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An Historical Sketch

Chapter II - Origin And Growth Of Hinduism

The earliest product of Indian literature, the Rig Veda, contains the songs of the Aryan invaders who were beginning to make a home in India. Though no longer nomads, they had little local sentiment. No cities had arisen comparable with Babylon or Thebes and we hear little of ancient kingdoms or dynasties. Many of the gods who occupied so much of their thoughts were personifications of natural forces such as the sun, wind and fire, worshipped without temples or images and hence more indefinite in form, habitation and attributes than the deities of Assyria or Egypt. The idea of a struggle between good and evil was not prominent.

In Persia, where the original pantheon was almost the same as that of the Veda, this idea produced monotheism: the minor deities became angels and the chief deity a Lord of hosts who wages a successful struggle against an independent but still inferior spirit of evil. But in India the Spirits of Good and Evil are not thus personified. The world is regarded less as a battlefield of principles than as a theatre for the display of natural forces. No one god assumes lordship over the others but all are seen to be interchangeable—mere names and aspects of something which is greater than any god.

Indian religion is commonly regarded as the offspring of an Aryan religion, brought into India by invaders from the north and modified by contact with Dravidian civilization. The materials at our disposal hardly permit us to take any other point of view, for the literature of the Vedic Aryans is relatively ancient and full and we have no information about the old Dravidians comparable with it. But were our knowledge less one-sided, we might see that it would be more correct to describe Indian religion as Dravidian religion stimulated and modified by the ideas of Aryan invaders.

For the greatest deities of Hinduism, Siva, Krishna, Râma, Durgâ and some of its most essential doctrines such as metempsychosis and divine incarnations, are either totally unknown to the Veda or obscurely adumbrated in it. The chief characteristics of mature Indian religion are characteristics of an area, not of a race, and they are not the characteristics of religion in Persia, Greece or other Aryan lands[1].

Some writers explain Indian religion as the worship of nature spirits, others as the veneration of the dead. But it is a mistake to see in the religion of any large area only one origin or impulse. The principles which in a learned form are championed to-day by various professors represent thoughts which were creative in early times. In ancient India there were some whose minds turned to their ancestors and dead friends while others saw divinity in the wonders of storm, spring and harvest. Krishna is in the main a product of hero worship, but Śiva has no such historical basis. He personifies the powers of birth and death, of change, decay and rebirth—in fact all that we include in the prosaic word nature. Assuredly both these lines of thought—the worship of nature and of the dead—and perhaps many others existed in ancient India.

By the time of the Upanishads, that is about 600 B.C., we trace three clear currents in Indian religion which have persisted until the present day. The first is ritual. This became extraordinarily complicated but retained its primitive and magical character. The object of an ancient Indian sacrifice was partly to please the gods but still more to coerce them by certain acts and formulae[2].

Secondly all Hindus lay stress on asceticism and self-mortification, as a means of purifying the soul and obtaining supernatural powers. They have a conviction that every man who is in earnest about religion and even every student of philosophy must follow a discipline at least to the extent of observing chastity and eating only to support life. Severer austerities give clearer insight into divine mysteries and control over the forces of nature. Europeans are apt to condemn eastern asceticism as a waste of life but it has had an important moral effect.

The weakness of Hinduism, though not of Buddhism, is that ethics have so small a place in its fundamental conceptions. Its deities are not identified with the moral law and the saint is above that law. But this dangerous doctrine is corrected by the dogma, which is also a popular conviction, that a saint must be a passionless ascetic. In India no religious teacher can expect a hearing unless he begins by renouncing the world.

Thirdly, the deepest conviction of Hindus in all ages is that salvation and happiness are attainable by knowledge. The corresponding phrases in Sanskrit are perhaps less purely intellectual than our word and contain some idea of effort and emotion. He who knows God attains to God, nay he is God. Rites and self-denial are but necessary preliminaries to such knowledge: he who possesses it stands above them.

It is inconceivable to the Hindus that he should care for the things of the world but he cares equally little for creeds and ceremonies. Hence, side by side with irksome codes, complicated ritual and elaborate theology, we find the conviction that all these things are but vanity and weariness, fetters to be shaken off by the free in spirit. Nor do those who hold such views correspond to the anti-clerical and radical parties of Europe. The ascetic sitting in the temple court often holds that the rites performed around him are spiritually useless and the gods of the shrine mere fanciful presentments of that which cannot be depicted or described.

Rather later, but still before the Christian era, another idea makes itself prominent in Indian religion, namely faith or devotion to a particular deity. This idea, which needs no explanation, is pushed on the one hand to every extreme of theory and practice: on the other it rarely abolishes altogether the belief in ritualism, asceticism and knowledge.

Any attempt to describe Hinduism as one whole leads to startling contrasts. The same religion enjoins self-mortification and orgies: commands human sacrifices and yet counts it a sin to eat meat or crush an insect: has more priests, rites and images than ancient Egypt or medieval Rome and yet out does Quakers in rejecting all externals. These singular features are connected with the ascendancy of the Brahman caste.

The Brahmans are an interesting social phenomenon without exact parallel elsewhere. They are not, like the Catholic or Moslem clergy, a priesthood pledged to support certain doctrines but an intellectual, hereditary aristocracy who claim to direct the thought of India whatever forms it may take. All who admit this claim and accord a nominal recognition to the authority of the Veda are within the spacious fold or menagerie. Neither the devil-worshipping aboriginee nor the atheistic philosopher is excommunicated, though neither may be relished by average orthodoxy.

Though Hinduism has no one creed, yet there are at least two doctrines held by nearly all who call themselves Hindus. One may be described as polytheistic pantheism. Most Hindus are apparently polytheists, that is to say they venerate the images of several deities or spirits, yet most are monotheists in the sense that they address their worship to one god. But this monotheism has almost always a pantheistic tinge.

The Hindu does not say the gods of the heathen are but idols, but it is the Lord who made the heavens: he says, My Lord (Râma, Krishna or whoever it may be) is all the other gods. Some schools would prefer to say that no human language applied to the Godhead can be correct and that all ideas of a personal ruler of the world are at best but relative truths. This ultimate ineffable Godhead is called Brahman[3].

The second doctrine is commonly known as metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls or reincarnation, the last name being the most correct. In detail the doctrine assumes various forms since different views are held about the relation of soul to body. But the essence of all is the same, namely that a life does not begin at birth or end at death but is a link in an infinite series of lives, each of which is conditioned and determined by the acts done in previous existences (karma).

Animal, human and divine (or at least angelic) existences may all be links in the chain. A man's deeds, if good, may exalt him to the heavens, if evil may degrade him to life as a beast. Since all lives, even in heaven, must come to an end, happiness is not to be sought in heaven or on earth. The common aspiration of the religious Indian is for deliverance, that is release from the round of births and repose in some changeless state called by such names as union with Brahman, nirvana and many others.

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- Footnotes:


It is possible (though not, I think, certain) that the Buddha called his principal doctrines ariya in the sense of Aryan not of noble. But even the Blessed One may not have been infallible in ethnography. When we call a thing British we do not mean to refer it to the ancient Britons more than to the Saxons or Normans. And was the Buddha an Aryan? See V. Smith, Oxford History of India, p. 47 for doubts.


This is not altogether true of the modern temple ritual.


It is very unfortunate that English usage should make this word appear the same as Brahman, the name of a caste, and there is much to be said for using the old-fashioned word Brahmin to denote the caste, for it is clear, though not correct. In Sanskrit there are several similar words which are liable to be confused in English. In the nominative case they are:

(1) Brâhmanah, a man of the highest caste.

(2) Brâhmanam, an ancient liturgical treatise.

(3) Brahma, the Godhead, stem Brahman, neuter.

(4) Brahmâ, a masculine nominative also formed from the stem Brahman and used as the name of a personal deity.

For (3) the stem Brahman is commonly used, as being distinct from Brahmâ, though liable to be confounded with the name of the caste.

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