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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,1 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. Griffith'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 floods, 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:—
"Friend of the home, the strong and youthful maiden, Night, dear to Savitar the god, and Bhagu,
All-compassing, all-glorious, prompt to listen, hath with her
greatness filled the earth and heaven. Overall 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.''
—Atharva Veda. Hook xix, jq. 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, accompanied 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,
What was there to contain, to cover in—■
There was no Death there, nor Immortality.
Then was there only That, resting within itself.
At first within the darkness veiled in darkness,
Till straightway from the formless void made manifest
—Rig- Veda. 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,
wise men and women, took part in the discussions. The greatest freedom of thought was allowed, and the rules which regulated the debates were only those which were approved of as likely to lead to sound conclusions. The rewards for debaters who showed profound thought and argument were not less liberal than those which were given to successful composers and sacrificers, but the penalties for those who infringed the rules of logic, or spoke foolishly, were heavy.
These disputations, or "Brahmodyams", afterwards became so much a national institution, that, if we may believe the Sanskrit traditions, even kings would yield their thrones and become the servants or pupils of the wisest philosophers. The methods of the Inquisition, and the argument of the sword and stake, never became popular with Hindu religious teachers. Whatever may be urged against the Hindu system, it must be admitted that it has always stood for absolute liberty of conscience. One religious movement after another has swept over Indian soil, but until the Muhammadan conquest it was never considered justifiable, or necessary, to suppress the voice of the preacher and the argument of the philosopher with torture, bloodshed, and judicial murder.
The old Buddhist records, thouq-h referring to a considerably later time than the Vedic period, throw much light on the character of these ancient universities, and on the distinctions which were given as rewards of learning.
A member of the Buddhist order who had thoroughly mastered one section of the philosophical books was exempted from the common drudgery of monastic