Tree of Life Lessons
Level 1 Lesson 7 World Religions
One of the first
things a student of Hinduism grasps is its unlimited diversity. From the Hindus,
themselves, there are two definitions -- one “broad” and the other
definition means “the whole complex of beliefs and institutions which have
appeared from the time when their ancient (and most sacred) scriptures -- the
Vedas -- were composed until now.” This meaning is preferred by many Hindus.
The narrow definition
sees the Vedic and Brahmanistic periods as preparatory stages to Hinduism which
is seen as ‘the vast social and religious system which has grown up among the
The Hindus may
believe almost anything. The only common belief is the caste system and the
“trust” that they will be born into a higher caste in their next lifetime.
Hinduism is divided
into three periods. The first period is called the Vedic and Brahman period.
This is the period of growth from an optimistic polytheism to a monism. Second
is the reform period in which Jainism (See Lesson on Jainism) and Buddhism (See
Lesson on Buddhism) appeared. The final period was when orthodox Hinduism
absorbed many of the beliefs from these reform movements and emerged victorious.
Before 2000 BCE,
About the middle of
the second millennium BCE, a light-skinned people invaded
They found a home in
There were many wars
with the darker-skinned Dravidians which were later written down in the
“Ramayana” and “Mahabharata”.
Soon, the Indo-Aryans
began to organize society into distinct classes. The move was necessitated by
the growing need to master the many different types of peoples as more and more
Aryans poured over the
The language these
people spoke – Sanskrit -- is the base of not only Latin, but all of the
modern European languages. It gave the Indo-Aryans a vehicle by which to
transmit poems and prayers. It also allowed them to give distinct names to the
emerging social structure.
These people were not
yet content or stable. They began to express their wanderings in an oral
tradition which contained folk tales, hymns, prayers and epic stories. These
became the first sacred writings of
“knowledge” -- the same root as the English word “knowing” and
“wisdom”. The most famous, the Rig-Veda, is “an anthology of religious
poetry in ten books containing over a thousand hymns and representing the
creative efforts of many generations.” This was written down about the 8th
The deities mentioned
are the four elements and the many faces of nature a primitive people would have
to deal with on a daily basis. Some sources say that the Rig-Veda is an account
of creation wherein the god Indra was supreme.
He was the god of
monsoons and storms. He released the primal waters which were held by Vritra,
thus, releasing the hidden or unborn sun. From this emerged the four elements of
creation and the pattern was then set.
There is much
beautiful poetry in the Rig-Veda upon the nature gods. Dawn is a “young maid
in white robes” shining afar in her chariot drawn by red-spotted horses. She
is accompanied by a number of different sun gods named for all the different
manifestations of light.
At the pinnacle of
this cosmology is “Varuna”. He is called the god “of the high-arched
sky”. His job is to keep order in the stars and to direct the forces so that
orderly patterns of creation are maintained. He also keeps men obedient to the
Law for it is through him that man knows his sins.
All in all, the Aryans
approached worship with confidence and joy. Their worship took place in the open
air (there were no temples yet) with offerings of such produce of nature as
goat’s milk, grain or animals. All sacrifices were accompanied by elaborate
ceremonies in the middle of which was the sacred petition, or “brahma” (the
Whenever worship took
place, Agni, the god of fire had to be present. Although he was the god of
celestial as well as terrestrial fire, his prime function was the altar fire. It
is quite interesting to note the similarities between this god and the
Zoroastrian conception of fire; for the Aryans passed through
On a whole, this
period was one of optimism. The priests were growing in numbers and in power.
During the close of this period, the supreme deities emerged and gathered around
“The One Thing”, the Great Unnamed Cosmic Reality.
The Indo-Aryans moved
About the end of the 7th
century, the caste system became the social order. With the Aryans at the top,
four distinct classes emerged. First were the “Kshatriyas” (Nobles), then
the “Brahmins” (Priests), then the “Vaisyas” (Aryan common people), and
finally, the “Shudras” (non-Aryan blacks). The first three classes held
themselves off from the Shudras more and more.
The Brahmins were
gaining much power; for only they could utter the sacred prayer. They began to
state that they were the pivot between the earth and the higher planes. All who
sought favor from a god had to come to them. They believed they could even alter
cosmic events if the sacrifice was correct.
From the development
of the priestly order, there emerged a set of “textbooks of the different
schools or classes of Brahmins with a hint here and there of a philosophy of
worship.” These are called the Brahmanas.
In the Brahmanas,
there is a growing sense of unity with the entire cosmos. At the apex is Brahma
Svayanibhu (or Brahma Self-existing) who is Lord of all Creation. This was
leading the priests to consider whether Brahman was the ultimate power in the universe.
About 300 BCE, one of
the greatest periods of writing in the history of
These were called the
“Upanishads”. Upanishads means “sitting near a teacher” in a close and
intimate sense. The many different speculations and writings all agreed upon one
thing though and that was “the ground of all being, whether material or
spiritual, whether in the form of men, beasts, or gods, heaven, earth, or hell,
is an all-inclusive, unitary reality, beyond sense apprehension, ultimate in
substance, infinite in essence, and self-sufficient; it is the only really
existent entity.” This reality was called Brahman!
Brahman was no longer
just the holy power of prayer, but all that was objective--the Limitless One and
“He who awakens the world” -- and all creation is a phase of “That One”.
Brahman is also all that is subjective, or inward. Brahman is
“Atman”, the SELF within. Thus, the philosophy became mystically oriented so
that the being could enter Nirvana through the knowing of the SELF.
The writers of the
Upanishads rejected the three levels of consciousness and stated that there was
a fourth: “...that which is conscious of the subjective, nor that which is
conscious of the objective, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which
is simple consciousness, nor that which is an all-sentient mass, nor that which
is all darkness. It is unseen, transcendent, the sole
essence of the
Consciousness of self, the completion of the world.”
Another doctrine which
emerged from this period states that the world will dissolve away at the end of
every period of created being to exist in a void until the next creative cycle
begins. Simple, this is history repeating itself. With this doctrine, Indian
religious speculations launched into the depths.
Two more doctrines,
which need little explanation, appeared at this time. The first of these was
reincarnation, or samsara. The second was the Law of Karma which determined
one’s birth in the next lifetime. Thus, one’s every action determined
whether his next lifetime would be higher or lower; for one “can find
re-embodiment only in a form into which that shape can squeeze.” In this way,
the Brahmans had grasped the true nature of the Father -- impersonal, yet love
incarnating in all His Creation.
The caste system also
took final form during this period. At the tip were the Brahmins, then the
Kshatriyas, then the Vaisyas and finally, the Shudras, or servants.
Outside of the caste
system altogether was the “untouchables” or outcasts. One might be ousted
from his caste for some infraction, but one could not enter another caste.
One’s social standing was the result of the Law of Karma and could not be
questioned. One got what he deserved!
Men saw that
“normal” consciousness was not all. The only way to achieve salvation was
through the union with Brahman. Thus, many interpreted this as to mean the need
to deny the world -- a total renunciation.
Birth and death became
an endless cycle, or Wheel, of despair. The Law of Karma worked and man could
not control it except through good actions. A cry arose in the heart of all
“Oh, would that I could be
delivered from the power of my Karma over me! What that I could find my way into
a state of being where misery would be at an end and only joy remain!”