There are about 1.1 billion followers of Hinduism in the world. Hinduism is the only major religion of the world that can neither be traced to a specific founder nor has a holy book as the one and only scriptural authority. Hinduism is one of the oldest extant religions with its roots extending back to prehistoric times. The rituals and the religious practices of the Indus Valley Civilization gifted a number of holy books to the world including, the Bhagwad Gita, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas.
Hinduism believes that a person’s life is actually the journey of the soul. The Hindu goes through a series of reincarnations that eventually lead to ‘moksha’, or salvation, freeing the body from the cycle of rebirths (after reaching spiritual perfection). Purity of mind and action is essential, as ‘karma’ or actions in life determine your reincarnation. ‘Dharma’ on the other hand controls the laws of the social, ethical and the spiritual.
The three main manifestations of the omnipresent God are: Brahma, the creator of the universe, Vishnu the protector and Shiva the destroyer. Wars between the Asuras (demons) and the Devas (Gods) are a common part of the Hindu mythology. Hindus are divided into a large number of social groups called castes viz. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras, which historically were assigned by profession, not by birth. Hindus follow the principle of ahimsa, non-injury to living creatures, especially applies cows, which Hindus believe are sacred animals.
More than a thousand years ago, Adi Shankaracharya, who was born in Kerala, established several mathas (religious and spiritual centers) including at Badrinath in the north (Uttar Pradesh), Puri in the east (Orissa), Dwaraka in the west (Gujarat), and at Shringeri and Kanchi in the south.
World’s oldest literature are the Veda, a collection of religious and philosophical poems and hymns composed over several generations beginning as early as 3000 BC. The Veda was composed in Sanskrit, the intellectual language of both ancient and classical Indian civilizations.
Some Vedic hymns and poems address philosophic themes, such as the henotheism that is key to much Hindu theology. Henotheism is the idea that one God takes many different forms, and that although individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really revere but one Supreme Being.
Four collections were made and came to be viewed as sacred in Hinduism. There are four Vedas:
Its traditional date goes back to 3000 BC, something which the German scholar Max Mueller accepted. As a body of writing, the Rig-Veda (the wisdom of verses) is nothing short of remarkable. It contains 1028 hymns (10,589 verses which are divided into ten mandalas or book-sections) dedicated to thirty-three different gods. The most often addressed gods were nature gods like Indra (rain god; king of heavens), Agni (fire god), Rudra (storm god; the ‘howler’), Soma (the draught of immortality, an alcoholic brew).
The Sama-Veda or the wisdom of chants is basically a collection of samans or chants, derived from the eighth and ninth books of the Rig-Veda. These were meant for the priests who officiated at the rituals of the soma ceremonies. There are painstaking instructions in Sama-Veda about how particular hymns must be sung; to put great emphasis upon sounds of the words of the mantras and the effect they could have on the environment and the person who pronounced them.
The Yajur-Veda or the wisdom of sacrifices lays down various sacred invocations (yajurs) which were chanted by a particular sect of priests called adhvaryu. They performed the sacrificial rites. The Veda also outlines various chants which should be sung to pray and pay respects to the various instruments which are involved in the sacrifice.
The Atharva-Veda (the wisdom of the Atharvans) is called so because the families of the atharvan sect of the Brahmins have traditionally been credited with the composition of the Vedas. It is a compilation of hymns but lacks the awesome grandeur which makes the Rig-Veda such a breathtaking spiritual experience.
The term Upanishad (‘upa’ near; ‘ni’ down; ‘sad’ to sit) means sitting down near; this implies the students sitting down near their Guru to learn the big secret. In the splendid isolation of their forest abodes, the philosophers who composed the Upanishads contemplated upon the various mysteries of life and its creation – whether common, or metaphysical. The answers were however not open to all, but only for select students. The reason for this was simple: not everyone can handle knowledge.
It is said that the Upanishads were written to counter the growing influence of Buddhism in India. There is no exact date for the composition of the Upanishads. They continued to be composed over a long period, the core being over 7th -5th centuries BC. The Upanishads were originally called Vedanta, which literally means the conclusion to the Vedas.The composition of the Upanishads marks a significant and stride forward in the direction of knowing the mystery of earth’s creation and one comes tantalizingly close to the answers. Through episodes, commentaries, stories, traditions and dialogue, the Upanishads unfold the fascinating tale of creation, life, the essence of life and of that beyond to the seeker of truth. In the Upanishads, views about Brahman (the Absolute, or God) and atman (one’s true self) were proposed.
There are 18 principal Upanishads viz.:
The Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad is widely accepted to be the most important of all Upanishads. It has three khandas or parts. The madhu khanda contemplates on the relationship between the individual and the Universal self. The muni khanda or yajnavalkya is a debate which goes on to give the philosophical backing to the earlier teaching. The khila khanda tackles various rituals of worship and meditation.
This Upanishad is a part of the Sama-Veda. The name comes from the singer of the songs (samans) who is called Chandoga. The initial chapters of the Upanishad, discuss the ritual of sacrifice. The others debate the origin and profundity of the concept of Om, among other things.
This one forms part of the Rig-Veda. The purpose is to make the reader understand the deeper meaning of sacrifice and to take him away from the outer trappings of the actual act.
A part of the Yajur-Veda, this Upanishad is divided into three sections or vallis. The siksa valli deals with the phonetics of the chants, while the others, brahmananda valli and bhrgu valli deal with self-realization.
Also called the Isavasya Upanishad, this book deals with the union of God, the world, being and becoming. The stress is on the Absolute in relation with the world (paramesvara). The gist of the teachings is that a person’s worldly and otherworldly goals need not necessarily be opposed to each other.
The name of this Upanishad comes from the first word kena, or by whom. It has two sections of prose and two of poetry. The verses deal with the supreme spirit or the absolute principle (brahmaana) and the prose talks of ishvara (god). The moral of the story is that the knowledge of ishvara reveals the way to self-realization.
Also called the Kathakopanishad, this Upanishad uses a story (katha) involving a young Brahmin boy called Nachiketa to reveal the truths of this world and the other beyond the veil.
Prashna literally means question, and this book is part of the Athrava-Veda. It addresses questions pertaining to the ultimate cause, the power of Om, relation of the supreme to the constituents of the world.
This book also belongs to the Atharva-Veda. The name is derived from ‘mund’ or to shave, meaning that anyone who understands the Upanishads is s(h)aved from ignorance. This book inscribes the importance of knowing the supreme brahmaana, only by which knowledge can one attain self-realization.
The Mandukya is an exquisite treatise which expounds on the principle of Om and its metaphysical significance in various states of being, waking, dream and the dreamless sleep. The subtlest and most profound of the Upanishads, it is said that this alone will lead one to the path of enlightenment.
The name of this Upanishad is after its teacher. It comments on the unity of the souls and the world in one all-encompassing reality. The concept of there being one god is also talked about here. It is dedicated to Rudra, the storm god.
Kausitaki Brahmana Upanishad
The Upanishad has come down to us in bits here and pieces there. The core of the text is dedicated to illustrating the fact that the path to release is through knowledge.
This is a comparatively later Upanishad as it has references to the Trinity of Hindu Gods (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma) which is a later development, and plus references to the world being illusory in character reflects Buddhist influence.
Belonging to the Yajur-Veda, this Upanishad puts down a dialogue between the sage Subala and Brahma, the creator of the Hindu Trinity of Gods. It discusses the universe and the absolute.
Belonging to the Athrava-Veda, this Upanishad addresses some questions pertaining to renunciation.
The Paingala is again a dialogue, this between Yajnavalkya, the sage mentioned the Brhad-aranyaka’s muni khanda and Paingala, a student of his. It discusses meditation and its effects.
This Upanishad delves into the state of kaivalya or being alone.
Belonging to the Sama-Veda the Vajrasucika reflects on the nature of the supreme being.
The core of the teachings of the Upanishads is summed up in three words: tat tvam asi… you are that.
The Puranas are a genre of important Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religious texts, notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography.
Puranas usually give prominence to a particular deity, usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another. Brahmin scholars read from them and tell their stories, usually in Katha sessions (in which a traveling Brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana).
The different Puranas are:
Agni (15,400 verses) – Contains details of Vastu Shastra and Gemology
Bhagavata (18,000 verses) – The most celebrated and popular of the Puranas, telling of Vishnu’s ten Avatars. Its tenth and longest canto narrates the deeds of Krishna, introducing his childhood exploits
Bhavishya (14,500 verses)
Brahma (10,000 verses) – Describes about Godavari and its tributaries.
Brahmanda (12,000 verses) – includes Lalita Sahasranamam, a text some Hindus recite as prayer
Brahmavaivarta (17,000 verses) – Describes Worshipping protocols of Devis, Krishna and Ganesha
Garuda (19,000 verses) – Most hallowed Purana regarding the death and its aftermaths.
Harivamsa (16,000 verses) – more often considered itihasa
Kurma (17,000 verses)
Linga (11,000 verses) – Staunch Shaiva Theological Purana
Markandeya (9,000 verses) – The Devi Mahatmya, an important text for the Shaktas is embedded in it
Matsya (14,000 verses)
Narada (25,000 verses) – Describe the greatness of Veda and Vedangas.
Padma (55,000 verses) – Describe the greatness of Bhagavad Gita. Also known as Geetha mathmya.
Shiva (24,000 verses)
Skanda (81,100 verses) – The longest Purana, it is an extraordinarily meticulous pilgrimage guide, containing geographical locations of pilgrimage centers in India, with related legends, parables, hymns and stories. Many untraced quotes are attributed to this text.
Vamana (10,000 verses) – Mostly describes about North India and areas around Kurukshetra.
Varaha (24,000 verses)
Vayu (24,000 verses)
Vishnu (23,000 verses)
The Upapuranas are ancillary texts. They include: Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala, and Hamsa.
The Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas are devoted to Ganesha. The Devi-Bhagavata Purana, which extols the goddess Durga, has become (along with the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.