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The Hindu Heritage of Kerala
In the earlier chapters I have discussed the Aryanization process, the Brahmins, the Nairs, the Ezhavas, and their festivals. Those sections deal with some aspects of Hinduism. It is impossible to treat the riches of this great religion and its historical evolution in a short study like this.
However, a few important observations on Kerala Hinduismare in order simply because Kerala Hindus are quite different from Northern Hindus. This difference is built into the very fabric ofHHiiniil'fi.i's-m which is not an organized system or creed but a congeries of loosely related traditions and cults. In this sense, Hinduism can be compared to Christianity which is made up of numerous denominations like the Roman Catholics, the Russian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox, the Lutherans, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Jacobites, the Marthomites, and so on.
There is much in common in the beliefs and practices of these Christians just as among the Hindus of Kerala and the rest of India. Today the Brahmins, Nairs, Ezhavas, and the various other castes and tribes of Kerala consider themselves Hindus though long ago Ezhavas and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes were really not Hindus at all. Most of them had their own tribal religions, as many tribes still do, in spite of the overwhelming influence of Hinduism.
Among the many features of their religious belief, Kerala Hindus recognize not just the thirty-three Vedic deities but many more; according to popular counting, there are 330 million godsl The major deities have a number of manifestations or incarnations known as Avatars. The essence of all things is Brahman, the impersonal universal soul, which is never represented by an image; he is like the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim God ~ only in appellations is this God different in all these religions. Of the Hindu Trinity (Trimurti), Brahma has always remained cold and aloof, like God the Father of the Christian religion. Vishnu, the Preserver) is represented as a god of pleasant countenance, with four arms, eternally sleep-ing on his couch, the many-headed serpent Ananta as in the An antasay an am of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple of Trivandrum.
Among the best-known of the ten Avatars. the most popular in Kerala are Krishna and Rama. Like Vishnu, Shiva is extremely popular in Kerala. But among the three major sects of Hinduism--Vaishnavism, Saivism and Saktism (derived from the worship of Sakti, the divine mother)--Vaishnavism is the most popular in Kerala. More Hindus take the Vaishnavite names than Saiv'ite names, and more temples are dedicated to Vishnu than to Shiva. The divine mother (Bhagavati), however, seems to have more temples in her honor as the Virgin Mary has more churches in her honor than Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church.
Among the ethical concerns of the Hinduism of Kerala are the important concepts of ritual purity, Dharma. Karma, and Moksha. Ritual purity implies that contact with impure matter (including low-caste people) defiles or pollutes a person and this pollution or sin necessitates physical and spiritual cleansing. Keralites tend to bathe about two times a day for the sake of physical cleansing; they go to temples for spiritual cleansing. It is interesting to point out that the cow, one of the purest of substances for orthodox Hinduism, is not so sacred in Kerala, which I attribute to Keralites' Munda origins; for the Mundas, cow is not a sacred animal. Dharma, the moral imperative, which is absolute, universal, and immutable in orthodox Hinduism, is rather relative in Kerala Hinduism except for the Brahmins. Karma or the acceptance of fate is becoming less and less a formidable force in the lives of most Keralite Hindus; most persons no longer believe that Brahma writes an individual's fate on his forehead when he is born except when it is impossible to get out of a tragic situation. Moksha, liberation from the wheel of Karma and reabsorption into Brahman is still the ultimate personal goal of all Hindus; this is pre-dicated upon the fulfillment of the three paths of Jnana (knowledge), jihakti (devotion to a personal god). Karma (devotion to duty).