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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > B > Brahminism


By Brahminism is meant the complex religion and social system which grew out of the polytheistic nature-worship of the ancient Aryan conquerors of northern India, and came, with the spread of their dominion, to be extended over the whole country, maintaining itself, not without profound modifications, down to the present day. In its intricate modern phases it is generally known as Hinduism.

Brahmin texts

Our knowledge of Brahminism in its earlier stages is derived from its primitive sacred books, originally oral compositions, belonging to the period between 1500-400 B.C.

First of all, there are four Vedas (veda means wisdom) dating from 1500 to 800 B.C., and consisting

  1. of a collection of ancient hymns (riks), the so-called Rig-Veda, in praise of the many gods;
  2. of the Sama-veda, compiled from parts of the Rig-Veda as a song-service for the soma-sacrifice;
  3. of the Yajur-Veda, a liturgy composed partly of ancient hymns and partly of other prayers and benedictions to be used in the various forms of sacrifice; and
  4. of the Atharva-Veda, a collection of popular exorcisms and magical incantations largely inherited from primitive Aryan days.
Next in order are the Brahmanas (about 1000-600 B.C.). They are a series of verbose and miscellaneous explanations of the texts, rites, and customs found in each of the four Vedas, composed expressly for the use of the Brahmins, or priests. They are followed (800-500 B.C.) by the so-called Upanishads, concerned chiefly with pantheistic speculations on the nature of deity and the end of man; and lastly, by the Sutras (600-400 B.C.), which are compendious guides to the proper observance of the rites and customs. The most important are the Grhya-Sutras, or house-guides, treating of domestic rites, and the Dharma-sutras, or law-guides, which were manuals of religious and social customs. Being meant for layman as well as priest, they reflect the popular, practical side of Brahminism, whereas the Brahmanas and Upanishads show us the religion on its priestly, speculative side. Closely related to the law-guides is the justly famed metrical treatise, Manava-Dharma-Sastra, known in English as the Laws of Manu. It belongs probably to the fifth century B.C. These, together with the two sacred epics of a later age, the "Ramayana," and the "Mahabharata," embrace what is most important in sacred Brahmin literature.

Early Brahminism or Vedism

The religion of the Vedic period proper was comparatively simple. It consisted in the worship of many deities, great and small, the personified forces of nature. Prominent among these were

There were no temples in this early period. On a small mound of earth or of stones the offering was made to the gods, often by the head of the family, but in the more important and complicated sacrifices by the priest, or Brahmin, in union with the householder. The object of every sacrifice was to supply strengthening food to the gods and to secure blessings in return. Human victims, though rare, were not wholly unknown, but animal victims were at this period in daily use. First in importance was the horse, then the ox or cow, the sheep, and the goat. Offerings of clarified butter, rice, wheat, and other kinds of grain were also very common. But dearer to the gods than any of these gifts, and rivaling the horse-sacrifice in solemnity, was the offering of the inebriating juice of the Soma-plant, the so-called Soma-sacrifice. Hymns of praise and petitions, chiefly for the good things of life, children, health, wealth, and success in undertakings, accompanied these sacrificial offerings. But the higher needs of the soul were not forgotten. In hymns of Varuna, Mitra, and the other gods there are striking texts expressing a sense of guilt and asking for forgiveness. At a time when the earlier Hebrew scriptures were silent as to the rewards and punishments awaiting man in the future life, we find the ancient rik-bards giving repeated expression to their belief in a heaven of endless bliss for the just, and in an abyss of darkness for the wicked.

Devotion to the Pitris (Fathers), or dead relatives, was also a prominent element in their religion. Although the Pitris mounted to the heavenly abode of bliss, their happiness was not altogether independent of the acts of devotion shown them by the living. It could be greatly increased by offerings of Soma, rice, and water; for like the gods they were thought to have bodies of air-like texture, and to enjoy the subtile essence of food. Hence, the surviving children felt it a sacred duty to make feast-offerings, called Sraddhas, at stated times to their departed Pitris. In return for these acts of filial piety, the grateful Pitris protected them from harm and promoted their welfare. Lower forms of nature-worship also obtained. The cow was held in reverence. Worship was given to trees and serpents. Formulae abounded for healing the diseased, driving off demons, and averting evil omens. Witchcraft was dreaded, and recourse to ordeals was common for the detection of guilt.

Popular Brahminism

In the period that saw the production of the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, the Vedic religion underwent a twofold change. On the practical side there was an exuberant growth of religious rites and of social restrictions and duties, while on the theoretical side, Vedic belief in the efficacy of personal deities was subordinated to a pantheistic scheme of salvation. Thus the earlier religion developed on the one hand into popular, exoteric Brahminism, and on the other hand into priestly, esoteric Brahminism. The former is reflected in the Brahmanas and the Sutras; the latter in the Upanishads.

The transformation to popular Brahminism was largely due to the influence of the Brahmins, or priests. Owing to their excessive fondness for symbolic words and forms, the details of ritual became more and more intricate, some assuming so elaborate a character as to require the services of sixteen priests. The sacrifice partook of the nature of a sacramental rite, the due performance of which was sure to produce the desired end, and thus became an all-important center around which the visible and invisible world revolved. Hence it merited liberal fees to the officiating priests. Still it was not a mere perfunctory rite, for if performed by an unworthy priest it was accounted as both useless and sacrilegious. In keeping with this complicated liturgy was the multitude of prayers and rites which entered into the daily life of both priest and layman. The daily recitation of parts of the Vedas, now venerated as divine revelation, was of first importance, especially for the Brahmins. It was a sacred duty for every individual to recite, morning and evening, the Savitri, a short prayer in honor of the vivifying sun. A scrupulous regard for ceremonial purity, surpassing even that of the Jewish Pharisee, gave rise to an endless succession of purifactory rites, such as baths, sprinkling with water, smearing with ashes or cow-dung, sippings of water, suppressions of breath--all sacramental in character and efficacious for the remission of sin. There is reason to believe that the consciousness of guilt for sin committed was keen and vivid, and that in the performance of these rites, so liable to abuse, a penitential disposition of soul was largely cultivated.

In popular Brahminism of this period the idea of retribution for sin was made to embrace the most rigorous and far-reaching consequences, from which, save by timely penance, there was no escape. As every good action was certain of future recompense, so every evil one was destined to bear its fruit of misery in time to come. This was the doctrine of karma (action) with which the new idea of rebirth was closely connected. While the lasting bliss of heaven was still held out to the just, different fates after death were reserved for the wicked, varying, according to the nature and amount of guilt, from long periods of torture in a graded series of hells, to a more or less extensive series of rebirths in the forms of plants, animals, and men. From the grade to which the culprit was condemned, he had to pass by slow transition through the rest of the ascending scale till his rebirth as a man of honorable estate was attained.

This doctrine gave rise to restrictive rules of conduct that bordered on the absurd. Insects, however repulsive and noxious, might not be killed; water might not be drunk till it was first strained, lest minute forms of life be destroyed; carpentry, basket-making, working in leather, and other similar occupations were held in disrepute, because they could not be carried on without a certain loss of animal and plant life. Some zealots went so far as to question the blamelessness of tilling the ground on account of the unavoidable injury done to worms and insects. But on the other hand, the Brahmin ethical teaching in the legitimate sphere of right conduct is remarkably high. Truthfulness, obedience to parents and superiors, temperance, chastity, and almsgiving were strongly inculcated. Though allowing, like other religions of antiquity, polygamy and divorce, it strongly forbade adultery and all forms of unchastity. It also reprobated suicide, abortion, perjury, slander, drunkenness, gambling, oppressive usury, and wanton cruelty to animals. Its Christianlike aim to soften the hard side of human nature is seen in its many lessons of mildness, charity towards the sick, feeble, and aged, and in its insistence on the duty of forgiving injuries and returning good for evil. Nor did this high standard of right conduct apply simply to external acts. The threefold division of good and bad acts into thought, words, and deeds finds frequent expression in Brahmánic teaching.

Intimately bound up in the religious teaching of Brahminism was the division of society into rigidly defined castes. In the earlier, Vedic period there had been class distinctions according to which the warrior class (Kshatriyas, or Rajanas) stood first in dignity and importance, next the priestly class (Brahmins), then the farmer class (Vaisyas), and last of all, the servile class of conquered natives (Sudras). With the development of Brahminism, these four divisions of society became stereotyped into exclusive castes, the highest place of dignity being usurped by the Brahmins. As teachers of the sacred Vedas, and as priests of the all-important sacrifices, they professed to be the very representatives of the gods and the peerage of the human race. No honor was too great for them, and to lay hands on them was a sacrilege. One of their chief sources of power and influence lay in their exclusive privilege to teach the youth of the three upper castes, for education then consisted largely in the acquisition of Vedic lore, which only priests could teach. Thus the three upper castes alone had the right to know the Vedas and to take part in the sacrifices, and Brahminism, far from being a religion open to all, was exclusively a privilege of birth, from which the despised caste of Sudras was excluded.

The rite of initiation into Brahminism was conferred on male children only, when they began their studies under a Brahmin teacher, which took place generally in the eighth year of the Brahmin, and in the eleventh and twelfth years for the Kshatriya and the Vaisya respectively. It consisted in the investiture of the sacred cord, a string of white cotton yarn tired together at the ends, and worn like a deacon's stole, suspended on the left shoulder. The investiture was a sort of sacrament in virtue of which the youth was freed from guilt contracted from his parents and became Dvi-ja, twice-born, with the right to learn the sacred Vedic texts and to take part in the sacrifices. The period of studentship was not long for members of the warrior and farmer castes, but for the young Brahmin, who had to learn all the Vedas by heart, it consumed nine years or more. During this period, the student was subjected to severe moral discipline. He had to rise before the sun, and was not allow to recline until after sunset. He was denied rich and dainty foods, and what he ate at his two daily meals he had to beg. He was expected to observe the strictest chastity. He was bound to avoid music, dancing, gambling, falsehood, disrespect to superiors and to the aged, covetousness, anger, and injury to animals.

Marriage was held to be a religious duty for every twice-born. It was generally entered upon early in life, not long after the completion of the time of studentship. Like the initiation rite, it was a solemn sacramental ceremony. It was an imperative law that the bride and groom should be of the same caste in the principal marriage; for, as polygamy was tolerated, a man might take one or more secondary wives from the lower castes. For certain grave reasons, the household might repudiate his wife and marry another, but a wife on her part had no corresponding right of divorce. If her husband died, she was expected to remain for the rest of her life in chaste widowhood, if she would be honored on earth, and happy with him in heaven. The later Hindu practice known as the Suttee, in which the bereaved wife threw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, seems at this period to have been unknown. All knowledge of the Vedic texts was withheld from woman, but she had the right to participate with her husband in the sacrifices performed for him by some officiating priest. One important sacrifice remained in his own hands--the morning and evening offering of hot milk, butter, and grain to the fire on the hearth, which was sacred to Agni, and was kept always burning.

A strong tendency to asceticism asserted itself in the Brahminism of this period. It found expression in the fasts preceding the great sacrifices, in the severe penances prescribed for various kinds of sin, in the austere life exacted of the student, in the conjugal abstinence to be observed for the first three days following marriage and on certain specified days of the month, but, above all, in the rigorous life of retirement and privation to which not a few devoted their declining years. An ever increasing number of householders, chiefly Brahmins, when their sons had grown to man's estate, abandoned their homes and spent the rest of their lives as ascetics, living apart from the villages in rude huts, or under the shelter of trees, eating only the simplest kinds of food, which they obtained by begging, and subjecting themselves to extraordinary fasts and mortifications. They were known as Sannyasis, or Yogis, and their severity of life was not so much a penitential life for past offenses as a means of acquiring abundant religious merits and superhuman powers. Coupled with these mortifications was the practice of Yogi (union). They would sit motionless with legs crossed, and, fixing their gaze intently on an object before them, would concentrate their thought on some abstract subject until they lapsed into a trance. In this state they fancied they were united with the deity, and the fruit of these contemplations was the pantheistic view of religion which found expression in the Upanishads, and left a permanent impress on the Brahmin mind.

Pantheistic Brahminism

The marked monotheistic tendency in the later Vedic hymns had made itself more and more keenly felt in the higher Brahmin circles till it gave rise to a new deity, a creation of Brahmin priests. This was Prabjapati, lord of creatures, omnipotent and supreme, later known as Brahmá, the personal creator of all things. But in thus looking up to a supreme lord and creator, they were far removed from Christian monotheism. The gods of the ancient pantheon were not repudiated, but were worshipped still as the various manifestations of Brahmá. It was an axiom then, as it has been ever since with the Hindu mind, that creation out of nothing is impossible. Another Brahmin principle is that every form of conscious individuality, whether human or Divine, implies a union of spirit and matter. And so, outside the small school of thinkers who held matter to be eternal, those who stood for the supreme personal god explained the world of visible things and invisible gods as the emanations of Brahmá. They arrived at a personal pantheism. But speculation did not end here. To the prevailing school of dreamy Brahmin ascetics, whose teachings are found in the Upanishads, the ultimate source of all things was not the personal Brahmá, but the formless, characterless, unconscious spirit known at Atman (self), or, more commonly Brahmâ. (Brahmâ is neuter, whereas Brahmá, personal god, is masculine.) The heavens and the earth, men and gods, even the personal deity, Brahmá, were but transitory emanations of Brahmâ, destined in time to lose their individuality and be absorbed into the great, all-pervading, impersonal spirit. The manifold external world thus had no real existence. It was Maya, illusion. Brahmâ alone existed. It alone was eternal, imperishable.

This impersonal pantheism of the Brahmin ascetics led to a new conception of the end of man and of the way of salvation. The old way was to escape rebirths and their attendant misery by storing up merits of good deeds so as to obtain an eternal life of conscious bliss in heaven. This was a mistake. For so long as man was ignorant of his identity with Brahmá and did not see that his true end consisted in being absorbed into the impersonal all-god from which he sprang; so long as he set his heart on a merely personal existence, no amount of good works would secure his freedom from rebirth. By virtue of his good deeds he would, indeed, mount to heaven, perhaps win a place among the gods. but after a while his store of merits would give out like oil in a lamp, and he would have to return once more to life to taste in a new birth the bitterness of earthly existence. The only way to escape this misery was through the saving recognition of one's identity with Brahmâ. As so as one could say from conviction, "I am Brahmâ," the bonds were broken that held him fast to the illusion of personal immortality and consequently to rebirth. Thus, cultivating, by a mortified life, freedom form all desires, man spent his years in peaceful contemplation till death put an end to the seeming duality and he was absorbed in Brahmâ like a raindrop in the ocean.

Early Hinduism

The pantheistic scheme of salvation just described, generally known as the Vedanta teaching, found great favor with the Brahmins and has been maintained as orthodox Brahmin doctrine down to the present day. But it made little progress outside the Brahmin caste. The mass of the people had little interest in an impersonal Brahmâ who was incapable of hearing their prayers, nor had they any relish for a final end which meant the loss forever of conscious existence. And so, while the priestly ascetic was chiefly concerned with meditation on his identity with Brahmâ, and with the practice of mortification to secure freedom from all desires, the popular mind was still bent on prayer, sacrifices, and other good works in honor of the Vedic deities. But at the same time, their faith in the efficacy of these traditional gods could not be but weakened by the Brahmin teaching that freedom from rebirth was not to be obtained by acts of worship to personal deities who were powerless to secure even for themselves eternal conscious bliss. The result was popular development of special cults of two of the old gods, now raised to the position of supreme deity, and credited with the power to secure a lasting life of happiness in heaven.

It was in the priestly conception of the supreme personal Brahmá that the popular mind found its model for its new deities. Brahmá was not a traditional god, and seems never to have been a favorite object of cult with the people. Even today, there are but two temples to Brahmá in all India. His subordination to the great impersonal all-god did not help to recommend him to the popular mind. Instead we find two of the traditional gods honored with special cults, which seem to have taken rise independently in two different parts of the country and, after acquiring a local celebrity, to have spread in rivalry over the whole land. One of these gods was the ancient storm-god Rudra, destructive in tempest and lightning, renewing life in the showers of rain, sweeping in lonely solitude over mountain and barren waste. As the destroyer, the reproducer, and the type of the lonely ascetic, this deity rapidly rose in popular esteem under the name of Siva, the blessed. The other was Vishnu, originally one of the forms of the son-god, a mild beneficent deity, whose genial rays brought gladness and growth to living creatures. His solar origin was lost sight of as he was raised to the position of supreme deity, but one of his symbols, the discus, points to his earlier character.

These two rival cults seem to have arisen in the fourth or fifth century B.C. As in the case of the personal god Brahmá, neither the worship of Siva nor of Vishnu did away with the honoring of the traditional gods and goddesses, spirits, heroes, sacred rivers and mountains and trees, serpents, earth, heaven, sun, moon, and stars. The pantheism in which the Hindu mind is inevitably cast saw in all these things emanations of the supreme deity, Siva or Vishnu. In worshiping any or all, he was but honoring his supreme god. Each deity was credited with a special heaven, where his devotees would find after death an unending life of conscious happiness. The rapid rise in popular esteem of these cults, tending more and more to thrust Brahminism proper in to the background, was viewed by the priestly caste with no little concern. To quench these cults was out of the question; and so, in order to hold them in at least nominal allegiance to Brahminism, the supreme god Brahmá was associated with Vishnu and Siva as a triad of equal and more or less interchangeable deities in which Brahmá held the office of creator, or rather evolver, Vishnu of preserver, and Siva of dissolver. This is the so-called Tri-murti (tri-form), or trinity, altogether different from the Christian concept of three eternally distinct persons in one Godhead, and hence offering no legitimate ground for suggesting a Hindu origin for the Christian doctrine.

More remarkable was the intimate association of other new deities--the creations of the religious fancies of the common people--with the gods Siva and Vishnu. With Siva two popular gods came to be associated as sons. One was Ganesha, lord of troops and mischievous imps, who has remained ever since a favorite object of worship and is invoked at the beginning of every undertaking to ensure success. The other was Scanda, who seems in great measure to have replaced Indra as the god of battle. Beyond the doubtful derivation of the name Scanda from Alexander, there is nothing to indicate that either of these reputed sons of Siva had ever lived the lives of men. Not so the gods that enlarged the sphere of Vishnu's influence. In keeping with Vishnu's position as god of the people, two of the legendary heroes of the remote past, Rama and Krishna, whom popular enthusiasm had raised to the rank of gods, came to be associated with him not as sons, but as his very incarnations. The incarnation of a god descending from heaven to assume a human of animal form as a sort of savior, and to achieve some signal benefit for mankind, is known as an avatar. The idea antedates Buddhism and, while applied to Siva and other gods, became above all a characteristic of Vishnu. Popular fancy loved to dwell on his avatar as a fish to save Manu from the devastating flood, as a tortoise to recover from the depths of the sea precious possessions for gods and men, as a boar to raise the submerged earth above the surface of the waters, but most of all as the god-men Rama and Krishna, each of whom delivered the people from the yoke of a tyrant. So popular became the cults of Rama and Krishna that Vishnu himself was largely lost sight of. In time the Vishnuites became divided into two rival schisms:the Ramaites, who worshipped Rama as supreme deity, and the Krishnaites, who gave this honor rather to Krishna, a division that has persisted down to the present day.

The evidence of the early existence of these innovations on Brahmin belief is to be found in the two great epics known as the "Ramayana" and the "Mahabharata." Both are revered by Brahmins, Sivaites and Vishnuites alike, particularly the latter poem, which is held to be directly revealed. In the "Ramayana," which belongs to the period 400-300 B.C., the legendary tales of the trials and the triumphs of the hero Rama and his faithful wife Sita were worked into a highly artificial romantic poem, largely in the interests of Vishnu worship. The "Mahabharata," the work of many hands, was begun about the fifth century B.C. under Brahmin influence, and in the following centuries received additions and modifications, in the interests now of Vishnuism now of Sivaism, till it assumed its final shape in the sixth century of the Christian Era. It is a huge conglomeration of stirring adventure, popular legend, myth, and religious speculation. The myth centers chiefly around the many-sided struggle for supremacy between the evil tyrants of the land and the hero Arjuna, aided by his four brothers. The role that Krishna plays is not an integral part of the story and seems to have been interpolated after the substance of the epic had been written. He is the charioteer of Arjuna and at the same time acts as his religious advisor. Of his numerous religious instructions, the most important is his metrical treatise known as the "Bhagavad-gita," the Song of the Blessed One, a writing that has exercised a profound influence on religious thought in India. It dates from the second or third century of the Christian era, being a poetic version of a late Upanishad, with its pantheistic doctrine so modified as to pass for a personal revelation of Krishna. While embodying the noblest features of Brahmin ethics, and insisting on the faithful performance of caste-duties, it proclaims Krishna to be the superior personal all-god who, by the bestowal of special grace helps on his votaries to the attainment of eternal bliss. As an important means to this end, it inculcates the virtue of Bhakti, that is a loving devotion to the deity, analogous to the Christian virtue of charity.

Unhappily for the later development of Vishnuism, the Krishna of the "Bhagavad-gita" was not the popular conception. Like most legendary heroes of folk-lore, his character was in keeping with the crude morals of the primitive age that first sounded his praises. The narrative portions of the epic show him to have been sly and unscrupulous, guilty in word and deed of acts which the higher Brahmin conscience would reprove. But it is in the fuller legendary story of his life as given in the so-called "Hari-vansa," a later supplement to the epic, and also in some of the Puranas of the ninth and tenth centuries of our era, that the character of the popular Krishna appears in its true light. Here we learn that Krishna was one of eight sons of noble birth, whom a Herod-like tyrant was bent on destroying. The infant god was saved from the wicked designs of the king by being secretly substituted for a herdsman's babe. Krishna grew up among the simple country-people, performing prodigies of valor, and engaging in many amorous adventures with the Gopis, the wives and daughters of the herdsmen. Eight of these were his favorites, but one he loved best of all, Radha. Krishna finally succeeded in killing the king, and brought peace to the kingdom.

Between this deified Hindu Hercules and Our Divine Lord, there is no ground for comparison, one only for contrast. That the idea of incarnate deity should be found in pre-Christian Hindu thought is not so remarkable when we consider that it answers to the yearning of the human heart for union with God. But what is at first sight astonishing is to find in the religious writings subsequent to the "Mahabharata" legendary tales of Krishna that are almost identical with the stories of Christ in the canonical and apocryphal Gospels. From the birth of Krishna in a stable, and his adoration by shepherds and magi, the leader is led on through a series of events the exact counterparts of those related of Our Divine Lord. Writers hostile to Christianity seized on this chain or resemblances, too close to be mere coincidence, in order to convict the Gospel writers of plagiarism from Hindu originals. But the very opposite resulted. All Indianists of authority are agreed that these Krishna legends are not earlier than the seventh century of the Christian Era, and must have been borrowed from Christian sources.

Later, or sectarian Hinduism

The steady weakening of Brahmin influence, in consequence of the successive waves of foreign conquest, made it possible for the religious preferences of the huge, heterogeneous population of India to assert themselves more strongly. Both Sivaism and Vishnuism departed more and more strongly from traditional Brahminism, and assumed a decidedly sectarian character towards the older religion and also towards each other. With this weakening of Brahmin influence they absorbed the grosser elements of low-grade popular worship, and became abused by the accretion of immoral rites and groveling superstitions. While, on the one hand, the practice of asceticism was pushed to its utmost extremes of fanaticism, on the other the doctrine of bhakti was perverted into a system of gross sexual indulgence, for which the amours of Krishna and the Gopis served as the model and sanction. The Brahmin-caste distinctions were broken down, and an equality of all men and women was asserted, at least during the ceremonies of public worship. The Brahmin rites were in great measure replaced by others particular to each cult and held to be all-sufficient for salvation. Everywhere splendid temples arose to Siva, Vishnu, and his two human avatars; idols and phallic symbols innumerable filled the land; and each rival cult lauded its own special deity as supreme, subordinating all others to it, and looking down with more or less contempt on forms of worship other than its own. One factor which contributed strongly to the degradation of these sectarian forms of religion was the veneration of the Sakti, or female side, of these deities. Popular theology would not rest until each deity was supplemented with a wife, in whom the active nature of the god was personified. With Brahmá was associated an ancient river-goddess, Sarasvati, honored as the patroness of letters. Vishnu's Sakti was Sri, or Lakshmi, patroness of good fortune. With Siva the destroyer there was associated the terrible, blood-thirsty, magical goddess Durga, or Kali, formerly delighting in human victims, now appeased with sacrifices of goats and buffaloes. Rama had his consort, Sita, and Krishna his favorite Gopi, Radha. The worship of these Saktis, particularly Siva's consort Durga-Kali, degenerated into shocking orgies of drunkenness and sexual immorality, which even today are the crying scandal of Hinduism.

Such were the sectarian developments of post-epic times. They found expression in the inferior, quasi-historic Puranas, of the seventh and following centuries, and in the Tantras, which are more modern still, and teach the symbolic magic of Sakti-worship. Neither of these classes of writings is regarded by orthodox Brahmin as canonical.

Of the two hundred million adherents of Hinduism today, only a few hundred thousand can be called orthodox Brahmin worshipers. Sivaism and Vishnuism have overshadowed the older religion like a rank growth of poisonous weeds. In their main outlines, these two great sects have retained the characteristics of the Purana period, but differences of view on minor points have lead to a multiplication of schismatic divisions, especially among Vishnu-worshipers. Both sects, which today are fairly tolerant of each other, have a number of devotional and liturgical practices that are alike in kind, though marked by differences in sectarian belief. Both Sivaite and Vishnuite lay great stress on the frequent recital of the numerous names of their respective supreme gods, and to facilitate this piety, each carries with him, often about his neck, a rosary, varying in material and the number of beads according as it is dedicated to Siva or Vishnu. Each sect has an initiation rites, which is conferred upon the young at the age of reason and in which the officiating guru puts a rosary around the neck of the applicant and whispers into his ear the mantra, or sacred motto, the recital of which serves as a profession of faith and is of daily obligation. Another rite common to both is that in which the presiding officer brands on the body of the worshiper with hot metal stamps the sacred symbols of his sect, the trident and the linga of Siva, or the discus and conch-shell (or lotus) of Vishnu.

But in their highest act of ceremonial worship the two sects differ radically. The Sivaite takes his white stone pebble, the conventional phallic emblem which he always carries with him, and while muttering his mantra, sprinkles it with water and applies to it cooling Bilva leaves. Owing to its simplicity and cheapness, this rite is much in vogue with the ignorant lower classes. The Vishnu rite is less degrading but more childish. It consists of an elaborate and costly worship of the temple image of Vishnu, or more often of Rama, or Krishna. The image is daily awakened, undressed, bathed, decked with rich robes and adorned with necklaces, bracelets, crowns of gold and precious stones, fed with choice kinds of food, honored with flowers, lights, an incense, and then entertained with vocal and instrumental music, and with dancing by the temple girls of doubtful virtue, consecrated to this service. As Krishna is generally worshipped in the form of a child-image, his diversion consists largely in the swinging of his image, the spinning of tops, and other games dear to the heart of the child.

Siva, too, has his temples, vying in magnificence with those of Vishnu, but in all these, the holy place is the linga-shrine, and the temple worship consists in the application of water and Bilva leaves to the stone symbol. The interior walls of these, and of Vishnu temples as well, are covered with shocking representations of sexual passion. and yet, strange to say, these forms of religion, while giving a sanction to the indulgence of the lowest passions, at the same time inspire other devotees to the practice of the severest asceticism. They wander about in lonely silence, naked and filthy, their hair matted from long neglect, their bodies reduced to mere skin and bones by dint of incredible fasts. They will stand motionless for hours under the blazing son, with their emaciated arms uplifted toward heaven. Some go about with face ever turned upwards. Some are known to have kept their fists tightly clenched until their growing nails protruded through the backs of their hands.

Reform movements

Enlightened Hindus of modern times have made attempts to institute a reform in Hinduism by rejecting all idolatrous and immoral rites, and by setting up a purely monotheistic form of worship. Of these, the earliest and most noted was the so-called Brahmá Samaj (Congregation of Brahmá), founded in Calcutta in 1828, by the learned Rammohun Roy. He tried to combine a Unitarian form of Christianity with the Brahmin conception of the supreme personal God. After his death in 1833, differences of view as to the nature of God, the authority of the Vedas, and the obligation of caste-customs caused the society to split up into a number of small congregations. At present there are more than a hundred independent theistic congregations in India. Some, like the Arya Samaj, rest on the sole authority of the Vedas. Others are eclectic, even to the extent of choosing for devotional reading in their public services passages from the Avesta, Koran, and Bible. Few of them are altogether free from the taint of pantheism, and, being more like clubs for intellectual and moral improvement than for ritualistic forms of worship, they make but little progress in the way of conversion.

In short, Brahminism cannot succeed in reforming itself. Its earlier sacred books are steeped in the polytheism out of which it grew, and the pantheistic view of the world, to which it was afterwards committed, has been like a dead weight dragging it hopelessly into the stagnant pool of superstition, pessimism, and immorality. In virtue of its pantheistic attitude, there is no form of religion, high or low, that cannot be tolerated and incorporated into its capacious system. The indifference of Brahminism to the gross abuses of Hinduism is, after all, but a reflex of the indifference of its supreme god. Sin loses most of its hideousness when it can be traced ultimately to the great impersonal Brahmâ. There is but one form of religion that has any prospect of reforming the religious life of India, and that is the Roman Catholic. For the shadow, pantheistic deity it can set form the One, Eternal, Personal Spirit and creator; for the crude Tri-murti, the sublime Trinity; and for the coarse and degrading avatars of Vishnu, the incarnation of the Son of God. It can replace the idolatrous and immoral Hindu rites with its own imposing liturgy, and substitute the Cross for the abominable linga.

Brahminism, being a natural religion and a privilege of Hindu birth, has never made any concerted attempt at proselytizing in foreign lands. But some years ago steps were taken by a few individuals of England to foist upon English-speaking people a new religious system embodying the pantheistic belief and magical superstition of the Vedanta school of Brahminism. This new system, known as Theosophy, was to embrace within its fold members of every form of religion, reconciling all differences of creed in the pantheistic view that all deities, high and low, are but transitory emanations of the supreme, incomprehensible Reality, devotion to which was the highest religion. This quasi-cult, which also made pretensions to the exercise of magical powers, soon met the ridicule and obloquy it deserved. It is practically obsolete at the present day.


Texts.-- Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts, 5 vols. (London, 1868-70); Mueller, Vedic Hymns in Sacred Books of the East, XXXII; Oldenberg, Vedic Hymns, op. cit. XLVI; Bloomfield, The Atharva Veda, op. cit., XLII; Eggeling, The Satapatha Brahmana. op. cit., XII, XXVI, XLI; Mueller, The Upanishads, op. cit., XV; Oldenberg and Mueller, The Grihya-Sutras, op. cit., XXIX, XXX; Buehler, The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, op. cit., II, XIV; idem, The Laws of Manu, op. cit., XXV; Thibaut, The Vedanta-Sutra, op. cit. XXXIV, XXXVIII; Telang, The Bhagavad-Gita, op. cit VIII; Bournouf-Roussel, Le Bhagavata Purana, 5 vols. (Paris, 1898).

General Treatises.--Barth, The religions of India (London, 1882); Monier-Williams, Brahminism and Hinduism, or Religious Thought and Life in India (London, 1891); Idem, Hinduism (London, 1897); Idem, Indian Wisdom (London, 1876); Hopkins, The Religions of India (Boston, 1895); Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies (Oxford, 1897); Gough, The Philosophy of the Upanishads and Ancient Indian Metaphysics (London, 1882); Deussen, Das System des Vedanta (Leipzig, 1883); Idem, Der Philosophie der Upanishads (Leipzig, 1899); Kaegi, The Rig-Veda (Boston, 1886); Oldenberg, Die religion des Veda (Berlin, 1894); Colebrooke, Miscellaneous Essays, 2 vols. (London, 1873); Weber, The History of Indian Literature (London, 1892); Dahlman, das Mahabharata (Berlin, 1895); Shoebel, Las Ramayana in Annales du musee Guimet (Paris, 1888), XIII; de la Saussaye, Lehb. der Religionsgesch. (Freiburg, 1905), II.

About this page

APA citation. Aiken, C.F. (1907). Brahminism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Aiken, Charles Francis. "Brahminism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by M. Donahue.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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