Hinduism: Sacred Books | 5



There are multiple lines of religious authority in the Hindu traditions:

While sacred texts are significant—and there have been hundreds of them— many were known only by a small minority of literate people.

On the other hand, the popular epics and the stories from the books known as the Purāṇas have been passed on through oral and ritual traditions and through the performing arts.

The highest scriptural authority in philosophical Hinduism is a set of compositions known as Śruti (that which is heard), more popularly known as the Vedas (“knowledge”). They date from about the 2nd millennium B.C.E. Many Hindu traditions consider the Vedas to be of non-human origin.

The Vedic seers (rishi) are said to have visually perceived and transmitted the mantras, poetry, and chants; according to traditional belief, they did not compose them.

The Ṛiṣi transmitted the words to their disciples, starting an oral tradition that has come down to the present. The words are said to have a fixed order that has to be maintained by a tradition of recitation.

There are 4 Vedic collections, known as Ṛig, Sāma, Yajur, and Atharva.
Each one is divided into 4 parts:

The first two parts—the Saṁhitā and the Brāhmaṇa—deal with sacrificial rituals and the hymns to be recited during them, and the last two parts are more philosophical in nature:

The last section, known as the Upanishads (literally “coming near” [a teacher for instruction]), focuses on existential concerns and the relationship between the human soul and the Supreme Being.

The Upanishads were composed between the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E.
The Vedas also have appendices on the observance of ritual.

There are other fields of knowledge, called Vedāngas, that are considered to be ancillary to the Vedic corpus. They include subjects such as phonetics and astronomy, which were considered to be extremely important.

In addition, such areas of study as archery, music and dance (Gandharva Veda), and the science of health and long life (Ayurveda) were considered to be vital to the wellbeing of men and women.

The Vedic corpus was followed by a set of books called Smṛti (remembered) literature. Though acknowledged to be of human authorship, the Smṛti is nonetheless considered inspired:

This literature is theoretically of lesser authority than the Vedas, but it has played a far more important role in the lives of Hindus for the last 2,500 years:

Sometimes this category is divided into 3 subfields: the 2 epics, the old narratives (Purāṇas), and the codes of law and ethics (Dharma Śāstras).

For most Hindus the 2 epics, the Rāmāyaṇa (“Story of Rāma”) and the Mahābhārata (“Great Epic of India,” or the “Great Sons of Bharata”), are the most significant texts. They deal, above all, with situations of dharma.

The epics are widely known among the many communities and sectarian divisions within the Hindu tradition, and they provide threads of unity through the centuries and across social divides.

The Rāmāyaṇa has been memorized, recited, sung, danced, and enjoyed for 2,500 years. It has been a source of inspiration for generations of devotees in India and in other parts of the world.

The story of the Rāmāyaṇa centres on the young prince Rāma:

On the eve of Rāma’s coronation his father exiles him. In the forest Rāvaṇa, the demon-king of Lanka, captures Rāma’s beautiful wife, Sītā; the epic focuses on Rāma’s struggle to get her back.

After a protracted battle Rāma kills Rāvaṇa and is reunited with Sītā.

They eventually return to the kingdom and are crowned. Rāma is held to be a just king; the term “Rām-rājya” (kingdom or rule of Rāma) has become the Hindu political ideal.

There have been many local versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, including vernacular renderings, and the story has been theologically interpreted in many ways.

The epic is regularly danced and acted in places of Hindu (and Buddhist) cultural influence in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand). The capital of Thailand for several centuries was named after Rāma’s capital, and the kings there bore the name “Rāma” as part of their title.

The other epic, the Mahābhārata, with approximately 100,000 verses, is considered to be the longest poem in the world. It is the story of the great struggle among the descendants of a king called Bhārata; Indians call their country Bharat after this king.

The main part of the story deals with a war between the Pāṇḍavas and the Kaurāvas:

They are cousins, but the Kaurāvas try to cheat the Pānḍavas out of their share of the kingdom and will not accept peace. A battle ensues in which all the major kingdoms are forced to take sides:

The Pāṇḍavas emerge victorious but at a great emotional cost.
All their sons and close relatives are killed in the battle.

The Bhāgavad Gītā (“Sacred Song”) is a book of 18 chapters from the Mahābhārata. It is esteemed as one of the holiest books in the Hindu tradition. People learned it by heart for centuries.

The complete Mahābhārata is not a book one would find in a typical home, but the Bhāgavad Gītā is widely copied. It is a conversation that takes place on a battlefield between Kṛṣṇa and the warrior Arjuna:

Just as the war of the Mahābhārata is about to begin, Arjuna (one of the Pāṇḍava brothers) becomes distressed at the thought of having to fight against his cousins, uncles, and other relatives.

Putting down his bow, he asks his cousin Kṛṣṇa (who is portrayed as an incarnation of Vishnu) whether it is correct to fight a war in which many lives, especially those of one’s own kin, are to be lost.

Kṛṣṇa replies in the affirmative; it is correct if we fight for what is right. One must fight for righteousness (dharma) after trying peaceful means.

The Bhāgavad Gītā speaks of loving devotion to the Lord and the importance of selfless action.

Kṛṣṇa instructs Arjuna (who is generally understood to be any human soul who seeks spiritual guidance) on God, the nature of the human soul, and how one can reach liberation:

A person may reach Vishnu/Kṛṣṇa through devotion, knowledge, or selfless action.

Some later interpreters think of these as 3 paths, and others consider them to be 3 aspects of the path of loving surrender to the Supreme Being.

The Purāṇas (“Ancient Lore”) contain narratives about the Hindu deities and their manifestations on Earth to save human beings as well as accounts of the cycles of creation and destruction of the cosmos.

In recounting the deeds of the various gods and goddesses, most of the Sanskrit Purāṇas focus on the supremacy of either Shiva or Vishnu, or the goddess Durgā (more popularly known as Devi).

There are also Purāṇas dedicated to Gaṇeśa and other deities; Tamil Purāṇas speak about the valorous and saving acts of Murugan, the son of Shiva and Pārvatī.

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa, one of the most popular of the Sanskrit Purāṇas, speaks at length about the various incarnations of Vishnu.

The Hindu understanding of time, which is explained in the Purāṇas, is that it has no beginning and no end:

Time is an endless series of intervals, each one of which is the lifetime of a minor creator god called Brahma, which lasts for 311,040,000 million human years:

Throughout each cycle the cosmos is periodically created and destroyed. At the end of each Brahma’s life, the universe is absorbed into Vishnu, a new Brahma emerges, and a new cycle begins.

According to the Purāṇas, the cosmos is continually created and destroyed in cycles that are understood as the days and nights of the creator god Brahma.

Within each of these days there is a basic cycle of time, a mahā-yuga, composed of four smaller units known as yugas, or aeons. Each Yuga is shorter and worse than the one before it. The golden age (Krita Yuga) lasts 4,800 divine years.

The years of the divine beings called devas are much longer than earthly years; a divine year is 360 human years. Therefore, the golden age lasts 1,728,000 earthly years. During this time dharma (righteousness) is on firm footing.

The Trētā age is shorter, lasting 3,600 divine years; dharma is then on three legs.
The Dvāpara age lasts 2,400 divine years, and dharma is then hopping on two legs.

During the Kali Yuga, the worst of all possible ages, dharma is on one leg, and things get progressively worse. This age lasts for 1,200 divine years.

We live in the degenerate Kali Yuga, which, according to traditional Hindu reckoning, began in about 3102 B.C.E.

There is a steady decline throughout the yugas in morality, righteousness, life span, and human satisfaction. At the and of the Kali Yuga—obviously still a long time off—there will be no righteousness, no virtue, no trace of justice.

1000 mahā-yugas make up a day of Brahma, which is approximately 4,320 million earthly years. The nights of Brahma are of equal length; it is generally understood that during Brahma’s night creation is withdrawn.

A total of 360 such days and an equal number of nights makes a year of Brahma, and Brahma lives for 100 divine years (311,040,000 million earthly years). After this the entire cosmos is absorbed into the body of Vishnu (or Shiva) and remains there until another Brahma is evolved.

The many texts of righteousness and duty, known as Dharma Śāstras, were composed in the 1st millennium C.E. These focus on the issues of right behaviour, including those that pertain to caste.

Texts relating to astrology, medicine, sexual love, and power—all framed in religious discourses—were also composed in the first few centuries of the Common Era. The importance of many texts has been highlighted by calling them the fifth Veda.

While many of the Sanskrit texts are known in the vernacular all over India, there is also an extensive array of classical and folk literature that was composed in the vernacular languages.

Tamil, a classical language that is still spoken, is one of the oldest languages and has a hallowed tradition of sophisticated literature going back well into the beginning of the Common Era.

The earliest literature in Tamil, known as the Sangam texts, dealt primarily with love and war. Many local deities, including Gaṇeśa and Murugan, sons of Shiva and Pārvatī, were greatly beloved in Tamil-speaking regions.

Even from the earliest times there was extensive interaction and mutual influence between Sanskrit and vernacular texts. Tamil devotional literature was heavily influenced by the Sanskrit stories and texts.

The Tamil “Sacred Utterance” (composed by the poet Nammāḷvār in the 9th century) was also known as the Tamil Veda and was introduced alongside the Sanskrit Vedas in temple and domestic liturgies.

The vernacular texts from the South moved North in the 2nd millennium: By the second millennium there was extensive literature in many Indian languages.

Particularly noteworthy are the poems written by the great devotional poets of South India as well as of the regions of Odisha, Bengal, Maharashtra, and Gujarat:

These texts are well known and continue to be performed in many parts of India; they are more closely a part of Hindu life than the Vedas and other Sanskrit texts.