Compiled by Birendra (Barry) Nirmal Tiwary
The Hindus have come to know about their many gods by reading and listening to a great body of sacred literature. They have never followed the teachings contained in a single holy book. This is in contrast to the Jews and the Christians who follow the Bible and the Muslims who follow the Koran. No single text in Hinduism is most important. Hinduism recognizes several scared writings.
There are two classes of Hindu scripture- shruti, "that which is heard", and smriti, "tradition" or "that which is to be remembered". The Vedas and the Upanishads fall into the first class of shruti. These writings are said to be inspired by God and to have been revealed to humankind by ancient sages called rishis.
The four Vedas are the oldest of the texts and are the primary scriptures of Hinduism. He who does not believe in the authority of the Vedas is not considered a Hindu. Many if the Vedas were compiled slowly, over centuries, through oral tradition. They were written down long after they had come into existence.
One of the four Vedas contains hymns, chants, and praises to the gods. Another Veda serves as a guidebook for rituals and priestly conduct. A third Veda offers information on magic and charms that can be used on blessings or curses. The fourth Veda gives musical notes to the chanted while performing the rituals.
Together the four Vedas have a deep and lasting influence on Hinduism. The Brahmanas were the texts composed after the Vedas. These texts give the details of the routines to be followed during the fire sacrifices. Aranyakas, "the forest books", composed after the Brahmans emphasize only the meaning of the rituals.
The Upanishads, the latest of the shruti scriptures, were written around 700-500 BCE. One meaning of the word Upanishad is "sitting down near" a guru (spiritual master) who passes on his secret teachings. Almost all Upanishads are written in the form of a dialogue between a student and his teacher. Actually many of the Upanishadic teachings were to become permanent elements of Hinduism.
Most important of these teachings are the concepts of karma (one's deed will later have an effect in this life or in next life), samsara (reincarnation, or the cycles of a soul's birth and rebirth), and moksha (release from the cycles of birth and rebirth). In addition, the Upanishads questioned the nature of both atman (the soul of the individual) and brahman (The Universal Soul), and their relationship to one another. These questions have played an important role in the development and practice of Hinduism.
Because of their divine origin, shruti texts are considered to be more sacred than the other class of scriptures, smriti. Works that come after the Vedas and the Upanishads are all smriti. These include the epics, Puranas, Sutras, Shastras, and the devotional Bhakti songs.
India boast of two great smriti epics. Both of them, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have had a great influence on Hindu thought. These two great epics have had many layers added to them over the centuries, and both have undergone numerous changes.
The Mahabharata containing over ninety thousand stanzas is probably the longest epic poem in history. According to Hindu tradition, the sage Vyasa dictated it to Ganesha, the elephant-god of good luck and wisdom and the patron of learning. It tells the story of two families engaged in war. It includes the Bhagavad Gita, an important sacred text in Hinduism, which tells an important story about the god Krishna.
The other great epic, the Ramayana tells the tales of Rama, the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu. The Ramayana depicts the ideals of faithfulness to marriage vows, brotherly affection, and loyalty. The earliest parts to the text date from around 350 B.C, but the work as a whole was not completed until much later. Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana have influenced the philosophy of Hinduism for over two thousand years.
The Purana- literally "something very old"- are also smriti writings. Written in Sanskrit, these form a collection of verses that tell the stories of Hinduism's best known gods and goddesses and the lives of ancient heroes. They include creation stories, portraits of the gods and famous sages, and accounts of time periods ruled by semi-gods called manus. They also speak of the end of the world and its rebirth, the history of humankind, and the legends of ancient dynasties. The Puranas are referred to as the Vedas of the common people, because they present traditional religious and historical material through tales that most Hindus can understand.
Another popular form of scripture is the Bhakti literature. These devotional songs were produced in both southern and northern regions of India, where teachers emphasized the love of those devoted to a personal god or goddess and the love returned by the god or goddess. The Bhakti movement developed a number of poet-sages who sang praises to Hindu gods and goddesses in the language of the common people. By the sixth century these devotional hymns were being sung in many temples. Even today, many Hindus write and sing Bhakti hymns.
The Hindu scriptures, and the stories they contain, guide Hindus in their daily lives. They also help to preserve the religious dimensions of family and society. From these texts, and from their interpretations, Hindus have developed their system of worship and beliefs.
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