Sacred Texts  Hinduism  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 91

The Heritage of the Brâhmans


p. 92

p. 93

The Heritage of the Brâhmans

IT is said that long ago, in the childhood of the world, the senses were so fine that we could hear the growing of the grass, the rustling of the opening buds of spring. By a memory of these early senses, by the faint remnant of them that the long ages in their passage have left us, we can hear now the faint stirring of the opening buds of a new spring of intellectual life, a new period in the spiritual thought of the world; and the key-note of this new period is the East, the wisdom of the East, the thought and ideals of the East.

Not merely or necessarily the East in latitude, but rather the Eastern side of man--that East in the soul of every man where the sun rises, where the light of intuition opens its first dawning rays, and, "rising, guides the lesser lives among its rays." And yet the East in latitude gives the key-note to the new dawn of thought in a special sense too. For it was in the East, and, more than all, in India, "mother of nations, that the eastern part of man where the sun rises found its best development; that the interior light of the soul found its fullest recognition.

And it is only natural that the minds of men, feeling the first gleam of dawning day, should turn towards the East; that they should grow enthusiastic for the Lands of the East, and, more than all, for India: that India should occupy an ever-widening space on the horizon of their thoughts; that their hearts should more and more turn towards India.

p. 94

This growing interest and enthusiasm for India--an enthusiasm at first almost instinctive, but gradually quickened by advancing knowledge--is especially felt today in the two most idealistic nations in the West, the Americans and the Germans. For with all their sense of practical life and practical development, the Americans and Germans are at heart idealists; ready to sacrifice all their practical aims and practical accomplishment to a vision; ready, as Emerson said, to leave Cleopatra and the army, to seek the sources of the Nile.

The deepest curiosity of the Americans and Germans, turning towards India, unquestionably centers on the Brâhmans; one bears again and again the words--the wisdom of the Brâhmans, the ideal of the Brâhmans, the life of the Brâhmans; and the first question one is always asked refers to the Brâhman order. To answer this question, it would be necessary to write many volumes; to trace the rise of the Brâhman order in the dim twilight of Vedic days; to show the growth and consolidation of their power in the days of Râma, and through the struggles of the great war of the PÂṆḌU and KURU princes; to point to certain dark sides of their development that had become visible in Buddha's days; and at last to fill in the splendid picture of Brâhmanic advance and Brâhmanic development in Śankarâchârya's days.

When the records of the monasteries of Southern India are more fully known and understood, when the Smârta Brâhmans who have preserved most clearly the splendid tradition of Śankara relax a little their reserve,

p. 95

we shall--it can hardly be doubted--have a picture of that great man and his times as perfect and full of color as the picture we have of Plato's times, and the thought of Plato who, more than any other philosopher, resembles Śankara.

What we know of Śankara already, though only a tithe of what we may know when old records are opened, is enough to give him a place amongst the choicest spiritual aristocracy of the world, as a seer and thinker who towered above his race as Plato towered above the Greeks; as a Great Man, an elder brother of the race, whose thought and insight mark a high tide of human life.

There is a dim tradition, in the oldest Indian books, in the great Upanishads, and the earlier Vedic hymns, that the Brâhmans were not in the beginning the spiritual teachers of India; that they received their earliest wisdom from the Royal Sages of the Râjanya or Kshattriya race. But the Brâhmans have so long held these treasures of wisdom as their own--guarding them as a mother her child, as a man his first-born--that they have come to consider them as their very own; their heritage rather by birth than by adoption. The fact that, in spite of this jealous love of their darling treasures, they have preserved the tradition of their earliest Royal Teachers, points to the most valued feature in the Brâhmans' character;--the unflinching, unalterable fidelity with which they have preserved, unaltered and inviolate, the spiritual treasures committed to their care; and the safe-guarding of which through the ages forms their truest and greatest title of fame;

p. 96

the best justification for that instinctive turning towards the Brâhmans as the center and representative of Indian genius, which we have noted as so marked a feature of the Indian Renaissance today.

But once the Brâhmans had received the wisdom-doctrines from their Royal Teachers, their distinctive genius, their most valued quality, began to assert itself. With their unparalleled genius for order, their instinctive feeling for preservation, they recorded, classified and developed the intuitive wisdom of the Royal Sages--Buddha, a Royal Sage of far later days, has put on record this unparalleled fidelity: "those ancient Rishis of the Brâhmans, versed in the Three Wisdoms, the authors of the verses, the utterers of the verses, whose ancient form of words so chanted, uttered, or composed, the Brâhmans of today chant over again and repeat; intoning or reciting, exactly as has been intoned or recited."--(Tevigga Sutta).

That Krishna, the spiritual hero of the Mahâbhârata war, whose mission it was to usher in the Iron Age of Kali Yuga, was no Brâhman but a Kshattriya, who traced his doctrines from Manu the Kshattriya through the Royal Sages, is enough to show that in the days of the great war, the Brâhmans had not yet claimed as quite their own the teachings of wisdom which it was their mission to hand down through the ages. (Bhagavad-Gîtâ, iv).

The great war, according to Indian tradition, was fought out five thousand years ago. And, after the great war, in which so many Kshattriya princes fell, the keeping of the Sacred records began to pass completely

p. 97

into the hands of the Brâhmans. The Brâhmans, sensible of their great mission, prepared themselves to carry it out by forming a high ideal of life; by strict rules of conduct and discipline which only the highest characters could support; and the very strictness of which seems to have produced a reaction which we see traces of in Buddha's days.

The life of the Brâhman was conceived and moulded in accordance with his high ideal; in accordance with his high destiny as transmitter of the wisdom of the Golden Age across the centuries to our dark iron days. Purity, unworldliness, and discipline were the key-notes of his life; and the Brâhman's unparalleled genius for order gradually moulded this ideal into a set of definite rules, a series of religious ceremonies, which laid hold on his life before he saw the light of day, and did not loose that hold when his body vanished among the red embers of the funeral pyre--but rather kept in touch with him, through the Śraddha offering to the shades for nine generations after his death.

This life of ceremonies and rites, the key-note of which was the acquiring and transmission of the Three Wisdoms spoken of by Buddha, gradually made of the Brâhman order a treasure-box or casket for the safer keeping of the holy records handed down. Whether the Brâhmans were originally of the fair, almost white race which forms their nucleus today, and whose distinctive physical character and color make a Brâhman of pure type at once recognizable in an assemblage of Hindus, is a question difficult to solve. We find in the oldest Indian books that: "The color of the Brâhman

p. 98

is white," and this, in later days became a sentence symbolical of their ideal of purity; but in the beginning it may have been a description of their color, an index of their race.

It is very probable that this fair, almost white race, which now forms the nucleus of the Brâhman order, gradually became, through selective genius, through their unequalled instinct of order, the recognized repository and transmitter of the sacred records of the past. But the ideal life of the Brâhman was, perhaps, too arduous for the common lot of man; at any rate we see a gradually increasing tendency to degeneration in one side of the Brâhman's life; for in India as in other lands, even silver clouds have their dark linings.

Their instinct for order, among the Brâhmans of lesser moral structure than the high ideal of their race, became an instinct for ceremonial; their ideal of purity became a habit of outward purification; and they tended to harden into an exclusive priestly caste, with drawn from, and above the common life of man. The priestcraft, by a second step, began to weave ambitions, to seek a share of political power, and at last, a practical predominance in the state, which threatened to become a spiritual tyranny.

But these developments, inseparable from the weakness of human life, were but the rusting of the outer layer of the casket in which the wisdom of the Golden Age was handed down. There were also within the Brâhman order--as there are today--men who held to the high ideal of their past; who were fitting repositories of the high tradition they were destined to

p. 99

carry down. The casket in which were held the records of the past had always its lining of precious metal, though the outside might rust and tarnish with the passing ages.

The greatest of these followers of that high idea, in later days, within the Brâhman caste, was Śankarâchârya, the Brâhman Sage of Southern India. It is hard to say, with certainty, when Śankara lived; but the records of Śringiri, where his successors have held rule over the nucleus of the Brâhman order, point to a period about two millenniums ago; a period, that is, just outside the threshold of our era.

Śankarâchârya began the work of reforming the Brâhman caste from within. A few centuries before him, Buddha had scattered broadcast through India, and Buddha's followers had scattered broadcast through the world, the teachings of India's Golden Days, in a form readily intelligible for all, and to be assimilated by the simplest mind of man.

It remained to do for India, what, perhaps, others were doing, across the Himalayas, for the whole world; to preserve inviolate, and transmit in its purity that other side of wisdom which the simplest heart of man can intuitively feel; but which only the most perfectly developed powers, the most fully expanded intellect and spiritual insight can fully and consciously grasp; it remained to secure the preservation of those profounder truths and that deeper knowledge which only the finest powers of the soul can adequately comprehend.

To secure their preservation in India was the duty

p. 100

and mission of Śankarâchârya. Believing that this preservation should be helped and seconded by whatever aids selective race genius and hereditary capacity could give, he confined the transmission of this wisdom, and of the records which contained it, entirely within the Brâhman order, as far as our knowledge goes. There is evidence that, among the Brâhmans of Southern India in early days, were a certain number of families not belonging to that white race which forms the nucleus of the Brâhman caste; but belonging to the dark, almost black Dravidian peoples of Southern India, who are the survivors, perhaps, of a land that once lay to the south of India, but has now vanished beneath the waves. This dark Dravidian race has produced many men of remarkable genius and power, whose insight and force quite fitted them for inclusion in the Brâhman order.

But as the centuries moved on, such admission became more difficult; till, in the days of Śankara, it is probable that the door was completely closed. What changes Śankara made in the Brâhman order which followed him, in the division of the Brâhmans which recognized his transcendent force, can only be known with surety to the Brâhmans of that order themselves. But this much we know, that Śankara did all his overpowering genius could accomplish to turn the Brâhmans from too exclusive following after ceremonial; to lead them back to the spiritual wisdom, the recognition of the inner light of the soul, which was India's greatest heritage; and that, taking India's most precious records, the Great Upanishads, he rendered them into the thought

p. 101

and language of his own day, and did all that a marvelous insight and a literary style of wonderful lucidity could do to make the spirit and the genius of the Upanishads live once more in the hearts of the Brâhmans of his time.

He set himself, above all, to cleanse the inner lining of the casket where India's treasures lay concealed; to remove every speck from the precious metal whose perfect purity alone could guarantee the costly contents against rust and moth. The reforms inaugurated by Śankarâchârya continue to bear fruit today; the new light he shed on the old records, the new insight he gave to the old symbols, are the treasured inheritance of the Smârta Brâhmans, whose spiritual heads, in unbroken succession, have ruled at Śringiri Math, in the mountains of Northern India.

Centuries passed, and the sunlit plains of India were filled with Moslem invaders, falling like swarms of locusts on the rich gardens of that distant wonderland; full of the fierce hostility of fanaticism against the symbols of a religion they did not understand; and against the Brâhmans, as ministers of this religion. It would not be wonderful, it would rather be perfectly natural, if this hostility and predominance of a foreign fanatical power had sealed the lips of the Brâhmans once for all as to the mysteries of their religion; had locked and double-locked the casket in which the heritage of India lay concealed.

But in spite of tyranny and fanaticism that would have justified the most perfect reticence, the most absolute silence, the Brâhmans retained an ideal of their

p. 102

universal mission, above and beyond their mission to their own land and their own religion. No sooner did brighter days dawn for them under the Emperor Akbar, the great Indian monarch of the sixteenth century who conceived and framed a high ideal of religious tolerance and mutual understanding which was the nearest approach to State Theosophy; no sooner did the brighter day dawn than the Brâhmans were ready to forget old griefs and to teach their Moslem rulers the broad principles of their religion.

Two generations after Akbar, Akbar's noblest and most ill-fated descendant, Prince Dara Shukoh, received from the Brâhmans the permission to translate into Persian a series of the Upanishads, including the Great Upanishads of which something has been already said. This Persian translation, besides following the words of the old records, put into visible form much that had been hidden between the lines, and followed, in some degree, the new light that had been shed on the Upanishads by the genius of Śankarâchârya.

This Persian translation of the Upanishads, which embodies a very valuable tradition of their hidden meaning, made about the year 1640, was found by Anquetil Duperron in 1775, and by him translated into Latin. From Anquetil Duperron this "Key to the Indian Sanctuary" passed to Schopenhauer, and becoming "the comfort of his life, the comfort of his death" led him to prophesy that Indian Renaissance which is glowing with the fair colors of dawn today.

But under Dara Shukoh's brother, the fanatical Aurungzeb, darker days fell upon the Brâhmans; and

p. 103

they suffered much from European nations more presumptuous and not less fanatical than Aurungzeb; of these the darkest record clings to the Portuguese, who tried to wring from the Brâhmans the heart of their mystery by Inquisition and auto-da-fé.

Yet, once more, just a hundred years ago when a group of Europeans full of love for the East, sought from the Brâhmans some knowledge of their learning, the Brâhmans, with singular generosity, made these Europeans in some degree sharers in their heritage. From the knowledge thus freely given to these Europeans, whose chiefs were William Jones and Thomas Colebrooke, the first foundations of Orientalism were laid; and a field of matchless fertility was opened to a growing band of workers who enrolled themselves under the banner of the East.

But the last and finest insight, the master-key to the records was still treasured in the East itself; somewhat of that insight has since been freely offered to us; on our ability to use it most probably depends the further insight that the future holds in promise.

Next: The Awakening to the Self