Ancient India

A class far below even the pure Sudras is the Pariahs or outcasts; consisting of the refuse of all the other castes, and which, in process of time, has grown so large as to include, it is said, one-fifth of the population of Hindoostan. The Pariahs perform the meanest kinds of manual labor. This system of castes of which the Brahmins themselves, whom some suppose to have been originally a conquering race, are the architects, if not the founders - is bound up with the religion of the Hindoos. Indeed of the Hindoos, more truly than of any other people, it may be said that a knowledge of their religious system is a knowledge of the people themselves.

The Vedas, or ancient sacred books of the Hindoos, distinctly set forth the doctrine of the infinite and Eternal Supreme Being. According to the Vedas, there is one unknown, true Being, all present, all powerful, the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe.' This Supreme Being is not comprehensible by vision, or by any other of the organs of sense, nor can he be conceived by means of devotion or virtuous practices.' He is not space, nor air, nor light, nor atoms, nor soul, nor nature: he is above all these and the cause of them all. He has no feet, but extends everywhere; has no hands, but holds everything; has no eyes, yet sees all that is; has no ears, yet hears all that passes. His existence had no cause. He is the smallest of the small and the greatest of the great; and yet is, in fact neither small nor great.' Such is the doctrine of the Vedas in its purest and most abstract form; but the prevailing theology which runs through them is what is called Pantheism, or that system which speaks of God as the soul of the universe, or as the universe itself. Accordingly, the whole tone and language of the highest Hindoo philosophy is Pantheistic. As a rope, lying on the ground, and mistaken at first view for a snake, is the cause of the idea or conception of the snake which exists in the mind of the person looking at it, so, say the Vedas, is the Deity the cause of what we call the universe. ' In him the whole world is absorbed; from him it issues; he is entwined and interwoven with all creation.' ' All that exists is God: whatever we smell, or taste, or see, or hear, or feel, is the Supreme Being.'

This one incomprehensible Being, whom the Hindoos designate by the mystical names Om, Tut, and Jut, and sometimes also by the word Brahm, is declared by the Vedas to be the only proper object of worship. Only a very few persons of extraordinary gifts and virtues, however, are able, it is said, to adore the Supreme Being the great OM - directly. The great majority of mankind are neither so wise nor so holy as to be able to approach the Divine Being himself, and worship him. It being alleged that persons thus unfortunately disqualified for adoring the invisible Deity should employ their minds upon some visible thing, rather than to suffer them to remain idle, the Vedas direct them to worship a number of inferior deities, representing particular acts or qualities of the Supreme Being as, for instances, Crishnu or Vishnu, the god of preservation; Muhadev, the god of destruction; or the sun, or the air, or the sea, or the human understanding; or, in fact any object or thing which they may choose to represent as God. Seeing, say the Hindoos, that God pervades and animates the whole universe, everything, living or dead, may be considered a portion of God, and as such, it may be selected as an object of worship, provided always it be worshiped only as constituting a portion of the Divine Substance. In this way, whatever the eye looks on, or the mind can conceive, whether it be the sun in the heavens or the great river Ganges, or the crocodile on its banks, or the cow, or the fire kindled to cook food, or the Vedas, or a Brahmin, or a tree, or a serpent - all may be legitimately worshiped as a fragment, so to speak, of the Divine Spirit. Thus there may be many millions of gods to which Hindoos think themselves entitled to pay divine honours. The number of Hindoo gods is calculated at 330,000,000, or about three times the number of their worshipers.

Of these, the three principal deities of the Hindoos are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Seeb or Siva the destroyer. These three of course, were originally intended to represent the three great attributes of the Om or Invisible Supreme Being - namely, his creating, his preserving, and his destroying attributes. Indeed the name OM itself is a compound word, expressing the three ideas of creation, preservation, and destruction, all combined. The three together are called Trimurti, and there are certain occasions when the three are worshiped conjointly. There are also sculptured representations of the Trimurti, in which the busts of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva are cut out of the same mass of stone. One of these images of the Trimurti is found in the celebrated cavern temple of Elephanta, in the neighborhood of Bombay, perhaps the most wonderful remnant of ancient Indian architecture. Vishnu and Siva are more worshipped separately than Brahma - each having his body of devotees specially attached to him in particular.