An Investigation of Hindu Scripture
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on Hinduism, authored by one of our student interns, Alden Bass, who attends Yale University. Part I was titled “The Ancient Origins of Hinduism.” I asked Alden to spend a sizable portion of his time with us during the summer of 2004, preparing some information on the ancient religion of Hinduism. I hope you enjoy, and profit from, his research efforts. — Bert Thompson]
The amorphous collection of texts that might be labeled “Hindu scripture” consists of millions of lines of text written over thousands of years in several languages. Known as the Vedas, the holy writings of India are central to contemporary religion, though their authority is in no way analogous to that of the Bible or the Qur’an in Christian and Islamic communities. Hindu scripture includes nearly every genre of literature, some hardly religious at all, and some incredibly irreligious, at least from a Christian perspective. Philosophical treatises, folk medicine, erotic poetry, and grammar tomes, as well as devotional hymns, liturgical manuals, and ethical instructions all find a niche in the immense and labyrinthine world of Hindu scripture. Most of the scripture was written by poets, priests, and philosophers, though some of the later traditional texts were composed by low-caste devotees. The oldest text, the Rig Veda, dates back to c. 1400 B.C., while the most recent authoritative works hail from the sixteenth century A.D. (though some accept as scripture the writings of gurus up to the present century). Vedic scripture includes the longest single literary work in the world, the Mahābhārata, which weighs in at 110,000 couplets (seven times the length of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined), as well as the sūtra literature, collections of aphorisms so brief that it is said that the author of such a text would sell his grandson to save a syllable.
Hindu scripture often is referred to collectively as the Vedas, a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge” (from the root vid- “to know”; cognate to wit, wisdom). In one sense, Veda refers only to the most ancient writings of the Indo-Aryan community. This includes the four Vedic collections (samhitās): Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sāma Veda, and the Atharva Veda. The samhitās consist primarily of odes to the gods; most resemble biblical psalms. On the foundation of these four venerable collections rests the remainder of vedic literature. To each samhitā are attached inspired commentaries: the Brāhmanas, Āranyakas, and the Upanishads. Thus, there are four traditions (Rig, Yajur, Sāma, Atharva) and four categories of text (Samhitās, Brāhmanas, Āranyakas, Upanishads) in the Veda proper.
The historical origin of the Vedas is unknown. Internal evidence suggests that they were written by Brahmin priests sometime between 1500 and 1200 B.C., though the ethnic persuasion of those priests and the ideas they recorded remain a mystery. Similarities between rituals and deities in the religion of Vedic Hinduism and that of Persia and ancient Europe have led some scholars to attribute the composition of the Vedas to Aryan migrants from central Asia. Other scholars acknowledge the Aryan influence, but credit indigenous North Indians with the production of the Vedas. Theories abound, and the issue has been politicized and is hotly debated, but insufficient linguistic and archeological evidence prevents satisfactory conclusions at the present.
The hymns themselves hint at their historical source. It seems that many were composed by mercenary poet-priests for wealthy patrons: several Vedic hymns describe transactions between composers and clients. “With wisdom I present these lively praises of Bhavya dweller on the bank of Indus; For he, unconquered King, desiring glory, has furnished me a thousand sacrifices” (Rig Veda 1.126.1). There are also prayers recorded for the well-being of the priests’ source of income: “O Agni, God, preserve our wealthy patrons with your succors” (Rig Veda 1.31.12). These hymns produced for individual patrons were probably then collected and edited by the Brahmin priests for use in the ritual sacrifice (Mitchell, 1897, p. 17). Over time, Vedas were assigned to different Brahminical families for preservation through memorization. The texts were transmitted orally for at least a thousand years before they were written down. Several methods of memorization were used so that the words and sounds would be preserved exactly; rote memorization was supplemented with complex mnemonic devices, such as ghanapātha (“dense text”), in which the order of words is ab, ba, abc, cba, abc, bc, cb, bcd, and so forth (Goodall, 1996, p. x). By this method, Genesis 1:1 would be memorized: in the, the in, in the beginning, beginning in the, in the beginning, the beginning, beginning the, the beginning God.
The Rig Veda is the most authoritative of all Hindu scripture, if not for its content, then for its great antiquity. The Rig Veda (“Veda of Hymns”) is among the world’s oldest literature—some scholars date its composition to 3000 B.C., though most estimate the final recension to have occurred in 1000 B.C. (Basham, et al., 1997, p. 522). Arranged in ten books, or mandalas, the Rig Veda contains 10,028 verses, and is about one and a half times the size of the New Testament. The six oldest mandalas are linked to six priestly families who composed, memorized, and handed down the hymns; books one, and eight through ten, are anthologies of hymns by various independent poet-priests, and were written later.
The Rig Veda resembles a hymnal more than a Bible. If pressed to compare the Rig Veda to Christian scripture, it would most closely parallel the Psalms, though without the historical and moralistic tenor. The Rig Veda assumes a common knowledge on the part of the reader as to the origin of the Universe and the identity of the gods (devas, cognate to divine and devotion), and, like our own church hymnals, contains no introduction or narrative framework to orient the reader. One could not pick up a copy of the Rig Veda and understand modern Hinduism or even the Vedic rituals without significant explanation.
The bulk of the songs in the Rig Veda are addressed to the chief gods Indra, Agni, and Soma as petitions for success in battle, protection, and material prosperity. This hymn addressed to the entire pantheon is typical of a vedic chant:
Not one of you, ye Gods, is small, none of you is a feeble child: all of you, verily, are great. Thus be ye lauded, you destroyers of the foe, you thirty-three Deities, the Gods of man, the Holy Ones. As such defend and succor us, with benedictions speak to us: lead us not from our fathers’ and from Manu’s path into the distance far away. You Deities who stay with us, and all you Gods of all mankind, give us your wide protection, give shelter for cattle and for steed (Rig Veda 8.30).
Though many gods are recognized (according to this passage, there are 33, but the number of names mentioned throughout the Veda exceeds that figure), each one is lauded as if it were the highest god, a phenomenon Max Müller called henotheism, and that some modern scholars call “serial monogamy” (Sarma, 2003b). These superlative descriptions inevitably overlapped, and in later passages the gods are identified with one another or with all. In time, the confusion led to the belief that the many gods and goddess were but manifestations of one indivisible transcendental Ultimate Reality. The pantheism of later texts is foreshadowed in a late Vedic passage: “To what is One, sages give many names—they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan” (Rig Veda 1.164.46).
At the heart of the Veda Samhitās lay the ritual sacrifice (yajñā). Like the Rig Veda, the Sāma Veda (“Veda of chants”) and the Yajur Veda (“Veda of sacrificial prayers”) served as liturgical manuals for the sacrifice; each of the three was used by one of the orders of Brahminic priesthood, a sacerdotal system similar in structure to the Mosaic system described in Numbers 4. The primary purpose of the collections of hymns was to “propitiate the gods by praises accompanying the offering of malted butter poured on the fire and of the juice of the Soma plant placed on the sacrificial grass” (Macdonell, 1917). The songs and chants and prayers of the Samhitās were read over the sacrifice as part of the ritual. Incidentally, the sacrifice was not performed for the atonement of sin, as was the Mosaic sacrifice, but to obtain magically the favor of the gods, and ultimately, salvation in heaven (svarga). The fourth Veda, the Atharva Veda (“Veda of the Fire Priests”), differs in content from the other three, and was not used in the sacrifice. Drawing on ancient folk material, the fourth Veda consists of spells against sickness, sorcery, snakebite, and bad dreams, as well as incantations to bring about love, good luck, rain, fertility, and a multitude of other things. It also includes instructions for wedding and funeral rites.
To each of the four Samhitās was appended a body of inspired commentary. The Brāhmanas (“exposition on the meaning of the sacred word”), the first layer of commentary composed about 900 B.C., are prose descriptions and explanations of various sacrificial rites. Named for the Brahmin priests who wrote them, the Brāhmanas wax philosophical—evidence that the priests wanted not only to enact, but to understand, the rituals they performed. Unfortunately, any profundity in the Brāhmanas is undercut by rambling mythology and asinine digressions. In the introduction to his translation of the Brāhmanas, Oxford Sanskritist Max Müller railed:
No one would have supposed that at so early a period, and in so primitive a state of society, there could have risen up a literature which for pedantry and downright absurdity can hardly be matched anywhere...These works deserve to be studied as the physician studies the twaddle of idiots and the raving of madmen. They will disclose to a thoughtful eye the ruins of faded grandeur, the memories of noble aspirations. But let us only try to translate these works into our own language, and we shall feel astonished that human language and human thought should ever have been used for such purposes. (as quoted in Robson, 1905, pp. 23-24)
The Āranyakas (“forest teachings”) followed the Brāhmanas without introducing much new material. Their name derives from the esoteric nature of the texts—the mystic teachings were handed down from teacher to disciple in the seclusion of the forests. The Āranyakas reflect an increasingly abstract conception of the sacrifice—the literal fire of the sacrifice began to be internalized and symbolically represented as the “fire” of digestion and the “fire” of sexual intercourse (for the fully developed doctrine, see Chāndogya Upanishad 5.18.2 and Brhadāranyaka Upanishad 6.2.13). The Āranyakas transition almost seamlessly into the final layer of Vedic commentary, the Upanishads, between 800-600 B.C. These books are seen as the fulfillment of the Vedas, and consequently are known as the Vedānta, the “end of the Vedas.” The Upanishads are the culmination of hundreds of years of reflection, and are much more rationalistic than the Vedas and Brāhmanas. Their influence is felt even to the present.
The Upanishads supply the basis of later Hindu philosophy; they alone of the Vedic corpus are widely known and quoted by most well-educated Hindus, and their central ideas have also become a part of the spiritual arsenal of rank-and-file Hindus, while the earlier Vedic texts remain largely the special reserve stock of priests and scholars (O’Flaherty, 1988, p. 2).
Upanishads (“sitting close to a teacher”) are, like the Āranyakas, secret teachings transmitted from guru to student. Unlike the Sāmhitas (the function of which was essentially restricted to sacrificial rites) and the other two commentaries (which expounded on those rites), the Upanishads expanded speculation to the entire Universe, especially the absolute basis of reality (brahman) and the self or soul (ātman). The most famous teaching of the Upanishads is “that you are” (tat tvam asi), which means that the essence of the self is the absolute. An early Hindu sage illustrated this by pointing to a hive of bees collecting nectar. As nectar is collected from many different plants and reduced by the bees to honey, he explained, so all souls are part of the larger, indivisible essence of being (Chāndogya Upanishad 6.9). The Universe is within the self, and the self is the Universe. Those who know this essential truth possessed great cosmic power. The Upanishadic sages realized that this power of knowledge far excelled the power of the sacrifice: if the soul is identified with the Universe, then whoever controls their own soul controls the cosmos. Sacrifice affected the gods only indirectly, but esoteric knowledge was the key to omnipotence (Edgerton, 1965, p. 29). These books also contain the seeds of the doctrine of transmigration of souls (samsāra), the laws of karma that govern the transmigration process, mental training associated with Yoga, and ascetic renunciation (Olivelle, 1996, p. xxiii).
Together these sixteen branches of literature are known as śruti, meaning “what is heard” (from the root sru-, “to hear”). It was “heard” by inspired sages who received this primary revelation from Brahma, the Supreme Lord. As divine revelation, śruti literature is considered to be “eternal, intrinsically powerful, and supremely authoritative” (Coburn, 1989, p. 119).
Despite the aura of holiness ascribed to the Vedas, the majority of Hindus have little access to these writings; they are massive, technical, and written in an archaic tongue. Much more familiar to the average Hindu are the colloquial smrti writings, a secondary set of scriptures considered to be of human authorship and subordinate to divinely delivered śruti. “While the śruti texts have retained their authority as holy sources for Brahmanic ritual, philosophical speculation, and recitative mantras, the functional scriptures of the masses in India have been other texts, most of which are categorized as smrti rather than śruti” (Graham, 1989, p. 139). Smrti (“what is remembered”) explains and elaborates the śruti, making them more understandable and meaningful to the general population—it is an “easier” form of truth. A mythological story of the origin of the theatrical art describes the role of smrti:
[The gods asked:] “Since it is not proper that the Vedas be heard by those of low birth, you should create a fifth Veda for all classes of people.”
[Brahmā replied:] “I shall compose a fifth Veda, called the Theatrical Art, based on history, which will convey the meaning of all the Scriptures and give an impulse to the arts. It will give good advice and moral lessons, rich in meaning, that lead to good conduct, prosperity, and fame. It will show the line of proper conduct to the future world” (Nātya Śāstra 1.4.13-15).
Smrti texts were intended to simplify the Vedas for the masses, and to elucidate Vedic teachings in a practical way. Smrti was written for the people’s admonition, to illustrate dramatically through the lives of gods, sages, and kings the proper path of good conduct (dharma).
The Samhitās speak of salvation through ritual sacrifice, a ceremony only the wealthiest patrons could afford; the Upanishads refer to salvation through knowledge, an avenue inaccessible to all but the most educated men. Smrti offered scriptures and a means of salvation through devotion (bhakti) to people of all castes and both genders. In this category of scripture, Hinduism attained its most mature stage. Most prominent among the smrti texts are the Purānas, the Epics, the Dharma literature, and the Agamas, as well as other miscellaneous works.
Purānas (“ancient lore”) are narrative works in the itihāsa (“thus verily happened”) tradition, a mythistorical genre describing the creation of the Universe, the origin of evil, and a history of Indian civilization focusing on legendary kings, sages, and gods. Woven into the central narrative are various religious instructions concerning caste laws, customs, ceremonies, pilgrimage, and temple construction. If the Vedic samhitās are like the Psalms, then the Purānas resemble the historical books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The Bhāgavata-Purāna is one of the most popular of the eighteen principle Purānas, describing in an entertaining and endearing fashion the childhood of Krishna, who would later become one of the most worshiped gods in the pantheon. The mythological stories of young Krishna stir feelings of adoration within the devotee, the pursuit of which can lead to salvation. There also exist eighteen lesser Purānas of basically the same narrative structure, called Upapurānas, and numerous other books called sthāla Purānas, which record legends of particular locations and temples. The eighteen most prominent Purānas alone contain about 375,000 verses—approximately the size of two World Book encyclopedias.
Also part of the itihāsa are the great epic poems, the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata, written between 400 B.C. and A.D. 200. Together containing about 124,000 verses, the epics comprise some of the longest literary works in human history—five times as long as the Bible. The Rāmāyana tells the story of Rama, a god-king who rescues his kidnapped wife Sita with the help of the monkey king. The Mahābhārata relates a civil war between two groups of cousins that occurred in the mythical age before the present. Characters in both epics exemplify proper conduct for kings, soldiers, and persons wishing to attain rebirth. Many Hindus consider these epics to be the Veda of the masses, the books that “in all of history...have influenced the largest number of people for the longest time” (Krishnamurthy, 1999).
Book six of the Mahābhārata contains the Bhagavad Gītā, the “Song of the Lord.” This short text (about the size of John’s gospel), though technically part of the smrti literature, is popularly considered to be among the holiest revelation (Coburn, 1989, p. 116). Many compare it to the New Testament as the definitive piece of Hindu scripture. Ghandi read it once daily. Written by an unknown sage, the Gītā tells the story of Arjuna, a general in the civil war on the eve of battle, and his chariot driver, Krishna, who is actually an incarnate form of God. Arjuna expresses his reservations about fighting his cousins to Krishna, who encourages him by explaining the principles of dharma and revealing himself as the celestial lord.
About the same period as the sages Vyāsa and Valmiki were composing the Epics to provide concrete examples of the dharmic code of conduct, the more formal dharma shāstras were being assembled. A shāstra is simply a systematic treatise, though dharma is more difficult to translate: the word “subsumes the English concepts of ‘religion’, ‘duty’, ‘law’, ‘right’, ‘justice’, ‘practice’, and ‘principle’ ” (Doniger and Smith, 1991, p. xvii). Dharma shāstras are thus books of law and duty. In this category, the Laws of Manu have been very influential, as have the more concise Laws of Yājñavalkya. The Laws of Manu alone is as long as the four gospel accounts, yet it is just one treatise among about 5,000. In many respects these books resemble the Levitical code, minus the consistency and ethicality. The agamas, also known as the Tantras, are sectarian manuals for the worship of particular gods. They cover the three major traditions—Śaivism, Vaishnavism, and Śaktism—and are usually associated with heterodox rites involving sexual intercourse and the consumption of alcohol and meat.
These are only the most influential parts of the smrti category: there are many more. According to Coburn, “the very concept of smrti is that of an authoritative, but open-ended Word” (1989, p. 120). The size and difficulty of the current body of Hindu scripture is compounded by the fact that authoritative works are added to the canon on a regular basis. “[T]o see Hinduism in proper perspective we must remember that from the time of the Buddha till now, the composition of religious literature in India has been almost uninterrupted and that almost every century has produced works accepted by some sect as infallible scripture” (Eliot, 1968, 1:lxxiv). Surveying this vast, ever-expanding collection of Hindu sacred writings, it is no wonder that Sir William Jones remarked: “Wherever we direct our attention to Hindu literature, the notion of infinity presents itself ” (as quoted in Londhe, 2001).
HINDU CONCEPTION OF THE VEDAS
While recognizing the role that sages have had in the preservation and transmission of the Vedas, Hindus generally reject the notion that the Vedas are the production of human ingenuity. Swami Vivekananda, the man credited with introducing Hinduism to the West, explained the Hindu outlook on revelation to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions:
The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. It may sound ludicrous, that a book can be without beginning or end. But by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons at different times. Just as the law of gravitation acted before its discovery by humanity, and would continue to act if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual world. The discoverers of these laws are called Rishis, and we honor them as perfected beings (as quoted in Londhe, 2001).
Vivekananda summarily stated the orthodox Hindu view of scripture: scripture is eternal, it is impersonal, and it is much more than letters written on a page. These qualities apply primarily to śruti scripture, but depending on one’s definition of veda, they may also qualify other scripture.
The Mīmāmsā school, a sect devoted to Vedic exegesis, established these principles over two thousand years ago in the Pūrva Mīmāmsā Sūtras (c. 200 B.C.). There they affirmed the Vedas to be eternal (nitya) and impersonal (apauruseya). To understand these two propositions, insight must be gained into the Hindu conception of Veda. As Vivekananda pointed out, the Vedas are more than a mere book—they are eternal knowledge, without author, beginning, or end. The Pūrva Mīmāmsā Sūtra likewise asserts that “the sacred Sanskrit-language Scripture known as the Veda is not a ‘book’ to be read, nor a source of information about a world exterior to itself ” (Clooney, 1987, p. 660). One 18th-century pundit characterized Veda as “that which pertains to religion; books are not Veda” (Vedam est, quidquid ad religionem pertinet, vedam non sunt libri) [Graham, 1989, p. 139]. These increate truths have occasionally been perceived by humans and recorded in books, but the Vedas are much more than what is written. Vedic knowledge hangs in the atmosphere as a sort of ether exuded by the gods; the truth needs only to be grasped by enlightened disciples whose heightened senses allow them to perceive it. This is why the most sacred Vedas are called śruti—they have been heard by holy men. Hence the description of Vedas as sound vibration in the air:
I [Krishna] personally establish the Vedic sound vibration in the form of omkara within all living entities. It is thus perceived subtly, just like a single strand of fiber on a lotus stalk. Just as a spider brings forth from its heart its web and emits it through its mouth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead manifests Himself as the reverberating primeval vital air, comprising all sacred Vedic meters and full of transcendental pleasure (Bhāgavata-Purāna 11.21.38-39).
Krishna (a primary Hindu god, conceived as a manifestation of Vishnu) declares that the Vedas are within. They are the “reverberating primeval vital air” that must be heard. Many seek the truth in the hope that they might grope for it and find it, though, according to this passage, it is not far from each one of us. Though Christians believe scripture to be the complete, written record of specific truths revealed by God, Hindus consider scripture to be the whole of universal truth that may be discovered. Only fragments of this everlasting knowledge are revealed in the written Vedas (Daniélou, 1991, p. 280).
Vivekananda also stated that the Vedas are eternal, even preexisting the gods. This means something significantly different to a Hindu than it would to a Western Christian with his linear notions of time and space. To the Hindu, time and space exist only in relation to perception; when perception is altered (through religious rites such as meditation) and the Cosmos is seen as it really is, distinctions in time and space melt away into the Absolute. “Absolute time is an ever-present eternity” (Daniélou, p. 15). Thus, the Vedas and the gods both were created, but they both have also always existed. It is not inconsistent in the Hindu mind to hold that the Vedas are uncreated—that they were delivered to brahman at the dawn of creation by the “source of all beings” (Śvetāśvatara Upanishad 6.18)—and to believe that they were created from fire, wind, and Sun by the god Prajāpati (Chāndogya Upanishad 4.17.2). These sophisticated beliefs developed over time, however, and some of the most ancient hymns attribute revelation to the highest god. “The Rig, Sāma, Yajur and Atharva, became manifest from the Lord, along with the Purānas and all the Devas [gods] residing in the heavens” (Atharva Veda 11.7.24). The scripture and the gods sprang from the “Lord,” Brahma, who is the manifestation of the Absolute principle of the Universe. Later passages elaborate this same theme. The influential Bhagavad Gītā grounds all things, including the Vedas, in Brahma: “From food are born (all) creatures; from rain is the production of food; rain is produced by sacrifices; sacrifices are the result of action; know that action has its source in the Vedas; the Vedas come from the Indestructible [the Supreme Being]” (3.15). Likewise, the Brahmānda Purāna depicts a four-headed Brahma emitting the four Vedic books from his four mouths (1.2.8). Ultimately, the Vedas derive from the Absolute Being, the Immense One. This Absolute god-principle did not create the scriptures, but as eternal truth they are part of his essence. They are thought to have co-existed with the Absolute, and pre-existed in the Absolute. He created the gods and manifested the truth of his presence to them; they in turn created the written books of the Veda for the humanity they also made. The eternal Vedas were thus received by the gods, who entrusted them to humans.
According to the Brhadāranyaka Upanishad, the method of transmitting the Vedas from heaven to Earth is similar to the biblical conception described in 2 Timothy 3:16, wherein Scripture is described as being “god-breathed.”
As clouds of smoke billow from a fire lit with damp fuel, so indeed this Immense Being has exhaled all this: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sāma Veda, the Atharva-Āngirasa, histories, ancient tales, sciences, hidden teachings (Upanishads), verses, aphorisms, explanations, and glosses – it is that Immense Being who has exhaled all this (2.4.10).
God, known here as the Immense Being, breathed out the Vedas, not into specific men, but into the Universe. There the scripture remains, as smoke lingering from an extinguished fire, waiting to be perceived by humans. Seven men served as interlocutors between the Supreme and humanity—men of extraordinary perspicacity who distinguished themselves by their asceticism and acts of renunciation (see Mitchiner, 2000). These men were not chosen to be inspired; they were gifted sages with keen insight into spiritual matters. Their sensitivity allowed them to perceive those eternal truths that permeate the fabric of space and time. The revelation they perceived was not confined to a particular time or place, and if it were to be forgotten, other sages would comprehend those truths again. The seven, called rsis, or “seers,” perceived the śruti vibrating in the Universe and recorded what they heard/saw. Coburn notes that the use of two metaphors—hearing and seeing—is intentional; it represents an attempt to “convey the holistic and supremely compelling nature of that experience” (1989, p. 109). According to Hindu tradition, the rsis recorded their experience because of the coming Age of Kali, a dispensation when men would be hardened against spiritual matters. The seven rsis, along with Vyasa, the compiler of the scripture, are generally considered to be perfected beings, greater than humans but less than divine.
The eternal Vedas came from the impersonal Absolute. They were not personally delivered from God to man, but impersonally manifested. The Veda was not received by humans, as was the Bible, but perceived by sages. Though impersonal, the Hindu philosophy of the word is not unlike that of the Bible. One of the Brahmanas states: “[In the beginning] was the only Lord of the Universe. His Word was with him. This Word was his second. He contemplated. He said, ‘I will deliver this Word so that she will produce and bring into being all this world’ ” (Tandya Maha Brahmana 20.14.2). Though written centuries before, this passage sounds remarkably like John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Just as Christ, the Word, is the ground of all that exists, so Hindus believe that the impersonal Veda is the source of the Universe. The Atharva Veda reads: “From the bosom of the sacred Word he brought forth the world” (4.1.3). A paraphrase of a modern Hindu prayer states: “Those who are versed in the Vedas know that the universe is the transformation of speech. It was out of the Vedas that this universe was first evolved” (Eickler, p. 24). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (of transcendental mediation and Beatles fame) explained this process in more detail:
Ātmā, the Self, is the ground from where the steps of evolution begin. The first step is Śruti, the speech value of expression, Veda. The second step of evolution is from the speech level to the material level where the frequencies of sound, frequencies of speech in the Language of Natural Law, evolve into frequencies of matter which construct the whole physiology of the ever-evolving material universe, Viśva (Eichler, p.1).
The material Universe did not come into being by omnipotent fiat, or the intentional will of a purposeful Deity, but by spontaneous evolution from the eternal Veda. The sounds of the Veda (the Veda is sound) became the fabric of the Cosmos. This view is not foreign to Christianity; by the Word, “all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1.16). Yet in contrast to the impersonal Hindu word, the Christian Word is a living and personal Being, Who willed the Universe into existence for His own purposes, Who delivered a temporal revelation to humanity for the express purpose of imparting saving knowledge, and Who revealed Himself to man as the ultimate divine knowledge.
FAITH COMES BY HEARING...
It is important to remember that the majority of India’s population has been illiterate for the greater part of its history (as has been most of the world). As a result, Hindus typically have relied on the spoken word to a greater degree than any written text. “The Veda was not primarily a written text, but the powerful speech that came forth from the mouths of Brahmans” (Carpenter, p. 63). Words and sounds were very important in the Vedic tradition, and even in the earliest Vedas the smallest syllables and intonations were thought to be of divine origin. “In the actual sounded syllables of the Veda lie the points of contact with transcendent reality” (Graham, p. 138). Vāc is the female personification of speech, and might be compared to the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 4 (also perceived as feminine). The relationship between Vāc and Dame Wisdom is interesting, though perhaps a more accurate comparison from the Hindu perspective is the Word of John 1:1. Just as that passage equates the Word with God, several vedic passages divinize the Veda in the form of Vāc. Depicting Vāc as both a personification of the Vedas and as their progenitor, the Aitareya Āranyaka states: “She ‘enters into the seers.’ She gives power and intelligence to those she loves. She is the ‘mother of the Vedas,’ the consort of the lord-of-heaven (Indra), containing all the worlds within herself. ‘Hence Vāc is everything’ ” (3.1.6). Alain Daniélou defined speech (Vāc) as the ground and being of the Universe:
Speech has the power to evoke images and ideas. The process through which a thought, at first indistinct, gradually becomes definite and exteriorizes itself is similar to the process through which the divine thought becomes the universe. The difference is only one of degree. If our power of thought, our power of expression, was greater, things we speak of would actually appear. With our limited powers only their image is evoked. Speech can therefore be represented as the origin of all things. The cosmos is but the expression of an idea, a manifested utterance. Supreme Divinity can be represented as the causal word (sabda-brahman) [1991, p. 38].
The words of the Veda are intrinsically powerful. Every syllable is sacred, and the repetition of the scripture is auspicious in and of itself. Eliot notes that it “is sacred sound not a sacred book which is venerated” (1968, 1:lxxi). The books of the Veda are cherished not for their great wisdom or moral instruction, but for the holy sounds contained within. Understanding the text is unnecessary; scriptures’ value lies in its oral repetition. The Veda’s “sanctity often appears to be inversely related to comprehensibility” (Coburn, p. 112). Peculiarly, it is not the message of the Vedas that transcends time, but the words themselves, even “the particular sounds and their precise verbal order in the corpus (including the variants)” (Lipner, 1994, p. 46).
Christians may be skeptical of this oral approach to scripture, but they would do well to remember the supremacy of the spoken word in their own religion. The spoken word indicates presence, while the written word implies absence. Christ, as the Word, was present among us, and he represents the highest form of revelation. His ascension to the right hand of the Father necessitated the written words of the New Testament so that the disciples might be “guided into all truth” (John 16:13). Those written words are “living and powerful” (Hebrews 4:12), and reflect the continuing presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. It is not the immediacy of the Word that sets Christianity apart from Hindu scripture, however, nor the respect for the spoken word, but the content.
The Bible contains clear statements that must be affirmed prerequisite to salvation. Some are of a historical nature, such as “Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem.” Others are ethical: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There are also what might be characterized as theological or doctrinal truths, which include “Jesus is Lord” and “There will be a day of judgment.” The power of these statements of scripture derives from a comprehension of, and conformation to, those truths—not from their repetition. For instance, Jesus gave the model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) to His disciples as an example of prayer that was pleasing to God. To repeatedly recite the exact words of that prayer today would be of little use because the effectiveness of the prayer is linked to a comprehension of the words uttered as well as compliance with certain moral requisites (such as forgiving others their trespasses, Matthew 6:14-15).
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SCRIPTURE
Though the Hindu scriptures are immensely significant to the tradition, they exert surprisingly little influence in the religious life of the average Hindu devotee. Deepak Sarma stated in an introductory lecture on Hinduism that “all Hindus orient themselves in relation to the Vedas” (2003). This is not to say that all Hindus accept the scriptures. It might accurately be said that atheists orient themselves in relation to the Bible, yet their position is opposite that of a Christian. Similarly, Hindus are defined by the degree to which they accept or reject the Vedic scriptures. Some renounce the holy books on principle: most notable among these is Gautama Buddha, an Indian prince who abandoned the Vedas because they reinforced the caste system. Many reject them for more pragmatic reasons; Lipner observed that “in practice most Hindus have had no direct access to the Vedas, either in written form or aurally” (p. 26). The mammoth size and obsolete script of traditional Sanskrit scriptures renders them inaccessible to the majority, and even vernacular translations are unintelligible to a predominately illiterate population. This is true among the clergy as much as the laity—some of the greatest Hindu practioners of the past centuries, such as Sri Rāmakrishna, spoke not a word of Sanskrit. “Even in the most orthodox domains, reverence to the Vedas has come to be a simple ‘tip of the hat’ made in passing to an idol with which one intends no longer to be encumbered” (Renou, as quoted in Carpenter, 1992, p. 57). Gupta lamented: “In the present age we take pride in the mere mention of the Vedas without caring to know about their contents” (1979).
Nonetheless, the majority’s abandonment of the Vedic scriptures does not diminish the significance of the Vedas to the religion. In the Laws of Manu, the Veda is held in highest regard:
The root of religion is the entire Veda, and (then) the tradition and customs of those who know (the Veda), and the conduct of virtuous people, and what is satisfactory to oneself. Whatever duty Manu proclaimed for whatever person, all of that was declared in the Veda, for it contains all knowledge. So when a learned man has looked thoroughly at all of this with the eye of knowledge, he should devote himself to his own duty in accordance with the authority of the revealed canon. For the human being who fulfils the duty declared in the revealed canon and in tradition wins renown here on earth and unsurpassable happiness after death. The Veda should be known as the revealed canon and the teachings of religion as the tradition. These two are indisputable matters, for religion arose out of the two of them. Any twice-born man who disregards these two roots (of religion) because he relies on the teachings of logic should be excommunicated by virtuous people as an atheist and a reviler of the Veda (Manusmrti 2.6-11, emp. added).
The sage Manu elaborates the hierarchy of authority in this passage: Vedas or śruti literature, secondary or smrti literature, and one’s own preferences. The Vedas are the most authoritative texts, and ought to be called the “revealed canon.”
Contemporary Western and Indian scholars also acknowledge the centrality of the Vedas to Hindu religion. Brian Smith emphasized the role of scripture when he defined Hinduism as “the religion of those humans who create, perpetuate, and transform traditions with legitimizing reference to the authority of the Veda” (as quoted in Flood, 1996, p. 226, n. 26). Lipner points out that “in theory at least, the Vedas are the source of saving knowledge” (1994, p. 26, italics in orig.). Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Hindu philosopher and first president of India, identified the Vedas as “the standard of thought and feeling for Indians” (as quoted in Sawhney, 1999). One might expect something as important as the “source of saving knowledge,” the “standard of thought and feeling,” and the “legitimizing reference” of a world religion to be well defined, yet, in the words of Wendy O’Flaherty, a revealed canon as mentioned in the Laws of Manu “is a concept with little meaning for a religion as pluralistic as Hinduism” (1988, p. xi). Lipner added that “the boundaries of the Vedic scriptures as they have come down to us are not particularly neat” (1994, p. 42). Jayaram, a Hindu scholar, admitted that Hinduism “does not rely exclusively upon any particular source” (2000), and Princeton professor Donald Lopez noted that it has “no single text that can serve as a doctrinal point of reference” (1995, p. 5).
As noted above, Hindus do not unanimously accept any single text, or group of texts, as the authoritative body of eternal truth. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each cherish a holy book containing everything that pertains to life and godliness, but Hindus have no analogous monolithic text. According to Mahatma Gandhi, “Hinduism does not rest on the authority of one book or one prophet, nor does it possess a common creed” (1991, p. 120). As frustrating as this may be from a comparative religions standpoint, the lack of a definitive text is a source of pride for many Hindus who feel that tolerance and pluralism are the primary themes of the twenty-first century incarnation of the religion. Absolute scriptures lead to dogmatic beliefs, they reason, and dogmatic beliefs lead to strife and violence.
Nonetheless, it already has been shown that most Hindus have a high regard of the śruti texts, most broadly referred to as the Vedas. If any canonical scripture exists, it is the Vedas, which have been considered a gauge of orthodoxy (see Manusmrti 2.6-11, quoted above). During the Indian renaissance of the 19th century, various reform movements such as the Brāhmo Samāj and the Ārya Samāj sought to return to the Vedas as the ground of Hindu spirituality. Nolini Gupta, a Hindu scholar, summed up the view of one such school of Hinduism: “He who defies Veda is an atheist, a non-Hindu, an untouchable and a non-Aryan. All the various religious systems and scriptures of the Hindus look upon the Veda as the sole authority. What is inconsistent with the Veda is false and unacceptable” (1979). Veda here is used in the sense of a canon, yet that canon is left undefined.
Traditionally, the Vedas includes either the four Samhitās or all sixteen branches of texts (Sarma, 2003a). The texts themselves, however, list only the Rig Veda, Sāma Veda, and the Yajur Veda as canonical; originally, the priests rejected the Atharva Veda from the trayi vidya, or “triple veda” (Bhagavad Gītā 9.20; Manusmrti 1.23; 4.125). Limiting scripture to a few books tends to be the exception, not the rule; books are more often added to the Veda and deemed sacred. In the Chāndogya Upanishad (a text within the śruti collection), the Purānas and Itihāsa are described as the “fifth veda” (7.1.2). Vallabha, a 15th-century theologian, proposed a fourfold canon embodying Veda, Brahma Sūtra, Bhagavad Gītā, and Bhāgavata Purāna (Lipner p. 60). The Law Book of Yājñavalkya established the Vedas, the Pūranas, the philosophical system called Nyāya, the exegetical school of Mīmāmsā, treatises on moral duty (dharmaśāstras), and the six classes of work that are auxiliaries to the Veda (pronunciation, prosody, grammar, word-derivation, astronomy, and ritual) as “the fourteen bases of knowledge and moral duty” (1.3). A more contemporary interpretation of Veda comes from the International Gita Society, which considers not only Hindu texts, but also the Bible and the Qur’an as scriptures from the Supreme Being. Coburn points out that “śruti must be seen as ongoing and experientially based feature of the Hindu religious tradition” (1989, p. 112). Many other passages could be noted, each having a different opinion on what texts are sacred and should thus be listed under the name “Veda.” How does the average Hindu view this dilemma? “The average man – even the average priest—regards all these as sacred works without troubling himself with distinctions as to śruti and smriti, and the Vedas and Upanishads are hardly within his horizon” (Eliot, 1968, 1:lxxv).
Coburn, in his essay “ ‘Scripture’ in India,” expands further on the Hindu conception of scripture. He argues that Indian scripture exceeds written texts—the written word is only one revelatory medium. “[T]he holy words that are śruti must be seen alongside other transforming, sacramental activities, such as philosophical argumentation, the worship of the divine image form, and the highly nuanced moods (bhavas) of Krishna devotees” (p. 112). He also cites Diana Eck’s book, Darśan, in which she elaborates the thesis that Hindu images (which some would refer to as idols) are actually “visual scriptures” (1998). David Carpenter suggests further that the conduct and judgment of those Brahmin priests who have memorized the Vedas is considered Vedic, “even when they went beyond the known Vedic teachings” (1992, p. 62).
WHY THE BIBLE IS SUPERIOR TO HINDU SCRIPTURE
The corpus of Hindu scripture is enormous. A person could spend a lifetime sorting through the millions of pages of sacred and semi-sacred texts. Even the most orthodox sections of scripture are many times larger than the Bible. Clarke, in an essay on Hindu scripture, defended his limited treatment of the Vedas with this description of his subject: “How large, how difficult to understand! So vast, so complicated, so full of contradictions, so various and changeable, that its very immensity is our refuge!” (1875, p. 81). Recall that the four Veda Samhitās are about the size of the Old Testament, and the Upanishads number over 100. Among the smrti literature, the Epics are five times the length of the entire Bible, each of the 18 principle Puranās is about the size of the Old Testament, and over 5,000 texts of varying length belong to the dharmaśāstra tradition. The Bible seems concise in comparison, containing only 23,314 verses in the Old Testament and 7,959 verses in the New. An average Western library or bookstore stocks some abridged compilation of the Vedic Samhitās, the 13 principle Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gītā, but only the most specialized libraries carry full versions of even the major scriptures. A Hindu equivalent of the Gideon missionary society would have to donate an entire library of books to hotels rather than a single volume to each room. Of course, Hindus have little interest in proselytizing, so it is not really a problem.
If the size were insufficient to deter an honest seeker of truth, the incomprehensibility of the scripture certainly would. The Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Though Bible students rarely master the original languages, sufficient lexical aids exists so that the original meaning can be understood with relatively little difficulty. Hindu students are not so fortunate. Since the Vedas were delivered from an impersonal source (the “Absolute”) there can be no original meaning. “[T]he Veda has no author, no meaning beyond the words and the sacrificial actions themselves; one cannot appeal to a pre-verbal intention to get beyond the words” (Clooney, 1987, p. 660). Incidentally, as Clooney points out in his essay, postmodernists find this approach to understanding texts refreshingly in line with their own views.
English translations are available for the primary scriptures, yet even the most careful translations are difficult to understand. Most English translations of the Bible are on the reading level of a 6-12th grader, yet the same cannot be said of the Vedas. “Many [of the Vedas] are written in a style which even educated men find very difficult to understand; and, if they have to be studied in the original, only a very small part of them can possibly be mastered by one man” (Mitchell, 1897, p. 247). Archaic Sanskrit (also called Vedic), the language of the Rig Veda, is a dead language, and inaccessible to most Hindus. Other scriptures are written in classical Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil, and other regional dialects. The possibility of interpretation is further hampered by the belief that the Vedas consist of sacred sound, not written text.
Were the language difficulties to be sorted out, the problem of incomprehensibility would remain. Hindu scripture contradicts itself time and time again. One might expect works separated by thousands of years to disagree (and they do), but these contradictions are found even within individual texts. There are logical contradictions, conceptual contradictions, and even factual contradictions. This may be explained partially by the Hindu conception of scripture, as explained by Eliot: “The Hindu approaches his sacred literature somewhat in the spirit in which we approach Milton and Dante. The beauty and value of such poems is clear. The question of whether they are accurate reports of facts seems irrelevant” (1968, 1:lxxi). Apparently, contradiction is not regarded as evidence against the Vedas’ divine origin. Hindu scripture confirms this suspicion, and actually embraces the contradictions. The Laws of Manu recommends that both sides of a contradiction in the Veda be accepted as authoritative: “But where the revealed canon is divided, both (views) are traditionally regarded as law; for wise men say that both of them are valid laws” (Manusmrti 2.14). Regarding the contradictions inherent in the Upanishads, the collection of texts considered by Olivelle to be the “vedic scripture par excellence of Hinduism” (1996, p. xxiii), Robson remarked: “It is hard to say what philosophical opinion might not be supported from the Upanishads, for the most contradictory statements find a place in them” (1905, p. 28). Likewise the Puranās, so holy as to be called “the fifth veda” (Chandogya Upanishad 7.1.4), are “for the most part intensely sectarian; one denounces beliefs and rites which another enjoins” (Mitchell, p. 260). Coburn stated that, when it comes to Hindu scripture, “sanctity often appears to be inversely related to comprehensibility” (p. 112).
Hindu scripture is for all practical purposes useless to the average Hindu for these and other reasons. This, of course, assumes that all Hindus have access to the scripture. Traditionally, Hindu society is divided into four castes, the Brahmin (priestly class), Kshatriya (ruling class), Vaiśya (merchant class), and Śūdra (outcastes). The first three classes are known as the twice-born, and only the males of those classes are allowed to read the Vedas. All women and males of the Śūdra class are excluded because of their “impurity” (Manusmrti 2.164-172). These restricted groups do have access to the smrti writings and devotional literature, but the most sacred śruti texts are forbidden. The religion itself restricts to a select few the scripture that purportedly contains saving knowledge.
There is much morally reprehensible material within the Vedic literature. One 19th-century writer, speaking specifically of the Puranās, underlined the true nature of the Hindu scripture: “The instructions which it professes to give are useless, where they are not scandalous and criminal. The only things clearly to be understood, are the profane songs, the obscene ceremonies, and the other indecencies connected with the prescribed festivals” (as quoted by Goodall, 1996, p. xxxviii). The immoralities endorsed by Hindu scripture range from racial prejudices and rigid social hierarchies to rape and murder.
For instance, the earliest Vedic texts, which are traced back to the Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent, reflect the racial biases of the invaders. It seems that the Aryans were a fairer-skinned people of Persian descent, whereas the indigenous peoples (Dāsas) whom they subjugated were of a darker skin color and Negro-Australoid features. One prayer directed to the warrior god Indra petitioned him to “give protection to the Aryan color” (Rig Veda 3.34.9). Another passage lauds Indra’s victory over the dark-skinned natives: “He, much invoked, has slain Dāsas and Simūs [dark-skinned natives], according to his will, and laid them low with arrows. The mighty Thunderer [Indra] with his fair-complexioned friends won the land, the sunlight, and the waters” (Rig Veda 1.100.18). According to Mitchell, the “language in which the Vedic poets speak of these enemies is uniformly that of unmingled, vehement hatred” (1897, p. 19). Critics might observe that the Old Testament is also guilty of ethnic cleansing; however, the Israelite battles were drawn over moral lines, not ethnic or racial (see Bass, 2003). Though the historical picture is unclear, it seems that the Dāsas were incorporated into the Aryan social hierarchy as the lowest class (Rig Veda 10.90.12). Evidence for this comes from the Sanskrit word for class, varna, which means “color” (cognate to the English varnish).
More disturbing than the Vedic treatment of race are the pervasive references to sex, and the its role in the religious ritual. The Kāma Sūtra of Vatsāyayana is one of the most infamous Hindu texts. Known as the “Aphorisms on Love,” or more popularly as the “Sex Manual,” the Kāma Sūtra celebrates sexual love (Kāma is the god of love, in many ways similar to Cupid). In addition to explicit information for use between husbands and wives, there are also sections entitled “Concerning the Wives of Other People” and “Concerning Prostitutes,” both providing advice on how to procure such forbidden fruit. The Kāma Sūtra is but one text among many. One entire category of smrti literature known as Tantras is dedicated to the worship of the goddess principle, Śakti. The esoteric teachings within that body of texts describe various sexual rites that represent the spiritual union of the worshipper’s soul with the goddess. Violence and sexual perversion penetrates even the most orthodox scripture. The Brhadārankyaka Upanishad, for instance, condones rape:
Surely, a woman who has changed her clothes at the end of her menstrual period is the most auspicious of women. When she has changed her clothes at the end of her menstrual period, therefore, one should approach that splendid woman and invite her to have sex. Should she refuse to consent, he should bribe her. If she still refuses, he should beat her with a stick or with his fists and overpower her, saying: “I take away the splendor from you with my virility and splendor” (6.4.9,21).
Bestiality is likewise advocated. A particularly solemn rite for the early Vedic religion was the horse sacrifice. Though it probably was performed rarely, it is mentioned frequently in the Vedic commentaries. Note one section from the Śatapatha Brāhmana: “Then they draw out the penis of the horse and place it in the vagina of the chief queen, while she says, ‘May the vigorous virile male, the layer of seed, lay the seed’; this she says for sexual intercourse...” (126.96.36.199-10). Examples such as this could be multiplied. To the list of atrocities in the Vedic scripture may be added human sacrifice (Aitaraya Brahmana 7.13-18), as if pornography, bestiality, rape, racism, inequalities were not enough.
The Bible is the authentic, authoritative, and final revelation of the true God. Though written over a period of 1,400 years by forty very diverse men on two continents, The Book is completely unified and free from error. A single theme is expanded upon throughout—the redemption of man through the Messiah. The Bible was confirmed by predictive prophecies and the miracles of the inspired men who wrote it. The moral laws contained within are more reasonable and consistent than that of any other religious or naturalistic system. By contrast, the Hindu scriptures have no final, objective authority; according to one Hindu, “all scriptural knowledge is lower knowledge” (Jayrama, 2000). Subjective religious experiences are generally preferable to written texts. Hindu scripture contains little that is noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy. Allegedly a progressive revelation, Hindu scripture contradicts itself both within particular texts and as a body of literature. The Bible, also a progressive revelation, never corrects itself, but only compliments and fulfils that which has been written. Different Hindu scriptures present completely different paths to salvation (liberation)—karma-yoga (the path of action), jāña-yoga (path of knowledge), and bhakti-yoga (path of devotion). The Vedas contain no predictive prophecy and offer no miracles to confirm the revelation supposedly sent from God. Thus the Hindus have no accessible ground of truth, no normative written word, and no objective moral or religious instruction.
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