Historical Windows on Hinduism
Course: Introduction to Hinduism
Lecture: Historical Windows on Hinduism
The following lecture is provided by Biblical Training. The speaker is Dr Timothy Tennent. More information is available at www.biblicaltraining.org.
Introduction to fundamental ideas and literature that are basic to the Hindu religion. The first lecture given for this class is not available at this time. This lecture begins on the class outline at II, C.
II. Historical Windows on Hinduism
C. Vedic and Upanishadic Period (1200 B. C. - 400 B.C.)
You recall after some preliminary discussions about statistics and some of the problematic issues with defining Hinduism, we actually finally on lecture #1. We launched into some of the historical windows on Hinduism and you really cannot properly understand the emergence of modern-day Hinduism without knowing something of the early Vedic religion which preceded it and in many ways still influences Hinduism today. So we actually discussed the Indus Valley civilisation. And you recall we talked about the difference between the Aryans or Aryans (the noble ones who migrated in 1500BC into north India) and we talked about the Dravidians or indigenous people that had gradually migrated into south India and were there to this day located in mainly in four southern states.
So I think that's really where we left off. We left off with the Aryans beginning to populate this region that had once been dominated by the Indus Valley civilisation. And it's that point we want to pick up, because this indigenous population that was there in north India began to reflect on a number of remarkable things that influenced later thought that's eventually will come all the way down into some material that's assigned in class. But these Aryans became a settled people when they got into the Indus Valley, Indus River. And over a period of 800 years, they composed what is widely regarded as some of the most remarkable literature in the history of the world. This is basically an oral tradition. None of it is written down at this stage, but it is being passed down from person to person.
1. Structure of Sacred Literature
And the result is a wider range of sacred material which occurs in several strata and you can see on the handout, on lecture #1, that there are a number of strata to this that we have to kind of unpack, because what happens is that the material that is chanted or meditated upon forms eventually a corpus of material that today we call, for example, the Rig-Veda. But the Rig-Veda is actually a collection of about 1028 hymns and these hymns were chanted and these hymns were passed on and were used for certain purposes.
And then eventually there are like appendices that get put on to this material. And so it's actually not, if you look at this as like a little miniature library, you will not have the proper view of this. This is not like we have the Bible and it has 66 books and they have this kind of group of writings and there's, you know, half a dozen of these or a couple of dozen of these books. It's actually, unfortunately, not that simple. What you actually have are books that have various attachments to the end of the books and so that's one dynamic where you have a book that they keep putting attachments to so this one book has several sections to it. And then as you get to the different layers among the Vedas, and we'll kind of unpack all this in a minute. I'm just kind of giving you an overview. The material in each of the Vedas is not new material, but it's the same base material that's reworked for different purpose. And so the result is a rather unusual kind of way in which the passages are used.
2. Four strata of sacred literature
So, we'll go back to the earliest part of this strata and kind of show you how it works out. The earliest writings that we have is known as the Rig-Veda. Now you'll notice that the term Veda is the common word for all four strands – the Rig Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Atharva-Veda. And the word Veda comes from the word vid and vid means knowledge. So these are different kinds or strands or levels of knowledge. The Rig simply means the hymns of knowledge. And as I mentioned, the Rig-Veda represents 1028 hymns. Now this is the earliest and most sacred of all of the Hindu writings, even in modern day Hinduism the Rig-Veda is a very important document. Everyone knows about the Rig-Veda.
The Rig-Veda is collected together into what we would call 10 books or 10 sub-sections that they very interestingly refer to not as book but as mandalas. And I believe that probably should be a term – yes a term of four on the back of your handout. Let me just say more about the word mandala. Because this actually gives you some insight into how the Rig-Veda functions. A mandala is a little diagram that they believe gives one's insight into the entire cosmos. Now in history of religions this is called, the term for this if you like to have the theological term for this, it's called a cosmical homology. A cosmical homology.
Now a cosmical homology is the belief that by studying something tiny, or a representation of something, you can gain insight into the entire cosmos. So the Hindus have long believed, for example, that if you understood the human body you could understand the universe – that there's a connection between the individual body and the entire universe. That's a long-held belief that runs even in modern day Hinduism. That's an example of a cosmical homology. If you understand your body, you can understand the universe. If you understand even a single atom, you can actually understand the whole universe.
They eventually developed a number of diagrams, I have here on the overheads some examples of some of these that are well-known ones, and these are examples of mandalas. They don't mean anything to you. They're simply diagrams. But what they believe is, by studying these diagrams and by meditating on them, these diagrams can give you insight into the universe. This is called a mandala. There are many, many mandalas. Some are very simple, straightforward that just look like a very basic diagram of squares and rectangles. This is a very simple, simple mandala. This particular one actually is, in fact, all three of these actually, all three of these are mandalas that are used by Buddhists, rather than Hindus. The other ones were Hindus, but it doesn't matter. Hindus and Buddhists both accept the idea of cosmical homology. So by meditating on this lotus flower, for example, you can gain insight into the whole structure of the cosmos.
Now that is a very, very dominant idea within Hindu thought. So, the fact that they refer to the Rig-Veda as being divided into mandalas, actually gives you a little insight into the way the document functions. And again, I'm being careful to call it document because it's not really meant to function as a document. Because when we talk about sacred literature in Christian circles, naturally we think about the text in more of a propositional way. What is the information or data that's being taught here? We look at it doctrinally. It proclaims about Christ's coming, resurrection and so forth. But in the case of the Rig-Veda, it's actually a collection of words that contain inherent power. Each of these hymns contain the words that release the power necessary to control the entire universe and to understand the whole universe. It's not just merely propositional truth. This is kind of a cosmic truth.
They don't believe that the written version of this represents the reality of it. I think I may have mentioned last time in passing that they believe that all of the truths, what they call the sanatana dharma, the eternal truth, resonates through the entire universe with a certain sound. This sound is most often represented by the term Om. You see it written like this – o-m – but it's pronounced aum. I had a dispute about this with Baker Press, because Baker Press, when I put this in my book, I mentioned that it was pronounced aum – like this a-u-m. They wrote back to me and said: "Actually, we looked up the dictionary, you know, of whatever, the official encyclopaedia or whatever, British Britannica or whatever, and they said they wanted to do it like this – a long o – ō-m – rather than aum. I know that's a small thing, but actually there's a little, there's a sliding sound in this thing. It's actually a u m is the best pronunciation – aum – rather than ōm. So this sound is so important that Hindus will spend years practising the annunciation of this sound. And it's very, very typical to find, if you're looking at a Hindu temple or a book about Hinduism – and I should have brought one into to show you – but the symbol in Sanskrit for aum is on the front cover of like everything. You see it all over the place. It's a very common thing in India.
But what happens is they believe this sound, this aum sound, is resonating through the whole universe – just like a bell that you hit. They call it the unstruck sound. It's a sound that never was struck, but it's eternally resonating. And so what happens is these sages would get themselves in tune with it. It would, you know, aum, aum, they'd get this aum – and eventually they feel like they're getting in tune with this resonation of the universe. Again, their meditation connects themselves with the whole universe. It's part of the cosmical homology. And eventually, they believe that they're in touch with this sound. And this sound, bearing with this sound, contains all of the Vedic knowledge.
So eventually they being to hear these words and they wrote them down – or they at least recited them. And the structure of this is that originally these words of the priest, or hymns of the priest, are collected together in what is known as the Rig-Veda. And then later, these same words get used by the priest to form chants or mantras. You may have heard of this word mantra. A mantra, or a chant, is a certain way that you arrange the words in order to create and release spiritual power. So, for example, and this is why I wanted you to see these not as separate books, of the 1549 stanzas of the Rig-Veda, 1474 of them reappear in the Sama-Veda – just in different form. They're shaped differently and they're turned into mantras, but essentially it's the same material. So to know the Rig-Veda is essentially to know the Sama-Veda. There's not a lot of difference between the documents in terms of the actual words. The difference is how they're used.
So actually, rather than thinking of the Rig-Veda, as is often done, as four books – like the Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Atharva-Veda (or even like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) – it's actually better to look at it as four recensions. Four different uses of the same material, especially the first three you find this to be true. It's not quite as true for the fourth. So all four of these recensions are now collectively known as the Vedas. You look in the handout, the word Rig stands for hymns or words. The word Sama chants. The word Yajur stands for sacred formulas. And then the Atharva refers to secret formula. This is a little different. This is a collection of writings where they would come and people would say things like: "How can I get this woman to fall in love with me?" "How can I cause this person this person to have, to suffer harm?" Whatever. Anything that you want to have done, there's a secret formula which can create the spiritual power and cause this to happen. So this is a collection of all those formulas and it's a lot of different material. It is not so much a recension as the other three are, although it does use a lot of the same words for the sake of that.
So, the priest believed that by krenal-sacrificial fire for example, that this fire represents the fire that governs the whole cosmos. So krenal-sacrificial fire and then they utter these chants and these chants which are just a few words but nevertheless these words represent the resonating sound that governs the whole universe. Fundamental to the whole thing is the idea of cosmical homology and mandala is critical to the way the whole thing is structured. Eventually, these whorl recensions the Brahman priest used were written down and today we have them in fixed form. The Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Atharva-Veda are all written down in a very set form. So know you can read them, as you'll be reading portions of these in our textbook.
Questions about the four Veda structure? We're going to go into more of the other stratas in a moment – but just the basic structure of that.
OK. Fair enough. If you look at the bottom of this sheet, you'll see that these were written between 1200 and 600BC. So within 300 years of the Aryan arrival in north India they begin to emerge. And these four recensions Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva are today collectively known as the Samhitas. So you see the term Samhita there. That is the term for all four of them. Now, let me just be clear about that. That's the term for all four of them apart from any of the other amendments to them. So, this is referring to some particular strata. Let's just say, for example, if you had a book that had – this was the book and you had this addition to it, this addition to it, this addition to it, all right. So in a sense this is one document that has different things that are added to it. But we're talking about this particular strand only. The Samhitas refers to the four Vedas.
All right. Then, eventually, the Brahmans – we haven't yet discussed who the Brahmans are – we'll come to that in a little bit. But the Brahmans, which are the priest who are chanting these hymns and are controlling this, they begin to write some commentary on the Vedas to explain the Vedas. Now, once again, this commentary – and I've read these commentaries and so I can say from some experience but also from just the way they do it in general – these commentaries are not like the commentaries that we're familiar with which supposedly you open a commentary and it explicates something and makes it plain for like the average person to read. That's like supposedly right what is in a commentary. This is not the purpose of these commentaries. The commentaries are never meant to make it plain to the average Hindu. The commentary is meant to give the outline of what a particular teacher teaches about the Vedas or how a particular teacher interprets the Vedas and how they understand the Vedas. So we'll just say for example you have the Pastoral Epistles. Bill Mounce writes a commentary on the pastoral epistles. Let's use Bill Mounce as an example. Bill Mounce's commentary is meant to make the epistles plain. What if Bill Mounce were to say: "I don't want to make it plain because I want people to come to me and say: 'What did you mean by this?' I want people to come to me and study under me. So I'm going to create a like a little esoteric outline of what I believe I've heard the Rig-Veda means and then people will come to me and create a little bit of a community here. We can have dialogue and discussion. That's really the way things happen anyway. Not just sort of reading something or hearing something."
So these commentaries are themselves a bit difficult to read because they come across esoteric. But they're purposely esoteric because they are being put out by priests who want to hide not reveal their innermost teaching. So you have the Brahmanas which are attached to the Samhitas. Not all of the Vedas have Brahmanas attached to them. So only some of the Samhitas, some of the Rig-Vedic material have Brahmanas attached to them.
Then, attached to the Brahmanas, there is yet another appendices known at the Aranyakas. This emerged during the same time period, but one of the things – and again, a lot of this will make more sense as we explain kind of the structure of Hindu society in a moment – but there are people that toward the end of their life they renounced the world and they go out and live in the forest. And they're called forest dwellers, or Aranyakas. These forest dwellers would themselves meditate on the Samhitas – as well as on the Brahmanas. And they would also have insights that they believed were worth noting. And they are a lot clearer in that sense. They're actually trying to point out things they discovered in them.
And finally, at the end of each of all three of these strands is the last and final appendices known as the Upanishads. The Upanishads is a whole collection of speculative treatises, highly philosophical, that really launches into modern-day Hindu philosophy and all the rest is based primarily on the Upanishads. This is extremely important material. The word Upanishad literally means to sit down near and is generally believed to refer to sitting down near a guru who will pass on this information to you. They're attached to the end of the Vedas and there's a famous school of Hinduism – which we'll look at later in the course – known as Vedanta. Vedanta is a huge – one of the most important – it is the most actually important school in Hindu philosophy – and the word Vedanta means the end of the Vedas. And that is because they focus on the Upanishads. That's why I want you to read the Upanishads. And you'll notice that I have, on the handout here, there are 108 classical Upanishads and 18 principal Upanishads. The 108 classical – don't worry about that. That is a large group of material that people dispute over. But the 18 principal are the most important of the Upanishads. The Brihadaranyaka, the Chandogya, the Aitareya, the Taittiriya, the Isa, Kena, Katha – you can see the list – Prasna, Mundaka, and so forth. Now, I would like you to read all 18 of these Upanishads for the class. That was the assignment. You do not need to read the commentary. The commentary is voluminous. Just read the text of the Upanishad. That's the main thing. But, if you can find this list is on the handout and read those, then those are the 18 principal Upanishads that you need to be aware of. And some of these are very short – like the Vajrasucika Upanishad is just one page long. Some of these, like the Brihadaranyaka, are longer and more difficult documents to push yourself through, but nevertheless really important.
One final kind of clarification on terminology. What we've now done is, we haven't talked about the people or anything about those who are doing this, but at least we are laying the groundwork for the structure of sacred literature in India. And essentially, you have the most important facts before you already. There are a number of other documents which we will come into later on – a few important documents like the Bhagavad-Gita and other things, the Puranas – but essentially this represents the most important thing to be aware of. So, you have the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, the Upanishads. If you understand that, you've got a good leg-up on this. If you understand the fact that the four Vedas – Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva – are recensions and these are attachments to the recensions, then you already know more than many, many people who talk about this material inaccurately.
Now, one last point of clarification. This is some discrepancy, especially between Indians who are writing and Western writers, about how you use the word Vedas. Because in our own readings for our course, there is some discrepancy in how this is used and a part of me is apologetic and wants to: "Well, you'd better just get used to it because this is actually the facts on the ground." There is a disagreement about how to properly use the word Vedas. So, there are many people who do not use the word Samhitas. They just don't use Samhitas. So, when they say Vedas, they're referring to Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva. Even though it's not accurate, that is in fact what they mean. You find this especially in the West. Western scholars tend to refer to the Vedas, refer to those four recensions. Technically the term Vedas refers to either all of this: Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads. All of that's called Vedas because it's all just appendices attached to it. Or appropriately, many Indian scholars and writers will refer to the Vedas – referring to the Samhitas, Brahmanas and Aranyakas and the Upanishad is treated separately because it's such an important document, collection of documents, and they'll often not refer to that as Vedas. So you find a slight difference in terms of how the word Vedas is used.
And then the other thing you should be aware of is don't ever confuse the term Vedas plural which is referring in particular to what we call today documents and the term Veda, singular. Another thing that students stumble over. The term Veda, singular, refers to the whole concept of sacred revelation that's kind of floating through the universe. And the word Veda can apply to things that are not on this list at all. I mentioned last time this kind of idea the fifth Veda and all that – just kind of esoteric idea that we've heard things that are not really been recorded in this kind of formal way. So because it's an oral tradition, there's a lot of fluidity to it, only some fluidity to it. And so the term Veda can be used to refer to the Hindu oral tradition – kind of I would say just a kind of general category – the Hindu sacred oral tradition. And the way that oral tradition relates to these texts is not an absolute equality. There is some fluidity there.
OK, questions or comments about the kind of overall structure of these what now are documents. Yes sir.
Question: ... this book into that overall structure
Answer: I can partially, but not completely. This text, thankfully, at the end of the chapters in various portions of the book. Thank you Lincoln, if I can borrow your book. They will give you footnotes to tell you where it's from. And so, for example, in many cases they will tell you this is from a particular Upanishad. They may not give you the name of it. They'll say, for example – OK, let me give you an example. On page 73, it says: from the Rig-Veda. This is selection #23 on page 73 – from the Rig-Veda. Now you know where that comes from. That's one of the 1028 hymns. In this case, it's a portion of that hymn that's found. #24, also from the Rig-Veda. All right. But you'll find a number of these have this sign because it's different. They'll say from the Mahabharata or from the Puranas. We have not yet talked about the Mahabharata or the Puranas or any of that. We will. We will. Don't worry. So most of these do not yet fit into our structure. But on page 272, from the Shatapatha Brahmana. See, now you know where that is. That's the Brahmana structure. See, so this will actually tell you where it's from. That's why I like this particular book by this – she's an Irish scholar. And she lived – she's a Hindu herself. And so it can tell you also the background and they tell you all the sources of all of these exactly where they're found. Because she just says kind of generally from the Bhagavad-Gita or whatever. But then, in the back, she gives you the exact citation. And so you can actually go on the internet or whatever and find this material exactly.
Question: What are these dots underneath particular letters to do with the pronunciation?
Answer: The dots under the letters are part of the transliteration challenge of ... And I'll just mention the most dominant ones here that you need to know. Any dot underneath a letter, like this example is Krishna. That dot there gives the i sound. It's the i sound. It's the vowel. And so that typically you should put it like ... We'll be looking today at this word here a lot. This is a very important word in Vedic religion. That's called rta.
The other thing you should know is that the slash on top like that is the sha sound – s-h. So you could say Krishna – but you often sort of see it like this. That's another pronunciation of Krishna. That's going to complicate this a little bit. Essentially this is the i sound. This is the sha sound. And if you know those two things, you'll be able to get pretty far down the road in terms of pronunciation.
Question: ... altogether in the Hindu mind is it in the Hindu mind need to be reconciled?
Answer: We're going to discuss that before today's out, hopefully. Because that's where we're headed. We're going to be looking at the next outline deals with creation myths and we're going to actually look at some of these documents in that particular book. So, hopefully, we'll answer that question in due course.
Question: I have a question. We're talking about massive amounts of documents, right, with all of these – Vedas ...
Answer: When you say – how do you define massive? Do you mean massive like thousands of pages or tens of thousands of pages?
Question: What I'm getting to is how familiar is your average Hindu with this? So maybe you could answer that.
Answer: The average Hindu is not – would not have read – I mean most Hindus are illiterate. And so they would not have read any of this material. But many Hindus would certainly be familiar with many of the major mantras that are found in this material. And there's no doubt that they have been deeply influenced by the worldview of these documents. So you have a like with anything else. It's like saying how many people on the streets of Boston have ever read the Sermon on the Mount? Probably very few. But, on the other hand, our whole civilisation has been shaped by some of the realities of Christ's teachings. You can't underestimate the influence of this even if you have even the villagers who may never have read it. Because they're always going to the temple every week or every day. That temple will be headed up by a priest who will have read at least a chunk of this material.
OK, other thoughts or comments?
Before you get done with this class, you'll have read more than many Hindus on all of this. You'll be way ahead of the game.
3. Classification of sacred literature
OK, on the back of this we're going to kind of close the circle a little bit on some of the other documents and the way it's classified. Because Hindu literature is divided into two categories and maybe I should actually invoke the pronunciation rule here because we're actually – the example that right now this first one's – is actually called Sruti. You should have a line over the s like that. And that is the most sacred term for Hindu literature. It literally means that which is heard. So, we have this whole thing about the resonating Ōm in the universe. And it's considered to be eternal with no earthly origin.
This is already one of the first theological issues in the syllabus I raise. Let me just give you why this is so important. The Bible is, by our own testimony, is given in time. So we believe that even the Old Testament, which is very ancient, is nevertheless in a very specific timeframe. The New Testament, by Hindu standards is very recent. So, one of the things that troubles them is: why do you say the document that in your own – even your most orthodox scholars say was written down the first century – could possibly compare to our truth which is eternal. It doesn't have a beginning or an end. These people re-heard it and re-wrote it down and then millions and millions and millions of years later when the whole world goes to dissolution and it all re-emerges again – we'll look at this cosmology later – then it will be re-heard again. But it's eternally resonating in the universe in the form of this Om. And therefore, why in the world would you argue that the Biblical material is somehow better or superior to their material? Because they have this idea of the eternal word resonating through the universe.
There's a great theological reply to this. But I'm going to let you think of it. Because I know you can. Just think about it. If not, we can talk about it later, but if you get like panicky about it. But think about it, because there are some great responses to this. So, everything we've looked at so far, the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads are all called Sruti. That is the highest level. So these all represent things that were heard.
Now that's the stuff that is known by the Hindu scholarly community – particularly the philosophical group – this is like really the classical material. But as Rachael mentioned, on the popular level, people often know a different set of stories. And this is known as Smrti. S-m-r – r with a dot underneath it – Smrti. And the Smrti refers to that which is remembered. And this is passed down by wise sages within time. And it is not something that will necessarily be carried over to future emanations of the world's existence.
Now, this is the material that everybody has awareness of and it is very important. There are the law-books – the most famous being the laws of Manu – m-a-n-u – which lay out specific example like: If a Hindu person is caught stealing then this will be his next reincarnation. If you eat meat this will happen to you. All those kind of long delineations of what will happen to you in your next life if you do whatever. This is the whole ethical framework is assured to these law-books.
And then the Puranas – very important popular material. Every Hindu is aware of certain Puranas that are in the popular tradition. And then there's two great epics which we'll look at in this class later on. One is called the Mahabharata and one is called the Ramayana. The word maha means great. And bharat is the word for India. It means the great epic of India. And Ramayana means simply the story of Rama. Rama is a god in Hinduism we'll look at later. Everybody knows these epics. Everybody knows these epics – Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Janes – they all know these epics.
We noticed our Sunday School attendance just dropped through the floor. I mean, kids simply just did not show up for Sunday School. What is going on? Why are you not bringing your kids to Sunday School? Because they just have to watch this cartoon program on Sunday morning. It's kind of on at 10 o'clock or 9:30 or whatever the time was at Sunday School. And what is it? The Mahabharata. They had put these in cartoon form and everybody just had to watch them. I mean even the adults would stay home from church to watch them. People loved them. They loved them. And it created like a crisis. We had to move Sunday School to a different time because nobody wanted to miss these things because they're so much a part of Indian culture now. They're so important to people.
And one of the most famous parts of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-Gita. The Gita is the longest hymn in the Mahabharata. It's the longest – by the way, the longest poem in the world is the Gita. And so Bhagavad-Gita is a part of this you will read.
So you will be exposed in this class to the classical material, to the Upanishads. You'll be exposed to the popular material, the Puranas, and largely this Hindu myth book. And you'll be exposed to the epic material by reading the Bhagavad-Gita. So you're actually – the choice of reading is well planned to expose you to like some of the major strands of Hindu writings.
So they carefully distinguish between Sruti and Smrti – that which is heard (the Om thing) and just that which is remembered that is passed down amongst sages within time and will not be a part of any eternal kind of truth that is the universe. So the Bhagavad-Gita technically is not eternal. To be fair, like you might imagine in Hinduism, there are teachers that have taught for centuries that they believe that the Gita is in a special category in the Mahabharata. And that particular part of the Mahabharata is Sruti. And so there are people who believe that to be true, but technically it's not true. It should be regarded on this lower level. But the Gita is, of all these documents, is the most influential and famous and it's been that way since the 8th century really in terms of its prominence in Hindu life.
Any questions or comments about the kind of the textual structure before we now look at the actual practice of Vedic religion by these early meditators? Any questions or comments?
OK, great. Let's pass out lecture two. Once again, I remind you that on the lecture, you have the lecture basic outline on the front and on the back, you have a list of terms that you should know from hearing the lecture. Keep that in mind as we go through the lecture.
Now, what we have learned from the Rig-Veda and other archaeological discovery is that, before what today we call Hinduism arose, there is a religion that preceded it known as Vedic religion. And this religion we must, at least, do a little bit about because it's so influential in the way that Hinduism originally develops.
We mentioned last time, or last part of the lecture – on the lecture 1 – about the Rig-Veda, the 1020 hymns. This is a wealth of information that reveals that, when the Aryans came down into North India – what's today part of Pakistan – they encountered a group of people that they referred to (and I think I have it on here, maybe not, I don't have it, yeah I do) the Dasyus. See the point 1 there, the Aryans and Dasyus and the origins of the Caste System. The Rig-Veda is dominated by this conflict between the Aryans, which ??? the noble ones, and the Dasyu. The Dasyu refers to a people group that are described in the Vedas as dark-skinned people with flatter noses, wider noses, and in various kind of pejorative terms they're referred to in the flat-faced and all this, flat noses. There's even one time where they're called the Ana Anesh, which means those without a face at all – literally, those without a nose – because the Aryans have very prominent noses. And their noses seemed to be squashed in and flatter and they thought that was really funny. And they made fun of them.
And so you definitely have a racial conflict that's going on between the people who were warriors, who view themselves superior to these other people. That is hugely important because eventually, in the Vedas, and I have one to pass out to show you this, there is early on the conception is brought out even in Vedic religion of the concept of Varna.
Now the word Varna means colours. And the idea is that essentially god created people – I'm using the word god there in print ??? kind of quotation marks. But when you were created, you were brought into existence, that God created people from different coloured strata. And so, for example, the white people would be the top, the black people at the bottom. So you have what unfortunately is painfully familiar to all of us in our own society is a differentiation being made which disenfranchises people with darker skin. And the other two, or here, I guess may as well put all four colours, would be red and yellow. These are the four Varnas or four colours. To this day, people will be upset in India if they're – and I'm just trying to be honest without being overly pejorative – but it's even to this day, even among Christians, a Christian young boy will not be happy, for example, if his parents arrange a marriage for him with a girl that has really dark skin. They like the lighter skin ??? It pervades the whole culture. People look at you and make judgments about you based on the shade of your skin. And if you're in India, you quickly become aware of the dramatic differences in skin colour, skin shading. And it relates back to these documents which say god created certain people better and more likely to rule than other people.
So those who were invading, or those that begin to meditate and reflect on all of this, claims that they were at the top of this list. In fact, in one of the documents which we'll look at in a moment, they argue that, when god created the world, that certain people came out of his head, some came out of his arms, some came out of his stomach, some came out of his feet. So you have a theological background, not just a sociological one – a theological basis for racism because you can say you were created in a lesser status than I have. So white represents purity and light; red, passion and fire, the warriors; all the way down to the black, which is darkness. So to this day, if you talk in India, people understand the Varnas system. It's a very prominent idea in India and it is actually based on a chapter in the Rig-Veda.
Question: How does this mesh with ????
It meshes, and of course we'll have to look at this later – we're not at that point yet – it meshes because the belief is if someone has bad karma, they will come back in their next life in a state that is where they're being punished. And one of the ways they're punished is being born back as a low caste or outcast person. So if you are a Brahman, you're a high caste person. It means that you have this pure background and you have not had bad karma. So, it's actually intimately tied into this system. These colours are based on your karma.
Now your question maybe is how can you be created, you know, from the beginning with this, but the – we haven't yet discussed the way karma comes in to even the quote creation account. Cause you're saying creation's a beginning point. It's not a beginning point. It's a part of a process that continues to happen and recycle. So, that karma gets brought over. But we're not quite ready to fully explore that yet. It's a great, great question though.
Question: Yes. So, are the Brahmans typically white skinned?
Yes, they are. Definitely.
OK. Let's just read one of these hymns that brings this out. This is in the tenth mandala, the ninetieth hymn within the tenth mandala. And you'll look at the verse 11. And you see the following. When they divided the man, this is basically – this is a cosmical homology thing. What they have is the piction here is this huge cosmic man they call the Purusha Man. The word Purusha just means man. This Purusha, this great man, is like this cosmic figure. So his body gets dismembered in order to make the whole universe. Everybody in the universe comes eventually from this great Purusha Man, this Purusha figure, cosmic figure. So, that's what this is referring to.
When they divided the man, that's the word Purusha, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the Brahman. His arms were made into the warrior, that's the Kshatriya. His thighs the pivas, the Vaisya. And from his feet the servants were born. That refers to the Sudra. So you have, even in the Rig-Veda, the idea that there are these people – the Brahmans, the Kshatriya, first the warriors, the Vaisya, and the Sudra – are to this day considered to be the four castes of India. So, even in the Rig-Veda, you have, in seed form, the idea that people are created in different status, different social divisions, that must be respected because that's the way they were created. Has nothing to do with money – how much money you make. Nothing to do with if you're wealthy or poor. There are Brahmans that are totally impoverished. There are Sudras that are very wealthy. It doesn't matter. What matters is your social standing.
So even if you have a poor Brahman daughter, you would never allow her to marry a Sudra. I don't care how well off he was. Because this is a totally be condemned by your own community. These divisions are kept very, very separate in a goo ... It transcends sociology and money. Whereas in the West has a class system where if you prosper and you can move up into a higher class. In India this is not the case. This is social category – has nothing to do per se, I mean, roughly it does relate to money because most Sudras are poor. But, even with all the exceptions to it, it doesn't change the fact of this social st... any more than people today in the West might have a difficult time having their – you know, having an African-American and a European American marry each other. Regardless of finances, for some people, that's a problem socially. And that's the kind of things ... much, much greater than that.
Yes, question: inaudible
I think there's no question that the lighter skinned Europeans gave them a huge advantage in India. Definitely. I'm not sure I'd use the word revere, but certainly they were respected, deeply respected. They're not really part of the Varna System. This is a Indian thing. But the very fact they had lighter skin I think gave them an advantage over, for example, an African coloniser or something. It would certainly have been a problem. Indians do have a – Hindus now have a very strong conception about the colour of your skin refers to social category. So they assume that white people must be rich and powerful and like the Brahmans. Dark-skinned people must be poor and disenfranchised. That kind of mentality is there, even today.
Let me say a word about how the word Varna, which is the social quantification, ties into the word Jati – because these are two different terms that are used in India. And they're important to distinguish. I'm not sure if the word caste here is the best word for Jati, but I'm trying to explain how we use language in India. You often hear people say there are four-castes in India. What they actually mean is there are four Varnas, there are four overall groups of people. Either you are a Brahman, which are the priests; the Kshatriya are the warriors; the Vaisya are the merchants; and the Sudra are the servants. Now, this represents the basic categories that are laid out even in the Vedas – t:t later Hinduism widely accepts that people fall in these four categories – Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra; priestly class, warrior class, merchant class, servant class.
These top three are essentially what would be called upper caste. This group would be lower caste. Now there's another group that has been outcast. We use the word outcast in our own language. Outcast means that you've been, because of bad karma, you've been thrown out of the caste system altogether. This group is today called Dalit. You hear the news. This is probably a huge 45-50% of India falls into this category. And you've got about, you know, at least 25% in this category. So you're looking at basically 70% of India falls in the category of either low caste or outcast. It's a huge percentage of people – 7 out of every 10 people. Whereas only about 6% fall in this category, this upper caste, high upper caste, Brahmans. So 6% of the people completely control the whole society. This is a huge massive, theologically-supported form of racism that disenfranchises people and uses these people to keep the society operating – you know, crops and all the rest – to serve the higher caste people.
If you go up to somebody and you say: "What caste are you?" – and I realise that this does not apply to Christians. It does not apply to people in the tribal areas, northy??. It doesn't apply to people outside of. They're not part of the Varna System. But if you go up to a Hindu people and you ask them: "What caste are you from?" or "What caste do you belong to?" – Westerners are always asked that when they meet people in India. It's a good question I guess. But the person will typically not answer and say: "I'm a Brahman." – although you might more likely hear a Brahman say that. He knows that's what you would love to hear. But what they usually respond is not one of these four terminologies, but what's called a Jati.
Now a Jati, the best definition will be people group, or ethnic group. Now, what happens is, even though there are Brahmans, there are hundreds of little sub-groups and families that are part of the Brahminical Varna. So, for example, if your name is Chakra Vorti. I know immediately if someone tells me their name is, my name is A.J.Chakra Vorti. When I hear that Chakra Vorti, I know two things about him. I know that he is from West Bengal. I know he's a Brahman. He's a Brahman from West Bengal. You know that by his name. Chakra Vorti.
I ???? this dissertation of a guy whose name is Upun Haya. If you hear Upun Haya, you know he's a Bengali. He's a Brahman. Indians are very well acquainted with all this. The minute they hear a name, they hear someone say.
We have a friend at seminary. I think you may know... you know Sam Nair? Did you meet Sam Nair? Was he there when you were there? You know, he works with the ministries on Friday. He was already gone when you got there? Anyway, Sam Nair, who now lives down in Bombay, Mumbai, he's from Gujarat. He's a Gujarati, up in north, northern part of India. The minute someone hears the name Nair, they know he's a Gujarati. He's a Brahman. He's a Brahman background.
What they're more likely to say is: "O, I'm a Chukaporti." "I'm a Nair." Or whatever.
So there are many sub-groupings that are within each of these groups. And then, within these Jatis, and there's probably over 4000 of these Jatis – 4000 plus – there is social mobility within that. And so there is a little bit of pecking order and competition in between the Sudras as to which group has more standing than another. For example, the Chugabortis are a very light-skinned, Brahminical group. The minute you see them, they've all the classic features of a Brahman. They look like Brahmans. They have a very, you know, long thin noses. They're pretty tall people. They've got light skin compared to many Indians. But the Nairs, who are Brahmans, have a little darker skin. Many people regard the Nairs as lower than the Chugabortis. Cause this is all part of kind of like the internal pecking order within a Varna. So people groups over time have gradually moved their way up the ladder or down the ladder, but it's always within a particular caste. So there's no way for a Sudra to ever become a warrior. That's impossible. A Sudra cannot ever become a Brahman. There's no way. There's no social mobility between these groups at all. But within the groups, there is a bit of a pecking order.
There is at least 10% of people in villages, when the research was done, who just right out did not know. They just said: "I don't know if I am a Dalit or a Sudra. I don't know. I don't know if I'm in the caste system or out." I mean, they're so far down the line, that they don't know where the caste system stops and the outcasts begin. It's that bad. Like 10% of villagers simply don't know. So, you know, it gets pretty bad as you get down in this. So conceivably there's some mobility there – a little bit. But at that point, who cares? It's so bad.
For example, in their House of Parliament, the lower house is called Lok Sabha, the people's house. They have certain seats reserved just for Dalits. And so if you're a Dalit, you can get a seat in the Congress that gives you power. This is a very revolutionary idea in India. Or they have universities all over India that now say: "We reserve so many seats for Dalits." And that way give them education and all that. And in that sense, it has helped a lot in India. But even if a person gets education or political office, I promise you, it will not help them when it comes to things like marriage or even just who you eat with. There's a little bit at that level – kind of like the racial situation in America – in the sense that you have opportunity on one hand that is breaking through at some point – kind of a reverse discrimination kind of policy, affirmative action kind of stuff. But on the social level, the societies are very separate. In that sense, it's very, very true in India today. It is much harder to break, because there's a theological basis, not just a sociological basis. OK questions or comments about this.
Question: Yeah, how did the outcasts come to be if everything was arranged into the four castes?
There's two ways that it happened. The first way is belief that there were certain groups that from the beginning were outcast because all of these groups represent the Aryan groups. All right? So these are the Aryans that came migrating in. These are the Dasyu, the darker people that were there, the Dravidians. Now that's a little bit of a simplification of what's actually happened over time, but that's essentially it. So what happens, once they met these people, they called them Sudras. But then they met other people as they migrated further south, who were clearly not part of that group. And so some of these people, they said: "Well they must not be part of the caste system." That's one theory.
But the more dominant reason, and the more historically verifiable reason, is that if a – and this happens all the time, then and today – a Brahman, for example, is found to be in bed with a Sudra woman, for example, they fall in love or whatever. When that comes to light, or even they marry them, then both those Brahman and Sudra are outcast. So many of the people groups today that are outcast were once part of a Varna group. But they did something to break caste. For example, my own research on this Bengali Brahman, he had travelled to the West. Now, in Hindu society, to cross the ocean is to assault the god. So you are not permitted to cross the ocean. He'd crossed the ocean. They had a way in which, if you came back, you could repent of that. There's a little procedure. They call it Prayesh Suka, where a Brahman can go through a repentance: "I'm sorry for crossing the ocean." And he could be readmitted into the Brahmans.
But you could only do that if you'd eaten with foreigners for less than x number of times. If you'd only had like 40 meals with a Western person, they could let you back in. If you ate more meals than that, you're outcast. And he had this problem – had this huge ... This is not that many years ago, see.
And so, the possibility of being outcast for breaking any of their rules is very great. Cause that's how these groups maintain their purity, they believe, is by having very strict rules about what you can do, who you can eat with, who can talk to, who you can marry. If you can control who you will talk to – you know, who they can work with and marry and eat with – then you can control the whole group. So that's how it happens. So, if a Brahman is caught eating with a Sudra, or a Kshatriya is caught eating with a Sudra, then they're outcast.
Question: What if a Brahman's caught with Sudra prostitute? That wouldn't count. He'd still be a Brahman, right?
It's hard to say that in terms of practical. I mean, there are probably Brahmans that have had sex with countless prostitutes and gotten away with it. But, they have to be very careful about who knows, especially if she'd been pregnant. Because if the person is seen with a Sudra in any way, even touching – that's why they're called untouchables – if a Brahman even touches a Sudra, a Brahman can be outcast for that. So obviously sexual intercourse is a serious form of touching. Yes.
Question: ??? if you are outcast, do you have to throw your name away?
Yeah, if you're outcast, I mean, that problem – there are people who have the entire clan cast out and so names can get recalibrated. But, yes, they can no longer call themselves by their family name. The family names in India are probably a bit differently than ours do. They don't come at the end. So their name, kind of their common name. doesn't really change. But that family name, they would no longer be able to use it. Essentially they'd have to be dropping that.
Question: So is that – I was going to ask that same question – but is that their only distinguishing mark?
No, because once you're – if you're in the caste system, especially if you're a Brahman, you are entitled to all kinds of privileges. So, for example, you can draw water from the village well, inside the city limits. OK, a Sudra is never allowed to draw water from the village well. So she'd have to walk for miles outside the village to get water. So, if a person was outcast by the Brahminical group in that village, then that person would no longer be allowed to get water. The person would not be allowed to ever – no one would ever enter their home again. No one would cross their threshold. They would be just ostracised in every way that happens socially. It's not just a name change. It involves everything all the way up and down the line.
Question: And that, I guess, you run into the next part of that. Who is it that decides? I mean, there's obviously the rules that you can't break, but yet ...
This is controlled, this is controlled by the Brahminical social structures. So the Brahmans have guidelines, like the laws of Manu which tell them what they can and cannot do – even something simple like if you were to be caught wearing a pair of leather shoes or a leather belt which comes from a cow, of course. Absolutely a Brahman would never do that. If you do, you'd be outcast for that. So ... it controls everything. So someone is found doing these things, then they're ostracised by their peers. If you were to sort of go to town one day and suddenly you notice that no one is speaking to me. You know something's happened. You enquire and you find out. You've been put out. You no longer belong to Gordon Cornwell. You have lost your status here. Someone's to move into your apartment today at 2 o'clock. So better get your things and go. You know. There's many ways they can just completely ostracise you. Yes.
Question: Is it like that with some ???
In terms of marriage, yes. In terms of eating with, it is not as strict, to be honest with you. There are certain distinctions made between a Brahman that's absolutely shut down. They can't even see a person. But the Vaisyas, because they're involved in the merchants and farming, they have to work with these Dalits and Sudras and so what happens is they are allowed to talk with them. They will often even be seen eating with them in some parts of India. It depends on where you are in India. But they would never, never give their daughter in marriage to one. Absolutely not. So there's kind of distinctions there.
You know, we're going to come back to the caste system in other ways throughout the course because it plays into various things. But, right now, our only main point here, is to simply acknowledge that in the Rig-Veda we have the theological basis for the whole thing.
Now, what we want to do is to establish some of the religious and theological themes in the Vedas. And if you were to read the Vedas in its entirety – and you read a number of them here and I've passed out a few more that we'll look at today and next time – your first thought: this is kind of like your typical world of pantheism. It's kind of what you probably will – the taste will go way in your mouth. There are all kinds of gods are worshipped.
In fact, traditionally there are 33 different gods worshipped in the Vedic kind of pantheon. I'm going to pass out for you here a list of these gods and how they're divided. Please hear this. This is FYI – for your information only. Do not feel like you need to memorise this list. Again, you do not need to memorise these 33 gods. All right. This is just to help us to talk about it.
There's only a few of these that we'll employ into our march towards Hinduism. This is just to help you get a – cause it's hard to talk about this without at least looking at something to give you a feel for what happens in the Rig-Veda. Essentially you have 33 different gods that are worshipped at various points in the Vedas. And they have been divided many ways between celestial or heavenly deities, atmospheric or air deities and terrestrial or earth deities.
What I have done is to highlight in kind of large letters, in bold letters, the four most important of these deities: Varuna, Indra, Agni, Soma. Those are very important. Indra, for example, is the national god of the Aryans. So naturally, he's very important. Indra is a warrior god. Indra creates fertility in the crops and all that. So Indra is very, very important. Varuna, which we will look at in a moment here, is the god who upholds the moral order. He's kind of like the god who keeps justice or rightness in its place in the universe. That becomes very important in Hinduism. The other one over there on the right is Agni, which is the god of the ritual fire or sacrifice – which becomes very, very important. Soma is an intoxicating drink that is derived from plant in the north India. And by drinking this, you can get intoxicated. And this became used in order to, shall I say, get in touch with certain spiritual realities. The Brahmans are known in India for their smoking of hashish, which is much more powerful than marijuana, and apparently creates a lot of delusional states. And this is part of sometimes how this meditations work.
But anyway, these are four of the gods that are very, very important in the Upanishads. I want to just point out a few things about the kind of this pantheon of Vedic deities that is important – cause you can take an entire course at Harvard on Vedic religion. So this is kind of a world in itself – people who study and analyse what was done and worshipped and all that in Vedic times. We're not interested in that in this course. We're mainly interested in what gets carried over into Hinduism or what can we see in Vedic religion that is a precursor to what really is important in Hinduism.
And one of these is the concept of henotheism and rta in the Vedas. Let me explain both of these terms because you find all kinds of specialised gods – sky, fire, sun, dawn. If you go down that list there, the Dyaus is the sky god. The Agni's the fire god. Usus is the god of the dawn. All of this, these different gods are there. Usus is a goddess.
It's vital to understand that we enter a bit of a different category because monotheism is the belief in one god. Polytheism is the belief in many gods. But this actually in a slightly different category known as henotheism. Henotheism means that we worship a particular god without denying that other gods exist or are worthy of worship. So I think you find that early on in Vedic religion – the idea that every god can be worshipped as a supreme being. In fact, I think I have some quotes from the Vedas. I'm Indra, king of the gods, lord of the gods, supreme. Now these are just quotations I've pulled out of the Vedas. Lord of the 33 gods, the best of the immortals. This sounds like Indra claims to be the supreme being of the 33 gods. But then you go down to Brahma: the first creator and lord, the lord of the universe, supreme guru of the whole universe, god of gods, best of gods, lord of all, the soul of all. These are the kind of titles he's given. Vishnu: the universe is made of Vishnu; Vishnu who is himself a form of everything, lord of all, the supreme soul, the support of the earth, the beginning and end of the universe. This kind of thing is typical of this literature.
Apparently, you have what's often called asymmetrical theism. You have people relating to gods in a way that is not in a clear structure of authority like, you know, there's the chief god and there's the subordinate gods, and all that's ??? In fact, you have multiple theisms and people may relate to this or that god in a way that is quite independent of the others. Certainly in the presence of that god, you acknowledge his total sovereignty and power. If you do call it polytheism, you have to call it polytheism that is blind polytheism – that is, polytheism that doesn't seem to know about any other gods. And so that road becomes henotheism.
There are people who argue, by the way, that some of the – not the leadership – but some of the people of Israel were this way. You know, Yahweh is our God, but, you know, who are we to say? Maybe the Philistines have their god. You definitely find this in the enemies of Israel – definitely have this mentality. And they go and they say, when Naaman is healed, he says: "Gosh, I'm going to bring back, you know, dirt from Israel back to my homeland because I want to make sure that we have the power of your God." Well, that's a very henotheistic idea. Or the text where it says: O, we got defeated by the Israelites because their god is the god of the hills. If we can entice them down to the plains, we'll beat them. You know, in that passage. Now, these are all insights into the worldviews of non-Jewish people who regarded that Israel must have their god. We have our god and they have their god. We need to get them over to our territory because our god can beat up on their god in our territory. But if we're in their territory, we'll get beaten up. It's a mentality. It's hard for us to kind of get our heads around. But this is certainly part of it.
And then, eventually, in the Indian version of henotheism, not in other examples of it, you begin to get the idea that maybe all of these gods are just different names for some, you know, all-pervading principle. And that becomes very, very dynamic and present within Hinduism. The term for this that comes up in the Vedas is this term rta. Rta is guarded over by Varuna. Rta is the all-pervading order of the universe. But there are major, major claims made about rta in the Vedas. For example, if you have your Vedic text: By rta is the earth sustained and by the sun of the heavens. By rta the ajdusta stand – that's one of the pantheons of deities – and Soma is set in the sky. This idea of rta comes out repeatedly in the Vedas – that rta is somehow or other?? the kind of the glue that holds all this together.
Look at this bottom from the Atharva-Veda. Man calls the one deity by the other's name before sunrise and before dawn. The inter-changeability of the names of the deity. On the right bottom: they call it Indra, Nitra, Varuna, Agni and it is the heavenly bird that flies. The wise speak of what is one in many ways. That's even in the Rig-Veda. Very, very strong Hindu idea, that's already emerged in the Vedas: the idea that god has many names and you cannot speak of god in one name – that this is a reality that transcends all of our human expressions of god. That's something that we'll encounter as very, very dominant within the Hindu worldview.
And so it's already emerging in kind of an Indian twist of henotheism which says that: not only are there multiple gods that may be independent, and maybe these gods are really just reflections of some greater reality, And this reality in a kind of a cursory way is called rta. Now, today in Hinduism it's not called rta. Rta's not ever discussed really in modern-day Hinduism. But the concept of rta gets carried on: the idea of some all-pervading reality. Later, it will be called draman. But this is an important theological kind of spacer that's in the Vedic material that later gets filled out. We'll have to come back to this and explore it a bit more. Any more questions or comments about the concept of rta or about henotheism and the way that it's interpreted in the Indian context.
Question: When they say ??? they're not talking about forgiveness ...
No. And that's a big misconception in the West, because most in the West assume in view of the use of language here, you know: "What caste are you?" What they really mean is: "What Varna are you?" Because the caste groupings are often the jati in practice in India. Other questions or comments? Yes.
No. There's some tension between these 33 gods are in different pantheons. There's some tension between the pantheons, the terrestrial and the sky and all that. There's some tension there, but in terms of individual gods within a particular pantheon there seems to not be that, really like a vine. Each of them just claims to be: Hey, I'm the chief dog. You don't have a lot of quotation about other deities. Other questions? Yes.
Question: In reading this, I just thought it was inspired by the soma, the ingestion of the soma. Do you think so?
Well, I guess that's a good question. I think that if you argue that it's all just like drunken madmen, you have to say there's no coherence to it. And then maybe that is arguable. There's no question that this in time is put within a very coherent system. All of this fits within a system which we're gradually kind of building here. So this is not just a random class, where we kind of like ... There is a lot of structure to all this which in due course we'll see. But whether or not there are individual hymns that may be really bizarre, I don't know. I mean there's no question a lot of soma's been drunk.
OK, let's stop there and we'll come back next Tuesday to continue this development.