World Religions - "In Holy Array" - Sept. 1974 - by Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann
'Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann, Th.Drs. (1928-2006) was a Professor of Old Testament at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Hamilton, Ont. He has writtten a similar series of articles in Calvinistisch Jongelingsblad, entitled "De Godsdiensten van India".
In the present article we lead off a series of articles on the religions of India. We are giving priority to India's religions over those of other countries, e.g. China, Japan or Arabia, because it is India's religions or religiosity that, more than others, has exerted an influence on the enormous continent of Asia; India has stamped Asia's spiritual life; India has been a hearth, a focus in Asia, and its influences have radiated towards the north (Tibet, Mongolia), the east (China, Japan) and particularly southeastward (India and Indonesia). Is not what we call characteristically "Oriental", on closer investigation characteristically Indian? And who is the "we"? Is it us Westerners (in which term I include all people of European stock in Europe and America)? I can say "yes", with reference to the winged word of Rudyard Kipling, "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet".
There is some truth in that. But why is the west so different? Isn't it because of the Christian faith which has had such a great impact on Europe and America; the Christian religion which we have tried to circumscribe in our first article on World Religions? Thus, not in the vague sense which the word christianity has with many people today.
Well, India's religions, as we are going to study them now, and the Christian Religion are each other's opposites in every respect. In its approach to reality this religion is so different that we feel we are entering a world completely strange to the one we are accustomed to.
Land and People
In studying foreign heathen religions, I stated in the previous article that we always have to begin with man, who called such a religion into existence. However, you cannot think of man apart from the environment he lives in. So, in studying India's religions, we should keep in mind the land and country in which they developed.
As for that, a great many things can be said about this land, which is almost a subcontinent. Please have a map or atlas at hand or a book on the geography of India. If you happen to be a subscriber to the National Geographic Magazine you can look for an article in one of the issues.
In India three zones are to be distinguished clearly.
a) The Peninsula tapering to a point towards the south: Cape Comorin protruding into the Indian Ocean. It is almost completely occupied by the Deccan mountain plateau. On the west side, there is a sheer mountain wall, rising up in stages out of the Sea, the so-called Ghats, while the eastern slope drops off gradually toward the Bay of Bengal.
b) North of the Peninsula the plain of the great rivers extends. To the west is the river Indus, which along with its tributary rivers has given the name Punjab (five waters) to the area. These rivers flow to the west and empty into the Arabian Sea. The name India is due to this river. The ancient Indians called it "Sindhu", which is the Persian language was transformed into "Hide", from which the Greek "Indos" was derived.
Towards the east the Ganges River and the Jumna, which for the greater part of their span run parallel, together form the area of the Doab (two waters) in the present state of Uttar Pradesh. They join at Allahabad, and reinforced by several impressive tributaries, like the Brahmaputra, flow toward the Bay of Bengal.
In these areas the heart of India was once beating in olden times, first around the Indus and thence gradually moving eastward along the Ganges.
c) The north of India is fenced by mighty ranges of mountains called the Himalaya, the Karakorum, the Hindukush, the Sulaiman- and Kirthar-range. Contact with the world outside can only be made through passes, some of which as e.g. the Khyber Pass between Kabul and Peshawar have become famous in history.
Rivers, mountains and the land itself, called Bharatâvarsha by the Indians, played a part in ancient Indian mythology. Later on the river Ganga became the sacred river. The Puranas, old sacred books, represent the Ganges as flowing from heaven, from the toe of the god Vishnu, brought down by the insistent prayers of a saint. The personified Ganga was angry at being brought down from heaven, and the god Shiva, to save the earth from the shock of her fall, caught the river on his brow, and checked its course with his matted locks. That is mythology.
Still today it is "Ganga Ma", "Mother Ganges" to millions of Hindus. Since long before the birth of Christ they have come to worship it, bathe in it, drink it, and throw the ashes of their dead into it. A few drops on a man's tongue at the moment of death cleanse his soul from sin. The river is the heart of India and Hinduism.
Who were the people who invented these myths which appear as a strange, bizarre and inexplicable whole to us? I had better say 'peoples', for various peoples have contributed to it. India is inhabited by a large variety of peoples. How many? That is dependent upon the question of how we are to distinguish those peoples. What is exactly a people?
Races and Languages
Two factors are especially decisive in this respect: Language and Race these are often mixed up. A classification of peoples on the ground of language should be clearly distinguished from one on the basis of race. When classifying a people according to race, racial characteristics are the things that matter, i.e. physical attributes which are innate, constant and hereditary. Individuals or even a people can borrow their language from others but they never lose their racial characteristics.
Countries like Canada and the U.S.A. where the population is made up of immigrants furnish clear proof of this. The millions of negroes in the U.S.A. are all English speaking but that is surely no reason for reckoning them to the white race. Just like the U.S.A. and South Africa, India knows about racial distinctions and the problems involved and tried to find a solution for it in the caste-system. In the present day population of India the following races are to be distingushed:
1) The Weddide, primitive tribes living mostly in the Dekkan mountain plateau. They are considered to be descendants of India's oldest population. By the successive waves of new immigrants and peoples invading the country from the northwest, they were gradually compelled to recede into the jungle more and more. It is a small type of people with brown skin, splayed nostrils and wide eyes in faces which have a childish outlook because of their rounded form. They live like other "primitive" peoples do today. Their number is estimated at 25 million.
2) The Indo-melanides. The colour of their skin is dark, almost black. Apart from that they do not have the other racial characteristics of the negroes in Africa, who are crisp-haired and have swollen lips. Rather, they have wavy hair and thin lips. They live in the southern and partly in the northeastern part of the Deccan peninsula, overlapping the area where Dravidian languages are spoken. This shows that the boundaries of language and race do not always coincide.
3) The third and — in their view as well as ours — the most important racial group is formed by the Indides, which are just like the European, part of the White or Caucasian Race.
Though a minority of them speak Dravidian languages today, it was the Indides who around 1500 B.C., on their migration from their northern homeland, took with them an Indoeuropean language with the result that today Indo-european languages are dominating in India.
So we have come to the languages. A very interesting topic as far as I am concerned and I hope you do not take it ill of me if I go a little bit further into that matter now. I spoke of Indo-european languages. They are aslo called Indo-Germanic after the two extreme wings within this principal section — the Indian and the Germanic wings.
Other principal stocks or groups of languages are the Semito-Hamitic (e.g. Hebrew and Arabic), the FinnoUgrian (Hungarian, Finish and several languages in N.E. Russia and W. Siberia), the Altaic (Turkish and many languages in Soviet Central Asia), the Tibeto-Burman, the TaiChinese, the Malayo-Polynesian, the Bantu languages and those of the American Indians.
Those principal groups differ widely in grammar, sentence structure and word formation. It strikes us that in India no less than four of the principal groups are represented: the Indo-european, the Dravidian, the Tibeto-Burmese and those of the Munda-group. The latter relates to languages in Further India, and, according to some scholars, to the Malayo-Polynesian group.
As far as we are concerned, we are interested most of all in the Indo-european group which is subdivided into the Germanic section (English, Dutch, German, Norwegian, etc.), the Roman section (French, Italian, Rumanian, etc.) which goes back to Latin, the Celtic section (Irish, Scottish), the Greek, the Albanian, the Baltic (Latvian and Lithuanian) and finally the Slavonic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czechoslovak, Bulgarian and Serbian, etc.) which are spoken over a very extended area.
We are crossing the "border" of Asia, where the Indo-european languages are represented by Armenian and the Indo-Aryan group.
"Today this term is an awkward expression, particularly because of its association with Hitler and Nazism. This is unfortunate, because Aryan is one of the most commonly used expressions in Indian history. Apart from representing a particular group of people the term means also 'noble' or 'good'. So, just as the term has unfortunate associations in the Western mind, it has rather attractive associations in Indian thought . . . . In the second millennium B.C. some invaders arrived in India who called themselves Aryans, who spoke a language from which Sanskrit is derived, and whose religion was that presented in the Rigveda. We shall use the expression Aryan to represent this group of languages1."
The Persian languages also belong to this group, as well as the Afghan and Kurdish. The irony of it is, that the only real Aryans to be found in "das Dritte Reich", the gypsies, which are of Indian origin, have fallen victim to the cruelty of the Nazis!
Scholars in Linguistics suppose that the ancestors of the peoples that speak an Indo-european language today, lived together in about the same area until 2000 B.C., each of them speaking a dialect of the Indo-european primitive language. It is an hypothesis, yet it is very attractive and probable.
That area is probably somewhere in Poland or farther up north at the coast of the Baltic. After approximately 2000 B.C. one group after another detached itself from the main group to go their own way. First the Hittites left and moving either through the Balcan or through the Caucasus to Asia Minor, founded an empire that lasted from 1800 - 1200 B.C. Next the Aryans separated themselves, first going to South Russia and Lake Aral. The Aryans in South Russia migrated to what today is Armenia, where they became the ruling class in the kingdom of Mitanni (1550 - 1300 B.C.) around the time of Moses and Joshua. The Aryans of the Lake Aral area marched through the Hindukush range and entered present day Afghanistan and India. With the Mitanni as well as the Indo-Aryans we meet the same names for gods.
The relationship between the Indoeuropean languages is demonstrated by linguists with very accurate and reliable methods. A first glance similarity of two words is not a sufficient
base for it may be haphazard. If, for example, the Old Indian word for "father", "pitar" should be cognate etymologically to Latin: "pater," French "pére," German "Vater," Dutch "wader" and English "father," then, according to the laws of phonology the letters p, i, t, a, r should
correspond exactly to the f, a, th, e, r in English, taking a good account of the emphasis. Examples of similarities are: "mâw" (mother), "bhrâtar" (brother), "sinus" (son), "duhitar" (daughter), "sthatum" (stand), "ganturn" (go) Much more can be said but we will leave it at that.
1) K. M. Sen, Hinduism, p. 17.