Brahmanism

Religious and social system of India, teaching as a religion the divine inspiration of the Vedas, the worship of certain gods, and that the final end of man is freedom from reincarnations and absorption in the impersonal essence of Brahma. As a social system it teaches the preeminence of the Brahman caste, and the duties and positions of the other castes. Its sacred literature includes: the four Vedas (1500-800 B.C.), regarded as inspired, with appended Brahmanas, dogmatic treatises for priests; the Upanishads (800-500 B.C.), pantheistic and metaphysical speculations; the Sutras (600-400 B.C;), ceremonial guides; the Dharmashastras, law books, including the Laws of Manu (5th century B.C.), formulating the Brahman social system; the epic poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Early Brahmanism consisted chiefly in the worship of deified nature, and in sacrifices to the gods and to dead ancestors. The intricate and exacting ritual of the Brahmanas gave rise to priestly preeminence; and from the Upanishads evolved a pantheistic or Vedantic conception of the universe. Brahma became the impersonal, eternal principle from which all things, including the personal Brahma and all other gods, emanate as manifestations. The ultimate goal of man is reabsorption and identification with Brahma effected by a series of rebirths on an ascending scale, until by meditation and self-effacement the believer, convinced of his identity with the impersonal Brahma, awaits death and absorption forever. This pantheistic scheme constitutes the present-day orthodox Brahman doctrine. The popular desire for a personal deity gave rebirth to the traditional gods. One was Rudra, or Shiva, destroyer and producer; another was Vishnu, fructifier. All other deities and heroes were manifestations of these gods. From this worship sprang two rival sects: the Vishnuites, and the Shivaites. To preserve Brahmanism, the priests associated Vishnu and Shiva with Brahma in a Trimurti or trinity, each as an aspect of the impersonal Brahma. Intimately bound up with the religious teaching of Brahmanism is the division of society into rigidly defined castes. Four such castes are recognized: the Brahmans or priests; the Kshatriyas or warriors; the Vaishyas or common people; the Sutri or servile class. The Brahman caste is revered and any offense rigorously punished. Of the hundreds of millions of adherents of Hinduism today, only a few hundred thousand are orthodox Brahmans. Shivaism and Vishnuism with their minor schismatic divisions prevail.