Of the entire body of Hindu sacred texts, The Vedas alone are Sruti, ‘that which was heard.’ Embedded within The Vedas are essential treatises on the nature of Atman, our soul, and its relationship to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.
Tradition tells of forest-dwelling sages (rishis) who developed a level of consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ in their hearts the truths of the universe, hence That Which is Heard. The rishis interpreted these truths to create The Vedas, the core of Hindu belief.
Another origin myth says Brahma created The Vedas whole, spreading them throughout the four directions of the cosmos from the four mouths of his four faces (note 1).
However they came to be, The Vedas are consist of four texts, passed down orally from Brahmin father to son before being transcribed into written Sanskrit some 3500 years ago (notes 2 and 3). As Sruti, The Veda’s four books of hymns, rituals, mantras, theology, are deemed scripture and therefore fixed.
Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and a collection of over 1,000 hymns over 10,000 verses, most of which praise one or another of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, etc. Some of the Rig’s verses remain in use today for rites such as mantras, prayers, funerals and weddings. Some scholars believe some of these prayers and rituals are pre-historic; the Agni fire sacrifice being one (note 4).
Sama Veda is the basis for hymns sung using specific melodies derived from the Rig Veda.
Yajur Veda is a compilation of ritual mantras believed to have psychological and spiritual powers. Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the gods and goddesses.
Athar Veda, sometimes called ‘The Veda of magic formulas,’ a compilation of hymns describing esoteric knowledge of things like the treatment of ailments, the making of and defence against spells, domestic rituals such as rites of passage, as well as more in-depth theosophic treatises.
As documents written by mortals, The Vedas have been subject to endless examination, and these observations are set down as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as early and late Upanishads, and all are deemed sacred by association with The Vedas.
While it is The Vedas, which are the foundation of Hindu belief and practice, it is the early Upanishads which elevate its core values. They were extracted from The Vedas over time and continue to evolve to the present day, where they are widely known as the Vedanta. In turn, the philosophical aspects of the Vedanta are discussed at length in the Brahma Sutra, which delves further into the concept of Brahman and Atman, critiques of other dharmic options such as Buddhism and Jainism, advice on achieving moksha through intense meditation and the benefits of spiritual knowledge.
In south India, The Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge) are known as Marai (Tamil for ‘hidden, secret, mystery’) and the core of Hindu belief interpreted from a uniquely Tamil perspective. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu, in particular, bear the hallmarks of ancient pre-Vedic beliefs, possibly due to Harappan origins. South India was spared the turmoil of successive invasions such as those suffered in the north, so the old Vedic beliefs remain cohesive.
In pre-Vedic south India, the elemental forces affecting people’s lives were little understood. Mysterious natural events, such as monsoon rains and disease, were appeased through ritual sacrifice and over time the supernatural powers which oversaw these events took physical form as the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Deities were believed responsible for almost any event beyond the control of individuals and ritual offerings of prayer, flowers and symbolic food items to the gods and goddesses remain fundamental to the practice of Hinduism.
Over a span of centuries ancient Tamil beliefs, practices and mythology were being absorbed into Vedic beliefs and practices, but that process was interrupted in the 8th century AD when a devotional revolution took place in south India as the Bhakti movement was born. Wandering Tamil poet-saints singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti ignited a new, intimate, personal mode of worship independent of ritual, gender or caste and its focus on a personal connection between worshipper and deity remains the standard practice throughout Hinduism. Temple worship with priestly intermediaries is common, but Bhakti is the preferred mode of worship for daily puja rituals.
Over 600 years, these hymns and poems were compiled as sacred texts, the Triumurai for those devoted to Shiva, and the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, dedicated to Vishnu. They were composed in the Tamil language rather than the Vedic Sanskrit, and their passionate devotional hymns and poetic descriptions of the deities became a guide and reference, not just for Hindu scholars, musicians and dancers, but to Chola bronzesmiths as well.
Note 1 – It is said that Brahma created the seers solely to hear The Vedas and share them with humankind.
Note 2 – As facilitators of temple ritual, young Brahmins were, and are, required to memorize the Vedic hymns and mantras they will perform throughout their lives with subtle nuances of intonation and rhythm. Fastidious cross-checks ensure virtually no errors occur as this sacred knowledge is passed down through generations, and this oral tradition remains strong even today, with one Brahmin family in south India reportedly having passed The Vedas down without error for 3000 years.
Note 3 – Exactly when The Vedas were written down is unknown and likely to remain so. Contemporary Hindu nationalists in India claim The Vedas pre-date any other world religion, but because memory and speech leave no trace, that assertion is impossible to confirm. What no historian disputes, however, is Hinduism’s place as the world’s oldest living religion.
Note 4 – When Shailja and I married, the ceremony involved a series of sacrificial rites in Sanskrit around the temple’s sacred fire, all features of Vedic rituals.
The Vedas – That Which was HeardTerry Curell2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00
Brahman is the basis, source and support of everything in the cosmos (Brahmanda). Its nature is Absolute Being (sat), Consciousness (chit), and Bliss (ananda). Brahman is eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, and everything that ever was, is now, or ever will be. Brahman is the Ultimate Reality.
Using mere words to define a concept as vast and complex as Brahman is bound to fail; therefore, Hinduism has developd a reductive device to help us approach and feel connection to that which cannot be comprehended in its entirety.
First, the principle of Brahman is divided into two realities; Brahman itself – eternal, absolute, the ultimate reality. And Maya, our perceived reality which in fast is an illusion living, dying and being reborn on the wheel of time (samsara).
The second reductive device is the concept of Brahman divided into aspects deemed male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti), personified as individual gods and goddesses, each with their particular set of responsibilities and temperament, and each embodied in a unique human-like physical form (note 1). For example, when Shiva embodies the Purusha principle, it is Uma who embodies the Prakriti.
“Ye yatha mam prapadyante tanstathaiva bhajamyaham.”
“I come to you in whatever form you worship Me.”
Bhagavad Gita 4:11
Generally speaking, deities such as Uma, Shiva or Vishnu are not divine in their own right – and here is an important point – they are specific physical manifestations of Brahman (note 2). A metaphor might be Brahman as a vast cosmic diamond, and individual gods and goddesses as facets of that diamond rather than individual diamonds.
Note 1 – Gods and goddesses exist on a higher plane in formless state and leave that plane to inhabit human form only when a physical body is required by us mortals for worship or to deal with a problem such as a demon, for example.
Note 2 – Followers of sects such as Saivites or Vaisnavites (the Great Gods, or Mahadevas) or Shaktics (the Great Goddesses), however, may argue their chosen god or goddess is Supreme over all other concepts or manifestations of Brahman.
The nature of Brahman is acintya, beyond the limit of human comprehension, which presents a problem for those wishing to connect with God. The solution is to focus worship upon a comprehensible aspect of Brahman in the form of a god or goddess. See also; Puja and Murti.
An ethical code of non-violence toward all living beings, Ahimsa’s premise that all living beings have the spark of the divine spiritual energy. Early Vedas (ca 1000 BCE) applied Ahimsa to other humans, but by 800 BC the code was also applied to animals. Ahimsa is a fundamental principle of Jainism and to a lesser extent, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Mahabharata states several times Ahimsa is the highest moral value.
nature as divine
The indigenous belief the natural world and human beings are of equal value. Animist values are local, and beliefs vary between clans and tribes, though some, such as a sun god or fertility goddess, are common to all. Particularly in the rural areas of south India prayers are still being offered to animals, trees, springs, rivers, rocks and forest spirits, while animist elements live on within Hinduism in the form of Shiva's deer (mrga) and Buddha's bodhi tree. See also; Dohada and Mrga.
Securing wealth and comfort for the welfare of the world. One of Purusharthas’ four aims in life. The focus of arthic devotion is Vishnu as the source of all duty and Lakshmi as the source of all wealth. See also; Purusharthas, Dharma (spiritual path), kama (desire) and moksha (Oneness).
stages of life
The Ashrama System divide’s one’s life into four stages; student (brahmacharya), householder (grihastha), retired (vanaprastha) and renunciation (sannyasa). Ashrama, along with Purusartha, or the four goals of life, are very important elements of Indian philosophy and believed to lead to fulfilment, happiness and eventual liberation (moksha). See also; Purusartha and Dharma.
Atman is the inner essence, the soul, of every plant, animal, human or god. If the sun is Brahman, then Atman is a photon of light and eternal; unaffected by the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. When one’s Atman takes physical form, awareness of its true nature is obscured and veiled by the illusion of the body as the self. One’s spiritual path, therefore, is to strip away illusion and rediscover the true nature of one’s Atman as one with Brahman. “It could be said that in this world…the atman has a human experience rather than a human being having a spiritual experience”. Gavin Flood. See also; Brahman, moksha and samadhi.
The appearance or incarnation of a deity on earth. Most often associated with the ten avatars of Vishnu. Sometimes used to refer to a particularly respected mortal such as a guru.
Bhakti is salvation through personal love and devotion to God. The focus of the worshipper's daily home puja ritual is often an icon of the deity, created on a smaller scale to the stone icons within their local temple. In Tami, bhakti is known as Anbu. The meaning and function of these sacred bronzes in bhakti involve a number of important ritual concepts, including, in Sanskrit: utsavas (festivals), puja (worship), darshana (seeing [god]), abhisheka (anointment), alamkara (embellishment), and avatara (divine descent). See also; Achala, Murti, Utsavamurti, Upasana, Atman, Moksha, Darshan, Ishta Deva, Alwar.
Any attempt to define a concept as vast and complex as Brahman is bound to fail, but here goes; Brahman is eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, everything that ever was, is now, and ever will be. It is The Great Soul and Ultimate Reality.
Hinduism’s priestly class charged with the duties of Vedic learning, teaching, and invoking the power of Brahman by performing rites and sacrifices.
Spirit, life-force, vitality. See also; Prana.
Psychic energy centres of the subtle body. Central to the Kundalini system of yogic practice. In Hindu belief there are seven chakras, in Buddhism four.
Dharma is a complex code of ritual, social and ethical behaviour which maintains the order of society and in the larger sense, the cosmos. For the Hindus of south India, dharma is the dutiful pathway leading to oneness with Brahman. For Buddhists, dharma is following the path of the Buddha's teachings. For Jains, dharma is righteous conduct. See also; Sanatana Dharma, Ashrama, Purusharthas.
A gana is an anarchic cosmic element and unwittingly created when Brahma created the universe out of the formless Brahman. Ganesha, as Remover of Obstacles assisted Brahma and Saraswati to bring order out of gana chaos, hence his name.
The yogic discipline dedicated to physical exercise in order to help the mind to relax and improve concentration while enhancing the body’s strength and flexibility. The technique is coordinating a number of asanas in fluid movement with controlled breathing. Hatha yoga dates as far back as Hinduism’s Vedic roots in the 1st millennium BCE.
beyond the Indus
Anyone who self-indentifies as Hindu. The term didn’t exist until the 13th century when medieval Persians coined the word to describe the land “beyond the Indus (River)”. Until “Hindu” came into popular usage during the early part of the colonial era, its spiritual beliefs were known simply as Sanatana Dharma, The Eternal Way. See also; Sanatana Dharma
A total experience of reality as opposed to the illusory of Maya. Jnana in it’s highest form sets the soul, atman, free of samsara. Ajnana, or avidya, is the illusion that keeps the soul from liberation, or moksha. See also; Maya, Atman, Samsara, and Moksha.
One of Hinduism’s four aims in life; erotic or aesthetic pleasure. The personification of this desire is the Divine Couple; Shiva, as Lord of mind, body and senses, and Shakti as Mother Goddess; source of creation and fertility. See also; Purusharthas, Dharma (spiritual path), artha (material wealth) and moksha (Oneness).
Karma means action or intent. An individual’s action will cause an effect, influencing the individual’s life, either in the present life, or in one’s future reincarnated lives, or in heaven or hell. Karma is independent of any deity or divine judgement and a fundamental concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, though its scope and specifics vary. For instance, in Budhhist thought, in addition to a person’s action, even a person’s word or thought will affect their future life.
end of the world
The end of the world. Deities endure but mankind is lost.
loosely translated as play
A broad term for everything from Krishna playing with his friends to Brahma creating the universe spontaneously rather than intentionally.
Maithuna is a Tantric term for ritual union, physical or metaphysical, of a male/female couple. Just as neither spirit (male principle) nor matter (female principle) by themselves are effective only when working together in harmony, maithuna is effective only then when the union is consecrated. In union the couple become divine: Shakti and Shiva. An orthodox Hindu point of view is that unless this spiritual transformation occurs the union is carnal and sinful. Maithuna is best known illustrated in the Lakshmana temple structures of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.
The illusory nature of the world perceived as reality. Maya is the play (lila) of God enacted through Shakti, his creative and dynamic energy or force. Maya is our illusion that our physical selves and the world we experience are separate and apart from Brahman.
For Hindus in south India moksha is the essential goal of their spiritual experience. It is attaining a permanent state of oneness with Brahman thus breaking the endless and painful cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). Over time disciplines and esoteric practices evolved to reach moksha; meditation (particularly yoga), trance, breath control, and the repetition of words or phrases of divine power (Mantras). See also; Darshan, Purusharthas, Smartism,
The transcendental realm. See also; Acintya.
revered son of Shiva and Uma
In south India at the time of the Chola Empire, Ganesh became known as Pillaiyar. In what has become the state of Tamil Nadu, Ganesha is still known by that name.
The four chief aims of human life. They are, from lowest to highest: sensual pleasure (kama), worldly status and security (artha), personal righteousness and social morality (Dharma), and liberation from the cycle of reincarnation (moksha). See also; Ashrama, Dharma.
All that is eternal, indestructible and all pervasive; the cosmic cognitive male principle. Purusha exists only when unified with the female principle of Shakti, the cosmic dynamic and creative force of life. Purusha and Shakti are interdependent, equivalent and each principle is ineffective without the other. See also; Shakti.
Shiva as Supreme Deity
Saivites worship Shiva as supreme over all other gods and goddesses. They believe Shiva alone is the personification of Brahman. Saivites are more inclined toward asceticism than adherents of other Hindu sects and may be found wandering India with a tilak of three horizontal stripes on their foreheads performing self-purification rituals. They worship in the temple and practice yoga, striving to be one with the Shiva within. See also; Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Tantrism and Smartism.
Possibly pre-Vedic, the Samkhya philosophy is closely related to yoga in that it is believed through deep meditation the mind may rationally attain sacred truths through deductive reasoning rather than direct experience of the divine, aka Bhakti.
The endless, painful cycle of death and rebirth undergone by living beings and ruled by the laws of karma. All Indian religions share a belief in some form of samsara. See also; Karma.
The Eternal Way
The Hindu system of belief and practice as it was known before medieval Persians used the term “Hindu” to describe “The country beyond the Indus River“.
The literary and sacred language of ancient India. An Indo-European language related to ancient Greek, Latin, and the modern languages of Europe - including English.
The all pervading nature of Brahman. Brahman is in all things and in all places. See also; Acintya.
energy and power
Shakti is the life force of Brahman, The Ultimate Reality. Shaktic energy is interdependent and co-equal with Purusha, the male cognitive principle. To understand the difference a metaphor might be that if Purusha is the book then Shaki is the book’s meaning. In mythology, Shakti manifests as the Divine Female, goddesses such as Uma, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati, as well as other lesser goddesses such as Ganga. See also; Adi Shakti, Shaktism, Purusha and Acintya.
Devi as Supreme Deity
Followers of Shaktism believe Shakti is the supreme power and creative energy in the Universe. Shaktism’s foundational text is the Deva Mahatmya, The Glory of The Goddess. Shaktism is closely related with Tantric Hinduism, which teaches rituals and practices for purification of the mind and body. Shaktas may use chants, real magic, holy diagrams, yoga and rituals to call forth cosmic forces. Shakti as Devi in her many forms is worshipped throughout India but most popular in eastern India. See also; Deva Mahatmya, Tantrism and Smartism.
Smartism, unlike sectarian Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism, believe more than one god represents various aspects and principles of one supreme entity, Brahman, The Immensity. Where a Saivite, for example, believes Shiva to be the Supreme Deity over all other gods, a Smartist recognises Brahman as the highest principle in the universe and worships Brahman in one of six forms: Ganesha, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda. Smartism is a relatively modern Hindu tradition and, generally speaking, popular with contemporary Hindus. See also; moksha, darshan,
what is heard
Sruthi are sacred texts which make up the central canon of Hinduism. They span most of the history of Hinduism, beginning with some of the earliest known Vedas and ending with the early modern era Upanishads. Sruthi are transcendent and authoritative scripture over anything written by humans. They are believed to have come from the gods to ancient sages (rishis) who then translated what they heard into human language, ie Sanskrit. Sruthi existed in the mind of the gods before the beginning of time. The core Sruthii are; Rig Veda, hymns recited by the chief priest (hotr); the Yajur Veda (hymns recited by the chief priest’s assistant (adhvaryu), Sama Veda (hymns sung by the udgatr), and Atharva Veda (a Brahmin priest overseeing the ritual). See also; Vedas and Sruti.
The chief solar deity in Hinduism. Surya is the chief of the nine planets and important elements of Hindu astrology. He is often depicted riding a chariot harnessed by seven horses which may represent the seven colours of the rainbow or the seven chakras in the body. Surya’s origins lie in pre-Vedic Aryan spiritual belief although other indigenous groups also worshipped the sun under different names and personifications.
thread or line
A thread or line that holds things together (think suture), usually in the form of a manual. See also; Kamasutra
Tantrism is an ancient accumulation of stringent rituals, practices and ideas which has had a profound influence upon Hindu, Buddhist and Jain ritual. In theory Tantras are concerned with: Yoga, temple architecture, icon creation, and religious practices; in reality, they tend to deal with such aspects of popular Hinduism as spells, rituals, and symbols. They are distinguished along Hindu sectarian lines between the Shaiva Agamas, the Vaishnava Samhitas, and the Shakta. Outside of Asia the sexual aspect of Tantric ritual has been grossly exaggerated, as the union of female and male principles has far greater depth and meaning when their union is metaphysical. After suppression first by medieval Mughals in India and modern Chinese in Tibet, very little orthodox Tantric knowledge exists. See also; moksha, Mantra, mudra, yoga, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism.
Followers of Vaishnavism worship Vishnu and all his aspects and incarnations as the Supreme Deity and the personification of Brahman, The Immensity. Followers are generally non-ascetic, monastic and devoted to meditative practice and ecstatic chanting. They also wear a U shaped mark on the forehead with a long stripe between the two arms of U. Vishnu is worshipped throughout India but most popular in northern India. See also; Shaivism, Shaktism, Tantrism and Smartism.
The world we experience through our senses, therefore distorted by our desires, perceptions and expectations. See also; Prakriti and Maya.
Yoga is as old, complex, diverse and inclusive as Hinduism itself and central to all of its major Hindu traditions. Yoga and Hinduism are very powerful either on their own or practiced together. Central to Hindu theology is the belief that yogic philosophy and techniques began with Shiva, although followers of Vishnu or Krishna attribute them to be the originators. Modern yogic practice originated with the sutras of Patanjali in the 2nd century CE and later medieval Tantric yoga practices. Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century is credited with bringing yogic practice to the West. See also; Adiyogi, Tantra and Yogeshwara.
Unit of Time
A yuga is a unit of cyclic time believed to be 432,000 mortal years in length. A dvapana is twice the time of a single yuga), a treta (thrice) and a satya quadruple) for a total of 4.32 million years, a yurgic cycle repeating itself endlessly. Each yuga has its own characteristics involving levels of spirtuality and spans of life. Our current yuga, the Kali, began 5000 years ago and is the worst of times, a time of quarrel and deceit. Morality and spirituality is at its lowest ebb and the maximum span of life one can expect is only 100 years. For more see; http://sanskrit.org/time-in-hinduism-the-yuga/
Glossary of Terms – Hindu TheologyTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:15:14-08:00
A fundamental human need is connection, with our self, our family, and our friends. Many of us also long for connection with something greater, something transcendent, and in Hinduism that transcendent something is Brahman, The Great Soul of The Universe – eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, everything that ever was, is now, and ever will be. Hindus also believe that within each of us is a spark of Brahman’s essence, our, Atman. Our soul. (note 1).
“That which is the finest essence, This whole world has as its soul.
That is Reality. That art thou.”
Chandogya Upanishad 6.9.4
Basic Tenets; The three great religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all share these fundamental beliefs.
Oneness; All forms of life – gods, humans, flora, and fauna – are one.
Time is cyclical and everything in the universe, including the universe itself, is endlessly cycling through creation, destruction, and rebirth (note 2),
Maya; Our experience of the world is transitory and illusional,
Samsara; All living beings are born and reborn in an endless reincarnation cycle of birth, an illusional life, death, and rebirth.
Karma; One’s good and bad actions accumulate through our life to determine the form into which we will be reborn.
Moksha; The spiritual goal of all three religions is release from Samsara.
Dharma, a value shared by all Indian faiths it has no simple definition and depends to a great degree upon the context in which it is used. A gross generalization might be to aspire to a righteous, dutiful and moral life,
Artha, translates as “meaning, purpose or essence.” In a personal sense, it means securing one’s career, wealth, and prosperity.
Kama, taking pleasure in the senses. Whether in the arts, in nature or sexuality, Kama is essential to a well-lived life, provided it doesn’t violate one’s dharma,
Moksha, only humans have the potential for the consciousness to transcend Maya and achieve Moksha, the transcendental and eternally blissful merging of one’s Atman (essence or soul) with Brahman, The Great Soul.
“The life span of a man is one hundred years. Dividing that time, he should attend to three aims of life in such a way that they support, rather than hinder each other. In his youth, he should attend to profitable aims (artha) such as learning, in his prime to pleasure (kama), and in his old age to dharma and moksha.”
Kama Sutra: 1.2.1 – 1.2.4
The four Vedic stages of Hindu life (ashramas) are Purusartha, literally “object of human pursuit”;
Brahmacharya (student life) where one builds the foundation of one’s life by learning how to live a life of Dharma through the study of sacred texts, philosophy, logic, and science.
Grihastha (household life) is when one strives to live a dharmic, family-centred life. This is the stage of life when one produces the food and wealth, or artha, which enable others in the family and community to pursue their stages of life. This is also the time of sensory pleasures, or kama when the person is most engaged in the world.
Vanaprastha (retired life) when the responsibilities as a householder are passed on the next generation. As a grandparent, your family comes to you for advice. It is a time when of gradual withdrawal from worldly affairs as the focus turns to moksha.
Sannyasa (renounced life) where the material life is left behind. Some at this point embrace an ascetic life, where possessions are few, and the focus is on a simple spiritual life.
Note 1 – This belief carries over into daily interactions with others. The anjalimudra, hands together, palms touching, fingers pointing up, thumb gently touching the Anahata, or heart chakra, is a gesture of respect to the tiny spark of Brahman in the person being greeted. Its literal meaning is, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
Note 2 – Hinduism views time in great cyclic periods known as yugas. There are four such yugas, and today we live in the period known as Kali Yuga, the era of spiritual darkness, ignorance, and destruction.