The Four Major Hindu Religious Texts

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Ancient India and Hindu tradition boasts a rich and diverse range of historical texts that prior to their translation into foreign languages, including English, were written in Sanskrit and other Indian languages (1). Although exactly what texts constitute Hindu canon are debated they usually are thought to include the Agamas, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and Vedas (2). Hindus classify these texts into the Shruti and Smriti (3). The Shruti includes authoritative, ancient religious texts transmitted by sages (rishis), and are deemed of great spiritual significance (4). The Smriti texts are deemed less authoritative than the Shruti texts for most Hindus, and are believed to be inspired and/or derived from the Shruti. These Hindu texts come down through a line of oral transmission through which they were transmitted from one generation to next before being written on to manuscripts (5).

The Agamas

The Agamas are works revered by certain sects of Hinduism and are generally dated later (from 500 AD onward) than other Hindu scriptures (6). Agama literally means “tradition,” and therefore denote concepts and spiritual doctrines that have come down through tradition and that have been put into writing (7). Much of the Agamas consist of information relating to the intricate construction of temples and images including intricacies pertaining to temple lighting and dimensions (8). They also focus on a wide range of subjects from philosophy, medication, yoga, worship to cosmology and other topics, and present philosophical views of reality such as dualism and monism (9).

The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita, commonly referred to simply as the Gita, is part of the Mahabharata, the well-known Hindu epic poem (10). It is thought to have once been an independent source that was included in the 6th book of Mahabharata (chapters 23-40). The Gita is a hugely influential work in Hindu tradition given its expansive contribution to Indian philosophical and spiritual traditions. It was likely authored at some point in time between 400 BC and 200 AD which suggests that scholarly theories of its date of authorship vary (11). In regards to authorship, it is unknown who penned the Gita although tradition attributes its authorship to a man named Vyasa. However, Vyasa is more a legendary development as opposed to a historical figure (12).

Roughly at the time of its writing, India was undergoing significant social change as it begun increasing its development in trade, industry, and urbanization (13). The Gita was thus an ancient text seeking to instill a sense of calmness, serenity, and permanence in this period of rapid change. Additionally, asceticism was a common spiritual practice at the time (14). The notion that one was to leave behind the likes of material possessions, family, and work was intertwined with religious and spiritual life. The Gita challenges this notion that only ascetics could live perfect spiritual lives through such practices. It thus seeks to determine how one could integrate spiritual values into ordinary life, as well as live a meaningful spiritual life without having to withdraw from society.

The narrative of the Gita focuses on a war in which two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, are competing for the throne of Hastinapura located in the kingdom of Kuru. This is known as the Kurukshetra war, a mythologized war whose historicity is a matter of debate (15). According to the story, these cousins and their armies gather on the battlefield and the victor will take the throne. A man named Arjuna, an archer and the leader of Pandavas, examines his opponents on the battlefield and to his dismay observes his friends and family in their ranks. In a moment of contemplation, Arjuna reasons to the view that the throne and controlling the kingdom are not worth the blood of his loved ones and therefore withdraws from the battle. What follows is a dialogue he has with Krishna, the avatar of the god Vishnu, who is Arjuna’s charioteer in the battle, and who attempts to persuade Arjuna to engage the enemy. Arjuna, convinced by the spiritual and philosophical teachings of Krishna, decides to engage in the battle and wins in the end, and the Pandavas gain ownership of the kingdom.

The Upanishads

The Upanishads form a part of the Vedas and have made significant contributions to Indian philosophy through its spiritual and theological ideas (16). There are many of these texts (over 200) with the early Upanishads having been penned in northern India and the later ones in the south. Their dates of composition are uncertain although between 800 BC and 300 BC has been proposed (17). The authorship of the majority of them are unknown (18). Like the Gita, they were also penned during a time in which many Indians were ascetics and in turn rejected materialistic pursuits. The Upanishads exist as independent texts as opposed to a single piece, and therefore convey the spiritual views, experiences, and wisdom of a number of people (19). Consequently, given the diversity of experience and wisdom, they do not provide a unified system of thought. However, there are several general spiritual concepts that underlie much of the philosophy within the Upanishads. These include the concepts of dharma, karma, moksha, and samsara, as well as the Hindu concept of Brahman, the universal reality (20).

Dharma is a moral principle and the notion that we all possess social obligations (21). The term itself means “right behaviour” or “right way of living.” Karma is the idea that all actions have consequences, whether good or bad (22). Karma, viewed as an impersonal and eternal law, determines the conditions of one’s next life based on the individual’s decisions. Moksha means “liberation” or “release.” In this respect, it is the liberation or release from the cycle of death and rebirth, also known as reincarnation (samsara) (23). Samsara is the idea of reincarnation according to which, a person, after having died, is reborn again into another body (24). This rebirth can take different forms whether that be an animal or human being. Further, Hindus believe that Brahman is the Ultimate Reality and the reason why everything exists (25). Brahman is also thought to be beyond all description and intellectual understanding. The human soul (referred to as ‘atman’) is connected to Brahman, and after achieving moksha the human soul returns to Brahman.

The Vedas

The Vedas consist of a number of ancient texts which employ a diverse range of literary genres including prayers, poems, and myths. They are also some of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism with proposed dates between and including 1900 BC to 1100 BC (26). These texts possess great significance for Hindus who view them as more than merely human authored. Their information is revered as possessing uncreated, eternal truths, and therefore believed to be revelation on behalf of some deity (27). There are four Vedas: the Atharvaveda, Rigveda, Samaveda, and Yajurveda, as well as four classifications referred to as the Aranyakas, the Brahmanas, the Samhitas, and the Upanishads. The Samhitas include mantras and benedictions, the Aranyakas and Brahmanas consist of texts and commentaries on matters relating to ceremonies, philosophical conjecture, rituals, and sacrifices, and the Upanishads mostly elucidates on topics of meditational, philosophical, and spiritual significance.

The Atharvaveda consists of 20 books with some 730 hymns and was compiled somewhere between 1200 BC and 1000 BC (28). Of the four Vedas, the Atharvaveda was accepted last in the line, and is a collection of beliefs pertaining to spells, religious medicine, prayer, and rituals. The Rigveda is a very ancient collection of songs and liturgy penned between 1500 BC and 1200 BC (29). Its 1028 hymns, divided into 10 books referred to as mandalas, are full of ancient metaphors and allusions. This text is also not one that provides much in the way of social and political systems although it does evidence in several hymns the agricultural life in ancient India at the time (30). The Samaveda, known as the Veda of melodies and chants, takes almost all of its verses from the Rigveda (31). It is a liturgical collection of a creative combination of music, meaning, and spirituality used by the ancient singer priests. The Yajurveda contains a number of commentaries stating how rituals and sacrifices should be conducted and is dated to 1200 BC or 1000 BC (32).

Integral to the Vedas are theological concepts of gods. In this respect, they are polytheistic as they present a multitude of gods. Most of these gods are related to natural phenomena such as storms, fire, and wind (33). Of these gods, Indra (the Sky-god and the head of the ancient Hindu pantheon), Agni (the god of fire), and Soma are the most frequently mentioned.

References

1. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 2011. Religious Developments in Ancient India. Available.

2. Klostermaier, K. 2007. A Survey of Hinduism: Third Edition. p. 46-52.

3. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Smriti. Available.

4. O’Flaherty, W. 1988. Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. p. 2-3.

5. Graham, W. 1993. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. p. 67-77.

6. Schomerus, H. & Palmer, H. 2000. Śaiva Siddhānta: An Indian School of Mystical Thought, Motilal Banarsidass. p. 7-10.

7. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Agama: Hindu Literature. Available.

8. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Ibid.

9. Davis, R. 2014. Ritual in an Oscillating Universe: Worshipping Siva in Medieval India. p. 167.

10. Williams, G. 2008. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. p. 304.

11. Fowler, J. 2012. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students. p. xxiv-xxiv.

12. Davis, R. 2014. The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography. p. 37.; Violatti, C. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 2013. Bhagavad Gita. Available.; Williams, G. 2008. Ibid. p. 304.

13. Violatti, C. 2013. Ibid.

14. Violatti, C. 2013. Ibid.

15. Upinder, S. 2006. Delhi: Ancient History. p. 85.

16. Violatti, C. (Ancient History Encyclopedia.). 2014. Upanishads. Available.

17. Phillips, S. 2009. Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy. p. 25-29.

18. Easwaran, E. 2007. The Upanishads. p. 298-299; Violatti, C. 2014. Ibid.

19. Radhakrishnan, S. 1951. The Principal Upanishads. p. 22.

20. Phillips, S. 1998. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Brahman to Derrida. p. 1-4.

21. Horsch, P. 2004. From Creation Myth to World Law: The early history of Dharma. Journal of Indian Philosophy. p. 423-448.

22. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Karma. Available.

23. Ingalls, D. 1957. Dharma and Moksha, Philosophy East and West. p. 41-48.

24. Juergensmeyer, M. & Clark Roof, W. 2011. Encyclopedia of Global Religion. p. 271-272.

25. Dhavamony, M. 2002. Hindu-Christian Dialogue: Theological Soundings and Perspectives. p. 43-44.

26. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 2011. Ibid; Witzel, M. 1997. The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu. p. 261-264.

27. Violatti, C. (Ancient History Encyclopedia). 2018. The Vedas. Available.

28. Witzel, M. 2003. Vedas and Upaniṣads. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. p. 68.

29. Anthony, D. 2007. The Horse The Wheel And Language. How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World. p. 454.

30. Jamison, S. & Brereton, J. 2014. The Rigveda: the earliest religious poetry of India. p. 57-59.

31. Michaels, A. 2004. Hinduism: Past and Present. p. 51.

32. Witzel, M. 2003. p. 68-70.

33. Violatti, C. 2018. Ibid.

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One response to “The Four Major Hindu Religious Texts

  1. Pingback: 18 Hindu Spiritual Concepts and Terms You Should Know | Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy·

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