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Chapter 4 – Religion

The religion taught in the Institutes is derived from the Vedas, to which scriptures they refer in every page.

The Vedas

There are four Vedas; but the fourth is rejected by many of the learned Hindus, and the number reduced to three. Each Veda is composed of two, or perhaps of three, parts. The first224 consists of hymns and prayers; the second part225, of precepts which inculcate religious duties, and of arguments relating to theology226. Some of these last are embodied in separate tracts, which are sometimes inserted in the second part above-mentioned, and sometimes are in a detached collection, forming a third part227.

Every Veda likewise contains a treatise explaining the adjustment of the calendar, for the purpose of fixing the proper period for the performance of each of the duties enjoined.

The Vedas are not single works, but produced by different authors, whose names (in the case of hymns and prayers, at least) are attached to them. They were probably written at different periods;

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but were compiled in their present form in the 14th century before Christ228.

They are written in an ancient form of the Shanscrit, so different from that now in use that none but the more learned of the Bramins themselves can understand them. Only a small portion of them has been translated into European languages; and although we possess a summary of their contents (by a writer whose judgment and fidelity may be entirely depended on229), sufficient to give us a clear notion of the general scope of their doctrines, yet it does not enable us to speak with confidence of particulars, or to assert that no allusion whatever is made in any part of them to this or that portion of the legends or opinions which constitute the body of the modern Hindu faith.


The primary doctrine of the Vedas is the Unity of God. “There is in truth,” say repeated texts, “but one Deity, the Supreme Spirit, the Lord of the Universe, whose work is the universe.”230

Among the creatures of the Supreme Being are

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some superior to man, who should be adored, and from whom protection and favours may be obtained through prayer. The most frequently mentioned of these are the gods of the elements, the stars, and the planets; but other personified powers and virtues likewise appear.The three principal manifestations of the Divinity (Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva), with other personified attributes and energies, and most of the other gods of Hindu mythology, are indeed mentioned, or at least indicated, in the Veda; but the worship of deified heroes is no part of the system231.”

Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva are rarely named, enjoy no pre-eminence, nor are they ever objects of special adoration232; and Mr. Colebrooke could discover no passage in which their incarnations were suggested.

There seem to have been no images and no visible types of the objects of worship233.

Religion of Menu

The doctrine of monotheism prevails throughout the Institutes; and it is declared towards the close that, of all duties,the principal is to obtain from the Upanishad a true knowledge of one supreme God234.”

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But although Menu has preserved the idea of the unity of God, his opinions on the nature and operations of the Divinity have fallen off from the purity of their original, and have injudiciously mingled the popular and philosophical systems.


This is chiefly apparent in his account of the creation. There are passages in the Vedas which declare that God isthe material, as well as the efficient, cause of the universe; the potter by whom the fictile vase is formed; the clay out of which it is fabricated:” yet those best qualified to interpret conceive that these expressions are not to be taken literally, and mean no more than to assert the origin of all things from the same first cause.

The general tendency of the Vedas is to show that the substance as well as the form of all created beings was derived from the will of the Self-existing Cause235.

The Institutes, on the contrary, though not very distinct, appear to regard the universe as formed from the substance of the Creator, and to have a vague notion of the eternal existence of matter as part of the divine substance. According to them, “the Self-existing Power, himself undiscerned, but making this world discernible, with five elements and other principles, appeared with undiminished glory dispelling the gloom.”

“He, having willed to produce various beings from his own divine substance, first with a thought

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created the waters, and placed in them a productive seed236.”

From this seed sprung the mundane egg, in which the Supreme Being was himself born in the form of Brahma.

By similar mythological processes, he, under the form of Brahma, produced the heavens and earth, and the human soul; and to all creatures he gave distinct names and distinct occupations.

He likewise created the deities “with divine attributes and pure souls,” and “inferior genii exquisitely delicate237.”

This whole creation only endures for a certain period; when that expires, the divine energy is withdrawn, Brahma is absorbed in the supreme essence, and the whole system fades away238.

These extinctions of creation, with corresponding revivals, occur periodically, at terms of prodigious length239.

Inferior deities

The inferior deities are representatives of the elements, as Indra, air; Agni, fire; Varima, water; Prithivi, earth: or of heavenly bodies, Surya, the sun; Chandra, the moon; Vrispati and other planets: or of abstract ideas, as Dherma, God of Justice; Dhanwantara, God of Medicine240. None of the heroes who are omitted in the Veda, but who now fill so prominent a part in the Hindu Pantheon (Rama, Crishna, &c), are ever alluded to.

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Even the deities of which these are incarnations are never noticed. Brahma is more than once named, but Vishnu and Siva never. These three forms of the Divinity occupy no conspicuous place among the deities of the Vedas; and their mystical union or triad is never hinted at in Menu, or probably in the Vedas. The three forms, into some one of which all other deities are there said to be resolvable, are fire, air, and the sun241.


Altogether distinct from the gods are good and evil genii, who are noticed in the creation rather among the animals than the divinities. “Benevolent genii, fierce giants, bloodthirsty savages, heavenly choristers, nymphs and demons, huge serpents and birds of mighty wing, and separate companies of Pitris, or progenitors of mankind242.”


Man is endowed with two internal spirits, the vital soul, which gives motion to the body, and the rational, which is the seat of passions and good and bad qualities; and both these souls, though independent existences, are connected with the divine essence which pervades all beings243.

It is the vital soul which expiates the sins of the man. It is subjected to torments for periods proportioned to its offences, and is then sent to transmigrate through men and animals, and even plants; the mansion being the lower the greater has been its guilt, until at length it has been purified by

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suffering and humiliations, is again united to its more pure associates244, and again commences a IV. career which may lead to eternal bliss.

God endowed man from his creation with “consciousness, the internal monitor245;” andmade a total difference between right and wrong,” as well as between pleasure and pain, and other opposite pairs246.

He then produced the Vedas for the due performance of the sacrifice ordained from the beginning. But it does not seem necessary to enter further into the metaphysical part of the work of Menu.

The practical part of religion may be divided into ritual and moral.

Ritual observances

The ritual branch occupies too great a portion of the Hindu Code, but not to the exclusion of the moral.

There are religious ceremonies during the pregnancy of the mother, at the birth of the child, and on various subsequent occasions, the principal of which is the shaving of his head, all but one lock, at the first or third year247. But by far the most important ceremonial is the investiture with the sacred thread, which must not be delayed beyond sixteen for a Bramin, or twenty-four for a merchant248. This great ceremony is called the second birth, and procures for the three classes who are

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admitted to it the title oftwice-born men,” by which they are always distinguished throughout the Code. It is on this occasion that the persons invested are taught the mysterious word om, and the gayatri, which is the most holy verse of the Vedas, which is enjoined in innumerable parts of the Code to be repeated either as devotion or expiation; and which, indeed, joined to universal benevolence, may raise a man to beatitude without the aid of any other religious exercise249. This mysterious text, though it is now confined to the Bramins, and is no longer so easy to learn, has been well ascertained by learned Europeans, and is thus translated by Mr. Colebrooke250: “Let us meditate the adorable light of the Divine Ruler; may it guide our intellects.”

From fuller forms of the same verse, it is evident that the light alluded to is the Supreme Creator, though it might also appear to mean the sun.

It is not easy to see on what its superior sanctity is founded, unless it may at one time have communicated, though in ambiguous language, the secret of the real nature of God to the initiated, when the material sun was the popular object of worship251.

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Every Bramin, and, perhaps, every twice-born man, must bathe daily; must pray at morning and evening twilight, in some unfrequented place near pure water252; and must daily perform five sacraments, viz., studying the Veda; making oblations to the manes and to fire in honour of the deities; giving rice to living creatures; and receiving guests with honour253.

The gods are worshipped by burnt-offerings of clarified butter, and libations of the juice of the moon plant, at which ceremonies they are invoked by name; but although idols are mentioned, and in one place desired to be respected254, yet the adoration of them is never noticed but with disapprobation; nor is the present practice of offering perfumes and flowers to them ever alluded to. The oblations enjoined are to be offered by Bramins at their domestic fire, and the other ceremonies performed by themselves in their own houses255.

Most of the other sacraments are easily dispatched, but the reading of the Vedas is a serious task.

They must be read distinctly and aloud, with a calm mind and in a respectful posture. The reading

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is liable to be interrupted by many omens, and must be suspended likewise on the occurrence of various contingencies which, by disturbing the mind, may render it unfit for such an occupation. Wind, rain, thunder, earthquakes, meteors, eclipses, the howling of jackalls, and many other incidents, are of the first description: the prohibition against reading where lutes sound or where arrows whistle, when a town is beset by robbers, or when terrors have been excited by strange phenomena, clearly refers to the second256.

The last sacrament, that of hospitality to guests, is treated at length, and contains precepts of politeness and self-denial which would be very pleasing if they were not so much restricted to Bramins entertaining men of their own class257.

Besides the daily oblations, there are monthly obsequies to the manes of each man’s ancestors. These are to be performed “in empty glades, naturally clean, or on the banks of rivers and in solitary spots.” The sacrificer is there to burn certain offerings, and with many ceremonies to set down cakes of rice and clarified butter, invoking the manes to come and partake of them.

He is afterwards to feast a small number of Bramins (not however his usual friends or guests). He is to serve them with respect, and they are to eat in silence.

“ Departed ancestors, no doubt, are attendant

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on such invited Bramins, hovering around them like pure spirits, and sitting by them when they are seated258.”

No obsequies are to be performed for persons of disreputable or criminal life, or for those who illegally kill themselves259; but, on the other hand, there is a striking ceremony by which a great offender is renounced by his family, his obsequies being solemnly performed by them while he is yet alive. In the event of repentance and expiation, however, he can by another ceremony be restored to his family and to civil life260.

Innumerable are the articles of food from which A twice-born man must abstain; some for plain reasons, as carnivorous birds, tame hogs, and other animals whose appearance or way of living is disgusting; but others are so arbitrarily fixed, that a cock, a mushroom, a leek, or an onion, occasions immediate loss of cast261; while hedgehogs, porcupines, lizards, and tortoises are expressly declared to be lawful food. A Bramin is forbidden, under severe penalties, to eat the food of a hunter or a dishonest man, a worker in gold or in cane, or a washer of clothes, or a dyer. The cruelty of a hunter’s trade may join him, in the eyes of a Bramin, to a dishonest man; but, among many other arbitrary proscriptions, one is surprised to find a physician262, and to observe that this learned and

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beneficent profession is always classed with those which are most impure.

What chiefly surprises us is to find most sorts of flesh permitted to Bramins263, and even that of oxen particularly enjoined on solemn festivals264.

Bramins must not, indeed, eat flesh, unless at a sacrifice; but sacrifices, as has been seen, are among the daily sacraments; and rice pudding, bread, and many other things equally innocent, are included in the very same prohibition265.

It is true that humanity to animals is every where most strongly inculcated, and that abstaining from animal food is declared to be very meritorious, from its tendency to diminish their sufferings; but, though the use of it is dissuaded on these grounds266, it is never once forbidden or hinted at as impure, and is in many places positively declared lawful267.

The permission to eat beef is the more remarkable, as the cow seems to have been as holy in those days as she is now. Saving the life of a cow was considered to atone for the murder of a Bramin268; killing one required to be expiated by three months’ austerities and servile attendance on a herd of cattle269.

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Besides these restraints on eating, a Bramin is subjected to a multitude of minute regulations relating to the most ordinary occupations of life, the transgressing of any of which is nevertheless to be considered as a sin.

More than half of one book of the Code is filled with rules about purification.

The commonest cause of impurity is the death of a relation; and this, if he is near, lasts for ten days with a Bramin, and for a month with a Sudra. An infinity of contacts and other circumstances also pollute a man, and he is only purified by bathing, and other ceremonies, much too tedious to enumerate270. Some exceptions from these rules show a good sense which might not have been expected from the framers. A King can never be impure, nor those whom he wishes to be freed from this impediment to business. The hand of an artist employed in his trade is always pure; and so is every commodity when exposed to sale. The relations of a soldier slain in battle are not impure; and a soldier himself, who falls in the discharge of his duty, performs the highest of sacrifices, and is instantly freed from all impurities271. Of all pure things, none impart that quality better than purity in acquiring wealth, forgiveness of injuries, liberality, and devotion272.

Penances, as employed by the Hindus, hold a middle place between the ritual and moral branches

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of religion. They help to deter from crimes, but they are equally employed against breaches of religious form; and their application is at all times so irregular and arbitrary as to prevent their being so effectual as they should be in contributing to the well-being of society.

Drinking spirits is classed in the first degree of crime. Performing sacrifices to destroy the innocent only falls under the third.

Under the same penance with some real offences come giving pain to a Bramin and “smelling things not fit to be smelled273.”

Some penances would, if compulsory, be punishments of the most atrocious cruelty. They are sufficiently absurd when left, as they are, to the will of the offenders, to be employed in averting exclusion from society in this world or retribution in the next. For incest with the wife of a father, natural or spiritual, or with a sister, connection with a child under the age of puberty, or with a woman of the lowest class, the penance is death by burning on an iron bed, or embracing a red-hot metal image274. For drinking spirits the penance is death by drinking the boiling hot urine of a cow275.

The other expiations are mostly made by fines and austerities. The fines are almost always in cattle to be given to Bramins, some as high as a bull and 1000 cows.

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They, also, are oddly enough proportioned: for killing a snake a Bramin must give a hoe; for killing an eunuch, a load of rice straw.

Saying “hush” or “pish” to a superior, or overpowering a Bramin in argument, involve each a slight penance. Killing insects, and even cutting down plants and grass (if not for a useful purpose), require a penance; since plants also are supposed to be endued with feeling276.

One passage about expiation is characteristic in many ways.A priest who should retain in his memory the whole Rig Veda would be absolved from all guilt, even if he had slain the inhabitants of the three worlds, and had eaten food from the foulest hands277.”

Some of the penances, as well as some of the punishments under the criminal law, relate to pollutions which imply great corruption of manners in the people, or great impurity in the imagination of the lawgiver278; but they probably originate in the same perverted ingenuity which appears in some of the European casuists.

Others are of a more pleasing character, and tend to lessen our impression of the force of superstition even among the Bramins. A man who spends his money in gifts, even for his spiritual benefit, incurs misery hereafter if he have left his family in want279. Every man who has performed

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penance is legally restored to society; but all should avoid the communion of those whose offences were in themselves atrocious, among which are reckoned killing a suppliant and injuring a benefactor280.

Moral effect

The effect of the religion of Menu on morals is, indeed, generally good. The essential distinction between right and wrong, it has been seen, is strongly marked at the outset, and is in general well preserved. The well-known passages relating to false evidence, one or two where the property of another may be appropriated for the purposes of sacrifice281, and some laxity in the means by which a King may detect and seize offenders282, are the only exceptions I recollect.

On the other hand, there are numerous injunctions to justice, truth, and virtue; and many are the evils, both in this world and the next, which are said to follow from vicious conduct. The upright man need not be cast down though oppressed with penury, whilethe unjust man attains no felicity, nor he whose wealth proceeds from false evidence283.

The moral duties are in one place distinctly declared to be superior to the ceremonial ones284. The punishments of a future state are as much directed against the offences which disturb society as against sins affecting religion.

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One maxim, however, on this subject, is of a less laudable tendency; for it declares that the men who receive from the government the punishment due to their crimes go pure to heaven, and become as clean as those who have done well285.

It may be observed, in conclusion, that the morality thus enjoined by the law was not, as now, Sapped by the example of fabled gods, or by the debauchery permitted in the religious ceremonies of certain sects.

From many passages cited in different places, it has been shown that the Code is not by any means deficient in generous maxims or in elevated sentiments; but the general tendency of the Bramin morality is rather towards innocence than active virtue, and its main objects are to enjoy tranquillity, and to prevent pain or evil to any sentient being.


224. Called Mantra.

225. Brahmans.

226. Colebrooke, Asiatic Researches, vol. viii. p. 387.

227. Upanishad.

228. See Appendix I.

229. Mr. Colebrooke, Asiatic Researches, vol. viii. p. 369.

230. Professor Wilson, Oxford Lectures, p. 11. The following view of the divine character, as presented in the Vedas, is given by a learned Bramin, quoted by Sir William Jones:– “Perfect truth; perfect happiness; without equal; immortal; absolute unity; whom neither speech can describe nor mind comprehend; all-pervading; all-transcending; delighted with his own boundless intelligence; not limited by space or time; without feet, moving swiftly; without hands, grasping all worlds; without eyes, all-surveying; without ears, all-hearing; without an intelligent guide, understanding all; without cause; the first of all causes; all-ruling; all-powerful; the creator, preserver, transformer of all things: such is the Great One.” – SIR W. JONES’S Works, vol. vi. p. 418.

231. Colebrooke on the Vedas, Asiatic Researches, vol. viii. p. 494.

232. Professor Wilson, Oxford Lectures, p. 12.

233. Ibid. p. 12. See also Preface to the Vishnu Purina, p. ii.

234. Chap. XII. 85.

235. Wilson, Oxford Lectures, p. 48.

236. Book I. 5. 7.

237. Chap. I. 8–22.

238. Chap. I. 51–57.

239. Chap. I. 73, 74.

240. Chap. IX. 303–311., and other places.

241. Colebrook e, Asiatic Researches, vol. viii. 395–397.

242. Chap. I. 37.

243. Chap. I. 14, 15.; XII. 12–14. 24, &c.

244. Chap. XII. 16–22.

245. Chap. I. 14.

246. Chap. I. 26.

247. Chap. II. 26–35.

248. Chap. II. 36–40.

249. Chap. II. 74–87.

250. Asiatic Researches, vol. viii. p. 400.

251. There are many commentaries on this text, and some difference of opinion as to the sense. The following interpretation is given by Professor Wilson, in a note on the “Hindu Theatre,” vol. i. p. 184.: – “Let us meditate on the supreme splendour of that divine sun, who may illuminate our understandings.” And the following is published as a literal translation by Ram Mohan Rai (Translation of the Vedas, p. 117.): – “We meditate on that supreme spirit of the splendid sun who directs our understandings.”

252. Chap. II. 101–104.

253. Chap. III. 69, 70.

254. Chap. IV. 130.

255. Chap. III. 82, &c.

256. Chap. IV. 99–126.

257. Chap. III. 99–118.

258. Chap. III. 189.

259. Chap. V. 89.

260. Chap. XI. 182–187.

261. Chap. V. 18, 19.

262. Chap. IV. 212.

263. Chap. V. 22–36.

264. Chap. V. 41, 42.

265. Chap. V. 7.

266. Chap. V. 43–56.

267. “He who eats according to law commits no sin, even if he every day tastes the flesh of such animals as may lawfully be tasted, since both animals which may be eaten, and those who eat them, were equally created by Brahmi.” (V. SO.)

268. Chap. XI. 80.

269. Chap. XI. 109–117.

270. Book V. 57. to the end.

271. Chap V. 93–98.

272. Chap. V. 107.

273. Chap. XI. 55–68.

274. Chap. XI. 104, 105. 171.

275. Chap. XI. 92.

276. Chap. XI. 125. to the end.

277. Chap. XI. 262.

278. Chap. XI. 171–179, &c.

279. Chap. XI. 9, 10.

280. Chap. XI. 190, 191.

281. Chap. XI. 11–19.

282. Chap. IX. 256–269.

283. Chap. IV. 170–179.

284. Chap. IV. 204.

285. Chap. VIM 318.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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