Brahmanism: Beliefs & Evolution into Early Hinduism

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  • 0:01 What is Brahmanism?
  • 1:00 Brahmanism in South India
  • 2:20 Major Beliefs and Practices
  • 3:33 From Brahmanism to Hinduism
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Brahmanism predates every other contemporary religion in India, but has had an impact, directly or indirectly, on all of them. This lesson discusses the mysterious past of Brahmanism and how Hinduism evolved from it.

What Is Brahmanism?

Religion in India has always been very complex, with many religions working well in harmony with each other. While this meant a relatively peaceful existence for those practicing those religions, it means that understanding the history of each religion is quite difficult for those of us who wish to understand them thousands of years later.

Perhaps nowhere is this truer than when we try to reach as far back into Indian history as possible to understand one of its oldest religions, Brahmanism. Brahmanism gets its name due to its reverence for the overwhelming power of Brahman and also from the class of priests who commune with Brahman. Predating Hinduism by centuries, Brahmanism, nonetheless, is eerily similar to Hinduism. From its earliest days in the earliest cities of the Indus River Valley, many of the major beliefs of Brahmanism still hold true today.

Brahmanism in South India

Every so often, a ritual occurs in the southernmost tip of India, in the province of Kerala, that predates just about everything about India. It predates the Aryan invasion, arrival of Sanskrit, even the great cities of the Indus River Valley. In a ritual that has gone on for more than 10,000 years, local Brahman men, members of the highest social caste of India, chant prayers and hymns in a language that no one understands. Even the Brahmans themselves can't understand many of the individual words or meanings of whole sentences, yet the chants continue to be taught from father to son just as they have been done for thousands of years.

I mention this to demonstrate an important aspect of Brahmanism in that it is not solely North Indian. Here, in the southernmost part of the subcontinent, prayers are raised up to Brahman. But what does this say about Brahmanism in India? For starters, it tells us that it is a very old religion, going back thousands of years. Second, it lets us know that since the ritual happens in South India, at one time, chances are many other people used the same chants and prayers.

Major Beliefs and Practices

But it's not just the words and chants of a few Brahman priests that shed light on Brahmanism. Remember, only the members of the Brahman caste, the highest caste of Indian society, are allowed to be priests. So, what about everyone else? Much like Hinduism and other religions in the subcontinent, Brahmanism believed in reincarnation, or that the soul would be reborn again. In fact, we've found many of the same artifacts that point to the belief in reincarnation in the Indus River Valley as we have found in later Hindu sites.

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