Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Hinduism
One of the first things a student of Hinduism grasps is it unlimited diversity. From the Hindus, themselves, there are two definitions – one “broad” and the other “narrow.” The broader 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 Brahmaninistic periods as preparatory stages to Hinduism, which is seen as “the vast social and religious system which has grown up among the peoples of India since about the 3rd century B.C.
Hindus may believe almost anything. The only common belief is in 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 is when orthodox Hinduism absorbed many of the beliefs from these reform movements and emerged victorious.
Before 2000 B.C., India was filled with the dark-skinned people called Dravidians who lived in southern India. These people produced a highly developed Bronze Age civilization. They planed the seeds for much of India’s religious growth.
About the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C., a light-skinned people invaded India. These Indo-Europeans were part of the great movement of these people at this time. They found a home in northern India, and called themselves Aryans. Once settled along the Indus River, they began to settle in small villages. 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 Kush mountains. Soon the divisions began to follow the lines of what labor each group could do.
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 India, the Vedas.
Veda means “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 century B.C.
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 is supreme. He is 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 the “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 (for 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 goats milk, grain or animals. All sacrifices were accompanied by elaborate ceremonies in the middle of which was the sacred petition, or “brahma” (the prayer).
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 (these people passed through Persia in-route to India).
On a whole, this period was one of optimism. The priests were growing in number and in power. During the close of this period, the supreme deities emerged and gathered around “That One Thing,” the great unnamed Cosmic Reality.
The Indo-Aryans moved down the Ganges Valley, finally settling down, when an interesting thing happened. The change they started overtook them! 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, there were the Kshatriyas (nobles), then the Brahmins (priests), then Vaisyas (Aryan common people) and finally the non-Aryan blacks, or Shudras. 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 higher planes. All who sought favor from a god had to come to them. 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 B.C., one of the greatest periods of writing in the history of India began. What emerged was a set of treatises which were additions to all early writings, especially the Brahmanas. These are 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: “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-perception, 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, “He who awakens the world,” – and all creation is a phase of “That One.” Brahman is also all that is subjective (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, existing in a void until the next creative cycle begins. Simply, this is history repeating itself. With this doctrine, Indian religious speculations launched into the deeps.
Two more doctrines, which need little explanation, appeared at this time. The first of these is reincarnation (samsara), and the second is the Law of Karma, which determines one’s birth in the next lifetime. Thus, one’s every action determines whether his next lifetime will be higher or lower, for one “can find re-embodiment only 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 top were the Brahmins, then the Kshatriyas, then the Vaisyas and finally the Shudras (servants).
Outside of the caste system altogether were 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 India:
“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