Ancient History & Civilisation


Hinduism—Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva—Krishna—Kali—Animal gods—The sacred cow—Polytheism and monotheism

The “Hinduism” that now replaced Buddhism was not one religion, nor was it only religion; it was a medley of faiths and ceremonies whose practitioners had only four qualities in common: they recognized the caste system and the leadership of the Brahmans, they reverenced the cow as especially representative of divinity, they accepted the law of Karma and the transmigration of souls, and they replaced with new gods the deities of the Vedas. These faiths had in part antedated and survived Vedic nature worship; in part they had grown from the connivance of the Brahmans at rites, divinities and beliefs unknown to the Scriptures and largely contrary to the Vedic spirit; they had boiled in the cauldron of Hindu religious thought even while Buddhism maintained a passing intellectual ascendancy.

The gods of Hinduism were characterized by a kind of anatomical superabundance vaguely symbolizing extraordinary knowledge, activity or power. The new Brahma had four faces, Kartikeya six; Shiva had three eyes, Indra a thousand; and nearly every deity had four arms.10 At the head of this revised pantheon was Brahma, chivalrously neuter, acknowledged master of the gods, but no more noticed in actual worship than a constitutional monarch in modern Europe. Combined with him and Shiva in a triad—not a trinity—of dominant deities was Vishnu, a god of love who repeatedly became man in order to help mankind. His greatest incarnation was Krishna; as such he was born in a prison, had accomplished many marvels of heroism and romance, healed the deaf and the blind, helped lepers, championed the poor, and raised men from the grave. He had a beloved disciple, Arjuna, before whom he was transfigured. He died, some say, by an arrow; others say by a crucifixion on a tree. He descended into hell, rose to heaven, and will return on the last day to judge the quick and the dead.11

To the Hindu there are three chief processes in life and the universe: creation, preservation and destruction. Hence divinity takes for him three main forms: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer; these are the Trimurti, or “Three Shapes,” which all Hindus but the Jains adore.* Popular devotion is divided between Vaishnavism, the religion of Vishnu, and Shivaism, the religion of Shiva. The two cults are peaceful neighbors, and sometimes hold sacrifices in the same temple;13 and the wise Brahmans, followed by a majority of the people, pay equal honor to both these gods. Pious Vaishnavites paint upon their foreheads every morning with red clay the trident sign of Vishnu; pious Shivaites trace horizontal lines across their brows with cow-dung ashes, or wear the linga—symbol of the male organ—fastened on their arms or hung from their necks.14

The worship of Shiva is one of the oldest, most profound and most terrible elements in Hinduism. Sir John Marshall reports “unmistakable evidence” of the cult of Shiva at Mohenjo-daro, partly in the form of a three-headed Shiva, partly in the form of little stone columns which he presumes to be as phallic as their modern counterparts. “Shivaism,” he concludes, “is therefore the most ancient living faith in the world.”15 The name of the god is a euphemism; literally it means “propitious”; whereas Shiva himself is viewed chiefly as a god of cruelty and destruction, the personification of that cosmic force which destroys, one after another, all the forms that reality takes—all cells, all organisms, all species, all ideas, all works, all planets and all things. Never has another people dared to face the impermanence of forms, and the impartiality of nature, so frankly, or to recognize so clearly that evil balances good, that destruction goes step by step with creation, and that all birth is a capital crime, punishable with death. The Hindu, tortured with a thousand misfortunes and sufferings, sees in them the handiwork of a vivacious force that appears to find pleasure in breaking down everything that Brahma—the creative power in nature—has produced. Shiva dances to the tune of a perpetually forming, dissolving and re-forming world.

Just as death is the penalty of birth, so birth is the frustration of death; and the same god who symbolizes destruction represents also, for the Hindu mind, that passion and torrent of reproduction which overrides the death of the individual with the continuance of the race. In some parts of India, particularly Bengal, this creative or reproductive energy (Shakti) of Shiva or nature is personified in the figure of Shiva’s wife, Kali (Parvati, Uma, Durga), and is worshiped in one of the many Shakti cults. Until the last century this worship was a bloody ritual, often involving human sacrifice; latterly the goddess has been content with goats.17 The deity is portrayed for the populace by a black figure with gaping mouth and protruding tongue, adorned with snakes and dancing upon a corpse; her earrings are dead men, her necklace is a string of skulls, her face and breasts are smeared with blood.18 Two of her four hands carry a sword and a severed head; the other two are extended in blessing and protection. For Kali-Parvati is the goddess of motherhood as well as the bride of destruction and death; she can be tender as well as cruel, and can smile as well as kill; once, perhaps, she was a mother-goddess in Sumeria, and was imported into India before she became so terrible.19 Doubtless she and her lord are made as horrible as possible in order that timid worshipers may be frightened into decency, and perhaps into generosity to the priests.*

These are the greater gods of Hinduism; but they are merely five of thirty million deities in the Hindu pantheon; only to catalogue them would take a hundred volumes. Some of them are more properly angels, some are what we should call devils, some are heavenly bodies like the sun, some are mascots like Lakshmi (goddess of good luck), many of them are beasts of the field or fowl of the air. To the Hindu mind there was no real gap between animals and men; animals as well as men had souls, and souls were perpetually passing from men into animals, and back again; all these species were woven into one infinite web of Karma and reincarnation. The elephant, for example, became the god Ganesha, and was recognized as Shiva’s son;21 he personified man’s animal nature, and at the same time his image served as a charm against evil fortune. Monkeys and snakes were terrible, and therefore divine. The cobra or naga, whose bite causes almost immediate death, received especial veneration; annually the people of many parts of India celebrated a religious feast in honor of snakes, and made offerings of milk and plantains to the cobras at the entrance to their holes.22 Temples have been erected in honor of snakes, as in eastern Mysore; great numbers of reptiles take up their residence in these buildings, and are fed and cared for by the priests.23 Crocodiles, tigers, peacocks, parrots, even rats, receive their meed of worship.24

Most sacred of all animals to a Hindu is the cow. Images of bulls, in every material and size, appear in temples and homes, and in the city squares; the cow itself is the most popular organism in India, and has full freedom of the streets; its dung is used as fuel or a holy ointment; its urine is a sacred wine that will wash away all inner or outer uncleanness. Under no circumstances are these animals to be eaten by a Hindu, nor is their flesh to be worn as clothing—headgear or gloves or shoes; and when they die they are to be buried with the pomp of religious ritual.25 Perhaps wise statesmanship once decreed this tabu in order to preserve agricultural draft animals for the growing population of India;20 today, however, they number almost one-fourth as many as the population.27 The Hindu view is that it is no more unreasonable to feel a profound affection for cows, and a profound revulsion at the thought of eating them, than it is to have similar feelings in regard to domestic cats and dogs; the cynical view of the matter is that the Brahmans believed that cows should never be slaughtered, that insects should never be injured, and that widows should, be burned alive. The truth is that the worship of animals occurs in the history of every people, and that if one must deify any animal, the kind and placid cow seems entitled to her measure of devotion. We must not be too haughtily shocked by the menagerie of Hindu gods; we too have had our serpent-devil of Eden, our golden calf of the Old Testament, our sacred fish of the catacombs, and our gracious Lamb of God.

The secret of polytheism is the inability of the simple mind to think in impersonal terms; it can understand persons more readily than forces, wills more easily than laws.28 The Hindu suspects that our human senses see only the outside of the events that they report; behind the veil of these phenomena, he thinks, there are countless superphysical beings whom, in Kant’s phrase, we can only conceive but never perceive. A certain philosophical tolerance in the Brahmans has added to the teeming pantheon of India; local or tribal gods have been received into the Hindu Valhalla by adoption, usually by interpreting them as aspects or avatars of accepted deities; every faith could get its credentials if it paid its dues. In the end nearly every god became a phase, attribute or incarnation of another god, until all these divinities, to adult Hindu minds, merged into one; polytheism became pantheism, almost monotheism, almost monism. Just as a good Christian may pray to the Madonna or one of a thousand saints, and yet be a monotheist in the sense that he recognizes one God as supreme, so the Hindu prays to Kali or Rama or Krishma or Ganesha without presuming for a moment that these are supreme deities.* Some Hindus recognize Vishnu as supreme, and call Shiva merely a subordinate divinity; some call Shiva supreme, and make Vishnu an angel; if only a few worship Brahma it is because of its impersonality, its intangibility, its distance, and for the same reason that most churches in Christendom were erected to Mary or a saint, while Christianity waited for Voltaire to raise a chapel to God.

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