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CHAPTER II

THE HINDU EPICS-HERO-WORSHIP ...

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In order to follow the further development of Hindu religion and society from the time the Kâsis established themselves in the valley of the Ganges, it is necessary to understand the political situation which confronted the Aryan settlers in northern India. They were by no means a united people, but composed of numerous tribes and clans, not all of pure Aryan stock, often fighting with each other, and surrounded not only by savage aboriginals of the lowest type living in the dense forests, and classed by the Aryans as Rakshasas, or demons, but by a medley of other races in various stages of civilization and with all manner of religious beliefs. The Dravidians, who, like the Aryans, had entered India from the north-w it, were probably more advanced in the industrial arts, and had developed into petty kingdoms, with many of which the Aryans formed alliances, both in the fighting which resulted from tribal disputes, and in their foreign wars.

There were two political parties in the Aryan camp: one headed by Vasishtha, a Rishi of the priestly caste, who represented the school of orthodoxy and exclusiveness; and the other by Vishwamitra, a Kshatriya, or warrior chief, who became the leader and spiritual adviser of one of the larger non-Aryan tribes which

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BENARES, THE SACRED CITY

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adopted the Aryan religious teaching. The Aryans themselves were a mere handful amidst a multitude, and Vishwamitra probably realized the danger of a wholly aggressive and exclusive policy. For a long time, however, pride of race kept most of the Aryans aloof from their dark-skinned neighbours, and Brahmavarta, “that land created by the gods, which lies between the two divine rivers Saraswati and Drishadwati”,' or the part of the Punjab which they first occupied, was held to be the only soil fit for the faithful people.

But as fresh immigrations pressed in upon the original settlers, and the more enterprising of the clans pushed farther south and east, more of the so-called Turanian races were admitted into the Aryan fold, and there gradually accumulated round the pure Aryan doctrines a vast agglomeration of the primitive native faiths and purely Indian traditions which constitute the basis of the popular Hinduism of to-day. The caste system which was evolved out of these peculiar political and social conditions provided, on the one hand, an automatic system of subdivision to make room for social development and differences of religious practice; and, on the other hand, for the consolidation of all the heterogeneous elements of which Hinduism is coinposed into one great community of beliefs, impelled by common sentiments which bring every sect and caste and grade of society to worship together on the banks of the Ganges. The effect of this continual process of subdivision may be realized from the fact that, whereas Manu, the Hindu Moses, legislated for four castes only, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and

"Manu, II. 19.

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THE CASTE SYSTEM

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Sudras, the Brahmins alone are now made up of over a hundred castes, each with different customs, and neither intermarrying nor eating together.

Though it may be urged that the caste system has · helped to perpetuate many gross superstitions and revolting customs, it was nevertheless admirably adapted for the purpose of preventing Aryan culture and civilization from being entirely swallowed up in the whirlpool of contending races which confronted them in the early period of their development. The Aryan race, indeed, has been so modified by its Indian environment that probably the pure Aryan stock no longer exists, but Aryan culture and Aryan philosophy form the cement which now binds Hindu society together from one end of India to the other.

The means by which the Aryans handed down to posterity their great storchouse of spiritual wisdom, learning, and science, together with their national epics and social regulations, were not the least remarkable of their political ideas. For many centuries after Sanskrit had ceased to be spoken by the people, and a written language had come into common use, the ever-increasing accumulations of Sanskrit learning were preserved by an extraordinary system of memorizing, aided by elaborate and most scientific methods of grammar and etymology, which extended to the counting of each verse, word, and syllable, and took note of the pronunciation, accent, and intonation of the sacred texts.

The most stringent laws were enacted to prevent the Vedas from being corrupted by common use. Manu says, “ He who acquires without permission the Veda from one who recites it, incurs the guilt of

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BENARES, THE SACRED CITY

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stealing the Veda, and shall sink into hell" (II. 116). Gautama, the reputed author of another set of regulations, lays down that “the ears of a Sudra who listens intentionally when the Veda is being recited are to be filled with molten lead. His tongue is to be cut out if he recite it. His body is to be split in twain if he preserve it in his memory.” On the other hand, the Brahmin who forgot the sacred writings or divulged them to unauthorized persons was subject to various penances. : : ; ..

Though the earliest Sanskrit records date back to thousands of years before Christ, the first known manuscripts are not much earlier than the sixtecnth century of our era. The great epics, the Mahâbhâratá and the Râmâyana, and sacred books like the Bhagavat Gita, have long ago been translated into the vernaculars. The celebrated Hindi translation of the Râmâyana is said to have been written by Tulsi Dâs in the neighbourhood of Benares, about 1574 A.D. But learned Brahmins are still to be seen at Benares, especially during the great Hindu festivals, swaying to and fro on the carved chair of a Vyas, or public reader, as they recite the sonorous Sanskrit slokas and translate a Vedic story, or expound what the vulgar are permitted to know of the ancient wisdom, to crowds of intent listeners. . . .

One cannot be in Benares city many hours without noticing how closely the stories of the Ramayana and Mahâbhârata are interwoven with Hindu thoughts and fancies. The pilgrims who pass in the boats on the river chant one refrain Râm! Râm! Sita-Râm! It is echoed by the ash-besmeared Sadhus along the ghats, and scrawled by school-boys on the walls. Râma

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A VYAS, OR PUBLIC READER, AT BENARES

(From a photograph by Johnston & Hoffmann)

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