home | history

Hinduism, Caste, and Wisdom Literature

Climate change brought another shortage of rainfall to the Indus Valley around the year 1000 BCE. Aryans began moving eastward to the plains of a valley cut by another great river, the Ganges. Some of their priests acted as an advance party. They despised the people they found for not having kings and aristocrats as they did. By now the Aryans had iron tools and weapons, and with confidence that their god was on their side they pushed through the resistance of local peoples. They spread across the Indus Valley, clearing land for themselves with their god of fire, Agni.

Some Aryans pushed southward along the eastern coast of the Indian subcontinent, to an area called Kalinga. Aryan priests found in the south a dark-skinned people known today as Dravidians. Occasionally the priests felt mistreated and sought military aid from their tribe. Warrior nobles came to the priests' rescue.

Beginnings of Caste

With Aryans conquering local peoples a new caste system developed. At the top of the class system were the priests called Brahmins, and their family. Also on top and not conceding superiority to the Brahmins were the warrior-aristocrats, the Kshatriyas. Below them were the Vaishyas: common Aryans who tended cattle and served the Brahmins and Kshatriyas in other ways. At the bottom were the Shudras: the conquered, darker non-Aryans. The four classifications, it was claimed, had origins with the god Prajapati, the Brahmins associated with Prajapati's mouth (words and wisdom), the warriors with Prajapati's arms (strength), the Vaishyas with his legs, and the lowly Shudras with his feet – dusty and dirty from the ground.

The class system was hereditary – otherwise it would have fallen apart. And In the coming centuries class designations would harden, and class was to be associated with reincarnation: being reborn according to one's virtue.

Scripture (the Vedas) and the Hindu concept of Evil

When Aryans began writing is not known. Some Brahmins, like various priests elsewhere, resisted the change, and some other Brahmins supported the creation of scripture. Their scripture became known as Vedas – Veda meaning wisdom. The Vedas were considered revealed truths.

The most important of the Vedas was the Rig Veda, which consisted of hymns or devotional incantations of 10,562 written lines in ten books. The Yajur Veda focused on sacrificial procedures. The Sama Veda, was concerned mainly with the god Indra – a god of thunder, rain and war and now seen also as the god that had created the cosmos. The Atharva Veda was a collection of 730 hymns. It contained prescriptions for prayer, atonements, a creation of charms for love, health, prosperity and a long life, solemn rituals for marriage, rituals for curing diseases and protections against enemies and sorcerers.

The Vedas implied that humanity is basically good. They described evil as the work of demons that might take the form of a human or some other creature, evils outside oneself – an invader – rather than an inborn sin.

Wisdom Literature: the Upanishads

For the literate few, a variety of ideas were put into writing. Some Brahmins had little interest in ritual sacrifices and more interest in probing relations between self and the universe. They were interested in attaining religious bliss. Their writings were collected into what would be called the Upanishads – a collection of as many as two hundred books that were to be written across centuries.

Some contributors to the Upanishads claimed that one's fate could be altered only by learning. Some repeated beliefs already expressed in the Vedas, such as every living thing had a spirit, or soul, and that spirits could migrate in and out of things. They wrote of death as rebirth – a reincarnation. They claimed that God is within us and that the wise seek the joys of the infinite, the joy that comes with separating oneself from one's body and the clutches of birth and death.

It was written in the Upanishads that there are two kinds of knowledge. One kind was knowledge about the existence of God, rituals and the stuff one learns about the material world. A higher knowledge was described as impossible to explain, like trying to explain warmth to someone who knows only cold. Higher knowledge was described as personal experience that touched one's soul – an emotional knowledge.

The view that everything is interconnected suggested a single all encompassing god. A story in the Upanishads described a youth asking a learned man how many gods there are. The learned man named three hundred and three. "Yes," responded the youth, "but how many are there really?" The learned man narrowed the number to thirty-three. "Yes," responds the youth, "but how many are there really?" And finally the learned man said there was only one god.

Another contributor to the Upanishads wrote that a person had to realize the god in himself before he could realize the god of the universe, and he claimed that realizing the god in oneself is recognizing oneself in all others.

One contributor described God as mystery, and another claimed that in the beginning there was nothingness, that the world was created from nothingness and would eventually return to nothingness.

Another described God as having existed before all else. He wrote that in the beginning God was alone, that he looked around and saw nothing, and, being lonely, he divided himself into male and female, and that these two aspects of God then mated and brought into creation all living things.

One Brahmin had the genius to see that there were truths not yet known. He wrote of priests having unwarranted certainty of blind men leading the blind. A few whose writings were included in the Upanishads proclaimed that the universe was essentially inanimate and functioned other than by the magic of gods. They claimed that when a person dies he dissolves back into primary elements, that after death there is neither pain nor pleasure, that there is no afterlife or reincarnation, that soul and god are only words and that Hindu sacrifices accomplish nothing. Brahmin authorities responded by removing the offending entries, and they destroyed other materialist writings. No writings expressing the materialist point of view were to survive. The materialist writings were to be known only through those who argued against them.


CONTINUE READING: The Jains and Buddhists

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.