By degrees the old collection of hymns, or the Rig-Veda, no longer sufficed.
Continuing How the Indian Caste System Began,
our selection from Brief History of the Indian People by William W. Hunter published in 1880. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in How the Indian Caste System Began.
Time: around 1200 BC
The Aryan settler lived on excellent terms with his bright gods. He asked for protection, with an assured conviction that it would be granted. At the same time, he was deeply stirred by the glory and mystery of the earth and the heavens. Indeed, the majesty of nature so filled his mind, that when he praises any one of his Shining Gods, he can think of none other for the time being, and adores him as the supreme ruler. Verses may be quoted declaring each of the greater deities to be the One Supreme: “Neither gods nor men reach unto thee, O Indra!” Another hymn speaks of Soma as “king of heaven and earth, the conqueror of all.” To Varuna also it is said, “Thou art lord of all, of heaven and earth; thou art king of all those who are gods, and of all those who are men.” The more spiritual of the Vedic singers, therefore, may be said to have worshipped One God, though not One alone.
In the beginning there arose the Golden Child. He was the one born lord of all that is. He established the earth and this sky. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?
He who gives life, he who gives strength; whose command all the Bright Gods revere; whose shadow is immortality, whose shadow is death. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?
He who, through his power, is the one king of the breathing and awakening world. He who governs all, man and beast. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?
He through whom the sky is bright and the earth firm; he through whom the heaven was established, nay, the highest heaven; he who measured out the light and the air. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?
He who by his might looked even over the water-clouds; he who alone is God above all gods. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?”
While the aboriginal races buried their dead in the earth or under rude stone monuments, the Aryan — alike in India, in Greece, and in Italy — made use of the funeral-pile. Several exquisite Sanscrit hymns bid farewell to the dead: — “Depart thou, depart thou by the ancient paths to the place whither our fathers have departed. Meet with the Ancient Ones; meet with the Lord of Death. Throwing off thine imperfections, go to thy home. Become united with a body; clothe thyself in a shining form.” “Let him depart to those for whom flow the rivers of nectar. Let him depart to those who, through meditation, have obtained the victory; who, by fixing their thoughts on the unseen, have gone to heaven. Let him depart to the mighty in battle, to the heroes who have laid down their lives for others, to those who have bestowed their goods on the poor.” The doctrine of transmigration was at first unknown. The circle round the funeral-pile sang with a firm assurance that their friend went direct to a state of blessedness and reunion with the loved ones who had gone before. “Do thou conduct us to heaven,” says a hymn of the later Atharva-Veda; “let us be with our wives and children.” “In heaven, where our friends dwell in bliss — having left behind the infirmities of the body, free from lameness, free from crookedness of limb — there let us behold our parents and our children.” “May the water-shedding Spirits bear thee upward, cooling thee with their swift motion through the air, and sprinkling thee with dew.” “Bear him, carry him; let him, with all his faculties complete, go to the world of the righteous. Crossing the dark valley which spreadeth boundless around him, let the unborn soul ascend to heaven. Wash the feet of him who is stained with sin; let him go upward with cleansed feet. Crossing the gloom, gazing with wonder in many directions, let the unborn soul go up to heaven.”
By degrees the old collection of hymns, or the Rig-Veda, no longer sufficed. Three other collections or service-books were therefore added, making the Four Vedas. The word Veda is from the same root as the Latin vid-ere, to see: the early Greek feid-enai, infinitive of oida, I know: and the English wisdom, or I wit. The Brahmans taught that the Veda was divinely inspired, and that it was literally “the wisdom of God.” There was, first, the Rig-Veda, or the hymns in their simplest form. Second, the Sama-Veda, made up of hymns of the Rig-Veda to be used at the Soma sacrifice. Third, the Yajur-Veda, consisting not only of Rig-Vedic hymns, but also of prose sentences, to be used at the great sacrifices; and divided into two editions, the Black and White Yajur. The fourth, or Atharva-Veda, was compiled from the least ancient hymns at the end of the Rig-Veda, very old religious spells, and later sources. Some of its spells have a similarity to the ancient German and Lithuanian charms, and appear to have come down from the most primitive times, before the Indian and European branches of the Aryan race struck out from their common home.
To each of the four Vedas were attached prose works, called Brahmanas, in order to explain the sacrifices and the duties of the priests. Like the Four Vedas, the Brahmanas were held to be the very word of God. The Vedas and the Brahmanas form the revealed Scriptures of the Hindus — the sruti, literally “Things heard from God.” The Vedas supplied their divinely-inspired psalms, and the Brahmanas their divinely-inspired theology or body of doctrine. To them were afterward added the Sutras, literally “Strings of pithy sentences” regarding laws and ceremonies. Still later the Upanishads were composed, treating of God and the soul; the Aranyakas, or “Tracts for the forest recluse;” and, after a very long interval, the Puranas, or “Traditions from of old.” All these ranked, however, not as divinely-inspired knowledge, or things “heard from God” (sruti), like the Vedas and Brahmanas, but only as sacred traditions — smriti, literally “The things remembered.”
Meanwhile the Four Castes had been formed. In the old Aryan colonies among the Five Rivers of the Punjab, each house-father was a husbandman, warrior, and priest. But by degrees certain gifted families, who composed the Vedic hymns or learned them off by heart, were always chosen by the king to perform the great sacrifices. In this way probably the priestly caste sprang up. As the Aryans conquered more territory, fortunate soldiers received a larger share of the lands than others, and cultivated it not with their own hands, but by means of the vanquished non-Aryan tribes. In this way the Four Castes arose. First, the priests or Brahmans. Second, the warriors or fighting companions of the king, called Rajputs or Kchatryas, literally “of the royal stock.” Third, the Aryan agricultural settlers, who kept the old name of Vaisyas, from the root vis, which in the primitive Vedic period had included the whole Aryan people. Fourth, the Sudras, or conquered non-Aryan tribes, who became serfs. The three first castes were of Aryan descent, and were honored by the name of the Twice-born Castes. They could all be present at the sacrifices, and they worshipped the same Bright Gods. The Sudras were “the slave-bands of black descent” of the Veda. They were distinguished from their “Twice-born” Aryan conquerors as being only “Once-born,” and by many contemptuous epithets. They were not allowed to be present at the great national sacrifices, or at the feasts which followed them. They could never rise out of their servile condition; and to them was assigned the severest toil in the fields, and all the hard and dirty work of the village community.
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