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
The roots of Hinduism may go back as far as 9000 BC to the first indigenous civilizations in the Indus Valley, but as they say, the specifics are “lost in the mists of time.” Very little is known of pre-Vedic indigenous spiritual life in India, but scholars believe they were centred – just as they were for virtually every other indigenous culture – upon natural and cosmic forces such as storms, fire and the sun. These forces were eventually given names and superhuman character traits which would ultimately be absorbed into Vedic worship, as gods with physical form and specific characteristic and responsibilities such as Rudra, Agni and Surya. Much later, elements of Rudra’s characteristics would evolve to become those of Shiva, while Rudra’s importance would wane. Other Vedic gods represented more abstract qualities such as friendship (Mitra) and statecraft (Indra). A similar process applied to many other deities as well. The inclusive nature of Hinduism ensures ancient pre-Vedic beliefs live on as nature spirits, such as yakshas, which still guard springs and trees, while the homes of cobra-like deities, or nagas, such as anthills will often receive offerings of food and flowers (note 1).
While most scholars agree The Vedas would become the authoritative spiritual source of Hinduism (note 2), there is an ongoing debate over whether they originated with the religious beliefs of Aryans or Indus Valley civilizations. The Aryans were multi-ethnic, Sanskrit speaking, tribal nomads from what is now Iran, who moved into the Indus Valley around 4000 BP. The indigenous Indus Valley civilizations, on the other hand, were agriculturists with sophisticated civil engineering technology and extensive sea-going trade networks (note 3). While their writings have yet to be decoded, they likely spoke a Dravidian dialect, which may have formed the basis for the Tamil language (note 4). Aryan religious beliefs were based on ritual sacrifice to deities embodying natural forces such as storms, rain and rivers (Rudra), fire (Agni), and the sun (Surya). Vedic foundations of Hinduism are possibly a synthesis of Aryan and Harappan, beliefs and may have included yogic meditation and the concepts of Shiva and Shakti. The Vedas, in the form of hymns and poems, were passed down orally for thousands of years before being written in Sanskrit between 3700 and 2500 BP. Meanwhile, Aryan hierarchal social structure (varna) grew out of Vedic religious practice and later came to be known as the caste system (note 5).
The period from 1000 BC to 500 AD saw the peak of Vedic spiritual influence in India. As its ritual and practice grew more sophisticated, scholars and sages continued to expand Vedic thought in three further volumes of writings; Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These texts introduced the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, while later Upanishads developed the concept of Atman, the deep inner essence within the individual, and moksha, union with the Ultimate Soul; Brahman. The Vedas now offered an alternative to temple rituals, and it was now possible to worship a personal manifestation of Brahman.
Traditionally, access to The Vedas and performance of their rituals was the exclusive right of the literate upper caste. Brahmin control over access to God led to widespread spiritual dissatisfaction, and the masses began to believe the ritual performance was of less importance than the ritual’s meaning to the individual. A movement (Sramana) gained popularity, which encouraged an internalized spiritual path through personal ascetism, setting the stage around 2600 BP for the birth of Buddhism (note 6) and Jainism (note 7). Buddhism rejected Vedic ritual, seeking moksha through meditation, while Jains rejected the concept of both Brahman and Atman altogether, finding moksha through strict austerity, and by 400 BC, both religions had gained ground on Hinduism. It was reported by a Chinese diplomat that in Kanchipuram, (south India) alone, there were 100 monasteries and 10,000 monks. This was not to last, however, as Hinduism would eventually absorb many Buddhist and Jain principles and practices, and by 1200 AD, Buddhism was on the fringes of south Indian spiritual life.
Devotional practice in south India reflected the passionate nature of the Tamil people and proved to be fertile ground for a renewed burst of spiritual energy known as Bhakti. Beginning about 1400 600 AD ascetic Tamil poets wandered south India, reciting poems and singing devotional hymns of unparalleled beauty and passion, praising Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Devi, the Mother Goddess. These poet-saints espoused a goal of mystical union with God bypassing the Brahmin controlled Vedic temple rituals with its divisions of caste and gender.
Eight hundred years ago the poetess-saint Mahadeviyakka wrote of her devotion to Shiva in terms not unlike that of a lover to their beloved;
“He bartered my heart, looted my flesh,
claimed as tribute my pleasure, took over all of me.
I’m the woman of love,
for my lord, white as jasmine.”
In the time of the Cholas, most Hindus wouldn’t disagree The Vedas were Hinduism’s spiritual source, though outside of Brahmin priests, very few would live their lives strictly according to Vedic precepts. The majority of popular Hindu practice is ritual worship to one or more or all the gods. Bhakti may be confined to one or two personal Gods, but a worshipper would be quite comfortable, for example, calling upon Ganesha to remove an obstacle in their lives in one moment and in the next to to beseech Boga Shakti to grant them a grandchild. Then as now, when devotees visit a large temple, for instance, they traditionally follow a circuit around the outside the main temple structure offering puja to stone icons, or mulamurti, installed in niches along the walls before they enter the inner temple. Hinduism’s innumerable deities are not deities in their own right but are manifestations of Brahman, The Ultimate Truth and Reality. Each god or goddess is a lens through which the worshipper is offered a brief glimpse of Brahman; therefore, there is no contradiction for a Saivite, for example, to offer devotion to Vishnu or a Devi or a sacred rock at their village well.
Note 1 – When the primary source of domestic water for so many rural Indians is a well or spring, and when a recent survey of doctors in India showed 46,000 deaths a year by snake bite, perhaps it is understandable that people would like to stay on the right side of yakshas and nagas.
Note 2 – It’s essential to bear in mind The Vedas were created by human beings rather than the literal word of a Creator Deity. They are, therefore, open to interpretation and have been for thousands of years, resulting in a truly vast body of sacred literature, added to and amended up to the present day.
Note 3 – The Harappans were the first in the Indian sub-continent to cast bronze sculpture in about 2500 BC.
Note 4 – Around 1700 BC, the Harappans migrated into south India after the collapse of their Indus Valley Civilisation following a 200-year drought.
Note 5 – Despite the efforts of today’s Indian government to eliminate the caste system, it is so ingrained by 4,000 years of Indian culture that such efforts have been mostly ineffectual. By the way, the word caste comes from the Portuguese word for colour.
Note 6 – The decline of Buddhism in India had more to do with the attraction of participation in social and cultural life rather than the Buddhist doctrine of renouncing and retreating from the world. Today in India, Buddhism is enjoying a modest rise in popularity, primarily due to the conflict of modern human rights values with a patriarchal Vedic caste system.
Note 7 – Jainism, with its extreme austerity, has never enjoyed mainstream popularity, though its beliefs have had a disproportionate effect upon Buddhism and Hinduism.
The History of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T15:44:34-08:00