In medieval times the esoteric ritual and yoga of Tantra and sects of fervent devotion (see bhakti) arose and flourished. The groundswell of devotion produced poet-saints all over India who wrote religious songs and composed versions of the epics in their vernaculars. This literature plays an essential part in present-day Hinduism, as do puja, or worship of enshrined deities, and pilgrimage to sacred places. The most popular deities include Vishnu and his incarnations Rama and Krishna, Shiva, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, and the Mother-Goddess or Devi, who appears as the terrible Kali or Durga but also as Sarasvati, the goddess of music and learning, and as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. All the gods and goddesses, each of which has numerous aspects, are regarded as different forms of the one Supreme Being. Modern Hindu leaders such as Swami Vivekananda, Mohandas Gandhi, and Aurobindo Ghose, have given voice to a movement away from the traditional ideal of world-renunciation and asceticism and have asserted the necessity of uniting spiritual life with social concerns.
After independence in 1947 the impact of Hinduism on the political life of a country in which more than 80% of the people are adherents was moderated by the long-term rule of the Congress party (see Indian National Congress, which has striven to maintain a secular democracy. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims, however, have long been a fact of life in India, as evidenced in the creation of Pakistan, the conflict over Kashmir, and the subsequent wars between India and Pakistan. There have also been tensions with the Sikh minority, some of whom have sought independence for the Punjab, leading to violence in the 1980s (see Sikhism).
Since the late 1980s there has been increasing popular support for Hindu nationalist parties among the people of India. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has long rejected the secular state and called for orthodox Hindu religious practice, is influential in the mainstream Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), one of India's most important political parties. The extremist Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad parties have been relentless in their attacks on Muslims. The 1992 destruction in Ayodhya of a Muslim shrine and anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1993 were sparked by Hindu nationalists and are among the events that have heightened Hindu-Muslim tensions.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.