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BENARES, THE SACRED CITY
Of the antiquity of Benares there can hardly be any question. From its peculiar situation on the banks of a splendid river, with its eastern boundary converted by the current into a magnificent natural amphitheatre, facing the rising sun, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that even before the Aryan tribes established themselves in the Ganges valley, Benares may have been a great centre of primitive sun-worship, and that the special sanctity with which the Brahmins have invested the city is only a tradition of those primeval days, borrowed, with so many of their rites and symbols, from their Turanian predecessors.
The first definite historical event known about Benares is that the Kâsis, one of the Aryan tribes which were then occupying northern India, established themselves in the Ganges valley, near Benares, at a date supposed to be between 1400 and 1000 B.C. The origin of the Aryans is still a much-debated question, but the researches of ethnologists have completely disturbed the theory of philologists, which placed the home of the Aryan people in Central Asia, and point to more northern and western latitudes as the cradle of the race. Certainly the Aryans brought with them into India all the habits and ideas of northern people—they were fair-skinned, ate horse-flesh and beef, and drank fermented liquorthe soma juice, which they held to be the amrita, or nectar of the gods. Like the ancient Britons they were polyandrous. Their religion, at first, was a simple adoration of the beneficent powers of Nature, with little of the mysticism and dread, born of a tropical environment. They worshipped the sky,
Dyaus-pitar, as Heavenly Father, and Prithivi, the earth, as Mother; Varuna, the all-embracing firmament, the upholder of heaven and earth, king of gods and men, who made the sun and moon to shine, whose breath was the wind
“He knows the path of birds that fly through heaven, and sovran
of the sea, He knows the ships that are thereon. True to his holy law, he knows the twelve moons with their
progeny,' He knows the moon of later birth. He knows the pathway of the wind, the spreading-high and mighty
.. wind He knows the gods above."
- Rig Veda, Hymn 25. Griffill's translation.
They invoked Indra, the rain-god, as brother, friend, and father, who heard their prayers; Agni, the Firegod, slayer of demons, who protected them day and night from evil; Surya, “the soul of all that moveth not, or moveth”, and Savitri—the sun and sunshine. The early Vedic hymns are redolent with the fragrance of a bright and genial spring-time, reflecting the joy of a simple, pastoral life in the golden age, when the children of men played with Mother Nature in her kindest moods, and the earth and the stars sang together. The gloom and terrors of tropical forests, the fury of the cyclone, the scorching heat, and the mighty forces of the monsoon Roods, had not yet infected Aryan life and thought. Their poets loved to sing the beauties of the dawn-Ushas, the lovely maiden, daughter of the sky; but her dark sister, Night, was also to them a kindly divinity:
BENARES, THE SACRED CITY
“ Friend of the home, the strong and youthful maiden, Night, dear to Savitār the god, and Bhagu, All-compassing, all-glorious, prompt to listen, hath with her
greatness filled the earth and heaven. Over all depths hath she gone up, and mounted, Most Mighty One,
the sky's exalted summit. Over me now the loving Night is spreading with her conspicuous
God-like ways like Mitra. Excellent, high-born, blissful, meet for worship, Night, thou hast
come; stay here with friendly spirit. Guard us the food for men that we have gotten, and all prosperity that comes of cattle.”
-Atharra Veda. Book xir, 19. Griffith's translation. They had no idols, and the nature gods whom they worshipped provided their only temples. The Aryan ritual consisted of burnt-sacrifices, oblations of clarified butter, and libations of soma-juice or milk, accom panied by hymns of praise and prayer. Far back in time, in that dim region which modern historical telescopes are ever trying to explore, the father of the family was both sacrificer and priest; but when the Aryans appeared in India, their ritual had already become so complicated as to call for a separate class of priests and poets, like the Druids-the Brahmins of ancient Europe. Caste was still unknown, but the poets and thinkers of the people had already begun to concern themselves with those speculations regarding the origin of all things which form the basis of modern Hinduism:
“There was neither existence, nor non-existence,
The kingdom of air, nor the sky beyond.
Then was there only THAT, resting within itself.
At first within the darkness veiled in darkness,
Till straightway from the formless void made manifest
- Rije-l'ada. Hymn of Creation.
There had also sprung up the idea of the compelling power of prayer and sacrifice, which became the key-note of the later Brahminical ritual. Certain individuals, families, or tribes acquired a reputation for the success which followed their sacrifices and prayers, and by a post hoc, propter hoc line of reasoning, it was assumed that the divine powers could not only be propitiated, but coerced into granting the favours desired, whether it was victory over enemies, wealth, rain, recovery from sickness, or spiritual benefits.
The hymns and prayers which seemed specially efficacious were handed down to posterity as most precious legacies, and the rule of sacrifice gradually developed into a complicated science, the practice of which required the most exact knowledge and experience. The priestly office thus tended more and more to become a hereditary position of great power and responsibility, for though the virtue ascribed to a successful sacrifice was great, the disasters which would result from a blundering performance might : involve a whole tribe or kingdom in ruin.
Every tribe had a purohita, or high priest, who always performed the proper sacrifices before a battle, and claimed a liberal share of the booty which might
be gained from a victory. The composers of the sacred hymns, now known as the Rishis, or sages, also expected and generally received handsome rewards for their services. But some of them have celebrated the niggardliness of their patrons in sarcastic verses, which shows that their minds were not always above worldly considerations. One disappointed author, who had composed an ode to the Ashvins, the twin heralds of the dawn, and received as a reward a chariot without horses or harness, expresses his indignation thus:“This teamless chariot I received from the Ashvins, owners of
many horses. It gratified me greatly! It must get on somehow with me to the place where men drink
soma, the precious car! Dreams and wealthy niggards, both are unprofitable. Let me have nought to do with them."
Though the purohitas and priests thus occupied a very important place in Aryan society, they were as yet entirely subordinate to the nobles and chiefs of the warrior class, and were very far from the position of absolute supremacy which they gained for themselves in later times. As in the middle ages in Europe, the functions of warrior and priest were often combined. Many of the finest hymns preserved in the sacred books of the Hindus were composed by the Kshatriyas, or fighting chiefs.
A very important part of the sacred lore treasured in the religious literature of the Hindus is contained in the Upanishads, the records of the debates on metaphysical questions and the theory of sacrificial practice which excited the profoundest interest of our Aryan forefathers. Kings, nobles, and priests,