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Brahmanism. Doctrine of the Brahmans. The word Brahmanism does not indicate a formal religion with certain fixed dogmas, but a system of beliefs and practices superseding other and older forms. It comprises a kind of slow evolution among the many religious systems of India, from pantheistic, anthropomorphous, and polytheistic, up to a sacerdotal and hierarchical form. The first phasis of Hindoo religion is shown to us in a body of writings called Veda (science) or Sruti (revelation). These writings are subdivided into four collections : Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yayur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. To each of these parts is attached a series of Brahmanas, i.e.., rites and ceremonies, then a second class of writings, the Aranyakas, and, finally, a series of speculative and philosophical writings, called Upanishads.
Of this whole body the Rig-Veda is evidently the most ancient. It appears to be composed of hymns, whose origin goes back to the first migrations of the Aryians in India, and in this Rig-Veda the first eight books are anterior to the ninth. The religious views set forth in the Rig-Veda are purely pantheistic, consisting of the adoration of the great phenomena of nature, conceived as endowed with a soul, whose power is greatly superior to that of man, and which is not unmindful of praise. This personification of the elements is hardly sensible. We have here the first phasis of polytheism, without having yet a well-arranged pantheon and deities with definite attributes. For the Vedic worshiper, the different departments of nature are so mingled together that we are continually in the presence of confusion and repetitions, and the author of the hymns, in his adoration for the power which he implores, constantly forgets that there are other powers existing. The word devas, the brilliant, by which the Vedas designate the gods, proves that it is the phenomenon of light which most lively struck the primitive Aryian. Also this is the name of the personification of the atmosphere, Indra, which is so often repeated in the Rig-Veda hymns, and which plays the greatest role in the allegorical accounts, the solar myths, figuring the rising and setting of the sun, its wrestling with the clouds and night. Besides all this, the deities were divided into gods of the air, water, and earth, without that each of these elements was ruled by a special deity. Gradually the deities which were not absolutely distinct became commingled into one body, and, as some among them were supposed to exercise important creative and cosmic functions, there was formed a god the creator of the other gods, and of all things. This god was called Prajapati (king of creatures) or Visvakarman (the creator of all things). At the same time, concluding from the spirit which animates men on a universal spirit spread in whole matter, they succeeded in reconciling this pantheistic idea with the preceding monotheistic one, and made of Prapati the principal creative god of Brahma.
This evolution of the Vedic theology took place in the tenth century B.C., while the preceding phasis dates since the thirteenth century B.C. About the same epoch on account of the necessity of separating the Aryan conquerors from the conquered black tribes and by reason of the formation of a sacerdotal class, interested in separating itself from the rest of the people the division, self-effected, of the Hindoo people into four classes or castes took place: the Brahmans, the Kchattryas (warriors), the Vaicyas (laborers), and the Soudras (slaves). After many and long struggles, which the great epic poem Mahâbhârata relates, finally the Brahmans overcome the warriors, and consolidated their power by a vigorous theocratic legislation, of which the laws of Manu are a recent reproduction. All the Vedic writings are declared to be of divine origin. The respective rights and conditions of the four castes were codified; all the acts of the Hindoo families became subject to a rigorous ceremonial, of which no rite could be performed without the service of a priest. The three superior castes were united and separated from the Soudras by a particular ceremony; the investure of the sacred cord, which was of distinct material for each class, composed of priests, warriors, and husbandmen, outside of which was only the caste of Parias, required a solemn religious rite. The teaching of the law is reserved to the priests, who were to explain it to the warriors and husbandmen only. Regarding the Soudras, it was forbidden even to teach them the manner of expiating their sins. Marriage between the different castes was prohibited. This strict distinction of caste, which appears shocking to us, was, however, a necessary outcome of a belief of a universal world-god in Brahma. In fact, the Brahmanic priest who considers the entire human race as an emanation of the same force, conceives their different forms as a kind of gradation in which the divine spirit manifests itself more and more clearly. Every relapse of an elevated being towards a lower one, must therefore be avoided. Every being being a spirit, and every spirit being immortal, each being possesses a spiritual family, or Manes, as well as a human family. The pantheistic monotheism of the period of composition of the Brahmana, was hardly a period of transition. The ancient polytheistic notion of the gods of the air, earth, and water continued to exist. Gradually the number of these deities became definite. Thirty-three were enumerated, eleven in each of the three kingdoms, or elements, being presided over by Agni (the fire) for the earth, Indra (the atmosphere) for the air, and Sourya (the sun) for the kingdom of the cloudy heaven. This attempt at classification, which dates from the end of the Vedic epoch, was united to the cosmogonic conceptions which the laws of Manu developed about the period of the institution of castes and the supremacy of the Brahmans. The laws of Manu teach that in the beginning spirit alone existed, unperceptible, indivisible, yet floating, as it were, throughout space. The primal spirit, by contemplating itself, created the nature, and deposited in this creation a golden egg, from which came forth Brahma, the aboriginal god of all things. To this purely philosophic doctrine, which probably affected the common people very little, is joined, in order to form the Brahmanic pantheon, the influence of the popular worship of the deities especially adored in such a region and by such a people. From all these religious elements and different deities, the Vedic gods, local, national, and purely speculative gods, the Brahmans constituted a great pantheon. Siva or Mahadeva— the great god— and Vishnu seem to have been worshiped by the people in the time of Ramayana. From these two deities which were evidently evolved by the union of a great number of local gods, and from Brahma, was formed the superior Triade, Brahma being the Creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Siva the destroyer. To each of these male energies or powers was associated a female energy. Vach or Sarasvati (science), was the wife of Brahma; Sai or Lakschmi (the beauty), that of Vishnu; and Parvati (death), that of Siva. The latter god transformed himself into a phallic and genetic deity, while the distinctive functions were assigned to his wife, surnamed Kali (the black), Durya (the terrible). It is said that Vishnu, in his quality of benevolent deity, appeared ten times on earth in different incarnations, or avataras, in order to be useful to men. To unite this supreme Triade with the Vedic gods, it was taught that the deities had become created like men, by an emanation of the spirit of Brahma, that they live in a material heaven — the air — and tend towards perfection.
Indria governed the region of the Orient: Agni the Southeast; Sourya the Southwest; Yama had the South ; Varuna, god of the sea, the West; Vayu (the wind), controlled the Northwest; Kubera (wealth), the North; Soma (drunkenness), the Northeast. Besides these many gods, Hindoo mythology knew genii, Gandharvas; nymphs, Apsaras. Varada serves as a messenger of the gods to men. Kamadeva or Ananga is the god of love. Ganeka, the god with the head of an elephant, presides over wisdom; Skanda leads the heavenly armies, and the six Krittikas resemble the Greek pleiades.
The moral precepts of Brahmanism are very simple in theory. The sovereign good is the perfect knowledge of the divine essence. This knowledge can be attained only by close, intense, meditation, which, in its turn, is possible only by the mortification of the senses and all sensual instincts, gained by a life of religious asceticism. Those who, being thus detached from their bodies, have entered into communion with the divinity, escape, in dying, all corporal or material life, and enter immediately into the Great All. The others enter into one of the forms of life, inferior or elevated, according to the degree of victory they have gained over themselves. These moral and theological doctrines were regulated into coherent systems by the different schools of philosophy which succeeded each other in India, as Christian metaphysics and ethics were elaborated by the Scholastics. The school of the Vedantas, the most orthodox, was led to deny matter, the creation of which it was unable to explain. The school Sankhia affirmed the eternity of matter, and united indissolubly to it a spiritual principle, similar to the god of Spinoza. Finally, comes Buddhism, whose doctrine is explained elsewhere. It drove out, during the centuries of our era, Brahmanism from the greater part of India. But later Brahmanism again became victorious, although considerably altered and weakened from the struggle. Owing to the distances of the provinces from each other, as also to the permanency of the common classes for particular devotions and superstitious beliefs, Brahmanism has resolved itself into a number of sects. The worship of Siva, of Vishnu, and of Parvati, has replaced the ancient religious unity. The priests have adopted the Buddhist custom of being united into religious communities. The four original castes are each subdivided into eighteen new ones. Today the precepts concerning the life of the Brahmans and the several ethical doctrines are no longer followed, except by a small number of ascetics. The great majority of the people contents itself with quite a material worship offered to some particular idol. Divine worship is even now given to irrational animals, as is shown by the honors given, in many parts of India, to the cow.