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Hinduism Scriptures

by Octavian Sarbatoare

The scriptures of Hinduism in their oral and written forms have a long history going back thousand of years. There is a rich literature of Hinduism, some works being amongst the oldest of humanity. It is generally agreed that chronologically Hinduism can be devided into five periods namely proto-historic, Vedic, classic, medieval and modern.

The proto-historic period of Hinduism is linked to the archeological discoveries of what is known as the Indus valley civilization (approx. 4000- 2200 BCE). The conquering tribes of Aryans brought with them their traditions and beliefs. It is considered that the proto-indo-European language has for the name of the sky the word 'Deiwos' later on becoming 'Deus' in Latin, 'Div' in Iranian, 'Deva' in Sanskrit, etc. The development of the indo- European pantheon of Gods have a common origin for the supreme power, Zeus for Greeks, Jupiter for Romans, Dyaus for the Vedic tribes. There are no scriptures dated from that period, but only the oral tradition managed to retain these beliefs that were incorporated later on into the Veda-s.

The second historical period is the Vedic period from about the middle of the second millennium BCE until about 500 BCE. A class of deities (Deva-s) developed with the creation of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the Rig Veda. The religion was known as 'the path of noble people' (Arya Dharma). The Veda-s (Lit. 'knowledge, wisdom') are a collection of writings structured in four parts known as Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad.The main Samhita-s are Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, the Vedic trinity of that time consisting of the gods Indra, Agni and Surya. An important god was, Soma, so the fourfold godhead of the Veda-s are Indra, Agni, Soma and Surya. Rig Veda (Lit. 'the Veda of praise') is the most ancient sacred book of Hinduism consisting of 1028 hymns arranged in ten Mandala-s. Based on the calendars used in the Veda-s and star positions, the Rig Veda is thought to date in its oral form to 4000 or 6000 B.C. when Saraswati river (now dried) was the greatest river of ancient India.

The post Samhita period known as Brahmana emphasizes on the sacrifice/ offering (Yajna/ Agnihotra) as the main practice to obtain gods' favours. There were works written by the Brahmana-s (Brahmins) the best known being Shatapatha Brahmana and Taittiriya Brahmana. Aranyaka (Lit. 'forest; produced in the forest') are also a specific kind of philosophical works, the well known being Aitareya Aranyaka and Taittiriya Aranyaka. The Upanishad-s (Lit. 'sitting by the side') were a class of philosophical works exposing the spiritual secret doctrine. Traditionally there are 108, only about 10 to 14 are considered to be authoritative. They are regarded as the source of Vedanta and indeed of all the six Indian schools of salvation developed during the classical period of Hinduism. The name 'upanishad' refers to the secret knowledge acquired by sitting near the master. The most important and very elaborated works are seen to be Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Chandogya Upanishad. The whole philosophy of Upanishad-s is summarised by the four great sayings known as Mahavakya-s, i.e. Tattvamasi ('that you are'), Ahambrahmasmi ('I am Brahma'), Prajnanam Brahma ('the ultimate truth is Brahma'), Ayamatma Brahma ('the extention of the Self is Brahma'). Other relevant Upanishad-s are Katha, Ishavasya (Isha), Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Shvetashvatara, Kena.

The classical period of Hinduism is considered to be between 500 BCE to 500 of our era. After it the decline of Vedic cult followed, and the conclusion of the Vedic religion emerged in the form of the concept of Vedanta (Lit. 'end of Veda') that teaches the essence of Veda. A classical work on law is The Laws of Manu (Manavadharma Shastra), a moral code to regulate the Hindu life in all its aspects. Here is developed the concept of Purushartha-s, the aims of the human life, viz. Kama as accomplishment of desires, Artha as accomplishment of prosperity, Dharma as accomplishment of the right conduct in life and Moksha as accomplishment of final liberation. Three important gods became dominant Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Three dominant traditions emerged, the Vaishnava, followers of Vishnu, Shaiva, followers of Shiva and Shakta, followers of Shakti, the Mother Goddess. The Mother Goddess cult was well defined in the Shakta tradition in which the Shakti principle of life as the material aspect of Shiva was emphasized.

Yet, Purana-s (Lit. 'ancient') were a class of Sanskrit scripture of stories about gods as manifestations of one reality. Purana-s, works and epics written in a popular manner, although present in oral form for a long period of time were compiled only later on. They are seen as part of sacred books of Hinduism, sometimes named 'the 5th Veda'. Relevant Purana-s were Vishnu Purana, Markandeya Purana, Shiva Purana, Bhagavata Purana, just to name a few. Yet, the best known works were in the form of the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Part of Mahabharata is Bhagavad Gita as a teaching of essence in Mahabharata. Bhagavad Gita, a yoghic scripture par excellence, recommends the integration of the spiritual aspirant into the social life by following the path of Dharma (virtue). Thus, seclusion was not necessary once the attitude of renunciation to the fruits of actions is employed. The three main path to "liberation" were the path of action (Karma), the path of knowledge (Jnana) and the path of devotion (Bhakti). The six classical philosophies of the Indian tradition (Shad Darshana) known also as the six orthodox (i.e. accepting the Veda) schools of salvation started to developed based on Upanishad-s. These schools are Mimamsa, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta.

The medieval or middle period of Hinduism followed from the 6th century to the 19th century of our era. A new philosophical system emerged, the Advaita inspired by Upanishad-s and Vedanta. The expounder of the doctrine was Shankara. Advaita (Lit. 'without duality') has as fundamental concept the identification between the supreme Soul (Paramatman or Brahman) with the individual Soul (Atman or Jivatman) . All existence was seen as one reality, in so employing a typical monistic approach to knowledge. This was the opening of the theistic philosophical currents that were well developed by Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta traditions. Yet, during this period of time the Bhakti concept flourished. One of the best known work of Bhakti was Ramacaritamanas by the poet Tulsidas (Tulsidasa, Tulasidasa). This was a popular version of the story about Lord Rama, a story based on the original work in Sanskrit, the Ramayana by Valmiki. Yet, the central figure of the Bhakti tradition was Krishna. This period is characterised by a strong reemergence of Tantrism as a much elaborated philosophical system going back in time to the spiritual beliefs of Dravidians, the inhabitants of Indian subcontinent that live now mainly in the South of India. Outstanding works were produced in Hindu Tantra like Tantraraja Tantra, Saundarya Lahari, Mahanirvana Tantra, Kubjika Tantra. Shaiva tradition has produced a distinctive school known as the Kashmir Shaivism, its a well known work being the Shiva Sutras.

The modern period of Hinduism is considered to be from 19th century to the present. The many new cultural factors brought by the British to India has created a revival of Hinduism generating change and transformation. There were movements of socio-spiritual nature like Brahmo Samaj started by Ram Mohan Roy in 1828. Later on another revivalist movement was Arya Samaj founded by Dayananda Saraswati in 1875. Influent personalities were also Mme Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, the founders of The Theosophical Society. Well known representatives of Hinduism from this period were Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, also Sarada Devi the embodiment of the Mother Goddess. Swami Vivekananda became well known in the Western countries. His work like "India's contribution to world thought and culture" helped to bring Hinduism as an equal to other world religions. Another important contribution to the modern Hinduism is that of Shri Aurobindo. Two of his important works are seen to be: "Essays on Gita" and "Life Divine". It is worth to mention here his concept of 'superman' that was later on developed and put into practice by Swami Satyananda Saraswati of Deoghar. Yet, The most significant influence both socially and spiritually during the modern time was that of Mahatma Gandhi. His writings like "All men are brothers", "Ashram observances", "Autobiography" had a significant impact to raise the self-awareness of Hinduism and bring important social changes that including the establishment of India as an independent state in 1947.

To conclude this brief presentation of Hinduism is to say that there is a rich Hindu scriptural literature having a wide range of beliefs and philosophical approaches. Basically, Hinduism is not homogenous by nature, but rather diverse, depending on the historical period and the specific school of thought. Yet, nothing is really lost from any spiritual concept, but rather becomes added to a wider spiritual picture and integrated within the new layers of Hinduism. Therefore there are many "methods" or "recommendations" to any spiritual progress and finally to "liberation" or "salvation". It can be said that Hinduism is one long human endeavour to bring down the divine consciousness by sanctification of the human existence itself.

Further readings (in alphabetical order)

  • Banerji, S. C. A brief History of Tantra Literature, Naya Prakash, Calcutta, 1988
  • Eliade, M. Istoria credintelor si ideilor religioase, Universitas, Chisinau, 1992 (in Romanian)
  • Gambhirananda, S. Chandogya Upanishad, Nabajiban Press, Calcutta, 1992
  • Gambhirananda, S. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Sri Ramakrishna MathPrinting Press, Madras, 1992
  • Gandhi, M. All men are brothers, Navajivan Pub., Ahmedabad, 1980
  • Hinnells, J. A Handbook of Living Religions, John R. Hinnells and Penguin Books Ltd, 1994
  • Sharma, D. S. Hinduism Through The Ages, Bharatya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1973
  • Vivekananda, S. India's contribution to world thought and culture, Vivekananda Rock Memorial Committee, Madras, 1970