8 The Essence of the Vedic Philosophy
The Vedas touched every aspect of Hindu life. Sacrifice rituals formed an important part of Vedic life, so a Hindu became adept at performing many fire ceremonies (havan yajna). Yajna is essentially a ritual of self-purification. The ritual is accompanied by Sanskrit chants and prayers as ghee (clarified butter), and other offerings such as grains, flowers, and incense are offered into holy fire. Symbolically it represents surrender of self (ego) to God.
During the Vedic period, society was divided into four classes. The highest was the Brahmin class, who claimed to have been born from the mouth of God. Brahmin is considered one who follows the path of the Divine Brahma. Brahmins were well versed in the Vedas, so they were given the responsibility of performing the many rituals on different occasions. They also guided the lay people toward a worthy religious life. The Kshatriya, or warrior class, came next. They were in charge of defending and upholding the rule of law. After this came the Vaishya, who were the merchant and agriculture class. The fourth class was the Shudras the servant class, who would manually serve the upper three classes.
It is believed that originally this division was based on the merit and aptitude of individuals, as mentioned in the Rig Veda. The categorical recognition of the hereditary caste system in the official Manu Shastra, however, tilts credence toward the contrary. Even so, castes were not rigid and pernicious. There were even free marriages among persons from different groups, as well as interchanging from one caste to another. As time passed, however, the system took a rather vicious turn and caused much antagonism and hostility among the classes.
Hindus had several codes and instructions outlined for them to adhere to the righteous path of truth, duty, and morality. Life was divided in four phases, with each phase comprising of its own set of duties. Class division was planned according to one’s capacity and aptitude. Although there are several references that this class division was not meant to be hereditary in character, it did take the ugly turn, being betrayed by human weakness and vulnerability. Despite several attempts made in different periods of history to amend these faults, the caste system prevailed for millennia, and has not yet been fully eradicated. The present Indian constitution encompasses adequate provisions in order to safeguard the weaker sections; it even offers benefits to compensate for the past injustices. Transformation of human mind indeed takes a protracted time!