II Part ISBN: 9788120801271
III Part ISBN: 9788120801423
IV Part ISBN: 9788120801448
V Part ISBN: 9788120801455
The translator of the Satapatha- Brahmana can be under no illusion as to the reception his production is likely to meet with at the hand of the general reader. In the whole range of literature few works are probably less calculated to excite the interest of any outside the very limited number of specialists, than the ancient theological writings of the Hindus, known by the name of Brahmanas. For wearisome prolixity of exposition, characterised by dogmatic assertion and a flimsy symbolism rather than by serious reasoning, these works are perhaps not equalled anywhere; unless, indeed, it be by the speculative vapourings of the Gnostics, than which, in the opinion of the learned translators of Trenaus, ‘nothing more absurd has probably ever been imagined by rational beings .‘ If I have, nevertheless, undertaken, at the request of the Editor of the present Series, what would seem to be a rather thankless task, the reason will be readily understood by those who have taken even the most cursory view of the history of the Hindu mind and institutions.
The Brahmanas, it is well known, form our chief, if not our only, source of information regarding one of the most important periods in the social and mental development of India. They represent the intellectual activity of a sacerdotal caste which, by turning to account the religious instincts of a gifted and naturally devout race, had succeeded in transforming a primitive worship of the powers of nature into a highly artificial system of sacrificial ceremonies, and was ever intent on deepening and extending its hold on the minds of the people, by surrounding its own vocation with the halo of sanctity and divine inspiration.
A complicated ceremonial, requiring for its proper observance and consequent efficacy the ministrations of a highly trained priestly class, has ever been one of the most effective means of promoting hierarchical aspirations. Even practical Rome did not entirely succeed in steering clear of the rock of priestly ascendancy attained by such-like means. There, as elsewhere, ‘the neglect or faulty performance of the worship of each god revenged itself in the corresponding occurrence; and as it was a laborious and difficult task to gain even a knowledge of one’s religious obligations, the priests who were skilled in the law of divine things and pointed out its requirements—the pontifices—could not fail to attain an extraordinary influence ‘. ‘The catalogue of the duties and privileges of the priest of Jupiter might well find a place in the Talmud. ‘The rule— that no religious service can be acceptable to the gods, unless it be performed without a flaw—was pushed to such an extent, that a single sacrifice had to be repeated thirty times in succession on account of mistakes again and again committed; and the games, which formed part of the divine service, were regarded as undone, if the presiding magistrate had committed any slip in word or deed, or if the music even had paused at a wrong time, and so had to be begun afresh, frequently for several, even as many as seven, times in succession’ Great, however, as was the influence acquired by the priestly colleges of Rome, ‘it was never forgotten—least of all in the case of those who held the highest position—that their duty was not to command, but to tender skilled advice .‘ The Roman statesmen submitted to these transparent tricks rather from considerations of political expediency than from religious scruples; and the Greek Polybius might well say that ‘the strange and ponderous ceremonial of Roman religion was invented solely on account of the multitude which, as reason had no power over it, required to be ruled by signs and wonders .‘
The devout belief in the efficacy of invocation and sacrificial offering which pervades most of the hymns of the Rig-veda, and which may be assumed to reflect pretty faithfully the religious sentiments of those amongst whom they were composed, could not but ensure to the priest, endowed with the gift of sacred utterance, a considerable amount of respect and reverence on the part of the people. His superior culture and habitual communion with the divine rulers of the destinies of man would naturally entitle him to a place of honour by the side of the chiefs of clans, or the rulers of kingdoms, who would not fail to avail themselves of his spiritual services, in order to secure the favour of the gods for their warlike expeditions or political undertakings. Nor did the Vedic bard fail to urge his claims on the consideration and generosity- of those in the enjoyment of power and wealth. He often dwells on the supernatural virtues of his compositions and their mysterious efficacy in drawing down divine blessings on the pious worshipper. In urging the necessity of frequent and liberal offerings to the gods, and invoking worldly blessings on the offered, the priestly bard may often be detected pleading his own cause along with that of his employer, as Kanva does when he sings (Rigveda VIII, 13), ‘Let him be rich, let him be foremost, the bard of the rich, of so illustrious a Maghavan’ as thou, 0 lord of the bay steeds!’ Though the Dana-stutis, or verses extolling, often in highly exaggerated terms, the munificence of princely patrons, and generally occurring at the end of hymns, are doubtless, as a rule, later additions, they at least show that the sacerdotal office must have been, or must gradually have become during this period, a very lucrative one.
Although there is no reason to suppose that the sacrificial ceremonial was in early times so fully developed as some scholars would have us believe, the religious service would seem to have been already of a sufficiently advanced nature to require some kind of training for the priestly office. In course of time, while the collection of hymns were faithfully handed down as precious heirlooms in the several families, and were gradually enriched by the poetical genius of succeeding generations, the ceremonial became more and more complicated, so as at last to necessitate the distribution of the sacerdotal functions among several distinct classes of priests. Such a distribution of sacrificial duties must have taken place before the close of the period of the hymns, and there can be little doubt that at that time the position of the priesthood in the community was that of a regular profession, and even, to some extent, a hereditary one. A post of peculiar importance, which seems to go back to a very early time, was that of the Purohita (literally ‘praepositus ‘), or family priest to chiefs and kings. From the comparatively modest position of a private chaplain, who had to attend to the sacrificial obligations of his master, he appears to have gradually raised himself to the dignity of, so to say, a minister of public worship and confidential adviser of the king. It is obvious that such a post was singularly favourable to the designs of a crafty and ambitious priest, and must have offered him exceptional opportunities for promoting the hierarchical aspirations of the priesthood.
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