1. The religion of the Brahmans, the priestly caste in India, esp. one stage in its development. Though the terms Brahmanism and Hinduism* are sometimes used interchangeably to denote the entire development of orthodox religious thought in India, beginning with the period that follows the composition of the Rig-Veda (see Vedas) down to modern times, the term Brahmanism is today often applied to the period following ancient Vedic Hinduism, when the Brahmanas* with their ceremonialism were much in evidence.
2. The Vedic Period. The earliest religion of the Aryan invaders of India, as we find it portrayed in the Rig-Veda, was of a polytheistic nature, particularly in the popular mind. But the Rig-Veda, most ancient sacred book of the Hindus, also shows remains of an earlier monotheism similar to that found in many ethnologically ancient peoples. This is strikingly brought out in the Rig-Veda creation hymn X. lxxxii. 13 and X. cxxi. 15 with its similarities to Gn 1 and 2. According to one authority, in the Rig-Veda the god Varuna (Gk. ouranos), the sky that covers all, is already on the wane and boisterous Indra, the sky that rains (thundergod), is in the ascendancy. Dyu or Dyaus Pitar, Father Heaven, the sky that shines, has often been related to Greek Zeus Pater, Latin luppiter (Diespiter), Teutonic Tiu, and German Zio (Tyr). Prithivi Matar, his wife, is Mother Earth. Agni (Lat. ignis) is the fire god. Soma, originally an intoxicating drink used for libations, is the god to whom all the hymns of one book of the Rig-Veda are addressed. Aditi is the limitless sky and her sons the Adityas are the suns of the different months of the year. In time many new gods were added and there was considerable overlapping of functions. Vishnu, originally the sun crossing the sky in 3 steps (rising, zenith. setting) grew in importance in a later period. In all the Vedas (the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, the two Yajur-Vedas, and the Arthava-Veda) mystical and symbolical terms abound. A creator-god may appear as Purusha, Visvakarman, Hiranyagarbha, Brahma, or Prajapati. The Vedic gods, with the exception of Rudra, storm-god (later Siva, the destroyer), were beneficent. Sacrifices of food, esp. of melted butter and soma, were made to them. Their help was implored against the multitudes of demons and evil spirits, which were believed to cause disease and misfortune of all kinds. The Vedic eschatology included belief in heaven and hell, to which, at death, the good and the evildoers pass respectively.
3. Brahmanism Proper. In earliest times there were neither temples nor holy places nor priests. But toward the end of the Vedic period and with the advent of the Brahmanas* a priesthood developed. The Brahman (or Brahmin) priests interpreted the sacred writings, gained priestly power, and (it is generally believed) introduced and supported the caste system as the Aryans moved southward. Formerly the Aryan invaders had occupied only the northwestern part of India, the Punjab, or five-river country. The mixture of Aryans and darker-skinned aborigines brought with it the beginning of the caste system, a prominent feature in Hinduism. The traditional four castes: Brahman, or priestly caste, which became socially supreme; Kshatriya, or warrior caste; Vaisya, or agricultural caste; Sudra, or servile caste. The prominence now given to the idea of an impersonal deity marks the end of the Vedic period of Indian religious development and the beginning of Brahmanism. During the period that followed, the main features of the Vedic religion were retained, essentially the same gods were worshiped, and the Veda was regarded as a divine revelation; but the Brahmans gained ever greater importance, until they were regarded as gods on earth. The priestly speculation which marks this period was a reaction against the numerous sacrifices, and to some extent against the ritual, which had become a burden. The essential feature of this speculation, which was philos. rather than religious, was the belief in an eternal, unchangeable principle, or world soul. This principle, called Brahman or Atman (i. e., Self), lies at the basis of the universe, and all beings are manifestations of it. Man emanated from it and eventually returns to it. During this period the doctrine of the transmigration* of souls was also developed and found expression in the Upanishads,* the 3d group of sacred Indian texts. According to this doctrine a man is reincarnated immediately at death, and the deeds in his previous existence determine the character of his rebirth. He is reincarnated in a higher state if his previous deeds are good, but in a lower state, even in animal form, as that of a pig, ass, etc., if his previous deeds are evil. As rebirth means continued suffering, the great aim is to be released from rebirth. But it is desire that leads to rebirth, therefore all desire must be abolished. To abolish all desires that fetter the soul to the world and to become one with Brahman-Atman is the great object of human endeavor. This final union with the infinite is called moksha, salvation.
4. Six major systems of Brahmanic philos. were developed, which are based on the Upanishads and are considered orthodox. Each taught its own way of salvation, i. e., how to be released from rebirth. They are Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. The Sankhya is atheistic and dualistic. It teaches that on the one hand there is the soul (or an infinite plurality of individual souls), on the other, matter. Release from rebirth comes to him who recognizes the absolute distinction between these two. The Vedanta, the most important system, appears in various schools of interpretation. It teaches the identity of the ego with the infinite, unchangeable Brahman. He alone exists; the multiplicity of phenomena is an illusion. He who attains this knowledge has moksha (release from rebirth and merging with the universal soul). Vaisheshika (atomic philosophy), Mimamsa (return to Vedic rites), and Nyaya (logic) are minor systems. Followers of Charvaka denied the authority of the Vedas,* considered soul merely intelligence in the body, and considered pleasure the highest good. For later religious development in India see Hinduism.
R. C. Dutt, The Civilization of India (London, 1900); J. N. Farquhar, A Primer of Hinduism (New York, 1914); A. A. Macdonell, A History of Sanskrit Literature (New York, 1929); D. S. Sarma. What Is Hinduism? (Madras, 1945); J. T. Wheeler, Ancient and Hindu India (Calcutta, 1961). AJB
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