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plains to them of his troubles, and reminds them of the wonderful
deeds they performed of yore, to coax them, as it were, into acqui-
escence and friendly help. ' We proclaim eagerly, Maruts, your
ancient greatness, for the sake of inducing your prompt appearance,
as the indication of (the approach of) the showerer of benefits;' or:
' Offer your nutritious viands to the great hero (Indra\ who is
pleased by praise, and to Vishnu (one of the forms of the sun), the



two invincible deities who ride upon the radiant summit of the
clouds as upon a well-trained steed. Indra and Vishnu, the devout
worshipper glorifies the radiant approach of you two who are the
granters of desires, and who bestow upon the mortal who worships
you an immediately receivable (reward), through the distribution of
that fire which is the scatterer (of desired blessings).'

Such is the strain in which the Hindu of that period addresses
his gods. He seeks them, not for his spiritual, but for his material
welfare. Ethical considerations are therefore foreign to these
instinctive outbursts of the pious mind. Sin and evil, indeed, are
often adverted to, and the gods are praised because they destroy
sinners and evil-doers ; but one would err in associating with
these words our notions of sin or wrong. A sinner, in these hymns,
is a man who does not address praises to those elementary deities,
or who does not gratify them with the oblations they receive
at the hands of the believer. He is the foe, the robber, the demon
in short, the borderer infesting the territory of the ' pious ' man,
who, in his turn, injures and kills, but, in adoring Agni, Indra, and
their kin, is satisfied that he can commit no evil act.

As may be imagined, the worship of elementary beings like those
we have mentioned was originally a simple and harmless one.
By far the greatest number of the Rigveda hymns know of but
one sort of offering made to these gods ; it consists of the juice of
the Soma or moon-plant, which, expressed and fermented, was an
exhilarating and inebriating beverage, and for this reason, probably,
was deemed to invigorate the gods, and to increase their beneficial
potency. It was presented to them in ladles, or sprinkled on the
sacred Kusa grass. Clarified butter, too, poured on fire, is mentioned
in several hymns as an oblation agreeable to the gods ; and it may
have belonged to this, as it would seem, primitive stage of the
Vedic worship.

There is a class of hymns, however, to be found in the Rigveda
which depart already materially from the simplicity of the concep-
tions we are referring to. In these, which are conceived to be of
another order, and to belong to a more advanced stage of
development, this instinctive utterance of feeling makes room for
the language of speculation; the allegories of poetry yield to the
mysticism of the reflecting mind; and, the mysteries of nature
becoming more keenly felt, the circle of beings which overawe the
popular mind becomes enlarged. Thus, the objects by which
Indra, Agni, and the other deities are propitiated, become gods
themselves ; Soma, especially, the moon-plant and its juice, is invoked
as the bestower of all worldly boons. The animal sacrifice the
properties of which seem to be more mysterious than the offerings
of Soma, or of clarified butter is added to the original rites.

The growing dissatisfaction of the Hindu mind with the adoration
of mere elemental powers, and the longing to penetrate the mysteries
58 9


of creation, become still more manifest in a third class of hymns,
which mark the beginning of the philosophical creed of the Vedic
period. The following is a specimen of those utterances : ' Who
knows exactly, and who shall in this world declare, whence and why
this creation took place ? The gods are subsequent to the produc-
tion of this world, then who can know whence it proceeded, or
whence this varied world arose, or whether it uphold itself or not ?
He who in the highest heaven is the ruler of this universe, does
indeed know ; but not another one can possess this knowledge.'

As soon as the problem implied by passages like these was raised
in the minds of the Hindus, Hinduism must have ceased to be the
pure worship of the elementary powers. The answer to the ques-
tion, ' whence this varied world arose,' is attempted in the writings
known under the name of Upa'nishads, the date of which is
uncertain. It must suffice here to state that the object of these
important works is to explain, not only the process of creation, but
the nature of a Supreme Spirit (Brahman, as a neuter word, and
therefore different from the same word as the first god of the Hindu
trinity), and its relation to the human soul. In the Upa'nishads,
Agni, Indra, Vayu, and the other deities of the Vedic hymns, become
symbols to assist the mind in its attempt to understand the true
nature of one absolute being, and the manner in which it manifests
itself in its worldly form. The human soul itself is of the same
nature as this supreme or great soul : its ultimate destination is that
of becoming re-united with the supreme soul, and the means of
attaining that end is not the performance of sacrificial rites, but
the comprehension of its own self and of the great soul. The
doctrine which at a later period became the foundation of the creed
of the educated the doctrine that the supreme soul, or Brahman,
is the only reality, and that the world has a claim to notice only
in so far as it emanated from this being, is already clearly laid down
in these Upa'nishads, though the language in which it is expressed
still adapts itself to the legendary and allegorical style which
characterises the Bra'hmana portion of the Vedas. The Upa'nishads
became thus the basis of the enlightened faith of India.


This period is so called because we derive our knowledge of it
chiefly from the two great epic poems of ancient India the Rama'-
yana and Mahabha'rata.

The Rama'yana. The subject-matter of this work is the history of
Rama, one of the incarnations of Vishnu (see page 21), and its
reputed author is Valmiki. Be this as it may, it seems certain that
the Rama'yana was the work of one single poet not like the
Mahabha'rata, the creation of various epochs and different minds.
As a poetical composition, the Rama'yana is therefore far superior to


the Mahabha'rata ; and it may be called the best great poem of
ancient India, fairly claiming a rank in the literature of the world
equal to that of the epic poetry of Homer. The poem contains
24,000 verses ; only a small part of it has ever been translated into

The Mahabha'rata. The main story of this huge composition
relates to the contest between two rival families, both descendants
of a king Bharata, and the name probably implies ' the great history
of the descendants of Bharata.' Of the one hundred thousand verses
of which it consists, barely a fourth part is taken up by this narra-
tive ; all the rest is episodical. By means of this episodical matter,
which at various periods, and often without regard to consistency, was
superadded to the original structure of the work, the Mahabha'rata
gradually became a collection of all that was needed to be known
by an educated Hindu ; in fact, it became the encyclopaedia of
India. A kind of analysis of the leading story of the Mahabha'rata
has lately been given by Professor Monier Williams (Indian Epic
Poetry; London, 1863).

Religious Ideas of the Period. The Epic period of Hinduism is
marked by a similar development of the same two creeds, the
general features of which we have traced in the Vedic writings.
The popular creed strives to find a centre round which to group
its imaginary gods, whereas the philosophical creed finds its
expression in the groundworks of the Sa'nkhya, Nya'ya, and
Vcda'nta systems of philosophy. In the former, we find two gods
in particular who are rising to the highest rank, Vishnu and Siva ;
for as to Brahma (the masculine form of Brahman), though he
was looked upon, now and then, as superior to both, he gradually
disappears, and becomes merged into the philosophical Brahma,
which is a further evolution of the Great Soul of the Upa'nishads.
In the Rama'yana, the superiority of Vishnu is admitted without
dispute ; in the Mahabha'rata, however, there is an apparent
rivalry between the claims of Vishnu and Siva to occupy the
highest rank in the pantheon. The character of these gods, and
the relation in which the conception of these beings stands to that
of the Vedic time, are noticed further on. We will point, however,
to one remarkable myth, as it will illustrate the altered position of
the gods during the Epic period. In the Vedic hymns, the immor-
tality of the gods is never matter of doubt ; most of the elementary
beings are invoked and described as everlasting, as liable neither to
decay nor death. The offerings they receive may add to their com-
fort and strength ; they may invigorate them, but it is nowhere stated
that they are indispensable for their existence. It is, on the con-
trary, the pious sacrificer himself who, through his offerings, secures
to himself long life, and, as it is sometimes hyperbolically called,
immortality. And the same notion prevails throughout the oldest
Bra'hmanas. It is only in the latest work of this class, and more


especially in the Epic poems, that we find the inferior gods as
mortal in the beginning, and as becoming immortal through
exterior agency. In the Satapatha-Bra'hmana, the juice of the
Soma plant, offered by the worshipper, or at another time clarified
butter, or even animal sacrifices, impart to them this immortality.
At the Epic period, Vishnu teaches them how to obtain the Amrita,
or beverage of immortality, without which they would go to destruc-
tion. It is obvious, therefore, that gods like these could not strike
root in the religious mind of the nation. We must look upon them
more as the gods of poetry than of real life ; nor do we find that
they enjoyed any of the worship which was allotted to the two
principal gods, Vishnu and Siva.

The philosophical creed of this period adds little to the funda-
mental notions contained in the Upa'nishads ; but it frees itself
from the legendary dross which still imparts to those works a deep
tinge of mysticism. On the other hand, it conceives and develops
the notion, that the union of the individual soul with the Supreme
Spirit may be aided by penances, such as peculiar modes of breathing,
particular postures, protracted fasting, and the like ; in short, by
those practices which are systematised by the Yoga doctrine (see
page 26). The doctrine of the reunion of the individual soul with
the supreme soul, was necessarily founded on the assumption, that
the former must have become free from all guilt affecting its purity
before it can be re-merged into the source whence it proceeded ; and
since one human life is apparently too short for enabling the soul to
attain its accomplishment, the Hindu mind concluded that the soul,
after the death of its temporary owner, had to be born again, in
order to complete the work it had left undone in its previous exist-
ence, and that it must submit to the same fate until its task is
fulfilled. This is the doctrine of metempsychosis, or Transmigration,
which, in the absence of a belief in grace, is a logical consequence
of a system which holds the human soul to be of the same nature as
that of an absolute God. The beginning of this doctrine may be
discovered in some of the oldest Upa'nishads, but its fantastical
development belongs to the Epic time, where it pervades the
legends, and affects the social life of the nation. (See page 18.)


The popular Hindu creed of the present is mainly founded on the
two classes of works called the Pura'nas and the Tantras.

The Pura'nas. According to the popular belief, these works (the
name of which means ' old ') were compiled by Vyasa, the supposed
arranger of the Vedas and author of the Mahabha'rata, and possess
an antiquity beyond historical computation. But a critical examina-
tion leaves little doubt that, in their present form, they can barely
claim an antiquity of a thousand years. Even a superficial comparison


of the contents of the Pura'nas with the ancient standards of the
Hindu religion, shews that the picture of religion and life presented
in them is a caricature of that afforded by the Vedic works, and that
it was drawn by priestcraft, interested in submitting to its sway the
popular mind, and unscrupulous in the use of the means which had
to serve its ends. So great and multifarious is the variety of their
contents, that they became, as it seems, the source of all popular
knowledge ; a substitute to the masses of the nation, not only for
the theological literature, but for scientific works, the study of which
was gradually restricted to the leisure of the learned few. One pur-
pose, however, seems paramount, the purpose, namely, of establish-
ing a sectarian creed. At the third phase of the Hindu religion, two
gods of the Hindu pantheon especially engrossed the religious faith of
the masses Vishnu and Siva. Now, a principal object, and prob-
ably the principal one of the Pura'nas, was to establish, as the case
might be, the supremacy of Vishnu or Siva. There are, accordingly,
Vaishnava-Pura'nas, or those composed for the glory of Vishnu,
Saiva-Pura'nas, or those which extol the worship of Siva. The
number of Pura'nas is stated to be eighteen. A short description of
each Pura'na has been given by the late Professor H. H. Wilson in
the preface to his translation of the Vishnu-Pura'na, to which the
reader who wishes fuller insight into modern Hinduism is referred.

The Tantras. Tantra (from the Sanscrit fan, to believe, to have
faith in ; hence, literally, an instrument or means of faith) is a name
of the sacred works of the worshippers of the female energy of the
god Siva. (See page 22.) A Tantra always assumes the form of a
dialogue between Siva and his wife, in one of her many forms, but
mostly as Uma, or Par-vati, in which the goddess questions the god
as to the mode of performing various ceremonies, and the mantras,
or prayers and incantations to be used in them. The efficacy of
these mantras is deemed to be all-powerful, and according to some
Tantras, the efficacy of faith in these revelations of Siva so great,
as to free a believer from the consequences of even the most atrocious
sins. The followers of the Tantras profess to consider them as a
fifth Veda, and attribute to them equal antiquity and superior autho-
rity. Though such an antiquity, or even one approaching the age of
the four Vedas, is entirely imaginary, the question of their date is
nevertheless involved in obscurity. They must, it would seem, at
all events, be later than the first centuries of the Christian era. The
works of this class are very numerous.

General Character of the Period, The Puranic period of
Hinduism is the period of its decline, so far as the popular creed
is concerned. Its pantheon is nominally the same as that of the
Epic period. Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva remain still at the head
of its imaginary gods ; but whereas the Epic time is generally
characterised by a friendly harmony between the higher occupants
of the divine spheres, the Puranic period shews discord and


destruction of the original ideas whence the Epic gods arose.
Brahma withdraws, in general, from the popular adoration, and
leaves Vishnu and Siva to fight their battles in the minds of
their worshippers for the highest rank. The elementary principle
which originally inhered in these deities is thus completely lost sight
of by the followers of the Pura'nas. The legends of the Epic poems
relating to these gods become amplified and distorted, according to
the sectarian tendencies of the masses ; and the divine element
which still distinguishes these gods in the Rama'yana and Maha-
bha'rata, is now more and more mixed up with worldly concerns,
and intersected with historical events, disfigured in their turn to
suit individual interests. Of the ideas implied by the Vedic rites,
scarcely a trace is visible in the Pura'nas and Tantras, which are
the text-books of this creed. In short, the unbridled imagination
which pervades these works is neither pleasing from a poetical, nor
elevating from a philosophical point of view. It is this creed which,
with further deteriorations caused by the lapse of centuries, is still
the main religion of the masses in India. The opinion these
entertain, that it is countenanced by the ritual, as well as by the
theological portion of the Vedas, is the redeeming feature of their
belief; for, as nothing is easier than to disabuse their mind on this
score, by reviving the study of their ancient and sacred language,
and by enabling them to read again their oldest and most sacred
books, it may be hoped that a proper education of the people in
this respect, by learned and enlightened natives, will remove many
of the existing errors, which, if they continued, must inevitably lead
to a further and, ultimately, total degeneration of the Hindu race.

The philosophical creed of this period, and the creed which is still
preserved by the educated classes, is that derived from the tenets of
the Veda'nta philosophy. It is based on the belief of one supreme
being, which imagination and speculation endeavour to invest with
all the perfections conceivable by the human mind, but the true
nature of which is nevertheless declared to be beyond the reach of
thought, and which, on this ground, is defined as not possessing any
of the qualities by which the human mind is able to comprehend
intellectual or material entity.

To this brief description of the general character of the system
we will now subjoin a few of the most significant details.


In Indian cosmogony, and in pagan cosmogonies in general, the
idea of creation out of nothing is unknown. The existence of an
eternal crude matter (prakriti) is assumed, which, however, is devoid
of all those properties by which bodies manifest themselves to
sentient beings. Creation, then, consists in making the visible
world out of this crude matter, and is of two kinds primary and


secondary. In primary creation, Brahma first evolves the elemen-
tary substances; and then, in secondary creation, he develops the
forms of things out of those elements. A succession of creations
take place periodically, each, of course, preceded by a dissolution.
The length and order of the periods is laid down in a complex
system of chronology, which is thus' stated in Professor Wilson's
translation of the Vishnu-Pura'na : I year of mortals = I day of
the gods ; 12,000 years of the gods = a period of 4 Yugas. These
Yugas are not equal ; the last, which is called the Kaliyuga, and
in which we are now living, consists of 1200 divine years ; and
the others, in ascending progression, are respectively twice, thrice,
and four times as long. As a day of the gods makes a year of
mortals, this period of 12,000 divine years = 12,000 x 360 (the
assumed number of days in the year), or 4,320,000 years of
mortals ; 1000 of these periods of 4 Yugas make a day of Brahma,
called a Kalpa, which is thus equal to 4,320,000,000 human
years. At the end of this day of Brahma, a dissolution (not a total
one) of the universe takes place, which lasts through a night of
Brahma, equal in duration to his day. At the end of this night he
awakes, and creates anew. A year of Brahma is composed of the
proper number of such days and nights ; and 100 such years
constitute his whole life. One half of Brahma's existence has now
expired. The dissolution which occurs at the end of each Kalpa
or day of Brahma is called incidental or intermediate ; ' it affects
only the forms of inferior creatures, and lower worlds, leaving the
substance of the universe entire, and sages and gods unharmed.'
That which takes place at the close of Brahma's life is called
elemental, 'when not only all the gods and all other forms are
destroyed, but the elements are again merged into primary sub-
stance, besides which only one spiritual being exists.'

The creation of the human race was not directly effected by
Brahma, but by the interposition of a succession of mythical, semi-
divine personages. First, Brahma, dividing himself into two parts,
male and female, produces Viraj, who creates Manu, who creates
ten Maharshis or Praja'patis, who create the different orders of
beings, and among them men. Manu figures largely in Hindu
mythology. One of the most famous law-books of the ancient
Hindus, a work containing not only laws in the European sense,
but also a system of cosmogony and metaphysics, is ascribed to
him, in order to enhance its sanctity and authority. In this work
he declares himself to have created all this universe ; other works
speak of him as the progenitor of the human race, and connect with
him the traditions of a deluge. In accounting for the institution of
castes, a quite different account is given of the creation of the human
race ; and, indeed, the legends generally regarding cosmogony are
full of conflicting statements, shewing them to be founded on a
variety of different traditions. The native writers have an easy way


of accounting for such discrepancies in their sacred books by saying
that the author is here speaking of a different Kalpa.

The Yuga periods above mentioned are depicted in much the
same way as are the gold, silver, and iron ages of classic antiquity.
There is a gradual deterioration, physical and moral, corresponding
to the decrease in length of duration. In the first Yuga, says Manu,
' men are free from disease, attain all the objects of their desires,
and live 400 years ; but in the succeeding Yugas their life is lessened
gradually by one quarter.' The Kaliyuga the present or iron age
is thus described in one of the Pura'nas quite in the style of our
own admirers of 'the good old time :' 'In the Kaliyuga, (the genius
of) Right will have but one foot ; every one will delight in evil. The
four castes will be devoted to wickedness, and deprived of the
nourishment which is fit for them. The Brahmans will neglect the
Vedas, hanker after presents, be lustful and cruel. They will despise
the scriptures, gamble, steal, and desire intercourse with widows. . . .
The twice-born (that is, the first three castes) will live upon debts,
sell the produce of cows, and even their daughters. In this Yuga,
men will be under the sway of women, and women will be excessively
fickle. ... In the Kaliyuga, the earth will bear but little corn ; the
clouds will shed but little rain, and that, too, out of season. The
cows will feed on ordure, and give little milk, and the milk will yield

no butter ; there is no doubt of that Trees, even, will wither

in twelve years, and the age of mankind will not exceed sixteen
years ; people, moreover, will become gray-haired in their youth ;
women will bear children in their fifth or sixth year, and men will
become troubled with a great number of children. ... In the first
twilight of the Kaliyuga, people will disregard Vishnu ; and in the
middle of it, no one will even mention his name.'


The division of society into hereditary classes, so that the privileges
and employment of the father descend to the son, prevailed among
the ancient Egyptians, who, according to Herodotus, were divided
into priests, warriors, herdsmen, swineherds, tradesmen, interpreters,
and pilots. According to the theory of Hindu caste, as laid down
by Manu, there are four primary classes, which were distinct at their
very creation. Regardless of what is said of the creation of the
human race in general in the same work, the writer makes Brahma
create the four classes directly by causing them to proceed from
different parts of his body the Brahmans from his moulh, the
Ksha'triyas from his arm, the Vai'syas from his thigh, and the Sudras
from his foot. I. The office of the Brahmans, or priestly class, is
to read and study the Veda or sacred books, to conduct sacrifice,
to teach, to act as lawyers and state-councillors. If poor, they are
to be supported by the gifts of others ; and only when subsistence


is impossible by other means, are they to descend to military duties,
or engage in certain kinds of traffic. They are invested with extra-
ordinary sanctity, and even a species of divinity is claimed for them.
2. The Ksha'triyas, or soldier class, comprise kings and nobles.
Their office is to defend the people. 3. The Vai'syas are to engage

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 34 of 58)