Sacred Stones and Spit -- A case of popular Hinduism
- Katsuyuki Ida
- Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: History of Indian Thought
Diversity of Hinduism
80% of Indian citizens have faith in Hinduism, but it is not easy to define the essence of Hindu religion. Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism has no standard doctrine or practices.
Beginning with the Rig Veda in the 12th century BC, Indian people have worshiped various deities over a long period of time. Not only the style of that belief, the forms and significance of rituals and festivals, various considerations surrounding the course of human life and the meaning of life have evolved in a wide variety of ways. A process in which different lineages of thought have engaged in repeated mutual criticism and have coexisted while exerting influence on each other has continued until the present day. For example, many Hindu philosophers preach about liberation from reincarnations; however, a variety of modes are approved as a means of liberation--for example, some philosophers allow for abstinence and austerity, while others emphasize learning and meditation. An enormous number of scriptures have been written and various beliefs are intermingled according to the times and sect. Nevertheless, all of this constitute Hinduism.
Generally speaking, based on the vast number of scriptures left in the Sanskrit language, it is reasonable to view Hinduism as the worship of deities such as Śiva and Vishnu, even while incorporating the diversity discussed above.
The world of local Hinduism
While Hinduism that recognizes the religious authority of the Brahmins and is based on Sanskrit scriptures can be called a great tradition which is now spreading across India, there are little traditions which locally develop according to linguistic zones and regions. There are many beliefs existing in various places that are known only to very limited regions or to people of a particular caste. In many cases, these beliefs are developed through local languages and involve the worship of unknown deities, spirits, local saints, and clan heroes that do not appear in the great tradition of Hinduism. Such local beliefs and practices can also be considered essential elements composing Hinduism.
The Mahānubhāv sect is said to have started its activities in the northern part of Maharashtra in the 13th century. Cakradhar Swami, a renouncer from Gujarat, is said to have preached his teachings and saved people with his miracle powers. After Cakradhar's demise, his remaining disciples took over his teachings and formed a sect. The Mahānubhāv sect believes that devotion to the supreme deity is the path to individual salvation. As the founder of the sect, Cakradhar was recognized as the avatār of the supreme deity who descended to earth.
The Mahānubhāv sect does not recognize the deities, rituals, norms, etc., claimed in orthodox Hinduism. In the hagiographies of this sect, Śiva and other deities are referred to as beings who deceive people. The Mahānubhāv sect also denies the Brahmins and Veda scriptures. On the other hand, although low-caste people and women are excluded from Hindu society in the great tradition, they often obtain important positions in the Mahānubhāv sect. This is why the modern sect claims to be egalitarian.
However, due to the anti-Hindu stance described above, the Mahānubhāv sect gradually weakened and disappeared in the Hindu society of past times. It was not until the modern era that the Mahānubhāv sect regained momentum.
Location where the deity descends
Today, the followers of the Mahānubhāv sect enshrine stones called viśeṣa on the altar, along with images of avatārs. It is explained that viśeṣas are stones from the land where avatārs of the supreme deity once descended. Followers chant the avatār's names while pressing viśeṣa on their foreheads or touching it with their hands. By doing so, they try to obtain the grace of the avatār.
Furthermore, followers of the Mahānubhāv sect worship the relics (prasād) left by these incarnations. Cloths, pieces of wood, and other offerings said to have been touched by avatārs of deities such as Cakradhar are carefully preserved. Some believers explain that divine power is bestowed on the person who touches these relics.
Visitors to temples and sacred sites will find stone platforms enshrined in shapes such as squares and hexagons. Known as stān, these stone platforms designate specials places where avatārs of deities once performed miracles or preached their teachings.
In this way, current followers of the Mahānubhāv sect use a variety of methods to seek and worship traces of avatārs that once descended to the earth. Devotees explain that contact with these relics of avatārs transmits divine vibrations (sphurat) and infuses the body with divine power (śakti). This attitude of seeking a physical connection with deities seems somewhat unique in Hinduism.
From scriptures of the Mahānubhāv sect
This stance of the Mahānubhāv sect does not seem to be a phenomenon limited to modern times. The 14th-century scripture Smṛtisthaḷ depicts what happened after the demise of the sect founder Cakradhar; specifically, how his remaining disciples searched for traces of their teacher's avatār and made these items into sacred relics.
The Bhaṭobās came to Ḍombegrām Village with all his disciples. He placed the body on the threshold of the temple's courtyard gate and then proceeded straight to the monastery facing east. There, on the stone of the broken wall, Bhaṭobās found where Gosāvī (=Cakradhar) once chewed a betel leaf and spat. Feeling a great sorrow, Battoberth pushed his mouth against the relic (the stone on which Cakradhar spat) and embraced it. At that moment, Bāidevobās arrived. It is not known how long he has been following Bhaṭobās. He informed Bāidevobās of the sacred spit. "Take this, Bāidevo. This relic is the sacred spit of our guru Cakradhar." (following passage omitted) (Smṛtisthaḷ, Chapter 6))
A great vessel was made from where Cakradhar placed his sacred feet in the center of the wooden threshold of the temple. Two smaller vessels were made from the two ends of the threshold. From the remaining materials, beads were made and given to all for use in worship. Bhaṭobās himself used the large vessel. He put in the vessel a relic robe, anklet, necklace, staff, and two pieces of fabric that had belonged to Cakradhar, as well as a relic robe and box of camphor that had belonged to Śrīprabhu Gosāvī. Bhaṭobās then worshipped the vessel for all his life. (Smṛtisthaḷ, Chapter 9)
Seeking connection with deities
When considering the episode introduced above, it seems that the desire felt by followers of the Mahānubhāv sect to connect with and feel the avatārs of deities comes from a longing for their former teacher, Cakradhar. On the other hand, however, in the doctrine that was later systematized, the relationship between the avatār and the individual was positioned as a means of salvation.
The 14th-century scripture Sūtrapāṭh assures that practical adherence to and service to an avatārs of the supreme deity is a sure means of salvation. Therefore, direct disciples of Cakradhar will surely be saved. However, after Cakradhar left the earth, new followers joining the Mahānubhāv sect were no longer able to directly serve the avatār. Therefore, the doctrine preaches to touch viśeṣa and relics, chant the name of the avatārs, and recall the appearance and episode of the avatārs. This is preached as a way to establish connection with a deity who is no longer present in our world, which is the only path to salvation.
Thus, even now, followers of the Mahānubhāv sect visit sacred places, follow the traces of deities, and pray for salvation while remembering the past appearance of their deities.
 Milton Singer, When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization, The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 55-59.
 Rigopoulos, A., The Mahānubhāvs, Firenze University Press, 2005.
 V. N. Deshpande (ed.), Smṛtisthaḷ, Venus Prakashan, 2007 (7th).
 M. D. K. Lāsūrkar śāstrī (ed.), Sūtrapāţh rahasyārth prabodh, Nāsik, 1993.
Katsuyuki Ida／Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: History of Indian Thought
Katsuyuki Ida was born in Takasaki City in 1973. He graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Kanazawa University in March 1996. He completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Socio-environmental Studies, Kanazawa University in March 2005. He holds a PhD in literature. He served as a Research Fellow at the Center for Transdisciplinary Innovation of the National Institutes for the Humanities, Inter-University Research Institute Corporation (Ryukoku University Center for South Asian Studies) before assuming his current position in April 2020.
His areas of expertise are the history of Indian thought; particularly, the growth of Hinduism since the Middle Ages. His recent interests include the growth of popular devotional thought (bhaktism) since the 13th century, the treatment of religious culture in the modernization of South Asia, and saint worship and pilgrimage to sacred sites in modern Maharashtra, India.
His main written works include Saints Who Move the World: Charisma in the Global Era (Heibonsha Shinsho, 2014) and Rituals and Interpretations in Hindu Tantrism: Daily Memorial Service of the Srividya Sect (Showado, 2012).