As you have probably already observed, the scriptures of Hinduism reflect the major stages of Hinduism's development. At this point, we therefore need to look more closely at these nature of these sacred writings. Obviously, they were compiled and committed to writing over a very long period of time. Moreover, they reflect the various stages or ways that are found in Hinduism. The sacred writings of Hinduism fall into two broad categories: the shruti and the smriti.
All of the various paths of modern Hinduism honor a collection of ancient scriptures called the Vedas (or "Books of Knowledge"). These texts were composed in Sanskrit and written down by the middle of the first millennium BCE. The Vedas are considered by Hindus to be the "breath of the eternal" heard by the sages (rishis) in deep meditation. Consequently the term "shrutri" (meaning, "what is heard") is often used to refer to the Vedas. The oldest of the Vedas is the Rig Veda. (See link in sidebar for an excerpt from the Rig Veda). The Vedas consist of four parts which can be visualized as four "layers" with the oldest layer forming the foundation for the other three collections.
- The first "layer" is the Samhitas (also called the Vedas). These consist of collections of hymns of praise in worship of divine beings referred to as devas. These hymns were composed in Sanskrit (the ancient language of India) and were committed to writing between 1200 and 900 BCE, although the written versions are based on much older oral traditions. They also contain several creation stories. The most prominent deities are Agni (god of fire), Indra and Soma. Interestingly, the gods such as Vishnu and Shiva who play a major role in later Hinduism only appear as minor deities in the Vedas. It is this layer that reflects what is known as "Vedic Religion" or the way of ritual.
- The Brahmanas are organized to correspond to the four Vedas. Committed to writing between 1000 and 600 BCE, these contain directions about performances of the ritual sacrifices to the deities. According to the Brahmanas, sacrifices are the power that strengthens the gods, keeps the universe intact, and brings blessings to one who sacrifices.
- Aranyakas - Writings of those who retired to the forests to meditate. The texts seek to explain the meaning behind the rituals. The Aranyakas are really the beginnings of what we are calling the way of wisdom in Hinduism.
- Upanishads - Upanishad literally means "sitting near," i.e. a student sitting near his instructor. These philosophical treatises composed 600-400 BCE are second in importance only to the vedas (samhitas). The oldest of the Upanishads are the Chandogya and Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishads. The Upanishads reflect the full development of Hinduism as a "Way of Wisdom." A major emphasis of the Upanishads is the relationship between the soul of the individual (known as atman) to the transcendent soul or being behind all things (Brahman).The revolutionary answer contained in the Upanishads is that these two are one and the same. One of the most familiar selections illustrates both the conversational and philosophic nature of the Upanishad:
Let the Master teach me more; said he.
Let it be so, dear; said he.
Bring me a fruit of that fig-tree.
Here is the fruit, Master.
Divide it into two; said he.
I have divided it, Master.
What do you see irk it? said he.
Atom-like seeds, Master.
Divide one of them in two; said he.
I have divided it, Master.
What do you see in it? said he.
I see nothing at all, Master.
So he said to him:
That soul that you perceive not at all, dear,—from that very soul the great fig-tree comes forth.
Believe then, dear, that this soul is the Self of all that is, this is the Real, this the Self. That thou art, O Shvetaketu.
For more information on the Vedas and Vedic religion, view the first part of the video, Hinduism (below).
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