Hinduism believes that a person’s life is actually the journey of the soul. A Hindu goes through a series of reincarnations in a physical body, that eventually lead to ‘moksha’ (freedom from the cycle of rebirths). Purity of our mind leads to good ‘karma (actions). Good karma in this life are essential as that determine our next birth. Good karma is based on ‘Dharma’ which means righteousness, ethics and the reason of your existence. Hindus are divided into 4 varna (groups) viz. Brahmana-s, Kshatriya-s, Vaishya-s, and Shudra-s. These 4 varna are assigned by swabhava (natural behaviour based on past actions) and current profession, not by birth alone.
The 4 sacred Veda-s
World’s oldest literature are the Veda-s, a collection of religious poems and hymns. The Veda-s was composed in the ancient intellectual language of Sanskrit. Some Vedic hymns address the philosophic theme that one God takes many different forms. The 3 main manifestations of the omnipresent God are: Brahma, the creator of the universe, Vishnu the protector, and Shiva the destroyer. Although individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really revere but one Supreme Being.
As a body of writing, the Rig Veda (the wisdom of verses) is remarkable. It contains 10 mandala-s (book-sections) containing 1,028 hymns with 10,589 verses. Demigods addressed include nature gods like Indra (rain demigod; king of heavens), Agni (fire demigod), Rudra (storm demigod), Soma (the draught of immortality), and Varuna (water demigod).
Sama Veda or the wisdom of chants is a collection of saman-s 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.
Yajur Veda or the wisdom of sacrifices lays down various sacred invocations (yajur-s) which were chanted by a particular sect of priests called adhvaryu. They performed the yagnya rituals. This Veda also outlines various chants which should be sung to pray and pay respects to the various instruments which are involved in the sacrifice.
Atharva Veda is called so because the families of the Atharvan sect of the Brahmana-s have traditionally been credited with the ‘discovery’ of this Veda.
The 18 Upanishad-s
The term Upanishad (‘upa’ near; ‘ni’ down; ‘sad’ to sit) means selected students sitting down near the Guru to learn the big secret. In the splendid isolation of their forest abodes, the philosophers who composed the Upanishad-s contemplated upon the various mysteries of life and its creation. The Upanishads disclose the essence of life to the seeker of truth. In the Upanishad-s, views about Brhmn (Paramatma, the Absolute or God) and atman (one’s soul) are proposed. The Upanishad-s were originally called Vedanta, which literally means the conclusion to the Veda-s.
There are 18 principal Upanishad-s viz:
The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is widely accepted to be the most important of all Upanishads. It has 3 khanda-s (parts). The madhu khanda contemplates on the relationship between the individual and the Universal self. The muni khanda of Yagnyavalkya is a debate which gives 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 (saman-s) who is called Chandoga. The others discuss the origin and profundity of the concept of Aum, among other things like yagnya (fire ritual).
This one forms part of the Rig Veda. The purpose is to make the reader understand the deeper meaning of yagnya (fire ritual) and to take him away from the outer trappings of the actual act.
A part of the Yajur Veda, this Upanishad is divided into 3 valli-s (sections). The shiksha valli deals with the phonetics of the chants, while Brahmananda valli and Bhrigu valli deal with self-realization.
Also called the Ishavasya 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 (Paramatma). 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 2 sections of prose and 2 of poetry. The verses deal with the supreme spirit or the absolute principle (Brhmn) 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 Brahmana boy called Nachiketa and Yamaraja to reveal the truths of this world and beyond.
Prashna literally means question, and this book is part of the Atharva Veda. It addresses questions pertaining to the ultimate cause, the power of Aum, 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 Upanishad-s is shaved from ignorance. This book inscribes the importance of knowing the supreme Brhmn, only by which knowledge can one attain self-realization.
The Mandukya is an exquisite treatise which expounds on the principle of Aum and its significance in various states of being, waking, dream and the dreamless sleep. The subtlest and most profound of the Upanishad-s, 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 core of this text is dedicated to illustrating the fact that the path to release is through knowledge.
This refers to the Trinity of Hindu Gods (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma), and references to the world being temporary in character.
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 Atharva Veda, this Upanishad addresses some questions pertaining to renunciation.
The Paingala is a dialogue between Yagnyavalkya and his disciple Paingala. It discusses meditation and its effects.
This Upanishad delves into the state of kaivalya (being alone).
Belonging to the Sama Veda, the Vajrasuchika 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 (Brhmn, the Supreme Soul).
The Purana-s and Upa-purana-s
The Purana-s are important Hindu religious texts, consisting of historical narratives of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings and sages, and Hindu geography. Purana-s describe various wars between the Asura-s (demons) and the Deva-s (demigods). Purana-s describe Hindu philosophies like ahimsa (non-injury to living creatures), and worshipping of cows which Hindus believe are sacred animals. Brahmana scholars read stories from the Purana-s in katha sessions, in which a travelling Brahmana settles for a few weeks in a temple for the narration.
The different Purana-s are:
- Agni (15,400 verses) – Contains details of Vastu Shastra and Gemology
- Bhagavata (18,000 verses) – The most celebrated and popular of the Purana-s, telling of Vishnu’s Avatara-s. Its tenth and longest canto narrates the deeds of God Krishna, introducing his childhood exploits.
- Bhavishya (14,500 verses)
- Brahma (10,000 verses) – includes legends of River Godavari and its tributaries.
- Brahmanda (12,000 verses) – includes Lalita Sahasranamam, a text some Hindus recite as prayer to the Supreme Goddess
- Brahmavaivarta (17,000 verses) – Describes worshipping protocols of Devi-s, Krishna and Ganesha
- Garuda (19,000 verses) – Most hallowed Purana regarding the death and its aftermaths.
- Harivamsa (16,000 verses) – Appendix of the epic Mahabharata
- Kurma (17,000 verses)
- Linga (11,000 verses) – staunch Shaiva Theological Purana
- Markandeya (9,000 verses) – includes the Devi Mahatmya, an important text for the Shakta-s
- Matsya (14,000 verses)
- Narada (25,000 verses) – Describe the greatness of Veda-s and Vedanga-s
- Padma (55,000 verses) – Includes Geetha mahatmya, the greatness of Bhagavad Geeta
- Shiva (24,000 verses)
- Skanda (81,100 verses) – The longest Purana, it is an extraordinarily meticulous pilgrimage guide, containing geographical locations of pilgrimage centres in India, with related legends, parables, hymns and stories.
- Vamana (10,000 verses) – includes description of the areas around Kurukshetra
- Varaha (24,000 verses)
- Vayu (24,000 verses)
- Vishnu (23,000 verses)
The Upapurana-s are ancillary texts. They include: Sanat Kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Shiva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parashara, Vasishtha, Devi Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala, and Hamsa.