Sunday, May 27, 2007

On Revelation

All Hindu scripture is divided into two categories. The ‘Shruti’ literature – that which was ‘heard’, and the ‘Smriti’ literature – that which is remembered. Roughly, these two types of literature correspond to ‘revelation’ (shruti) and ‘tradition’ (smriti).

The core of the ‘Shruti’ literature is the ‘Veda’ – which simply means ‘knowledge’. The Veda is Hinduism’s most ancient scripture and is axiomatically regarded as an absolute authority revealing fundamental, eternal and unassailable truth. Paradoxically, however, its content has long been practically unknown to most Hindus, and it is seldom drawn upon for literal information or advice. Still, it is venerated from a distance by every traditional Hindu (astika - from the verb asti = to be, to exist, thus ‘astika = ‘he that believes in the existence of’), and those Indians who reject its authority are regarded as unfaithful to their tradition (nastika – he who does NOT believe in the existence of). The Veda is also regarded as the basis of all the later texts (the ‘smriti’ or tradition part of Hindu scripture) used in Hindu doctrine and practice. Interesting to note here is a fact that underlines the primacy of the Veda for Hinduism; nastika, the ‘unbeliever’ is not a person who rejects a deity, who denies the existence of ‘God’, he is a person who rejects the authority of the Veda. However, this does not make Hinduism the people of a ‘book’ primarily because the ‘Veda’ is more of the ideal of eternal knowledge and does not simply refer to the collection of hymns. Even more puzzling to the western students of Hinduism is the fact that the Vedic hymns are not a set of rules or laws for religious, or social behaviour, and the Veda does not by itself enjoin a specific morality on those who revere it. Vague as this idea sounds, it will become clear when the classification of Vedic scripture is outlined.

The ‘Veda’ is not regarded as the ‘word’ of the deities. The Veda is eternal, it does not come into existence when a God ‘speaks’ it out, Veda has always been – always will be. The Veda is fundamental; it exists on its own (swayambhu) and does not depend upon a deity for its existence. The Veda is not a ‘book’ because eternal knowledge cannot be encompassed in a book. Interpreting the Veda as the ‘word’ of the Brahman, is also not accurate either because an attribute-less reality cannot ‘speak’ a ‘word’.

The Vedic literature comprises of something like a four by four matrix. There are four Vedas, the Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. Each veda comprises of four sections:

1. The Samhita (collection): a collections of hymns (suktas and mantras)

2. The Brâhmaòas (named after the Brahmins who conduct the Yajna): a manual of the rituals of the Vedic fire sacrifice along with the meaning of these rituals, the Brahmanas

3. The Aranyakas (‘books’ of the forest): these texts mark a transition from the ritualism of the Samhita and the Brahmanas to the speculative philosophy and spiritualism of the Upanishads. So many Aranyakas form the concluding sections of the Brahmanas, while some Aranyakas have the Upanishads appended to them or embedded in them. These scriptures are esoteric in nature, and they emphasise the the true mystique of the Yajna (sacrifice rituals), by glorifying the inner mental sacrifice as against the external material one. Hence, these texts were traditionally restricted for study and contemplation in the forest (aranya); hence the name aranyaka.

4. The Upanishads (to sit beside): Regarded as the culmination of the Vedas, the Upanishads are often referred to as ‘Vedanta’ – ‘end of the Vedas’, because they are the last part of the Vedic scripture. The Upanishads represent the esoteric knowledge imparted by the teacher (guru) to his disciple/ pupil who ‘sits beside’ him; hence the name Upanishad. The importance of the Upanishads as the core spiritual wisdom of India cannot be over-emphasized. The Upanishads are concerned with the contemplative-realisational aspects of spiritual life, as against the ritual aspect as described in the samhitas and the brahmanas. There are over 200 Upanishads, including such recent works as Khristopanishad and Allopanishad (Upanishads about Christ and Allah respectively). However, most of these 200 are known as Upanishads for name sake only. Usually, 13 Upanishads are regarded as the principal Upanishads, and are connected with one Vedic rescension / branch or another. The principal Upanishads were composed between 1000 BCE to 300 BCE.

The Upanishads represent the high watermark of Vedic thought, but many aspects of their teachings were too subtle to be adequately comprehended by ordinary people. They demanded a high intellectual level, strict spiritual discipline and a degree of Vedic education. The Upanishads gave the people a philosophy, but not a religion.

Usually when the word ‘Veda’ is used, it refers to the entire body of Vedic literarure. However, when the name of a specific Veda is used it generally refers to the samhita of that Veda. Thus the term ªig Veda usually means the Rik Samhita or the Rig Veda Samhita. The erm ‘four Vedas’ often signifies the four samhitas. These are the oldest religious scripture of Hinduism and span almost a millennium from 1800 BCE to almost 1000-900 BCE. The four samhitas are:

1. the Rig Veda: comprising sacred songs and hymns (mantras, suktas) praising the Vedic deities is the oldest of the Samhitas. It is estimated that the Rig Veda was composed between 1800 BCE to 1200 BCE. It has 1028 suktas (hymns) arranged in 10 books called mandalas. Many of these books are named after the clan of Brahmins descended from the seer who ‘heard’ the hymns. The suktas of the Rig Veda in praising the exploits and achievements of the vedic deities present their mythology. However, some suktas serve as an indication of future developments in Vedic thought along two different lines, ritualism and philosophical speculation.

2. the Sâma Veda: consisting of melodies and chants used by the brâhmaòas (Brahmins, priests) during the fire-sacrifices ‘yadnya or yajna’. Most of the 1549 mantras in this samhita are taken from the Rig Veda, particularly the 8th and 9th books (mandalas). These hymns are re-arranged for liturgical purposes in forms that can be used as ‘samans’ (chants) during the yadnya. Using the Sama Veda hymns as basis the actual chants of the recorded in the ‘ganas’ collections of songs.

3. the Yajur Veda like the Sama Veda is also ritualistic in character and is in many ways the first regular textbook of Vedic ritual as a whole. It mainly deals with the duties of the ‘adhvaryu’ the chief Brahmin who officiates over the rites of the Yadyna / Yajna. (The name of the veda Yajur and the Yajna derive from the same root word Yaj). There are two main branches or rescencions of the Yajur Veda, the Krishna or Black Yajur Veda and the Shukla or White Yajur Veda. These rescensions are not different so much in content as in arrangement. In the Black Yajur Veda, the mantras or hymns (mostly derived from the Rig Veda), the Yajus, sacrificial formulae in prose, and the ritualistic explanation (known as the Brahmana) are mined together.

4. the Atharva Veda: a very heterogeneous collection of mantras. Unlike the Sama Veda and the Yajur Veda which mostly repeat the hymns of the Rig Veda, the Atharva Veda is an independent set of mantras that concerns itself with the everyday life of the Vedic people and is usually considered the Veda of magic. The Atharva Veda hymns are very diverse in character, they have charms to counteract diseases and ward of evil spirits, descriptions of medicinal herbs, prayers for health, wealth, happiness and longevity, love spells, chants that help kings accomplish various royal tasks, black magic and counter black magic, and perhaps most surprisingly, philosophical speculations.

As described above, each samhita has its associated brahmana, aranyaka, and upanishad. It will be easier to present these in a tabular form:

Veda Samhita (Rescensions) Brahmana Aranyaka Upanishad
Rig Veda Rk Kaushitaki, Aitareya Kaushitaki, Aitareya Kaushitaki, Aitareya
Sama Veda Jaiminiya Tandya, Jaiminiya, Talavakara Chandogya, Kena
Krishna Yajur Veda Taittiriya, Kathaka,


Taittiriya, Katha Taittiriya, Katha Taittiriya, Katha, Svetaswatara, Maitri
Shukla Yajur Veda Vajaseniya Shatapatha Isa, Brihadaranyaka
Atharva Veda Atharvana Gopatha

Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya

This massive collection of texts is the ‘shruti’ or revealed scripture of Hinduism. Before moving on to the even more voluminous ‘smriti’ portion of Hindu scripture, I would like to add a few words about the Upanishads. Better known in India and abroad as 'Vedanta' - the culmination of the Veda, the Upanishads are regarded by most scholars of Hinduism and Indian religions as the foundation of Indian philosophy. The Upanishads are significant for two main reasons. Firstly they represent what is called the 'Axial Shift' in Indian thought. And secondly, they articulate clearly for the first time, several key concepts that are the cornerstones of Hinduism and Indian Buddhism. It would not be wrong to say that the Upanishads mark the transformation of the Vedic religion of the ancient Aryans, into Hinduism.

The Vedic Aryans, lived in the thick of divinity. The Vedic deities were not just presiding masters of natural phenomena controlling them from their heavenly abodes, they were these forces in person. Everything in the world was infused with divinity and the Vedic deities themselves belonged to the everyday world of men. Part of this Aryan view of the universe was the concept of ‘Rta’ the cosmic order. The sacrifice (yajna) was the very centre of these cosmic processes as well as human concerns, and religious desires and goals. It was through the sacrifice that the cosmos continued in its cycles and that human beings obtain the goods of life and a place in heaven in the next world. The aim of spiritual life during the early Vedic period was to maintain the cosmic order and secure for man, prosperity, happiness, bounty and longevity in this life, and prolonged enjoyment of the same in heaven after death. This was done by singing hymns of praise to the Vedic deities and offering oblations to them as part of the Yajna.

The Upanishads, mark a dramatic shift in spiritual thought. ‘Heaven’ was no longer seen as the summum bonum of mankind’s spiritual quest. The idea gained ground that material enjoyments, even the attainment of heaven and its pleasures was transient; that moksha, (liberation, state of perfect bliss and complete freedom), could not be attained by mechanical performance of rituals (works, karma) alone. The Upanishads develop four crucial concepts the that are central to Hindu metaphysics, atman, Brahman, karma and samsara. These and some other Upanishadic concepts are also shared by Buddhism and hence they have had an impact well beyond the geographic boundaries of their country of origin. These ideas were radically new in the 10th Century BCE and were the true fruition of tentative speculative beginnings made in the Samhitas and Brahmanas. It is the Upanishads that state that the goal of spiritual life is to attain moksha; and moksha is attainable through gaining true knowledge of the self (atman) which reveals the identity, the oneness of the atman with the Brahman. Atman is Brahman. 'That thou art', proclaim the Upanishads.

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