Village Agama: A contiguous tradition with Veda and Agama
by Vijaya Rajiva on 18 Aug 2012 33 Comments
It has been the ancient dream of both Christianity and Islam to overcome Hinduism. Both overran Europe and the Middle East respectively; Europe became Christianised in half a century, with the now dead ancient cultures of Greece and Rome are remembered in museums; Iran and its neighbourhood adopted Islam and relinquished their own rich ancient cultures. But despite ruthless invasions and colonial occupation, Hinduism has remained intact, owing to the strength of the Vedic Agamic tradition. Repeated attacks against it have not succeeded.

Monier Williams and his followers such as present day anti-Hindu activists like Arundhati Roy (Christian) have made the mistake of targeting what they call the mighty fortress of Brahmanism. Monier Williams (author of the Sanskrit English Dictionary, 1899) had famously said that when the walls of the mighty fortress of Brahmanism are down then Christianity will win:

“When the walls of the mighty fortress of Brahmanism are encircled, undermined and finally stormed by the soldiers of the cross, the victory of Christianity must be signal and complete” (Modern India and Indians, 1879).


Arundhati Roy frequently mentioned the Brahmanic Hindu state. Had they referred to the Vedic Agamic tradition, they would have been closer to the truth. It is imperative that Hindus do not become apologetic for this tradition. They should not only be proud of it, but also uphold it without any hesitation. The present writer has written about attempts to sever the connection between Veda and Agama by hostile forces

(See ‘The Attack on the Vedic Agama Connection’, 24 July 2012,


A similar attempt has been made and continues to be made by hostile forces trying to detach the village agama from the larger tradition with which it has been intimately connected for several millennia. This is the site for a renewed attack on Hinduism.


Hostile forces denounce it as the brahmanisation/sankritisation of the village, when in reality that process was already entrenched in the village worship of many deities and the polytheism of the Veda and worship of a chosen god or goddess in the Agama. The village deities, the grama devatas, are often representative of natural forces, local heroes, or related to Vedic deities.


Sometimes there are temples in the village to house these deities, and sometimes they are housed in makeshift structures.


The worship of female deities in the village (called Devis or Devatas) are aspects, if not the basis of Saktism, one of the four formal Agamas which are the Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti and Srauta agamas. Attempts to isolate them from the larger Shakti tradition are inaccurate.


There is an unusual coldness and seeming objectivity and detachment on the part of contemporary scholars such as David Kinsley, whose work is almost an itemisation and tabulation of village deities (See Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition, 1988). Evidently the deep connection to the Vedic Agamic tradition can only be captured by those who are actually Hindu. While his work is not exactly in the same category as Whitehead’s The Village Gods of South India (1921), there is a brittle quality about the work, perhaps because it was not written by a Hindu. David Kinsley was a much respected and well liked professor of religion at an American university; the Right Reverend Henry Whitehead was Bishop of Madras during the colonial era. Interestingly, Kinsley does make references to the Whitehead book.


Unlike the Vedic Agamic tradition, the village agama does not always have a formal installation of the deity (prana prathista), although that situation itself is gradually changing. For instance, the village guardian deity Muniyandi is frequently installed by priests, sometimes even brahmin priests. Swami Devananda Sarasvati (aka Ishwar Sharan) recently pointed out that there are basically four types of installations in Hinduism:


1.      Installation via the use of natural objects such as tulsi; these are of divine natural origin and are called Swayambhu or self generated (not made with human hands or by any known agency). As is well known, sometimes the object of worship might be a rock formation or a holy tree and these are rubbed with red lead.


2.     Installation by a saint or holy person (often villagers may approach one and seek their intervention).


3.     Installation by a trained priest, brahmin usually (although in villages non-brahmin priests do the officiating) in the Vedic Agamic tradition.


4.     Installation through the personal devotion of an individual ( in the village it often begins as tribute to some departed soul to whom the individual has been attached).


In each case, it is assumed that the deity has been propitiated and is present for the village. The connection with the formal Agama tradition is quite obvious since it has specific installations. However, since the Veda did not have murtis and worship was offered to the Devas and Devatas through the medium of the Vedic sacrifice, the homa (havan), it may seem at first glance that the connection with the village agama is tenuous, since the village does not ordinarily employ homa.


This negative criticism of the link between village agama and the larger Agama and Veda is further intensified by pointing out (as some writers do) that the village Devi is swayambhu, self-born, and does not need a priestly installation to bring the pratima to life. In addition, many natural objects are believed by villagers to be swayambhu and are so worshipped. Hence, there is no need for homa or prana prasthistha (installation of the deity, or rather consecration of the deity).


 In the formal Agama the installation of the deity is considered of prime importance.


Hence, the two questions, homa and the phenomenon of swayambhu must be examined.


Swayambhu and Homa


In the four Vedas, the existence of naturally sanctified entities is the basis of the hymns. It is not clear how any attentive reader can miss this point. The celestial, atmospheric and terrestrial deities are believed to be naturally sanctified and self-generated entities.


The various Devas and Devatas are swayambhu, even though they may not appear in anthropomorphic forms, such as those associated with Devi in Agama and village agama. Often the Vedic hymns describe the Devas and Devatas in anthropomorphic terms and the descriptions are colourful. It is now known that some types of pratima existed in the Vedic period. Psychologist and writer Shrikumar has made an interesting observation in one of his reflections on the topic:

“…all devas and devatas (that includes gram devatas) are eternally present but have to be identified… the devas and devatas if existing outside of individual consciousness can be viewed as some form of nodes of sentient energy if not identified already as forces of Nature.”


Whether they appear as anthropomorphic forms or as forces of Nature, Hindus worship all Devas and Devatas as existing outside their consciousness, as objective realities. The village worships deities that are primarily terrestrial, centred round the village and its boundaries.


The Vedic Rishis received their vision of all three categories of deities (cosmic, atmospheric and terrestrial) directly.


Why the homa? The sacrificial fire which is lit during the homa is a worship of the deity which confirms its objective existence (or so the Hindu believes) and which can be prayed to. It is functionally equivalent to the village worship of deities. Mantras are chanted during the ceremony. The village does not use the Vedic mantras, but engages in chanting and music. The use of prayers and music in village rituals are similar acts of worship. The arati is often performed using cloth dipped in oil and signifies the importance of fire for worship.


The first words of the first hymn of the Rig Veda (to Agni) begin thus:

“agnimile purohitam yajnasya devam. . . .”


A point that must be noted is that the Vedic ceremony occurs under the sky at altars which are built for that specific purpose and then dismantled. The village structures also are not usually permanent. The Vedic fire altar uses bricks which are placed in a certain alignment. Both the fire and the wood used for starting and kindling the fire are naturally existing substances (today, only the Namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala conduct Yagna as prescribed by the Vedic texts). The village uses makeshift structures as well as some Agama style small shrines and temples.


The point to be kept in mind is that village ceremonies are close to the natural religion of the Vedas.


Contemporary Scholarship


Starting with sociologist M.N. Srinivas in the 1960s (Social Change in Modern India, 1966), there has been a trend in Indian sociology to make a distinction between the Veda-Agama and village agama. Srinivas used the word ‘Sanskritisation’ to describe what he saw as the process by which lower castes would imitate the manners of the upper castes (or Sanskritised Hindus) to gain upward mobility.


While this may be true of some of their habits, the worship of grama devatas dates back to ancient times and has been linked to the Vedic Agamic tradition in many ways. Srinivas in his Remembered Village invokes the warmth and informality of village worship, while tacitly downgrading the Vedic heritage, as if there was no warmth or beauty or devotion in what he saw as the ‘formal’ worship in the Vedic Agamic tradition.


Since then, many scholars in India and abroad have perpetuated the distinction between what Srinivas called the Great Tradition (Vedic Agamic) and the Little Tradition (Village agama). Hence, it is important that Hindus challenge these and other misconceptions foisted on us by the missionaries, but also by contemporary scholarship.


The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top