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About Developments of the Brahmanic Age

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 11:54 PM


. Indra and Indrani enthroned in Indra's heaven, Swarga, among the clouds of Mount Meru, and attended by groups of Apsaras and Gandharvas heavenly nymphs and musicians. Rajput painting, early nineteenth century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Ross Coomeraswamy Collection.
Not all the dead were permitted to remain in Yama's heaven. As a form of Mitra, and associated with Varuna, Yama was a judge of the dead, known as Dharmaraja. Dharma, truth or righteousness, by which Yama judged mortals who approached his heaven, was a development of Varuna's rta, the inscrutable law. As Varuna formerly bound the guilty with their sins against rta, so Yatna consigned the wicked or unbelievers either to annihilation or to a realm of darkness called Put. He was assisted in the task of judgment by Varuna, who sat with him beneath a tree in the land of the fathers. Like a shepherd, Yama played his flute and drank soma with the other gods. As the dead approached him he gave the faithful draughts of the soma, thereby making them immortal. He was helped in this task by his messengers, a pigeon and an owl, as well as two brindled watch dogs, each with four eyes. In later times his assistant was said to be Chitragupta, and he had other 'court recorders'.

At first the emphasis was on the pleasures of Yama's heaven, a realm of light where life had no sorrows, nature was sweet and the air full of laughter and celestial music. The splendors of Yama's assembly house, built by Tvashtri from burnished gold, were equal to those of the sun. There Yama, as Pitripati (king of the fathers), was waited upon by servants who measured out the life span of mortals, and was surrounded and worshipped by rishis and Pitris, clad in white and decked with golden ornaments. The assembly house was filled with sweet sounds, perfumes and brilliant flowers.

Stylised depiction of the armies of the Pandavas and the Kauravas ranged against each other in the battle of conflicting loyalties and duties acted out by divine and semi-divine characters in the Mahabharata epic. All who died fulfilling their duty in battle were admitted to lndra's heaven, illustrating that dharma was the path to salvation. Persian Manuscript A.D. 1761-63. British Museum, London. Yama's heaven was not without rivals, and in particular it was challenged by the splendors and delights of the heavens of Varuna and Indra. Varuna in his heaven was no longer judge of the dead, as he had been when seated beside Yama; he was already lord of the ocean. The heaven, which was constructed within the sea by Tvashtri or Visvakarma, had walls and arches of pure white, surrounded by celestial trees made of brilliant jewels which always bore blossom and fruit birds sang everywhere. In the white assembly house Varuna sat enthroned with his queen, both decked with jewels, ornaments of gold, and flowers. They were attended by the minor deities the Adityas, the Nagas (serpents), the Daityas and Danavas (ocean demons), the spirits of the rivers, seas and other waters, and the personified forms of the cardinal points and the mountains.

Indra's heaven, also built by Tvashtri, was called Swarga and was situated on Mount Meru, but could be moved anywhere like a chariot. Like the other heavens it was adorned with celestial trees and filled with birdsong and the scent of flowers. Indra enthroned in glory in the assembly house, wearing white robes, garlanded with flowers and wearing gleaming bracelets and his crown. He was accompanied by his queen, and attended by the Maruts, by the major gods and by sages and saints, whole pure souls without sin were resplendent as fire. This concept of lndra’s heaven is the one still held today. In it there is no sorrow, suffering or fear for it is inhabited by the spirits of prosperity, religion, joy, faith and intelligence. Also in lndra's heaven are found the spirits of the natural world wind, thunder, fire, water clouds, plants, stars and planets. Recreation is provided by the singing and dancing of the Apsaras and Gandharvas, celestial spirits; heroes or divine warriors perform feats of skill and holy rites are performed. Divine messengers pass to and fro in their celestial chariots. The heaven presided over by the warrior god was thought to be especially the abode, permanent or temporary, of warriors. Thus in the Mahabharata Indra receives his son Arjuna, who is exceptionally skilled in military arts, and keeps him for several years on Mount Meru and he welcomes the fallen heroes both sides to his heaven, all those who have performed their warrior’s duty being admitted. Some of those who enter receive special privileges, such as Bhishma, who resumed his place as one of the Vasus, Indra’s advisers.

Vishnu developed from a comparatively minor god in the Vedas into the Great Preserver of the Hindu trinity, the kind and compassionate god who stood with Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destroyer. Pala sculpture, eighth century.
Yama's role changed with the growth of these other heavens and the idea that heaven was the reward for virtue, rather than a place where most of the dead were received unless they had the misfortune of having no children to perform the proper sacrifices for them. At first the idea of going to the abode of the fathers was simply less desirable than that of being received with special honors by the gods later this developed into the notion that Yama's kingdom was not heaven but hell, where the tortures were pictured with growing elaboration, and Yama himself became a figure of terror. Opinions differ as to how many hells there are in his abode some say hundreds of thousands others say twenty-eight, or only seven. The tortures meted out are peculiarly suited to the sinner's offence. Thus cruel men are boiled in oil those who are unnecessarily cruel to animals are consigned to a place where a monster tears them to pieces without ever killing them those who kill Brahmins to a hell where the bottom is a furnace and the top a frying pan oppressive kings are crushed between two rollers; those who kill mosquitoes are tortured by sleeplessness the inhospitable are turned into worms and cast into a hell where they eat each other those who marry out-side their caste are forced to embrace red hot human forms rulers and ministers who provoke religious dissension are thrown into a river full of the most horrible impurities where they are boiled and fed upon by aquatic animals.

Just as the vulgar had personalized the concept of Brahma as creator, so they misunderstood the Brahmanic philosophers' growing belief in metempsychosis or transmigration of souls, samsara, and the possibility of ultimate release from the eternal cycle of rebirths by identification of the individual soul with the universal spirit.

Shiva Lingodbhava.  A familiar representation of the lingam or phallus, the symbol of Shiva's creative power and of the strength which, according to his followers, makes him the greatest of the gods. Granite from Tanjore, tenth century. British Museum, London. The common belief was that the wicked went south to one of Yama's hells, or were reborn as worms, moths or biting serpents, while the good were sent either to the abode of the fathers on a path which passed south-east through the moon, or they went north-west, in the direction of the gods, to the sun. But distinctions were made between different sorts of the virtuous just as they were made among the wicked. Yama ceased to preside over the abode of the fathers and the gods no longer inhabited that region, having moved to one of the various heavens. Those who now followed the path to the abode of the fathers had dutifully obeyed their dharma they had offered sacrifices, given alms generously and performed austerities in other words they had followed tradition. Such ones pass first into smoke, then into night, then arrive at the abode of the fathers, and finally pass on to the moon. There (by association of Soma, moon, and soma, ambrosia) they become the food of the gods but they are given out from the gods into space, and from air pass successively into clouds, into rain, and so return to earth where, becoming food, they give rise to the principle of life in man and woman and so emerge into the world again. Akin to these beliefs were those that the stars were the souls of the dead (particularly of saints and heroes) or else that they were the souls of dead women.

Those virtuous deceased who were allowed to follow the 'path of the gods' were those who in their lifetime had faith who, in other words, had attained fusion with the universal spirit and so won release from samsara. The stages of their journey into the after-life are as follows: the fire of their funeral pyre purifies their earthly natures, which then become flames themselves they pass next into day, into the world of the gods and into lightning. They are then con-ducted by the Supreme Being into the realm of Brahman, the universal divine spirit which is without beginning or end and is without decay. From this realm there is no return, and here they achieve immortal bliss.

Detail from a statue of Harihara. The head is sharply divided: its left side is surmounted by the cylindrical headdress of Vishnu, while the right brow, on which can be seen Shiva's third eye, is crowned with Shiva's tangled mass of hair, in which nestles the crescent moon, symbol of Nandi. The right hand bears the trisula, Shiva's trident. Khmer sandstone from Prei Krabas. Sixth century. Among people clinging to ideas of an after-life spent in the presence of the Vedic gods, the so-called 'path of the gods' was easily misunderstood. Despite the general acceptance of the idea of metempsychosis, or rebirth according to karma (destiny created by actions in former lives), the older beliefs still crept in. Thus it was held that those who had led virtuous lives were permitted a break in the cycle of their rebirths by staying some time in lndra's heaven. Some still held to the old view that they were allowed to reap the benefit of their good action in Indra's heaven before serving their allotted time in hell. Alternatively like Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata and like all kings who by nature of their calling cannot fail to commit some injustice they suffer a vision of hell before being led to heaven.

Pantheism and Polytheism


Paradoxically in an age preoccupied with systematizing beliefs, the Brahmanic period and its aftermath was a time of religious confusion. New systems were constantly evolved while the old were retained, and myths had to be elaborated to explain both the trend to pantheism spearheaded by the priesthood's abstractions and the struggles for supremacy within the old Vedic pantheon of deities such as Vanilla, Indra, Mitra, Agni and Soma. As a compromise between these trends Varuna was most often given the role of a pantheistic god, though Brahma was considered to be the All-god or universal spirit behind him. Thus Brahma the creator had become identical with Brahman the world spirit. Other deities were subdivided and given special names for each of their functions, a process aided by the converse trend of absorption of lesser deities by the greater ones. For example, Surya was given supplementary names meaning `nourisher' (Savitri), 'the brilliant' (Vivasvat), 'light-maker', 'day-maker', 'lord of day', 'eye of the world', 'witness of the deeds of men', 'king of the constellations', 'possessed of rays', 'having a thousand rays', 'shorn of his beams' (a reference to a myth involving Visvakarma).

Buddha, having attempted for six years to attain enlightenment through the ascetic's route of starvation, realises that such means must be rejected just as firmly as the philosophical obscurities of the sages and the ritual of the priests, and accepts food from the daughters of Sena. Probably from Jamal Garhi, Yusufzai. British Museum, London. A revival of early trends in the growth of Indian beliefs further complicated the pattern. Thus the early Aryan influences were brought to the fore, as is shown by the attention paid to Agni (though he was probably of Indian origin), and to the Sun and the Moon, as well as the significance attached to the opposition of light and dark, which symbolize gods and demons, heaven and hell. Dravidian trends can be discerned in the rise to importance of female deities as powers in their own right rather than as passive consorts to their divine husbands and behind this the growing concern with sacrifice and fertility cults. Most important of all was the appearance of Shiva and the rise of Vishnu. While Shiva is partly a development from Rudra, he is equally reminiscent of the pre-Aryan, yogic Lord of the Beasts deity, while his consorts resemble the sacrifice-exacting mother-goddesses of the same r period. Vishnu is less like his Vedic namesake than like another deity of non-Aryan origin, Varuna.

Popular and priestly ideas on all these deities differed widely. Confusion fostered the rampant growth of explanatory mythology, some of which seems to be scholarly and philosophical, though much of it must have sprung from the popular imagination.

Meanwhile the priests continued to enhance their status by the development of new ideas on the subject of sacrifice. Sacrifices, usually in the form of offerings of soma or, later, of milk or curds, were held to be essential for the maintenance of the gods' strength and for the continued progression of the universe on its appointed cycle. The priests therefore gained ascendancy over the gods, who depended upon them for their sustenance, and while they grew relatively weaker the priests grew in power until, finally, they were openly said to have greater eminence than the gods they served.


Brahma, the All-god or universal spirit of the Brahmanic age, from whom the Brahmin priestly caste derived their caste superiority. Chola sculpture from South India. Early eleventh century. British Museum, London. So the priests, with their mastery of sacrifice, were the first to emancipate themselves from the dominion of the gods. The sages carried this trend one stage further, for by austerities and the acquisition of knowledge they could become identified with the world soul even before death and, as we have seen with Manu, could survive even the periodic cataclysms and act as creator, thus surpassing even the reward of release from the pattern of rebirth.

The priests reconciled the two approaches by declaring that worship of deities and ritual sacrifice were appropriate for the active stages of a man's life, while the attempt to loosen the bonds of worldly illusion through detachment and self-enlightenment might be made at the end of life. The inconsistency between priestly cults and the mystical beliefs of the Upanishadic philosophers was one of the factors leading to the growth of many heresies.

Among these were the Jain movement, with its concentration on personal salvation through austerities and ahimsa (harmlessness), its belief that the gods of the old pantheon were unable to reach the spiritual heights attainable by holy men, and its rejection of the idea of a supreme deity in favour of an Absolute consisting of a plurality of souls.

Buddhism, another heretical movement of the fifth century B.C., similarly rejected the priesthood (Buddha was a member of the warrior caste, a Kshatriya, like Mahavira), and caste in general. Buddhism, like the cults of the Hindu revival, is rooted in earlier beliefs, for example the mythology of light and dark (Buddha's was the dynasty of the Sun), and certain pre-Aryan beliefs about rebirth through death (fertility through sacrifice) and about detachment. Buddhism became the dominant religion for almost a millennium among the ruling classes, and in a popularized form which later supplied it with a mythology was commonly practised by the masses.

But Vedic deities or their derivatives continued to be worshipped, and fire and soma cults were widespread Their priests could offer the further attraction of rites of passage for the important junctures of human life such as birth, marriage and death lacking in Buddhism. The substratum of continuing belief in the old gods was the foundation on which the Hindu revival of the fifth century A.D. was built.

Agni, the Vedic god of fire, whose importance was revived during the Brahmanic period largely because of his role in ritual sacrifice, the prerogative of a priesthood arrogating power over the other gods it served. Bronze, Orissa, eleventh-twelfth centuries. British Museum, London. The new cults offered the more readily acceptable idea of incarnational deities and used ancient myths as the core of the religion. But they also incorporated in their teaching many of the philosophical ideas from the earlier Upanishads of the fifth century B.C., which were the point of departure for Buddha. Hinduism thus became an all-embracing faith, able to claim even that Buddha was merely a manifestation or avatar of its own supreme deity. Where the Brahmanic age postulated a father god or creator, and Upanishadic teaching suggested that beyond the creator god there was a universal spirit or supreme deity with which the spiritually gifted might become united by the path of meditation with or without austerities, Hindu belief identified the gods of the supreme triad with the universal spirit, but suggested that they not only embraced within their natures the gods of the old pantheon but also, through the notion of avatars, that they might become incarnate in the form of heroes on earth.

Hinduism's essential difference from Buddhism lies in this concern with events on earth and in the way in which it developed the Brahmanic innovation of dharma. Dharma became righteousness and justice embodied in social, caste obligations. To follow dharma was now the path to salvation rather than the mere performance of sacrifices. `Worldliness.' had another consequence. More rigorous sages taught physical asceticism, instead of the debased sacrificial cult to attain spiritual disengagement and thus fusion with the universal spirit. But just as in the popular mind the yogi was admired for his physical prowess rather than for his spiritual achievement, so the new cults of Vishnu and Shiva, originally conceived as a spiritual counter to Buddhist abstractions, came in many cases to foster grosser polytheism and a return to pre-Vedic beliefs. The reversion to these is clearly seen in the great epics. Though the Mahabharata received its final form about the first century B.C., was written down in the fifth century A.D. and continues to be considered scriptural to the present day, it was a collection of the myths current from about 8oo B.C. onwards. 
Writer – Veronica Ions
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