A Brahmin (less often Brahman) is a member of the Hindu priestly caste. The word is related to but not to be confused with Hindu religious conception of the transcendent and immanent super soul, "Brahman".
Brahminism is a term commonly used to denote a system of religious institutions originated and elaborated by the Brahmins, the sacerdotal and, from an early period, the dominant caste of the Hindu community.
The word Brahmin literally means One who has realized or attemps to realize Brahman. According to the Purusha Sukta, the lyric sung to the glory of Vishnu, Brahmins are said to have come from the mouth of the Purusha.
According to the Vishnusmriti (2_1.17)
- "A Brahmin teaches the Veda… A Brahmin sacrifices for others, and receives alms… Duties common to all castes are… reverence towards gods and Brahmins."
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 Brahman 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, Prajapati, 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 Prajapati, 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 Vdyu (wind), and Sirya (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 Brahman writings. On the other hand the term prajapati (lord of creatures), which in the Rig Veda occurs as an epithet of the sun, is also once in the Atharvaveda applied jointly to Indra and Agni. Prajapati 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 Brahmans may have been partly prompted by political considerations.
The pantheistic doctrine which forms the foundation of the Brahmanical system of belief found its most complete exposition in one of the six orthodox derganas, or philosophical systems, the Vedanta 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 Sankhya system, they involve the denial of so essential a dogmatic point as the existence of a personal creator of the world.
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 India and Nepal, Brahmins, being members of the highest caste, historically enjoyed high social status as being traditionally learned and many for their religious piety.
The occupations of the Vaishya are those connected with trade, the cultivation of the land and the breeding of cattle; while those of a military profession generally. Both share with the Brahman the privilege of reading the Veda, but only so far as it is taught and explained to them by their spiritual preceptor. To the Brahman belongs the right of teaching and expounding the sacred texts, and also that of interpreting and determining the law and the rules of caste. Shudras were the serfs, and performed the physically difficult work shunned by the higher castes.
According to certain adherents of the Aryan invasion theory, Brahmins are descendants of the Aryans, who displaced the Dravidians from the northern areas of India. The religion practiced by the early Aryans derived from the Vedas and what scholars know as Brahminism laid part of the societal foundation for Classical Hinduism as witnessed with the advent of the Upanishads, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Brahmins, the holders of the mantle in Hindu religious affairs, are then said to have dispersed throughout the sub-continent, forming a number of sects and sub-sects. Others feel that Brahmins were not necessarily racially distinct but formed in a socially mobile atmosphere, later concretizing their roles in stricter feudal systems.
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 brahmatza 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 Rig Veda of that rigid division into four castes separated from one another by insurmountable barriers, which in later times constituted a distinctive feature of Hindu society.
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 bulk of the Aryan 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 Aryans of Iran and India. It is true that, although the Athrava, Rathastdo, and Vattrya of the Zend Avesta correspond in position and occupation to the varnas 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.
The definitive establishment of the Brahmanical hierarchy marks the beginning of the Brahmanical 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.
There are also castes like Chitpavan Brahmins, Deshastha Brahmins Karad Brahmins, Saraswat Brahmins in Maharashtra. The Deshastha are again sub-divided into Rig vedi and Yajur-vedi Brahmins - whom not only belong to two different Vedic schools but have differences in appearance and behaviour.
South Indian sub-castes:
The four stages of life
The pious Brahman, longing to attain the summum bonum on the dissolution of his frail body, was enjoined to pass through a succession of four Ashramas ("phases" or "stages"). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, brahmacharya (literally "grazing in Brahma") is spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies kama (Hinduism) and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's sons and daughters, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in sanyasa, the individual goes off into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life.
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 Vaishya 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.
The three first castes, however unequal to each other in privilege and social standing, are yet united by a common bond of sacramental rites (satiskdras), traditionally connected from ancient times with certain incidents and stages in the life of the Aryan Hindu, 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 youths investiture with the sacrificial thread, and his return home on completing his studies, marriage, funeral, etc.
The modes of observing these rites (satiskdras) are laid down in a class of writings called Gihyastras, or domestic rules. The most important of these observances is the upanayana, or rite of conducting the boy to a spiritual teacher.
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-Brahmanical 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 Brahman well versed in the Vedas and their appendages.
Connected with this act is the investiture with the sacred cord, ordinarily worn over the left shoulder and under the fight arm, and varying in material according to the class of the wearer. This ceremony being the preliminary act to the youths initiation into the study of the Veda, the management of the consecrated fire and the knowledge of the rites of purification, including a solemn invocation to Savitri, the sun (probably Saturnus), as a rule the verse rigv. ~ 62. 10, (also called Gayatri 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 Arya. 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 Brahman, between the eleventh and twenty-second year of a Kshatriya, and between the twelfth and twenty-fourth year of a Vaishya..
He who has not been invested with the mark of his class within this time is for ever excluded from uttering the sacred savitri and becomes an outcast, unless he is absolved from his sin by a council of Brahmans, and after due performance of a purificatory rite resumes the badge of his caste.
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 Brahmanical 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 youths 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 (sharaddha), consisting of offerings of water and balls of rice, to himself and his two immediate ancestors, is considered a great misfortune by the orthodox Hindu.
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 rishis, 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 mans entering into the married state or the householder stage.
When the bridegroom leads the bride from her fathers house to his own home, and becomes a g~iha-pa~i, or householder, the fire which has been used for the marriage ceremony accompanies the couple to serve them as their garhapatya, 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 vaifvadeva, or sacrifice to all the deities. The remaining two are the offering to Brahma, 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 Aryan family customs, surrounded by the Hindus with a certain amount of adventitious ceremony 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 Srauta rites, or rites based on fritu, or revelation, the performance of which, though not indispensable, were yet considered obligatory under certain circumstances. 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 that 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.
With one not duly initiated no righteous man was allowed to associate or to enter into connections of affinity. The duty of the Shudras was to serve the twice-born classes, and above all the Brahmans. He was excluded from all sacred knowledge, and if he performed sacrificial ceremonies he must do so without using holy mantras. No Brahman might recite a Vedic text where a man of the servile caste might overhear him, nor may he even teach him the laws of expiating sin.
Culturally, most Brahmins are known for practicing vegetarianism. Milk and most dairy products are allowed however, so this does not constitute veganism. Today, the practice is based on region and orthodoxy more than caste. For instance, many Brahmins from West Bengal eat fish. Brahmins acting as actual priests are vegetarian.
Orthodox Brahmanical 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 Brahma, where their souls, invested with subtle corporeal frames, await their reunion with the Eternal Being.
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 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 Brahmanical 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 ones sinking yet lower, and by degrees to raise ones 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 Brahmanical 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 moksha, or final deliverance from Samsara, the revolution of bodily and personal existence.
Evolution of Brahminism
As the language of the Aryan Hindus 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 .~ruti (revelation).
The state of religious thought among the ancient bards, as reflected in the hymns of the Rig Veda, 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, not insensible to his praises and actions.
It is a nature worship purer than that met with in any 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 that 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, 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 Aryan mind. In the 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 Aryan 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, a favorite 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 tenth book of the Rig Veda 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 Hindu 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 Rig Veda and in the At/zarvaveda, 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 Prajapati (lord of creatures ), Vfitvakarnian (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), Kama (desire), Brahman (neutr.; nom. sing. Brahma) (devotion, prayer).
Metaphysical and theosophical speculations were thus fast undermining the simple belief in the old gods, until, at the time of the composition. of the Brdhma,zas and Upanishads, we find them in complete possession of the minds of the theologians. Whilst the theories suggested in the later hymns are now further matured and elaborated, the tendency towards catholicity of formula favors the combination of the monotheistic and pantheistic conceptions; this compromise, which makes Praji~pati, 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 Brahmanical period.
A considerable portion of the literature of Vedic times has apparently been lost; and several important works, the original composition of which has probably to be assigned to the early days of Brahmanism, such as the institutes of Manu and the two great epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, in the form in which they have been handed down to us, show manifest traces of a more modern reduction. Yet it is sufficiently clear from internal evidence that the Manus Code of Laws, though merely a metrical recast of older materials, reproduces on the whole pretty faithfully the state of Hindu 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 Brahmans. 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 Brahmanas and even in the Purusha Hymn, and the Atharvan, divine origin had already been ascribed to the Vedic Sarlihits, especially to the three older collections. The same privilege was now successfully claimed for the later Vedic literature, so imbued with Brahmanic aspirations and pretensions; and the authority implied in the designation of , ruti 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 Manus Code, which clearly defined the relative position and the duties of the several castes, and determined the penalties to be indicted 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 Brahmans 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 definite settlement of the caste system and the Brahmanical supremacy must probably be assigned to somewhere about the close of the Brahmapa period. Division in their own ranks was hardly favorable 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 Brahma, 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 Prajgpati 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 Brahmanical aspirations. In the same way as the abstract denomination of sacerdotalism, the neuter brahman, had come to express the divine essence, so the old designation of the individual priest, the masculine term brahm, was raised to denote the supreme personal deity which was to take the place and attributes of the Prajpati of the Brahmapas and Upanishads.
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, colorless deity like Brahm could awake no sympathies in the hearts of those accustomed to worship gods of flesh and blood. Indeed, ever since the 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 Aryan 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 nn 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 creed for the whole community - subject to the Brshmanical law. At the time of the original composition of the great epics two such deities, Shiva or Mahddeva ( the great god ) and Vishnu, seem to have been already admitted into the Brahmanical 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 Brahma; the three deities, Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva, were to represent a triple impersonation of the divinity, as manifesting itself respectively in the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe.
Downfall of the Brahmins
So much 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 into 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 Brahmanical 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 prince of Kapilavastu, Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism (about the 6th century BC). 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 individuals 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 Brahminical 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 Brahmanical theory of transmigration shows that this early product of speculative thought had become firmly rooted in the Hindu mind as a tenet of belief amounting to moral conviction. To the Hindu 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 mans 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 nirvana, 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 Brahmanical dogma, and a considerable development of sectarianism.
- H. H. Wilson, Essays on the Religion of the Hindus
- J. Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts
- M. Muller, History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature
- C. Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde
- Elphinstone, History of India, ed. by E. B. Cowell.
- Veda (http://san.beck.org/EC7-Vedas.html)
- Brahmnas Yahoo group (http://www.groups.yahoo.com/group/brahmnas)
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.