The Vedas – That Which was Heard

The Vedas – That Which is Heard

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 Heard2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00

Glossary of Terms – Hindu Sacred Texts

Glossary of Terms – Hindu Sacred Texts

CategoryTermTranslationDescription
Hindu Sacred TextsAgamasacquisition of knowledgeThe Agamas are a Tantric collection of Tamil and later Sanskrit scriptures defining proper standards and techniques for temple construction, symbology, modes of worship, philosophical doctrine, meditative practice, attainment of sixfold desires, the four types of yoga, and the creation of bronze and stone icons (murtis). The Agamas insist each sacred icon ought to be as beautiful as possible out of respect for the deity depicted. This Agamic instruction is also Mantra Sacred Sculpture’s mission statement. See also; Shilpa Shastra and Tantra.
Hindu Sacred TextsAranyakaThe Forest BooksThe Aranyakas are the books of the Rig Veda dealing with the philosophy behind Vedic ritual. See also; Rig Veda, Samhita, Brahmanas and Upanishads.
Hindu Sacred TextsArthasa Shastraspolitical and military scienceA discussion and guide to statecraft, waging war, economics and social welfare.
Hindu Sacred TextsBhagavad GitaSong of GodThe Bhagavad Gita (lit; The Song of God) is a question and answer discussion between Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, and his friend, Prince Arjuna, on the eve of a great battle between different factions of Arjuna’s family. Arjuna is racked by the ethical questions arising from his involvement and Krishna offers his counsel on issues of duty, selfless service, devotion and meditation. Krishna’s thoughts and advice to his friend are considered by most Hindus as a uniquely powerful influence upon how they conduct their daily lives. The Bhagavad Gita is found in Chapters 23 to 40 of Book Six of the epic Mahabarata. See also; Krishna and Arjuna.
Hindu Sacred TextsBhashyacommentaryA general term used to describe a schollarly commentary or expansion upon a sacred text.
Hindu Sacred TextsBrahma SutraHindu philosophyA foundational text of the Vedanta school of thought. The Brahma Sutra discusses the nature of Brahman, reviews alternates to Vedic thought such as Buddhism, offers the means to achieve moksha and the benefits of spiritual knowledge. See also; Upanishads, Vedanta, Brahman, Atman and moksha.
Hindu Sacred TextsBrahmanamantras and hymnsThe section of The Vedas teaching rituals as they pertain to Mantras and hymns. See also; Vedas and Samhita
Hindu Sacred TextsDeva MahatmyaGlory of The GoddessThe foundational text of Shaktism which describes the Goddess as the supreme power and creator of the Universe. It contains 700 verses arranged into three episodes; the first depicting Devi as the Shaktic power behind the creation myths of Vishnu and Brahma; the second concerns the origins myth of Mari Amman, or Durga; and the third is the origins of Kali. All are allegorical tales symbolizing Devi in all her aspects vanquishing ego, pursuit of power and possesions, and arrogance, all human frailties in the form of demons. Commonly recited in its entirety during the festival of Durga Puja in October or November. See also; Durga, Shakti, Mahadevi.
Hindu Sacred TextsDharma ShastrasDharmic scienceRooted in Vedic scholarship, the Dharma Shastras discuss the role of Dharma in terms of duties and responsibilities to oneself, one’s family and one’s community in general. Interestingly, the colonial British used the Dharma Shastras as a basis for civil law in India for non-Muslims, who were governed by Shariah law.
Hindu Sacred TextsDharma SutrasDharmic guideThe source and inspiration for the Dharma Shastras, they are far older and few have survived. They deal with civil and criminal law as well as marriage and inheritance. They, and particularly the Dharma Shastras are a life’s guide to purusartha, spiritual goals, the stages of one’s spiritual life (ashrama), and principles of non-violence (ahimsa) and other ethical issues. For example; “Practise righteousness (dharma), not unrighteousness.
Speak the truth, not an untruth. Look at what is distant, not what's near at hand.
Look at the highest, not at what's less than highest.”
- Vasishtha Dharma Sutra 30.1
Hindu Sacred TextsItihasaso indeed it wasThe Itihasa is the historical mythology of the gods and goddesses told through the great epic tales of the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita) and Ramayana. These stories, and those of the Puranas are also known as the Fifth Veda for their importance in inspiring the faith of ordinary Hindus. See also; Puranas.
Hindu Sacred TextsKama Sutralove guideThe Kama Sutra discusses the philosophy and theory of love, what triggers desire, what sustains it, how and when it is good or bad. Contrary to the perception in the west, the Kama Sutra is not exclusively a sex manual, in fact only about a fifth concerns sexuality. Kama is one of four goals of Hindu life and translates as desire, including sexual desire. The writing of the Kama Sutra in the 2nd century CE is attributed to Vatsyayana. See also; Vatsyayana.
Hindu Sacred TextsMahabharataepic allegorical poemAt 1.8 million words and 200,000 lines the Mahabarata is possibly the longest epic ever written and comprised of 18 books, or parvas, one of which is the Bhagavad Gita, as well as other philosophical and theosophical treatises. The Mahabarata is an accretion of many stories within stories with an account of the the dynastic history of the Bharata clan as its overarching theme. See also; Bhagavad Gita, Krishna and Arjuna.
Hindu Sacred TextsNatya Shastrathe science of danceAn ancient foundational treatise defining the guiding principles of classic temple dance, as well as its theory, body poses (hastas), gestures (mudras), expressions, symbolism and standards. Codified some two thousand years ago it remains virtually unchanged from when it was written by scholar Bharata Muni. See also; hastas, mudras and Shastriya Nritya
Hindu Sacred TextsPuranasdivine mythologyWritten literature (as opposed to oral) whose themes are history, tradition and religion and usually written in the form of stories told by one person to another. There are eighteen major Puranas, each dedicated to; various stories of the gods and goddesses, hymns, an outline of ancient history, cosmology, rules of life, rituals, and spiritual knowledge. Most Puranas originated in oral form from about 1500 BCE, reaching their final written form around 500 CE. The Puranas, together with the Itihasas are jointly referred as the Panchama Veda or the fifth Veda for their importance in sustaining Hindu faith. See also; Smriti.
Hindu Sacred TextsRig Vedawhat is heardThe oldest and therefore the most authoritative of the Vedic sacred texts. Dating from 2100 to 1700 BC, they consist of Samhita, hymns of praise to the gods and goddesses, Brahmanas, commentariies on the hymns, Aranyaka, the philosophy underlying Vedic ritual and the Upanishads, treatises on spirituality and theosophy. Mantras and chants found in the Rig Veda are still in use today for events such as weddings, making the Rig Veda the world’s oldest religioust text in continuous use. See also; Samhita, Upanishads,Vedas and Sanskrit.
Hindu Sacred TextsSamhitaHindu liturgyThe Samhita section of the Rig Veda is dedicated to Mantra, benedictions and hymns to to deities of the Hindu pantheon. See also; Rig Veda, Vedas, Sruti.
Hindu Sacred TextsShastraencyclopediaThe root term used for Hindu science. Hinduism reveres truth above all and see no conflict between science and spiritual belief. Example; the Shilpa Shastra
Hindu Sacred TextsShilpa Shastrascience of arts and craftsShilpa Shastras are sacred texts dealing with arts and crafts such as the creation of icons in stone or bronze, painting, carpentry, pottery, jewellery, dyeing, textiles and others. The term used for the instructional guide defining the design, rules, principles and standards of sculptural art, temple architecture and 62 other traditional art forms. The Shilpa Shastra guidance is spread out over many ancient texts rather than one definitive volume. See also; Talamana.
Hindu Sacred TextsShlokapoetic styleFor many centuries the sacred texts of Hinduism were committed to memory and shared orally. It was found that a poetic style known as shloka was effective as a device to ensure accurate recollection. Much of Mahabharata/Bhagavad Gita, for instance, is in the shloka style and could be sung as well as recited.
Hindu Sacred TextsSmriti and Sruthiwhat is heard and what is rememberedSmriti are sacred text remembered as what was heard from the sages (rishi) after they had received the Sruthi and passed them on to their followers. Smriti is human knowledge and can therefore be debated or edited, while Sruthi is divine knowledge and must be accepted in its entirety. In any disagreement the divine Sruthi overules. Smriti sacred texts are fluid and have been freely edited according to ancient and medieval tradition.Bhasyas (reviews and commentaries on Sruthi and Smriti texts), and numerous Nibandhas (digests) covering politics, ethics (Nitishastras), medicine, culture, arts and society. See also; Vedas, Upanishads.
Hindu Sacred TextsTamilsweet soundTamil is a distinct language from Sanskrit, with its own set of sacred literature very nearly as ancient as The Vedas. Traditionally the creator of the Tamil language was the mythic Rig Vedic rishi, Agastya. While Vedic Hinduism in north India was influenced by Muslim culture over almost a millennia, Vedic Hinduism in the south, with Tamil as its lingua franca, remained much closer to ancient Vedic traditions.
Hindu Sacred TextsUpanishadstheological treatiseThe Vedic source of spiritual belief for Hinduism. The Upanishads expound upon the nature of Brahman, The Immensity, and Atman (the individual soul) which are the spiritual core of Hindu belief. There are 200 Upanishads in number but the oldest 12 or so are considered the most important; dating from roughly 3000 BP and extracted from The Vedas over time. Addendums to the Upanishads continue into the present time, and widely known as the Vedanta. See also; Vedanta.
Hindu Sacred TextsVatsyayanaScholarA Vedic philosopher believed to have lived in India 2200 BP. Best known as the author of the Kama Sutra.
Hindu Sacred TextsVedangasVedic scienceA guide to understanding Vedic literature through the application of linguistics to archaic Vedic texts. The Vedangas also guide rituals and ceremonies and formed the foundational basis for the Dharmasutra’s concepts of civil law.
Hindu Sacred TextsVedantaend of The VedasA collection of ideas derived from The Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras concerning the nature of Brahman, Atman and Maya, the illusional world. The Vedanta is the distillation of Hindu theology. See also; Brahman, Atman, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutra.
Hindu Sacred TextsVedasknowledgeThe Vedas’ are Hinduism’s sacred literature. They are the unwritten language of the Gods both revealed (sruti) and remembered (smurti) written in human language. (In mythology it is believed Brahma, with significant assistance from Saraswati, created The Vedas, and Ganesha was the scribe who wrote them down). There are four Vedas, each consisting of four parts; Mantras, rituals, theology and philosophy. The Upanishads are the distillation of The Vedas and were writthen towards the end of the Vedic Period from 3750 to 2500 BP. See also; Rig Veda, Sruti, Smriti and Upanishads.
Hindu Sacred TextsVyasaHindu sage and authorVyasa is arguably the most significant scholar in the development of Hinduism. He lived about 3500 years ago and credited with categorizing The Vedas and for authoring the epic Mahabarata, dictating it, according legend, to his scribe, Ganesha. Popular tradition says there was only one Vyasa, but in Sanskrit the word vyasa simply means compiler, so debate continues whether there is in fact one Vyasa or many vyasas.
Glossary of Terms – Hindu Sacred Texts2019-11-06T18:02:38-08:00

Hindu Belief

Hindu Belief

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. 

Spiritual goals;

  • 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. 

Hindu Belief2019-11-08T05:41:32-08:00

Hindu Sacred Texts

Hindu Sacred Texts

The sacred literature of Hinduism is a vast, many-layered, aggregation of ancient thought, belief and tradition with The Vedas as its core. The texts are divided into two classifications; Sruti – that which was heard, and Smrti – that which is remembered. The difference between them is Sruti is accepted by most Hindus as something akin to revelation and therefore inviolate, whereas Smrti consists of several books containing the divinely inspired thoughts and opinions of scholars who have expounded and elaborate upon foundational Sruti. The expansion and revision of the Smrti texts continue to this day as Hinduism embraces and reflects modern values and priorities.

We live in a world where knowledge is at our fingertips, and it’s important to remember the origins of the oldest Hindu scripture are from a pre-literate oral tradition. The Vedas literally translates as The Knowledge andlearned by rote and passed from generation to generation. It takes a great deal of time to memorize such a vast corpus of information and an effective technique is to repeat it over and over in a sing-song fashion rather than straight memorization, which would explain why so much of Hinduism’s sacred literature takes the form of poetry and hymns.

When such a vast and complicated body of work is held in memory it requires members of the community exempt from time-consuming secular tasks to spend their days teaching or learning or in temple service, and the Brahmin caste developed out of this requirement. As custodians of the mysteries governing the spiritual health of the community, they enjoyed a special status and were generally exempt from secular demands on their time. Information in written form can be shared, therefore it took many centuries for the Brahmins to relinquish their exclusive access to Hindu sacred literature. Their role in a community’s spiritual life continues much as it always has however as custodians of temples and temple rituals.

 

Hindu Sacred Texts2019-11-05T13:47:40-08:00
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