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THE SACRED BOOKS OF THE EAST
VERY religion has its sacred book-generally a collection
of hymns, legends, theological speculation, and directions for ceremonial rites. There is one curious differ
. ence between the Bible of the Christians and any other of the world's sacred books. Christianity is mainly the religion of the Western world—of Europe and America—but its Bible came to the West from the East. The Sacred Books with which this chapter is concerned were for the most part the creations of the countries where they are still held in veneration, and when that is not the case, as with the writings of Gautama the Buddha and Zoroaster, of contiguous countries. Wisdom comes from the East, but the wisdom that remains in the East is far less virile wisdom than the wisdom that has travelled westward. With the exception of the Koran and the Granth of the Sikhs, the Sacred Books of the East had their origin in a remote antiquity, and are sometimes the almost haphazard collection of the work of many men living in many ages.
The first of the Sacred Books in order of antiquity are the Vedas of the Brahmans. The Hindus, the adherents of the social conventions and complex polytheism generally known as Hinduism, form 70 per cent. of the population of the Indian peninsula. Racially they are in part descended from the Aryans, who, in an early stage of the world's history, crossed the Himalayas from the high plateau which was the cradle of the Aryan race. As is, of course, well known, all the great European races—the Latins, the Teutons, the Celts, and the Scandinavians—are of Aryan descent, as are the people of Persia. India was already thickly inhabited when the Aryans moved south, bringing with them their religion and their culture. The consequence was a mixture of races, the Aryan element retaining the position of an aristocracy through the caste system, and the development of a curious and almost incomprehensible religion. Hinduism, to apply one generic name to the system which includes the worship of thirtythree thousand different gods, almost every village having its own particular deity, is a degradation of Brahmanism, which, in its original pure form, was brought from the north by the Aryan invaders four thousand years ago.
Most religions owe their institution to one great personality -Christianity to Jesus Christ, Buddhism to Buddha, Confucianism to Confucius, and so on. Hinduism and Brahmanism, on the other hand, cannot be traced back to any one great teacher. Orthodox Brahmanism teaches the existence of an all-embracing spirit called Brahma, the original cause and the ultimate goal of all living things. At its beginning, therefore, Brahmanism was as absolutely monotheistic as Mohammedanism itself. But with the conception of an abstract all-embracing deity there arose a second belief in the existence of three great gods, each representing one aspect of absolute power. These gods are Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Siva, the destroyer. According to an Indian legend, the first Brahma created the primordial waters, and in them placed a seed which became a golden egg. In this egg Brahma, the creator, was born, and after his birth he created the heaven and the earth from the two halves of the shell from which he had come. Another myth states that Brahma was born from a lotus which grew out of the body of the god Vishnu. Brahma, the creator, is usually represented as a bearded man with four heads and four hands. One hand holds a sceptre, the emblem of power; another a bundle of leaves representing the Vedas, the sacred books which will presently be described; another a bottle of water from the Ganges, the Hindu sacred river; and the fourth a string of beads, of course representing prayer. It should be said that though Brahma is one of the three great titular deities of Brahmanism and Hinduism, he is by no means a popular god. In all India there are only four temples dedicated to his worship, and he possesses far fewer devotees than the gods of purely local eminence.
The most important characteristic of the Hindu social system is supplied by the castes—a religious creation. There were originally four castes—the Brahmins, the priests and teachers; the Kshatriyas, the warriors; the Vaisyas, farmers, merchants, and landowners; and the Sudras, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. In the course of the ages, these four original castes have been subdivided into hundreds of minor castes, but with all the changes, the Brahmans, who took their name from the god Brahma, have retained their pre-eminent position. Unlike most priests, the Brahmans marry, and generally marry within their own caste, and they are undoubtedly more purely Aryan than any other modern Indians.
In the religion of the Hindu village to-day with its beastshaped gods; its faith in scores of amulets-dogs' teeth, crocodiles' teeth, the tusks of boars and elephants—its elaborate sacrificial ritual and countless prayers, little remains of the original Brahmanism except the belief in the transmigration of souls and in the doctrine of Karma, which teaches that after many experiences in different bodies, the number of which is determined by the good or evil deeds done in the flesh, the soul finally finds release from individuality and is reabsorbed in Brahma, the all-embracing spirit. The doctrine, in other words, is that each individual soul is like Brahma and has neither beginning nor end; the condition of every man's existence is the consequence of his acts in a previous existence. The soul, it is conceived, may have renewed individual existence in varying living forms until it is finally “freed from all taint of individuality and released from all activity or suffering,” and finds its eternal bliss in the all-embracing spirit Brahma.
A Feat of Memory
One must note the stubborn way in which Brahmanism and Hinduism have continued to exist despite the idealistic teaching of Gautama, the Buddha, despite the forceful and generally successful proselytism of Moslem conquerors, and despite all the efforts of Christian missions. The Brahman remains the teacher of the Indian people and the custodian of their traditions, and the Brahman still learns by heart the verses of the Vedas, the sacred writings which were recited thousands of years ago before the ancestors of these Brahman priests made their southward trek. When the Vedas were finally written out, they were written in Sanscrit, now a dead language, which bears the same relation to the languages of India as Latin bears to Italian, and which has been preserved in the Vedas exactly as Latin has been preserved in the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. Though the Vedas now exist in manuscript, the pious Brahman, as we have said, still learns them by heart, since it was written: “Those who sell the Vedas, and even those who write them, those also who defile them, they shall go to hell."
The word Veda means knowledge. The Vedas consist of four books of hymns and prayers, four collections of prose writings explaining the origin and the meaning of the hymns and the prayers, and two collections of theological speculations based on the poetical texts.
The hymns of the Rig-Veda are at least three thousand years