In Indian history, the period from the fourth to the seventh century CE marks a significant phase since it saw several institutional changes in the realms of religion and society. It witnessed the emergence of elite sections in social hierarchy. Sanskrit almost became the official language. Donation of vast lands to the theist priests became customary for the rulers. The Brahmanical religion based on the rituals rooted in Vedic traditions became more popular. This period also witnessed the emergence of powerful imperial dynasties like the Guptas in the north and the Pallavas in the south.
Archaeologically, several sites were established imbibing religious, cosmic and imperial meanings. These sites generally have grand sculptures, cave-temples, structural temples, and inscriptions, besides other remains, and were interpreted by scholars for their religious meaning. The sculptures invited more attention as they represented the description in the religious traditions. It was well understood in the past researches that the rulers decided on such themes in order to propagate and strengthen their imperial claims including the territory. One such site is Udayagiri in Madhya Pradesh, which was delved into by Michael Willis in order to understand the cosmic meaning of the site. He, then, elaborated his research to understand the organisation of religion and rituals by the Guptas based on their inscriptional recordings and the Indian texts. The scholarship of the author, obviously rooted in his deep understanding of the Sanskrit texts, stands out brilliantly right through the work.
The first chapter deals with the remains of Udayagiri. Willis is able to bring out the underlying significance of the carving of the Ananta and Varaha forms of Vishnu on the hillock. The whole system, according to the author deliberately represented Vishnu as the cosmic author of the cycle in which the Lord went into eternal sleep but had to come out of the slumber to retrieve the Mother Earth to keep the procreative activity in motion. His conclusions are based on the observation of the rise of the sun and the moon vis-a-vis the location of the above during the fieldwork at the site. This paleo-astronomical study is interesting. According to him, Udayagiri also stood for charting time and knowing the year. If so, it was also a place for charting a course towards Vishnu and a place for knowing him. For the Gupta kings, knowing Vishnu means knowing the earth they rule.
He then proceeds in the next chapter to examine the epigraphical records of the Gupta period to understand the establishment of several gods. He concludes that a symbiotic relationship was established between the god established in the temple, the brahmanas and the king. Once settled in a temple, through the performance of several rites, gods get transformed into real persons. The brahmanas performed the ritual exchange between man and the god. The donating of land to the god was essential for maintaining the rituals and the brahmanas performing the rituals. To get the authority to donate land, which is effectively an intervention in the rights of existing land-owners, the king directly engaged with Vishnu or performed the asvamedha sacrifice. Nevertheless, the scholar missed the silent but dynamic adaptation of Vedic rites into overarching temple rituals.
The third chapter deals with the rituals, those performing the rituals, and the king. He raises four questions based on an epigraph as to who were the priests who officiated in royal rituals, their spiritual lineage, their relationship with the king and sacerdotal groups and the kind of rituals they performed. Possibly, the Bhagavatas emerging from Ayodhya enjoyed a high status. He further concludes that standing above the sacrificial framework, this “new acharya derived authority from the highest possible source: Vishnu as the living embodiment of both Veda and sacrifice”. They served the purpose for the Gupta kings, who claimed themselves as paramabhagavata and deriving their supreme authority which connect them with Vishnu.
The whole work is very scholarly and refreshingly provides a new treatment of the records both textual and epigraphical. His conclusions have a direct mooring both in the modern theoretical framework and in the ancient texts. The exhaustive footnotes and references add to the scholarship. In all, this book is a very erudite work in the field of ancient Indian history. It is quite true that such excellent works appear not too often.
THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF HINDU RITUAL: Michael Willis; Cambridge University Press, 4381/4, Ansari Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 795.