« PreviousContinue »
to be near the meeting of two sacred rivers, for the performance of prescribed ablutions and ceremonies. A very ancient sacred poem, called The Mahabharata, contains the following description of a traveller in the forest approaching one of these holy places :-“ The distant cry of deer, the song of birds, the hum of bees, resounded gently in his ear, and conveyed to his soul an inexpressible feeling of calm happiness. Graceful trees bent under the weight of fruits and flowers. Their flexible branches balanced themselves to the breath of the breeze, which, in passing, took from them the sweetest fragrance, and spread it through the atmosphere. On the enamelled turf, troops of Gandharvas* and Asparas, + brilliant with youth, pursued each other in frolicksome play, gliding from space to space, as light shadows. He was bewildered with delight under the immense bowers of verdure, through which quivering rays of the sun penetrated with gentle light, and gave only warmth enough to temper the freshness of their deep shadows. Plunged in soothing reverie, his uncertain steps wandered toward a spot where all the beauties of the scene united. The river Malini rippled and played with many couples of brilliantly white swans, and on its borders he perceived a sacred grove, which he conjectured might be the retreat of some holy personage. This happy corner of the earth did in fact enclose a peaceful hermitage within its bosom."
These hermits, in obedience to the injunctions of Hindoo religion, imparted freely of all they had to men and animals. Thus their places of retreat came to be considered open asylums for the poor, and for travellers. The saints were gradually classified into different orders, bearing various names, indicating progressive degrees of sanctity; such as, “the dweller in the forest," "the man vowed to contemplation," " the man who has subdued himself," " the man who is absorbed into the Divine Soul.” The
• Musicians of the air, the Spirits of Singing Stars.
more a hermit was renowned for holiness, the greater number of disciples he attracted toward him; till in many places his solitary grotto, or hut, came to be surrounded by a small village of rude huts. Younger men, who sought him for instruction, were bound to treat him with unlimited reverence, and implicitly obey all his injunctions. Thus something resembling monasteries, or theological schools, was established in the forests of Hindostan, at a very remote period of antiquity. Seven of the most ancient of these hermits, peculiarly renowned for wisdom and holiness, transmitted their privileges to descendants, and thus became the germ of seven classes in an hereditary priesthood still existing under the name of Brahmins.
There were many hermits not vowed to their ascetic vocation for life. It was common for men who had committed crimes to retire into the forest for a certain number of months, or years, and undergo painful penances, to escape future punishment for their faults, and be restored to society with renovated character. Sometimes kings, who had been dethroned by conquest, or merchants who had lost their wealth, retired from the world and performed sacrifices to regain their lost fortune. This course was respected as pious and meritorious; but it was deemed a great sin for such men to represent themselves as belonging to the class of voluntary saints. They often became so attached to their secluded life, that they were reluctant to return to the world, when the period of their vow had expired. One of them is represented as thus bidding farewell to his retreat :-"Oh, mountain, perpetual asylum of holy hermits, who have given themselves up to the meditation of virtue, and the practice of pure works! Oh, king of mountains, rich in purifying streams, adieu! I have passed happy days upon thy heights. I have nourished myself with the delicious fruits thou hast produced, and have quenched my thirst with the clear waters that flow from thy summit. Oh, mountain pure from sin! Like unto a living child happy on the breast of his father, have I enjoyed myself upon thy bosom, peopled with groups
of Nymphs, and resounding with praises of Brahma."
The most spiritual portion of the Hindoo Sacred Books teach the existence of one invisible God, whom they call Brahm. They make no images of him, and build no temples for his worship. His name is never uttered by a pious Hindoo. None of their traditions represent him as incarnated in any form ; because they believe him to be entirely above human comprehension, and altogether incapable of the slightest change in his existence. Nature is the inferior, passive portion of him. “Brahm and Nature are one, as the soul and body of man are one. All things emanate from him, all is he, and all returns to him. As plants grow out of the earth and return to it again, so does everything in the universe emanate from this divine essence, subsist continually by it, and finally return to it."
This law of alternate emanation and absorption governs all things, from a musquito up to planets, and celestial Spirits. Their vast divisions of time, called Yugs, are founded on the apparent revolution of the fixed stars. Four of these Yugs, including millions of our years, form their Great Astronomical Year. When this period is completed, their Sacred Books declare that the god Siva, with ten Spirits of Dissolution, will roll a comet under the moon, set the earth on fire, and reduce it all to ashes.
After a time the elements will resume their order, and the world, restored to pristine beauty, will again pass through a similar succession of Yugs. One thousand of these great cycles form only a single day in the life of Brahma, the Creator, who was the first Spirit that emanated from Brahm. At the end of this long day, he falls asleep; and then not only this earth, but all things in the universe, dissolve into their original elements. His night is of the same immense duration as his day. When he wakes up the universe is renewed, to travel through a similar course, and again arrive at universal dissolution. Thirty such days make one month of Brahma; twelve months his year; a hundred such years his age; of which they assert fifty have already elapsed. When the other half of this destined term is completed, he himself will be again absorbed in Brahm; Matter will be totally annihilated, and the invisible Supreme Being, called Brahm, will alone exist. After another vast period there will commence a new series of emanations of gods, subordinate spirits, worlds, men, and inferior existences.
This idea of God in all things, and all things in God, is called Pantheism, from Greek words signifying God in All. When the mind is strongly impressed with this belief, and conscientiously acts upon it, the effect is great tenderness toward animals, and reverence for Nature; because the minutest form of being is regarded as a portion of Deity. Thus the Hindoo saint extends hospitality alike to friends and enemies. When he eats, he shares his food with whatever creature presents itself. He refrains from honey, from reluctance to deprive bees of their nourishment. He will not eat flesh, because he shrinks from causing the death of any animal. He avoids lighting & candle at night lest insects should be drawn into the flame; and he filters the water he drinks, lest he should incautiously swallow some creature. He will not even pluck fruit with violence, but eats only such as falls of itself, because in trees and bushes also he beholds living beings, portions of the Universal Soul.
They believe that all life, whether in essence or form, proceeds constantly from Brahm, through a variety of mediums. If any creature imagines for a moment that he has existence in himself, out of the Divinity, it is the effect of magical illusion, by which Brahma himself, for incomprehensible reasons, takes captive his senses.
The action of Brahm upon Nature, and upon human souls, is through a variety of Spirits, presiding over the planets, the elements, and all the forces of Nature. All, in the scale of being are emanations from him, in successive gradations. The highest of these emanations are Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver, and Siva, the Destroyer, who is likewise the Reproducer of forms. Brahma is represented in poetry, and in painted sculpture,
as a golden-coloured human figure, with three heads and four arms. He is never described as assuming the form of any of the inferior orders of beings, or as living upon the earth in a visible body. His name is held in exceeding reverence, and none but the Brahmins utter it. They make daily invocations to him, and sometimes offer him a flower. No sect of worshippers bears his name, and no temples or festivals are appropriated to him. This may be because his high rank inspires awe, and seems to carry him beyond the range of human sympathies; or it may be that his work as Creator being finished, mortals do not feel the need of his interference. He is represented as inhabiting a magnificent temple, called Dheira, near the Sea of Milk, in the upper celestial regions. Thither Vishnu, and other deities, repair in emergencies, to consult his oracle ; but the response becomes audible only after days of devotion and prayer. All seems to indicate that Brahma was the expression of a more spiritual idea, than the other deities.
Poets and sculptors represent Vishnu as a handsome young man of blue complexion, with four arms. One holds a shell, another a lotus blossom, another a mace, another a ring, which radiates a stream of light. He is clothed in yellow, with a jewelled crown, and a necklace of gems. When asleep, he floats on the surface of the ocean, cradled in the folds of the huge star-covered serpent Seshanaga, whose thousand heads serve him for a pillow. He has a multitude of names, and is represented in a great variety of ways. He seems much nearer to the human heart than Brahma; for his power and mercy are supposed to be constantly exerted to uphold the universe, to prevent calamity, and relieve distress. He is revered as a household god, and is invoked to avert family misfor. tunes, or to obtain blessings when about to occupy a new dwelling. He is believed to have been repeatedly incarnated on earth, for beneficent purposes. His beautiful wife Lacshmi on such occasions assumes a female form and accompanies him among mortals, till his mission is com