Religion is the science of soul. Morality and ethics have their foundation on religion. Religion played an important part in the lives of the Indians from the earliest times. It assumed numerous forms in relation to different groups of people associated with them. Religious ideas, thoughts and practices differed among these groups, and transformations and developments took place in the various religious forms in course of time. Religion in India was never static in character but was driven by an inherent dynamic strength. For UPSC exam, UPSC mains GS paper 1 and the history syllabus of UPSC prelims has these topics and the aspirants need to have a good analysis of the religion in ancient India.


  • Pre Vedic and Vedic Religion
  • Unorthodox Religious movements
  • Theistic Religious
  • Folk Cults
  • Vaishnava Movement
  • Shaivasim


From the archaeological findings in the pre and proto-historic sites it seems that these people believed in the sanctity of the creative force and venerated the male and female aspects of divinity. It appears that they were worshippers of the forces of nature like the sun and the moon. This belief is also partly substantiated by the early literature of the Aryans. The nature of the religious beliefs and practices of the Aryans is also known from the Rig Veda, They believed in many gods like Indra, Varuna, Agni, Surya and Rudra. Sacrifices, and ritual offering of food and drink to fire in honour of the Gods, constituted the main religious practices. The Sama Veda and the Yajur Veda elaborated the different aspects of the sacrificial acts and this ritualism was further elaborated in the Brahmanas. The Atharva Veda contained a great deal of animistic beliefs. The seers entertained doubts about the utility and efficacy of the Vedic ritualism. Polytheism was challenged by monotheistic ideas and the various deities were introduced as different ways of naming one eternal entity.

The Aranyaka and Upanishad sections of the Vedic literature envisage a progressive outlook. The Upanishads, represent the early stage in the origin and development of the religions- metaphysical concepts which were used later by the religious leaders and reformers of ancient and medieval India. Some of them followed the traditional lines while others proceeded along the paths of unorthodoxy.

  • India down the ages attempted to grapple with the fundamental problems of life and Philosophy in India began with a quest after the highest truth- truth not as mere objective certitude, but as being closely linked with the development of personality and leading to the attainment of the highest freedom, bliss and wisdom. It demanded, therefore, not only a philosophical discipline of reasoning, but also a discipline of conduct and the control of emotions and passions.

  • Thus the synthesis between deep philosophical analysis and lofty spiritual discipline is an abiding feature of Indian philosophy and its outlook is entirely different from that of western

  • It is hoped that it will serve not only to make plain the spiritual aspirations of an ancient nation, but also to show the relevance of those aspirations to the modernworld and thus forge a powerful link in the chain of human fellowship and universal concord.

  • Philosophy in India is not a product of speculation but of experience, direct and A true philosopher is he whose life and behaviour bear testimony to the truths he preaches.


The religious movements associated with persons like Mahavira and the Buddha in about the middle of the first Millennium BC fall under this category. There were many other creeds during this time as well. The creeds preached by some of them contained elements that were not in keeping with the Vedic tradition. They ignored the infallibility and supernatural origin of the Vedas. Unlike the Vedic seers who were Brahmin sages, many of these new teachers were Kshatriya. Both Buddhism and Jainism were atheistic creeds in the beginning. However, Buddhism endorsed the doctrine of the Law of Karma and upheld the belief in rebirths of the embodied skandhas and the inevitability of suffering in the very existence of beings. Many of these view points are also found in the major Upanishads.


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. Influence of pre-vedic and post-vedic folk elements were most conspicuous in their origin. The primary factor that motivated these creeds was Bhakti, the single-souled devotion of the worshipper to a personal god with some moral link. This led to the evolution of different religious sects like Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Saktism, which came to be regarded as components of orthodox Brahminism. These sects in course of time came to have a significant impact on the popular forms of Buddhism and Jainism.


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.

Vasudeva/Krishna Worship: A Sutra in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi refers to the worshippers of Vasudeva (Krishna). The Chhandogya Upanishad also speaks of Krishna, the son of Devaki, a pupil of the sage Ghora Angirasa 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 (primarily an aspect of the sun) and Narayana (a cosmic God). From the late Gupta period the name mostly used to designate this Bhakti cult was Vaishnava, indicating the predominance of the Vedic Vishnu element in it with emphasis on the doctrine of incarnations (avataras).


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 (a Tamil word denoting those drowned in Vishnu-bhakti) preached single-minded devotion (ekatmika bhakti) 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 (Siva-bhakts). 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 names were associated with several forms of Shaiva movements like Agamanta, Shudha and Vira-shaivism.

The philosophy must give a theory which will be simplest in its nature and, at the same time, will explain all the principles which are left as insoluble by science. At the same time will harmonize with the ultimate conclusions of science as well as establish a religion which is universal and is not limited by sects or doctrines or dogmas.

When we are concerned with philosophy as a science, it means a set of thoughts put into a system, such that one of them does not contradict another in the set and the entire set as a whole is coherent.

‘Science means knowledge partially unified, while philosophy means knowledge completely unified …. Beyond the knowable is the unknowable, but in that realm of the unknowable laid the solution of all the principles regarding the nature of the soul, of the heavens, of God and everything.’

Religious theories in ancient India is a important prt of UPSC syllabus and the aspirants are expected to understand the topic clearly. To read more articles on History, click here