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The Aryan settlers on the banks of the Indus and in the land of the Five Rivers were possessors of a large number of hymns addressed to the elements and powers of nature. Some of these hymns they no doubt brought from their earlier homes to the West, but others were composed after they hąd reached the land of their adoption. These ancient hymns cover a long period, the length and the era of which can only be conjectured, but fifteen hundred years before Christ is about the mean of the various ages assigned to them. The hymns form what is called the Rig-veda Sanhitā, a collection which embraces all the extant compositions of the early Aryans. It is the Rig-veda which is of primary importance in Hindu religion and mythology; the other Vedas are later in date, and the second and third Vedas consist almost exclusively of hymns derived from the Rig, but specially arranged for religious purposes. The fourth or Atharva-veda borrows less from the Rig-veda, but it is considerably later in date, and is of a different character.
The Aryan hymns of the Veda embody the ideas of the Indian immigrants. These ideas were inherited from their forefathers. They were originally the property of the united progenitors of the Aryan races, and the offshoots of this great human stock have spread their primitive ideas over a large portion of the earth. In the Vedic hymns the ideas and myths appear in their simplest and freshest forms, directly connected with the sources from which they sprang by clear ties of language. Comparative philology and mythology go hand in hand; and as the language of the Vedas has proved the great critical instrument in the construction of the science of philology, so the
simple myths of the Vedic hymns furnish many clues for unravelling the science of mythology. For where the etymology of a mythic name or term yields a distinct sense of its meaning, the origin of the myth is not far to seek. The language of the Vedas has in many instances supplied this clue, and led to a definite comprehension of what was previously hidden and obscure. The Vedic hymns have preserved the myths in their primitive forms, and, says Max Müller, “ Nowhere is the wide distance which separates the ancient poems of India from the most ancient literature of Greece more clearly felt than when we compare the growing myths of the Veda with the full-grown and decayed myths on which the poetry of Homer is founded. The Veda is the real Theogony of the Aryan races, while that of Hesiod is a distorted caricature of the original image.”
The Aryan settlers were a pastoral and agricultural people, and they were keenly alive to those influences which affected their prosperity and comfort. They knew the effects of heat and cold, rain and drought, upon their crops and herds, and they marked the influence of warmth and cold, sunshine and rain, wind and storm, upon their own personal comfort. They invested these benign and evil influences with a personality; and behind the fire, the sun, the cloud, and the other powers of nature, they saw beings who directed them in their beneficent and evil operations. To these imaginary beings they addressed their praises, and to them they put up their prayers for temporal blessings. They observed also the movements of the sun and moon, the constant succession of day and night, the intervening periods of morn and eve, and to these also they gave personalities, which they invested with poetical clothing and attributes. Thus observant of nature in its various changes and operations, alive to its influences upon themselves, and perceptive of its beauties, they formed for themselves deities in whose glory and honour they exerted their poetic faculty. They had no one god in particular, no superior deity guiding and controlling the rest, but they paid the tribute of their praise to the deity whose bounties they enjoyed, or whose favours they desired for bodily comfort. They lauded also in glowing language the personifications of those beauties of nature which filled their minds with
delight and kindled the poetic fire. So each of the deities in turn received his meed of praise, and each in his turn was the powerful god, able to accomplish the desires of his votary or to excite a feeling of awe or admiration.
Thus there were many distinct deities, and each of them hal some general distinctive powers and attributes; but their attributes and characters were frequently confounded, and there was a constant tendency to elevate now this one now that one to the supremacy, and to look upon him as the Great Power. In course of time a pre-eminence was given to a triad of deities, foreshadowing the Tri-mūrti or Trinity of later days. In this triad Agni (Fire) and Sūrya (the Sun) held a place, and the third place was assigned either to Vayu (the Wind) or to Indra (god of the sky). Towards the end of the Rig-veda Sanhitā, in the hymns of the latest date, the idea of one Supreme Being assumed a more definite shape, and the Hindu mind was perceiving, even if it had not distinctly realised, the great conception.
As the Vedic hymns grew ancient, ritual developed and theological inquiry awoke. Then arose what is called the Brahmana portion of the Veda. This consists of a variety of compositions, chiefly in prose, and attached to the different Mantras. Ritual and liturgy were the chief objects of these writings, but traditions were cited to enforce and illustrate, and speculation was set at work to explain, the allusions of the hymns. The simplicity of the Vedic myths gradually became obscured, the deities grew more personal, and speculations as to the origin of the world and of the human race invested them with new attributes. Later on, in the Aranyakas and Upanishads, which form part of the collective Brāhmana, a further development took place, but principally in a philosophical direction.
Between the times of the Sanhitā and of the Brāhmana the conception of a Supreme Being had become established. The Brāhmanas recognise one Great Being as the Soul of the Universe, and abound with philosophical speculations as to the work of creation and the origin of man. A golden egg was produced in the universal waters, from which in course of time came forth Prajāpati, the progenitor-or, the quiescent Universal Soul,
Brahma, took a creative form as Brahmā the Prajāpati. From the Prajāpati, or great progenitor, there was produced a daughter, and by her he was the father of the human race. The explanations and details of this connection vary, but there is a general accord that the Prajāpati was the progenitor of all mankind by a female produced from himself. Before the times of the Brāhmanas some of the old myths of the hymns had crystallised, the personifications had become more distinct, and the ideas from which they had been developed had grown hazy or were quite forgotten. Philosophy speculated as to the origin of the world, theories were founded upon etymologies, and legends were invented to illustrate them. These speculations and illustrations in course of time hardened into shape, and became realities when the ideas which gave them birth were no longer remembered and understood. The priestly order had advanced in power, and had taken a more prominent and important position, but the Kshatriya or second class held a high place, and asserted something like an equality with the Brāhmans even in matters of learning.
Another interval elapsed between the days of the Brāhmana and of Manu. The theory of the golden egg is held by Manu, and he calls the active creator who was produced from it Brahma and Nārāyana, the latter name being one which was afterwards exclusively appropriated by Vishnu. But the most remarkable change observable in Manu is in the condition of the people, in the great advancement of the Brahmanical caste, the establishment of the four great castes, and the rise of a number of mixed castes from cross intercourse of these four. In a hymn called Purusha-sūkta, one of the latest hymns of the Rig-veda, there is a distinct recognition of three classes, Brāhmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas, and these appear more distinctly in the Brāhmana, but no mention of the Sūdras and mixed castes has been found before the work of Manu.
The Rāmāyana and Mahā-bhārata are poems of the heroic age, and though they are full of marvels, they deal more with the actions of mortal men and romantic creations than the might and majesty of the gods. The old deities of the Vedas have retired into the background, and some have disappeared alto
gether. Indra retains a place of some dignity; but Brahmā, Siva, and Vishnu have, in the Epics, risen to the chief place. Even of these three, the first is comparatively insignificant. His work of creation was over, and if he was ever an object of great adoration, he had ceased to be so. Vishnu and Siva both appear in these poems; and although Vishnu is the god who holds the most prominent place, still there are many passages in which Siva is elevated to the supreme dignity. The Vishnu who, in the Vedas, was the friend and companion of Indra and strode over the universe, has become the great deity of preservation, and the terrible and howling Rudra is now Siva, the deity of destruction and renovation. Each of these two gods in his turn contends with and subdues the other; now this, now that, receives the homage of his rival, and each in turn is lauded and honoured as the chief and greatest of gods.
The Avatāras or incarnations of Vishnu assume a prominent place in the poems, and still more so in the Purānas. The first three, the Fish, the Tortoise, and the Boar, have a cosmical character, and are foreshadowed in the hymns of the Vedas. The fourth, or Man-lion, seems to belong to a later age, when the worship of Vishnu had become established. The fifth, or Dwarf, whose three strides deprived the Asuras of the dominion of heaven and earth, is in its character anterior to the fourth Avatāra, and the three strides are attributed to Vishnu in the Veda. The fifth, sixth, and seventh, Parasu-rāma, Rāmachandra, and Krishna, are mortal heroes, whose exploits are celebrated in these poems so fervently as to raise the heroes to the rank of gods. The ninth Avatāra, Buddha, is manifestly and avowedly the offspring of the preaching of Buddha; and the tenth, Kalki, is yet to come.
When we reach the Purānas there is found a very different condition of things. The true meaning of the Vedic myths is entirely lost, their origin is forgotten, and the signification and composition of many of the mythic names are unknown. Marvellous legends have gathered round the favourite divinities, and many more have been built upon fanciful etymologies of the old names. The simple primitive fancies suggested by the operations of nature have disappeared, and have been supplanted by