, even those of animals. They freely honor the Buddha and Jesus as human forms of the Absolute Spirit.

In that Hinduism embraces a multitude of sects, there exists no monolithic Hindu authority (comparable, for instance, to the Church in the Christian West), nor is there a prescribed or uniform liturgy. Hinduism encourages its devotees to seek union with Brahman in their own fashion, or in the fashion taught by their guru (spiritual guide), placing a fundamental faith in the concept that there are infinite ways of reaching the godhead.

Hindu devotional practice involves visiting the shrine of the god, and offering prayers, flowers, or food. Gazing at the god's image is essential: Hinduism holds that the god is present in its representation. Thus, visual contact with an image of the deity is a form of direct contact with the divine; this they call darshan (literally, “seeing and being seen by the god”). The very act of beholding the image is an act of worship and an expression of intense personal devotion by which divine blessings are received.

Out of the host of deities that characterized Hindu worship in medieval India, three principal gods dominate: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Hindus associate this “trinity” with the three main expressions of Brahmanic power creation, preservation, and destruction. They honor Brahma—his name is the masculine form of Brahman—as the creator of the world. They prize Vishnu (identified with the sun in ancient Vedic hymns) as the preserver god. Hindu mythology recounts Vishnu's appearance on earth in nine different incarnations, including that of Krishna, the hero-god of the Mahabharata (see chapter 3). The conically crowned Vishnu pictured in Figure 14.2 holds in his upper right hand a flaming solar disk; his upper left hand displays a conch shell, a reminder of his association with the primeval ocean, but also a symbol of the ancient war trumpet used by Vishnu to terrorize his enemies. With his lower right hand, he makes the mudra of protection (see Figure 9.25), while his lower left hand points to the earth and the sacred lotus, symbol of the cosmic womb. Ritual icons like this one, cast in bronze by the lost-wax method (see Figure 0.18), are among the finest freestanding figural sculptures executed since Golden Age Greece. Produced in large numbers in tenth-century Tamil Nadu in south India, bronze effigies of the god were often bedecked with flowers and carried in public processions. (Note the rings at the four corners of the base of the Standing Vishnu in Figure 14.2, which once held poles for transporting the statue.) As a ninth-century Tamil poet explained, “The god comes within everyone's reach.”

Figure 14.2
Standing Vishnu, from southern India, Chola period, tenth century. Bronze, with greenish blue patination, height 33¾ in. Icons of Vishnu often resemble those of the Buddha, who is accepted by Hindus as an avatar of Vishnu.

The third god of the trinity, Shiva, is the Hindu lord of regeneration. A god of destruction and creation, of disease and death, and of sexuality and rebirth, Shiva embodies the dynamic rhythms of the universe. While often shown in a dual male and female aspect, Shiva is most commonly portrayed as Lord of the Dance, an image that evokes the Hindu notion of time. Unlike the Western view of time, which is linear and progressive, the Hindu perception of time is cyclical; it resembles an ever-turning cosmic wheel. The four-armed figure of Shiva as Lord of the Dance is one of medieval India's most famous Hindu icons —so popular, in fact, that Tamil sculptors cast multiple editions of the image. Framed in a celestial ring of fire, Shiva enacts the dance of creation and destruction, the cosmic cycle of birth and death. His serpentine body bends at the neck, waist, and knees in accordance with specific and prescribed dance movements. Every part of the statue has symbolic meaning: Shiva's earrings are mismatched to represent the male/female duality. One right hand holds a small drum, the symbol of creation; a second right hand (the arm wreathed by a snake, ancient symbol of regeneration) forms the mudra meaning protection; one left hand holds a flame, the symbol of destruction; the second left hand points toward Shiva's feet, the left “released” from worldliness, the right one crushing a demon-dwarf that symbolizes egotism and ignorance. Utterly peaceful in countenance, Shiva embodies the five activities of the godhead: creation, protection, destruction, release from destiny, and enlightenment. By these activities, the god dances the universe in and out of existence.

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Indian Religious Literature

Medieval Indian literature drew heavily on the mythology and legends of early Hinduism as found in the Vedic hymns and in India's two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (see chapter 3). This body of classic Indian literature was recorded in Sanskrit, the language of India's educated classes. Serving much the same purpose that Latin served in the medieval West, Sanskrit functioned for centuries as a cohesive force amidst India's diverse regional vernacular dialects.

Among the most popular forms of Hindu literature are the Puranas (Sanskrit, “old stories”), a collection of eighteen religious books that preserve the myths and legends of the Hindu gods. Transmitted orally for centuries, they were not written down until well after 500 c.e. Many of the tales in the Puranas illustrate the special powers of Vishnu and Shiva or their avatars. In the Vishnu Purana, for instance, Krishna (the eighth and most venerated incarnation of Vishnu), is pictured as the “cosmic lover” who courts his devotees with sensual abandon, seducing them to become one with the divinity. Over the next five centuries, as the devotional aspects of Hinduism came to overshadow the metaphysical aspects of the faith, Krishna became increasingly humanized. His seduction of Radha, his principal consort, became the focus of religious poems, the most notable of which is the twelfth-century Gita Govinda, written by Jayadeva (fl. 1200). This epic poem, which holds an important place in Indian devotional music and art, tells of the enduring romance between Govinda (Krishna) and Radha, the most enticing of his 16,000 wives and lovers (Figure 14.3).

Figure 14.3
Page from Gita Govinda, “Krishna and Radha with their Confidantes,” India, ca. 1635–40. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 10¼ × 8⅜ in. Krishna (his name means “dark” or “dark blue”) declares his love for Radha, symbol of human longing for the divine. Her servants are shown on the right; below is a garden bower set with refreshment.

In both the Puranas and the Gita, intense earthly passion serves as a metaphor for the Self (Atman) seeking union with the Absolute (Brahman). Unlike the medieval Christian condemnation of erotic sensuality, Hinduism values the physical union of male and female as symbolic of the eternal mingling of flesh and spirit, a state of spiritual unity that would lead believers out of the cycle of reincarnation. The Upanishads make clear the analogy:

In the embrace of his beloved a man forgets the whole world—everything both within and without. In the same manner, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without.

In the following passage from the Vishnu Purana, Krishna's cajoling and sensuous courtship, culminating in the circle of the dance, symbolizes the god's love for the human soul and the soul's unswerving attraction to the One.

READING 14.1 From the Vishnu Purana
(recorded after 500)
… [Krishna], observing the clear sky, bright with the autumnal
moon, and the air perfumed with the fragrance of the wild
water-lily, in whose buds the clusteringbees were murmuring
their songs, felt inclined to join with the milkmaids [Gopis] in
Then Madhava [Krishna], coming amongst them, conciliated
some with soft speeches, some with gentle looks; and some he
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took by the hand: and the illustrious deity sported with them in
the stations of the dance. As each of the milkmaids,
however, attempted to keep in one place, close to the side of
Krishna, the circle of the dance could not be constructed; and
he, therefore, took each by the hand, and when their eyelids
were shut by the effects of such touch, the circle was formed.
Then proceeded the dance, to the music of their clashing
bracelets, and songs that celebrated, in suitable strain, the
charms of the autumnal season. Krishna sang of the moon of
autumn—a mine of gentle radiance; but the nymphs repeated
the praises of Krishna alone. At times, one of them, wearied by
the revolving dance, threw her arms, ornamented with
tinkling bracelets, round the neck of the destroyer of Madhu
[Krishna]; another, skilled in the art of singing his praises,
embraced him. The drops of perspiration from the arms of Hari
[Krishna] were like fertilizing rain, which produced a crop of
down upon the temples of the milkmaids. Krishna sang the
strain that was appropriate to the dance. The milkmaids
repeatedly exclaimed “Bravo, Krishna!” to his song. When
leading, they followed him; when returning they encountered
him; and whether he went forwards or backwards, they ever
attended on his steps. Whilst frolicking thus, they considered
every instant without him a myriad of years; and prohibited (in
vain) by husbands, fathers, brothers, they went forth at night to
sport with Krishna, the object of their affection.
Thus, the illimitable being, the benevolent remover of all
imperfections, assumed the character of a youth among the
females of the herdsmen of [the district of] Vraja; pervading
their natures and that of their lords by his own essence, all-
diffusive like the wind. For even as the elements of ether, fire,
earth, water, and air are comprehended in all creatures, so
also is he everywhere present, and in all …
Responding to Reading 14.1
(Your score will be reported to your instructor)
  • Q

    How do “seduction” and “the dance” function as metaphors of Hindu spirituality?

Indian Poetry
Core Concept: Alliteration and Assonance in Indian Poetry
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If the religious literature of India is sensuous in nature, so too is the secular literature, much of which is devoted to physical pleasure. Sanskrit lyric poetry is the most erotic of all world literatures. Unlike the poetry of other ancient cultures, that of India was meant to be spoken, not sung. On the other hand, Sanskrit poetry shares with most ancient Greek and Latin verse a lack of rhyme. It makes use of such literary devices as alliteration (the repetition of initial sounds in successive words, as in “panting and pale”) and assonance (similarity between vowel sounds, as in “lake” and “fate”).

In Sanskrit verse, implication and innuendo are more important than direct statement or assertion. The multiplicity of synonyms in Sanskrit permits a wide range of meanings, puns, and verbal play. And although this wealth of synonyms and near-synonyms contributes to the richness of Indian poetry, it makes English translation quite difficult. For example, there are some fifty expressions in Sanskrit for “lotus”; in English there is but one. Sanskrit poets employ a large number of stock similes: the lady's face is like the moon, her eyes resemble lotuses, and so on. Classical rules of style dictate that every poem must exhibit a single characteristic sentiment, such as anger, courage, wonder, or passion. Grief, however—the emotion humans seek to avoid—may not dominate any poem or play.

A great flowering of Indian literature occurred between the fourth and tenth centuries, but it was not until the eleventh century and thereafter that the renowned anthologies of Sanskrit poetry appeared. One of the most honored of these collections, an anthology of 1739 verses dating from between 700 and 1050, was compiled by the late eleventh-century Buddhist monk Vidyakara. It is entitled The Treasury of Well-Turned Verse. As with most Indian anthologies, poems on the subject of love outnumber those in any other category, and many of the love lyrics feature details of physical passion. As suggested by the selection that follows, Indian poetry is more frank and erotic than ancient or medieval European love poetry and less concerned with the romantic aspects of courtship than most Islamic verse.

READING 14.2 From The Treasury of Well-Turned Verse
(ca. 1050)
“When we have loved, my love”
When we have loved, my love,
Panting and pale from love,
Then from your cheeks my love,
Scent of the sweat I love:
And when our bodies love
Now to relax in love
After the stress of love,
Ever still more I love
Our mingled breath of love.
“When he desired to see her breast”
When he desired to see her breast
She clasped him tight in an embrace;
And when he wished to kiss her lip
She used cosmetics on her face.
She held his hand quite firmly pressed
Between her thighs in desperate grip;
Nor yielded to his caress,
Yet kept alive his wantonness.
“If my absent bride were but a pond”
If my absent bride were but a pond,
her eyes the water lilies and her face the lotus,
her brows the rippling waves, her arms the lotus stems;
then might I dive into the water of her loveliness
and cool of limb escape the mortal pain
exacted by the flaming fire of love.
Responding to Reading 14.2
(Your score will be reported to your instructor)
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Indian Architecture
Labeling: Hindu Temples
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Hinduism generated some of the finest works of art and architecture in India's long history. Buddhist imagery influenced the style of medieval Hindu art, and Buddhist rock-cut temples and shrines provided models for Hindu architects. Between the sixth and fourteenth centuries, Hindus built thousands of temple-shrines to honor Vishnu and Shiva. These structures varied in shape from region to region, but generally they took the shape of a mound (often square or rectangular) topped with lofty towers or spires. Such structures were built of stone or brick with iron dowels frequently substituting for mortar. As with the early Buddhist stupa (see Figure 9.20), the Hindu temple symbolized the sacred mountain. Some temples were even painted white to resemble the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.

The Buddhist stupa was invariably a solid mound; however, the Hindu temple, more akin to the chaitya hall (see Figures 9.22, 9.23), encloses a series of interior spaces leading to a shrine—the dwelling place of the god on earth. Devotees enter the temple by way of an ornate porch or series of porches, each porch having its own roof and spire. Beyond these areas lies a large hall, and, finally, the dim, womblike sanctuary that enshrines the cult image of the god. The Hindu temple does not serve as a place for congregational worship (as does the medieval church); rather, its basic function is as a place of private, individual devotion, a place in which the devotee may visit and make offerings to the god. Often the focus of pilgrimage, at particular times of the year it hosts religious festivals specific to the god (or gods) to which it is dedicated. The design of the Hindu temple is based on the cosmic mandala (the diagrammatic map of the universe) and governed by divine numerology. The sacred space at the center is the primordial Brahman; the surrounding squares correspond to gods, whose roles in this context are as guardians of the Absolute Spirit. Although the Hindu temple and the Gothic cathedral were very different in terms of design and building function, both signified the profoundly human impulse to forge a link between heaven and earth and between matter and spirit.

The Kandariya Mahadeo temple in Khajuraho is but one of twenty-five remaining Hindu temple-shrines that rise like cosmic mountains out of the dusty plains of central north India (see Map 14.1). Dedicated in the early eleventh century to the god Shiva, the temple rests on a high masonry terrace and is entered through an elevated porch (Figures 14.4, 14.5). Like most Indian temples, Kandariya Mahadeo consists of a series of extensively ornamented horizontal cornices that ascend in narrowing diameter to their lotus-shaped peaks. At each tier of the beehivelike tower is a row of high-relief sculptures: human beings and animals drawn from India's great epics appear at the lower levels, while divine nymphs and celestial deities adorn the upper sections. The ornamental ensemble comprises a total of some 600 figures (Figure 14.6).

Figure 14.4
Kandariya Mahadeo temple, Khajuraho, India, ca. 1000. Stone, height approx. 102 ft.
Figure 14.5
Plan of Kandariya Mahadeo temple, Khajuraho.
Figure 14.6
Sculpted figures on the Kandariya Mahadeo temple, Khajuraho.
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Like the Gothic cathedral, the Hindu temple was a kind of “bible” in stone. Yet no two artistic enterprises could have been further apart: whereas the medieval Church discouraged the depiction of nudity as suggestive of sexual pleasure and sinfulness, Hinduism exalted the representation of the human body as symbolic of abundance, prosperity, and regeneration. The sinuous nudes that animate the surface of the Kandariya Mahadeo temple assume languid, erotic poses. Deeply carved, and endowed with supple limbs and swelling breasts and buttocks, their bodies signify the divine attributes of life-breath and “fullness.” The loving couples (known as mithunas)—men and women locked in passionate embrace (Figure 14.7)—call to mind the imagery of the dance in the Vishnu Purana. They symbolize the interdependence of male and female forces in the universe, and the ultimate union of human and divine love.

Figure 14.7
Mithuna couple, from Orissa, India, twelfth to thirteenth centuries. Stone, height 6 ft.
Indian Music and Dance
Core Concept: Rhythm and Melody in Indian Music
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The music of India is inseparable from religious practice. A single musical tradition—one that goes back some 3000 years—dominates both secular and religious music. In ancient times, India developed a system of music characterized by specific melodic sequences (ragas) and rhythms (talas). The centuries have produced thousands of ragas, sixty of which remain in standard use; nine are considered primary. Each raga consists of a series of seven basic tones arranged in a specific order. The performer may improvise on a chosen raga in any manner and at any length. As with the Greek modes, each of the basic Indian ragas is associated with a different emotion, mood, or time of day. A famous Indian anecdote tells how a sixteenth-century court musician, entertaining at midday, once sang a night raga so beautiful that darkness instantly fell where he stood. Governing the rhythmic pattern of an Indian musical composition is the tala, which, in union with the raga, shapes the mood of the piece. Indian music divides the octave into twenty-two principal tones and many more microtones, all of which are treated equally. There is, therefore, no tonal center and no harmony in traditional Indian music. Rather, the character of a musical composition depends on the choice of the raga and on its exposition. A typical raga opens with a slow portion that establishes a particular mood, moves into a second portion that explores rhythmic variations, and closes with rapid, complex, and often syncopated improvisations that culminate in a frenzied finale.

Thumri (music of India)

India developed a broad range of stringed instruments that were either bowed or plucked. The most popular of these was the sitar, a long-necked stringed instrument with a gourd resonator, which came into use during the thirteenth century (Figure 14.8). Related to the kithara, an instrument used in ancient Greece (see chapter 5), the sitar provided a distinctive rhythmic “drone,” while its strings were plucked for melody. Accompanied by flutes, drums, bells, and horns, sitar players were fond of improvising patterns of notes in quick succession against a resonating bass sound.

Figure 14.8
Ravi Shankar playing the sitar ; the other musicians play the tabla (hand drums) and a tamboura (plucked string instrument).
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The Sanskrit word for music (sangeeta) means both “sound” and “rhythm,” suggesting that the music of India, like that of most ancient cultures, was inseparable from the art of the dance. Indian dance, like the raga that accompanied it, set a mood or told a story by way of rigidly observed steps and hand gestures (mudra). India trained professional dancers to achieve difficult leg and foot positions, some of which may be seen on the façades of Indian temples (see Figure 14.5). Each of some thirty traditional dances requires a combination of complex body positions, of which there are more than a hundred. The close relationship among the arts of medieval India provides something of a parallel with the achievement of the medieval synthesis in the West. On the other hand, the sensual character of the arts of India distinguishes them sharply from those of Christian Europe.

Science and Technology
499 Indian mathematicians complete a compilation of known mathematical and astronomical principles
ca. 600 the decimal system is in use in India
876 the symbol for “zero” is first used in India