Spirits of nature caused disease, drought, flood, and fertility for animals,
crops and humans. Visible and invisible powers mingled whimsically.
Priests, rulers, mystics and saints evoked divinity and gods lived in society.
Medieval domains were institutional environments for organising deploying
and controlling powers that circulated among people and gods.
Incorporation of Local Deites and Cults As in the case of politics, in
religion also, it is useful to take a bottom-up, locality-first approach to early
medieval history, and trends in Tamil Nadu provide a useful example. In
ancient times, before the Christian era, Tamil verse portrayed localities full of
spirits, one called Seyon, who was red like the red earth of hills where he
lived. Feared and propitiated, Seyon became the subject of stories that
highlighted his power. Personified in ancient Tamil verse, he became a living
being with a personality, a human divine. He later acquired various names,
one being Murugan; and sometime in the middle of the first millennium,
Murugan became a son of Shiva, identified with Skanda. Thus, an ancient
local spirit was gradually incorporated into the textual tradition of the
Puranas. The Skanda Purana was recreated in the Tamil language by
translation from Sanskrit. Other Sanskrit texts were similarly adapted to new
settings, most famously, the Ramayana, whose Tamil version by Kamban
endows Sita’s captor, Ravana, with a rather more heroic character than the
Sanskrit version. Hundreds of local spirits and gods were incorporated into a
pantheon in which Shiva and Vishnu reigned like two great rajas, complete
with their own sprawling clans.
Role and Influence of Priests A diverse Hindu cultural complex expanded
across medieval domains, endowing many local traditions with common
features, but also being defined distinctly in each place as local people
continued to adopt local traditions. Learned brahmins received gifts of
support from rulers and local elites to manage temples and to conduct
ceremonies that incorporated local deities, sentiments and practices. At the
same time, brahmins rationalised and ritualised the local status hierarchy;
they defined local identities in the ritual vocabulary of varna and jati. They
utilised high-culture elements from ancient Sanskrit texts, to compose locally
grounded Hindu ritual systems that multiplied disparately in bits and pieces,
in a motley pattern of AD hoc adjustments.