The Vedantic Age

Between 800 and 400 BC, significant changes began to occur in the lives of religious peoples in all of the civilized parts of the world. Independent thinkers, discontented with the traditional explanations of the cosmic order, and specifically man's place within that cosmos, began to develop new, more simple and rational, doctrines. Scholars frequently refer to this period as the Axial Age. There is, however, no solid explanation why such dramatic religious changes would occur throughout the world during the same period. Prominent among the rising sages were the Greek philosophers led by Socrates. In Persia, Zarathustra extracted the elements of the supernatural from religion and created a new faith, Zoroastrianism. In China, Confucius devoted himself to teaching moral persuasion and good government, which would become the mainstay of Chinese thought. The Hebrew prophets formulated a monotheistic religious tradition notably different from the polytheistic religions of Greece, China, Mesopotamia, and India. While all of this was happening in the rest of the world, kshatriya ascetics, throughout India, began to challenge the proliferation of brahmin ritual that personified the Aryan religion of the Vedic Age.

During this time, the Vedas were still held in high regard, but this new generation of seekers sought a more enlightened meaning to life. This period is commonly referred to as the Vedantic Age. The collection of teachings generated by the ascetics who meditated on the mysteries of human existence became known as the Upanishads, and the seekers who produced the writings were called Upanishads, which literally means "sitting near" the gurus. Over a hundred Upanishads have survived, but only a dozen, or so, are considered authentic. To lend credibility to the teachings, they were invariably compiled as appendages to the Vedas. Vedanta, then, means the "end of the Vedas." In this respect, the Vedas are considered the foundation of the faith while the Upanishads are considered the vehicle whereby the devotee may attain enlightenment as to the nature of god and man's role in the cosmos. Scholars continue to debate over the beginning of Hinduism. Some insists that this tradition began with the Indus civilization and its proto-Shiva personified by the horned god. Others point to the development of the Aryan religion of the Vedic Age as the genesis of the Hindu tradition. Still others point to the Vedantic Age, with the development of karma (deed), and the doctrine of samsara or the transmigration of birth and rebirth, as the fundamental beginning. Unfortunately, unlike many other religions, Hinduism can not be attributed to the teachings of any single individual. This sort of ambiguity naturally lends itself to debate and speculation. Although we are unable to accurately date the beginning of Hinduism, we can point to the Vedantic Age as the period in Indian history where the Hindu religious tradition began to solidify.

The principles of karma and samsara directly appealed to a populace caught in the stranglehold of the rigidity of the caste system. In this respect, one's deeds in the present life would directly effect their future as the soul passes form life to life. Interestingly, the Upanishads, nor the thinkers reponsible for the new orthodoxy of the Hindu religion, ever directly challenged the Vedic beliefs, the existing gods, or the practice of sacrifice. Instead, a quiet transformation gradually occurred that formulated a new system of thought that became the cornerstone of Hinduism. Increasingly, the common people directed their faith toward lesser deities that filled their specific needs. Rising to the top of the nonexistent hierarchy of the gods, the religious practices, although still based in the Vedic scripture, decidedly shifted from Indra and Varuna to the two current sects of Hinduism which worship Vishnu and Shiva.

No comments:

Post a Comment