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Brahmanic Religion

  Brahmanic religion (the religion practised and propagated by the Brahman caste) has been taken as normative Hinduism by scholars. The Sanskrit root brm from which the word Brahman is derived means ‘to grow’. When applied to Brahmans it probably refers to their assumed spiritual powers to enhance life, deal with the gods, and to practise medicine and astrology. A Brahman (popularly Brahmin) is one entrusted with the power of sacred utterance, for example the ritual words of sacrifice. Brahman is the Word, the utterance itself, then the first principle of the universe, and hence a wholly abstract concept of God: the World Soul. This idea crystallized into that of Brahma the Creator, the first deity of the Hindu ‘trinity’ of Brahma, Siva and Vishnu. He is rarely worshipped individually, but he is the ultimate deity. Both concepts are integral to Brahmanic religion. Brahman resides in the human soul and becomes it.

Brahmanic religion divides life into four stages or ashramas. After the name-giving, rice-giving and finally the thread-giving ceremonies as childhood progresses, the first stage of life is entered when a teenage boy announces his intention to go to Varanasi to study the scriptures. His parents implore him to stay, give him presents and make arrangements for study, traditionally with a guru or teacher. When he returns, he takes a ritual bath in another ceremony, and (unless he was betrothed from childhood) a bride is quickly sought. The second stage is as householder, the principle purpose of marriage being to maintain domestic sacrifices and to raise children. When the Brahman sees his children\'s children, he may retire, with or without his wife (as she wishes), first to the forest to meditate and finally, when a widower, to devote himself to asceticism and self-knowledge in preparation for death. At each stage he may put on the ochre-coloured robe of an ascetic and take a vow of celibacy to attain enlightenment more rapidly by austerities. Whichever pattern is followed, it is the way of knowledge, gnana marga. Women may also become nuns, or devotees of a particular guru, but generally they do not adopt an ascetic life until they are widowed grandmothers, no longer responsible for domestic arrangements at home. Nevertheless, there are some notable Brahman women saints and philosophers.

In addition to the theology of the Vedas and Upanishads, Brahmanic religion is shaped by the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, especially the teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita (‘Song of the Adorable One’). Vedic worship was usually conducted in the open air, but possibly after contact with the Greeks temple worship began and with it temple art. It is said that because of the ascetic tradition, the Brahmanic religion is world-denying. Although some doctrines, such as that of maya (‘illusion’, better translated as ‘transience’) may give that impression, in actual practice the three aims of life, as set down in scripture and the marriage ceremony, are dharma, arthi (‘wealth’) and karma (‘pleasure’). EMJ



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