Brahminism is often confused with Buddhism, but these are distinct religions, and it is only historically that their affairs have become linked: Buddhism derives from Brahminism, but represents a reaction against it. Both religions regard life as basically evil, both believe in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, but Buddhism rejects the sacred books, the Veddas, and does not recognise castes, whereas Brahminism is in fact a religion of castes. Brahminism developed in India and has never spread outside India. Buddhism also arose in India, where it was long the dominant religion. Now it barely holds out in Nepal, and that in a veritable caricature. The two religions have in common a kind of begging clergy, which often confuses travellers. In Brahminism a third of the Brahmins really beg, but a Brahmin is born a Brahmin and is not obliged to beg, since he belongs always and absolutely to the supreme caste, and may be even a government minister — whereas the Buddhist monk may come from any caste and is obliged to beg.
The holy books of the Vedda do not contain a strictly defined religion: “The Aryan hymns oscillate among the most varied concepts of religion. Everything is found there: adoration of the forces of nature, pantheism, polytheism, monotheism”.597 “The expression religion has an entirely different meaning for a Hindu and for a European”.598 If it were to be said that every caste has its religion, this would not be far from the truth. The higher the caste, the more the metaphysical side of Brahminism reveals itself.
The law of Manu (of the second, third or even eighth century B.C.) lays down in detail the duties and reciprocal relations of the castes, regulating daily life under the sanction of religion. The Brahmins interpret the sacred books and watch over the organisation of society.
The fact is that of the religion of the Vedda generally speaking nothing remains, but a whole range of faiths arose, from monotheism to the cult of animals.599 Polytheism was shaped during long centuries, as it were a pictorial-popular allegory of real religion. Brahma himself, the protoplast of all transformed into the supreme god, has never been and is not the object of a cult because he has no “special followers”, and “in the whole of India there are perhaps no more than one or two temples dedicated to him”.600
Incarnations of divine attributes, avatars, became in time separate deities. Since their number is unlimited, the number of Hindu deities may also multiply without end. Brahmins accept polytheism, with the reservation that the actual images of the gods must not be deified.
The adherent of Brahminism is surrounded by countless religous and caste regulations, to such an extent that the most scrupulous cannot be sure that they have not fallen into sin. Constant unceasing fear of sin, of “uncleanness”, is a feature of Brahminism. These regulations cover family and property law, ritual ceremonial and prayers, penances and purgations, and in addition all the customs of daily life, laid down in the most minute detail for each caste separately. All the legislative side of the Vedda was retained, and supplemented by thousands of tiny details: sacral legislation embraces the whole of life and every moment of it.
There is a way of getting outside caste — by renouncing the world and becoming a sannyasee, homeless, possessing nothing and wanting nothing. Such a man is raised absolutely above all the requirements and duties of cult and caste.601 There obviously cannot be many of these sannyassee philosophers, but the popular and quite unintelligent yogas are numerous. And anybody may become a full sannyassee or yoga, since it is open to everyone at any time to leave family or office for this sacred purpose. In Brahminism it is permissible at any time to revolt against the duties of a life in which nothing is sacred, which is no more than a conglomeration of evil. Anybody who rejects the world is not bound by any duty previously undertaken. Put simply, the road to sanctity leads through rejection of all duty.
In all the observances of religion, in every caste there reigns an absolutely terrifying formalism. Magical power superior to that of the gods is attributed to rites. The smallest external aspect of the cult is carried out with extreme scrupulosity. “No people has shown itself as strict in the carrying out of its religious duties as the Hindu”.602
But nor has any people so entirely separated religion from morality. These “most religious” Hindus are at the same time the least moral. The professing Brahmin does not forget the gods in his trifling activities, and is occupied without cease in endeavours to win their favour for himself — but “he would be extremely surprised if it were suggested to him that the gods are interested even slightly in the uprightness of his dealings with his neighbours, in the purity of his life, the integrity of his speech and conduct, or that these all-powerful beings have even the slightest wish to frown on a Hindu who seizes his neighbour’s goods or commits child-murder. Of course, their revenge might seriously affect a man who omits to say a prayer, to read the sacred books, to take part in religious ceremonies or to carry out the required acts of purification, if for example he does not wash his hands before eating or his lips after a meal. These are sins which rouse the anger of the gods”.603 Provided the thousands of external rites are observed at every turn, they pay no heed to the rest. The rest is a matter for men, is the material, utilitarian, practical side of life, far below the concern of the gods”. For that matter the Hindu pantheon is not composed of moralists.604
In Manu legislation, tortures and even the death penalty are provided for neglect of ritual, whereas only light punishments follow robberies and murders. And irregularities in sexual life call for punishment only in so far as they are dangerous to the purity of the race — and this is for the Hindu the sole serious sin. Killing is a serious sin when a Brahmin or a cow is concerned, otherwise it is a peccadillo, while the killing of daughters is no sin at all.605 “The Hindu walks, sits, drinks and eats, works and sleeps religiously” — but “morality has not yet been born in India”606 Every step of a Hindu is formalistically sacred. Thus Brahminism contains within itself the whole external side of civilisation, and of the internal side defines family and property law (in the Vedda and finally in the laws of Manu).
Le Bon describes this state of affairs accurately: “In India religious beliefs are the basis of all social institutions; they are in reality nothing but religious institutions.”607
Of the categories of being controlled and exactly defined by Brahminism there are the bodily categories of health and the struggle for material existence, also art (limited to architecture and sculpture for the temple). The Brahmin religion does not know the category of moral good, nor does Brahminism cultivate learning outside the study of the sacred books and — here is a significant phenomenon — Brahmin civilisation does not know these categories either. What is lacking in Brahminism is lacking in Hindu civilisation which, positive and negative, consists in Brahminism and derives from it. What is not sacral is not accessible to the professing Brahmin. In Brahminism civilisation and religion are one.
But there is a certain aspect under which the relation of Brahminism to civilisation deserves separate investigation. Brahmins themselves have noticed the contradiction between Brahmin theory and practice. This is explained by the system, known as vedanta, which asserts that all the variety of life is a simple illusion. The wide world of appearances and illusions is under the power of the extremely fickle goddess Maya, who is able to conceal truth from minds without the necessary training. The whole Hindu pantheon belongs to this domain of Maya; how much the professing vedantist chooses to take from it and accepts is his personal affair.608
This system (propagated among Christians) is clearly not a religion, since it permits the rejection of all religion — and as a philosophical system it is simply nihilism. The more vedanta, the less civilisation, since the vedanta kills all civilisation.
“The vedantist synthesis has caused and causes stagnation in whole departments of life. A man realising the identity of his being with the supreme, sole and absolute Being, attains in time interiorly and as an individual the highest possible goal of all existence. It is the peak, but at the same time a halt, for it excludes for the future any factor of striving and effort.”609