The Sacred Texts of Hindus
In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life; and it will be the solace of my death. They are the product of the highest wisdom.
– Arthur Schopenhauer, the German Philosopher
If you visit a bookstore where religious books are sold and look for books on Hinduism, you will find a number of divergent books. You may not know as to which one is the main text and which is not. Hence, it is necessary to know which are primary and which are secondary. We do not have a single text attributed to a single prophet, as in other religions. Instead, we have several works which were revealed by sages over a period of time.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Hindus regard three texts as their primary texts – the Vedas, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
The Vedas: The most ancient and primary texts for the Hindus are the Vedas. The time of their composition is uncertain. Traditionalists even today maintain that the Vedas are directly revealed from the Supreme Being, called Brahman. But it can be reasonably established that they were revelations of several ṛṣi-s who had left their families, retreated to jungles and contemplated
about the mysteries of the universe with an unbiased mind.
It 20 was a time when there were no rigid boundaries for the countries as we see now, and it appears that they were composed at five to six thousand years ago. It is undisputed that the Rigveda is the oldest human document available. The language used is Vedic Sanskrit which is fairly distinct from the classical Sanskrit.
The antiquity of Vedas was never in question till the Europeans came to India. Several European scholars started studying Vedas in addition to the whole mass of Sanskrit literature. Their writings had profound impact on the European thought process. A recent book, ‘American Veda’ by the American writer Phillip Goldberg makes an interesting reading.
It traces the impact of Indian philosophy on the West starting from Schopenhauer (the German philosopher of seventeenth century) till modern day. (The book is a compulsory reading for every Indian scholar).
The European scholars like Max Muller were bewildered by the sheer volume and depth of Indian philosophical thought.
It was not similar to what they encountered in other colonial countries. Their first problem was to fix the time of composition of the books. They could not accept the Indian view that the Vedas were composed thousands of years ago, as the Biblical scholars and religious heads like Bishop Ussher had established that God created the Universe in 4004 B.C. and nothing on earth could be dated prior to that. They accepted the Biblical chronology and so they had to map all other cultures and societies on the Biblical time scale. With all this, there is some agreement now amongst scholars that they were composed during the period between 2000 and 1500 B.C.
The initial portions of these Vedas contain lyrical eulogies for different deities. Along with these are described certain rituals called ‘yajna’ in order to propitiate these deities. In addition,
there are forms of meditation on various deities. All these are at one level which is traditionally called the karma kānḍa, i.e. the portion of Veda which deals with Gods and rituals and what we now call religion. This is what is referred to as the lower level of truth or empirical reality.
It is the end portions of Vedas which were the cause of serious interest among philosophers all over the world. These end portions are called Upanishads, and their teaching is called ‘Vedanta’ – ‘anta’ meaning ‘the end’ or the final word of the Vedas.
This is what is referred to as the higher level of reality or absolute reality.
These portions of Vedas are deliberations in what is now called philosophy. The subject matter is not social philosophy or political philosophy as we see in the West, but the deliberation is
on the nature of the Supreme Being, the nature of creation, the nature of human, mind and senses. The final startling conclusion of the Vedas is that the individual and the Supreme Being are essentially one and the same.
Brahma Sutras: Vedas, we know, were composed over a period of a few centuries in different parts of the country.
Though the central philosophy is the same, the language and expression differ in them. It was necessary to explain certain apparent contradictions and demonstrate a unity of thought in
the Vedas. The Brahma Sutras do this job. These are aphoristic statements (sūtra-s) discussing important issues in philosophy and also religion. For instance, they discuss whether god can be
a personal god or impersonal entity. They also discuss whether there are several gods or one and whether we have to worship all gods or any one. This book is for rather advanced students as it
has serious philosophical discussions.
Bhagavad Gita: This is the most important for Hindus. The first thing we have to know about it is that it is not an independent text, but a small portion (700 verses) of the mighty epic Mahabharata (100,000 verses). This epic deals with the great battle between two groups of royal kinsmen, ‘Kauravas’ and ‘Pandavas’. It is encyclopedic in nature. It has several long passages about statecraft, about morality, about religion and about philosophy. Bhagavad Gita is one philosophical passage.
It is a compulsory reading for every Hindu, if one desires to have an idea of the central doctrine of the Vedas. A traditional verse has metaphorically compared all the Upanishads (the end
portions of Vedas) to cows, Lord Krishna, the narrator to the milkman and Arjuna, the listener, to the calf. While the calf is the immediate beneficiary of the nectar called Gita, we are all the incidental beneficiaries.
We are going to know about Gita in an exclusive chapter. The Vedic sages had a scheme for transmission of knowledge. They gave the core texts in the form of Vedas. As the philosophy
of Vedas (Vedanta) is not easily understood by all, they wrote popular texts to spread the message of Vedas. These popular texts are the itihāsa and purāna-s. These are the secondary texts.
Sage Vyasa’s line from the first canto of the great epic Mahabharata defines the framework of these texts:
‘itihāsa purān ābhyā veda samupabṛm hayet’.
‘The message of the Vedas has to be popularized through the itihāsa and purān,a texts’, it says.
If Veda were to be compared to a text of law, the above secondary texts can be compared to
the studies in case law. For instance, if the Veda says ‘satyam vada’ (speak truth), the secondary text gives several examples of people who implemented this injunction, and how they came out
successful in spite of facing several problems during the courseof such implementation. (To be concluded)