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Hinduism, Caste, and Wisdom Literature

Around the year 1000 BCE, climate change brought another shortage of rainfall to the Indus Valley. 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, and with confidence that their god was on their side they pushed through local peoples. They spread across the Indus Valley and cleared land for themselves with their god of fire, Agni.

Some Aryans also pushed southward along the eastern coast of the Indian subcontinent, to an area called Kalinga. Conquerors sent priests ahead as missionaries, and the 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, which sent warrior nobles to the priests' rescue.

Beginnings of Caste

With Aryans conquering local non-Aryans, a caste system developed. At the top of the system were the priests, called Brahmans. Also on top and not conceding superiority to the Brahmans were the warrior-aristocrats, the Kshatriyas. Below them were the Vaishyas: common Aryans who tended cattle and served the Brahmans and Kshatriyas in other ways. At the bottom were the Shudras: the conquered, darker-skinned non-Aryans. The four classifications it was claimed had origins with the god Prajapati: the Brahmans were associated with Prajapati's mouth (his 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.

If it were not to fall apart, the class system had to be hereditary. In the coming centuries, class designations would harden, but, early on, people from different classes could dine together, a man from a non-Brahman family might become a Brahman, and a Brahman might marry a woman from a lower caste whom he found attractive.

Scripture and Hinduism's concept of Evil

When Aryans began writing is not known. Some Brahmans, like various priests elsewhere, resisted the change, but it came and was to be known as the Vedas – Veda meaning wisdom.

The Vedas were considered revealed truths. The most important of them 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, and 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 for protection against enemies and sorcerers.

The Vedas implied that humanity is basically good. Evil was a force outside oneself an invader rather than an inborn sin. Evil was the work of a demon that might take the form of a human or some other creature.

Wisdom Literature: the Upanishads

For the literate few a variety of ideas were put into writing. Some Brahmans had little interest in ritual sacrifices and more interest in probing relations between self and the universe. 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 expressed in the Vedas, such as every living thing had a spirit, or soul, and that spirits could migrate. They wrote of death as a rebirth or 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 people could acquire a higher knowledge that was impossible to explain, an emotional knowledge that arose from personal experience that touched one's soul.

It was written also that everything is interconnected, suggesting a single all encompassing 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 a 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 wrote that God had been lonely and so He divided himself into male and female, and that these two aspects of God then mated and brought into creation all living things.

One Brahman had the genius to write that there were truths not yet known. He wrote of priests having unwarranted certainty and of the blind leading the blind. There were proclamations 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. But caste, based as it was on Hindu religiosity, was to survive. Brahman authorities removed the offending Upanishad entries and other such writings — writings to be known only through the conformists who argued against them.

CONTINUE READING: The Jain and Buddhist Rebellions

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