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Hindu Scriptures

(Note: While talking about scriptures, tell them some of the statements from the Vedas, Upanishads. See separate supplement for this.)

The Hindu scriptures are the product of relentless investigations into the facts and truth of life carried out by the ancient sages of Bharat. They contain systematic treatises on varied subjects in the fields of science, religion, metaphysics, philosophy and spiritual knowledge.

They are not limited to a few books because Hinduism does not confine ideas; therefore the scriptures have become a home for many different schools of thought. There is no single textbook for Mathematics nor is there a last or only Mathematician. Mathematics is the collective knowledge of all the Mathematicians over the ages. Similarly what we call Hinduism is the collective knowledge of all the sages who went to discover the Truth. 'Veda', the oldest scripture known to humankind, literally means 'knowledge'.

In Hinduism, there are two categories of books:

1. Shrutis, which deal with never changing, eternal principles, and

2. Smritis, which often deal with the practical application of those principles to the ever changing social order.

'Shruti' means 'what is heard' and 'Smriti' means 'what is remembered. Shruti being divinely revealed to the great Rishis of yore in the depths of their mystical experience, its authority is supreme. Smritis are the secondary scriptures, which derive their authority from the Shruti. Their business is to explain, elaborate and illustrate the fundamental teachings of the Shruti.

However, according to the Hindu view, revelations are not limited to any individual, time or place. Just as there have been revelations in the past, they can occur at present or in future also. The seer is only a medium to transmit the insight, which he receives. Hence he is no more the inventor of the Veda than Newton is the generator of the law of gravity. The laws always existed and they were only 'discovered' or 'seen'. That's why the Rishis are called 'seers'.

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The Vedas are four in number-the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda. The Rig Veda is the most ancient scripture of the world. Lokamanya Tilak, on the strength of astronomical evidences, concludes that it is at least 8,000 years old.

The Rig Veda consists of hymns which are mostly prayers. The Yajur Veda deals mainly with sacrificial rites. The Sama Veda contains a portion of the Rig Vedic hymns set to music. These have to be sung at appropriate stages during a sacrifice. The Atharva Veda, which is a later composition, consists mostly of morals and ethical codes as also a few worldly sciences.

Each Veda is usually divided into four parts: Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The Samhitas contain prayers and mantras used in sacrifices. The Brahmanas give the know-how of sacrificial rites, Aranyakas teach the art of certain types of meditation, based mostly on well-known sacrifices. The Upanishads contain the highest philosophical flights of the Vedic sages, which can be the pride of the whole human race for all time. Schopenhauer, the famous German savant, has declared: "In the whole world there is no study, except that of the originals, so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death."

Then comes the Bhagavad Gita, the most popular of all the Hindu scriptures. The Gita, as it is shortly called, is so well-known all over the world that it has been the second most translated work. Though the Bible ranks first in this regard it should be remembered that its translations were sponsored by the mighty machinery of the colonial rulers of Europe with the enormous material resources at its command. As for the Gita, its beauty, sublimity and universality prompted its admirers to translate it into different languages of the world.

It's probably the only religious book that was taught in a battlefield, a place filled with action. It was not taught to the disciples in the serene mountains of Himalayas. It is in the form of a dialogue between Sri Krishna, the great incarnation of God, and Arjuna, the warrior prince and a man of action, who was caught in a dilemma about his duties. He was confused as to what is right and what is wrong. Serious questions concerning life and death, duty and devotion, knowledge and meditation were discussed, and sensible solutions offered which hold good even to this day. Manliness and selfless devotion to duty are the keynotes of this great little scripture of 700 verses.

There is a verse in Sanskrit that compares the Upanishads to the cows and the Gita to the milk. In other words, the Gita gives the essence of the Upanishadic philosophy in a simple and practicable form. It is an integral part of the Mahabharata.

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Any list of the Hindu scriptures is in complete without the two great epics, the Ramayan and the Mahabharata. Though these two great books deal primarily with the story of Sri Rama and that of the Kuru dynasty respectively, they can more rightly be called the encyclopedia of Hindu religion and culture. These two popular works have influenced and inspired the Hindu civilization for thousands of years. They are technically called Itihasa (history) since they contain the history of the two most important dynasties that ruled and shaped the destinies of our Hindu civilization.

The Puranas are another class of scriptures that describe the teachings of the Vedas through myths, legends and examples of great people. They were created to popularize and simplify religious teachings. There are eighteen main Puranas and many other lesser Puranas. There is also the Devi Mahatmya which describes the worship of God as the Divine Mother.

The Smritis of Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parashara, the Agamas and the treatises on the Darshanas are the other scriptures forming the magnificent edifice of Hinduism built upon the foundation of the Vedas. The Smritis are mostly codes of law intended to regulate Hindu society from time to time, according to the principles of the Veda. The Agamas are scriptures dealing with the worship of a particular aspect of God and prescribing detailed courses of discipline for the worshipper. The Darshanas are schools of philosophy.

The Buddhism and Jainism deny the authority of Vedas. In Sanskrit, those accept the authority of the Vedas are called 'Astika' and those who reject the Vedas are called 'Nastika'. Buddhist, Jain and Charvaka (materialism) scriptures are often termed 'Nastika' literature, though they remain firmly within the fold of Hinduism. Dharmpad and Tripitakas in Buddhism and Kalpa Sutra in Jainism are the main scriptures.

Tamil is the oldest of the Dravidian group of languages. It has both Shaivism and Vaishnavism in its classical literature. On the Shaivite side are the four great teacher-saints: Appar, Sundarar, Thirujnaanasambandhar and Manikkavacagar. Their compositions are known as 'Thevaram' and 'Thiruvacakam'. Another literary masterpiece describing the idealistic forms of behavior, conduct and ethics is 'Thirukkural'. This anthology of three-line verse numbering 1330 in all, was written by Tirukkural in Tamil. The most popular Vaishnava literature in Tamil is 'Nalayira Divya Prabandham' which is a collection of 4000 verses and comprises devotional songs written by poet saints known as 'Alvars'.

As mentioned earlier, Hinduism is not a closed book. From time to time, sages in Bharat have given new impetus to the faith by removing bad or misleading practices and re-establishing the teachings of the Vedas. One example is Sikhism, which was founded by Guru Nanak Dev about 500 years ago. The 'Guru Granth Sahib' is the main scripture of Sikhism. It is written in Punjabi. The concept of 'Ek Omkar' taught by Guru Nanak Dev is rooted in Vedas.

Another example is Arya Samaj movement started by Swami Dayananda Saraswati more 100 years ago. His best known books are 'Satyarth Prakash' (Light of Truth) and commentaries on the Vedas.

There are many more books, some lost in the past, some still being written, and there will no doubt be many in the future. This is the secret of dynamism in Hinduism. Unity in diversity is the strength of our culture, enabling us to survive as the world's oldest religion and yet remain modern.

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