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in agriculture, in tending cattle, and in trade. All these are
considered privileged classes, and distinguished by a broad line
from 4. The Sudras, who are enjoined to serve the other classes.
This simply means that, originally at least, they were slaves. Any
injury done to one of them is considered a venial offence. They are
debarred from the higher rites and rewards of religion ; it is a crime
even to read the Veda to a Sudra. Besides the four pure castes,
there are a great many mixed castes, arising from the intermarriage
of the pure castes, to which, in certain cases, a kind of sanction is
given, out of motives of necessity and policy, no doubt. To each of
these, certain employments and handicrafts are assigned, making
altogether a highly complex and artificial social system.

The classification of modern Hindu society is very different from
this original theory. With the exception of the Brahmans, the pure
castes have disappeared, and out of the intermixture of the others
have sprung innumerable classes, many of them unauthorised except
by the people themselves. The restriction of employments, with
some exceptions in the case of some of the holy functions of the
Brahmans, cannot be said to exist. Brahmans serve as soldiers,
and even as cooks. Most of the princes of India are of low caste
or base-born ; while there is no ordinary employment that is not
open to all classes alike. The institution of caste, as now in force,
acts chiefly in restricting people from associating together in such
acts as eating and drinking. The loss of caste is the penalty, not of
moral offences, but of some kind of ceremonial impurity, the chief
sources of contamination being the associating with improper
persons, or the eating of improper food. Those excommunicated
in this way are called Pariahs ; but so inveterate is this custom of
class distinctions, that the very outcasts are said to institute castes
among themselves. Several religious sects have sprung up in
Hindustan that altogether or in part disregard the trammels of
caste. This is a distinguishing feature in the Buddhist and Sikh

The institution of caste is unknown to the Vedas. So long as
the intruders lived in isolated settlements by themselves, there were
but two classes, the Aryas and the hostile aborigines the Dasyus.
It seems to have been as the Aryas gradually brought the natives
into subjection that the caste system became developed ; just as
feudalism sprang out of the irruption of the German warrior-tribes
into the provinces of the Roman world. In Sanscrit the castes are
called varnas, or 'colours ;' and the Sudras are spoken of as black,
while the other castes are comparatively light. This no doubt points


to a historical fact, namely, that the Aryas, coming from northern
countries, were fair, and the aborigines dark. The three privileged
castes were composed of the dominant race, the Sudras were the
subject natives. How the gradation of dignity among the privileged
classes established itself, is not so clear. In the legends there is
abundance of evidence that the Brahmans and Ksha'triyas were
originally of one race, and that it was only after a long struggle that
their respective prerogatives became defined and acknowledged.


The notion that the soul after death passes into another substance
or body, has been common to the most uncivilised and the most
civilised nations of the earth ; it has been the object of fantastical
superstition, as well as philosophical speculation ; and it belongs
both to ancient and modern times. A belief of this nature was enter-
tained by the ancient Mexicans, and probably also by the Druids. It
is met with in a more developed form among the ancient Egyptians ;
but its real importance it obtained as a tenet of the religion and
philosophy of the Brahmanical Hindus and the Buddhists, whence
it passed into the doctrine of several philosophers of ancient Greece,
and into that of some Jewish and Christian sects.

At the time when the dogma of transmigration became an
integral part of the Brahmanic religion (in the Vedic period it
seems to have been unknown), the Hindus believed that human
souls emanated from a supreme being, which, as it were, in a state
of bewilderment or forgetfulness, allowed them to become separate
existences and to be born on earth. The soul, thus severed from
the real source of its life, is bound to return to it, or to become
merged again into that divine substance with which it was originally
one ; but as its nature becomes contaminated with sin through its
earthly career, it must, so long as it remains in this world, endeavour
to free itself from all guilt, and thus become fit for its ultimate
destiny. Religion teaches that this is done by the observance of
religious rites, and a life in conformity with the precepts of the
sacred books ; philosophy, that the soul will be re-united with
Brahman, if it understands the true nature of the divine essence
whence it comes. So long, therefore, as the soul has not attained
this condition of purity, it must be born again, after the dissolution
of the body to which it was allied ; and the degree of its impurity
at one of these various deaths, determines the existence which it
will assume in a subsequent life.

Since there can be no proof of the soul's migrations, the detail in
which these are described in the religious works of the Hindus, is
merely fantastical, and interesting only so far as it affords a kind of
standard by which, at various epochs, and by different writers, the
moral merit or demerit of human actions was measured in India.


Thus, Manu (in the twelfth book of his Code of Laws) teaches :
' The slayer of a Brahman according to the degree of his guilt is
reborn as a dog, a boar, an ass, a camel, a bull, a goat, a sheep, a
stag, a bird, a Chandala, or a Pukkasa. A Brahman who drinks
spirituous liquor, will migrate into the body of a worm, an insect,
a grasshopper, a fly feeding on ordure, or some mischievous animal.
A twice-born who steals (the gold of a Brahman), will pass a thou-
sand times into the bodies of spiders, snakes, and chameleons, of
aquatic monsters, or of murderous blood-thirsty demons. Those
who inflict injury (on sentient beings), become flesh-eaters ; and
those who eat forbidden things, worms. Thieves become devourers
of each other ; and those who embrace women of the lowest castes,

become ghosts If a man has stolen grain, he becomes a

rat; if honey, a gadfly ;' &c.

The doctrine of Transmigration enters into the system of Buddhism
as well as that of Hinduism.


The Trimu'rti. Trimu'rti (from the Sanscrit tri, three, and murti,
form) is the name of the Hindu triad, or the gods Brahma, Vishnu,
and Siva, when thought of as an inseparable unity, though
three in form. The Padma-Pura'na, which, being a Pura'na of
the Vaishnava sect, assigns to Vishnu the highest rank in the
Trimu'rti, defines its character in the following manner : ' In the
beginning of creation, the great Vishnu, desirous of creating the
whole world, became threefold : creator, preserver, and destroyer.
In order to create this world, the supreme spirit produced from the
right side of his body himself as Brahma ; then, in order to
preserve the world, he produced from the left side of his body
Vishnu ; and in order to destroy the world, he produced from the
middle of his body the eternal Siva. Some worship Brahma, others
Vishnu, others Siva ; but Vishnu, one, yet threefold, creates, pre-
serves, and destroys ; therefore, let the pious make no difference
between the three.' Apart, therefore, from sectarian belief, which
makes its own god the highest, and gives him the attributes also of
the other gods, Trimu'rti implies the unity of the three principles of
creation, preservation, and destruction, and as such belongs more to
the philosophical than to the popular belief. When represented,
the Trimu'rti is one body with three heads : in the middle, that of
Brahma ; at its right, that of Vishnu ; and at its left, that of Siva.
The symbol of the Trimu'rti is the mystical syllable om, where (o
being equivalent to a+u) a means Brahman; u, Vishnu; and m,

Brahmd. This deity, as already remarked, although theoretically
the first and greatest of the Hindu trinity, has gradually become
merged in the universal soul Brahma (the neuter form of the same


word). He takes little or no part in the regency of the world ; and,
like great men out of place and power, has no adherents.

Vishnu is the second god of the trinity, but is considered by his
worshippers to be the supreme deity. The name occurs in the
Rigveda, but Vishnu is there a representation of the sun. Although
highly extolled, he is described as having derived his power from
Indra. It was during the Epic and Puranic periods that Vishnu
became the great power he now is.

Avata'rs. The large circle of myths relating to Vishnu, in the
epic poems and Pura'nas, is distinguished by a feature which,
though not quite absent from the mythological history of Siva,
especially characterises that of Vishnu. It arose from the idea, that
whenever a great disorder, physical or moral, disturbed the world,
Vishnu descended 'in a small portion of his essence' to set it right,
to restore the law, and thus to preserve creation. Such descents of
the god are called his Avata'ras (from ava and tri, descend); and
they consist in Vishnu's being supposed to have either assumed the
form of some wonderful animal or superhuman being, or to have
been born of human parents, in a human form, always, of course,
possessed of miraculous properties. Some of these Avata'ras are
of an entirely cosmical character ; others, however, are probably
based on historical events, the leading personage of which was
gradually endowed with divine attributes, until he was regarded as
the incarnation of the deity itself. With the exception of the last,
all these Avata'ras belong to the past ; the last, however, is yet to
come. Their number is generally given as ten. and their names in
order are I. The fish- ; 2. The tortoise- ; 3. The boar- ; 4. The
man-lion- ; 5. The dwarf- ; 6. The Parasu-Rama- ; 7. The
Ramachandra-, or, briefly, Rama- ; 8. The Krishna and Balarama- ;
9. The Buddha- ; and 10. The Kalki or Kalkin-Avata'ra. We can
only afford to notice the most characteristic and important.

The occasion of the Divarf-Avata'r was as follows: A powerful
monarch named Bali had, by the practice of austerities and costly
ceremonies, raised himself to the rank of Indra, usurped the
dominion of the three worlds (the sky, the earth, and patala, or the
under world), and filled the gods with dismay. For such rites,
especially the ' hundred horse-sacrifices,' are believed to have an
inherent power which even Brahma cannot resist. After enduring
this for a time, a deputation of gods usually proceeds to the heaven
of Vishnu, and entreats his interference. In the present case,
Vishnu consents, and descends to earth to reduce Maha Bali to
order. A promise or gift of the gods, in whatever way it may have
been obtained, and whatever consequences it may involve even
the overthrow of the gods themselves is always considered irrevo-
cable without the consent of the person who has obtained it. But
there is nothing, it appears, unworthy of a god in filching that
consent by a trick. Accordingly, Vishnu assumes the form of. a


poor Brahman dwarf, who begs of the monarch a piece of ground
not larger than he could measure with three steps, on which to build
a hut for himself. No sooner is the request granted, with the usual
solemnities, than the form of the dwarf expands to the height of the
skies; with three strides he compasses the three regions of the
universe, and the power of Maha Bali is at an end.

The next three forms under which Vishnu figures would seem to
have been originally historical personages heroes in that series of
wars by which the Aryan race established their sway over the abori-
ginal inhabitants of the country. In the first of these three, reckoned
the sixth Avata'r, we have a hero of the name of Parasu Rama, who
subdues the tyrannic Ksha'triyas or soldier race, and gives their
lands to the Brahmans. But the most famous of all is the seventh
Avata'r, that of Rama Chandra, the hero of the Rama'yana. The
outline of the action is this : Rama, the son of the monarch of Oude,
a hero of great promise, is banished, by a court intrigue, to wander
with his beautiful wife, Sita, in the savage country of the Deccan,
which was under the dominion of demons that is, of princes hostile
to the Hindu or Aryan race. Rama made himself hateful to the
prince of the demons, Ra'vana, who, out of revenge, carried off Sita
to his residence in Lanka (Ceylon). But Rama, in confederacy with
the monkey-hero, Hanuman, and a whole army of apes, pursues,
and making a bridge across the strait to Ceylon, by throwing in
mountains, overcomes the demons, and recovers Sita. Under this
guise we have probably the historical fact of the extension of the
Brahman dominion and religion into Southern Hindustan. The
exploits of the leader Rama, under whom this was effected, would
first be preserved in metrical legends, and afterwards made to swell
the glories of Vishnu, by representing Rama as an incarnation of
that god. Rama has numerous temples, and with him and his wife
Sita is associated the heroic monkey, Hanuman.

But the form under which Vishnu is most popular in modern
times is that of Krishna, which is the eighth Avata'r. It being
necessary to deliver the earth from a mighty demon, Kansa a
prince, most likely, of infidel or anti-Brahmanic tendencies a portion
of Vishnu descends into the womb of Devaki, the wife of Vasudeva.
Kansa being informed that a child was to be born that would over-
throw his power, and failing to catch the right one, Herod-like, orders
a general massacre of young boys ; but Krishna, the young god, had
been sent away from Mathura, the capital of Kansa, to be educated
in a pastoral district as the son of a cow-herd. The deity, yet in
his cradle, performs feats of strength to which those of Hercules are
nothing ; and as a child, delights in playing tricks on his companions,
and even on the god Indra. Grown up to be a youth, he captivates
the hearts of all the gopis, or milkmaids, and in his sports and
dances with them he divides himself, so that each one of the multi-
tude believes herself to be the favoured partner of Krishna. Among


his martial deeds was the destruction of the demon Kansa, and
others, which had been the original end of the Avata'r. Seven prin-
cipal wives are assigned to Krishna, besides a trifle of 16,000 others
of less note, by whom he had 180,000 sons. At last, Krishna was
killed by a hunter, and Vishnu ' united himself with his own unborn,
inconceivable, and universal spirit.'

Vishnu is variously represented. In the figure on page I, he
appears as Rama, receiving the adoration of the royal monkey
Hanuman ; while Sita is seen undergoing the fire ordeal, to satisfy
the world of her chaste escape from the power of Ra'vana, comforted
by the presence of Agni, the god of fire.

Siva is the name of the third god of the Hindu triad, in which
he represents the principle of destruction. The name Siva, as that
of a deity, is unknown in the Vedic hymns. The worshippers of
Siva assign to him the first place in the Trimu'rti ; and to them he is
not only the chief deity, but the deity which comprises in himself
all other deities. Amongst the principal achievements of this god is
his conflict with the god Brahma, who was originally possessed of
five heads, but lost one through exciting the anger of Siva; for the
fifth head of Brahma once disrespectfully addressing Siva, and even
challenging his power, Siva immediately cut off the offending
member with the nail of his left thumb. Siva is especially wor-
shipped under the symbol of the Linga (the male principle in gene-
ration), emblematic of creation, which follows destruction. Siva,
like Vishnu, has a thousand names by which he is addressed ;
the principal are Isa or Isivara (lord) ; Rudra (the terrible),
or Maharudra (the very terrible) ; and Mahadeva (the great

Saktis. The Sanscrit sakti means ' power, energy ; ' but, in its
special application, denotes the energy of the deity, and particularly
that of the gods of the Hindu triad, Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva.
This energy, originally spoken of as the wish or will of the Supreme
Being to create the universe,, and afterwards dilated upon in
metaphorical and poetical speech, assumed at the Puranic period
the form of a separate deity, thought of as the wife of the god to
whom it belongs. Accordingly, Saraswati became the Sakti or wife
of Brahma ; Lakshmi, the Sakti or wife of Vishnu ; and Devi, the
Sakti or wife of Siva. Of these Saktis the only one that attracts
special worship is the consort of Siva, who plays as prominent a
part in later Hindu mythology as her husband. Her principal
names are Devi, Kali, Durga, Parvati, Uma. As Durga, she is a
kind of goddess of war ; and her martial feats consisted in the
destruction of a succession of demons who had conquered the gods
and expelled them from heaven. In commemoration of her victory
over one of these demons, a festival, called the Durgap^l'ja, is
annually celebrated in Bengal about the autumnal equinox. Three
weeks after the Durgapu'ja, another festival in honour of this goddess,


called the Kalipii'ja, takes place, to commemorate her victory over
the demons Chanda and Munda.

' The sable goddess,' Mr Banerjea says, ' is represented holding
the severed head of Chanda in her hand, with the heads of his
soldiers formed into a garland suspended from her heck, and their
hands wreathed into a covering round her loins the only covering
she has in the image constructed for the puja. The worship of Kali
(that is, the Black), to which the narrative (of her victory over Chanda
and Munda) has given rise, is considered by the Hindus themselves
as embodying the principle of tamas, or darkness. She is repre-
sented as delighting in the slaughter of her foes, though capable
of kindlier feelings to her friends. She is, however, styled the Black
Goddess of Terror, frequenting cemeteries, and presiding over terrible
sprites, fond of bloody sacrifices ; and her worship taking place in
the darkest night of the month.' Kali has a splendid temple at
Kalighat, in the neighbourhood of Calcutta (the city of Kali), where
myriads of victims are offered up to her. From the Pura'na which
forms the ritual of her worship, it is clear that human sacrifices at
one time formed part of it ; special directions are given how the
victims are to be killed, and we learn that a sacrifice of three human
beings will make her propitious for 100,000 years. It would seem
as if' in Lower Bengal and the adjoining district of Orissa a more
than usual infusion of the dark superstitions of the aborigines had
been introduced into Hinduism. In Orissa is the famous idol
Jaggernaut, under the wheels of which thousands of Hindus
annually were in the habit of sacrificing themselves in assurance of
eternal bliss ; and the hill tribes not yet Hinduised worship chiefly
a female demon, whom they seek to propitiate by sacrifices of
children. Under the influence of government, both practices have
recently greatly abated. Jaggernaut (properly Jagannatha i. <?.,
lord of the world) is understood to represent Vishnu, as the dead
Krishna; but the spirit of the worship ill accords with the mild
character of that god.

Indra and the other inferior gods. We have seen that the
elemental gods of the Veda were afterwards superseded by higher
conceptions. A number of them, however, were retained as an
inferior order, styled ' guardians of the world,' and over these Indra
was installed supreme lord. The eight guardians are : Indra, the
god of the firmament ; Agni, of fire ; Yama, of the infernal regions ;
Surya, of the sun ; Varuna, of water ; Pavana, of wind ; Kuvera, of
wealth ; Soma or Chandra, of the moon. Indra is still the god that
sends rain, and wields the thunderbolt ; but poetry is more engrossed
by the beauty of his paradise, Swarga, the happy abode of the
inferior gods, and of those pious men who attain it after death in
consequence of having, during life, properly discharged their religious
duties ; by the charms of his heavenly nymphs, the Apsarasas, who
now and then descend to earth, to disturb the equanimity of austere


penitents ; by the musical performances of his choristers, the Gand-
harvasj by the splendour of his capital, Amaravatij by the fabulous
beauty of his garden, Nandana, &c. The beings of yet inferior rank
that have been conceived as objects of worship in Hindustan are
innumerable. The Hindus themselves are said to enumerate
330 millions. But to count Hindu deities is like trying to count the
objects in a kaleidoscope ; for the same deity is known and
worshipped under hundreds of names.


Of the sects which arose in the third period of Hinduism, there
are three chief divisions the adorers of Vishnu, of Siva, and of the
wives or female energies of these gods ; called respectively Vaish-
navas, Saivas, and Saktas.

The Vaishnavas. The numerous sects that go by this common
designation are held together by the common link of their belief in
the supremacy of Vishnu over the other gods of the Trimu'rti ; their
differences consist in the character which they assign to the god, in
the religious and other practices founded on the nature of their
belief, and in their sectarian marks. Six principal Vaishnava sects
are enumerated, called by the names of their founders, who appeared
in the character of religious reformers at various times between the
twelfth and fifteenth centuries. We can only notice a few charac-
teristic features of one or two of them, which will give a general
notion of the character of the whole. The most striking peculiarity
of the Ramanujas is the preparation and the scrupulous privacy of
their meals ; for should the meal during its preparation, or while they
are eating, attract even the looks of a stranger, the operation is
instantly stopped, and the viands buried in the ground. The marks
by which they distinguish themselves from other sects are two perpen-
dicular white lines, drawn with a white earth from the root of the hair
to the commencement of each eyebrow, and a transverse streak con-
necting them across the root of the nose ; in the centre is a perpen-
dicular streak of red, made with red sanders, or a preparation of tur-
meric and lime ; other marks representing several of the attributes of
Vishnu, they have either painted or impressed on the breast and each
upper arm ; and, besides, they wear a necklace of the wood of the
Tulasi (holy basil), and carry a rosary of the seeds of the same plant,
or of the lotus. Such, with variations in disposition and colour, are
sectarial marks in general. The sacred formula with which a member
of this sect is initiated into it consists merely of the words Om ramaya
naniah, ' Om, salutation to Rama.' Their principal religious tenet
is the belief that Vishnu is the cause and creator of all worlds ; that
he and the universe are one, though he is of a twofold form : the
supreme spirit or cause, and the gross one, the effect or matter.
Nearly allied to the Ramanujas are the Ramanandas, by far the most


numerous class of sectaries in Gangetic India. Their practices are
less precise than those of the Ramanujas; but the most important dif-
ference between them consists in the fact, that Ramananda abolished
the distinction of caste amongst the religious orders, and taught that
a Vairagin, or one who quitted the ties of nature and society, shook
off at the same time all personal distinction. The initiatory formula
of a Ramananda is Sri Rama, or ' blessed Rama.' The Kabir
Panthis are a kind of rationalists ; they hold that there is but one
God, the creator of the world ; he is of ineffable purity and irresist-
ible power, eternal, and free from the defects of human nature, but in
other respects does not differ from man. The pure man is his living
resemblance ; and after death, becomes his equal and associate.
God and man are therefore not only the same, but both are in the
same manner everything that exists. The triad Brahma, Vishnu,
and Siva are the offspring of God by Maya (illusion), and by their
immediate agency the universe was formed. But although the Kabir
Panthis have a peculiar respect for Vishnu, and therefore are

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 35 of 58)