Vedas - Upanishads - Puranas
The oldest literature
of Indian thought is the Veda, a collection of
religious and philisophical 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. Four collections were made,
so it is said that there are four Vedas. The four
as a group came to be viewed as sacred in Hinduism.
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.
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
The term Upanishad
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.
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.
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.
In the Upanishads,
views about Brahman (the Absolute, or God) and
atman (one's true self) were proposed.
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 (see
The Vedas). 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
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.
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 dialog, 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 as… you are that.
The Puranas contain
the essence of the Vedas. They were written to
impress the teachings of the Vedas onto the masses
and to generate devotion to God in them. They
have five characteristics: history, cosmology
(with symbolical illustrations of philosophical
principles), secondary creation, genealogy of
kings, and Manvantaras (the period of Manu's rule
consisting of 71 celestial yugas).
The Puranas were
meant, not for the scholars, but for ordinary
people who could not understand high philosophy
and could not study the Vedas. There is an emphasis
on the worship of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu
(the preserver), Shiva (the destroyer), Surya
(the Sun God), Ganesha (the elephant headed god
known to be the remover of obstructions ), and
Shakti (the goddess). All the Puranas belong to
the class of Suhrit-Sammitas, or the Friendly
Treatises, while the Vedas are called Prabhu-Sammitas
or Commanding Treatises with great authority.
There are 18 Puranas
: Brahma Purana, Padma Purana, Vishnu Purana,
Vayu Purana or Siva Purana, Bhagavata Purana,
Narada Purana, Markandeya Purana, Agni Purana,
Bhavishya Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Linga
Purana, Varaha Purana, Skanda Purana, Vamana Purana,
Kurma Purana, Matsya Purana, Garuda Purana and
Of these, six are
Sattvic Puranas glorifying Vishnu; six are Rajasic,
glorifying Brahma; six are Tamasic, glorifying
Siva. Vyasa, the son of Rishi Parasara, is said
to be the author of them all.