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Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 2.djvu/809

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BRAHMINISM


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BRAHMINISM


all desires, the popular mind was still bent on prayer, sacrifices, and other good works in honour of the Vedic deities. Bvit at the same time their faith in the eihcacy of these traditional gods could not but be weakened by the Brahmin teaching that freedom from rebirth was not to be obtained by acts of worship to personal deities who were powerless to secure even for themselves eternal conscious bliss. The result was the popular development of special cults to two of the old gods, now raised to the position of supreme deity, and credited with the power to secure a lasting life of happiness in heaven.

It was in the priestly conception of the supreme personal Brahma that the popular mind found the model for its new deities. Brahma was not a tra- ditional god, and seems never to have been a favourite object of cult with the people. Even to-day, there are but two temples to Brahma in all India. His subordination to the great impersonal all-god did not help to recommend him to the popular mind. In- stead, we find two of the traditional gods honoured with special cvilts, which seem to have taken rise independently in two different parts of the country and. after acquiring a local celebrity, to have spread in rivalry over the whole land. One of these gods ■nas the ancient storm-god, Rudra, destructive in tempest and lightning, renewing life in the showers of rain, sweeping in lonely solitude over mountain and barren waste. As the destroyer, the reproducer, and the type of the lonely ascetic, this deity rapidly rose in popular esteem under the name of Siva, the blessed. The other was Vishnu, originally one of the forms of the sun-god, a mild beneficent deity, whose genial rays brought gladness and growth to living creatures. His solar origin was lost sight of as he was raised to the position of supreme deity, but one of his symbols, the discus, points to lus earlier character.

These two rival cults seem to have arisen in the fifth or fourth century B. c. As in the case of the personal god, Brahma, neither the worship of Siva nor of Vi.shnu did away with the honouring of the traditional gods and goddesses, spirits, heroes, sacred rivers and mountains and trees, serpents, earth, heaven, sun, moon, and stars. The pantheism in which the Hindu mind is inevitably cast saw in all these things emanations of the supreme deity, ^iva or Vishnu. In worshipping any or all, he was but honouring his supreme god. Each deity was credited with a special heaven, where his devotees would find after death an unending life of conscious happiness. The rapid rise in popular esteem of these cults, tending more and more to thrust Brahminism proper into the background, was viewed by the priestly caste with no little concern. To quench these cults was out of the (juestion; and so, in order to hold them in at least nominal allegiance to Brahminism, the supreme god Brahma was associated with Vishnu and .4iva as a triad of equal and more or less inter- changeable deities, in which Brahma held the office of creator, or rather evolver, Vishnu of preserver, and ^iva of dissolver. This is the so-called Tri- murti (tri-form), or trinity, altogether different from the Christian conception "of three eternally distinct persons in one Godnead, and hence offering no le- gitimate ground for suggesting a Hindu origin for the Christian doctrine.

More remarkable was the intimate association of other new deities — the creations of the religious fancy of the common people — with the gods Siva and "Vishnu. With i^iva two popular gods came to be associated as .sons. One was Ganesa, lord of troops and of mischievous imps, who has remained ever •since a favourite object of worship and is invoked at the beginning of every undertaking to ensure success. The other was Scanda, who seems in great measure to have replaced Indra as the god of battle.


Beyond the doubtful derivation of the name Scanda from Alexander, there is nothing to indicate that either of these reputed sons of Siva had ever lived the life of men. Not so the gods that enlarged the sphere of Vishnu's influence. In keeping with Vishnu's position as god of the people, two of the legendarj' heroes of the remote past, Rama and Krishna, whom popular enthusiasm had raised to the rank of gods, came to be a.ssociated with him not as sons, but as his very incarnations. The in- carnation of a god descending from heaven to assume a human or animal form as a sort of saviour, and to achieve some signal benefit for mankind, is known as an avatar. The idea antedates Buddhism and, while apphed to Brahma and other gods, became above all a characteristic of Vishnu. Popular fancy loved to dwell on his avatar as a fish to save Manu from the devastating flood, as a tortoise to recover from the depths of the sea precious possessions for gods and men, as a boar to raise the submerged earth above the surface of the waters, but most of all, as the god-men Rama and Krishna, each of whom delivered the people from the yoke of a tyrant. So popular be- came the cults to Rama and Krishna that Vishnu himself was largely lost sight of. In time the Vish- nuites became divided into two rival schisms: the Ramaites, who worshipped Rama as supreme deity, and the Krishnaites, who gave this honour rather to Krishna, a division that has persisted do\\'n to the present day.

The e\'idence of the early existence of these innova- tions on Brahmin belief is to be found in the two great epics known as the "Ramayana" and the " Maha- bharata. " Both are revered by Brahmins, ^ivaites, and Vishnuites alike, particularly the latter poem, which is held to be directly revealed. In the " Rama- yana," which belongs to the period 400-300 b. c, the legendary tales of the trials and triumphs of the hero Rama and his faithful wife Sita were worked into a highly artificial romantic poem, largely in the interests of Vishnu worship. The " Mahabharata," the work of many hands, was begun about the fifth century B. c. under Brahmin influence, and in the following cen- turies received additions and modifications, in the interests now of Vishnuism now of Sivaism, till it assumed its final shape in the sixth century of the Christian Era. It is a huge conglomeration of stirring adventure, popular legend, myth, and religious specu- lation. The narrative centres chiefly around the many-sided struggle for supremacy between the evil tyrant of the land and the hero Arjuna, aided by his four brothers. The role that Krishna plays is not an integral part of the story and seems to have been interpolated after the substance of the epic had been written. He is the charioteer of Arjuna and at the same time acts as his religious adviser. Of his numerous religious instructions, the most impor- tant is the metrical treatise known as the " Bhagavad- gita," the Song of the Blessed One, a writing that has exerci.sed a profound influence on religiovis thought in India. It dates from the second or third century of the Christian Era, being a poetic version of a late Upanishad with its pantheistic doctrine so modified as to pa.ss for a personal revelation of Krishna. While embodying the noblest features of Brahmin ethics, and insisting on the faithful performance of caste-duties, it proclaims I\jishna to be the supreme personal all-god, who, by the bestowal of special grace, helps on his votaries to the attainment of eternal bliss. As an important means to this end, it inculcates the virtue of Bhakli, that is a loving devotion to the deity, analogous to the Christian virtue of charity.

I'nhappily for the later development of Vishnuism, the Krishna of the " Bhagavad-gita " was not the popular conception. Like most legendary heroes of folk-lore, his cnaracter was in keeping with the crude