The Successive Developments of Hinduism

By Frank F. Ellinwood [1891].

The religious systems of India, like its flora, display luxuriant variety and confusion. Hinduism is only another banyan-tree whose branches have become trunks, and whose trunks have produced new branches, until the whole has become an intellectual and moral jungle of vast extent. The original stock was a monotheistic nature worship, which the Hindu ancestors held in common with other branches of the Aryan family when dwelling together on the high table-lands of Central Asia, or, as some are now claiming, in Eastern Russia. Wherever may have been that historic “cradle” in which the infancy of our race was passed, it seems certain from similarities of language, that this Aryan family once dwelt together, and had a common worship, and called the supreme deity by a common name. It was a worship of the sky, and at length of various powers of nature, Surya, the sun: Agni, fire: Indra, rain, etc. It is maintained by many authors, in India as well as in Europe, that these designations were only applied as names of one and the same potential deity. This is the ground held by the various branches of the modern Somaj of India. Yet we must not suppose that the monotheism of the early Aryans was all that we understand by that term; it is enough that the power addressed was one and personal. Even henotheism, the last name which Professor Max Mueller applies to the early Aryan faith, denotes oneness in this sense. The process of differentiation and corruption advanced more rapidly among the Indo-Aryans than in the Iranian branch of the same race, and in all lands changes were wrought to some extent by differences of climate and by environment.[34] The Norsemen, for example, struggling with the wilder and sterner forces of storm and wintry tempest, would naturally differ in custom, and finally in faith, from the gentle Hindu under his Indian sky; yet there were common elements traceable in the earliest traditions of these races, and the fact that religions are not wholly dependent upon local conditions is shown by both Christianity and Buddhism, which have flourished most conspicuously and permanently in lands where they were not indigenous.

“In the Vedas,” says Sir Monier Williams, “unity in the conception of deity soon diverged into various ramifications. Only a few of the hymns appear to contain the simple conception of one divine, self-existent, omnipresent Being, and even in these, the idea of one God, present in all nature, is somewhat nebulous and undefined.” One of the earliest deifications that we can trace was that of Varuna, who represented the overhanging sky. The hymns addressed to Varuna are not only the earliest, but they are the loftiest and most spiritual in their aspirations. They find in him an element of holiness before which sin is an offence; and in some vague sense he is the father of all things, like the Zeus whom Paul recognized in the poetry of Greece.

But, as already stated, this vague conception of God as one, was already in a transition toward separate impressions of the different powers of nature. If the idea of God was without any very clear personality and more or less obscure, it is not strange that it should come to be thus specialized as men thought of objects having a manifestly benign influence—as the life-quickening sun or the reviving rain. It is not strange that, without a knowledge of the true God, they should have been filled with awe when gazing upon the dark vault of night, and should have rendered adoration to the moon and her countless retinue of stars.  If there must be idolatry, let it be that sublime nature worship of the early Aryans, though even that was sure to degenerate into baser forms.  One might suppose that the worship of the heavenly bodies would remain the purest and noblest; and yet the sun-worship of the Assyrians and the Phoenicians became unspeakably vile in its sensuousness, and finally the most wicked and abominable of all heathen systems. India in her darkest days never sank so low, and when her degradation came it was through other conceptions than those of nature worship.

In the early Vedic hymns are to be found many sublime passages which seem to suggest traces of those common traditions concerning the creation—the Fall of man and the Deluge, which we believe to have been the earliest religious heritage of mankind. They contrast strongly with the later and degrading cosmogonies of degenerate heathen systems, and especially with the grotesque fancies of the subsequent Hindu mythology.  In the Xth Mandala of the Rig Veda we find the following account of primeval chaos, which reminds one of the Mosaic Genesis:

“In the beginning there was neither aught nor naught,

There was neither sky nor atmosphere above.

What then enshrouded all the teeming universe?

In the receptacle of what was it contained?

Was it enveloped in the gulph profound of water?

There was then neither death nor immortality.

There was then neither day nor night, nor light nor darkness.  Only the Existing One breathed calmly self-contained, Naught else but him there was, naught else above, beyond;

Then first came darkness hid in darkness, gloom in gloom, Next all was water, chaos indiscreet In which the One lay void, shrouded in nothingness, Then turning inward by self-developed force Of inner fervor and intense abstraction grew.”


In the early Vedic period many of the corruptions of later times were unknown. There was no distinct doctrine of caste, no transmigration, no mist of pantheism, no idol-worship, no widow-burning, and no authorized infanticide. The abominable tyranny which was subsequently imposed upon woman was unknown; the low superstitions of the aboriginal tribes had not been adopted; nor, on the other hand, had philosophy and speculation taken possession of the Hindu mind. The doctrine of the Trimurti and the incarnations had not appeared.[35]

The faith of the Hindus in that early period may be called Aryanism, or Vedism. It bore sway from the Aryan migration, somewhere about one thousand five hundred, or two thousand, years before Christ, to about eight hundred years before Christ.[36] By that time the priestly class had gained great power over all other ranks. They had begun to work over the Vedas to suit their own purposes, selecting from them such portions as could be framed into an elaborate ritual—known as the Brahmanas. The period during which they continued this ritualistic development is known as the Brahmana period. This extended from about eight hundred to five hundred B.C.[37] These, however, are only the approximate estimates of modern scholarship: such a thing as ancient history is unknown to the Hindu race. This Brahmana period was marked by the intense and overbearing sacerdotalism of the Brahmans, and by an extreme development of the doctrine of caste. Never was priestly tyranny carried to greater length than by these lordly Brahmans of India. One of the chief abuses of their system was their depravation of sacrifice.

The earliest conception of sacrifice represented in the Vedas is that of a vicarious offering of Parusha, a Divine being. Very obscure references to this are found in the oldest of the four Vedas, dating probably not later than 1200 B.C. It is brought out still more clearly in a Brahmana which was probably composed in the seventh century B.C. It is there said that the “Lord of creatures offered himself a sacrifice for the Gods.” Principal Fairbairn finds Vedic authority for the idea that the creation of the world was accomplished by the self-sacrifice of deity; and Manu ascribes the creation of mankind to the austerities of the gods. Sir Monier Williams, the late Professor Banergea, and many others, have regarded these references to a Divine sacrifice for the benefit of gods and men as dim traces of a revelation once made to mankind of a promised atonement for the sins of the world.[38]

But so far as the actual observances of the early Hindus were concerned, they seem to have made their offerings rather in the spirit of Cain than in the faith of Abel. They simply fed the gods with their gifts, and regaled them with soma juice, poured forth in libations; the savor of melted butter also was supposed to be specially grateful. Still there is reason to believe that the piacular idea of sacrifice was never wholly lost, but that the Hindus, in common with all other races, found occasion—especially when great calamities befell them—to appease the gods with the blood of sacrifice. In the early days human sacrifices were offered, and occasionally at least down to a late period.[39] It was a convenient policy of the priesthood, however, to hypothecate the claim for a human victim by accepting the substitution of a goodly number of horses or cows. A famous tradition is given, in the Aitareya Brahmana, of a prince[40] who had been doomed to sacrifice by a vow of his father, but who bought as a substitute the son of a holy Brahman—paying the price of a hundred cows. When none could be found to bind the lad on the altar, the pious father offered to perform the task for another hundred cows. Then there was no one found to slay the victim, and the father offered for still another hundred to do even that. As the victim was of high caste the gods interposed, and the Brahman was still the possessor of a son plus the cattle. The incident will illustrate the greed of the priesthood and the depravation of sacrifice. It had become a system of bargaining and extortion. The sacrifices fed the priesthood more substantially than the gods. There was great advantage in starting with the human victim as the unit of value, and it is easy to see how substitution of animals became immensely profitable. The people were taught that it was possible, if one were rich enough in victims, even to bankrupt heaven. Even demons by the value of their offerings might demand the sceptre of Indra.[41]

Hand in hand with this growth of the sacrificial system was the development of caste; the former was done away by the subsequent protest of Buddhism and the philosophic schools; but the latter has remained through all the stages of Hindu history.[42] Such was Brahmanism. Its thraldom has never been equalled. The land was deluged with the blood of slain beasts. All industries were paralyzed with discouragement. Social aspiration was blighted, patriotism and national spirit were weakened, and India was prepared for those disastrous invasions which made her the prey of all northern races.

It was in protest against these evils that Gautama and many able philosophers arose about 500 B.C. Already the intellectual classes had matched the Brahmans by drawing upon Vedic authority for their philosophy. As the Brahmans had produced a ritual from the Vedas, so the philosophers framed a sort of philosophic Veda in the Upanishads.  Men had begun to ask themselves the great questions of human life and destiny, “Whence am I? What is this mysterious being of which I am conscious?” They had begun to reason about nature, the origin of matter, the relation of mortals to the Infinite. The school of the Upanishads regarded themselves as an aristocracy of intellect, and held philosophy as their esoteric and peculiar prerogative. It was maintained that two distinct kinds of revelation had been made to men. First, that simple kind which was designed for priests and the common masses, for all those who regarded only effects and were satisfied with sacerdotal assumption and merit-making. But, secondly, there was a higher knowledge which concerned itself with the origin of the world and the hidden causes of things. Even to this day the Upanishads are the Vedas of the thinking classes of India.[43]

As the Brahmanas gave first expression to the doctrine of caste, so in the Upanishads we find the first development of pantheism and the doctrine of transmigration. The conclusion had already been reached that “There is only one Being who exists: He is within this universe and yet outside this universe: whoe’er beholds all living creatures as in Him, and Him the universal spirit, as in all, thenceforth regards no creature with contempt.”

The language of Hindu speculation exhausts its resources in similes by which to represent personal annihilation. Man’s origin and relations are accounted for very tersely by such illustrations as these: “As the web issues from the spider, as little sparks proceed from fire, so from the One Soul proceed all breathing animals, all worlds, all the gods, all beings.” Then as to destiny: “These rivers proceed from the east toward the west, thence from the ocean they rise in the form of vapor, and dropping again, they flow toward the south and merge into the ocean.  And as the flowing rivers are merged into the sea, losing their names and forms, so the wise, freed from name and form, pass into the Divine spirit, which is greater than the great.”[44] Another favorite illustration is that of the moon’s reflection in the water-jar, which disappears the moment the moon itself is hidden. “If the image in the water has no existence separate from that of the moon,” says the Hindu, “how can it be shown that the human soul exists apart from God?”

The Mundaka Upanishad, based upon the Atharva Veda (one of the latest,--the Upanishad being later still), contains this account of the universe: “As the spider spins and gathers back (its thread); as plants sprout on the earth; as hairs grow on a living person; so is this universe here produced from the imperishable nature. By contemplation the vast one germinates; from him food (or body) is produced; and thence successively, breath, mind, real (elements) worlds, and immortality resulting from (good) deeds.

“The Omniscient is profound contemplation consisting in the knowledge of him who knows all; and from that, the (manifested) vast one, as well as names, forms, and food proceed; and this is truth.”[45]

It is a great blemish upon the Upanishads, that while there are subtle, and in some respects sublime, utterances to be found here and there, the great mass is fanciful and often puerile, and in many instances too low and prurient to bear translation into the English language. This is clearly alleged by Mr. Bose, and frankly admitted by Max Mueller.[46]

In the common protest which finally broke down the system of Brahmanical sacrifice, and for a time relaxed the rigors of caste tyranny, Buddhism then just appearing (say 500 B.C.), joined hand in hand with the philosophies. Men were tired of priestcraft, and by a natural reaction they went to an opposite extreme; they were tired of religion itself.  Buddha became an undoubted atheist or agnostic, and six distinct schools of philosophy arose on the basis of the Upanishads—some of which were purely rationalistic, some were conservative, others radical. Some resembled the Greek “Atomists” in their theory,[47] and others fought for the authority, and even the supreme divinity, of the Vedas.[48] All believed in the eternity of matter, and the past eternity of the soul; all accepted the doctrine of transmigration, and maintained that the spiritual nature can only act through a material body. All were pessimistic, and looked for relief only in absorption.

But the progress of Hindu thought was marked by checks and counter-checks. As the tyranny of the priesthood had led to the protest of philosophy, so the extreme and conflicting speculations of philosophic rationalism probably gave rise to the conservatism of the Code of Manu. No adequate idea of the drift of Hindu thought can be gained without assigning due influence to this all-important body of laws. They accomplished more in holding fast the power of the Brahmans, and enabling them to stem the tide of intellectual rebellion, and finally to regain the sceptre from the hand of Buddhism, than all other literatures combined. Their date cannot be definitely known. They were composed by different men and at different times. They probably followed the Upanishads, but antedated the full development of the philosophic schools.

Many of the principles of Manu’s Code had probably been uttered as early as the seventh century B.C.[49] The ferment of rationalistic thought was even then active, and demanded restraint. The one phrase which expresses the whole spirit of the laws of Manu is intense conservatism. They stand for the definite authority of dogma; they re-assert in strong terms the authority of the Vedas; they establish and fortify by all possible influences, the institution of caste. They enclose as in an iron framework, all domestic, social, civil, and religious institutions.  They embrace not only the destiny of men upon the earth, but also the rewards and punishments of the future life. Whatever they touched was petrified. Abuses which had crept in through the natural development of human depravity—for example, the oppression of woman—the laws of Manu stamped with inflexible and irreversible authority. The evils which grow up in savage tribes are bad enough, the tyranny of mere brute force is to be deplored, but worst of all is that which is sanctioned by statute, and made the very corner-stone of a great civilization. Probably no other system of laws ever did so much to rivet the chains of domestic tyranny.[50]

The Code of Manu has been classified as, 1st, sacred knowledge and religion; 2d, philosophy; 3d, social rules and caste organization; 4th, criminal and civil laws; 5th, systems of penance; 6th, eschatology, or the doctrine of future rewards. No uninspired or non-Vedic production has equal authority in India. We can only judge of its date by its relative place among other books. It applies Vedic names to the gods, though it mentions Brahma and Vishnu, but it makes no reference to the Trimurti. Pantheism was evidently in existence and was made prominent in the code. The influence of Manu over the jurisprudence of India was a matter of growth. At first the code appears to have been a guide in customs and observances, but as it gained currency it acquired the force of law, and extended its sway over all the tribes of India. It was not, however, maintained as a uniform code throughout the land, but its principles were found underlying the laws of all the provinces. Its very merits were finally fruitful of evil. Human weal was sacrificed to the over-shadowing power of a system of customs cunningly wrought and established by Brahmanical influence. The author was evidently a Brahman, and the whole work was prepared and promulgated in the interests of Brahmanism as against all freedom of thought. Its support of the Vedas was fanatical. Thus: “A Brahman by retaining the Rig Veda in his memory incurs no guilt, though he should destroy the three worlds.” Again: “When there is contradiction of two precepts in the Veda, both are declared to be law; both have been justly promulgated by known sages as valid law.”

The laws of Manu make no mention of the doctrine of Bakti or faith, and there is no reference to the worship of the Sakti; both of these were of later date. The doctrine of transmigration, however, is fully stated, and as a consequence of this the hells described in the code, though places of torture, resolve themselves into merely temporary purgatories, while the heavens become only the steps on the road to a union with deity. There is reason to believe that the practice of employing idols to represent deity was unknown at the time the code was compiled. There is no allusion to public services or to teaching in the temples, the chief rites of religion were of a domestic kind, and the priests of that age were nothing more than domestic chaplains.

Manu’s theory of creation was this: “The Self-Existent, having willed to produce various beings from his own substance, first with a thought created the waters and placed on them a productive seed or egg. Then he himself was born in that egg in the form of Brahma. Next he caused the egg to divide itself, and out of its two divisions there came the heaven above and the earth beneath. Afterward, having divided his own substance he became half male, half female. From that female was produced Viraj, from whom was created the secondary progenitor of all beings. Then from the Supreme Soul he drew forth Manu’s intellect.” This mixed cosmogony is supposed to indicate a diversity of authorship.

It will be seen that this is much less philosophical than the theory of creation quoted above from the Mundaka Upanishad.[51] If we compare Manu’s account with the description of the “Beginning” found in one of the hymns of the Rig Veda,[52] we shall see that there has been a downward trend of Hinduism from the simple and sublime conceptions of the early poets to that which is grotesque, and which has probably been worked over to suit the purposes of the Brahmans. No mythological legend was too absurd if it promoted the notion of the divine origin of the Manus (sages) and the Brahmans.

Manu makes much of the Vedic passage which refers to the origin of caste.[53] He maintained that this distinction of caste was as much a law of nature and divine appointment as the separation of different classes of animals. The prominence accorded to the Brahmans was nothing short of divine. “Even when Brahmans employ themselves in all sorts of inferior occupations (as poverty often compels them to do) they must under all circumstances be honored, for they are to be regarded as supreme divinities.” “A Brahman’s own power is stronger than the power of the king, therefore by his own might he may chastise his foes.” “He who merely assails a Brahman with intent to kill him, will continue in hell for a hundred years, and he who actually strikes him must endure a thousand years.”

It is always the truth that is mingled with the errors of any system which constitutes its life and gives it perpetuity, and there is much in the Code of Manu to be admired. Like the Confucian ethics, it laid its foundations in the respect due from childhood to parents, and in guarding the sanctities of the home. It aimed at fairness between ruler and subject, in an age when over most of the Asiatic continent the wildest caprice of rulers was the law of their respective realms. Manu taught the duty of kings toward their subjects in most emphatic terms.  They were to regard themselves as servants, or rather as fathers, of the people; and rules were prescribed for their entire conduct. They were the representatives of deity in administering the affairs of mortals, and must realize their solemn responsibility.[54] It must ever be acknowledged that the Hindu laws respecting property were characterized by wisdom and equity. Taxation was not subject to caprice or injustice; where discriminations occurred they were in favor of the poor, and the heaviest burdens were laid where they should be laid, upon the rich.  There were wise adaptations, calculated to develop the industry and self-help of the weakest classes, and care was taken that they never should become oppressive. No political or civic tyranny could be allowed; but that of the priesthood in its relations to all ranks, and that of the householder toward his wife and toward all women, were quite sufficient. In this last regard we scarcely know which was the greater—the heartless wickedness of the Code, or its blind and bigoted folly. How it was that laws could be framed which indicated such rare sagacity, which in many other respects were calculated to build up the very highest civilization, and which, at the same time, failed to foresee that this oppression of woman must result in the inevitable degeneracy of succeeding generations of men, must ever remain a mystery.[55]

We have glanced at the purer and simpler Aryanism of the early period, at the bigoted, tyrannical Brahmanism, with its ritual, its sacrifices, its caste. We have merely alluded to the rationalistic reaction of the philosophers and the Buddhists. We shall now see that the Brahman power is not broken, but that it will regain all and more than it has lost, that it will prove elastic enough to embrace all that has gone before; that while Buddhism will be banished, many of its elements will be retained, and the whole woven into one marvellous texture which we will call Hinduism.[56] Even during the period of Buddhism’s greatest triumphs, say, two or three centuries before Christ, changes of great moment were going on in the Brahmanical faith. The old sacrificial system had lost its power, but the flexible and inexhaustible resources of Brahmanical cunning were by no means dormant. In the border wars of the Aryans, with rival invaders on the one hand, and with the conquered but ever restless aborigines on the other, great and popular heroes had sprung up. The exploits of these heroes had been celebrated in two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the popularity of these poems was immense. The heroes were of the soldier caste, and gave to that caste a prestige which seemed to the Brahmans formidable and dangerous.[57] The divine prerogatives of their order were all in jeopardy.

The remedy chosen by the Brahmans was a bold and desperate one. These heroes must be raised out of the soldier caste by making them divine. As such they would hold a nearer relation to the divine Brahmans than to the soldiers. The legends were therefore worked over—Brahmanized—so to speak.[58] Rama, who had overcome certain chieftains of Ceylon, and Krishna, who had won great battles in Rajputana, were raised to the rank of gods and demi-gods. By an equal exaggeration the hostile chiefs of rival invaders were transformed to demons, and the black, repulsive hill tribes, who were involved as allies in these conflicts, were represented as apes. As a part of this same Brahmanizing process, the doctrine of the Trimurti was developed, and also the doctrine of incarnation. Most conspicuous were the incarnations of Vishnu; Rama and Krishna were finally placed among the ten incarnations of that deity. This was a skilful stroke of policy, for it was now no longer the heroes of the soldier caste who had won victory for the Aryans; it was Vishnu, the preserver, the care-taker, and sympathizer with all the interests of mankind. The development of the doctrines of the Trimurti and of incarnation undoubtedly followed both the rise of Buddhism and the promulgation of the Laws of Manu.

Meanwhile the Brahmans were shrewd enough to adapt themselves to certain other necessities. The influence of Buddhism was still a force which was not to be disregarded. It had demonstrated one thing which had never been recognized before, and that was the need of a more human and sympathetic element in the divine objects of worship. Men were weary of worshipping gods who had no kindly interest in humanity. They were weary of a religion which had no other element than that of fear or of bargaining with costly sacrifices. They longed for something which had the quality of mercy. Buddha had demonstrated the value of this element, and by an adroit stroke of policy the Brahmans adopted Gautama as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Meanwhile they adopted the heroic Krishna as the god of sympathy—the favorite of the lower masses who were not too critical toward his vices.

We have now reached the fully developed form of Hinduism.[59] The Brahmans had embraced every element that could give strength to their broad, eclectic, and all-embracing system.[60] The doctrine of the Trimurti had become a strong factor, as it furnished a sort of framework, and gave stability. As compared with the early Aryanism, it removed the idea of deity from merely natural forces to that of abstract thoughts, principles, and emotions, as active and potent in the world.  At the same time it retained the old Vedic deities under new names and with new functions, and it did not abate its professed regard for Vedic authority. The Brahmans had rendered their system popular in a sense with the intellectual classes by adopting all the philosophies. They had stopped the mouth of Buddhist protest by embracing the Buddha among their incarnations. They had shown an advance in the succession of incarnations from the early embodiments of brute force, the fish, the tortoise, the boar, up to heroes, and from these to the ninth avatar, the Buddha, as a moralist and philosopher.[61] They left on record the prediction that a tenth should come—and he is yet to come—who, in a still higher range of moral and spiritual power, should redeem and renovate the earth, and establish a kingdom of righteousness.

Meanwhile, in this renaissance of the Hindu faith, this wide, politic, self-adapting system, we find not only Buddhism, Philosophy, the early Aryanism, and the stiff cultus of Brahmanism, but there is also a large infusion of the original superstitions of the Dravidians, Kohls, Santals, and other nature worshippers of the hill tribes. Much of the polytheism of the modern Hindus—the worship of hills, trees, apes, cattle, the sun, the moon, unseen spirits, serpents, etc.—has been adopted from these simple tribes, so that the present system embraces all that has ever appeared on the soil of India—even Mohammedanism to some extent; and as some contend, very much also has been incorporated from the early teachings of the so-called St. Thomas Christians of Malabar. Such is the immense composite which is called Hinduism. It continued its development through the early centuries of the Christian era, and down even to the Middle Ages. Since then there has been disintegration instead of growth. The Brahmans have not only retained the Aryan deities, and extended Vishnu’s incarnate nature over the epic heroes, but in the Puranas they have woven into the alleged lives of the incarnate gods the most grotesque mythologies and many revolting vices.

It may be interesting to trace for a moment the influence of the different lines of Hindu literature upon the general development of national character. Of course, the early Vedic literature has never lost its influence as the holy and inspired source of all knowledge to the Hindu race; but we have seen how much more potential were the Brahmanas and the Upanishad philosophy drawn from the Vedas, than were those sacred oracles themselves; how the Brahmanas riveted the chains of priestcraft and caste, and how the philosophies invigorated the intellect of the people at a time when they were most in danger of sinking into the torpor of ignorance and base subserviency to ritual and sacrifice; how it gave to the better classes the courage to rise up in rebellion and throw off every yoke, and think for themselves. We have seen how Buddhism by its protest against sacerdotalism crippled for a time the power of the Brahmans and raised a representative of the soldier caste to the chief place as a teacher of men; how its inculcation of pity to man and beast banished the slaughter and cruelty of wholesale and meaningless sacrifice, and how its example of sympathy changed Hinduism itself, and brought it into nearer relations with humanity. Driven from India, though it was, it left an immense deposit of influence and of power. We have seen how, as a counter-check to philosophy and Buddhism, the Code of Manu reasserted the authority of the Vedas, and riveted anew the chains of caste, and how it compensated for its oppressiveness by many wholesome and benign regulations—accomplishing more, perhaps, than all other literatures combined to maintain the stability of Hinduism, through its many vicissitudes, and in spite of the heterogeneous elements which it received and incorporated.

Scarcely less important was the influence of the great epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—with their doctrine of Trimurti and the incarnations of Vishnu in the national heroes. This conciliated the soldier caste, subsidized the most popular characters in Hindu tradition, at the same time that it made them tenfold more glorious than before. The Epics widened out the field of Hindu mythology immensely.  Never before had there been such a boundless range for the imagination.  The early Brahmans had cramped all intellectual growth, and held mankind by the leash of priestly ritual. The philosophies had been too strait and lofty for any but the higher class; Manu’s laws had been a stern school-master to keep the people under curbs and restraints; even the Brahmans themselves were the slaves of their own ritual. But all the people could understand and admire Rama’s wonderful victories over the demon Ravana. All could appreciate the devotion of the lovely Sita, and weep when she was kidnapped and borne away, like Grecian Helen, to the demon court in Ceylon; and they could be thrilled with unbounded joy when she was restored—the truest and loveliest of wives—to be the sharer of a throne.

The Epics took such hold of the popular heart that any fact, any theory, any myth that could be attached to them found ready credence. The Mahabharata especially became a general texture upon which any philosophy, or all the philosophies, might be woven at will. And for a long period, extending from three or four centuries B.C. onward far into the Christian era, it was ever ready to receive modifications from the fertile brain and skilful hand of any devout Brahman. A striking example of this was the introduction of the Bhagavad Gita. When this was composed, somewhere about the second or third century of our era, there was no little conflict between the different schools of philosophy; and its unknown author attempted to unite them all in a poem which should harmonize their contradictions and exalt the virtues of each, and at the same time reiterate all the best maxims of Hinduism. Some centuries later, the pronounced Vedantist Sancarakarya revamped the poem and gave its philosophy a more pantheistic character; later still the demigod Krishna was raised to full rank as the supreme Vishnu—the Creator and Upholder of all things.[62]

It is important to notice that in the trend of Hindu literature through so many ages there has been no upward movement, but rather a decline.  Nowhere do we find hymns of so pure and lofty a tone as in the early Vedas. No philosophy of the later times has equalled that of the Upanishads and the six Darsanas. No law-giver like Manu has appeared for twenty-four centuries. No Sanskrit scholarship has equalled that of the great grammarian Panini, who lived in the fourth century B.C. And although no end of poetry has succeeded the great Epics, it has shown deterioration. The Puranas, written at a later day, reveal only a reckless zeal to exalt the incarnate deities. They may properly be called histories of the incarnations of Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, and glorifications of Krishna. And the very nature of the subjects with which they deal gives free scope to an unbridled imagination and to the most reckless exaggeration.

If anything more were wanting to insure their extravagance, it may be found in the fact that they were inspired by the rivalry of the respective worshippers of different gods. The Puranas mark the development of separate sects, each of which regarded its particular deity as the supreme and only god. The worshippers of Vishnu and the worshippers of Siva were in sharp rivalry, and they have continued their separation to this day.[63] Those who came to worship Vishnu as incarnate in Krishna, gained an advantage in the popular element associated with a favorite hero. Yet this was matched by the influence of the Sankhya philosophy, which assigned to Siva a male and female dualism, a doctrine which finally plunged Hinduism into deepest degradation. It brought about a new development known as Saktism, and the still later and grosser literature of the Tantras. In these, Hinduism reached its lowest depths. The modern “Aryas” discard both the Tantras and the Puranas, and assert that the popular incarnations of Vishnu were only good men. They take refuge from the corruptions of modern Hinduism in the purer teachings of the early Vedas.


The Contrasts of Hinduism and Christianity.

Hinduism has some elements in common with Christianity which it is well to recognize. It is theistic; it is a religion, as distinguished from the agnostic and ethical systems of India and China.[64] Hinduism always recognized a direct divine revelation which it regards with profound reverence; and through all its variations and corruptions it has inculcated in the minds of the Indian races a deeply religious feeling.  It has been claimed that it has made the Hindus the most devotional people in the world. Like Christianity, Hinduism appeals to man’s intellectual nature, and it is inwrought with profound philosophy. It does not, however, like some modern systems, teach that divine truth has been revealed to man by natural processes; rather it regards the early revelation as having suffered obscuration.[65] It also has its trinity, its incarnations, and its predictions of a Messiah who shall restore the truth and establish righteousness. The Hindu traditions maintain that mankind descended from a single pair;[66] that the first estate of the race was one of innocence; that man was one of the last products of creation; that in the first ages he was upright, and consequently happy.  “The beings who were thus created by Brahma are said to have been endowed with righteousness and perfect faith; they abode wherever they pleased, unchecked by any impediment; their hearts were free from guile; they were pure, made exempt from toil by observance of sacred institutes. In their sanctified minds Hari dwelt; they were filled with perfect wisdom by which they contemplated the glory of Vishnu.” Hartwell has pointed out the fact that the early Hindu traditions here unite with the Scriptural account in virtually denying all those theories of evolution which trace the development of man from lower animals.[67]

But compared with Christianity, its contrasts are far greater than its resemblances. First, as to the nature of God, there is an infinite difference between the cold and unconscious Brahman, slumbering for ages without thought or emotion or any moral attribute, and the God of Israel, whose power and wisdom and goodness, whose mercy and truth and tender compassion, are so constantly set forth in the Bible. The latter compares Himself to a Father who cares for his children, and who has redeemed the world by an infinite sacrifice. Even in the most popular emanation of Brahman—even in Vishnu—there is nothing of a fatherly spirit, no appeal as to children, no kindly remonstrance against sin, no moral instruction, or effort to encourage and establish character, no promise of reward, no enkindling of immortal hope.

Second, there is a striking contrast in the comparative estimates which Hinduism and Christianity place upon the human soul. Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism does recognize the existence of a soul, but it is only a temporary emanation, like the moon’s reflection in the water. It resembles its source as does the moon’s image, but coldly and in a most unsatisfactory sense; there is no capacity for fellowship, and the end is absorption.[68] On the other hand, Christianity teaches us that we are created in God’s image, but not that we are his image. We are separate, though dependent, and if reunited to him through Christ we shall dwell in his presence forever.

Third, the two systems are in strong contrast in the comparative hopes which they hold out for the future. The doctrine of transmigration casts a gloom over all conscious being; it presents an outlook so depressing as to make life a burden, and the acme of all possible attainment is individual extinction, or what amounts to the same thing, absorption into deity. The logic of it is that it would be better still not to have been born at all. Christianity promises an immediate transfer to a life of unalloyed blessedness, and an endless growth of all our powers and capacities; but why should Hinduism urge the cultivation of that whose real destiny is “effacement?” Hinduism finds the explanation of life’s mysteries and inscrutable trials in the theory of sins committed in a previous existence. Christianity, while recognizing the same trials, relieves them with the hope of solutions in a future life of compensating joy. The one turns to that which is past, unchangeable and hopeless, and finds only sullen despair; the other anticipates an inheritance richer than eye hath seen, or ear heard, or heart conceived.

Fourth, Hinduism has no Saviour and no salvation. It is not a religion in the highest sense of rescue and reconciliation. It avails us of no saving power higher than our own unaided effort. It implies the ruin of sin, but provides no remedy. It presents no omnipotent arm stretched forth to save.

Its fatalism places man under endless disabilities, and then bids him to escape from the nexus if he can; but it reveals no divine helper, no sacrifice, no mediator, no regenerating Spirit. It has no glad tidings to proclaim, no comfort in sorrow, no victory over the sting of death, no resurrection unto Life. Though at a period subsequent to the preaching of the Gospel in India—perhaps the seventh or eighth century A.D.—a doctrine of faith (_Bakti_) was engrafted upon Hinduism, yet it had no hint of a Saviour from sin and death.[69]

Fifth, in Hinduism there is no liberty for the free action of the human spirit. Though the life of a Brahman is intensely religious, yet it is cramped with exactions which are not only abortive but positively belittling. The code of Brahmanism never deals with general principles in the regulation of conduct, but fills the whole course of life with punctilious minutiae of observances. Instead of prescribing, as Christ did, an all-comprehensive law of supreme love to God and love to our neighbor as ourselves, it loads the mind with petty exactions, puerile precepts, inane prohibitions. “Unlike Christianity, which is all spirit and life,” says Dr. Duff, “Hinduism is all letter and death.” Repression takes the place of inspiration and the encouragement of hope.

There are a thousand subtle principles in Hinduism whose influence is felt in society and in the state, and to which the faith and power of the Gospel present the very strongest contrasts. For example, while Christianity has raised woman to a position of respect and honor, and made her influence felt as something sacred and potential in the family and in all society, Hinduism has brought her down even from the place which she occupied among the primitive Aryans, to an ever-deepening degradation. It has made her life a burden and a curse. Pundita Ramabai, in her plea for high-caste Hindu women, quotes a prayer of a child widow in which she asks, “O Father of the world, hast Thou not created us? or has perchance some other God made us? Dost Thou only care for men? O Almighty One, hast Thou not power to make us other than we are, that we too may have some part in the blessings of life?” Even in this last decade of the nineteenth century the priesthood of Bengal are defending against all humane legislation those old customs which render the girlhood of Hindu women a living death.[70]

In its broad influence Christianity has raised the once savage tribes of Europe to the highest degree of culture, and made them leaders and rulers of the world; but Hinduism has so weakened and humbled the once conquering Aryans that they have long been an easy prey to every invading race. Christianity shows in its sacred Book a manifest progress from lower to higher moral standards—from the letter to the spirit, from the former sins that were winked at to the perfect example of Christ, from the narrow exclusiveness of Judaism to the broad and all-embracing spirit of the Gospel, from prophecy to fulfilment, from types and shadows to the full light of Redemption; the sacred books of Hinduism have degenerated from the lofty aspirations of the Vedic nature-worship to the vileness of Saktism, from the noble praises of Varuna to the low sensuality of the Tantras, from Vedic conceptions of the creation, sublime as the opening of St. John’s Gospel, to the myths of the divine turtle or the boar, or the escapades of the supreme and “adorable Krishna.”[71]

Christianity breaks down all barriers which divide and alienate mankind, and establishes a universal brotherhood in Christ; Hinduism has raised the most insurmountable barriers and developed the most inexorable social tyranny ever inflicted on the human race. The Hebrew economy also recognized a priestly class, but they were chosen from among their brethren and were only a distinct family; they made no claim to divine lineage, and they were guiltless of social tyranny.

Christianity enjoins a higher and purer ethic than it has ever found in the natural moral standards of any people; it aims at perfection; it treats the least infraction as a violation of the whole law; it regards even corrupt thoughts as sins; it bids us be holy even as He is holy in whose sight the heavens are unclean. Hinduism, on the other hand, is below the ethical standard of respectable Hindu society. The better classes are compelled to apologize for it by asserting that that which is debasing in men may be sinless in the gods. The offences of Krishna and Arjuna would not be condoned in mortals; the vile orgies of the “left-handed worshippers” of Siva would not be tolerated but for their religious character. The murders committed by the Thugs in honor of Kali were winked at only because a goddess demanded them. The naked processions of Chaitanya’s followers would be dispersed by the police anywhere but in India.

It is the peculiar distinction of India that it has been the theatre of nearly all the great religions. Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Mohammedanism have all made trial of their social and political power and have failed.  Last of all came Christianity. The systems which preceded it had had centuries of opportunity; and yet Christianity has done more for the elevation of Hindu society in the last fifty years than they had accomplished in all the ages of their dominion. Neither Buddhism nor Mohammedanism had made any serious impression on caste; neither had been able to mitigate the wrongs which Brahmanism had heaped upon woman—Mohammedanism had rather increased them. The horrors of the satti and the murder of female infants—those bitterest fruits of priestly tyranny—were left unchecked until the British Government, inspired by missionary influence and a general Christian sentiment, branded them as infamous and made them crimes. But now even the native sentiment of the better classes in India is greatly changed by these higher influences, and the conventional morality is rising above the teachings of the national religion. Widow-burning and infanticide belong almost wholly to the past. Child-marriage is coming into disrepute, and caste, though not destroyed, is crippled, and its preposterous assumptions are falling before the march of social progress.

Perhaps the very highest tribute which Hinduism has paid to Christianity is seen in the fact that the modern Arya Somaj has borrowed its ethics and some of its religious doctrines, and is promulgating them under Vedic labels and upon Vedic authority.[72] It has renounced those corruptions of Hinduism which can no longer bear the light—such as enforced widowhood and the general oppression of woman. It denounces the incarnations of Vishnu as mere inventions, and therefore cuts up by the roots the whole Krishna cult and dissipates the glory of the Bhagavad Gita. It abhors polytheism, and not only proclaims the supremacy of one only true God, self-existent, the creator and upholder of all things, but it maintains that such was the teaching of the Vedas. But although this modern eclectic system adopts the whole ethical outcome of Christian civilization in India for its own purposes, it shows a most uncompromising hostility to Christianity. Though it claims to be positively theistic, it seems ready to enter into alliance with any form of atheism or agnosticism, Eastern or Western, against the spread of Christian influence in India.

In speaking of the movement of revived Aryanism I assume that with the more intelligent and progressive classes of India the old Hinduism is dead. Of course, millions of men still adhere to the old corruptions.  Millions in the remoter districts would retain the festival of Juggernaut, the hook-swinging, even infanticide and widow-burning, if they dared. The revolting orgies of Kali and Doorga, and the vilest forms of Siva worship, even the murderous rites of the Thugs, might be revived by the fanatical, if foreign influence were withdrawn; but, taking India as a whole, these things are coming to be discarded. The people are ashamed of them; they dare not undertake to defend them in the open day of the present civilization. All intelligent Hindus are persuaded to accept the situation, and look to the future instead of the past. The country is full of new influences which must be counted as factors. British rule is there, and is there to stay. Education has come—good, bad, and indifferent. English University training is bringing forward a host of acute thinkers of native blood. But the forces of Western infidelity are also there, grappling with Western Christianity on Indian soil, and before the eyes of the conquered and still sullen people. The vilest of English books and the worst of French novels in English translations are in the markets. All the worst phases of European commerce are exhibited. The opium monopoly, the liquor traffic, and all the means and methods of unscrupulous money-getting, with the wide-spread example of drinking habits, and unbounded luxury and extravagance.

And, in opinions, the war of aggression is no longer on one side only.  While the foreigner speaks and writes of superstition, of heathenism, of abominable rites now passing away, the native Hindu press is equally emphatic in its condemnation of what it calls the swinish indulgence of the Anglo-Saxon, his beer-drinking and his gluttony, his craze for money and material power, his disgust at philosophy and all intellectual aspiration, his half-savage love for the chase and the destruction of animal life. Educated Hindus throw back against the charge of idolatry our idolatry of pelf, which, as they claim, eclipses every other thought and aspiration, leads to dishonesty, over-reaching, and manifold crime, and sinks noble ethics to the low level of expediency or self-interest; the conquest is not yet won.

A hundred varieties of creed have sprung up beneath this banyan-tree which I have called Hinduism. There are worshippers of Vishnu, of Siva, of Kali, of Krishna as Bacchus, and of Krishna as the supreme and adorable God. There are Sikhs, and Jains, and Buddhists; Theosophists, Vedantic Philosophers, Mohammedans, Brahmos, Parsees, Evolutionists, and Agnostics; Devil-worshippers, and worshippers of ghosts and serpents; but in considering these as forces to be met by Christian influence, we must regard them all as in virtual alliance with each other. They are all one in pride of race and of venerable custom. They are all one in their hatred of foreign dominion, and of the arrogance and overbearing assumption of the European.[73]

The Hindu religions, therefore, however divided, and however weak and moribund they may be taken singly, find a real vitality in the union of common interests, in the sentiments of patriotism, in the pride of their philosophy, in the glory of their ancient history as the true and original Aryans, compared with whom Western nations are mere offshoots.

Their religious faith is mixed and involved with patriotism, politics, and race prejudice, and on the other hand Christianity in India is handicapped by political and commercial interest and a hated domination.  On both sides these combined influences must be considered in estimating the future issues of the great conflict. The question is not how Christianity and Hinduism would fare in a conflict pure and simple, unembarrassed by complications, but how Christianity with its drawbacks is likely to succeed against Hinduism with its manifold intrenchments.

But, while weighing well the obstacles, how great are the encouragements! What an auspicious fact that even a hostile organization has appropriated the Christian cultus bodily, and can find no better weapons than its blessed truths. Christianity is felt as a silent power, even though under other names. It is, after all, the leaven that is working all-powerfully in India to-day.

There was a period in the process of creation when light beamed dimly upon the earth, though the sun, its source, had not yet appeared. So through the present Hinduism there is a haze of Christian truth, though the Sun of Righteousness is not yet acknowledged as its source.

But the Spirit of God broods over the waters, and the true Light of the world will break on India.



[Footnote 34: The fact that environment has to a certain extent affected the religions of mankind is entirely overworked, when men like Buckle make it formative and controlling.]

[Footnote 35: Instead of the later and universal pessimism, there was in the Vedic religion a simple but joyous sense of life.]

[Footnote 36: Hinduism, p. 31.]

[Footnote 37: Chips from a German Workshop, vol. i., p. 15.]

[Footnote 38: Aryan Witness, p. 204; also Hinduism, p. 36.]

[Footnote 39: Ibid., p. 37.]

[Footnote 40: A son of Hariscandra. Hinduism, p. 37.]

[Footnote 41: This is in strong contrast with the Old Testament precepts, which everywhere had greater respect to the heart of the offerer than to the gifts.]

[Footnote 42: The Brahmans had found certain grades of population marked by color lines, shaded off from the negroid aborigines to the Dravidians, and from them to the more recent and nobler Aryans, and they were prompt also to seize upon a mere poetic and fanciful expression found in the Rig Veda, which seemed to give countenance to their fourfold caste distinction by representing one class as having sprung from the head of Brahma, another from the shoulders, the third from his thighs, and a fourth from his feet. Altogether they founded a social system which has been the wonder of the ages, and which has given to the Brahmans the prestige of celestial descent. The Kshatreych or soldier caste stands next, and as it has furnished many military leaders and monarchs who disputed the arrogant claims of the Brahmans, conflicts of the upper castes have not been infrequent.

The Vaishya, or farmer caste, has furnished the principal groundwork of many admixtures and subdivisions, until at the present time there are endless subcastes, to each of which a particular kind of employment is assigned. The Sudras are still the menials, but there are different grades of degradation even among them.]

[Footnote 43: Hindu Philosophy, Bose, p. 47.]

[Footnote 44: Indian Wisdom on the Brahmanas and Upanishads. Also Hindu Philosophy, Bose.]

[Footnote 45: Colebrook’s Essays, foot-note, p. 85.]

[Footnote 46: See Introduction to the Sacred Books of the East, vol. i.]

[Footnote 47: Vaiseshika Philosophy, in Indian Wisdom.]

[Footnote 48: Mimansa Philosophy. Ibid.]

[Footnote 49: Sir Monier Williams assigns the Code of Manu _in its present form_ to the sixth century B.C. Indian Wisdom, p. 215. Other Oriental scholars consider it older.]

[Footnote 50: These tendencies were more intensely emphasized in some of the later codes, which, however, were only variations of the greater one of Manu.]

[Footnote 51: See p. 82.]

[Footnote 52: Quoted on p. 76.]

[Footnote 53: See note, p. 80.]

[Footnote 54: Sir Monier Williams declares that some of Mann’s precepts are worthy of Christianity. Indian Wisdom, p. 212.]

[Footnote 55: It should be set down to the credit of the Code of Manu that with all its relentless cruelty toward woman it nowhere gives countenance to the atrocious custom of widow-burning which soon afterward became an important factor in the Hindu system and desolated the homes of India for more than two thousand years.

There would seem to be some dispute as to whether or not widow-burning is sanctioned in the Rig Veda. Colebrooke, in his Essays (Vol. I., p, 135), quotes one or two passages which authorize the rite, but Sir Monier Williams (_Indian Wisdom_, p. 259, note) has shown that changes were made in this text at a much later day for the purpose of gaining Vedic authority for a cruel system, of which even so late a work as the Code of Manu makes no mention, and (page 205 Ibid.) he quotes another passage from the Rig Veda which directs a widow to ascend the pyre of her husband as a token of attachment, but to leave it before the burning is begun.]

[Footnote 56: As the spread of Buddhism had owed much to the political triumph of King Ashoka, so the revival of Hinduism was greatly indebted to the influence of a new dynasty about a century B.C.]

[Footnote 57: Indian Wisdom, p. 314.]

[Footnote 58: Ibid., p. 317.]

[Footnote 59: Brahmanism and Hinduism are often used interchangeably, but all confusion will be avoided by confining the former to that intense sacerdotalism which prevailed during the Brahmana period, while the latter is used more comprehensively, or is referred particularly to the later and fully developed system.]

[Footnote 60: Hinduism, pp. 12, 13.]

[Footnote 61: The Brahmans were careful, however, to brand the Buddha, while admitting him as an avatar. Their theory was that Vishnu appeared in Gautama for the purpose of deluding certain demons into despising the worship of the gods, and thus securing their destruction. This affords an incidental proof that Gautama was regarded as an atheist.—See Indian Wisdom, p. 335.]

[Footnote 62: See Aryan Witness, closing chapter; also _Christ and Other Masters_, p. 198, notes 1, 2, and 3.]

[Footnote 63: See Brahmanism and Hinduism, Monier Williams.]

[Footnote 64: Hardwick traces similarities between Hindu traditions and Christianity in such points as these: 1, The primitive state of man; 2, his fall by transgression; 3, his punishment in the Deluge; 4, the rite of sacrifice; 5, the primitive hope of restoration.--_Christ and Other Masters_, p. 209.]

[Footnote 65: The Hindus hold that “truth was originally deposited with men, but gradually slumbered and was forgotten; the knowledge of it returns like a recollection.”--_Humboldt’s Kosmos_, ii., p. 112.]

[Footnote 66: Professor Wilson’s Lectures, p. 52.]

[Footnote 67: Vishnu Puranas, p. 45, note 4.]

[Footnote 68: Buddhism is still more disheartening, since it denies the separate conscious existence of the ego. There cannot be divine fellowship, therefore, but only the current of thoughts and emotions like the continuous flame of a burning candle. Not our souls will survive, but our Karma.]

[Footnote 69: Christ and Other Masters, p. 182.]

[Footnote 70: Yet in spite of Manu and the inveteracy of old custom, there gleams here and there in Hindu literature and history a bright ideal of woman’s character and rank; while the Ramayana has its model Sita, the Mahabharata, i., 3028, has this peerless sketch:

“A wife is half the man, his truest friend;

A loving wife is a perpetual spring Of virtue, pleasure, wealth; a faithful wife Is his best aid in seeking heavenly bliss;

A sweetly-speaking wife is a companion

In solitude; a father in advice;

A mother in all seasons of distress;

A rest in passing through life’s wilderness.”


This, however, is a pathetic outburst: the tyranny of the ages remains.]

[Footnote 71: Even in the later development of the doctrine of faith (Bakti) Hinduism fails to connect with it any moral purification or elevation. See quotations from Elphinstone and Wilson in _Christ and Other Masters_, p. 234.]

[Footnote 72: See a recent Catechism published by the Arya Somaj.]

[Footnote 73: The following hymn, quoted from the Arya Catechism, reveals the proud spirit of revived Aryanism:

“We are the sons of brave Aryas of yore,

Those sages in learning, those heroes in war.  They were the lights of great nations before, And shone in that darkness like morning’s bright star, A beacon of warning, a herald from far.

Have we forgotten our Rama and Arjun,

Yudistar or Bishma or Drona the Wise?

Are not we sons of the mighty Duryodani?

Where did Shankar and great Dayananda arise?

‘In India, in India!’ the echo replies.

Ours the glory of giving the world Its science, religion, its poetry and art.  We were the first of the men who unfurled The banner of freedom on earth’s every part, Brought tidings of peace and of love to each heart.”]


This is taken from Eastern Religions and Christianity.





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