Ancient India

One of the great branches, we have said, of the Caucasian family of mankind was the Indo-Persian, which, spreading out in. the primeval times from the original seat of the Caucasian part of the human species, extended itself from the Caspian to the Bay of Bengal, where, coming into contact with the southern Mongolians, it gave rise, according to the most probable accounts, to those new mixed Caucasian-Mongolian races, the Malays of the Eastern Peninsula; and, by a still farther degeneracy, to the Papuas, or natives of the South Sea Islands. While thus shading off into the Mongolism of the Pacific, the Indo-Persian mass of our species was at the same time attaining maturity within itself; and as the first ripened fragment of the Mongolians had been the Chinese nation, so one of the first ripened fragments of the Indo-Persian branch of the Caucasians seems to have been the Indians. At what time the vast peninsula of Hindoostan could first boast a civilized population, it is impossible to say; all testimony, however, agrees in assigning to Indian civilization a most remote antiquity. Another fact seems also to be tolerably well authenticated regarding ancient India; namely, that the northern portions of it, and especially the north-western portions, which would be nearest the original Caucasian seat, were the first civilized; and that the civilizing influence spread thence southwards to Cape Comorin.

Notwithstanding this general conviction, that India was one of the first portions of the earth's surface that contained a civilized population, few facts in the ancient history of India are certainly known. We are told, indeed (to omit the myths of the Indian Bacchus and Hercules), of two great kingdom - those of Ayodha (Oude) and Prathisthana (Vitera) - as having existed in northern India upwards of a thousand years before Christ; of conquests in southern India, effected by the monarchs of these kingdoms; and of wars carried on between these monarchs and their western neighbors the Persians, after the latter had begun to be powerful. All these accounts, however, merely resolve themselves into the general information, that India , centuries before Christ, was an important member in the family of Asiatic nations; supplying articles to their commerce, and involved in their agitations. Accordingly, if we wish to form an idea of the condition of India prior to that great epoch in its history - its invasion by Alexander the Great, B.C. 326 we can only do so by reasoning back from that we know of its present condition, allowing for the modifying effects of the two thousand years which have intervened; and especially for the effects produced by the Mohammedan invasion, A. D. 1000. This, however, is the less difficult in the case of such a country as India, where the permanence of native institutions is so remarkable; and though we cannot hope to acquire a distinct notion of the territorial divisions, etc., of India in very ancient times, yet, by a study of the Hindoos as they are at present, we may furnish ourselves with a tolerably accurate idea of the nature of that ancient civilization which overspread Hindoostan many centuries before the birth of Christ, and this all the more probably that the notices which remain of the state of India at the time of the invasion of Alexander, correspond in many points with what is to be seen in India at the present day.

The population of Hindoostan, the area of which is estimated at about a million square miles, amounts to about 120,000,000; of whom about 100,000,000 are Hindoos or aborigines, the remainder being foreigners, either Asiatic or European. The most remarkable feature in Hindoo society is its division into castes. The Hindoos are divided into four great castes - the Brahmins, whose proper business is religion and philosophy; the Kshatriyas, who attend to war and government; the Vaisyas, whose duties are connected with commerce and agriculture; and the Sudras, or artisans and laborers. Of these four castes the Brahmins are the highest; but a broad line of distinction is drawn between the Sudras and the other three castes. The Brahmins may intermarry with the three inferior castes - the kshatriyas with the vaisyas and the Sudras; and the vaisyas with the Sudras; but no Sudra can choose a wife from either of the three superior castes. As a general rule, every person is required to follow the profession of the caste to which he belongs: thus the Brahmin is to lead a life of contemplation and study, subsisting on the contributions of the rich; the Kshatriya is to occupy himself in civil matters, or to pursue the profession of a soldier; and the Vaisya is to be a merchant or a farmer. In fact, however, the barriers of caste have in innumerable instances been broken down. The ramifications. too, of the caste system are infinite. Besides the four pure, there are numerous mixed castes, all with their prescribed ranks and occupations.

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.

Hindooism, like other Pantheistic systems, teaches the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: all creation, animate and inanimate, being, according to the Hindoo system, nothing else but the deity Brahm himself parceled out, as it were, into innumerable portions and forms (when these are reunited, the world will be at an end), just as a quantity of quicksilver may be broken up into innumerable little balls or globules, which all have a tendency to go together again. At long intervals of time, each extending over some thousand millions of years, Brahm does bring the world to an end, by reabsorbing it into his spirit. When, therefore, a man dies, his soul, according to the Hindoos, must either be absorbed immediately into the soul of Brahm, or it must pass through a series of transmigrations, waiting for the final absorption, which happens at the end of every universe, or at least until such time as it shall be prepared for being reunited. with the Infinite Spirit. The former of the two is, according to the Hindoos, the highest possible reward: to be absorbed into Brahm immediately upon death, and without having to undergo any farther purification, is the lot only of the greatest devotees. To attain this end, or at least to avoid degradation after death, the Hindoos, and especially the Brahmins, who are naturally the most intent upon their spiritual interests, practice a ritual of the most intricate and ascetic description, carrying religious ceremonies and antipathies with them into all the duties of life. So overburdened is the daily life of the Hindoos with superstitious observances with regard to food, sleep, etc., that, but for the speculative doctrines which the more elevated minds among the Brahmins may see recognised in their religion, the whole system of Hindooism might seem a wretched and grotesque polytheism.

A hundred millions of people professing this system, divided into castes as now, and carrying the Brahminical ritual into all the occupations of lazy life under the hot sun, and amid the exuberant vegetation of Hindoostan such was the people into which Alexander the Great carried his conquering arms; such, doubtless, they had been for ages before that period; and such did they remain, shut out from the view of the rest of the civilized world, and only communicating with it by means of spices, ivory. etc., which found their way through Arabia or the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, till Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and brought Europe and India into closer connection. Meanwhile a Mohammedan invasion had taken place (A.D. 1000); Mohammedans from Persia had mingled themselves with the Hindoos; and it was with this mixed population that British enterprise eventually came into collision.

Ere quitting the Indians, it is well to glance back at the Chinese, so as to see wherein these two primeval and contemporaneous consolidations of our species - the Mongolian consolidation of eastern Asia, and the Caucasian consolidation of the central peninsula of southern Asia - differ. 'Whoever would perceive the full physical and moral difference,' says Klaproth, between the Chinese and Indian nations, must contrast the peculiar culture of the Chinese with that of the Hindoo, fashioned almost like a European, even to his complexion. He will study the boundless religious system of the Brahmins, and oppose it to the bald belief of the original Chinese, which can hardly be named religion. He will remark the rigorous division of the Hindoos into castes, sects, and denominations, for which the inhabitants of the central kingdom have even no expression. He will compare the dry prosaic spirit of the Chinese with the high poetic souls of the dwellers on the Ganges and the Dsumnah. He will hear the rich and blooming Sanscrit, and contrast it with the unharmonious speech of the Chinese. He will mark, finally, the literature of the latter, full of matters of fact and things worth knowing, as contrasted with the limitless philosophic-ascetic writing of the Indians, who have made even the highest poetry wearisome by perpetual length.'