Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
BRAHMANISM. Brahmanism is an institution at once civil and religious, which by the grandeur, originality and unshaken persistence of its results should hold a considerable place in the history of mankind. It has governed Hindoo society from time immemorial and governs it still. There is no possibility of assigning a term to the all-powerful influence which it exerts on Hindoo society, an influence legitimate in certain respects, but disastrous in others. It seems destined to endure as long as the race which it has guided for the last 3,000 years.
—Brahmanism has this peculiar character, among all the religions resting on sacred books, that it has no founder, and that the person who first conceived the system is altogether unknown. Brahma, from whom it takes its name, is no other than the infinite being, the universal soul. Brahma is not the name of an individual like those of Buddha, Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. The origin of Brahmanism is hidden by a veil thus far impenetrable, and it is not to be believed that this obscurity can ever be cleared away completely. India has not written its own annals, any more than the rest of Asia; and history as written in the west, since the time of the Greeks, is a virile work of intelligence such as Asia never conceived, and which even seems to be beyond its power. India, therefore, can not tell us herself whence Brahmanism has come, and her monuments do not yield up to the questionings of erudition the secrets which are contained in them only in an imperfect manner. At present when we know the Vedas, the source of Brahmanic religion, it can be affirmed that they do not contain Brahmanism as afterward organized, and the only hymn of the Rig-Veda in which there is mention of the four castes, passes justly either as apocryphal or of much later origin than most of the others. It is the famous hymn to Purusha, which we read in the tenth and last Mandala, in which are brought together in a confused mass fragments more or less authentic and more or less orthodox. Now the Vedas, and above all the Rig-Veda, being a collection of the religious and national hymns of the Aryans when they arrived in India from the northwest by the passes of the Hindu Kush, the last ramification of the Himalayas, it may be looked on as certain that these people had not yet established in their midst that special form of religion and society called Brahmanism. We read in the Vedas of priests presiding at sacrifices and solemn prayers; but they do not form a class apart; they are not the masters of society nor the spiritual governors of the people. At what epoch did they become such? This can not be precisely told; but it is necessary to go back at least fifteen centuries before the Christian era to come near the epoch, and perhaps it may be necessary to ascend to a remoter time. In the seventh century before Christ Buddhism arose among the Brahmanism to reform and destroy Brahmanism. Brahmanism must, therefore, have existed a long time in order to reach the state of corruption in which Buddhism exhibits it to us, and from which it strove to rescue it. The date of Buddhism itself is incontestable (622 to 543 B. C.), and it puts the date of the origin of Brahmanism very far back, which, without exaggeration, must have arisen ten or twelve centuries earlier.
—On the other hand, the canon of the Vedic scriptures is composed of several parts which are held to be equally sacred and equally revealed. They are first the mantras or prayer hymns, mostly in verse; then the brahmanas, with the upanishads and the aranyakas, mainly in prose. The hymns which, properly speaking, constitute the Veda, are much the more ancient, unless it be those of the fourth and last Veda, called the Atharvan. Now if the hymns or mantras mention Brahmanism only in the manner of which we have just spoken, we meet, on the contrary, with all its developments and with its whole power in the brahmanas which are, as their name indicates, for the special use of the brahmanic caste, who alone perform the sacrifices. It is, therefore, in the interval between the mantras and brahmanas that the Brahmans acquired power. But since there is in India no chronology for monuments of the mind any more than there is for events of history, it is impossible to determine the epoch of the mantras or the liturgical books which accompany them and which regulate all the details of worship. Nevertheless, by a process of reasoning, probably correct, the learned have come to believe that the primitive mantras appeared at least 1,500 years before the Christian era, and by the same method they fix hypothetically the date at which Buddhism originated in the bosom of the brahmanical society already grown aged and corrupt.
—One may well believe that not without a struggle did the Brahmans attain that dominion which they afterward held in such an imperturbable manner. The earliest traditions of the Aryans show that when these people came to India to conquer and civilize the country, they were under the lead of military chiefs, and no matter how pious they might have been from the beginning, it was their kings and not their priests whom they obeyed. This was a necessity of their situation, and in that splendid epic poem, the Ramayana, the legend of a hero who conquered the south of India and even the island of Ceylon (Langkaâ), it was the kings who led the people and the Brahmans occupied only a subordinate place. But when the time of combat had passed away and the Aryans were able to enjoy their conquests quietly in the immense space that extends from the headwaters of the Indus and the Ganges to the Vindhya mountains, the priestly class could become dominant without danger, and as the nation had no longer anything to conquer or even to defend, it yielded itself up entirely to its religious instincts, and, once upon that incline, soon intrusted to the priestly caste the power which had at first belonged to the warriors or kshatriyas. The latter resisted energetically, and if dissensions had not then sprung up among them, it is likely that they never would have lost the supremacy, and the Brahmans would never have acquired it. But Parasu-Rama, a kshatriya famous for his courage and his ferocity, took sides against his own class to avenge certain outrages inflicted on his family, and, through bloody victories, he assured to the Brahmans a power which without him they would probably have never usurped.
—It is from this time, of which a vague souvenir is preserved by tradition and by some important works, among them the laws of Manu, that Brahmanism really dates, and that it began to give to Hindoo society its final and immutable form. At the head of this new society, as a permanent divine incarnation stood the Brahman, issued from the mouth itself of Brahma. Below him, but at an impassable distance, was the kshatriya, or warrior, who had come from the arms of the god. Below the warrior was the Vaisya, or laborer, who had sprung from his thighs. Last of all, and very far from the other three, was the Sudras, made to serve and support the others because his origin was in the feet of the divinity. These are the genuine castes, four in number, and no one of their members could marry legitimately except in his own circle. By force of circumstances some marriage unions were necessarily contracted outside these narrow limits. But these exceptional alliances were contrary to law, and religion, so far as it was able, proscribed them by menace of eternal punishment and by social reprobation in this world, while the punishment of the next was being deferred. This creation of castes is both the masterpiece and the strength of Brahmanism, thanks to which it has endured for upward of 30 centuries and may perhaps endure still longer.
—The religious faith of the Hindoo people must have been blind indeed and quite irresistible, to accept this dogma and yield to it so completely. Birth fixed forever the rank of each man in society, and instances of escape from the social limits it imposed have never been numerous or lasting. Caste is maintained with its essential characteristics, and it could be seen by the insurrection of 1857, that the popular conviction is far from being weakened, and that superstition has retained all its inextinguishable ardor. How have the Brahmans been able to impress such a belief on men's minds traced in ineffaceable lines? This can not be explained by their adroitness alone. The Hindoos, independent of the priests who have gained their confidence, have beliefs which may be called endemic and which have singularly favored usurpation. Every one in Brahmanic as well as Buddhistic India believes in the transmigration of souls, and as the present life in all its conditions results inevitably for each man and each creature from the lives and existences which they led previously, they submit without murmur or despair to the destiny given them and from which nothing can escape. It is true that in Asia there are many other peoples besides the Hindoo who believe in transmigration, and that none of them have been subjected to caste to the same degree; but if belief in transmigration is not the only cause of Brahmanism, it is certainly the chief one, and without it the others would to all appearance have remained powerless. The Hindoo people have found in caste the irrevocable decree of God, or rather, the indestructible chain put upon them by another more mysterious and terrible power than that of God, such as it is understood by religions more humane and enlightened. The Hindoo has bowed down his head with all docility, and one may predict almost certainly that he will never raise it again. Once in possession of power Brahmanism left nothing undone to retain it, and one of the most curious spectacles that can engage our attention is the minute and astonishingly effectual precautions taken to maintain forever the superior caste in the high position assigned to it. The education of the Brahman is a marvel, and it would have been surprising if with care so intelligent and continuous there had been a failure in forming persons worthy to succeed their instructors. Nothing can be looked for on this most interesting and weighty subject either in the sacred or liturgical books, or at most very little can be found in them. It is to the codes we must turn and particularly to that one known as the laws of Manu, a work less ancient than it was thought to be at first, but which without the least doubt antedates our era by three or four centuries, and which still enjoys unquestioned authority in the tribunals of India.
—To begin with, the legislator has the most exalted idea of the Brahman. By the very order of Brahma, the first of his sons, the Brahman charged with the study and teaching of the Vedas the performance of sacrifice and the duties of worship, is of right the lord of all creation and of all beings. Master of everything, it is only through his generosity that other men enjoy the goods of this world (Laws of Manu, book I., verses 88, 93, 100 and 101). He alone is rightful proprietor of these goods which he yields to others, and this is why the other castes, to whom he shows himself so kind, owe him in return respect and a large part of all the benefits which he leaves them. Even before the Brahman is born the law concerns itself with him. He is barely conceived in the womb of his mother when it is necessary to offer a sacrifice in his favor for the purification of the fœtus (book II., verse 27). After his birth and before cutting the umbilical cord he must be made to taste of honey and clarified butter. There are certain conditions connected with the name given him, as there are to the taking him for the first time into the open air, and for his weaning. He must receive the tonsure at an age of from one to three years (book II., verse 35). He may be invested with the sacred cordon beginning with his eighth or even fifth year; but he must not be invested with it after his sixteenth year under pain of excommunication. The law regulates the composition of the sacred cordon put about the novice, and of the belt and baton which he carries, made of a certain kind of wood and of a certain length The novice, once initiated through the ceremony of Kesanta, must no longer receive his food otherwise than in alms, and he must beg his bread. He may not take more than two meals a day, one in the morning, the other in the evening. He must sit while eating, and observe the prescribed rules, and perform his ablutions. At the age of 16 he begins-his studies with a spiritual preceptor called a Guru, who becomes his second father, even more venerated than the father whom nature gave him. The Guru never gives any but free lessons, and it is with difficulty that the disciple when leaving his master after 15 or 20 years of study is able to offer him a slight souvenir of his gratitude. The Guru makes the novice study the Vedas constantly, and the young man must pray night and morning every day, and read the sacred books with the explanations which complement and interpret them. The brahmatchari or novice must also daily, without exception, witness the rising and the setting of the sun, and while he imbibes respect for the sacred writing and for his teacher, he learns to bridle his senses and for his youthful passions (book II., verses 220, 245). All his acts are determined in the minutest details, from which he can not depart without sin.
—The novitiate, no matter how painful it may be, is at least of 9 years duration, and may extend to 18 or even 36; in a word, as long as necessary, depending on the student's intelligence for the understanding of the Vedas and everything connected with them (book III., verse 1). When the novitiate is finished, the brahmatchari may become father of a family and head of a house, Grihastha, and this is the second period in the life of the Brahman. He is obliged to marry and choose a woman of his own caste for his first marriage. For subsequent unions, in case such should take place, the law is less exacting and the wife may be chosen from the other castes, although this is a degradation more or less censurable (book III., verse 12). The law prescribes carefully the means which the Grihastha should use for his own support and that of his family. He can never descend to degrading labor; even the cultivation of the earth is forbidden him. It is from alms especially that he is obliged to live, and this is how the law proposes the holy practice of almsgiving to the rich, (book IV., verse 226), by which they only return to the Brahmans the property belonging to the latter. The Grihastha should always devote the best part of his time to reading the Veda, to the numberless ceremonies of worship, to the sacrifices which they require, and all the prescriptions of the liturgy. He must abstain from meat (book V., verse 4), and all impurity which might defile him must be removed according to the rites. The second period in the life of a Brahman finishes when he is the father of a family and has brought it up. He may then, especially if he has a grandson, retire from the world and think only of himself, that is, of his eternal salvation. This is a new career begun, and which is divided into two parts. The Grihastha, withdrawn from society, and living in the forest (Vanaprastha), has not yet broken all his ties with the world. First of all, he may take with him his old wife, and preserve certain bonds of relationship with his neighbors. However, all his existence is ordered as is that of the novice. He has taken with him the consecrated fire, and all the utensils needful for religious oblation. Wearing the skin of a gazelle or a garment of bark, he must bathe night and morning (book VI., couplet 6); he must leave his hair long, gathered up on the top of his head, and let his beard grow, also the hair of his body and his nails. Occupied continually in reading the Veda, he is to live ordinarily on roots alone or wild fruits gathered by himself. And it is only in rare cases that he is still permitted to receive alms. He must remain as inflexibly chaste as the novice, endure without complaint the burning heat of summer and the driving rains of winter. The earth is his only couch, and if an incurable disease should attack him, "let him walk without stopping in the direction of the northeast till his body is dissolved, living only on air and water," (book VI., couplet 31).
—To this third period, hard enough, succeeds a last, more rigorous still, if possible. He definitively takes up the ascetic life and renounces every species of affection. He becomes Sannyâsi (or yet a Yati, Parivrâdjaka); he has need no longer to read even the Veda, he must remain absolutely alone and without companions, (book VI., couplet 42); he has no longer a hearth or a home; when hunger torments him he goes to seek for food in the neighboring village; he purifies his steps by seeing to it that he does not tread on any impure object; he cleanses the water he drinks by filtering it lest he should kill any animalculæ it might contain; he purifies his words by truth; inaccessible to his every surrounding, raised above every sensual desire, without any society but that of his soul, he has but one perpetual thought, that of the Supreme Soul (Paramâtma), the divine spirit with which he is to be united in eternal beatitude.—"Just as the trunk of a tree leaves the river bank when the current bears it away, just as the bird at its caprice leaves the branch where it has perched, so the Sannyâsi, freed by degrees from every earthly affection and become insensible to all tribulation, leaves his body and is forever absorbed in Brahma," (book VI., couplets 78 and 81.)
—Such are the four periods of a Brahman's life. We can understand how, with such a rigid discipline, an intelligent and superstitious race has been able to produce all that Indian genius has produced. Almost numberless generations of masters and disciples, of fathers of families, and hermits, have accumulated by degrees all those Brahmanic works which we know, and they have ended by building an indestructible edifice which may be indeed criticised in some of its parts, but which must in justice be admired in many others.
—This is not the place to linger over Sanskrit literature, but it is nevertheless well to cast a rapid glance at the chief monuments of which it is composed and which are exclusively Brahmanic work. First of all, by right of religion and age, are the Vedas, four in number: the Rig-Veda; the Sama-Veda; the Yadjur-Veda, in two texts known as the white and the black; and the Atharva-Veda, more recent than the other three. Although in the Vedas there is not anything but a system of naturalism, about the same as the paganism of Greece and Rome, the hymns are so beautiful and the religious sentiment in them so profound, that they may be ranked inferior only to the Bible. Around the Vedas is grouped a whole liturgical literature, presenting at times, moreover, admirable morsels of inspired semi-poetical metaphysics. The study of the Vedas has besides given birth to an immense exegetical literature, leading, on one hand, to grammatical studies in which the Hindoos, while learning no language but their own, have outstripped in philology all other people, and in which they will be without rivals for all time; leading, on the other, to systems of philosophy (Darsanas), six in number, some orthodox, the others independent and heretical. So much for sacred and serious literature. Next come the epic poems, of which the two principal, the Mahabhârata, the receptacle of all the national traditions, is in more than 200,000 verses, and the Râmâyana in 70,000. Then they have a dramatic literature entirely indigenous which dates from the first century of the Christian era. Lastly, there are their codes, written in verse, it is true, but put in this form so that all the laws of these people should be engraved on their memory. The Hindoo genius has had less success in the sciences, except that of grammar. Herein lies its weakness. It has not been able to write history, just as it has not been able to observe accurately a single fact in nature.
—But in spite of these deficiencies, the Hindoo, or more correctly the Brahmanic genius, must take a very high rank in the annals of the human mind; and in many regards we may say with justice that it is second only to the genius of Greece. The Semitic race to which we owe in part our religion, is very great indeed. That must be admitted, but it must be acknowledged, also, that it is somewhat inferior to the Aryan; and on the banks of the Ganges intelligence was more amply developed than in the deserts of Palestine or Arabia. At present, when a great number of Hindoo productions are being printed and translated and commentated, we must without doubt withdraw from them some of the excessive admiration which was felt for them when unknown, whether in antiquity, or in the eighteenth century: but while making a correct estimate of them, our esteem for them has hardly diminished. The object and the nature of our esteem is changed, but it has become at once more enlightened and more impartial.
—The most undoubted discoveries of the learned of our time should also increase our curiosity and our sympathy for the Brahmans. It has been shown that they are of the same race as ourselves, not only from an ethnological point of view, which would be of no great account, but from a point of view the most intimate and direct. This Aryan people, who turned their steps from the high plains of Asia toward the northwest of India, between the sources of the Indus and the Ganges, had for a long time inhabited the same region as the ancestors of almost all the European peoples, and as our own, Greeks, Latins, Celts, Germans, Goths, Slavs, etc. The common birthplace of all these peoples is shown by the evident affinity of their languages. The Sanskrit is not the mother of all these idioms, as was once said, but it is their sister, and the Aryans, who went eastward to the Indian peninsula, belong to the same current of civilization which went westward through Persia, Asia Minor, and the centre and north of Europe. Thus the Brahmans are really our brothers: they are one with us, and yet as distinct as we from the other two currents of civilization which formed the Semitic world, and the world called Turanian which is made up of China, Tartary, Thibet, Turkey and some countries of Europe. We can say with just pride that the civilization to which we belong is the true one, and without belittling others, we may believe ourselves their superiors. The Aryans share our glory, and they are certainly one of the most distinguished branches of the great family. They are represented especially by the Brahmans, who are at once the religious and intellectual chiefs of the people whom they enlighten and govern. The military element found among them in the beginning, disappeared to make room for the spiritual. The kshatriyas subordinated themselves to the Brahmans; and these two orders which came from the north imposed themselves on the natives who were incapable of resistance and who have formed the two other castes, the Vaisyas for the higher, and the Sudras for the lower classes, who already occupied the country. Little by little Brahmanic rule, starting from the higher Indus and the sources of the Ganges, gradually spread through the peninsula and finally became prevalent, but in proportion as it penetrated southward, its influence became less marked, and there are in certain parts of southern Hindostan peoples which have escaped its yoke. These are the remnants of the most ancient inhabitants who may be called autochthones, while the Aryans were only strangers and conquerors.
—However the case may have been, Brahmanism has reigned over these vast countries, not only by the right of the stronger, but by right of intellectual superiority. And the organization which it founded answered so well to the genius of these peoples that they have lived under it for 40 centuries, and nothing indicates their desire to reject it. India has been frequently conquered, but without changing at all since the Brahmans appropriated it. The invasion of Alexander only touched some western parts and touched them without leaving any traces beyond the establishment of kingdoms, half Greek, half Hindoo, which have lived down to our era. Later, the Mussulman conquest went much farther. It invaded whole provinces, and Islamism spread over a great part of the peninsula without making many proselytes there. After Islamism, the incursions of Tartar hordes created frightful disorder in Hindostan. The torrent only swept over it. It did not extend very far, and left nothing permanent in its track. Even the power of the Mongols who ruled almost the entire peninsula for a considerable length of time, and who had taken firm hold in the ancient home of the Aryans, brought little change, and Brahmanism was neither destroyed nor even greatly modified by them. After the sixteenth century new adversaries appeared. Europeans came into contact with the Hindoos. The conflicts of the French and English with them during the last century are well known. The English came out victors and masters of India, and to-day their government is at once more firmly seated, and more beneficial than it has ever been. The authority of the crown of England has replaced that of the East India company, an inestimable advantage to colonization. During the last century, the English have done wonders in Hindostan, but their task is an immense one, and it is an enterprise worthy of a great Christian people to civilize 200,000,000 of subjects. Will England, energetic and powerful as she is, succeed? Only the future can answer this question.
—As to Brahmanism, it is sure that it never has had to fear a graver crisis than that which Christianity is preparing for it, both under the form of a religious faith and a better civilization. Brahmanism is perhaps able to stand this trial. On its side are tradition, and an immemorial antiquity. It has also popular superstition; and as Christianity is at heart very tolerant, especially in the Anglo-Saxon race, there is little probability that simple preaching can ever make great progress and effect a general conversion of the Hindoos. The most serious danger that Brahmanism ever met, was the Buddhistic reformation, because it was so like the faith it sought to replace. Where Buddhism has failed, it is not likely that Christianity, with all its worth, will succeed. The English individually have an enormous proselyting zeal; but as to the government it is very reserved on these delicate questions; and save certain barbarous customs, which to its honor it has eradicated, as the sacrifice of widows burning themselves on the dead bodies of their husbands, it wisely abstains from all interference in the national worship, leaving to each one full liberty of faith and religious observance. This is perhaps the surest method of propagandism. The use of force, besides being odious on the part of a Christian people, would be fruitless It would revive instead of destroying the national faith. It was religious scruples that served as pretexts to the military insurrection which desolated the north of Hindostan in 1857 and 1858.
—If it be permitted us to cast a glance into the dim future, it must be supposed that Brahmanism, no matter how degraded, it be to-day, has not much to fear from Christianity. The two religions will live in peace without the better absorbing the other. This will be a new phase in the history of Brahmanism, and that is all. It will not be its ruin. In the meanwhile there is much work to be done, to learn it thoroughly, and European philology, which, since the opening of the nineteenth century, has made so many discoveries regarding India and its religions, has before it still a vast field which is far from having been exhausted.
—BIBLIOGRAPHY: Colebrooke, Essays on the Religion and Philosophy of the Hindoos, 2nd ed., London, 1853; Moore, Hindu Pantheon, London, 1810, new edition by Simpson, Madras, 1864; Coleman, Mythology of the Hindus, London, 1832; Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts, etc., London, 2nd ed., 1873; and the works of Lassen, Benfey, Roth, Max Müller, Weber, Kuhn, Spiegel, de Gubernatis, etc.—(See
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