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".
Indus Valley Civilization and Vedic Age
In dealing with the Religions of India, we keep to the historic order, following the way things gradually developed. Against the background of history we'll see things in their true perspective and come to a proper evaluation of the various phenomena in present-day religion; questions like: what remained unaltered through the centuries? or which elements underwent a change and for what reason? will be answered.
For a long time scholars were of the opinion that India's religious life had undergone quite a change as the centuries went by. Just compare the oldest stage with present-day Hinduism. The caste system, suttee or widow burning and the doctrine of transmigration, the continued series of existences, which to us is insolubly connected with Indian religion, is not met with in the oldest stage. However, what do we mean by the oldest stage? The new era ushered in by the invasion of the Indo Aryans in the 15th century B.C.?
For more than a century this era was considered to be the oldest by the students in the field. Since 1922 however, a discovery was made which made them change their minds. In this year an Indian scholar began to excavate a mound in Sind, between the Indus and an old branch of the river, in the place called Mohanjo Daro. He found several curious seals of a kind which had long ago been recovered at Harappa in the Panjab, inscribed with signs which looked like letters. These had been eagerly studied by eminent epigraphists, but without success for a long time. I mention the name of the famous Czech professor Bedrich Hrozny, the man who succeeded in deciphering the Hittite Cuneiform script in Asia Minor.
Since 1964 a team of four Finnic scholars has made considerable progress in deciphering the enigmatic signs so as to state that the language must have been cognate to the Dravidian group. Since connections with the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Sumerian, which was flourishing about 2500 B.C., are beyond all doubt, this civilization must go back to the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. and is much older than that of the old Aryan invaders of India. It was also much superior.
One finds a headless statuette, which shows an artistic feeling and technique that seems to be inexplicable at such an early time. Another statuette is made of dark grey stone and represents a dancer, standing on his right leg, with the body turned to the left and the left leg raised. There seems to have been three heads and we may think of a prototype of the well-known dancing Shiwa. On a seal we have a god sitting on his haunches on a throne. On one side of him stands an elephant and a tiger, on the other a buffalo and a rhinoceros. Below the throne are two deers or harts. The god wears armrings and a high cap. Again we think of certain representations of Shiwa and we are no doubt justified to assume a continuation of a type of the Indus Civilization.
Then we have several examples of a female deity, with a high head-dress and often richly decorated. The breasts are dearly marked so that the sex is certain. Scholars have thought of the "Great Mother", who plays such a prominent role in so many religions. Beautiful they are not, these gods, but bearers of irresistable power, vitality and fertility, death and annihilation.
The symbol which we know so well from India, the male and the female organ, linga and yoni, respectively, are frequently met with in the Indus Civilization, as they still are at the present day. It is only at a later date that we find more goodlooking gods, after the ideal of human beauty had exercised its influence. As the Indians say: "What food man takes, that food his gods take", i.e. man creates his gods in his own image, because one and the same reality underlies man and gods.
In many representations we already meet the Indian humped bull, the zebu; we are reminded of the Brahmani bull which is sacred to Shiwa. Also, water seems to have had a religious significance. Beside bathrooms in private houses, a big bathing establishment has been dug out, which may have been used for sacred lustrations. We remember the ceremonial bathing in sacred wells and rivers in Modern India. Once we see a horned deity with long hair and arm rings standing between two branches of a tree, before which are a half-kneeling woman, raising her hands in adoration, and a man, carrying a a sickle shaped knife in his hand.
We evidently have to do with a tree deity, apparently residing in a Pipal, a tree viewed with reverence in India. Also the Svastika, the notorious emblem of the Nazis, which is found represented as turning both to the left and to the right, must have had some religious significance and is certainly pre-Aryan. So much for the Indus civilization, the oldest one in India, yet bearing such a striking similarity to Hinduism in its more recent developments.
Now we turn to the Aryans, ancestors of the present Aryan language speaking Indians (Hindi, Bengali), who invaded the country from the northwest through the passes of the Hindukush and the Suleiman mountains, settling first in Afghanistan and the Panjab, about 1500 B.C., (in the time of Moses). As for the historical relationship between the Indus and the Aryan civilization, it is very difficult to give a convincing answer. Although it would seem to be quite apparent that it must have been these Indo-European tribes who laid waste the almost one thousand-year-old Indus Civilization, there are serious objections to this view, one being that the adversaries pictured in the Rig Veda hardly have any similarity with the bearers of the Indus Civilization.
Immigrating from the northwest, the Aryan tribes in successive waves first overflowed the Panjab. They not only fought and subjected the aborigines but also made war upon each other. Like in any land populated by immigrants, we get the difference between "oldtimers" and "newcomers", the former having adapted themselves to the new environment in a great measure, the latter maintaining the traditions of the land of origin. Some say that in the Mahâbhârata, India's greatest epic, reminiscences of those times have been kept.
Culturally there was a great difference between the Aryans and the Indus Civilization. Whereas the latter constituted a typical urban society, with a large population, living in solid brick houses, with sewage, bathrooms, and so on, the former, the people of the RigVeda, led and existence as herdsmen; their settlements were villages. The Indus people did not know the horse, but in the Veda both the horse and the cow play a great role. It was by means of horse-drawn chariotry that the Aryans had gained the victory over the aborigines, the Dasyus, pictured as dark-coloured and pug-nosed persons.
We have to do with "primitive" (be careful in using this word, loaded as it is by the theory of evolutionism in anthropology and history of religions, stating that the most primitive stage of society necessarily must have been the original one) communities, who lived in immediate contact with nature, whose rhythmic course formed the center of the cultic festivals, where the people assembled together with their gods, in order to have their share in the annual revival of the good forces and the defeat of the evil ones.
The Aryans formed a unity based on common experience, common cult, and common cultic poetry, which endowed each individual with the force which within this warlike and war-loving society of conquerors, led to a feeling of buoyancy and cheer. High age, numerous children, thriving herds of cattle, riches and gold were what man aspired to, whether he was a cattlebreeder or a petty king who led his people in war and upheld justice in peace, or a priest, the clergyman, having at heart the interest and wellbeing of society.
If you ask me if it was wellbeing in a material or spiritual sense, I must answer, that, taking into consideration what man generally aspired to, no boundary line between the two can be drawn. In a way those Vedic Aryans were materialistic no less than present-day materialists, but it is their outlook upon life, imbued with religion as it was, that makes all the difference. They considered life under the impact of all sorts of supernatural forces and powers. Ignorant of that which we know about the inventions of modern science and technique, they applied a more "religious" approach of keeping a proper "control" on those powers. The care of and making provisions for life here on earth and in the great herafter, that is what religion was in the Vedic Age.
This period is called the Vedic Age after the Vedas. This extensive literature was handed down by oral tradition in the different schools from teacher to pupil, and even at the present day we find brahmans who know a whole text of a Veda by heart. So, this large literature has come into being without the use of writing. It seems incredible to us that something like this was possible, yet we should bear in mind that in suchlike ancient civilizations oral traditions were most highly valued and also that the disciples in the priest schools learned what they should make use of at the great sacrifices where the oral enunciation held the ground alone.
Correct and faultless recitation of the sacred words was so important because a single fault in pronunciation or accentuation could make the sacrifice useless or even downright harmful to the one who had it performed. The Indians considered the whole of this literature as sacred. It was not the product of human collaboration, but had existed from eternity and had been seen by ancient rishis and through them brought to the ken of men, who were allowed to hear it from their own mouth.
That is why "shruti", "what has been heard", is the ancient Indian designation of revelation. It is peculiar that the gods are not mentioned in this context. Apparently they do not play a part in the process of revelation; at least Vedas and Rishis are of greater importance than the gods. The later Brahmins trace their descent back to the rishis. On account of this relation, they were entitled to study the Vedas and contact the gods and the mysterious powers in the universe. For the Indian — quite otherwise than to us — there is not one God transcending the world and all that there is majestically, but quite a number of gods who are part of the universe.
Not every brahman ought to know the whole Veda or all the Vedas, for there are more than one. To confine myself to the first stage of this literature, the Samhitas, they gradually came to be considered as handbooks for all kinds of priests functioning at the sacrifice. The hotar summoned the gods through reciting the hymns of the RigVeda; the Udgatar sung or intonated the melodies of the Sama Veda under the preparation of the sacrifice; the Adhvaryu accompanied the execution of the sacrifice by murmuring the formulas of the Yajur-Veda; and the supervising Brahman made use of the stanzas from the AtharvaVeda, in order to ward off evil powers or harmful consequences of faults committed.
The Brahmans were required to place their knowledge at the service of the members the the second class, the nobility, the Kshatriyas, and these, the king and his warriors, along with the third class, composed of traders, artisans, merchants, cultivators, and cattle-breeders, the Vaishyas, in their turn were obliged to protect and to sustain the Brahmans. Besides these, there was a fourth class, the Shudras, servants and slaves, made up for the greater part of the original population, which was not allowed to participate in the blessings of the Vedic ritual.
People held the Brahmans in high esteem on account of their extraordinary power. The brahmans ranked with the gods and from some tales you get the impression that the gods ranked even lower than the brahmans. We learn of a god who sinned against a brahman and was at great pains to get rid of his guilt; he was helped by the women who took over his impurity and for that reason women would have their periods! A train of thought we cannot grasp, put a nice sample or what Indians call Logic!
The point of departure of their religion, i.e. of their outlook upon life, is the view that the wide universe is a composition of forces as well as an interplay of forces and powers. Those powers may give evidence of their presence in various manners: in some animals, as the ant or the cow; in a plant like the soma, the sap of which had an intoxicating effect on both men and gods, but also in the pressing stones used to get the sap, in the noise they made, in the voice of the priest reciting the Veda, or in the metre in which they were recited.
One who knows how to handle all those powers in the appropriate way, including the gods who are to be won over, contributes on his part to the maintenance and preservation of the world, and he himself profits by it first of all. On the other hand, one who is negligent in this respect shoulders a heavy responsibility and incurs the risk of being struck by an accident or a curse.
As for the "gods", they are not personifications of various natural forces as usually has been assumed. We do not find a god of the storm, or a god of the sun and so on. Rather the strongly felt sensations produced by nature inspired man in such a way that he thought that living beings could have evolved in the background of the natural impressions he had intensely experienced.
Of all gods Indra is the best invoked. The Indian word for "invoked": "huta" is etymologically at the base of the word "GOD" in the Germanic languages. Indra can be characterized as the real national god of the classes for whom the Rig Veda is the expression. He is a heavy drinker of Soma and as such gets strong enough to perform the valiant deeds he is praised for. More than any other deed his fight against Vritra is praised, the Serpent or dragon who encompassed the waters and shuts men off from the goods so necessary for their welfare.
Indra's great deed consisted in letting loose the waters that were kept back in the hills, and giving them free course, to the advantage and blessing of man, whose whole welfare depends on the water of the rivers and on the timely setting in of the rain. He was helped by another god, Vishnu who in three steps measured out the earthly spaces, the atmosphere and heaven, to make Indra achieve his goal. Vishnu, who at first was not in the center, was to become the most famous god of India later on. In performing his vigorous deeds Indra is often assisted by the Maruts, a host of respondent heroes representing the overwhelming violence of the hurricane, who are sometimes said to have been begotten by Vayu, the god of the wind.
Further we may mention Parjanya, god of the rain; Surya, the god of the sun, and Pushan, driving through the universe in a car drawn by goats. What makes his movements especially valuable to men is his intimate knowledge of the roads. He guards every path and removes the dangers connected with travelling; he follows the cattle on their way and helps to find lost beasts.
Ushas is the goddess of dawn, a resplendent young woman, rising from her bath and removing night's black robe, driving away bad dreams and the spirits of darkness. She stands in friendly relation to the two Ashwins, twins always driving in their three-wheeled golden car. The most prominent trait about these two gods is their helpfulness towards people in need. They are also famous physicians.
Agni, the fire (cf. Latin: ignis) is a god, but at the same time a mediator, for it is fire which receives the offerings and brings them to the gods. He became a favourite with the Brahmans, in whose eyes he is the sacrificing priest more than anybody else. The very first hymn of the first book of the Rig Veda is devoted to his praise.
Rudra, who plays a relatively modest role in the Rig Veda, later on as Shiwa, is to dominate the whole religious life in India; in contrast to Vishnu, Rudra has grown naturally out of the creating sphere of desolation of the jungle, from the mass of elements of dangers which are found out there. He spreads terror and desolation around himself, but people can invoke on his mercy as well or try to come to terms with him. For he who can bring disease is also able to cure it.
Varuna and Mitra are called guardians of Rta or rita, i.e. the norm or the law which the whole universe and all living beings must follow, and which ensures that all natural phenomena follow a regulated course, thus excluding that accidentality and incalculability which is so fatal to man. Rita is the base, the absolutely necessary foundation of all our doings and life. Rita thus, through a transition of ideas, is identified with what is real, true, and obtains as truth, an importance in man's life corresponding to that occupied by Norm and Regularity in Universe.
One may say that the two gods have a more ethical character. They take care that engagements are kept and promises not broken. Transgressions of the Law are punished by them on the transgressor. The ethical side is most apparent where individual man's relations to Varuna are spoken of; in his invocations he may hope for commiseration. Varuna is implored to tell what one's sin has been, and one prays to him to be delivered from sin. One has the feeling here of being on Biblical soil. Scholars were struck e.g. by the similarity between Psalm 139 and a hymn to Varuna.
However, do not be mistaken. The really heathen point is that truth and reality, as always in heathen religions, boil down to the same thing. It is not a transcendent God who sets the standard to man, but world-life, society-life which becomes a standard in itself, to which man has to adjust time and again. Then he will be free from sin. Finally, it is the cult or the liturgy of the Vedic offerings in which Rita prevails, in which man has a means or an instrument to have himself absolved.