Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 2.djvu/807

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page needs to be proofread.


BRAHMINISM pressing a sense of guilt and asking for forgiveness. At a time when the early Hebrew Scriptures were silent as to the rewards and punishments awaiting man in the future life, we find the ancient Rik-bards giving repeated expression to their belief in a heaven of endless bliss for the just, and in an abyss of dark- ness for the wicked. Devotion to the Pitris (Fathers), or dead relatives, was also a prominent element in their religion. Though the Pitris mounted to the heavenly abode of bliss, their happiness was not altogether independ- ent of the acts of devotion shown them by the living. It could be greatly increased by offerings of Soma, rice, and water; for like the gods tliey were thought to have bodies of air-like texture and to enjoy the subtile essence of tood. Hence the surviving children felt it a sacred duty to make feast-offerings, called f^raddhas, at stated times to their departed Pitris. In return for these acts of filial piety, the grateful Pitris protected them from harm and promoted their welfare. Lower forms of nature-worship also ob- tained. The cow was held in reverence. Worship was given to trees and serpents. Formula abounded for healing the diseased, driving off demons, and averting evil omens. Witchcraft was dreaded, and recourse to ordeals was conmion for the detection of guilt. III. PopUL.^R Brahminism. — In the period that saw the production of the Brahmanas and ITpanishads, the Vedic religion underwent a twofold change. On its practical side there was an exuberant growth of religious rites and of social restrictions and duties, while on the theoretical side Vedic belief in the efficacy of personal deities was subordinated to a pantheistic scheme of salvation. Thus the earlier religion developed on the one hand into popular, exoteric Brahminism, and on the other into priestly, esoteric Brahminism. The former is reflected in the Brahmanas and Sutras; the latter in the Upani- shads. The transformation to popular Brahminism was largely due to the influence of the Brahmins, or priests. Owing to their excessive fondness for sym- bolic words and forms, the details of ritual became more and more intricate, some assuming so elaborate a character as to require the service of sixteen priests. The sacrifice partook of the nature of a sacramental rite, the due performance of which was sure to pro- duce the desired end, and thus became the all- important centre around which the visible and in- visible world revolved. Hence it merited liberal fees to the officiating priests. Still it was not a mere perfunctory rite, for if performed by an unworthy priest it was accounted as both useless and sacri- legious. In keeping with this complicated liturgy was the multiplicity of prayers and rites which entered into the daily life of both priest and lay- man. The daily recitation of parts of the Vedas, now- venerated as Divine revelation, was of first import- ance, especially for the Brahmins. It was a sacred duty for every individual to recite, morning and evening, the Savitri, a short prayer in honour of the vivifying sun. A scrupulous regard for cere- monial purity, surpassing even that of the Jewish Pharisee, gave rise to an endless succession of purifi- catory rites, such as baths, sprinkling with water, smearing with ashes or cow-dung, sippings of water, suppressions of breath — all sacramental in character and efficacious for the remission of sin. There is reason to believe that the conscioisness of guilt for sin committed was keen and vivid, and that in the performance of these rites, so liabli^ to, a peni- tential disposition of soul was largely cultivated. In popular Brahminism of this period the idea of retribution for sin was made to embrace the most rigorous and far-reaching consequences, from which, save by timely penance, there was no escape. As every good action was certain of future recompense, so every evil one was destined to bear its fruit of mis- ery in time to come. This was the doctrine of karma (action), with which the new idea of rebirth was closely connected. While the lasting bliss of heaven was still held out to the just, different fates after death were reserved for the wicked, varj-ing, ac- cording to the nature and amomit of guilt, from long periods of torture in a graded series of hells, to a more or less extensive series of rebirths in the forms of plants, animals, and men. From the grade to which the culprit was condemned he had to pass by slow transition through the rest of the ascending scale till Ills rebirth as a man of honourable estate was attained. This doctrine gave rise to restrictive rules of con- duct that bordered on the absurd. Insects, however repulsive and noxious, noight not be killed; water might not be drunk till it was first strained, lest minute forms of Ufe be destroyed; carpentry, basket- making, working in leather, and other similar occu- pations were held in disrepute, because they could not be carried on without a certain loss of animal and plant life. Some zealots went so far as to question the blamelessness of tilling the ground on account of the imavoidable injury done to worms and insects. But on the other hand, the Bralimin ethical teaching in the legitimate sphere of right conduct is remarkably high. Truthfulness, obedience to parents and su- periors, temperance, chastity, and almsgiving were strongly inculcated. Though allowing, like other religions of antiquity, polygamy, and divorce, it strongly forbade adultery and all forms of unchastity. It also reprobated suicide, abortion, perjury, slander, drunkenness, gambling, oppressive usury, and wan- ton cruelty to animals. Its Christianlike aim to soften the hard side of human nature is seen in its many lessons of mildness, charity towards the sick, feeble, and aged, and in its insistence on the duty of forgiving injuries and returning good for evil. Nor did this high standard of right conduct apply simply to external acts. The threefold division of good and bad acts into thoughts, words, and deeds finds fre- quent expression in Brahminic teaching. Intimately bound up with the religious teaching of Brahminism was the division of society into rigidly defined castes. In the earlier, Vedic, period there had been class distinctions, according to which the warrior class (Kshatriyas, or Rajanas) stood first in dignity and importance, next the priestly class (Brahmins), then the farmer class (Vaisyas), and last of all, the servile class of conquered natives (^udras). With the development of Brahminism, these four ancient divisions of society became stereo- typed into exclusive castes, the highest place of dignity being usurped by the Brahmins. As teachers of the sacred Vedas and as priests of the all-important sacrifices, they professed to be the verj' representa- tives of the gods and the peerage of the human race. No honours were too great for them, and to lay hands on them was a .sacrilege. One of the chief sources of their power and influence lay in their exclusive privilege to teach the youth of the three upper castes, for education then consisted largely in the acquisition of Vedic lore, which only priests could teach. Thus the three upper castes alone had the right to know the Vedas and to take part in the sacrifices, and Brahminism, far from being a re- ligion open to all, was exclusively a privilege of birth, from which the despised caste of ^udras was ex- cluded. The rite of initiation into Brahminism was con- ferred on the male children only, when they began their studies under a Brahmin teacher, which took place generally in the eighth year for the Brahmin, and in the eleventh and twelfth for the Kshatriya and Vaisya respectively. It consisted in the inves-