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Vedic Period (ca. 1000-500 BC) - Religious Developments

In this era, Brahmanism emerged as a belief system that combined Indo-Aryan beliefs with those of older populations. Brahmins, that is, priestly families who claimed Indo-Aryan ancestry, assumed authority over complex devotional rituals. The brahmin class expounded the idea of the oneness of all living things and of Brahman as the divine principle of being. Indians also venerated thousands of deities, for example, Vishnu, preserver of the world, and Shiva, creator and destroyer of the world. These gods could be seen as aspects of Brahman. Brahmanism gradually built up a rich body of spiritual and moral teachings that formed the foundation of Hinduism. Texts that set forth these ideas include the Upanishads and, later, the Bhagavad Gita. This belief system's core concepts are karma, reincarnation, and dharma (personal duty).

As in all early civilizations, Indian society witnessed the development of a system of social classes. The main social categories, known as varnas, were priests; warriors; farmers, artisans, and merchants; dependent laborers; and, by 500 CE or earlier, dalits, or "untouchables." This class system became distinctive over the centuries for being especially complex and formal, involving numerous prohibitions that kept groups ritually separated from one another. Because these divisions became particularly rigid, scholars have classified the hierarchy as a caste system.

As the stout Aryans spread eastwards through Northern India, the conquest of the vast new tracts included seems not to have commenced till the close of the Rig-Vedic era, and it must have been the work of many generations. The Aryans pushed on from behind by later arrivals of their own stock; and driving before them, or reducing to bondage, the earlier 'black-skinned' peoples. They marched in whole communities from one river-valley to another; each house-father a warrior, husbandman, and priest; with his wife, and his little ones, and cattle. These free-hearted tribes had a great trust in themselves and their gods. Like other conquering races, they believed that both themselves and their deities were altogether superior to the people of the land and their poor, rude objects of worship. Indeed, this noble self-confidence is a great aid to the success of a nation.

During this advance, the simple faith of the Rig-Vedic singers was first adorned with stately rites, and then extinguished beneath them. The race progressed from a loose confederacy of tribes into several well-knit nations, each bound together by the strong central force of kingly power, directed by a powerful priesthood, and organized on a firm basis of caste. Certain families came to have not only a hereditary claim to conduct the great sacrifices, but also the exclusive knowledge of the ancient hymns, or at any rate of the traditions which explained their symbolical meaning. They naturally tried to render the ceremonies solemn and imposing. By degrees a vast array of ministrants grew up around each of the greater sacrifices.

As the sacrifices grew more elaborate, the hymns were also arranged in three collections or service-books for the ministering priests. Thus, the second, or Saina-Veda, was made up of extracts from the Rig-Vedic hymns used at the Soma sacrifice. Some of its verses stamp themselves, by their antiquated grammatical forms, as older than their rendering in the Rig-Veda itself. The third, or Yajur-Veda, consists not only of Rig-Vedic verses, but also of prose sentences, to be used at the sacrifices of the New Full Moon; and at the Great Horse Sacrifice, when animals of various kinds were offered, perhaps in substitution for the earlier Man Sacrifice, which is also mentioned in it. The Yajur-Veda is divided into two editions, the Black and the White Yajur; both belonging to a more modern period than either the Rig or the Sama Vedas, and composed after the Aryans had spread far to the east of the Indus. The fourth, or Atharva-Veda, was compiled from the least ancient hymns of the Rig-Veda, in the tenth book; and from the still later songs of the Brahmans, after they had established their priestly power.

But as the priests grew in number and sufficient. power, they went on elaborating their ceremonies, until even the four Vedas became insufficient guides to them. They accordingly compiled prose treatises, called Brahmanas, attached to each of the four Vedas, in order to more fully explain the compiled, functions of the officiating priests. Thus the Brahmana of the Rig-Veda deals with the duties of the Reciter of the Hymns (Iwtar); the Brahmana of the Sama-Veda, with those of the Singer at the Soma sacrifice (udgdtar); the Brahmana of the Yajur-Veda, with those of the actual performer of the Sacrifice (adhvaryu); while the Brahmana of the Atharva-Veda is a medley of legends and speculations, having but little direct connection with the Veda whose name it bears.

Even this ample literature did not suffice. The priests accordingly composed a number of new works, called Sutras, which elaborated still further their system of sacrifice, and which asserted still more strongly their own claims as a separate and superior caste. They alleged that these Sutras, although not directly revealed by God, were founded on the inspired Vedas and Brahmanas, and that they had therefore a divine authority as sacred traditions (smrili). The Sutras were composed in the form of, literally, strings of aphorisms or short sentences, for the sake of brevity, and in order that their vast number might be the better remembered in an age when writing was little practised, or unknown. Some of them, such as their the Kalpa-Sutras, deal with the ritual and sacrifices; others, like the 'Household ' or Grihya-Sutras, with the ceremonies at birth, marriage, and death; a still larger class of Sutras with the doctrines, duties, and privileges of the priests. They thus became the foundation of the whole legislation and philosophy of the Brahmans in later times.

Towards the end of this period there was a strong reaction against priestly domination and against sacrifices and rituals. The rise of Buddhism and Jainism was the direct result of these elaborate sacrifices. Also, the authors of the Upanishads, which is the essence of Hindu philosophy, turned away from the useless rituals and insisted on true knowledge (jnana) for peace and salvation.

The complex rituals and sacrifices advocated in the Later Vedic period were not acceptable to the common people. The sacrificial ceremonies were also found to be too expensive. The superstitious beliefs and mantras confused the people. The teachings of Upanishads, an alternative to the system of sacrifices, were highly philosophical in nature and therefore not easily understood by all. Therefore, what was needed in the larger interests of the people was a simple, short and intelligible way to salvation for all people. Such religious teaching should also be in a language known to them. This need was fulfilled by the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira.

Other than the religious factor, social and economic factors also contributed to the rise of these two religions. The rigid caste system prevalent in India generated tensions in the society. Higher classes enjoyed certain privileges which were denied to the lower classes. Also, the Kshatriyas had resented the domination of the priestly class. It should also to be noted that both Buddha and Mahavira belonged to Kshatriya origin. The growth of trade led to the improvement in the economic conditions of the Vaisyas. As a result, they wanted to enhance their social status but the orthodox Varna system did not allow this. Therefore, they began to extend support to Buddhism and Jainism. It was this merchant class that extended the chief support to these new religions.

Buddhism emerged in the sixth century BCE in the life and moral teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha. Through the story of his life, his Hindu background, and his search for enlightenment, emerged Buddhism's fundamental ideas: unselfishness; compassion for suffering; tolerance; and the prohibition of killing, lying, stealing, and gossiping. The influence of Buddhism in India waned in the later first millennium CE as the Hindu tradition experienced a resurgence. Buddhist monks, nuns, and merchants, however, carried their religion to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia. In India, Jainism, a religion that encouraged the idea of ahimsa, or nonviolence, paralleled the rise of Buddhism. It has continued to play a role in modern India, notably in Mohandas Gandhi's ideas of nonviolent disobedience.

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Page last modified: 12-08-2013 16:07:25 ZULU