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WHAT ARE THE VEDIC TEXTS
They started with Shruti. Shruti literally means “That which is heard”. For long periods of time there was no Vedic literature. It was a vocal or oral tradition, and passed down accordingly. The Vedas and Upanishads were in Shruti form for a long period of time. In fact, the word Upanishad means “Upa (near), Ni (down), Shad (sit).” This means that the teachings of the Upanishads are conveyed from Guru to disciple, when the disciple sits very close to the Guru.
The very first of the sacred books of Vedic culture, in fact the oldest books on earth, are called the Vedas. The word Veda means knowledge. The word Veda came from the root word vid meaning “to know”. The Vedas are the very first scriptures of Hinduism. Vedas, as described by the scriptures, were given by God. There are four Vedic samhitas, which are the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Atharva-Veda, and Yajur-Veda. The Sanskrit word samhita means “put together”. They contain wisdom that has been assembled to teach men the highest aspects of truths which can lead them to higher levels of existence, as well as to God. The Vedas also discuss rituals and ceremonies to attain self-realization as well as wisdom dealing with many other aspects of life. These four samhitas primarily contain the basic texts of hymns, formulas and chants to the various Vedic deities.
To briefly described them, the Rig-Veda — Veda of Praise — contains 10,522 verses in 1,017 hymns in ten books called mandalas. The Rig-Veda is the oldest book in the world. The Rig-Veda was around for many years before it was finally compiled in written form. According to Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the Vedic tradition, it was written around 5000 BC. The Rig-Veda is older than Gilgamesh (2500 B.C.) and the Old Testament.
In the Rig-Veda there are 100 hymns addressed to Soma; 250 addressed to Indra; 200 hymns addressed to Agni; and many addressed to Surya. Few others are addressed to the Ushas, Aditi, Saraswati, Varuna, and the Asvins. Lord Vishnu is not addressed so often therein because the Vedas focused more on appeasing the demigods for blessings to attain material facility rather than liberation.
The Yajur-Veda, which is essentially the Veda of liturgy, contains some 3988 verses dealing with rules and regulations for conducting rituals and also offers various levels of wisdom and advice. It is based on the Rig-Veda and consists of prose as well as verse. This Veda is indeed a priestly handbook, even describing the details of how to make an alter.
The Sama-Veda, the Veda of chants, offers knowledge of music in 1549 verses. Sama means “melody”. The classical Indian music originated from this Veda. This Veda is also connected with the Rig-Veda. To some extent much of this Veda is a repetition of the Rig-Veda sung in melodious format. Invocations of this Veda are primarily addressed to Soma (the Moon-god as well as the Soma drink); Agni (the fire god); and Indra (god of heaven). The Chandogya Upanishad came out of this Veda.
The Atharva-Veda is said to be the knowledge given by the Sage Atharvana. It has around 6000 verses. Some state that sage Atharvana did not formulate this Veda but was merely the chief priest in the ceremonies associated with it. Atharvana who is mentioned in the Rig-Veda was considered as the eldest son of Lord Brahma (God of creation). The Atharva-Veda is also known as Brahma-Veda because it is still used as a manual by Hindu priests and Brahmins. Ayurveda is a part of Atharva-Veda. A large number of Upanishads also came from the Atharva-Veda.
Brahmanas are other Vedic books that provide descriptions as well as directions for the performance of rituals. The word originated from the Brahmana priests who conduct the Vedic rituals.
Aryanakas are additional books that contain mantras and interpretations of the Vedic rituals. These books also known as “forest books” since they were used by saints who had retired to meditate in the forests.
The Upanishads are texts by different saints that reveal ultimate truths. Many of them are connected with certain Vedas. The Upanishads basically explain the non-material aspect of the Absolute Truth and the oneness of Brahman. In this way, they do not really show that much about the personal nature of the Supreme Being. Thus, a person will not have much insight into the Supreme Being’s personal form by studying only the Upanishads. However, some of them do go into introducing the fact that there is more to understand about God beyond the Brahman.
The Upanishads also help explain the spiritual dimension of our real identity and our qualities which are the same as the Brahman, but are different in quantity. We are the infinitesimal whereas the Brahman and Bhagavan are the Infinite. Yet, if one does not complete the study of the Vedic literature, a misinterpretation of the Upanishads may lead one to think that this oneness of spiritual quality between ourselves or the jiva souls and the Brahman means that we are the same as Brahman, or that we are the same as God. But that is not accurate.
There are a total of 108 major Upanishads, and many more minor ones. The are 13 principle Upanishads which are named after the sages. These are: 1. Isa Upanishad, 2. Kena Upanishad, 3. Katha Upanishad, 4. Prasna Upanishad, 5. Mundaka Upanishad, 6. Mandukya Upanishad, 7. Aitareya Upanishad, 8. Taittiriya Upanishad, 9. Chandogya Upanishad, 10. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 11. Kaushitaki Upanishad, 12. Shvetashvatara Upanishad, and 13. Maitri Upanishad.
The Vedanta Sutras are another important book that also goes on to explain spiritual truths to the aspirant. But these are presented in codes, or sutras, that were meant to be explained by the spiritual master. So any edition of the Vedanta Sutras will mostly have large purports that help explain the meaning of the sutras. The basis of these explanations will depend on which school of thought in which the teacher has been trained. Thus, some will be more devotionally oriented, while others may be more inclined toward meditation on the impersonal Brahman. Vedanta essentially means the “End of the Vedas”, or the end of all knowledge.
The Itihasas are the Vedic histories of the universe, known as the Puranas, which are a large and major portion of Vedic literature. The Itihasas also include the Vedic Epics, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
The Ramayana is the story of Lord Ramachandra, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and His princess Sita. It was written by Valmiki who wrote the whole Ramayana as the narration of a crying dove (who just lost her lover to a hunter’s wicked arrow) to him. The original text
was written in very stylish Sanskrit language. This beautiful poem consists of 24,000 couplets. The Ramayana is a story which projects the Vedic ideals of life. There are many versions of the Ramayana. The Hindi version was written by sage Tulsi Das. The Malayalam version (Kerala state) was written by Thuncheth Ezuthachan.
The story in brief is as follows: Jealousy of his step-mother exiled Rama into the jungles along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. There poor Sita was kidnapped by Ravana, the demon-king of Sri Lanka. Rama went to rescue her with the aid of the monkey-king Sugriva. In a great battle, Rama annihilated Ravana and his army. Thereafter, Rama along with Sita and Lakshmana returned triumphantly to their kingdom. Rama is an example of the perfect husband, Sita is the perfect wife, and Lakshmana is the perfect brother.
The Ramayana is a very cherished poem of the Hindus. The holy Deepavali festival is a celebration of victory of Rama over Ravana. Diwali or Deepavali is the “festival of lights” and is celebrated throughout India.
The Mahabharata is another of the world’s great epics which consists of episodes, stories, dialogues, discourses and sermons. It contains 110,000 couplets or 220,000 lines in 18 Parvas or sections. It is the longest poem in the world. It is longer than Homer’s Odyssey. It is the story of the Pandvas and Kauravas. The Bhagavad-gita is a chapter of the Mahabharata.
Apart from the 18 Parvas there is a section of poems in the form of an appendix with 16,375 verses which is known as Harivamsa Parva. So in total there are 19 Parvas, even though many saints do not consider the last Parva as important.
The Bhagavad-gita, which means the song of Bhagavan, or God, is a part of the Mahabharata, appearing in the middle of it. Many consider the Bhagavad-gita as the most important of the Vedic scriptures and the essence of the Upanishads and Vedic knowledge. Anyone interested in the most important of the Eastern philosophy should read the Bhagavad-gita. If all the Upanishads can be considered as cows, then the Bhagavad-gita can be considered as milk.
The Bhagavad-gita consists of 18 chapters and over 700 verses. It deals with all types of yogas, the means of self-realization. It is in the form of a very lively conversation between the warrior-prince Arjuna and his friend and charioteer Lord Krishna. This was spoken at the outset of the great Mahabharata war, in the middle of the battle field at Kuruksetra. This can still be visited just three hours north of New Delhi. Just before the beginning of the war, Arjuna refused to fight when he found he had to kill thousands of his own kinsmen to be victorious in the war. Lord Krishna advised him on a very large variety of subjects in a question and answer format. At the end, Arjuna took Lord Krishna’s advice and fought and won a very fierce war. The Gita has an answer to every problem a man may face in his life. It never commands anyone what to do. Instead it discusses pros and cons of every action and thought. Throughout the Gita you will not come across any line starting or ending with Thou Shalt Not. That is the reason why the Gita is the darling of millions of seekers of truth throughout the world.
There are many versions of Bhagavad-gita. The very first English translation of the Gita was done by Charles Wilkins in 1785, with an introduction by Warren Hastings, the British Governor General of India. One of the most popular translations was done by Sir Edwin Arnold, under the title The Song Celestial. One of most descriptive and accurate translations of the Gita was done by His Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, called The Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Almost all saints in India have published their versions of the Bhagavad-gita, some of which arrive at various conclusions or viewpoints. So one does need to display some caution in picking which edition to read. Most intellectuals in the world go through the Gita at least once in their life time. Aldous Huxley wrote in his introduction of The Song of God by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood: “The Bhagavad-gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the perennial philosophy”. The Gita won the interest and admiration of great intellectuals such as Von Humboldt of Germany and Emerson of America. It has also influenced many Western thinkers, such as Hagel and Schopenhauer.
Robert Oppenheimer, the very first Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission and father of Atom bomb was a great admirer of the Bhagavad-gita. He learnt Sanskrit during the Manhattan Project to understand the true meaning of the Gita. He really shocked the world, when he quoted a couplet from the Gita (Chapter 11:12) after witnessing the first Atomic Explosion in the state of New Mexico, which reads, “If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in the universal form.” Later when he addressed congress regarding the Atom Bomb he said the Atom Bomb reminded him of Lord Krishna who said in the Bhagavad-gita, “Time I am, the devourer of all”.
The Puranas are the Vedic religious histories of the universe which expound various levels of the Vedic truths. They are divided into three sections. The six Puranas that address Lord Vishnu are: 1. Vishnu Purana, 2. Narada Purana, 3. Srimad Bhagavata Purana, 4. Garuda Purana, 5. Padma Purana, and 6. Varaha Purana.
The six Puranas that address Lord Siva are: 1. Matsya Purana, 2. Kurma Purana, 3. Linga Purana, 4. Vayu Purana, 5. Skanda Purana, and 6. Agni Purana.
The six Puranas that primarily address Lord Brahma are: 1. Brahma Purana, 2. Brahmanda Purana, 3. Brahma-Vaivasvata Purana, or the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana, 4. Markandeya Purana, 5. Bhavishya Purana, and 6. Vamana Purana. Besides these, there are an additional 18 to 22 minor Puranas.
The 20 major Puranas include all the above as well as the Shiva Purana and the Harivamsa Purana. Of all Puranas, the Srimad Bhagavata Purana addressed to Lord Vishnu, and which discusses the detailed pastimes of Lord Krishna, is considered the most important. It contains 15,000 stanzas in 12 cantos. It was written by Sage Badarayana, also known as VedaVyasa or Vyasadeva. Vyasadeva, after writing all of His previous Vedic books, said the Bhagavatam was His own commentary and conclusion of all Vedic thought. The greatest exponent of the Srimad-Bhagavatam is Sage Suka, the son of Sage VedaVyasa. This book was recited to King Pariksit by Sage Suka in one week before the death of the King by the bite of a serpent. Much of the book is in dialogue form between King Pariksit and Sage Suka.
The Srimad-Bhagavata consists of stories of all the Avataras of Lord Vishnu. The 10th chapter of the book deals with the story of Lord Krishna in detail. The last chapter deals exclusively with the Kali-Yuga, the present age, and about the last Avatara of Lord Vishnu, Kalki. There is also a vivid description of the Pralaya or the great deluge in the last chapter.
According to the Bhagavata Purana the universe and creation came into existence because God in a pastime (Lila) willed to do so, and to manifest His material inferior energy. According to this scripture, there are nine different ways of exhibiting Bhakti or devotion to God like listening to stories of God, meditating, serving and adoring his image and finally self-surrender. This book is an authority on Vaishnavism in Hinduism and is a primary text to all Viashnavas (worshipers of Lord Vishnu and His avataras) including those of the Hare Krishna Movement.
The Agamas are another group of scriptures that worship God in particular forms, and describe detailed courses of discipline for the devotee. Like the Upanishads, there are many Agamas. They can be broadly divided into three sets of Agamas, namely:
Vaishnava Agamas – worship God as Lord Vishnu;
Shaiva Agamas – worship God as Lord Shiva;
Shakti Agamas – worship God as Mother Goddess.
There is no Agamas for Lord Brahma (God of creation). Shaivites have 28 Agamas and 108 Upa Agamas (minor Agamas). Shaktas recognize 77 Agamas. There are many Vaishnava Agamas of which the Pancharatra is one of the most important. Each Agama consists of philosophy, mental discipline, rules for constructing temples and religious practices.
The Tantras started during the Vedic age, which consist of cosmology, yogic exercises, etc. Tantra is very important and very vast. The Sanskrit word Tantra means to expand. Tantrism researched into Astronomy, Astrology, Palmistry, Cosmology, as well as the knowledge of the Chakras and Kundalini power, etc