The Vedic Understanding of Human Beings

For the Aryan civilization, the essence of human life is the soul, which they associate with breath. The word they used to designate the soul was Atman. The Sanskrit Atman has cognates in the English word atmosphere and in the German word Atem, which means to breath.

The ancients frequently associate breath with the soul. That connection derives from the simple observation that one a person dies the breath leaves the body, thus they concluded that the breath must be what animates the body. From here we are just a short step from the deduction that the soul endures when the body perishes.

At death, the soul was believed to join the gods and the other death in a happy existence. However, there is not complete agreement in the Veda about the ultimate human destiny. Some hymns suggest that the soul descends into a place called the underworld ruled by the god of death. Some indicate that the soul simply dissolves along with the body.

Apparently, the Aryans were as mystified by the fate of the humans as they were by the creation of the world.

The Origin of Castes

When the Aryans arrived to the Indian subcontinent their society was already stratified according to occupation. Their culture comprise a division similar to that of Christian Europe.

There were the priests and the teachers who were called the Brahmin. The warriors and administrators were called the kshatriyas and the merchants, artisans and farmers were called the vaishyas. The later vedic period also mentions a fourth class of people called the shudras, who were the people of the land, what we might call peasants. Many scholars think the Shudras may have been descendents of the old Indus Valley civilization who were incorporated in Aryan life.

This occupational division marks what became the foundation of the subsequent cast system.

The evidence for the stratification of Aryan society comes from a remarkable vedic text called “The Sacrifice of the Purusha”. This song tells of the ritual dismemberment of the primordial called the Purusha. In this text, the gods bind the giant Purusha, slay him sacrificially and use his parts to create the very components of the world.

From his body, the gods created four classes of human beings:

“When they divided the Purusha. In how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms, eyes and feet? His mouth became the Brahmin. The arms became the warriors. His eyes the people. From his feet the servants were born.”

The parts of the Purusha out of which the social classes were created are not accidental. They reflect a hierarchy from top to bottom. They also invoke images appropriate for the respective occupations of these classes.

The song of the Purusha sacrifice is important for because it roots the division of social classes into the very nature of things. To try to upset or disorder social stratification is to invite cosmic chaos.

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