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
Anyone who has spent time in India knows it can often be a full spectrum sensory experience, and that is something especially true of its spiritual life; the fragrance of incense, flowers and burning lamps, the sharp ring of bells, mantras chanted softly in the dark, the vivid colours of garlanded icons, all fully involve the senses of the worshipper, enhancing the experience of connecting with the Divine.
Ritual worship requires a material object to focus the mind; a tree, a lingam, or a bronze sculpture of a favourite deity, any material object deemed sacred by the worshipper (note 1). When the devotions are directed toward an icon, it is treated as an honoured guest. Water and flowers are gifts of honour and devotion even the poorest can afford, and these offerings, in addition to prayers and the chanting of Mantras, are intended to ensure the deity feels welcome and appreciated (note 2). Once the worshipper has endeared himself to the deity with devotion and sincerity, worship intensifies with prayers expressing praise and gratitude.
Puja; Just as it is today, Puja was the central act of worship in the Chola period. Puja offers the solace of a ritual that calms the mind. Lamps, flowers and bells awaken the inner senses and subtly direct a quiet heart towards an experience of God. Whether performed softly at home, or part of a lengthy, elaborate ritual involving scores of priests, the common elements of Puja are the same. When performed at home;
A lamp is lit, and a beautiful icon is revealed – sight,
Incense and flowers are offered (note 3) – smell,
A bell or bells are rung – sound,
An offering of water or yajna (vegetarian food or sweets) – taste (note 2),
Lamps circled three or more times clockwise before the icon, heat from the lamps – touch.
Temple worship is somewhat more elaborate than the simple daily pujas performed at home and follows the rituals set out in the Agamas, Tantras and ritual manuals (paddhati) such as the Kamikagama, codified in the time of the Cholas.
The icon is ritually bathed (abhiseka) and sandalwood paste, sesame oil and curd rubbed onto the deity’s ‘body’,
Then it is dressed in new clothes, and adorned with a fresh sacred thread (valayajnopavita), gold, jewels and fragrances, as well as having a dot of red turmeric applied between the eyebrows,
Offerings of sweets and cooked rice are made accompanied by a cacophony of ringing bells. Once blessed, these offerings are now deemed yajna, or consecrated, and taken away at the close of the ritual to be consumed by the devotee.
The curtains are drawn and devotees have the opportunity to experience Darshan, a powerful connection through reciprocal eye contact between devotee and deity,
The climax of temple puja is when the priests wave a camphor lamp in a circular motion in front of the deity accompanied by the blowing of conches and loud drumming. The priest will then offer the lamps to the devotees who may cup their hands over the flames and ritually bathe their eyes and faces accepting the god’s light and warmth unto themselves. They then accept a thumb of white ash or turmeric upon their foreheads or tie a red thread around their wrist, the left for females, right for males. With that, the temple puja is over.
It is believed by some that if an icon does not receive puja regularly, it may lose its appeal for the deity. The rates at which icons lose their ‘charge’ varies between individual gods (Shiva and Kali, for instance, require more than less dynamic gods, say Ganesha or Hanuman), or whether the icon is situated in a temple or a private home. Temple pieces require more ‘recharging’ than home sculptures due to the greater demands placed upon them by multiple supplicants.
Aarti; another important ritual synonymous with Puja is Aarti, an offering of light, usually from oil lamps, of songs or chants. The Ganga Aarti at Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills is a particularly spiritual and uplifting experience. It’s an informal affair, commencing with the singing of hymns (bhajans), prayers, and a purifying fire ritual (hawan) dedicated to Agni, the fire god. At the Aarti’s conclusion, children sing hymns as small lamps (diya) are lit and set into the Ganges to float away into the darkness.
Pranapratishtha; If you purchase a sacred sculpture destined to become part of your spiritual practise, once it arrives, you may want to perform a consecration ritual (pranapratishtha), which symbolically awakens Brahman’s essence within your sculpture.
Note 1 – friends were travelling through Rajasthan a few years ago and came upon a shrine to a fellow who had crashed his motorcycle. For some reason, the truckers deemed the motorcycle ‘auspicious’ and started leaving offerings of cigarettes and alcohol. Hindu theology says that everything animate or inanimate holds within it a spark of Brahman’s divine essence and is therefore worthy of veneration, even a Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Note 2 – traditionally, each god prefers specific flowers for puja. Lakshmi prefers pink lotus; Saraswati likes white; Bhu Devi, blue. Vishnu likes lotuses, of course, but is also fond of tulsi leaves (which should never be offered to Ganesha). Kali, Ganesha and Hanuman prefer any flower in red, while Shiva and Uma enjoy white. Marigold and red hibiscus is everybody’s favourite.
Note 3 – coconuts will often be offered, as well. They symbolize the ego whose hard shell must be broken to access the goodness within. As the centre of community life, temples are a magnet for commerce and worshippers can purchase a puja ‘kit’ of traditional offerings.