Brahmanism grew out of Vedism. It taught the merging of all the forces of Nature in one universal spiritual Being — the only real Entity — which, when unmanifested and impersonal, was called Brahma (neuter); when manifested as a personal creator, was called Brahma (masculine); and when manifested in the highest order of men, was called Brahmana ('the Brahmans'). Brahmanism was rather a philosophy than a religion, and in its fundamental doctrine was spiritual Pantheism.
As Brahmanism was the outgrowth of Vedism, so it cannot be separated from it by any hard line of demarcation. Its development was gradual, and extended over many centuries — perhaps from the eighth century before Christ to the twelfth century after Christ. The crystallization of its cardinal doctrine into definite shape is clearly traceable. In Vedic times there was a perpetual feeling after one Supreme Being, if he might be found in sky or air. The hymn-composers constantly gave expression to man's craving for some perception of the Infinite. For the satisfaction of this craving they turned to personifications of the Sky, Sun, Fire, Air, Water, Earth.
What the deepest thinkers, even at that early period, felt with ever-increasing intensity was that a Spirit (Atman), beyond the cognizance of sense, permeated and breathed through all material things. They bethought them with awe of this same Spirit vivifying their own bodies with the breath of life — of this mysterious Presence enshrined in their own consciences. Then they identified this same Spirit with the divine afflatus thrilling through the imaginations of their own hymn-composers — with the spiritual efficacy of the hymns themselves, with the mystic power inherent in divine knowledge and prayer. This mysterious, all-pervading, vague spiritual Power and Presence, which was wholly unbound by limitations of personality and individuality, became at last a reality. This Breath of Life (Atman) received a name. They called it Brahman (nominative neuter Brahma, from the root brih, 'to expand'), because it expanded itself through all space. It was a pure essence which not only diffused itself everywhere, but constituted their own being. Men and gods were merely manifestations of that Spirit.
In reality there are four Vedas, corresponding to the four heads or faces of the god Brahma, who is popularly regarded as the divine author of the Vedas. The Rig-Veda is the most ancient and important of the whole; and, indeed, the remaining three Vedas mainly depend upon the Rig-Veda, and may be regarded as Brahmanized versions of it, with later additions of a Brahmanical character. 1st, the Big-Veda, is the oldest, consists of metrical hymns addressed to different deities in the language of praise or laudation. 2nd, the Yajur-Veda, chiefly consists of nearly the same hymns in prose, taking the form of prayers, and being in fact a collection of liturgical formulae, especially relating to oblation and sacrifice. 3rd, the Sama-Veda, consists of a re-cast, or re-arrangement, of very nearly the same hymns, for the purpose of chanting. 4th, The Atharva-Veda, differing in some respects from the foregoing, consists of prayers, which aro either employed at lustrations, or at rites intended to conciliate the deities, or as imprecations upon enemies. It comprises, however, many of the hymns of the Rig-Veda.
One truly remarkable change that has taken place in Hinduism is the comparative cessation of animal sacrifice. In early Hinduism the rite went on steadily increasing for centuries, the victims becoming more numerous and the ritual more complex. The Brahmanas amaze moderns by the extent to which the sacrificial system was carried, far exceeding that of any other religion. And yet, except in the worship of the goddess Kali, and one or two minor deities, animal sacrifice has almost disappeared from Hinduism.
Probably the most trustworthy exponent of the Arya-dharma or Brahmanical system was the great teacher Sahkara (commonly called Sahkaracarya), who was a native of Kerala (Malabar), and lived about the beginning of the eighth century of our era. He was a Brahmacari, or unmarried Brahman under a vow of perpetual celibacy; and it may be noted as one of the inconsistencies of the Hindu religion, that in no other system is the duty of marriage so strictly enjoined, and in no other system is the importance of abstaining from wedlock as a means of gaining influence for the propagation of religious opinions so frankly admitted. Undoubtedly Sahkara is the chief representative, and, so to speak, the very incarnation of strict Brahmanism; and if it be possible to point to any one real historical concrete personality around which Brahmanical doctrines may be gathered, it is certain to look to Sahkara rather than to the legendary Vyasa, even though the latter be the reputed author of the Vedanta-Sutras. Yet so utterly barren is India in both history and biography, that very little is known of the life of perhaps one of the greatest religious leaders she has ever produced.
Such is Brahmanism — such is the creed, which, as it has no one special founder, is called 'the system of law and religion prevalent among the Aryas' (Aryadharma). Such was the fundamental doctrine of Brahmanism. Such was Brahmanism in its earliest origin. As a complex system it may be regarded as possessing four sides, or, more properly speaking, four phases which run into each other and are nowhere separable by sharply defined lines. These four phases may be called (1) Ritualistic, (2) Philosophical, (3) Mythological, (4) Nomistic.
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