Hindu Gods And Heroes - Studies in the History of the Religion of India
by Lionel D. Barnett
1  2     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The Wisdom of the East Series










* * * * *


The following pages are taken from the Forlong Bequest lectures which I delivered in March last at the School of Oriental Studies. Owing to exigencies of space, much of what I then said has been omitted here, especially with regard to the worship of Siva; but enough remains to make clear my general view, which is that the religion of the Aryans of India was essentially a worship of spirits—sometimes spirits of real persons, sometimes imaginary spirits—and that, although in early days it provisionally found room for personifications of natural forces, it could not digest them into Great Gods, and therefore they have either disappeared or, if surviving, remain as mere Struldbrugs. Thus I am a heretic in relation to both the Solar Theory and the Vegetation Theory, as everyone must be who takes the trouble to study Hindu nature without prejudice.

L. D. B.

May 29, 1922.

* * * * *



Popular Religion, p. 9—Rig-veda and priestly religion, p. 11—Dyaus-Zeus, p. 14—Ushas, p. 18—Surya, p. 19—Savita, p. 19—Mitra and Varuna, p. 19—Agni, p. 22—Soma, p. 23—Indra, p. 25—The Asvins, p. 35—Vishnu, p. 37—Rudra-Siva, p. 42—Summary, p. 42.


Growth of Brahman influence in expanding Aryan society, p. 45—System of priestly doctrine: theory of Sacrifice and mechanical control of nature thereby, p. 48—Its antinomianism: partly corrected by the growing cult of Rudra-Siva, p. 53—The Upanishads: their relation to the Brahmanas, p. 59—Brahma the Absolute, p. 60—Karma-Samsara, p. 63—Results: Saiva Theism, p. 65—Krishna: early history and legends, p. 66—Teachings, p. 68.


I. The Great War and the Pandavas, p. 70—Vishnu-Krishna, p. 74—Narayana, p. 76—Bhagavad-gita and Narayaniya, p. 77—Growth of church of Vishnu-Krishna, p. 79—Worship of Pandavas, p. 92—New erotic and romantic Krishnaism, p. 94.

II. Rama: legend of Rama and constitution of Ramayana, p. 98.

III. Some later Preachers, p. 103—Religions of Vishnu-Krishna and Siva in Southern India, p. 103—Samkara Acharya, p. 105—Ramanuja, p. 107—Nimbarka, Madhva, Vallabha, p. 108—Jnanadeva, p. 109—Nama-deva, p. 109—Tukaram, p. 109—Ramananda, p. 110—Tulsi Das, p. 110—Kabir, p. 110—Nanak, p. 110—Chaitanya, p. 110.

IV. Brahma and the Trimurti, p. 111—Dattatreya, p. 114.

V. Two Modern Instances, p. 116.


* * * * *


The object of the Editors of this series is a very definite one. They desire above all things that, in their humble way, these books shall be the ambassadors of goodwill and understanding between East and West—the old world of Thought and the new of Action. In this endeavour, and in their own sphere, they are but followers of the highest example in the land. They are confident that a deeper knowledge of the great ideals and lofty philosophy of Oriental thought may help to a revival of that true spirit of Charity which neither despises nor fears the nations of another creed and colour.






* * * * *




Let us imagine we are in a village of an Aryan tribe in the Eastern Panjab something more than thirty centuries ago. It is made up of a few large huts, round which cluster smaller ones, all of them rudely built, mostly of bamboo; in the other larger ones dwell the heads of families, while the smaller ones shelter their kinsfolk and followers, for this is a patriarchal world, and the housefather gives the law to his household. The people are mostly a comely folk, tall and clean-limbed, and rather fair of skin, with well-cut features and straight noses; but among them are not a few squat and ugly men and women, flat-nosed and nearly black in colour, who were once the free dwellers in this land, and now have become slaves or serfs to their Aryan conquerors. Around the village are fields where bullocks are dragging rough ploughs; and beyond these are woods and moors in which lurk wild men, and beyond these are the lands of other Aryan tribes. Life in the village is simple and rude, but not uneventful, for the village is part of a tribe, and tribes are constantly fighting with one another, as well as with the dark-skinned men who often try to drive back the Aryans, sometimes in small forays and sometimes in massed hordes. But the world in which the village is interested is a small one, and hardly extends beyond the bounds of the land where its tribe dwells. It knows something of the land of the Five Rivers, in one corner of which it lives, and something even of the lands to the north of it, and to the west as far as the mountains and deserts, where live men of its own kind and tongue; but beyond these limits it has no knowledge. Only a few bold spirits have travelled eastward across the high slope that divides the land of the Five Rivers from the strange and mysterious countries around the great rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the unknown land of deep forests and swarming dark-skinned men.

In the matter of religion these Aryans care a good deal about charms and spells, black and white magic, for preventing or curing all kinds of diseases or mishaps, for winning success in love and war and trade and husbandry, for bringing harm upon enemies or rivals—charms which a few centuries later will be dressed up in Rigvedic style, stuffed out with imitations of Rigvedic hymns, and published under the name of Atharva veda, "the lore of the Atharvans," by wizards who claim to belong to the old priestly clans of Atharvan and Angiras. But we have not yet come so far, and as yet all that these people can tell us is a great deal about their black and white magic, in which they are hugely interested, and a fair amount about certain valiant men of olden times who are now worshipped by them as helpful spirits, and a little about some vague spirits who are in the sun and the air and the fire and other places, and are very high and great, but are not interesting at all.

This popular religion seems to be a hopeless one, without ideals and symbols of love and hope. Is there nothing better to be found in this place? Yes, there is a priestly religion also; and if we would know something about it we must listen to the chanting of the priests, the brahmans or men of the "holy spirit," as they are called, who are holding a sacrifice now on behalf of the rich lord who lives in the largest house in the village—a service for which they expect to be paid with a handsome fee of oxen and gold. They are priests by heredity, wise in the knowledge of the ways of the gods; some of them understand how to compose riks, or hymns, in the fine speech dear to their order, hymns which are almost sure to win the gods' favour, and all of them know how the sacrifices shall be performed with perfect exactness so that no slip or imperfection may mar their efficacy. Their psalms are called Rig-veda, "lore of the verses," and they set themselves to find grace in the ears of the many gods whom these priests worship, sometimes by open praise and sometimes by riddling description of the exploits and nature of the gods. Often they are very fine; but always they are the work of priests, artists in ritual. And if you look heedfully into it you will also mark that these priests are inclined to think that the act of sacrifice, the offering of, say, certain oblations in a particular manner with particular words accompanying them, is in itself potent, quite apart from the psalms which they sing over it, that it has a magic power of its own over the machinery of nature.[1] Really this is no new idea of our Vedic priests; ten thousand years before them their remote forefathers believed it and acted upon it, and if for example they wanted rain they would sprinkle drops of water and utter magic words. Our Vedic priests have now a different kind of symbols, but all the same they still have the notion that ceremony, rita as they call it, has a magic potency of its own. Let us mark this well, for we shall see much issuing from it.

[Footnote 1: Cf. e.g. RV. III. xxxii. 12.]

Who are the gods to whom these priests offer their prayers and psalms? They are many, and of various kinds. Most of them are taken from the religion of the people, and dressed in new garb according to the imagination of the priest; and a few are priestly inventions altogether. There is Dyaush-pita, the Sky-father, with Prithivi Mata, the Earth-mother; there are Vayu the Wind-spirit, Parjanya the Rain-god, Surya the Sun-god, and other spirits of the sky such as Savita; there is the Dawn-goddess, Ushas. All these are or were originally deified powers of nature: the people, though their imagination created them, have never felt any deep interest in them, and the priests who have taken them into their charge, though they treat them very courteously and sing to them elegant hymns full of figures of speech, have not been able to cover them with the flesh and blood of living personality. Then we have Agni the Fire-god, and Soma the spirit of the intoxicating juice of the soma-plant, which is used to inspire the pious to drunken raptures in certain ceremonies; both of these have acquired a peculiar importance through their association with priestly worship, especially Agni, because he, as bearing to the gods the sacrifices cast into his flames, has become the ideal Priest and divine Paraclete of Heaven. Nevertheless all this hieratic importance has not made them gods in the deeper sense, reigning in the hearts of men. Then we find powers of doubtful origin, Mitra and Varuna and Vishnu and Rudra, and figures of heroic legend, like the warrior Indra and the twin charioteers called Asvinaa and Nasatya. All these, with many others, have their worship in the Rig-veda: the priests sing their praises lustily, and often speak now of one deity, now of another, as being the highest divinity, without the least consistency.

Some savage races believe in a highest god or first divine Being in whom they feel little personal interest. They seldom speak of him, and hardly ever worship him. So it seems to be with Dyaush-pita. The priests speak of him and to him, but only in connexion with other gods; he has not a single whole hymn in his honour, and the only definite attribute that attaches to him is that of fatherhood. Yet he has become a great god among other races akin in speech to the Aryans of India: Dyaush-pita is phonetically the same as the Greek [Greek: Zeus pater] and the Latin Iuppiter. How comes it then that he is not, and apparently never was, a god in the true sense among the Indian Aryans? Because, I think, his name has always betrayed him. To call a deity "Sky-father" is to label him as a mere abstraction. No mystery, no possibility of human personality, can gather round those two plain prose words. So long as a deity is known by the name of the physical agency that he represents, so long will he be unable to grow into a personal God in India. The priests may sing vociferous psalms to Vayu the Wind-spirit and Surya the Sun-spirit, and even to their beloved Agni the Fire-god; but sing as much as they will, they never can make the people in general take them to their hearts.

Observe what a different history is that of Zeus among the Greeks—Zeus, Father of Gods and Men, the ideal of kingly majesty and wisdom and goodness. The reason is patent. Ages and ages before the days when the Homeric poets sang, the Greeks had forgotten that Zeus originally meant "sky": it had become to them a personal name of a great spiritual power, which they were free to invest with the noblest ideal of personality. But very likely there is also another reason: I believe that the Olympian Zeus, as modelled by Homer and accepted by following generations, was not the original [Greek: Zeus pater] at all, but a usurper who had robbed the old Sky-father of his throne and of his title as well, that he was at the outset a hero-king who some time after his death was raised to the seat and dignity of the old Sky-father and received likewise his name. This theory explains the old hero-sagas which are connected with Zeus and the strange fact that the Cretans pointed to a spot in their island where they believed Zeus was buried. It explains why legends persistently averred that Zeus expelled his father Kronos from the throne and suppressed the Titan dynasty: on my view, Kronos was the original Father Zeus, and his name of Zeus and rank as chief god were appropriated by a deified hero. How natural such a process was in those days may be seen from the liturgy of Unas on the pyramids at Sakkarah in Egypt.[2] Here Unas is described as rising in heaven after his death as a supreme god, devouring his fathers and mothers, slaughtering the gods, eating their "magical powers," and swallowing their "spirit-souls," so that he thus becomes "the first-born of the first-born gods," omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal, identified with the Osiris, the highest god. Now this Unas was a real historical man; he was the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, and was deified after death, just like any other king of Egypt. The early Egyptians, like many savage tribes, regarded all their kings as gods on earth and paid them formal worship after their death; the later Egyptians, going a step further, worshipped them even in their lifetime as embodiments of the gods.[3] What is said in the liturgy for the deification of Unas is much the same as was said of other kings. The dead king in early Egypt becomes a god, even the greatest of the gods, and he assumes the name of that god[4]; he overcomes the other gods by brute force, he kills and devours them. This is very like what I think was the case with Zeus; the main difference is that in Egypt the character of the deified king was merged in that of the old god, and men continued to regard the latter in exactly the same light as before; but among the forefathers of the Greeks the reverse happened in at least one case, that of Zeus, where the character of a hero who had peculiarly fascinated popular imagination partly eclipsed that of the old god whose name and rank he usurped. The reason for this, I suppose, is that even the early Egyptians had already a conservative religion with fixed traditions and a priesthood that forgot nothing,[5] whereas among the forefathers of the Greeks, who were wandering savages, social order and religion were in a very fluid state. However that may be, a deified hero might oust an older god and reign under his name; and this theory explains many difficulties in the legends of Zeus.

[Footnote 2: Sir E. A. W. Budge, Literature of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 21 ff., and Gods of the Egyptians, i, pp. 32 f., 43.]

[Footnote 3: Erman, Handbook of Egyptian Religion, p. 37 f.]

[Footnote 4: Budge, Lit. of the Egyptians, p. 21; Erman, ut supra, p. 37 f.]

[Footnote 5: It is even possible that in one case, that of Osiris, a hero in Egypt may have eclipsed by his personality the god whom he ousted. See Sir J. W. Frazer's Adonis, Attis, Osiris, ii, p. 200, and Sir W. Ridgeway's Dramas and Dramatic Dances, etc., p. 94 ff.]

As to the Roman Iuppiter, I need not say much about him. Like all the genuine gods of Latium, he never was much more than an abstraction until the Greeks came with their literature and dressed him in the wardrobe of their Zeus.

Coming now to Ushas, the Lady of the Dawn, and looking at her name from the standpoint of comparative philosophy, we see that the word ushas is closely connected with the Greek [Greek: heos] and the Latin aurora. But when we read the literature, we are astonished to find that while the Greek Dawn-lady has remained almost always a mere abstraction, the Indian spirit is a lovely, living woman instinct with the richest sensuous charms of the East. Some twenty hymns are addressed to her, and for the most part they are alive with real poetry, with a sense of beauty and gladness and sometimes withal an under-note of sadness for the brief joys of life. But when we look carefully into it we notice a curious thing: all this hymn-singing to Ushas is purely literary and artistic, and there is practically no religion at all at the back of it. A few stories are told of her, but they seem to convince no one, and she certainly has no ritual worship apart from these hymns, which are really poetical essays more than anything else. The priestly poets are thrilled with sincere emotion at the sight of the dawn, and are inspired by it to stately and lively descriptions of its beauties and to touching reflections upon the passing of time and mortal life; but in this scene Ushas herself is hardly more than a model from an artist's studio, in a very Bohemian quarter. More than once on account of her free display of her charms she is compared to a dancing girl, or even a common harlot! Here the imagination is at work which in course of time will populate the Hindu Paradise with a celestial corps de ballet, the fair and frail Apsarasas. Our Vedic Ushas is a forerunner of that gay company. A charming person, indeed; but certainly no genuine goddess.

As his name shows, Surya is the spirit of the sun. We hear a good deal about him in the Rig-veda, but the whole of it is merely description of the power of the sun in the order of nature, partly allegorical, and partly literal. He is only a nature-power, not a personal god. The case is not quite so clear with Savita, whose name seems to mean literally "stimulator," "one who stirs up." On the whole it seems most likely that he represents the sun, as the vivifying power in nature, though some[6] think that he was originally an abstraction of the vivifying forces in the world and later became connected with the sun. However this may be, Savita is and remains an impersonal spirit with no human element in his character.

[Footnote 6: See Oldenberg, Religion des Veda, p. 64 f.]

Still more perplexing are the two deities Mitra and Varuna, who are very often associated with one another, and apparently are related. Mitra certainly is an old god: if we go over the mountains to the west and north-west of the country of our Indian Aryans, we shall find their kinsmen in Persia and Bactria worshipping him as a power that maintains the laws of righteousness and guards the sanctity of oaths and engagements, who by means of his watchmen keeps mankind under his observation and with his terrible weapons crushes evil powers. The Indian Aryans tell almost exactly the same tale of their Mitra and his companion Varuna, who perhaps is simply a doublet of Mitra with a different name, which perhaps is due to a variety of worship. But they have more to say of Varuna than of Mitra. In Varuna we have the highest ideal of spirituality that Hindu religion will reach for many centuries. Not only is he described as supreme controller of the order of nature—that is an attribute which these priestly poets ascribe with generous inconsistency to many others of their deities—but he is likewise the omniscient guardian of the moral law and the rule of religion, sternly punishing sin and falsehood with his dreaded noose, but showing mercy to the penitent and graciously communing with the sage who has found favour in his eyes.

But Mitra and Varuna will not enjoy this exalted rank for long. Soon the priests will declare that Mitra rules over the day and Varuna over the night (TS. II. i. 7, 4; VI. iv. 8, 3), and then Varuna will begin to sink in honour. The "noose of Varuna" will come to mean merely the disease of dropsy. His connection with the darkness of the night will cause men to think of him with fear; and in their dread they will forget his ancient attributes of universal righteousness, justice, and mercy, and remember him chiefly as an avenger of guilt. They will banish him to the distant seas, whose rivers he now guides over the earth in his gracious government of nature; and there he will dwell in exile for ever, remembered only to be feared. And Mitra will become merely another name for the sun.

What is the origin of this singular couple? And why are they destined to this fall? Neither of these questions can be answered by anything but conjectures. There is no evidence either from Indian or from Iranian religion that Mitra or his double Varuna grew out of the worship of the sun or the sky, although in their worship they were sometimes connected with the sun and the sky. However far backwards we look, we still find them essentially spirits of natural order and moral law, gods in the higher sense of the word. But their character, and especially the character of Varuna, it seems to me, is rather too high to survive the competition of rival cults, such as that of the popular hero Indra and the priests' darling Agni, which tend to engross the interest of worshippers lay and cleric, and to blunt their relish for more spiritual ideals. So Mitra and Varuna become stunted in their growth; and at last comes the fatal time when they are identified with the sky by day and night. This is the final blow. No deity that is plainly limited to any one phase or form of nature in India can be or become a great god; and speedily all their real divinity fades away from Mitra and Varuna, and they shrivel into insignificance.

Next we turn to a spirit of a very different sort, the Fire-god, Agni. The word agni is identical with the Latin ignis; it means "fire," and nothing else but fire, and this fact is quite sufficient to prevent Agni from becoming a great god. The priests indeed do their best, by fertile fancy and endless repetition of his praises, to lift him to that rank; but even they cannot do it. From the days of the earliest generations of men Fire was a spirit; and the household fire, which cooks the food of the family and receives its simple oblations of clarified butter, is a kindly genius of the home. But with all his usefulness and elfish mystery Fire simply remains fire, and there's an end of it, for the ordinary man. But the priests will not have it so. The chief concern of their lives is with sacrifice, and their deepest interest is in the spirit of the sacrificial fire. All the riches of their imagination and their vocabulary are lavished upon him, his forms and his activities. They have devoted to him about 200 hymns and many occasional verses, in which they dwell with constant delight and ingenious metaphor upon his splendour, his power, his birth from wood, from the two firesticks, from trees of the forest, from stones, or as lightning from the clouds, his kinship with the sun, his dwelling in three abodes (viz. as a rule on earth, in the clouds as lightning, and in the upper heavens as the sun), his place in the homes of men as a holy guest, a friend and a kinsman, his protection of worshippers against evil spirits and malignant sorcerers, and especially his function of conveying the oblation poured into his flames up to the gods. Thus they are led to represent him as the divine Priest, the ideal hierophant, in whom are united the functions of the three chief classes of Rigvedic sacrificial priests, the hota, adhvaryu, and brahman, and hence as an all-knowing sage and seer. If infinite zeal and ingenuity in singing Agni's praises and glorifying his activities can avail to raise him to the rank of a great god, we may expect to find him very near the top. But it is not to be. The priests cannot convince the plain man of Agni's super-godhead, and soon they will fail to convince even themselves. The time will shortly come when they will regard all these gods as little more than puppets whose strings are pulled by the mysterious spirit of the sacrifice.

The priests have another pet deity, Soma. For the sacred rites include the pressing and drinking of the fermented yellow juice of the soma-plant, an acid draught with intoxicating powers, which when mixed with milk and drunk in the priestly rites inspires religious ecstasy. This drinking of the soma-juice is already an ancient and important feature in the worship of our Aryans, as it is also among their kinsmen in Iran; so it is no wonder that the spirit of the sacred plant has been made by the priests into an important deity and celebrated with endless abundance of praise and prayer. As with Agni, Soma's appearance and properties are described with inexhaustible wealth of epithets and metaphors. The poets love to dwell on the mystic powers of this wonderful potion, which can heal sickness of soul and body and inspire gods and men to mighty deeds and holy ecstasy. Most often they tell how the god Indra drank huge potions of it to strengthen himself for his great fight with the dragon Vritra. Most of this worship is of priestly invention; voluminous as its rhetoric is, it makes no great impression on the laity, nor perhaps on the clergy either. Some of the more ingenious of the priests are already beginning to trace an affinity between Soma and the moon. The yellow soma-stalks swell in the water of the pressing-vat, as the yellow moon waxes in the sky; the soma has a magical power of stimulation, and the moon sends forth a mystic liquid influence over the vegetation of the earth, and especially over magic plants; the soma is an ambrosia drunk by gods and heroes to inspire them to mighty deeds, and the moon is a bowl of ambrosia which is periodically drunk by the gods and therefore wanes month by month. The next step will soon be taken, and the priests will say that Soma is the moon; and literature will then obediently accept this statement, and, gradually forgetting nearly everything that Soma meant to the Rigvedic priests, will use the name Soma merely as a secondary name for Chandra, the moon and its god. A very illuminating process, which shows how a god may utterly change his nature. Now we turn to the hero-gods.

Indra and the Asvina at the beginning came to be worshipped because they were heroes, men who were supposed to have wrought marvellously noble and valiant deeds in dim far-off days, saviours of the afflicted, champions of the right, and who for this reason were worshipped after death, perhaps even before death, as divine beings, and gradually became associated in their legends and the forms of their worship with all kinds of other gods. Times change, gods grow old and fade away, but the remembrance of great deeds lives on in strange wild legends, which, however much they may borrow from other worships and however much they may be obscured by the phantom lights of false fancy, still throw a glimmer of true light back through the darkness of the ages into an immeasurably distant past.

Indra is a mighty giant, tawny of hair and beard and tawny of aspect. The poets tell us that he bears up or stretches out earth and sky, even that he has created heaven and earth. He is a monarch supreme among the gods, the lord of all beings, immeasurable and irresistible of power. He rides in a golden chariot drawn by two tawny horses, or many horses, even as many as eleven hundred, and he bears as his chief weapon the vajra, or thunderbolt, sometimes also a bow with arrows, a hook, or a net. Of all drinkers of soma he is the lustiest; he swills many lakes of it, and he eats mightily of the flesh of bulls and buffaloes. To his worshippers he gives abundance of wealth and happiness, and he leads them to victory over hostile tribes of Aryans and the still more dreaded hordes of dark-skins, the Dasas and Dasyus. He guided the princes Yadu and Turvasa across the rivers, he aided Divodasa Atithigva to discomfit the dark-skinned Sambara, he gave to Divodasa's son Sudas the victory over the armies of the ten allied kings beside the river Parushni. Many are the names of the devils and demons that have fallen before him; but most glorious of all his deeds is the conquest of Vritra, the dragon dwelling in a mountain fastness amidst the waters, where Indra, accompanied by the troop of Maruts, or storm-gods, slew the monster with his bolt and set free the waters, or recovered the hidden kine. Our poets sing endless variations on this theme, and sometimes speak of Indra repeating the exploit for the benefit of his worshippers, which is as much as to say that they, or at least some of them, think it an allegory.

In all this maze of savage fancy and priestly invention and wild exaggeration there are some points that stand out clearly. Indra is a god of the people, particularly of the fighting man, a glorified type of the fair-haired, hard-fighting, hard-drinking forefathers of the Indian Aryans and their distant cousins the Hellenes; and therefore he is the champion of their armies in battles. He is not a fiction of hieratic imagination, whom priests regale with hyperbolic flattery qualified only by the lukewarmness of their belief in their own words. He is a living personality in the faith of the people; the priests only invent words to express the people's faith, and perhaps add to the old legends some riddling fancies of their own. Many times they tell us that after conquering Vritra and setting free the waters or the kine Indra created the light, the dawn, or the sun; or they say that he produced them without mentioning any fight with Vritra; sometimes they speak of him as setting free "the kine of the Morning," which means that they understood the cows to signify the light of morning, and it would seem also that they thought that the waters mentioned in the story signified the rain. But why do they speak of these acts as heroic deeds, exploits of a mighty warrior, in the same tone and with the same epic fire as when they sing of Indra's battles in times near to their own, real battles in which their own forefathers, strong in their faith in the god, shattered the armies of hostile Aryan tribes or the fortresses of dark-skinned natives? The personality of Indra and the spirit in which his deeds are recounted remind us of hero-sagas; the allegories which the poets read into them are on the other hand quite in the style of the priest. How can we explain the presence of these two voices? Besides, why should the setting free of the rain or the daylight be a peculiarly heroic attribute of Indra? Other gods are said to do the same things as part of their regular duties: Parjanya, Mitra and Varuna, Dyaus, dispense the rain, others the light.

The explanation is simple. Indra, it seems to me, is a god of just the same sort as Zeus, whose nature and history I have already explained according to my lights. In the far-away past Indra was simply a hero: very likely he was once a chieftain on earth. The story of his great deeds so fascinated the imagination of men that they worshipped his memory and at last raised him to the rank of a chief god. Now they had previously worshipped two very high gods; one of these was Dyaush-pita, the Sky-father, of whom I have spoken before, and another was Tvashta, the All-creator. So some of them, as the Rig-veda proves, declared that Dyaus was the father of Indra, and others appear to have given this honour to Tvashta, while others regarded Tvashta as Indra's grandfather; and some even said that in order to obtain the soma to inspire him to divine deeds Indra killed his father, which of course is just an imaginative way of saying that Indra was made into a god and worshipped in place of the elder god.

The puzzle now is solved. Indra has remained down to the time of the Rig-veda true to his early nature, an epic hero and typical warrior; but he has also borrowed from the old Sky-father the chief attributes of a sky-spirit, especially the giving of rain and the making of light, which the priests of the Rig-veda riddlingly describe as setting free the waters and the cows. He bears the thunderbolt, as does also Zeus; like Zeus, he has got it from the Sky-father, who had likewise a thunderbolt, according to some Rigvedic poets, though others say it was forged for him by Tvashta, his other father. I even venture to think that there is a kernel of heroic legend in the story of the slaying of Vritra; that at bottom it is a tale relating how Indra with a band of brave fellows stormed a mountain hold surrounded by water in which dwelt a wicked chieftain who had carried away the cattle of his people, and that when Indra had risen to the rank of a great god of the sky men added to this plain tale much mythical decoration appropriate to his new quality, turning the comrades of Indra into the storm-gods and interpreting the waters and cows to mean rain and daylight. Since most of us are agreed that stories such as that of Indra defeating Sambara for the benefit of Divodasa refer to real events, it seems unnatural to suppose that the Vritra-legend is a purely imaginary myth. We can thus explain why the ideas of Indra setting free the rain and the light fit in so awkwardly with the heroic element in the legend: for they are merely secondary attributes, borrowed from the myths of other gods and mechanically attached to Indra on his elevation in the pantheon. But we can explain much more. There is a regular cycle of hero-saga connected with Indra which is visible or half-visible at the back of some of the Vedic hymns and of the priestly literature which is destined to follow them.

The truth is that the priests of the Rig-veda on the whole have not quite made up their minds about Indra's merits, and we shall find them a few generations hence equally uncertain. They praise his heroic deeds lustily and admire his power immensely; but they are keenly aware that he is a god with a past, and sometimes they dwell on that. Their favourite method is to relate some of his former questionable deeds in the form of a reproach, and then to turn the story to his credit in some way or another; but as time goes on and the priests think less and less of most of their gods, Indra's character will steadily sink, and in the end we shall find him playing a subordinate part, a debauched king in a sensuous paradise, popularly worshipped as a giver of rain. But this is to anticipate. As yet Indra is to the Rigvedic priests a very great god; but how did he become so? If we read carefully the hymn RV. IV. xviii.[7] we see at the back of it a story somewhat like this. Before he was born, Tvashta, Indra's grandfather, knew that Indra would dispossess him of his sovereignty over the gods, and therefore did his best to prevent his birth (cf. RV. III. xlviii.); but the baby Indra would not be denied, and he forced his way into the light of day through the side of his mother Aditi, who seems to be the same as Mother Earth (cf. Ved. Stud., ii, p. 86), killed his father, and drank Tvashta's soma, by which he obtained divine powers. In v. 12 of this hymn Indra excuses himself by saying that he was in great straits, and that then the soma was brought to him by an eagle. What these straits were is indicated in another hymn (IV. xxvii.), which tells us that he was imprisoned, and escaped on the back of the eagle, which he compelled to carry him; the watchman Krisanu shot an arrow at the bird, but it passed harmlessly through its feathers. Evidently in the story Indra had a hard struggle with rival gods. One poet says (RV. IV. xxx. 3): "Not even all the gods, O Indra, defeated thee, when thou didst lengthen days into nights," which apparently refers also to some miracle like that ascribed to Joshua. Another tradition (MS. I. vi. 12) relates that while Indra and his brother Vivasvan were still unborn they declared their resolve to oust the Adityas, the elder sons of their mother Aditi; so the Adityas tried to kill them when born, and actually slew Vivasvan, but Indra escaped. Another version (TS. II. iv. 13) says that the gods, being afraid of Indra, bound him with fetters before he was born; and at the same time Indra is identified with the Rajanya, or warrior class, as its type and representative.[8] This last point is immensely important, for it really clinches the matter. Not once, but repeatedly, the priestly literature of the generations that will follow immediately after that of the Rig-veda will be found to treat Indra as the type of the warrior order.[9] They will describe an imaginary coronation-ceremony of Indra, ending with these words: "Anointed with this great anointment Indra won all victories, found all the worlds, attained the superiority, pre-eminence, and supremacy over all the gods, and having won the overlordship, the paramount rule, the self rule, the sovereignty, the supreme authority, the kingship, the great kingship, the suzerainty in this world, self-existing, self-ruling, immortal, in yonder world of heaven, having attained all desires he became immortal."[10] Thus we see that amidst the maze of obscure legends about Indra there are three points which stand out with perfect clearness. They are, firstly, that Indra was a usurper; secondly, that the older gods fought hard but vainly to keep him from supreme divinity, and that in his struggle he killed his father; and thirdly, that he was identified with the warrior class, as opposed to the priestly order, or Brahmans. This antagonism to the Brahmans is brought out very clearly in some versions of the tales of his exploits. More than once the poets of the Rig-veda hint that his slaying of Vritra involved some guilt, the guilt of brahma-hatya, or slaughter of a being in whom the brahma, or holy spirit, was embodied[11]; and this is explained clearly in a priestly tale (TS. II. v. 2, 1 ff.; cf. SB. I. i. 3, 4, vi. 3, 8), according to which Indra from jealousy killed Tvashta's son Visvarupa, who was chaplain of the gods, and thus he incurred the guilt of brahma-hatya. Then Tvashta held a soma-sacrifice; Indra, being excluded from it, broke up the ceremony and himself drank the soma. The soma that was left over Tvashta cast into one of the sacred fires and produced thereby from it the giant Vritra, by whom the whole universe, including Agni and Soma, was enveloped (cf. the later version in Mahabharata, V. viii. f.). By slaying him Indra again became guilty of brahma-hatya; and some Rigvedic poets hint that it was the consciousness of this sin which made him flee away after the deed was done.

[Footnote 7: I follow in the interpretation of this hymn E. Sieg, Die Sagenstoffe des Rgveda, i. p. 76 ff. Cf. on the subject Ved. Stud., i. p. 211, ii. pp. 42-54. Charpentier, Die Suparnasage, takes a somewhat different view of RV. IV. xxvi.-xxvii., which, however, does not convince me; I rather suspect that RV. IV. xxvi. 1 and 4, with their mention of Manu, to whom the soma was brought, are echoes of an ancient and true tradition that Indra was once a mortal.]

[Footnote 8: The other legend in MS. II. i. 12, that Aditi bound the unborn Indra with an iron fetter, with which he was born, and of which he was able to rid himself by means of a sacrifice, is probably later.]

[Footnote 9: E.g. AB. VII. xxxi., VIII. xii. Cf. BA. Up. I. iv. 11-13.]

[Footnote 10: AB. VIII. xiv. (Keith's translation).]

[Footnote 11: Cf. Sayana on RV. I. xciii. 5.]

These bits of saga prove, as effectually as is possible in a case like this, that Indra was originally a warrior-king or chieftain who was deified, perhaps by the priestly tribe of the Angirasas, who claim in some of the hymns to have aided him in his fight with Vritra, and that he thus rose to the first rank in the pantheon, gathering round himself a great cycle of heroic legend based upon those traditions, and only secondarily and by artificial invention becoming associated with the control of the rain and the daylight.

The name Asvina means "The Two Horsemen"; what their other name, Nasatya, signifies nobody has satisfactorily explained. But even with the name Asvina there is a difficulty. They are described usually as riding together in a chariot which is sometimes said to be drawn by horses, and this would suit their name; but more often the poets say that their chariot is drawn by birds, such as eagles or swans, and sometimes even by a buffalo or buffaloes, or by an ass. I do not see how we can escape from this difficulty except by supposing that popular imagination in regard to this matter varied from very early times, but preferred to think of them as having horses. At any rate they are very ancient gods, for the people of Iran also have traditions about them, and in the far-away land of the Mitanni, in the north of Mesopotamia, they are invoked together with Indra, Mitra, and Varuna to sanction treaties. In India the Aryans keep them very busy, for they are more than anything else gods of help. Thrice every day and thrice every night they sally forth on their patrols through earth and heaven, in order to aid the distressed[12]: and the poets tell us the names of many persons whom they have relieved, such as old Chyavana, whom they restored to youth and love, Bhujyu, whom they rescued from drowning in the ocean, Atri, whom they saved from a fiery pit, Vispala, to whom when her leg had been cut off they gave one of iron, and Ghosha, to whom they brought a husband. Many other helpful acts are ascribed to them, and it is very likely that at least some of these stories are more or less true. Another legend relates that they jointly wedded Surya, the daughter of the Sun-god, who chose them from amongst the other gods.[13]

[Footnote 12: Cf. Ved. Studien, ii. p. 31, RV. I. xxxiv. 2.]

[Footnote 13: Cf. Ved. Studien, i. p. 14 ff.]

Amidst the medley of saga and facts and poetical imagination which surrounds the Asvina, can we see the outlines of their original character? It is hard to say: opinions must differ. The Aryans of India are inclined to say that they are simply divine kings active in good works; but the priests are perhaps beginning to fancy that they may be embodiments of powers of nature—they are not sure which—and in course of time they will have various theories, partly connected with their rituals. But really all that is certain in the Vedic age about the Asvins is that they are an ancient pair of saviour-gods who ride about in a chariot and render constant services to mankind. We are tempted however to see a likeness between them and the [Greek: Dios koro] of the distant Hellenes, the heroes Kastor and Polydeukes, Castor and Pollux, the twin Horsemen who are saviours of afflicted mankind by land and sea. There are difficulties in the way of this theory; but they are not unsurmountable, and I believe that the Asvina of India have the same origin as the Twin Horsemen of Greece. At any rate both the pairs are hero-gods, whose divinity has been created by mankind's need for help and admiration for valour. Whether there was any human history at the back of this process we cannot say.

Now we may leave the heroes and consider a god of a very different kind, Vishnu.

The Rig-veda has not very much to say about Vishnu, and what it says is puzzling. The poets figure him as a beneficent young giant, of unknown parentage, with two characteristic attributes: the first of these is his three mystic strides, the second his close association with Indra. Very often they refer to these three strides, sometimes using the verb vi-kram, "to step out," sometimes the adjectives uru-krama, "widely-stepping," and uru-gaya, "wide-going." The three steps carry Vishnu across the three divisions of the universe, in the highest of which is his home, which apparently he shares with Indra (RV. I. xxxii. 20, cliv. 5-6, III. lv. 10; cf. AB. I. i., etc.). Some of them are beginning to imagine that these steps symbolise the passage of the sun through the three divisions of the world, the earth, sky, and upper heaven; certainly this idea will be held by many later scholars, though a few will maintain that it denotes the sun at its rising, at midday, and at its setting. Before long we shall find some priests harping on the same notion in another form, saying that Vishnu's head was cut off by accident and became the sun; and later on we shall see Vishnu bearing as one of his weapons a chakra, or discus, which looks like a figure of the sun. But really all this is an afterthought: in the Veda, and the priestly literature that follows directly upon the Veda, Vishnu is not the sun. Nor do we learn what he is very readily from his second leading attribute in the Rig-veda, his association with Indra. Yet it is a very clearly marked trait in his character. Not only do the poets often couple the two gods in prayer and praise, but they often tell us that the one performed his characteristic deeds by the help of the other. They say that Vishnu made his three strides by the power of Indra (VIII. xii. 27), or for the sake of Indra (Val. iv. 3), and even that Indra strode along with Vishnu (VI. lxix. 5, VII. xcix. 6), and on the other hand they tell us often that it was by the aid of Vishnu that Indra overcame Vritra and other malignant foes. "Friend Vishnu, stride out lustily," cries Indra before he can strike down Vritra (IV. xviii. 11).[14] The answer to this riddle I find in the Brahmanas, the priestly literature which is about to follow immediately after the Veda. In plain unequivocal words the Brahmanas tell us again and again that Vishnu is the sacrifice.[15] Evidently when they repeat this they are repeating an old hieratic tradition; and it is one which perfectly explains the facts of the case. Vishnu, I conceive, was originally nothing more or less than the embodied spirit of the sacrificial rites. His name seems to be derived from the root vish, meaning stimulation or inspiration; and this is exactly what the sacrifice is supposed in priestly theory to do. The sacrifice, accompanied by prayer and praise, is imagined to have a magic power of its own, by which the gods worshipped in it are strengthened to perform their divine functions. One poet says to Indra: "When thy two wandering Bays thou dravest hither, thy praiser laid within thine arms the thunder" (RV. I. lxiii. 2); and still more boldly another says: "Sacrifice, Indra, made thee wax so mighty ... worship helped thy bolt when slaying the dragon" (III. xxxii. 12). So it would be very natural for the priests to conceive this spirit of the sacrificial rites as a personal deity; and this deity, the Brahmanas assure us, is Vishnu. Then the idea of the three strides and the association with Indra would easily grow up in the priestly imagination. The inspiring power of the sacrifice is supposed to pervade the three realms of the universe, earth, sky, and upper heavens; this idea is expressed in the common ritual formula bhur bhuvas svah, and is symbolised by three steps taken by the priest in certain ceremonies, which are translated into the language of myth as the three strides of Vishnu.[16] Observe that in the Rig-veda the upper heaven is not the dwelling-place of Vishnu only; Agni the Fire-god, Indra and Soma have their home in it also (RV. I. cliv. 6, IV. xxvi. 6, xxvii. 3-4, V. iii. 3, VIII. lxxxix. 8, IX. lxiii. 27, lxvi. 30, lxviii. 6, lxxvii. 2, lxxxvi. 24, X. i. 3, xi. 4, xcix. 8, cxliv. 4). Later, however, when their adventitious divinity begins to fade away from Agni and Soma, and Indra is allotted a special paradise of his own, this "highest step" will be regarded as peculiar to Vishnu, Vishnoh paramam padam.

[Footnote 14: A later and distorted version of this myth appears in AB. VI. xv.]

[Footnote 15: E.g. MS. 1. iv. 14, SB. I. i. 1, 2, 13, TB. I. ii. 5, 1, AB. I. xv., KB. IV. ii., XVIII. viii., xiv.]

[Footnote 16: SB. I. ix. 3, 8-11. Cf. the three steps of the Amesha-spentas from the earth to the sun, imitated in the Avestic ritual (Avesta, transl. Darmesteter, I. 401).]

As soon as this spirit of sacrifice was thus personified, he at once attached himself to Indra; for Indra is pre-eminently the god of action, and for his activities he needs to be stimulated by sacrifice and praise. As the priests will tell us in plain unvarnished words, "he to whom the Sacrifice comes as portion slays Indra" (AB. I. iv.). Therefore we are told that Vishnu aids Indra in his heroic exploits, that Vishnu takes his strides and presses Soma in order that Indra may be strengthened for his tasks. Now we can see the full meaning of Indra's cry before striking Vritra, "Friend Vishnu, stride out lustily!"; for until the sacrifice has put forth its mystic energy the god cannot strike his blow. We are told also that Vishnu cooks buffaloes and boils milk for Indra,[17] for buffaloes were no doubt anciently offered to Indra. The vivid reality of Indra's character has clothed Vishnu with some of its own flesh and blood; originally a priestly abstraction, he has become through association with Indra a living being, a real god. The blood which has thus been poured into his veins will enable him to live through a critical period of his life, until by combination with another deity he will rise to new and supreme sovereignty. But of that more anon. Meanwhile let us note the significance of this union of Vishnu and Indra in the Veda. Vishnu, the spirit of Sacrifice, is in a sense representative of the Brahman priesthood, and Indra, as I have shown, is commonly regarded as typical of the warrior order. In the Rig-veda Indra is powerless without Vishnu's mystic service, and Vishnu labours to aid Indra in his heroic works for the welfare of men and gods. Surely this is an allegory, though the priests may so far be only dimly conscious of its full meaning—an allegory bodying forth the priestly ideal of the reign of righteousness, in which the King is strong by the mystic power of the Priest, and the Priest lives for the service of the King.

[Footnote 17: RV. VI. xvii. 11, VIII. lxvi. 10; the myth in RV. I. lxi. 7, VIII. lxvi. 10, and TS. VI. ii. 4, 2-3 is expanded from this original idea. Cf. Macdonell, Vedic Myth., p. 41.]

There is another god who is destined to become in future ages Vishnu's chief rival—Rudra, "The Tawny," or Siva, "The Gracious." He belongs to the realm of popular superstition, a spiteful demon ever ready to smite men and cattle with disease, but likewise dispensing healing balms and medicines to those that win his favour. The Rigvedic priests as yet do not take much interest in him, and for the most part they leave him to their somewhat despised kinsmen the Atharvans, who do a thriving trade in hymns and spells to secure the common folk against his wrath.

There are many more gods, godlings, and spirits in the Vedic religion; but we must pass over them. We have seen enough, I hope, to give us a fair idea of the nature and value of that religion in general. What then is its value?

The Rigveda is essentially a priestly book; but it is not entirely a priestly book. Much of the thought to which it gives utterance is popular in origin and sentiment, and is by no means of the lowest order. On this groundwork the priests have built up a system of hieratic thought and ritual of their own, in which there is much that deserves a certain respect. There is a good deal of fine poetry in it. There is also in it some idea of a law of righteousness: in spite of much wild and unmoral myth and fancy, its gods for the most part are not capricious demons but spirits who act in accordance with established laws, majestic and wise beings in whom are embodied the highest ideals to which men have risen as yet. Moreover, the priests in the later books have given us some mystic hymns containing vigorous and pregnant speculations on the deepest questions of existence, speculations which are indeed fanciful and unscientific, but which nevertheless have in them the germs of the powerful idealism that is destined to arise in centuries to come. On the other hand, the priests have cast their system in the mould of ritualism. Ritual, ceremony, sacrifice, professional benefit—these are their predominant interests. The priestly ceremonies are conceived to possess a magical power of their own; and the fixed laws of ritual by which these ceremonies are regulated tend to eclipse, and finally even to swallow up, the laws of moral righteousness under which the gods live. A few generations more, and the priesthood will frankly announce its ritual to be the supreme law of the universe. Meanwhile they are becoming more and more indifferent to the personalities of the gods, when they have preserved any; they are quite ready to ascribe attributes of one deity to another, even attributes of nominal supremacy, with unscrupulous inconsistency and dubious sincerity; for the personalities of the different gods are beginning to fade away in their eyes, and in their mind is arising the conception of a single universal Godhead.



Centuries have passed since the hymns of the Rig-veda were composed. The Aryans have now crossed the fateful ridge on the east of their former settlements, and have spread themselves over the lands of Northern Hindostan around the upper basins of the Ganges and Jamna, reaching eastward as far as Bihar and southward down to the Vindhya Mountains, and in the course of their growth they have absorbed not a little of the blood of the dark-skinned natives. The old organisation of society by tribes has come to an end, though the names of many ancient tribes are still heard; the Aryans are now divided laterally by the principle of what we call "caste," which is based upon a combination of religious and professional distinctions, and vertically by the rule of kings, while a few oligarchic governments still survive to remind them of Vedic days. In these kingdoms the old tribes are beginning to be fused together; from these combinations new States are arising, warring with one another, constantly waxing and waning. Society is ruled politically by kings, spiritually by Brahmans. With the rise of the kingdom an Established Church has come into existence, and the Brahman priesthood works out its principles to the bitterest end of logic.

The Brahmans are now, more than they ever were before, a close corporation of race, religion, and profession, a religious fraternity in the strict sense of the words. While other classes of the Aryans have mixed their blood to a greater or less degree with that of the natives, the Brahmans have preserved much of the pure Aryan strain. They, moreover, have maintained the knowledge of the ancient Vedic language in which the sacred hymns of their forefathers were composed, of the traditions associated with them, and of the priestly lore of Vedic ritual. Proud of this heritage and resolved to maintain it undiminished, they have knitted themselves into a close spiritual and intellectual aristocracy, which stands fast like a lighthouse amidst the darkness and storms of political changes. They employ all the arts of the priest, the thinker, the statesman, and even the magician to preserve their primacy; and around them the manifold variety of the other castes, in all their divisions and subdivisions, groups itself to make up the multi-coloured web of Indian life.

In course of time this priesthood will spread out octopus-like tentacles over the whole of India. Becoming all things to all men, it will find a place in its pantheon for all gods and all ideas, baptising them by orthodox names or justifying them by ingenious fictions. It will send forth apostles and colonies even to the furthermost regions of the distant South, which, alien in blood and in tradition, will nevertheless accept them and surrender its best intellect to their control. It will even admit into the lower ranks of its own body men of foreign birth by means of legal fictions, in order to maintain its control of religion. Though itself splitting up into scores of divisions varying in purity of blood and tradition, it will still as a whole maintain its position as against all other classes of society. That the Brahman is the Deity on earth, and other classes shall accept this dogma and agree to take their rank in accordance with it, will become the principle holding together a vast agglomeration of utterly diverse elements within the elastic bounds of Catholic Brahmanism.

But as yet this condition of things has not arrived. The Brahmans are still comparatively pure in blood and homogeneous in doctrine, and they have as yet sent forth no colonies south of the Vindhya. They are established in the lands of the Ganges and Jamna as far to the east as Benares, and they look with some contempt on their kinsmen in the western country that they have left behind. They are busily employed in working out to logical conclusions the ideas and principles of their Rigvedic forefathers. They have now three Vedas; for to the old Rig-veda they have added a Yajur-veda for the use of the sacrificant orders of priests and a Sama-veda or hymnal containing Rigvedic hymns arranged for the chanting of choristers. The result of these labours is that they have created a vast and intricate system of sacrificial ritual, perhaps the most colossal of its kind that the world has ever seen or ever will see. What is still more remarkable, the logical result of this immense development of ritualism is that the priesthood in theory is practically atheistic, while on the other hand a certain number of its members have arrived at a philosophy of complete idealism which is beginning to turn its back upon ritualism.

The atheist is not so much the man who denies the existence of any god as the man to whom God is not God, who looks upon the Deity as subordinate to powers void of holiness and nobility, the man who will not see in God the highest force in the world of nature and in the realm of the spirit. In this sense the Brahmans are thorough atheists. According to them, the universe with all that is in it—gods, men, and lower things—is created and governed by an iron law of soulless natural necessity. It has arisen by emanation from a cosmic Principle, Prajapati, "the Lord of Creatures," an impersonal being who shows no trace of moral purpose in his activity. Prajapati himself is not absolutely the first in the course of nature. The Brahmanas, the priestly books composed in this period to expound the rules and mystic significance of the Brahmanic ceremonies, give us varying accounts of his origin, some of them saying that he arose through one or more intermediate stages from non-existence (TB. II. ii. 9, 1-10, SB. VI. i. 1, 1-5), others deriving him indirectly from the primitive waters (SB. XI. i. 6, 1), others tracing his origin back to the still more impersonal and abstract Brahma (Samav. B. I. 1-3, Gop. B. I. i. 4). All these are attempts to express in the form of myth the idea of an impersonal Principle of Creation as arising from a still more abstract first principle. We have seen the poets of the Rig-veda gradually moving towards the idea of a unity of godhead; in Prajapati this goal is attained, but unfortunately it is attained by sacrificing almost all that is truly divine in godhead. The conception of Prajapati that we find in the Brahmanas is also expressed in some of the latest hymns of the Rig-veda. Among these is the famous Purusha-sukta (RV. X. 90), which throws a peculiar light on the character of Prajapati. It is in praise of a primitive Purusha or Man, who is, of course, the same as Prajapati; in some mysterious manner this Purusha is sacrificed, and from the various parts of his body arise the various parts of the world. The idea conveyed by this is that the universe came into existence by the operation of the mystic laws revealed in the Brahmanic rituals, and is maintained in its natural order by the same means. The Brahmanas do not indeed often assert on their own authority that Prajapati was himself sacrificed in order to produce the world, and in fact they usually give other accounts of the creation; but as their authors live in a rarefied atmosphere of mystical allegory in which fact and fancy are completely confused with one another and consistency ceases to have any meaning, none of them would have difficulty in accepting the Rigvedic statement that he was sacrificed. Hence they tell us on the one hand that Prajapati has created the world from a blind will for generation or increase, producing from each of his limbs some class of beings corresponding to it (e.g. MS. IV. vi. 3), or copulating with the earth, atmosphere, sky, and speech (SB. VI. i. 2, 1), or that he brought it into existence indirectly by entering with the Triple Science or mystic lore of the three Vedas into the primeval waters and thence forming an egg from which was hatched the personal Demiurge Brahma, who actually created the world (SB. VI. i. 1, 10); and on the other hand they relate that he created sacrifice and performed it, making of himself a victim in order that the gods, his offspring, might perform the rites for their own benefit, forming an image of himself to be the sacrifice, by which he redeemed himself from the gods (SB. XI. i. 8, 2-4; cf. AB. VII. 19, KB. XIII. 1, SB. III. ii. 1, 11), and that after creation he ascended to heaven (SB. X. ii. 2, 1). The thought that lies underneath these bewildering flights of fancy is one of mystic pantheism: all created existence has arisen by emanation from the one Creative Principle, Prajapati, and in essence is one with Prajapati; Prajapati is an impersonal being, a creative force, in which are embodied the laws of Brahmanic ritual, which acts only in these laws, and which is above the moral influences that affect humanity; and the whole of created nature, animate and inanimate, is controlled in every process of its being by these laws, and by the priest who possesses the knowledge of them. Thus there lies a profound significance in the title of "gods on earth" which the Brahmans have assumed.

When we speak of sacrifice in India, we must clear our minds of the ideas which we have formed from reading the Bible. The Mosaic conception of sacrifice was that of a religious ceremony denoting a moral relation between a personal God and His worshippers: in the sin-offerings and trespass-offerings was symbolised a reconciliation between man and his God who was angered by man's conscious or unconscious breach of the laws which had been imposed upon him for his spiritual welfare, while meat-offerings and peace-offerings typified the worshipper's sense of gratitude for the Divine love and wisdom that guarded him. Of such relations there is to be found in the Brahmanas no trace. If we may use a modern figure of speech, they conceive the universe of gods, men, and lower creatures as a single immense electric battery, and the sacrifice as a process of charging this battery with ever fresh electricity. The sacrifice is a process, at once material and mystic, which preserves the order of nature as established by the prototypic sacrifice performed by Prajapati. The gods became divine and immortal through sacrifice (TS. VI. iii. 4, 7, VI. iii. 10, 2, VII. iv. 2, 1, SB. I. vi. 2, 1, MS. III. ix. 4, AB. VI. i. 1, etc.); and they live on the gifts of earth, as mankind lives on the gifts of heaven (TS. III. ii. 9, 7, SB. I. ii. 5, 24). The sacrifice is thus the life-principle, the soul, of all gods and all beings (SB. VIII. vi. 1, 10, IX. iii. 2, 7, XIV. iii. 2, 1); or, what amounts to the same thing, the Triple Science or the knowledge of the ceremonies of the Three Vedas is their essence (SB. X. iv. 2, 21). As Prajapati created the primeval sacrifice, and as the gods by following this rule obtained their divinity, so man should seek to follow their example and by means of sacrifice rise to godhead and immortality. As one Brahmana puts it, the sacrifice leads the way to heaven; it is followed by the dakshina, or fee paid by the sacrificer to the sacrificant priests, which of course materially strengthens the efficacy of the sacrifice; and third comes the sacrificer, holding fast to the dakshina. This ascent of heaven is symbolised in the ceremony called durohana, or "hard mounting" (AB. IV. 20, 21, KB. XXV. 7), and it is ensured by the rite of diksha, or consecration, in which the sacrificer is symbolically represented as passing through a new conception, gestation, and birth, by which he is supposed to obtain two bodies. One of these bodies is immortal and spiritual; the other is mortal and material, and is assigned as a victim to all the gods. He then ransoms his material body from the obligation of being sacrificed, as did Prajapati, and thus ranks literally as a "god on earth," with the certainty of becoming in due course a god in heaven.

When the student on reading the Brahmanas finds them full of interminable ceremonial rules with equally interminable commentaries interpreting them by wildest analogies as symbolical of details of myths or of laws of nature and hence as conferring mystic powers, besides all kinds of myths, some forcibly dragged into the interpretation of the ritual because of some imaginary point of resemblance, others invented or recast on purpose to justify some detail of ceremony, and when moreover he observes that many of these myths and some of the rites are brutally and filthily obscene, and that hardly any of them show the least moral feeling, he may be excused for thinking the Brahmanas to be the work of madmen. But there is some method in their madness. However strangely they may express them, they have definite and strictly logical ideas about the sacrificial ritual and its cosmic function. It is more difficult to defend them against the charge of want of morality. It must be admitted that their supreme Being, Prajapati, is in the main lines of his character utterly impersonal, and where incidentally he shows any human feelings they are as a rule far from creditable to him. He created the universe from mechanical instinct or blind desire, and committed or tried to commit incest with his daughter (the accounts are various). He has begotten both the gods and the demons, devas and asuras, who are constantly at war with one another. The gods, who are embodiments of "truth" (that is to say, correct knowledge of the law of ritual), have been often in great danger of being overwhelmed by the demons, who embody "untruth," and they have been saved by Prajapati; but he has done this not from any sense of right, but merely from blind will or favour, for he can hardly distinguish one party from the other. The gods themselves, in spite of being of "truth," are sadly frail. Dozens of myths charge them with falsehood, hatred, lust, greed, and jealousy, and only the stress of the danger threatening them from their adversaries the demons has induced them to organise themselves into an ordered kingdom under the sovereignty of Indra, who has been anointed by Prajapati. True, many of the offensive features in this mythology and ritual are survivals from a very ancient past, a pre-historic time in which morals were conspicuously absent from religion; the priesthood has forgotten very little, and as a rule has only added new rituals and new interpretations to this legacy from the days of old. Nevertheless it must be confessed that there is a tone of ritualistic professionalism in the Brahmanas that is unpleasing; the priesthood are consciously superior to nature, God, and morals by virtue of their "Triple Science," and they constantly emphasise this claim. It is difficult for us to realise that these are the same men who have created the Brahmanic culture of India, which, however we may criticise it from the Western point of view, is essentially a gentle life, a field in which moral feeling and intellectual effort have born abundance of goodly fruit. Yet if we look more closely we shall see that even these ritualists, besotted as they may seem to be with their orgies of priestcraft, are not wholly untouched by the better spirit of their race. Extremes of sanctity, whether it be ritualistic or anti-ritualistic sanctity, always tend in India—and in other countries as well—to produce supermen. And if our priesthood in the Brahmanas feel themselves in the pride of spiritual power lifted above the rules of moral law, they are not in practice indifferent to it. Their lives are for the most part gentle and good. Though "truth" in the Brahmanas usually means only accordance with the ritual and mystic teachings of the Triple Science, it sometimes signifies even there veracity and honesty also. Truthfulness in speech is the hall-mark of the Brahman, says Haridrumata Gautama to Satyakama Jabala (Chhand. Up. IV. iv. 5); and even in the Brahmanas a lie is sometimes a sin. If conservatism compels the priests to keep obscene old practices in their rituals, they are not always satisfied with them, and voices begin to be heard pleading that these rites are really obsolete. In short, a moral sense is beginning to arise among them.

Now the moral law, in order that it may be feared, needs to be embodied in the personality of a god. Most of their gods inspire no fear at all in the souls of the Brahmans; but there is one of whom they have a dread, which is all the greater for being illogical. Prajapati is a vast impersonality, too remote and abstract to inspire the soul with either fear or love. The other gods—Indra, Agni, Soma, Varuna, Vishnu, and the rest—are his offspring, and are moved like puppets by the machinery of the ritual of sacrifice created by him. However much they may seem to differ one from another in their attributes and personalities, they are in essence one and negligible in the eyes of the master of the ritual lore. In the beginning, say the Brahmanas, all the gods (except Prajapati, of course) were alike, and all were mortal; then they performed sacrifices and thereby became immortal, each with his peculiar attributes of divinity.[18] Thus at bottom they are all the same thing, merely phases of the universal godhead, waves stirred up by the current of the cosmic sacrifice. They have no terrors for the priesthood. But there is one deity who obstinately refuses to accommodate himself to this convenient point of view, and that is Rudra, or Siva. By rights and logically he ought to fall into rank with the rest of the gods; but there is a crossgrained element in his nature which keeps him out. As we have seen, he comes from a different source: in origin he was a demon, a power of terror, whose realm of worship lay apart from that of the gods of higher class, and now, although it has extended into the domains of orthodox religion, an atmosphere of dread still broods over it.[19] Rudra wields all his ancient terrors over a much widened area. The priests have assigned him a regular place in their liturgies, and fully recognise him in his several phases as Bhava, Sarva, Ugra, Maha-deva or the Great God, Rudra, Isana or the Lord, and Asani or the Thunderbolt (KB. VI. 2-9). Armed with his terrors, he is fit to be employed in the service of conscience. Hence a myth has arisen that in order to punish Prajapati for his incest with his daughter the gods created Bhuta-pati (who is Pasu-pati or Rudra under a new name), who stabbed him. The rest of the myth is as immaterial to our purpose as it is unsavoury; what is important is that the conscience of the Brahmans was beginning to feel slight qualms at the uncleanness of some of their old myths and to look towards Rudra as in some degree an avenger of sin. In this is implied an immense moral advance. Henceforth there will be a gradual ennoblement of one of the phases of the god's character. Many of the best minds among the Brahmans will find their imaginations stirred and their consciences moved by contemplation of him. To them he will be no more a mere demon of the mountain and the wild. His destructive wrath they will interpret as symbolising the everlasting process of death-in-life which is the keynote of nature; in his wild dances they will see imaged forth the everlasting throb of cosmic existence; to his terrors they will find a reverse of infinite love and grace. The horrors of Rudra the deadly are the mantle of Siva the gracious. Thus, while the god's character in its lower phases remains the same as before, claiming the worship of the basest classes of mankind, and nowise rising to a higher level, it develops powerfully and fruitfully in one aspect which attracts grave and earnest imaginations. The Muni, the contemplative ascetic, penetrates in meditation through the terrors of Siva's outward form to the god's inward love and wisdom, and beholds in him his own divine prototype. And so Siva comes to be figured in this nobler aspect as the divine Muni, the supreme saint and sage.

[Footnote 18: For the original mortality of the gods see TS. VII. iv. 2, 1, SB. X. iv. 33 f., XI. i. 2, 12, ii. 3, 6; for their primitive non-differentiation, TS. VI. vi. 8, 2, SB. IV. v. 4, 1-4.]

[Footnote 19: Cf. e.g. KB. III. 4 & 6, VI. 2-9, and Ap. SS. VI. xiv. 11-13.]

While the worship of Siva is slowly making its way into the heart of Brahmanic ritualism, another movement is at work which is gradually drawing many of the keenest intellects among the Brahmans away from the study of ritual towards an idealistic philosophy which views all ritual with indifference. Its literature is the Upanishads.

The passing of the Rigvedic age has left to the Brahmans a doctrinal legacy, which may be thus restated: a single divine principle through a prototypic sacrifice has given birth to the universe, and all the processes of cosmic nature are controlled by sacrifices founded upon that primeval sacrifice. In short, the ritual symbolises and in a sense actually is the whole cosmic process. The ritual implies both the knowledge of the law of sacrifice and the proper practice of that law, both understanding and works. This is the standpoint of the orthodox ritualist. But there has also arisen a new school among the Brahmans, that of the Aupanishadas, which has laid down for its first doctrine that works are for the sake of understanding, that the practice of ritual is of value only as a help to the mystic knowledge of the All. But here they have not halted; they have gone a further step, and declared that knowledge once attained, works become needless. Some even venture to hint that perhaps the highest knowledge is not to be reached through works at all. And the knowledge that the Aupanishadas seek is of Brahma, and is Brahma.

The word brahma is a neuter noun, and in the Rig-veda it means something that can only be fully translated by a long circumlocution. It may be rendered as "the power of ritual devotion"; that is to say, it denotes the mystic or magic force which is put forth by the poet-priest of the Rig-veda when he performs the rites of sacrifice with appropriate chanting of hymns—in short, ritual magic. This mystic force the Rigvedic poets have represented in personal form as the god Brihaspati, in much the same way as they embodied the spirit of the sacrifice in Vishnu. Their successors, the orthodox ritualists of the Brahmanas, have not made much use of this term; but sometimes they speak of Brahma as an abstract first principle, the highest and ultimate source of all being, even of Prajapati (Samav. B. I. 1, Gop. B. I. i. 4); and when they speak of Brahma they think of him not as a power connected with religious ceremony but as a supremely transcendent and absolutely unqualified and impersonal First Existence. But the school of the Aupanishadas has gone further. Seeking through works mystic knowledge as the highest reality, they see in Brahma the perfect knowledge. To them the absolute First Existence is also transcendently full and unqualified Thought. As knowledge is power, the perfect Power is perfect Knowledge.

Brahma then is absolute knowledge; and all that exists is really Brahma, one and indivisible in essence, but presenting itself illusively to the finite consciousness as a world of plurality, of most manifold subjects and objects of thought. The highest wisdom, the greatest of all secrets, is to know this truth, to realise with full consciousness that there exists only the One, Brahma, the infinite Idea; and the sage of the Upanishads is he who has attained this knowledge, understanding that he himself, as individual subject of thought, is really identical with the universal Brahma. He has realised that he is one with the Infinite Thought, he has raised himself to the mystic heights of transcendental Being and Knowledge, immeasurably far above nature and the gods. He knows all things at their fountain-head, and life can nevermore bring harm to him; in his knowledge he has salvation, and death will lead him to complete union with Brahma.

The Aupanishadas have thus advanced from the pantheism of the orthodox ritualists to a transcendental idealism. The process has been gradual. It was only by degrees that they reached the idea of salvation in knowledge, the knowledge that is union with Brahma; and it was likewise only through slow stages that they were able to conceive of Brahma in itself. Many passages in the Upanishads are full of struggles to represent Brahma by symbols or forms perceptible to the sense, such as ether, breath, the sun, etc. Priests endeavoured to advance through ritual works to the ideas which these works are supposed to symbolise: the ritual is the training-ground for the higher knowledge, the leading-strings for infant philosophy. Gradually men become capable of thinking without the help of these symbols: philosophy grows to manhood, and looks with a certain contempt upon those supports of its infancy.

The nature of Brahma as conceived in the Upanishads is a subject on which endless controversies have raged, and we need not add to them. Besides, the Upanishads themselves are not strictly consistent on this point, or on others, for that matter; for they are not a single homogeneous system of philosophy, but a number of speculations, from often varying standpoints, and they are frequently inconsistent. But there are some ideas which are more or less present in all of them. They regard Brahma as absolute and infinite Thought and Being at once, and as such it is one with the consciousness, soul or self, of the individual when the latter rids himself of the illusion of a manifold universe and realises his unity with Brahma. Moreover, Brahma is bliss—the joy of wholly perfect and self-satisfied thought and being. Since Brahma as universal Soul is really identical with each individual soul or atma, and vice versa, it follows that each individual soul contains within itself, qua Brahma, the whole of existence, nature, gods, mankind, and all other beings; it creates them all, and all depend upon it. Our Aupanishadas are thoroughgoing idealists.

Another new idea also appears for the first time in the early Upanishads, and one that henceforth will wield enormous influence in all Indian thought. This is the theory of karma and samsara, rebirth of the soul in accordance with the nature of its previous works. Before the Upanishads we find no evidence of this doctrine: the nearest approach to it is in some passages of the Brahmanas which speak of sinful men dying again in the next world as a punishment for their guilt. But in the Upanishads the doctrine appears full-fledged, and it is fraught with consequences of immense importance. Samsara means literally a "wandering to and fro," that is, the cycle of births through which each soul must everlastingly pass from infinite time, and Karma means the "acts" of each soul. Each work or act performed by a living being is of a certain degree of righteousness or unrighteousness, and it is requited by a future experience of corresponding pleasure or pain. So every birth and ultimately every experience of a soul is determined by the righteousness of its previous acts; and there is no release for the soul from this endless chain of causes and effects unless it can find some supernatural way of deliverance. The Aupanishadas point to what they believe to be the only way: it is the Brahma-knowledge of the enlightened sage, which releases his soul from the chain of natural causation and raises him to everlasting union with Brahma.

The teaching of the Upanishads has had two very different practical results. On the one hand, it has moved many earnest thinkers to cast off the ties of the world and to wander about as homeless beggars, living on alms and meditating and discoursing upon the teachings of the Upanishads, while they await the coming of death to release their souls from the prison of the flesh and bring it to complete and eternal union with Brahma. These wandering ascetics—sannyasis, bhikshus, or parivrajakas they are called—form a class by themselves, which is destined to have an immense influence in moulding the future thought of India. The teaching of Brahmanism is beginning to recognise them, too. It has already divided the life of the orthodox man into three stages, or asramas, studentship, the condition of the married householder, and thirdly the life of the hermit, or vanaprastha, to which the householder should retire after he has left a son to maintain his household; and now it is beginning to add to these as fourth stage the life of the homeless ascetic awaiting death and release. But this arrangement is for the most part a fiction, devised in order to keep the beggar-philosophers within the scheme of Brahmanic life; in reality they themselves recognise no such law.

The other current among the Aupanishadas is flowing in a very different direction. We have seen how the worship of Rudra-Siva has grown since the old Rigvedic days, and how some souls have been able to see amidst the terrors of the god a power of love and wisdom that satisfies their deepest hopes and longings, as none of the orthodox rituals can do. A new feeling, the spirit of religious devotion, bhakti as it is called, is arising among them. To them—and they number many Brahmans as well as men of other orders—Siva has thus become the highest object of worship, Isvara or "the Lord"; and having thus enthroned him as supreme in their hearts, they are endeavouring to find for him a corresponding place in their intellects. To this end they claim that Siva as Isvara is the highest of all forms of existence; and this doctrine is growing and finding much favour. Among the Aupanishadas there are many who reconcile it with the teaching of the Upanishads by identifying Siva with Brahma. Thus a new light begins to flicker here and there in the Upanishads as the conception of Siva, a personal god wielding free grace, colours the pale whiteness of the impersonal Brahma; and at last in the Svetasvatara, which though rather late in date is not the least important of the Upanishads, this theistic movement boldly proclaims itself: the supreme Brahma, identified with Siva, is definitely contrasted with the individual soul as divine to human, giver of grace to receiver of grace. Later Upanishads will take up this strain, in honour of Siva and other gods, and finally they will end as mere tracts of this or that theistic church.

Yet another current is now beginning to stir men's minds, and it is one that is also destined to a great future. It starts from Krishna.

The teaching of the Upanishads, that all being is the One Brahma and that Brahma is the same as the individual soul, has busied many men, not only Brahmans but also Kshatriyas, noblemen of the warrior order. Some even say that it arose among the Kshatriyas; and at any rate it is likely that they, being less obsessed with the forms of ritual than the Brahmans and therefore able to think more directly and clearly, have helped the Brahmans in their discussions to clear their minds of ritual symbolism, and to realise more definitely the philosophic ideas which hitherto they had seen only dimly typified in their ceremonies.

Krishna was one of these Kshatriyas. He belonged to the Satvata or Vrishni tribe, living in or near the ancient city of Mathura. Sometimes in early writings he is styled Krishna Devakiputra, Krishna Devaki's son, because his mother's name was Devaki; sometimes again he is called Krishna Vasudeva, or simply Vasudeva, which is a patronymic said to be derived from the name of his father Vasudeva. In later times we shall find a whole cycle of legend gathering round him, in which doubtless there is a kernel of fact. Omitting the miraculous elements in these tales, we may say that the outline of the Krishna-legend is as follows: Krishna's father Vasudeva and his mother Devaki were grievously wronged by Devaki's cousin Kamsa, who usurped the royal power in Mathura and endeavoured to slay Krishna in his infancy; but the child escaped, and on growing to manhood killed Kamsa. But Kamsa had made alliance with Jarasandha king of Magadha, who now threatened Krishna; so Krishna prudently retired from Mathura and led a colony of his tribesmen to Dvaraka, on the western coast in Kathiawar, where he founded a new State. There seems to be no valid reason for doubting these statements. Sober history does not reject a tale because it is embroidered with myth and fiction.

Now this man Krishna in the midst of his stirring life of war and government found time and taste also for the things that are of the spirit. He talked with men learned in the Upanishads about Brahma and the soul and the worship of God; and apparently he set up a little Established Church of his own, in which was combined something of the idealism of the Upanishads with the worship of a supreme God of grace and perhaps too a kind of religious discipline, about which we shall say more later on. It must be confessed that we know sadly little about his actual doctrine from first hand. All that we hear about it is a short chapter in the Chhandogya Upanishad (iii. 17), where the Brahman Ghora Angirasa gives a sermon to Krishna, in which he compares the phases of human life to stages in the diksha or ceremony of consecration, and the moral virtues that should accompany them to the dakshina or honorarium paid to the officiating priests, and he concludes by exhorting his hearer to realise that the Brahma is imperishable, unfailing, and spiritual, and quoting two verses from the Rig-veda speaking of the Sun as typifying the supreme bliss to which the enlightened soul arises. This does not tell us very much, and moreover we should remember that here our author, being an Aupanishada, is more interested in what Ghora preached to Krishna than in what Krishna accepted from Ghora's teaching. But we shall find centuries later in the Bhagavad-gita, the greatest textbook of the religion of Krishna, some distant echoes of this paragraph of the Chhandogya.

1  2     Next Part
Home - Random Browse