1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brahmanism
BRAHMANISM, a term commonly used to denote a system of religious institutions originated and elaborated by the Brāhmans, the sacerdotal and, from an early period, the dominant caste of the Hindū community (see Brahman). In like manner, as the language of the Āryan Hindūs has undergone continual processes of modification and dialectic division, so their religious belief has passed through various stages of development broadly distinguished from one another by certain prominent features. The earliest phases of religious thought in India of which a clear idea can now be formed are exhibited in a body of writings, looked upon by later generations in the light of sacred writ, under the collective name of Veda (“knowledge”) or Śruti (“revelation”). The Hindū scriptures consist of four separate collections, or Samhitās, of sacred texts, or mantras, including hymns, incantations and sacrificial forms of prayer, viz. the Ṛich (nom. sing. ṛik) or Ṛigveda, the Sāman or Sāmaveda, the Yajus or Yajurveda, and the Atharvan or Atharvaveda. Each of these four text-books has attached to it a body of prose writings, called Brāhmaṇas (see Brāhmaṇa), intended to explain the ceremonial application of the texts and the origin and import of the sacrificial rites for which these were supposed to have been composed. Usually attached to these works, and in some cases to the Saṃhitās, are two kinds of appendages, the Āraṇyakas and Upanishads, the former of which deal generally with the more recondite rites, while the latter are taken up chiefly with speculations on the problems of the universe and the religious aims of man—subjects often touched upon in the earlier writings, but here dealt with in a more mature and systematic way. Two of the Saṃhitās, the Sāman and the Yajus, owing their existence to purely ritual purposes, and being, besides, the one almost entirely, the other partly, composed of verses taken from the Ṛigveda, are only of secondary importance for our present inquiry. The hymns of the Ṛigveda constitute the earliest lyrical effusions of the Āryan settlers in India which have been handed down to posterity. They are certainly not all equally old; on the contrary they evidently represent the literary activity of many generations of bards, though their relative age cannot as yet be determined with anything like certainty. The tenth (and last) book of the collection, however, at any rate has all the characteristics of a later appendage, and in language and spirit many of its hymns approach very nearly to the level of the contents of the Atharvan. Of the latter collection about one-sixth is found also in the Ṛigveda, and especially in the tenth book; the larger portion peculiar to it, though including no doubt some older pieces, appears to owe its origin to an age not long anterior to the composition of the Brāhmaṇas.
The state of religious thought among the ancient bards, as reflected in the hymns of the Ṛigveda, is that of a worship of the grand and striking phenomena of nature regarded in the light of personal conscious beings, endowed with a power beyond the control of man, though not insensible to his praises and actions. It is a nature worship purer than that met with in any other polytheistic form of belief we are acquainted with—a mythology still comparatively little affected by those systematizing tendencies which, in a less simple and primitive state of thought, lead to the construction of a well-ordered pantheon and a regular organization of divine government. To the mind of the early Vedic worshipper the various departments of the surrounding nature are not as yet clearly defined, and the functions which he assigns to their divine representatives continually flow into one another. Nor has he yet learned to care to determine the relative worth and position of the objects of his adoration; but the temporary influence of the phenomenon to which he addresses his praises bears too strongly upon his mind to allow him for the time to consider the claims of rival powers to which at other times he is wont to look up with equal feelings of awe and reverence. It is this immediateness of impulse under which the human mind in its infancy strives to give utterance to its emotions that imparts to many of its outpourings the ring of monotheistic fervour.
The generic name given to these impersonations, viz. deva (“the shining ones”), points to the conclusion, sufficiently justified by the nature of the more prominent objects of Vedic adoration as well as by common natural occurrences, that it was the striking phenomena of light which first and most powerfully swayed the Āryan mind. In the primitive worship of the manifold phenomena of nature it is not, of course, so much their physical aspect that impresses the human heart as the moral and intellectual forces which are supposed to move and animate them. The attributes and relations of some of the Vedic deities, in accordance with the nature of the objects they represent, partake in a high degree of this spiritual element; but it is not improbable that in an earlier phase of Āryan worship the religious conceptions were pervaded by it to a still greater and more general extent, and that the Vedic belief, though retaining many of the primitive features, has on the whole assumed a more sensuous and anthropomorphic character. This latter element is especially predominant in the attributes and imagery applied by the Vedic poets to Indra, the god of the atmospheric region, the favourite figure in their pantheon.
While the representatives of the prominent departments of nature appear to the Vedic bard as co-existing in a state of independence of one another, their relation to the mortal worshipper being the chief subject of his anxiety, a simple method of classification was already resorted to at an early time, consisting in a triple division of the deities into gods residing in the sky, in the air, and on earth. It is not, however, until a later stage,—the first clear indication being conveyed in a passage of the tenth book of the Ṛigveda—that this attempt at a polytheistic system is followed up by the promotion of one particular god to the dignity of chief guardian for each of these three regions. On the other hand, a tendency is clearly traceable in some of the hymns towards identifying gods whose functions present a certain degree of similarity of nature; attempts which would seem to show a certain advance of religious reflection, the first steps from polytheism towards a comprehension of the unity of the divine essence. Another feature of the old Vedic worship tended to a similar result. The great problems of the origin and existence of man and the universe had early begun to engage the Hindū mind; and in celebrating the praises of the gods the poet was frequently led by his religious, and not wholly disinterested, zeal to attribute to them cosmical functions of the very highest order. At a later stage of thought, chiefly exhibited in the tenth book of the Ṛigveda and in the Atharvaveda, inquiring sages could not but perceive the inconsistency of such concessions of a supremacy among the divine rulers, and tried to solve the problem by conceptions of an independent power, endowed with all the attributes of a supreme deity, the creator of the universe, including the gods of the pantheon. The names under which this monotheistic idea is put forth are mostly of an attributive character, and indeed some of them, such as Prajāpati (“lord of creatures”), Viśvakarman (“all-worker”), occur in the earlier hymns as mere epithets of particular gods. But to other minds this theory of a personal creator left many difficulties unsolved. They saw, as the poets of old had seen, that everything around them, that man himself, was directed by some inward agent; and it needed but one step to perceive the essential sameness of these spiritual units, and to recognize their being but so many individual manifestations of one universal principle or spiritual essence. Thus a pantheistic conception was arrived at, put forth under various names, such as Purusha (“soul”), Kāma (“desire”), Brahman (neutr.; nom. sing. bráhma) (“devotion, prayer”). Metaphysical and theosophic speculations were thus fast undermining the simple belief in the old gods, until, at the time of the composition of the Brāhmaṇas and Upanishads, we find them in complete possession of the minds of the theologians. Whilst the theories crudely suggested in the later hymns are now further matured and elaborated, the tendency towards catholicity of formula favours the combination of the conflicting monotheistic and pantheistic conceptions; this compromise, which makes Prajāpati, the personal creator of the world, the manifestation of the impersonal Brahma, the universal self-existent soul, leads to the composite pantheistic system which forms the characteristic dogma of the Brāhmanical period (see Brahman).
In the Vedic hymns two classes of society, the royal (or military) and the priestly classes, were evidently recognized as being raised above the level of the Viś, or bulk of the Āryan community. These social grades seem to have been in existence even before the separation of the two Asiatic branches of the Indo-Germanic race, the Āryans of Iran and India. It is true that, although the Athrava, Rathaēstāo, and Vāśtrya of the Zend Avesta correspond in position and occupation to the Brāhman, Rājan and Viś of the Veda, there is no similarity of names between them; but this fact only shows that the common vocabulary had not yet definitely fixed on any specific names for these classes. Even in the Veda their nomenclature is by no means limited to a single designation for each of them. Moreover, Atharvan occurs not infrequently in the hymns as the personification of the priestly profession, as the proto-priest who is supposed to have obtained fire from heaven and to have instituted the rite of sacrifice; and although ratheshtha (“standing on a car”) is not actually found in connexion with the Rājan or Kshatriya, its synonym rathin is in later literature a not unusual epithet of men of the military caste. At the time of the hymns, and even during the common Indo-Persian period, the sacrificial ceremonial had already become sufficiently complicated to call for the creation of a certain number of distinct priestly offices with special duties attached to them. While this shows clearly that the position and occupation of the priest were those of a profession, the fact that the terms brāhmaṇa and brahmaputra, both denoting “the son of a brahman,” are used in certain hymns as synonyms of brahman, seems to justify the assumption that the profession had already, to a certain degree, become hereditary at the time when these hymns were composed. There is, however, with the exception of a solitary passage in a hymn of the last book, no trace to be found in the Ṛigveda of that rigid division into four castes separated from one another by insurmountable barriers, which in later times constitutes the distinctive feature of Hindū society. The idea of caste is expressed by the Sanskrit term varna, originally denoting “colour,” thereby implying differences of complexion between the several classes. The word occurs in the Veda in the latter sense, but it is used there to mark the distinction, not between the three classes of the Āryan community, but between them on the one hand and a dark-coloured hostile people on the other. The latter, called Dāsas or Dasyus, consisted, no doubt, of the indigenous tribes, with whom the Āryans had to carry on a continual struggle for the possession of the land. The partial subjection of these comparatively uncivilized tribes as the rule of the superior race was gradually spreading eastward, and their submission to a state of serfdom under the name of Śūdras, added to the Āryan community an element, totally separated from it by colour, by habits, by language, and by occupation. Moreover, the religious belief of these tribes being entirely different from that of the conquering people, the pious Āryas, and especially the class habitually engaged in acts of worship, could hardly fail to apprehend considerable danger to the purity of their own faith from too close and intimate a contact between the two races. What more natural, therefore, than that measures should have been early devised to limit the intercourse between them within as narrow bounds as possible? In course of time the difference of vocation, and the greater or less exposure to the scorching influence of the tropical sky, added, no doubt, to a certain admixture of Śūdra blood, especially in the case of the common people, seem to have produced also in the Āryan population different shades of complexion, which greatly favoured a tendency to rigid class-restrictions originally awakened and continually fed by the lot of the servile race. Meanwhile the power of the sacerdotal order having been gradually enlarged in proportion to the development of the minutiae of sacrificial ceremonial and the increase of sacred lore, they began to lay claim to supreme authority in regulating and controlling the religious and social life of the people. The author of the so-called Purusha-sūkta, or hymn of Purusha, above referred to, represents the four castes—the Brāhmaṇa, Kshatriya, Vaiśya and Śūdra—as having severally sprung respectively from the mouth, the arms, the thighs and the feet of Purusha, a primary being, here assumed to be the source of the universe. It is very doubtful, however, whether at the time when this hymn was composed the relative position of the two upper castes could already have been settled in so decided a way as this theory might lead one to suppose. There is, on the contrary, reason to believe that some time had yet to elapse, marked by fierce and bloody struggles for supremacy, of which only imperfect ideas can be formed from the legendary and frequently biased accounts of later generations, before the Kshatriyas finally submitted to the full measure of priestly authority.
The definitive establishment of the Brāhmanical hierarchy marks the beginning of the Brāhmanical period properly so called. Though the origin and gradual rise of some of the leading institutions of this era can, as has been shown, be traced in the earlier writings, the chain of their development presents a break at this juncture which no satisfactory materials as yet enable us to fill up. A considerable portion of the literature of this time has apparently been lost; and several important works, the original composition of which has probably to be assigned to the early days of Brāhmanism, such as the institutes of Manu and the two great epics, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana, in the form in which they have been handed down to us, show manifest traces of a more modern redaction. Yet it is sufficiently clear from internal evidence that Manu's Code of Laws, though merely a metrical recast of older materials, reproduces on the whole pretty faithfully the state of Hindū society depicted in the sources from which it was compiled. The final overthrow of the Kshatriya power was followed by a period of jealous legislation on the part of the Brāhmans. For a time their chief aim would doubtless be to improve their newly gained vantage-ground by surrounding everything relating to their order with a halo of sanctity calculated to impress the lay community with feelings of awe. In the Brāhmaṇas and even in the Purusha Hymn, and the Atharvan, divine origin had already been ascribed to the Vedic Saṃhitās, especially to the three older collections. The same privilege was now successfully claimed for the later Vedic literature, so imbued with Brāhmanic aspirations and pretensions; and the authority implied in the designation of Śruti or revelation removed henceforth the whole body of sacred writings from the sphere of doubt and criticism. This concession necessarily involved an acknowledgment of the new social order as a divine institution. Its stability was, however, rendered still more secure by the elaboration of a system of conventional precepts, partly forming the basis of Manu's Code, which clearly defined the relative position and the duties of the several castes, and determined the penalties to be inflicted on any transgressions of the limits assigned to each of them. These laws are conceived with no sentimental scruples on the part of their authors. On the contrary, the offences committed by Brāhmans against other castes are treated with remarkable clemency, whilst the punishments inflicted for trespasses on the rights of higher classes are the more severe and inhuman the lower the offender stands in the social scale.
The three first castes, however unequal to each other in privilege and social standing, are yet united by a common bond of sacramental rites (saṃskāras), traditionally connected from ancient times with certain incidents and stages in the life of the Āryan Hindū, as conception, birth, name-giving, the first taking out of the child to see the sun, the first feeding with boiled rice, the rites of tonsure and hair-cutting, the youth's investiture with the sacrificial thread, and his return home on completing his studies, marriage, funeral, &c. The modes of observing these family rites are laid down in a class of writings called Gṛihya-sūtras, or domestic rules. The most important of these observances is the upanayana, or rite of conducting the boy to a spiritual teacher. Connected with this act is the investiture with the sacred cord, ordinarily worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm, and varying in material according to the class of the wearer. This ceremony being the preliminary act to the youth's initiation into the study of the Veda, the management of the consecrated fire and the knowledge of the rites of purification, including the sāvitrī, a solemn invocation to Savitṛi, the sun (probl. Saturnus),—as a rule the verse Ṛigv. iii. 62. 10, also called gāyatrī from the metre in which it is composed—which has to be repeated every morning and evening before the rise and after the setting of that luminary, is supposed to constitute the second or spiritual birth of the Ārya. It is from their participation in this rite that the three upper classes are called the twice-born. The ceremony is enjoined to take place some time between the eighth and sixteenth year of age in the case of a Brāhman, between the eleventh and twenty-second year of a Kshatriya, and between the twelfth and twenty-fourth year of a Vaiśya. He who has not been invested with the mark of his class within this time is for ever excluded from uttering the sacred sāvitrī and becomes an outcast, unless he is absolved from his sin by a council of Brāhmans, and after due performance of a purificatory rite resumes the badge of his caste. With one not duly initiated no righteous man is allowed to associate or to enter into connexions of affinity. The duty of the Śudra is to serve the twice-born classes, and above all the Brāhmans. He is excluded from all sacred knowledge, and if he performs sacrificial ceremonies he must do so without using holy mantras. No Brāhman must recite a Vedic text where a man of the servile caste might overhear him, nor must he even teach him the laws of expiating sin. The occupations of the Vaiśya are those connected with trade, the cultivation of the land and the breeding of cattle; while those of a Kshatriya consist in ruling and defending the people, administering justice, and the duties of the military profession generally. Both share with the Brāhman the privilege of reading the Veda, but only so far as it is taught and explained to them by their spiritual preceptor. To the Brāhman belongs the right of teaching and expounding the sacred texts, and also that of interpreting and determining the law and the rules of caste. Only in exceptional cases, when no teacher of the sacerdotal class is within reach, the twice-born youth, rather than forego spiritual instruction altogether, may reside in the house of a non-Brāhmanical preceptor; but it is specially enjoined that a pupil, who seeks the path to heaven, should not fail, as soon as circumstances permit, to resort to a Brāhman well versed in the Vedas and their appendages.
Notwithstanding the barriers placed between the four castes, the practice of intermarrying appears to have been too prevalent in early times to have admitted of measures of so stringent a nature as wholly to repress it. To marry a woman of a higher caste, and especially of a caste not immediately above one's own, is, however, decidedly prohibited, the offspring resulting from such a union being excluded from the performance of the śrāddha or obsequies to the ancestors, and thereby rendered incapable of inheriting any portion of the parents' property. On the other hand, a man is at liberty, according to the rules of Manu, to marry a girl of any or each of the castes below his own, provided he has besides a wife belonging to his own class, for only such a one should perform the duties of personal attendance and religious observance devolving upon a married woman. As regards the children born from unequal marriages of this description, they have the rights and duties of the twice-born, if their mother belong to a twice-born caste, otherwise they, like the offspring of the former class of intermarriages, share the lot of the Śūdra, and are excluded from the investiture and the sāvitrī. For this last reason the marriage of a twice-born man with a Śūdra woman is altogether discountenanced by some of the later law books. At the time of the code of Manu the intermixture of the classes had already produced a considerable number of intermediate or mixed castes, which were carefully defined, and each of which had a specific occupation assigned to it as its hereditary profession.
The self-exaltation of the first class was not, it would seem, altogether due to priestly arrogance and ambition; but, like a prominent feature of the post-Vedic belief, the transmigration of souls, it was, if not the necessary, yet at least a natural consequence of the pantheistic doctrine. To the Brāhmanical speculator who saw in the numberless individual existences of animate nature but so many manifestations of the one eternal spirit, to union with which they were all bound to tend as their final goal of supreme bliss, the greater or less imperfection of the material forms in which they were embodied naturally presented a continuous scale of spiritual units from the lowest degradation up to the absolute purity and perfection of the supreme spirit. To prevent one's sinking yet lower, and by degrees to raise one's self in this universal gradation, or, if possible, to attain the ultimate goal immediately from any state of corporeal existence, there was but one way—subjection of the senses, purity of life and knowledge of the deity. “He” (thus ends the code of Manu) “who in his own soul perceives the supreme soul in all beings and acquires equanimity toward them all, attains the highest state of bliss.” Was it not natural then that the men who, if true to their sacred duties, were habitually engaged in what was most conducive to these spiritual attainments, that the Brāhmanical class early learnt to look upon themselves, even as a matter of faith, as being foremost among the human species in this universal race for final beatitude? The life marked out for them by that stern theory of class duties which they themselves had worked out, and which, no doubt, must have been practised in early times at least in some degree, was by no means one of ease and amenity. It was, on the contrary, singularly calculated to promote that complete mortification of the instincts of animal nature which they considered as indispensable to the final deliverance from saṃsāra, the revolution of bodily and personal existence.
The pious Brāhman, longing to attain the summum bonum on the dissolution of his frail body, was enjoined to pass through a succession of four orders or stages of life, viz. those of brahmachārin, or religious student; gṛihastha (or gṛihamedhin), or householder; vanavāsin (or vānaprastha), or anchorite; and sannyāsin (or bhikshu), or religious mendicant. Theoretically this course of life was open and even recommended to every twice-born man, his distinctive class-occupations being in that case restricted to the second station, or that of married life. Practically, however, those belonging to the Kshatriya and Vaiśya castes were, no doubt, contented, with few exceptions, to go through a term of studentship in order to obtain a certain amount of religious instruction before entering into the married state, and plying their professional duties. In the case of the sacerdotal class, the practice probably was all but universal in early times; but gradually a more and more limited proportion even of this caste seem to have carried their religious zeal to the length of self-mortification involved in the two final stages. On the youth having been invested with the badge of his caste, he was to reside for some time in the house of some religious teacher, well read in the Veda, to be instructed in the knowledge of the scriptures and the scientific or theoretic treatises attached to them, in the social duties of his caste, and in the complicated system of purificatory and sacrificial rites. According to the number of Vedas he intended to study, the duration of this period of instruction was to be, probably in the case of Brāhmanical students chiefly, of from twelve to forty-eight years; during which time the virtues of modesty, duty, temperance and self-control were to be firmly implanted in the youth's mind by his unremitting observance of the most minute rules of conduct. During all this time the student had to subsist entirely on food obtained by begging from house to house; and his behaviour towards the preceptor and his family was to be that prompted by respectful attachment and implicit obedience. In the case of girls no investiture takes place, but for them the nuptial ceremony is considered as an equivalent to that rite. On quitting the teacher's abode, the young man returns to his family and takes a wife. To die without leaving legitimate offspring, and especially a son, capable of performing the periodical rite of obsequies (śrāddha), consisting of offerings of water and balls of rice, to himself and his two immediate ancestors, is considered a great misfortune by the orthodox Hindū. There are three sacred “debts” which a man has to discharge in life, viz. that which is due to the gods, and of which he acquits himself by daily worship and sacrificial rites; that due to the ṛishis, or ancient sages and inspired seers of the Vedic texts, discharged by the daily study of the scripture; and the “final debt” which he owes to his manes, and of which he relieves himself by leaving a son. To these three some authorities add a fourth, viz. the debt owing to humankind, which demands his continually practising kindness and hospitality. Hence the necessity of a man's entering into the married state. When the bridegroom leads the bride from her father's house to his own home, and becomes a gṛiha-paṭi, or householder, the fire which has been used for the marriage ceremony accompanies the couple to serve them as their gārhapatya, or domestic fire. It has to be kept up perpetually, day and night, either by themselves or their children, or, if the man be a teacher, by his pupils. If it should at any time become extinguished by neglect or otherwise, the guilt incurred thereby must be atoned for by an act of expiation. The domestic fire serves the family for preparing their food, for making the five necessary daily and other occasional offerings, and for performing the sacramental rites above alluded to. No food should ever be eaten that has not been duly consecrated by a portion of it being offered to the gods, the beings and the manes. These three daily offerings are also called by the collective name of vaiśvadeva, or sacrifice “to all the deities.” The remaining two are the offering to Brahmă, i.e. the daily lecture of the scriptures, accompanied by certain rites, and that to men, consisting in the entertainment of guests. The domestic observances—many of them probably ancient Āryan family customs, surrounded by the Hindūs with a certain amount of adventitious ceremonial—were generally performed by the householder himself, with the assistance of his wife. There is, however, another class of sacrificial ceremonies of a more pretentious and expensive kind, called śrauta rites, or rites based on śritu, or revelation, the performance of which, though not indispensable, were yet considered obligatory under certain circumstances (see Brāhmaṇa). They formed a very powerful weapon in the hands of the priesthood, and were one of the chief sources of their subsistence. However great the religious merit accruing from these sacrificial rites, they were obviously a kind of luxury which only rich people could afford to indulge in. They constituted, as it were, a tax, voluntary perhaps, yet none the less compulsory, levied by the priesthood on the wealthy laity.
When the householder is advanced in years, “when he perceives his skin become wrinkled and his hair grey, when he sees the son of his son,” the time is said to have come for him to enter the third stage of life. He should now disengage himself from all family ties—except that his wife may accompany him, if she chooses—and repair to a lonely wood, taking with him his sacred fires and the implements required for the daily and periodical offerings. Clad in a deer's skin, in a single piece of cloth, or in a bark garment, with his hair and nails uncut, the hermit is to subsist exclusively on food growing wild in the forest, such as roots, green herbs, and wild rice and grain. He must not accept gifts from any one, except of what may be absolutely necessary to maintain him; but with his own little hoard he should, on the contrary, honour, to the best of his ability, those who visit his hermitage. His time must be spent in reading the metaphysical treatises of the Veda, in making oblations, and in undergoing various kinds of privation and austerities, with a view to mortifying his passions and producing in his mind an entire indifference to worldly objects. Having by these means succeeded in overcoming all sensual affections and desires, and in acquiring perfect equanimity towards everything around him, the hermit has fitted himself for the final and most exalted order, that of devotee or religious mendicant. As such he has no further need of either mortifications or religious observances; but “with the sacrificial fires reposited in his mind,” he may devote the remainder of his days to meditating on the divinity. Taking up his abode at the foot of a tree in total solitude, “with no companion but his own soul,” clad in a coarse garment, he should carefully avoid injuring any creature or giving offence to any human being that may happen to come near him. Once a day, in the evening, “when the charcoal fire is extinguished and the smoke no longer issues from the fire-places, when the pestle is at rest, when the people have taken their meals and the dishes are removed,” he should go near the habitations of men, in order to beg what little food may suffice to sustain his feeble frame. Ever pure of mind he should thus bide his time, “as a servant expects his wages,” wishing neither for death nor for life, until at last his soul is freed from its fetters and absorbed in the eternal spirit, the impersonal self-existent Brahmă.
The tendency towards a comprehension of the unity of the divine essence had resulted in some minds, as has been remarked before, in a kind of monotheistic notion of the origin of the universe. In the literature of the Brāhmaṇa period we meet with this conception as a common element of speculation; and so far from its being considered incompatible with the existence of a universal spirit, Prajāpati, the personal creator of the world, is generally allowed a prominent place in the pantheistic theories. Yet the state of theological speculation, reflected in these writings, is one of transition. The general drift of thought is essentially pantheistic, but it is far from being reduced to a regular system, and the ancient form of belief still enters largely into it. The attributes of Prajāpati, in the same way, have in them elements of a purely polytheistic nature, and some of the attempts at reconciling this new-fangled deity with the traditional belief are somewhat awkward. An ancient classification of the gods represented them as being thirty-three in number, eleven in each of the three worlds or regions of nature. These regions being associated each with the name of one principal deity, this division gave rise at a later time to the notion of a kind of triple divine government, consisting of Agni (fire), Indra (sky) or Vāyu (wind), and Sūrya (sun), as presiding respectively over the gods on earth, in the atmosphere, and in the sky. Of this Vedic triad mention is frequently made in the Brāhmaṇa writings. On the other hand the term prajāpati (lord of creatures), which in the Ṛigveda occurs as an epithet of the sun, is also once in the Atharvaveda applied jointly to Indra and Agni. In the Brāhmaṇas Prajāpati is several times mentioned as the thirty-fourth god; whilst in one passage he is called the fourth god, and made to rule over the three worlds. More frequently, however, the writings of this period represent him as the maker of the world and the father or creator of the gods. It is clear from this discordance of opinion on so important a point of doctrine, that at this time no authoritative system of belief had been agreed upon by the theologians. Yet there are unmistakable signs of a strong tendency towards constructing one, and it is possible that in yielding to it the Brāhmans may have been partly prompted by political considerations. The definite settlement of the caste system and the Brāhmanical supremacy must probably be assigned to somewhere about the close of the Brāhmaṇa period. Division in their own ranks was hardly favourable to the aspirations of the priests at such a time; and the want of a distinct formula of belief adapted to the general drift of theological speculation, to which they could all rally, was probably felt the more acutely, the more determined a resistance the military class was likely to oppose to their claims. Side by side with the conception of the Brahmă, the universal spiritual principle, with which speculative thought had already become deeply imbued, the notion of a supreme personal being, the author of the material creation, had come to be considered by many as a necessary complement of the pantheistic doctrine. But, owing perhaps to his polytheistic associations and the attributive nature of his name, the person of Prajāpati seems to have been thought but insufficiently adapted to represent this abstract idea. The expedient resorted to for solving the difficulty was as ingenious as it was characteristic of the Brāhmanical aspirations. In the same way as the abstract denomination of sacerdotalism, the neuter brahmă, had come to express the divine essence, so the old designation of the individual priest, the masculine term brahmā, was raised to denote the supreme personal deity which was to take the place and attributes of the Prajāpati of the Brāhmaṇas and Upanishads (see Brahman).
However the new dogma may have answered the purposes of speculative minds, it was not one in which the people generally were likely to have been much concerned; an abstract, colourless deity like Brahmā could awake no sympathies in the hearts of those accustomed to worship gods of flesh and blood. Indeed, ever since the primitive symbolical worship of nature had undergone a process of disintegration under the influence of metaphysical speculation, the real belief of the great body of the people had probably become more and more distinct from that of the priesthood. In different localities the principal share of their affection may have been bestowed on one or another of the old gods who was thereby raised to the dignity of chief deity; or new forms and objects of belief may have sprung up with the intellectual growth of the people. In some cases even the worship of the indigenous population could hardly have remained without exercising some influence in modifying the belief of the Āryan race. In this way a number of local deities would grow up, more or less distinct in name and characteristics from the gods of the Vedic pantheon. There is, indeed, sufficient evidence to show that, at a time when, after centuries of theological speculations, some little insight into the life and thought of the people is afforded by the literature handed down to us, such a diversity of worship did exist. Under these circumstances the policy which seems to have suggested itself to the priesthood, anxious to retain a firm hold on the minds of the people, was to recognize and incorporate into their system some of the most prominent objects of popular devotion, and thereby to establish a kind of catholic creed for the whole community subject to the Brāhmanical law. At the time of the original composition of the great epics two such deities, Śiva or Mahādeva (“the great god”) and Vishṇu, seem to have been already admitted into the Brāhmanical system, where they have ever since retained their place; and from the manner in which they are represented in those works, it would, indeed, appear that both, and especially the former, enjoyed an extensive worship. As several synonyms are attributed to each of them, it is not improbable that in some of these we have to recognize special names under which the people in different localities worshipped these gods, or deities of a similar nature which, by the agency of popular poetry, or in some other way, came to be combined with them. The places assigned to them in the pantheistic system were coordinate with that of Brahmā; the three deities, Brahmā, Vishnu and Śiva, were to represent a triple impersonation of the divinity, as manifesting itself respectively in the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe. Śiva does not occur in the Vedic hymns as the name of a god, but only as an adjective in the sense of “kind, auspicious.” One of his synonyms, however, is the name of a Vedic deity, the attributes and nature of which show a good deal of similarity to the post-Vedic god. This is Rudra, the god of the roaring storm, usually portrayed, in accordance with the element he represents, as a fierce, destructive deity, “terrible as a wild beast,” whose fearful arrows cause death and disease to men and cattle. He is also called kapardin (“wearing his hair spirally braided like a shell”), a word which in later times became one of the synonyms of Śiva. The Atharvaveda mentions several other names of the same god, some of which appear even placed together, as in one passage Bhava, Sarva, Rudra and Paśupati. Possibly some of them were the names under which one and the same deity was already worshipped in different parts of northern India. This was certainly the case in later times, since it is expressly stated in one of the later works of the Brahmaṇa period, that Sarva was used by the Eastern people and Bhava by a Western tribe. It is also worthy of note that in the same work (the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa), composed at a time when the Vedic triad of Agni, Indra-Vāyu and Sūrya was still recognized, attempts are made to identify this god of many names with Agni; and that in one passage in the Mahābhārata it is stated that the Brāhmans said that Agni was Śiva. Although such attempts at an identification of the two gods remained isolated, they would at least seem to point to the fact that, in adapting their speculations to the actual state of popular worship, the Brāhmans kept the older triad distinctly in view, and by means of it endeavoured to bring their new structure into harmony with the ancient Vedic belief. It is in his character as destroyer that Śiva holds his place in the triad, and that he must, no doubt, be identified with the Vedic Rudra. Another very important function appears, however, to have been early assigned to him, on which much more stress is laid in his modern worship—that of destroyer being more especially exhibited in his consort—viz. the character of a generative power, symbolized in the phallic emblem (linga) and in the sacred bull (Nandi), the favourite attendant of the god. This feature being entirely alien from the nature of the Vedic god, it has been conjectured with some plausibility, that the linga-worship was originally prevalent among the non-Āryan population, and was thence introduced into the worship of Śiva. On the other hand, there can, we think, be little doubt that Śiva, in his generative faculty, is the representative of another Vedic god whose nature and attributes go far to account for this particular feature of the modern deity, viz. Pūshan. This god, originally, no doubt, a solar deity, is frequently invoked, as the lord of nourishment, to bestow food, wealth and other blessings. He is once, jointly with Soma, called the progenitor of heaven and earth, and is connected with the marriage ceremony, where he is asked to lead the bride to the bridegroom and make her prosperous (Śivatamā). Moreover, he has the epithet kapardin (spirally braided), as have Rudra and the later Śiva, and is called Paśupa, or guardian of cattle, whence the latter derives his name Paśupati. But he is also a strong, powerful, and even fierce and destructive god, who, with his goad or golden spear, smites the foes of his worshipper, and thus in this respect offers at least some points of similarity to Rudra, which may have favoured the fusion of the two gods. As regards Vishṇu, this god occupies already a place in the Vedic mythology, though by no means one of such prominence as would entitle him to that degree of exaltation implied in his character as one of the three hypostases of the divinity. Moreover, although in his general nature, as a benevolent, genial being, the Vedic god corresponds on the whole to the later Vishṇu, the preserver of the world, the latter exhibits many important features for which we look in vain in his prototype, and which most likely resulted from sectarian worship or from an amalgamation with local deities. In one or two of them, such as his names Vāsudeva and Vaikuntha, an attempt may again be traced to identify Vishṇu with Indra, who, as we have seen, was one of the Vedic triad of gods. The characteristic feature of the elder Vishṇu is his measuring the world with his three strides, which are explained as denoting either the three stations of the sun at the time of rising, culminating and setting, or the triple manifestation of the luminous element, as the fire on earth, the lightning in the atmosphere and the sun in the heavens.
The male nature of the triad was supposed to require to be supplemented by each of the three gods being associated with a female energy (Śakti). Thus Vāch or Sarasvatī, the goddess of speech and learning, came to be regarded as the śakti, or consort of Brahmā; Śrī or Lakshmī, “beauty, fortune,” as that of Vishṇu; and Umā or Pārvatī, the daughter of Himavat, the god of the Himālaya mountain, as that of Śiva. On the other hand, it is not improbable that Pārvatī—who has a variety of other names, such as Kālī (“the black one”), Durgā (“the inaccessible, terrible one”), Māha-devī (“the great goddess”)—enjoyed already a somewhat extensive worship of her own, and that there may thus have been good reason for assigning to her a prominent place in the Brāhmanical system.
A compromise was thus effected between the esoteric doctrine of the metaphysician and some of the most prevalent forms of popular worship, resulting in what was henceforth to constitute the orthodox system of belief of the Brāhmanical community. Yet the Vedic pantheon could not be altogether discarded, forming part and parcel, as it did, of that sacred revelation (śruti), which was looked upon as the divine source of all religious and social law (smṛiti, “tradition”), and being, moreover, the foundation of the sacrificial ceremonial on which the priestly authority so largely depended. The existence of the old gods is, therefore, likewise recognized, but recognized in a very different way from that of the triple divinity. For while the triad represents the immediate manifestation of the eternal, infinite soul—while it constitutes, in fact, the Brahmă itself in its active relation to mundane and seemingly material occurrences, the old traditional gods are of this world, are individual spirits or portions of the Brahma like men and other creatures, only higher in degree. To them an intermediate sphere, the heaven of Indra (the svarloka or svarga), is assigned to which man may raise himself by fulfilling the holy ordinances; but they are subject to the same laws of being; they, like men, are liable to be born again in some lower state, and, therefore, like them, yearn for emancipation from the necessity of future individual existence. It is a sacred duty of man to worship these superior beings by invocations and sacrificial observances, as it is to honour the pitṛis (“the fathers”), the spirits of the departed ancestors. The spirits of the dead, on being judged by Yama, the Pluto of Hindū mythology, are supposed to be either passing through a term of enjoyment in a region midway between the earth and the heaven of the gods, or undergoing their measure of punishment in the nether world, situated somewhere in the southern region, before they return to the earth to animate new bodies. In Vedic mythology Yama was considered to have been the first mortal who died, and “espied the way to” the celestial abodes, and in virtue of precedence to have become the ruler of the departed; in some passages, however, he is already regarded as the god of death. Although the pantheistic system allowed only a subordinate rank to the old gods, and the actual religious belief of the people was probably but little affected by their existence, they continued to occupy an important place in the affections of the poet, and were still represented as exercising considerable influence on the destinies of man. The most prominent of them were regarded as the appointed Lokapālas, or guardians of the world; and as such they were made to preside over the four cardinal and (according to some authorities) the intermediate points of the compass. Thus Indra, the chief of the gods, was regarded as the regent of the east; Agni, the fire (ignis), was in the same way associated with the south-east; Yama with the south; Śurya, the sun (Ἥλιος), with the south-west; Varūṇa, originally the representative of the all-embracing heaven (Οὐρανός) or atmosphere, now the god of the ocean, with the west; Vāyu (or Pavana), the wind, with the north-west; Kubera, the god of wealth, with the north; and Soma (or Chaṇdra) with the north-east. In the institutes of Manu the Lokapālas are represented as standing in close relation to the ruling king, who is said to be composed of particles of these his tutelary deities. The retinue of Indra consists chiefly of the Gandharvas (probably etym. connected with κένταυρος), a class of genii, considered in the epics as the celestial musicians; and their wives, the Apsaras, lovely nymphs, who are frequently employed by the gods to make the pious devotee desist from carrying his austere practices to an extent that might render him dangerous to their power. Nārada, an ancient sage (probably a personification of the cloud, the “water-giver”), is considered as the messenger between the gods and men, and as having sprung from the forehead of Brahmā. The interesting office of the god of love is held by Kāmadeva, also called Ananga, the bodyless, because, as the myth relates, having once tried by the power of his mischievous arrow to make Śiva fall in love with Pārvatī, whilst he was engaged in devotional practices, the urchin was reduced to ashes by a glance of the angry god. Two other mythological figures of some importance are considered as sons of Śiva and Pārvatī, viz. Kārttikeya or Skanda, the leader of the heavenly armies, who was supposed to have been fostered by the six Kṛittikās or Pleiades; and Gaṇeśa (“lord of troops”), the elephant-headed god of wisdom, and at the same time the leader of the dii minorum gentium.
Orthodox Brāhmanical scholasticism makes the attainment of final emancipation (mukti, moksha) dependent on perfect knowledge of the divine essence. This knowledge can only be obtained by complete abstraction of the mind from external objects and intense meditation on the divinity, which again presupposes the total extinction of all sensual instincts by means of austere practices (tapas). The chosen few who succeed in gaining complete mastery over their senses and a full knowledge of the divine nature become absorbed into the universal soul immediately on the dissolution of the body. Those devotees, on the other hand, who have still a residuum, however slight, of ignorance and worldliness left in them at the time of their death, pass to the world of Brahmā, where their souls, invested with subtile corporeal frames, await their reunion with the Eternal Being.
The pantheistic doctrine which thus forms the foundation of the Brahmanical system of belief found its most complete exposition in one of the six orthodox darśanas, or philosophical systems, the Vedānta philosophy. These systems are considered as orthodox inasmuch as they recognize the Veda as the revealed source of religious belief, and never fail to claim the authority of the ancient seers for their own teachings, even though—as in the case of Kapila, the founder of the materialistic Sānkhya system—they involve the denial of so essential a dogmatic point as the existence of a personal creator of the world. So much, indeed, had freedom of speculative thought become a matter of established habit and intellectual necessity, that no attempt seems ever to have been made by the leading theological party to put down such heretical doctrines, so long as the sacred character of the privileges of their caste was not openly called in question. Yet internal dissensions on such cardinal points of belief could not but weaken the authority of the hierarchical body; and as they spread beyond the narrow bounds of the Brāhmanical schools, it wanted but a man of moral and intellectual powers, and untrammelled by class prejudices, to render them fatal to priestly pretensions. Such a man arose in the person of a Śākya prince of Kapilavastu, Gotama, the founder of Buddhism (about the 6th century B.C.). Had it only been for the philosophical tenets of Buddha, they need scarcely have caused, and probably did not cause, any great uneasiness to the orthodox theologians. He did, indeed, go one step beyond Kapila, by altogether denying the existence of the soul as a substance, and admitting only certain intellectual faculties as attributes of the body, perishable with it. Yet the conception which Buddha substituted for the transmigratory soul, viz. that of karma (“work”), as the sum total of the individual's good and bad actions, being the determinative element of the form of his future existence, might have been treated like any other speculative theory, but for the practical conclusions he drew from it. Buddha recognized the institution of caste, and accounted for the social inequalities attendant thereon as being the effects of karma in former existences. But, on the other hand, he altogether denied the revealed character of the Veda and the efficacy of the Brāhmanical ceremonies deduced from it, and rejected the claims of the sacerdotal class to be the repositaries and divinely appointed teachers of sacred knowledge. That Buddha never questioned the truth of the Brāhmanical theory of transmigration shows that this early product of speculative thought had become firmly rooted in the Hindū mind as a tenet of belief amounting to moral conviction. To the Hindū philosopher this doctrine seemed alone to account satisfactorily for the apparent essential similarity of the vital element in all animate beings, no less than for what elsewhere has led honest and logical thinkers to the stern dogma of predestination. The belief in eternal bliss or punishment, as the just recompense of man's actions during this brief term of human life, which their less reflective forefathers had at one time held, appeared to them to involve a moral impossibility. The equality of all men, which Buddha preached with regard to the final goal, the nirvāna, or extinction of karma and thereby of all future existence and pain, and that goal to be reached, not by the performance of penance and sacrificial worship, but by practising virtue, could not fail to be acceptable to many people. It would be out of place here to dwell on the rapid progress and internal development of the new doctrine. Suffice it to say that, owing no doubt greatly to the sympathizing patronage of ruling princes, Buddhism appears to have been the state religion in most parts of India during the early centuries of our era. To what extent it became the actual creed of the body of the people it will probably be impossible ever to ascertain. One of the chief effects it produced on the worship of the old gods was the rapid decline of the authority of the orthodox Brāhmanical dogma, and a considerable development of sectarianism. (See Hinduism.)
See H. H. Wilson, Essays on the Religion of the Hindus; J. Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts; M. Müller, History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature; C. Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde; Elphinstone, History of India, ed. by E. B. Cowell.