The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction by Charles Samuel Braden
Dr. Braden was Professor of History and Literature of Religions at Northwestern University (1952). Published by The MacMillan Company, New York, copyright 1952 by Charles S. Braden. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: The Sacred Literature of Hinduism
"Mother" India, as she is lovingly called by her sons, has indeed been a mother of religions. Four of the eleven principal living faiths of the world were born in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and all have extensive sacred literatures. Hinduism itself, from which all the others have sprung, has a vast and highly variegated set of scriptures. In general there are two types of scripture that are regarded as authoritative in Hinduism: (1) sruti: that which may be regarded as the ipsissima verba, the very, very word of God. It was given by verbal inspiration to the rishiis or seers, and gathered into a closed Canon. From this nothing may be taken away and nothing may be added. This type of sacred writing has, in the course of time, come to be thought of very much as the Bible is thought of by Christian Fundamentalists: as infallible, incapable of error, because of its non-human character.
The second type of scripture is known as smriti. While admittedly of human origins, it has come to be thought of as authoritative also, in the expression of religious faith, and of very high value in the teaching of religion and morals. Though of less exalted origin, and not of equal value with sruti, as a basis of religious dogma, it is perhaps quite as influential in the lives of the people in inculcating and nourishing religious faith and practice. If all the books which are comprised within these two classes of sacred literature were to be brought together in a single collection, as has nowhere yet been done, they would fill many thousands of pages. While there is rather general agreement as to what may be considered as smriti, there is no closed canon. Sectarian groups differ to a considerable degree as to what may be so considered. Certainly they differ as to which particular books of this category are to be emphasized within their own groups. The rather generally tolerant attitude of Indians toward the religious beliefs of others inclines them to admit as sacred for others what they might not accept for themselves. As a matter of fact some sectarian groups make, practically, much greater use of non-sruti literature, as the basis for present belief and practice than they do of the recognized sruti writings. Indeed for them some books generally regarded as smriti have actually become sruti. There is nothing in Hinduism to prevent this from happening.
Within Hindu sacred literature may be found, as in most scripture, almost every type of writing. There is both poetry and prose. Examples of nearly every variety of poetic expression may be found. Some of it is lyric, some elegiac, some epic, some dramatic. Love songs abound. There is poetry of praise, poetry of lamentation, heroic verse, and poetry of despair, poetry of thanksgiving, poetry of devotion, poetry that is light, airy, fanciful, and poetry that seeks to express the most profound philosophic insight. Of prose there is every kind, the short story, the drama, the fable, legal lore, philosophic essays, history, drama. Only the epistolary, which is so important in the New Testament, seems to be lacking. There are prose passages of unusual beauty and strength; there are innumerable pages of dry dialectic material, without grace or charm, but none the less important for an understanding of Hinduism.
This Hindu literature like that of most other religions represents the work of many, many hands over a long period of time. It records the hopes, aspirations, ideals, triumphs, failures, strivings after meaning of a great people, across the centuries, as they developed from barbarism to the highly cultured society which is India today at its best. Out of the struggle upward the literature was born and by it India’s life has been shaped and controlled to a remarkable degree, for India’s sacred literature is no mere museum piece. The daily routine of the orthodox Hindu is probably much more determined by some part of his scriptures than that of the people of the West by the Bible, or for that matter than that of any other people by its scripture, save only the Moslems.
India’s sacred literature divides itself logically and to some extent chronologically, into four main groups: (1) Vedic literature, (2) Legal literature, (3) Epic literature and (4) Puranic literature. The exact chronology of some writings it is difficult to fix, and there is often a difference in time between the beginnings of a given body of literature and its final completion. The beginnings of the Epics may well have been within the late Vedic age, their completion more than a millennium later. The earliest formulation of legal codes may go well back into the past; the final fixing of the codes is comparatively late, and of course some codes are much earlier than others. Some of the Puranic lore is old. The Puranas, as now found, are the latest of all Hindu sacred writings. We consider first Vedic literature.
Vedic literature is sruti, the infallible, verbally inspired word of God. It is the most sacred of all. So sacred was it held to be at the time of the making of the Code of Manu, greatest of the law books, that it was therein decreed that a lowly Sudra, i.e., low caste man, who so much as listened to the sacred text would have molten metal poured into his ears, and his tongue cut out if he pronounced the sacred words of the holy Vedas.1 ‘Whether such laws were ever actually enforced may be doubted. Certainly there is no evidence that they were, but they do serve to accentuate the degree of sacredness which attached to the Vedic literature.
Vedic literature comprises much more than the Vedas. These give their name to an extensive literature which grew out of them. Specifically regarded as part of the Veda are (1) the Brahmanas, (2) the Aranyakas, and (3) the Upanishads. It has become a dogma generally accepted that all that is found in these later writings is simply an outgrowth of the Vedas, the making explicit of what was therein implicit. They are therefore regarded as equally sacred. There is another reason -- perhaps the primary reason -- for considering them as Vedic, namely, that these writings, except the Vedanta Sutras, were physically attached to the Vedas in their written form.
Most basic of all Hindu sacred writings are the Samhitas, generally called the Vedas themselves, of which there are four, and most basic of the four is the Rig-Veda. The others, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda and the Atharva-Veda, all derive to a considerable extent from the Rig. Most of our attention will therefore be given to this highly important sacred book.
The name of the book, Rig-Veda, means probably "Verse Wisdom." It is a collection of hymns, 1017 in all according to Griffith. In bulk it is longer than the combined Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Translated into English, and with some notes, the hymns make two quite substantial volumes.2 In the original there are some 20,000 metrical verses in the whole collection.
For the Rig-Veda is just that, a collection, the work of a great many writers, or in some cases, guilds of writers. It consists chiefly of hymns to one or another of the numerous Vedic gods, designed for use in the worship of these divinities. It represents the oldest stratum of Hinduism of which very much is known. In recent times archaeological discoveries in the Indus valley have brought to light evidences of a highly developed culture in India long before the coming of the invading Aryans. Whereas, earlier, it had been believed that the Aryans found only peoples of relatively undeveloped culture, now it is known that at least some of these early Indians had developed the arts to a high degree, that they even had a kind of hieroglyphic writing, not yet deciphered, and probably an equally well developed religion which, suppressed for a time, gradually reasserted itself and greatly modified Vedic religion, gradually transforming it into the Hinduism as practiced in India today. (For an interesting account of this civilization see Sir John Marshall, Mohenjo-daro, 3 volumes.)
Reference has been made to the Aryan invasion of India. Who were the Aryans? There is much that is not known concerning them, but it is known that long, long before they arrived in India they were part of a great migratory movement of people, sometimes identified incorrectly as a race, probably better as a people of a common culture. To this people, eventually, the name Indo-European came to be attached, since sure signs of their presence are to be found all the way from the British Isles on the West, to the Bay of Bengal on the East, and from the Scandinavian countries on the North to the Mediterranean on the South. Though possessing many common cultural traits found also in Europe and the West, the much closer similarities between the cultures of Iran or Persia and India have led scholars to distinguish an Indo-Iranian branch of the larger whole as having early separated itself from the central or original Aryan migration, perhaps moving eastward from the, as yet, not certainly located origin of the Aryan group. Later this segment again separated into two branches. One of these entered the Iranian plateau, amalgamated with the native populations and eventually gave rise to a new faith, Zoroastrianism, which developed its own sacred literature. The other crossed the Khyber pass and entered the land of India, gradually fanning out to cover the greater part of that vast subcontinent, but losing, in the course of its southern movement, much of its original character.
It was of this Aryan migration that the Vedic hymns were born. In a real sense they, at least the older of them, are not really Indian in origin at all, but were produced either before the Aryans had set foot on Indian soil, or were composed by Aryans, i.e., the foreign invaders, before India had had time to put her own impress upon them. When this invasion took place it is impossible to state with any certainty. It is rather generally supposed to have occurred some time within the period 2500-1500 B.C., though some Indian scholars put it at a much earlier date, even as early as 5000 B.C.
In modern times the term Aryan has become a racial term, as in Germany under the Nazis, when a sharp distinction was made between the Aryan and the Semitic elements in the population. But beyond the probable fact that the Aryan invaders were light rather than dark of skin, little can be alleged as to their racial character. This is evidenced by the lighter complexions of the present-day Indian in the northern parts of India where the Aryans mingled in largest proportion with the indigenous population, in contrast to the much darker complexion of southern Indians where the Aryan influence is least. Also it is an easily recognized fact that modern-day Indians, particularly of the northern half, or more, appear to have European features despite their darker color. Modern anthropologists and ethnologists give no support to the existence, now or at any time, of a pure Aryan race. They do attest to an Aryan culture widely spread over most of Europe, Persia and India, on the basis of evidences drawn from language, the archaeological discovery of artifacts and objects of art, and certain similarities of religious ideas to be found in the areas overrun by these far-ranging migrants.
Whatever the nature of the Aryans, it is a proudly held word in contemporary India. One vigorous modern reform movement in Hinduism which seeks to recapture the best of India’s religious heritage calls itself the Arya-Samaj, the Society of Aryans; another publishes a religious journal which it calls The Aryan Path. To behave as a true Aryan comes to have something of the meaning of the Confucian term, "the Superior Man," or the old English phrase of "the true gentleman."
The hymns of the Rig-Veda are much older, of course, than the collection itself. Most of them were composed for use in the cult, although there are hymns which seem to be the more or less spontaneous expression of the individual human spirit. At first this cult, or worship was conducted by the father of the household, but in time there arose a specialized priesthood for the performance of the appropriate sacrifices and rituals, and the hymns were probably largely produced by them and for their use in the cult. Not many hymns can be assigned to specific authors, though the Rig-Veda contains seven groups of hymns attributed to seven families, the Gritsamada, Visvamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadvaja, Vasistha, and Kanva. These may represent separate schools of poetry -- the hymns in any one group are certainly not all by the same individual. The collection was not made all at one time, as seems evident also in the Hebrew book of Psalms.
There are ten books in all. Of these, Books II through VII contain the greater number of the oldest hymns and were the first to be brought together, possibly at the command of some famous chief. Here a uniform arrangement appears. Hymns are grouped by families and within each family group they are arranged according to the gods to whom the hymns are addressed; and within these groups according to the number of stanzas, in descending order. Conjecturally, there were then collected and added what is now the second half of Book I, then the first half of Book I and Book VIII, then Book IX which is dedicated entirely to the god Soma, the intoxicant deity, and, finally, the latest of all the books, the tenth and last. Book IX, while collected later than most of the others, contains hymns which may well be as old as any.
From these hymns can be discovered much concerning the life and thought of the ancient Vedic Indians. It is a rare source book for the study of their culture. Here are disclosed not only their religious ideas, their deepest longings, their sins and failures, their ideas of good and evil, their hopes and fears; but also how they worked, how they played, how they fought, what they ate, how they dressed, the pattern of their domestic and public life. Indeed, all we can know about this people is here preserved, for they left no monuments, or buildings, or inscriptions from which the archaeologist might recapture their ancient civilization. It is not only the sacred literature of the period, it is the only literature that has been preserved, and it was preserved only because it became sacred.
From the older hymns it is clear that they were still an invading, conquering people, dependent upon military skill and power to make their way ever more deeply into India. Proof of this is the prominent place given to Indra who was their god of war. Much can be inferred as to the character and activity of people from the gods who hold positions of principal importance. In war times there has always been, and still is, a need for a god of battles to spur men on to fight. In modern times when men believe in but one god, his militant character always comes to the front in war time, and his more pacific character is played down. Nearly one-fourth of all the hymns of the Rig-Veda are to Indra. Of course he is more than a war god; he is also god of storm, beneficent, life-bringing storm, which makes grass to grow. The ruder, more destructive aspects of storm are assigned to Rudra, father of the Maruts, who are often associated with Indra in his hymns.
The Vedic people are still pastoral to a large degree. Cultivation of the soil has not yet become a primary source of their living. It is a cattle culture, as only a very cursory glance at the hymns will quickly disclose. Their prayers -- to Indra, and to others as well -- are largely for rich pasturage, great herds of cattle, long life, big families, and of course success in battle. Rain is a necessity if pastures are to be green. Indra is the slayer of the demon Vritra who herds the cloud cows into a cave and prevents the rains from coming. Prayers rise to Indra. He prepares himself by consuming ponds of Soma, the intoxicant, then sallies forth to slay the monster Vritra. This is all recalled in one of the hymns.
1. Let me tell out the manly deeds of Indra,
3. With bull-like eagerness he sought the soma;
6. For, like a drunken weakling, Vritra challenged The mighty hero, the impetuous warrior; He did not meet the clash of Indra’s weapons, Broken and crushed he lay, whose foe was Indra.
13. Lightning and thunder profited him nothing,
15. Indra is king of that which moves and moves not,
Indra’s close relationship to the preservation of cattle -- and therefore to wealth and prosperity of the people -- is seen in this hymn which reflects the naive character of a simple pastoral people:
The Kine have come and brought good fortune: let them rest
Indra aids him who offers sacrifice and gifts; he takes not
These are ne’er lost, no robber ever injures them: evil-
2. He who the quivering earth hath firm established,
3. Who slew the snake and freed the seven rivers,
13. Even the heavens and earth bow down before him,
Fire plays an important role in the life of any people, and is coimmonly worshiped throughout the world. In Vedic India this element whether as in the hearthfire, in the lightning stroke, or in the blazing sun was an object of constant worship as Agni.6 It is not easy in many of the hymns to say whether the object of cult is the fire itself or a god behind it; perhaps they themselves were not always sure either. Fire is a servant, fire is a friend, it is a purifier, a cleanser, and perhaps most important of all, it is that which transmutes the sacrifice into a holy food for the gods. Easily Agni becomes a mediator or priest god. One of the many hymns reads thus:
Agni, be kind to us when we approach thee, good as a friend
The entire ninth book consists of hymns to Soma. Soma is sometimes the plant, from which juice is extracted to become, when properly strained and mixed, Soma, the intoxicant, the food of the gods, the elixir of immortality, and finally Soma is one of the chief Vedic divinities. Nowhere in literature has the intoxicant been more lyrically described and exalted than in this ninth book. The writers never tire of describing the process of preparation of the divine drink. Every literary art is laid under tribute to glorify it. The press, the filter, or straining cloth, the utensils which contain it are described in loving detail. Soma is the drink of the gods. All seem to be entitled to a libation at intervals, and their standing within the pantheon can be pretty well determined by the amount and frequency of the offering of Soma to the different divinities. Indra more than all of them loves it. Three times each day he must have his meed of Soma, and for his major exploits in man’s behalf he quaffs unbelievable quantities of it, not measured by cups but by vats or ponds or lakes. To none of the intoxicant gods in the religions of the world have greater virtues or powers been attributed. Space limits permit only a few illustrations:
1. Sent forth by men, this mighty steed,
2. Within the filter hath he flowed.
3. Resplendent is this deity,
4. Directed by the sisters ten,
5. This Pavamana made the sun
6. This Soma filtering himself,
Here is a prayer for immortality, addressed appropriately enough to the god who represents, in physical form, the drink of immortality (although the god of the dead and of whatever other-worldly dwelling place awaited them was not Soma but Yama) .
7. Where radiance inexhaustible
8. Make me immortal in the place
9. Make me immortal in that realm,
10. Make me immortal in the place
11. Make me immortal in the place
One more quotation must suffice. A graduate student, reading it, was impressed and, being employed as a youth director in one of the local churches and in charge of a weekly worship service, undertook to modify it at certain points and use it as a litany in the Sunday morning service. It so happened that the pastor of the church visited the group that morning, and, impressed by the beautiful litany, inquired where she had found it. He was not a little surprised to learn that it was out of an ancient book of hymns of a pagan people dedicated to an intoxicant divinity. It reads in part:
O Soma flowing on thy way, win thou and conquer high renown;
It is in the hymns to the great god Varuna that the Vedas reach their highest point, judged from the standpoint of a Christian culture. Here they come closest in moral and spiritual insight to the Hebrew Psalms and the New Testament. Most of the Vedic religious aspiration moves at the level of the satisfaction of physical needs -- long life, food, shelter, protection, large families -- but in these hymns one finds a consciousness of sin and guilt and the need for forgiveness, as well also as guidance and direction in living.
1. Wise are the generations through the greatness
2. With mine own self I meditate this question:
3. Wishing to know my sin I make inquiry,
4. O Varuna, what was my chief transgression,
5. Set us free from the misdeeds of our fathers,
6. ‘Twas not mine own will, Varuna, ‘twas delusion,
7. O let me like a slave, when once made sinless,
8. May this my praise-song, Varuna, sovereign ruler,
Or, again in another hymn:
Against a friend, companion, or a brother,
One is reminded of Psalm 139 by the following hymn which reveals Varuna as all seeing, even to the inward thought of a man.
7. He knows the path of birds that through
8. He knows, as one whose law is firm,
9. He knows the pathway of the wind,
10. Enthroned within his palace sits
11. From there the observant god beholds
12. Let him the all-wise Aditya
13. Wearing a golden mantle, clothed
14. He whom deceivers do not dare
The tenth book is the latest of all, and in it are found at least the beginnings of speculation concerning the nature and origin of the world, which occupies so important a place in the later sacred literature of India. Take, for instance, the hymn to the Unknown God. If at the end the answer is given that it is Prajapati who has created everything, this is thought by many to have been a later addition.
1. The Golden Germ arose in the beginning,
2. He who gives breath and strength, he whose commandment
3. He who through greatness hath become sole monarch
5. He through whom sky is firm and earth is steady,
8. He who in might surveyed the floods containing
10. Prajapati, apart from thee no other
The great hymn of creation which in some sense foreshadows the pantheism of later Hinduism is evidently quite late, for it describes the origins of caste, of which nothing is known in any of the other Vedic hymns. Only a few verses of it can be given here.
1. A thousand heads has Purusa,
2. Whatever is, is Purusa,
3. As great as this is Purusa,
4. Three-fourths ascended up on high,
6. When gods performed a sacrifice
8. From that completely-offered rite
10. From that were horses born and all
11. Then they dismembered Purusa;
12. His mouth became the Brahmana,
13. The Moon was gendered from his mind,
14. Forth from his navel came the air,
There are hymns to many different gods in the Rig-Veda, almost a fourth of them to Indra alone, and over two hundred to Agni, but to lovely Ushas, goddess of dawn, one of the very few goddesses of any independent character in the whole of Vedic religion, there are only twenty-one. Most goddesses are merely given the feminine form of the name of their more important consorts. Thus Indrani is the wife of Indra. There are hymns to numerous sun gods, Vishnu, Surya, Pusan, Mitra, who later appears in Mithraism as a rival of Christianity in the Mediterranean area; to Rudra, god of destructive storm, to Yama, god of the dead, and many others, from which it would be pleasant to quote if space allowed.
Only about thirty hymns are not concerned with the worship of some one or another of the gods. Two of these have already been cited. There are a dozen magical hymns: I, 191; II, 42, 43; X, 145, 162, 163, 166, 183. Two are riddles. Four are didactic, IX, 112; X, 71, 117, and X, 34. This latter has to do with gambling which was apparently very common in Vedic times, as later we shall find it recurring in the Epic literature.
The date of the completion of the collection of the Rig-Vedic hymns cannot be fixed with certainty. Scholars differ in their conjectures from as early as 1200 -- 1000 B.C. to as late as 800-600 B.C. All are agreed that it took place before the appearance of Buddha in the sixth century. But since also they are agreed that the later Vedic literature is also pre-Buddhist, and that these presuppose the existence of the Rig-Veda and indeed depend upon it, it would seem to this writer that a substantial lapse of time must be allowed for the very considerable development of religious thought to take place. Thus it would seem that a date not far from 1000-800 B.C. would be called for. That there were various rescensions of the original collection is doubtless true. The one which has come down to us is that of the Sakalaka school. The remarkable thing is that it was preserved and transmitted orally for centuries before it was reduced to writing, passed on from teacher to pupil. When the first written edition was made is not certainly known. I-tsing, Chinese traveller in India in the seventh century A.D., states that the Vedas were still transmitted orally.16 This does not mean necessarily that there were no written copies, but only that dependence for authoritative transmission was not on the written copies which are so very much subject to error, but upon the painstaking oral transmission from teacher to pupil. It is probable that they were not consigned to written form until sometime not far from the beginning of the Christian era.
If this feat of memory seems almost incredible to the modern student, dependent upon his notebook and pen, let him recall that this was the work of specialists whose primary business it was to cultivate their memories, and who had a profound sense of the importance of transmitting, without error, the sacred text. Furthermore special devices were employed to insure that no word or line slipped out of place as so easily happens in copying a written text by hand, or setting it up in type. In general, the schemes were designed so that each separate word was linked with the word or words before and following it, so that it would be almost impossible either to omit anything from the text or add anything to it. Three separate schemes are known to have been employed.
The first was known as the step text, most easily seen if we designate the first word by the letter "a," the second by "b," and so on. The text was then learned thus: ab -- bc -- cd -- de. Employing this scheme in relation to Genesis 1:1 in the Bible it would read: In the, the beginning, beginning God, God created, created the, etc. etc. The next method, called the woven text, was more complex. It ran thus: ab -- ba -- ab; bc -- cb -- bc; cd -- dc -- cd; etc. "In the -- the in -- in the; the beginning --beginning the -- the beginning; etc. etc." One would think that any mistake with this system would be almost impossible, but just to be quite sure, an even more complicated system for learning the text was worked out. It was known as the Ghana-patha, the two previously given, respectively, as Krama-patha and Jata-patha. It reads as follows: ab -- ba -- abc -- cba --abc; bc -- cb -- bcd -- dcb -- bcd; or in Biblical terms: "In the -- the in -- in the beginning -- beginning the in -- in the beginning, etc."
Could error possibly creep in with this arrangement? The chances are that the Vedic text has been much more correctly transmitted than has the text of ancient holy writ of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, which came to us via the copyists and the printers.
The Rig-Veda is by far the most important of the four Vedas, and is to a large extent the source from which much of the content of the others, particularly the Sama-Veda and the Yajur Veda, is derived. Each of these two Samhitas, or collections, as they are called, arose as the cult developed and are of interest chiefly as revealing the nature of the Vedic cult. Both are essentially priestly documents.
As the cult developed it outgrew the simple household ministration of the father, and a priesthood arose. At first a single priest could perform all the rites. Even so, his various functions were given special names. At one time he was the Udgatri, or the singer of hymns, at the Soma-sacrifice. Again, he was the sacrificer, at the animal sacrifice or Hotri, performing himself the manual parts as well as reciting the ritual. As the cult became more complex an assistant was required to take care of the manual part of the sacrifice, leaving the Hotri free to give his whole attention to the reciting of praises. Eventually there were three ranks of priests, the Udgatri, the Hotri, and the Adhvaryu.
It was for the Udgatri that the Sama-Veda or "chant" Veda as it is sometimes called, was formed. All but seventy-five of its more than fifteen hundred verses are taken directly from the Rig-Veda. It is the musical Veda, created for the instruction of the Udgatri priests. The first part of it, the Archika or book of praises, consists of 585 single stanzas each to be sung to a separate tune. In ancient times the tunes were taught orally, but in written editions the music accompanies the words. Winternitz says that this part is like a song-book in which only the first stanza of the song is printed as an aid to the recall of the melody. The songs taken chiefly from the Rig-Veda are arranged according to the deities to which they are dedicated. The second, or Uttararchika, contains 1225 stanzas, usually three to each strophe, arranged according to the order of the principal sacrifices. Winternitz compares it to a songbook in which the words are given, assuming that the melody is already known.17 Of importance in the study of Indian music, and as throwing light on the Vedic cult, it is of little popular interest, and adds nothing essential concerning Vedic life and belief to what is afforded by the Rig-Veda.
The Yajur-Veda was the Veda of the assisting priest or Adhvaryu, whose duty it was to perform the manual part of the sacrifice. From early times it was customary for the priest, while performing various manual acts of the sacrifice, to utter appropriate formulas. These may have been of the nature of magic or incantations. This became a part of the function of the specialized manual priest, leaving the more formal and public ritual utterances to the Hotri or sacrificing priest. Later to these utterances were added also certain praises and prayers derived from the Rig-Veda. It is this material for the use of the Adhvaryu that constitutes the Yajur-Veda collection. It is found in various versions as taught in differing schools. Some of these versions in addition to the above mentioned formulas have incorporated also a certain amount of theological material or Brahmana directly into the text. These constitute the so-called Black YajurVeda. The other, better known, White Yajur-Veda, has the Brahmana separated out from the formulas and prayers and carries it as an appendix at the end. Brief examples of phrases used by the Adhvaryu are as follows: When a piece of wood with which the sacred fire is to be kindled is dedicated, this formula is recited: "This, Agni, is thy igniter; through it mayst thou grow and thrive. May we also grow and thrive." He addresses the halter by which a sacrificial victim is bound to the stake thus: "Become no snake -- become no viper." To the razor with which the sacrificer’s beard is about to be shaved he says: "O knife, do not injure him."18
Of the forty sections contained in the Yajur-Veda, the first twenty-five, and earliest, contain the prayers for the most important sacrifices, e.g., the sacrifices of the New and Full Moon, the Soma sacrifices in general, the Building of the Fire Altar, which requires a year, and the great Horse Sacrifice. The remaining fifteen are much later, and are more or less an appendix to the main body of the work. It is obvious that here is a highly specialized priestly literature of little popular interest. Nevertheless, it is of very great importance in the study of Vedic Hinduism.
The fourth of the Vedas, the Atharva, is of a still different kind. It has been characterized as a late book, but as containing a great deal of very ancient material, reflecting the folk religion of the early Aryans, and as carried along, it represents the cultural lag of the Vedic people. For, it is, to no small degree, a book of magic and charms. It is one of the most interesting books of antiquity and a very valuable source for an understanding of the folk religion of the Vedic period. A glance at the table of contents reveals a fascinating list of charms. There is, for example, a charm against a cough. It runs as follows:
1. As the soul with the soul’s desire swiftly to a distance flies, thus do thou, O cough, fly forth along the soul’s course of flight.
2. As a well sharpened arrow swiftly to a distance flies, thus do thou,
3. As the rays of the sun swiftly to a distance fly, thus do thou, O cough fly forth along the flood of the sea."19
Here is a clear use of mimetic magic. As the soul’s desire, as a sharpened arrow, as the rays of the sun swiftly to a distance fly -- so let cough fly also. But just to help out there are certain things to be done besides repeating the charm. While reciting the sutra the patient takes several steps away from the home, again suggestive to the cough, but all this after being fed with a churned drink or hot porridge, i.e., making prudent use of a home remedy, like drinking hot lemonade, to make a cure doubly sure. A graduate student of English on reading this recalled the following from the Diary of the famous Samuel Pepys apparently quite soberly intended.
O cramp, be thou faintless
A charm for finding lost objects recalls practices of the writer’s own boyhood days. The formula is this:
On the distant path of the paths Pushan was born. . .
Those who seek lost property first have their hands and feet anointed. This is rubbed off and again they are anointed with ghi (clarified butter) . Then twenty-one pebbles are thrown scatteringly upon a crossroad. These symbolize the lost objects and at the same time are supposed to counteract their lost condition.20
We boys of a later day found lost objects sometimes by catching a daddy long-legs, saying over him a formula which unfortunately can no longer be recalled, when the great insect would solemnly point one of his long legs in the supposed direction of the lost object. Sometimes it was by the much less elegant method of spitting in the palm of the hand, striking it with a finger and seeking the lost object in the direction in which the largest spit ball flew. Innumerable examples of like folk beliefs and practices may be found in any so-called advanced culture.
Then there is a charm to promote the growth of hair (6:136) ; to obtain a husband (2:3) ; to obtain a wife (6:82) ; to secure the love of a woman (6:8) ; and to secure the love of a man (7:38) ; a charm to secure harmony (3:20) ; and one to procure influence in an assembly (3:30) ; a charm to ward off danger from fire (6:106) ; another to stop an arrow in its flight. There are prayers too, one on building a house (3:12) ; one for success at gambling (4:38) ; and particularly in playing at dice (7:50) ; an incantation for the exorcism of evil dreams (6:46) , etc. etc.
In addition there are repeated not a few hymns from the RigVeda, and still other theosophic and cosmogonic hymns of rare beauty and insight which do not seem to fit in with the cruder concept of religion apparent in the magical portions of the book.
Any anthology which presents only the high and noble points of a sacred literature really misrepresents that literature, for it is not all by any means of equal beauty or interest or of equal moral or religious insight. Most religious literatures have their high spots and their low. From the standpoint of general reader interest the Brahmanas represent the all-time low of Hindu sacred literature, and probably of all the sacred literatures of the world. The Bible has sections that are hard going. Many who bravely set out to read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation bog down in Leviticus or sooner, and never finish. Well, Leviticus, in comparison with the greater part of the Brahmana literature, is far more interesting and intelligible to the nonpriestly reader. It has the advantage, too, that it is much shorter. Julius Eggeling, translator of the Satapatha Brahmana, says of them, "For wearisome prolixity of exposition, characterized by dogmatic assertion and a flimsy symbolism rather than serious reasoning, these works are perhaps not equalled anywhere unless indeed it be by the speculative vaporings of the gnostics, than which nothing more absurd has probably ever been imagined by rational beings."21
The Brahmanas are strictly priestly books and are concerned primarily with the sacrifices which, with increasing complexity, had developed within Vedic Hinduism. Sacrifice had become of enormous importance. By sacrifice the gods could be at first won over to grant favors sought after; then as time went on, it became magical in its powers, and the gods themselves could not resist the prayer spell; indeed, what power they had they owed to the sacrifice.22 It became a matter of primary importance that the sacrifice be properly performed, for in this its efficacy rested. The Brahmanas provide precisely that detailed direction. Nothing is left to the imagination or the discretion of the priest. Where he shall stand, which way he shall turn, either to right, or left, whether he shall use right hand or left, in what exact order the various ritual acts must be performed, all this is given in minutest detail.
Typical of the general character of the Brahmanas is the description of the horse sacrifice which occurs in the Satapatha Brahmana. This to be sure was the most complex as well as most important of all the Brahmanic sacrifices. It requires 166 pages in translation in the Sacred Books of the East, including extensive footnotes designed to explain the more obscure references in the text. It is much too long and involved to include here -- even a detailed description of the sacrifice, much less of the ritual associated with it. But a sample paragraph will suffice to reveal its general character. This one chosen at random, will do.
(He puts the halter on the horse, with Vag. S XXII, 3, 4,) "Encompassing thou art,"-- therefore the offer of the Asvamedha conquers all the quarters; -- "the world thou art," the world he thus conquers;-- "a ruler thou art, an upholder,"--he thus makes him an upholder; "go thou into Agni Vaisvanara," he thus makes him go to Agni Vaisvanara (the friend of all men) ;-- "of wide extent," -- he thus causes him to extend in offspring and cattle; -- "consecrated by Svaha (hail!) ," this is the Vashat -- call for it; -- "good speed (to) thee for the gods!"-- he thus makes it of good speed for the gods; "for Prajapati,"--the horse is sacred to Prajapati: he thus supplies it with his own deity.23
If it is obscure to you, do not be troubled. Even if you read it in its context it would be but little more clear. Indeed, even with the learned translator’s detailed footnotes it still does not hold much meaning for one of our time and our culture. Reflect on the fact that this is less than one of some 160 pages of only one Kanda describing only one sacrifice, and that the Satapatha-Brahmana of which it is a part is but one of many Brahmanas, all of which were regarded as sacred by the early Hindus, and transmitted orally from priest to priest for centuries. Not only are directions given as to what to do and how to do it but, as appeared in the sample above, some explanation, of either the origin or significance of the act. This often
runs into rather profound speculations, or often into very obscure symbolism. Indeed, Eggeling calls them "theological treatises composed chiefly for the purpose of explaining the sacrificial texts as well as the origin and deeper meaning of the various rites."24 Happily also in the midst of tiresome, repetitious instruction are to be found at least the beginnings of some important aspects of India’s later culture, philosophic speculation, grammar, astronomy, logic, and also a considerable amount of legend and myth.
Here are to be found, for example, a number of creation myths, not at all in agreement with each other. India never conceived of one single myth of the world’s creation, as found in the Bible and many other cultures. Here is a rather delightful account of the creation of night:
"Yama had died. The gods tried to persuade Yam (a twin sister) to forget him. Whenever they asked her, she said: "Only today he has died." Then the gods said: "Thus she will indeed never forget him; we will create night!" For at that time there was only day and no night. The gods created night; then arose a morrow; thereupon she forgot him. Therefore people say: "Day and night indeed. Let sorrow be forgotten."25
Most scriptures have somewhere within them a flood story. Hindu literature is no exception, and it is found in the Brahmanas:
There lived in ancient time a holy man,
But if lacking in interest for the general readers, these dry, uninspired priestly directions are of very great importance to the student of India’s religion. Already may be seen a notable shift away from the old simple Vedic conceptions. The Vedic gods had largely lost their power and significance. New deities, particularly Prajapati, Lord of creatures, stand as the central figures. In the end, as may well be imagined, this luxuriant over-emphasis upon the power of the sacrifice, leading naturally to an exaltation of the power of the priests, who alone possessed the secrets of their proper performance, were the undoing of Vedic religion, and it finally disappears. New forms of religious faith take its place and new gods arise to replace the older ones, as we shall presently see. It represents a stage in transition from Vedic religion to the philosophic Hinduism and the sectarian, theistic Hinduism which has come down to our own time.
The date of the Brahmanas cannot be fixed with exactness, but they follow after the Vedas and precede the rise of the Upanishads which in turn are, the older ones, definitely pre-Buddhistic. The Brahmanas are found in connection with the various Vedas. As indicated above in the Black Yajur-Veda, the Brahmana material is interspersed throughout the Veda, while in the White Yajur-Veda the Brahmana forms an appendix to the Veda. They were undoubtedly at first designed for the training of priests. The earlier instruction may have been quite informal, but gradually it became stereotyped and finally unchangeable. There were, however, differences in the Brahmanas as taught in different schools.
But not all the development of religious thought was of priestly origin. Indeed, it may well have been that as the cult grew more complex and overgrown, lay members of the community became impatient with it and with the ideas behind it, and began to think about religion themselves. By this time, the stratification of society into fixed castes, a thing unknown in the Vedas, save in the late tenth book, was complete. The preferred position of the priest or Brahmin had been securely fixed. His was definitely the top ranking class, quite above the Kshatriya, the ruler-warrior class, and the Vaisya or farmer-merchant group, and his supremacy has continued into our own times. These three classes, known as the twice-born castes, were sharply set off from the lowly Sudra who was non-Aryan in origin, and carried on the heavy unpleasant work of the world. But by no means all the intelligence was to be found among the Brahmins. Even in the Brahmanas and again and again in the Upanishads there are stories of teachers seeking enlightenment on points of religious thought from kings or nobles. Nor were all members of the Brahmin caste priests. Buddhism very definitely arose out of the experience and ponderings of a prince, one of the Kshatriyas. And it is conjectured that much of the impulse to the profound religious and philosophical speculation which forms the basis of the Upanishads was from the non-Brahmin ranks.
Certain it is that before the time of the Upanishads, men of the non-Brahmin castes had undertaken to become ascetics and hermits and give themselves to contemplation of the great problems of religious and philosophic thought. The Brahmins, if they did not originate the custom, ultimately embraced it and integrated it into a system of Ashramas, or the four stages of life. The first stage was that of the student. Those of the twice-born castes were to begin early the study of the Vedas, which meant to live in the home of a teacher and serve him while learning the wisdom of the sacred texts. At an appropriate time the student was to become a householder, marry, rear a family, and perform the proper sacrifices to the gods. Then, when past middle age, he was to go apart from the common life, and to dwell in the forest, passing the time in contemplation and meditation. When at last old age had come he was supposed to abandon all connections with home, with family, and the common life, and become a sannyasin, or holy man, a wandering beggar for God.
Of course not every male of the twice-born castes followed this program, but many did. Upon what should these forest dwellers meditate? At first this may have been left wholly to the individual but in time it also became formalized, and there came into being what are known as the Aranyakas or Forest Treatises. These were sometimes included in the Brahmanas or appended to them, but they were of a different kind. No longer is the concern with the rules of sacrifice and ceremonies, but with mysticism and the symbolism of sacrifice, and with the more philosophic aspects of religion. There had grown up a body of secret doctrine, an esoteric type of thought; not to be taught to the uninitiated in the villages, but to be meditated upon in the forest. This all in time became a part of the Veda. There are Aranyakas belonging to the various schools, thus the Aitareya-Aranyaka, which contains the Aitareya-Upanishad, is attached to the Aitareya-Brahmana of the Rig-Veda. There is no clear line of distinction between the Aranyakas and the Upanishads which the non-specialist can easily discern.
The Upanishads, which, with the Aranyakas, form the Vedanta, or the end of the Veda, are probably the most important parts of the Veda. They are the basis of Indian philosophy and philosophic Hinduism, the religion of the intelligentsia of India, and have affected the thought of all India with reference to religion.
Save in the tenth book of the Rig-Veda, the Vedas in general, like the Old Testament, take the gods for granted. There is little or no reflection upon them. In the Brahmanas there is the beginning of questioning about the world and its origins. In the Aranyakas to a still greater degree it goes forward, but in the Upanishads it comes to flower.27 Here the chief concern is to ask ultimate questions concerning man, and his world, and his final destiny. It represents both an intellectual and a religious interest. Concerned with the nature of the world ground, it is also interested in how man must relate himself to this ultimate reality in order to achieve what, in Christianity, is called salvation. To the Hindu it was Moksha.
It would be a mistake to think of the Upanishads as formal books of philosophy, abstruse discussions of highly profound and difficult subjects. They are, first of all, tied on bodily to the Vedas, Brahmanas and Aranyakas, sometimes contained within the latter. There is in them a great deal that has to do with sacrifice and the cult in general. There is also a good deal of myth and legend. There are long, tiresome, repetitious discussions of what seem, on first reading, to be puerile matters. One who has heard of the vast importance of the Upanishads, and has read scattered excerpts of rare beauty and insight, is likely to feel a sense of shock as he sits down to read through the whole collection of the 12 or 13 principal Upanishads. Some of it is crude, childish, and in such passages as give only the list of names of the teachers through whom the teachings have been handed down, one finds it about as inspiring as the "begatting" or genealogical chapters of the Old and New Testament. But if the reader persists he will come upon passages of deep insight, beauty of expression and profound understanding of the great problems of religion and human thought. One’s first excursion into these basic philosophic texts would best be through some modern expurgated edition or anthology, which has carefully weeded out the crudities, the repetitiousness, and contradictions that so much abound in the original.28
The word Upanishad seems to mean "secret doctrine." It is also defined as meaning, literally, that which dispels darkness or ignorance completely. It may be written in prose, or in poetry. There are, all told, over 100 Upanishads in existence, many of them quite late. But of the earlier ones which may be surely said to be Vedic there are only a few, some recognize twelve, some fourteen. R. E. Hume’s book, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads,29 contains a translation of those which are rather generally accepted as basic to a study of Hindu religion and philosophy.
A great deal of the material of the Upanishads is in dialogue form. A seeker after knowledge comes to a recognized teacher to inquire about some phase of religion or thought. A somewhat Socratic dialogue ensues, in which the answer is finally given. It is interesting to note the variety of people who ask the questions, kings and commoners, some of very humble birth, both men and women. Apparently women enjoyed a relatively high status at that time.
As an example of dialogue that between Yajnavalkya, a famous teacher, and a woman, Gargi, may be cited. She approaches the teacher and begs permission to ask a question. Yajnavalkya replies graciously:
She said: "That, O Yajnavalkya, which is above the sky, that which is beneath the earth that which is between these two, sky and earth, that which people call the past and the present and the future -- across what is that woven, warp and woof?"
He said: ‘That, O Gargi, which is above the sky that which is between these two, sky and earth, that which people call the past, and present and future -- across space is that woven, warp and woof."
She said: "Adoration to you, Yajnavalkya, in that you have solved this question for me. Prepare yourself for the other."
She said, "Across what then, pray, is space woven, warp and woof?"
He said: "That, O Gargi, Brahmans call the Imperishable (Aksara) . It is not coarse, not fine, not short, not long, not glowing (like fire) , not adhesive (like water) , without shadow and without darkness, without air and without space, without stickiness (intangible) , odorless, tasteless, without eye, without ear, without voice, without wind, without energy, without breath, without mouth, without personal or family name, unaging, undying, without fear, immortal, stainless, not uncovered, not covered, without measure, without inside and without outside.
"It consumes nothing soever.
"No one soever consumes it.
‘Verily, O Gargi, at the command of that Imperishable the sun and the moon stand apart. Verily, O Gargi, at the command of that Imperishable the earth and the sky stand apart. Verily, O Gargi, at the command of that Imperishable the moments, the hours, the days, the nights, the fortnights, the months, the seasons, and the years stand apart. Verily, O Gargi, at the command of that Imperishable some rivers flow from the snowy mountains to the east, others to the west, in whatever direction each flows. Verily, O Gargi, at the command of that Imperishable men praise those who give, the gods are desirous of a sacrificer, and the fathers (are desirous) of the Manes-sacrifice.
"Verily, O Gargi, if one performs sacrifices and worships and undergoes austerity in this world for many thousands of years, but without knowing that Imperishable, limited indeed is that (work) of his. Verily, O Gargi, he who departs from this world without knowing that Imperishable is pitiable. But, O Gargi, he who departs from this world knowing that Imperishable is Brahman.
"Verily, O Gargi, that Imperishable is the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the unthought Thinker, the ununderstood understander. Other than It there is naught that sees. Other than It there is naught that hears. Other than It there is naught that understands. Across this Imperishable, O Gargi, is space woven, warp and woof."30
On another occasion when Gargi had pushed Yajnavalkya back step by step, a device often used in the Upanishads and known as the regressus, to Brahman as the ultimate reality, she still persisted in asking what lay behind Brahman. Yajnavalkya said:
"Gargi, do not question too much, lest your head fall off. In truth, you
are questioning too much about a divinity about which questions cannot
be asked. Gargi, do not over-question."
Thereupon Gargi Vacaknaivi held her peace.3’
Another regressus throws not a little light upon the shifting away from the old Vedic gods to the One, Brahman. It is given in slightly abbreviated form:
1. Then Vidagdha Sakalya questioned him. "How many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"
He answered in accord with the following Nivid (invocationary formula) : "As many as are mentioned in the Nivid of the Hymn to All the Gods, namely, three hundred and three, and three thousand and three (=3306) ."
"Yes," said he, "but just how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"
"Yes," said he, "but just how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"
"Yes," said he, "but just how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"
"Yes," said he, "but just how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"
One and a half."
"Yes," said he, "but just how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?"
There is space for only one final dialogue dealing with the At-man, which, together with Brahman, constitute the two major concepts dealt with in the Upanishads. Their ultimate identification in Brahman-Atman is the culmination of the long time trend toward the monistic or pantheistic world-soul which began in the tenth book of the Rig-Veda. Also the realized identification of the Atman, or self, or soul of man, with Brahman, constitutes moksha or salvation for some schools of philosophic Hinduism.
King Janaka of Videha once asked of Yajnavalkya;
2. "Yajnavalkya, what light does a person here have?"
"He has the light of the sun, O king," he said, "for with the sun, indeed, as his light, one sits, moves around, does his work, and returns.
"Quite so, Yajnavalkya.
3. "But when the sun has set, Yajnavalkya, what light does a person here have?"
"The moon, indeed, is his light," said he, "for with the moon, indeed, as his light, one sits, moves around, does his work, and returns."
"Quite so, Yajnavalkya.
4. "But when the sun has set, and the moon has set, what light does a person here have?"
"Fire, indeed, is his light," said he, "for with fire," etc.
"Quite so, Yajnavalkya.
5. "But when the sun has set, Yajnavalkya, and the moon has set, and the fire has gone out, what light does a person here have?"
"Speech, indeed, is his light," said he, "for . . . when a voice is raised (even in the dark) then one goes straight towards it."
6. "But when the sun has set, Yajnavalkya, and the moon has set, and the fire has gone out, and speech is hushed, what light does a person here have?"
"The soul (atman) , indeed, is his light," said he, "for with the soul, indeed, as his light, one sits, moves around, does his work, and returns."33
The famous phrase tat tvam asi, "that art thou," expressing the identity of the self of man with Brahman-Atman occurs over and over again in a long dialogue between Svetaketu and his father, for example:
Said the father:
1. "Place this salt in the water. In the morning come unto me.
Then he said to him: "That salt you placed in the water last evening -- please bring it hither."
Then he grasped for it, but did not find it, as it was completely dissolved.
2. "Please take a sip of it from this end," said he. "How is it?"
"Take a sip from the middle," said he. "How is it?"
"Take a sip from that end," said he. "How is it?"
"Set it aside. Then come unto me.
He did so, saying, "It is always the same."
Then he said to him: "Verily, indeed, my dear, you do not perceive Being here. Verily, indeed, it is here.
3. "That which is the finest, essence -- this whole world has that as its soul. That is Reality. That is Atman (Soul) . That art thou, Svetaketu."
"Do you, sir, cause me to understand even more.
"So be it, my dear," said he.34
But how shall this moksha which is release from the round of rebirth be accomplished? To the authors of the Upanishads, Vedic sacrifice was unable to help one here. It could come only through knowledge or realization of the truth of the identity of the Atman of living man with Brahman-Atman. The Upanishads themselves suggest the way of meditation under direction of a teacher, but have little to say with regard to the precise methods to be employed. Later thinkers were to develop elaborate schemes whereby man might achieve this end. In general Yoga practice in one form or another, i.e., disciplined meditation, was the answer.
Here in the Upanishads come to full expression two doctrines unknown in the Vedas, that of Karma, ot the law of sowing and reaping, and that of reincarnation. Both are expressed in the following:
3. Now as a caterpillar, when it has come to the end of a blade of grass, in taking the next step draws itself together towards it, just so this soul in taking the next step strikes down this body, dispels its ignorance, and draws itself together (for making the transition) .
4. As a goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, reduces it to another newer and more beautiful form, just so this soul, striking down this body and dispelling its ignorance, makes for itself another newer and more beautiful form like that either of the fathers, or of the Gandharvas, or of the gods, or of Prajapati, or of Brahman, or of other beings.
5. Verily, this soul is Brahma, made of knowledge, of mind, of breath, of seeing, of hearing, of earth, of water, of wind, of space, of energy and of non-energy, of desire and of non-desire, of anger and of non-anger, of virtuousness and of non-virtuousness. It is made of everything. This is what is meant by the saying "made of this, made of that."
According as one acts, according as one conducts himself, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action.35
Though the doctrine of reincarnation was worked out in much greater detail in subsequent Hindu sacred literature, it is expressed in the Lipanishads in rudimentary form thus:
15. Those who know this, and those, too, who in the forest truly worship (upasate) faith (sraddha) , pass into the flame (of the cremation-fire) ; from the flame, into the day; from the day, into the half month of the waxing moon; from the half month of the waxing moon, into the six months during which the sun moves northward; from these months, into the world of the gods (devaloka) ; from the world of the gods, into the sun; from the sun, into the lightning-fire. A person (purusa) consisting of mind (manasa) goes to those regions of lightning and conducts them to the Brahma-worlds. In those Brahma-worlds they dwell for long extents. Of these there is no return.
16. But they who by sacrificial offering, charity, and austerity conquer the worlds, pass into the smoke (of the cremation-fire) ; from the smoke, into the night; from the night, into the half month of the waning moon; from the half month of the waning moon, into the six months during which the sun moves southwaid; from those months, into the world of the fathers; from the world of the fathers, into the moon. Reaching the moon, they become food. There the gods -- as they say to King Soma, "Increase! Decrease!"-- even so feed upon them there. When that passes away for them, then they pass forth into this space; from space, into air; from air, into rain; from rain, into the earth. On reaching the earth they become food. Again they are offered in the fire of man. Thence they are born in the fire of woman. Rising up into the world, they cycle round again thus.
But those who know not these two ways, become crawling and flying insects and whatever there is here that bites.36
Parts of the Upanishads are in verse. Here we have space for only three brief poems on Brahman, favorite theme of the writers of the "secret doctrine."
As oil in sesame seeds, as butter in cream,
The second illustrates the way in which the Brahman concept gathers up into itself the old Vedic gods.
Thou art Brahma, and verily thou art Vishnu.
For Nature’s sake and for its own
Hail unto thee, O tranquil Soul (santatman) !
And finally, from the Mundaka comes this summing-up of the whole in Brahman:
Brahma, indeed, is this immortal. Brahma before,
The Upanishads have had an extraordinary influence on all subsequent religious and philosophic thought. No writer on Indian philosophy would think of beginning anywhere but in the Veda, meaning primarily the Upanishads. Out of them have grown six historical schools of philosophic thought, and each of these has had its effect upon Indian religion. Best known in the West is the Vedanta school. Others are the Nayaya, the Mimansa, the Sankhya, the Yoga, and the Vaiseshika.40
Religiously, the concept of Brahman has had a very profound effect on Indian religion. Since Brahman is the one and only real -- all the gods of whatever sectarian group can have no reality other than they have in Brahman. They can only be regarded as manifestations, at various levels, of the neuter world soul. Thus a cloak of unity is thrown over all kinds of religions which have appeared in India. Indeed, this concept provides Hinduism with an absorptive quality which enables it to accept any religion from any source as simply a phase of the ultimately real Brahman -- so long as it does not make exclusive claims for its deity as do Christianity and Islam. Here the resistance is rather on the part of the representatives of these aggressively exclusivist faiths to such an acceptance.
The Upanishads have been quite influential throughout the west. Schopenhauer, among European philosophers, has spoken of them in terms of high esteem:
In the whole world there is no study except that of the originals, as beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads (in translation) . It has been the solace of my life; it will be the solace of my death.
From every s~ntence deep original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high, holy and earnest spirit.41
Emerson got the inspiration from their reading for his great poem, Brahma. Thoreau read them and was influenced by them. The whole atmosphere of New England thought in the latter part of the nineteenth century was affected by them. In more recent times, as translations have been muhiplied, they have been read by vast numbers of people. A recent book, Vedanta for the Western World interprets them to an increasing circle of intelligent readers. Theosophy has taken over some of the basic ideas of the Upanishads and popularized them in the West, and their indirect influence is to be seen in a number of small modern religious movements in America.42
The Upanishads are the source of the doctrines which furnish the basis for the Vedanta-Sutras of Badarayana, which are by some considered to be sruti literature. On this are based the commentaries of Shankara and of Ramanuja whose writings have influenced and are still influencing the religious thought of countless millions of Indians.
With the Upanishads we come to the end of the Veda, and also the end of the sruti sacred literature, with the exception of the Bhagavad Gita, which if not universally so recognized is, by great numbers of Indians, ranked along with the most sacred Vedic literature. To that we shall come back later. But we are only at the beginning of the discussion of literature of the smriti type, which, for all practical purposes, is quite as important in the religious life of the Indian people as the older sruti. Indeed, rather more so, for actually Vedic religion no longer exists. The old Vedic gods are gone, with the exception of a very few --chiefly Vishnu. Orthodox Indians regard their later literatures as growing out of and fulfilling the Vedas, but in no sense as abrogating them. Typical of the attitude of modern Hindu thought is the statement of D. S. Sarma in his Primer of Hinduism, written for the instruction of young Hindus in this faith:
Q. Why, if the Veda is our primary scripture, should we not go direct to it without caring for any of the secondary scriptures?
A. The Veda is like a mine of gold, and the later scriptures are like the gold coins of the various ages. When you want to procure things that would make you comfortable, you should have ready money and not a piece of rock with veins of gold in it straight from the mine. Of course every gold coin that is in the country is ultimately derived from the mine; but has undergone various processes that make it useful to us at once. The ore has been smelted, the dross has been removed, the true metal has been refined, put into moulds and stamped. Similarly the golden truths of the Veda have been refined by the wisdom of the ages and presented to us in a useful form, in our later scriptures. That is why I recommend to you the Gita, rather than the Upanishads.43
While the application was in this case specifically to the Bhagavad Gita, note that he says "presented to us in our later scriptures."
Supplementary to the Vedas there grew up a great body of what is known as sutra literature. The name comes from the practice, adopted for mnemonic reasons, of couching what was to be remembered in very terse, almost telegraphic form, which then needed to be expanded, to make complete sentences. Thus: "four castes; Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras," requires adding "There are." "Of these the preceding one (is) always better, according to birth (than the succeeding one) ." The words in parentheses must be supplied.44
The oldest of these sutras are found in connection with the Aranyakas and Brahmanas. Eventually there emerged the Kalpa or ritual sutras. Those dealing with the great public sacrifices are called Srauta sutras; those with the domestic rites the Grihya sutras. These latter deal with the simple household sacrifices and observances connected with such things as building a house, cattle breeding, farming, also rites for the prevention of disease, love rites, the ancestral and funeral rites. They constitute a veritable mine of information as to the home and family life of the people and also throw a great deal of light upon the way the Vedas were interpreted and used in actual practice.
There are also sutras concerning the Dharma. Dharma is a word not easily translated. It is sometimes rendered as law, custom, usage, and even religion. The Dharma sutras were, then, sutras covering a great variety of obligations, all the way from personal etiquette to formal law. These were formulated by different Vedic schools and purportedly based upon the Vedas. There are several important books of this character, some earlier, some later, the Apastamba -- the Baudhayana, the Institutes of Vishnu, and most important of all that of the Manavan School, the Manavan sutras, or, when, put into poetic form, as was actually done, the Manavan Dharma Sastras, better known as the Laws of Manu. These books have been of enormous importance in Indian life, even down to the present time. For example, until recently a British magistrate in India, where an Indian citizen had to be judged on the basis of the law of his particular religious community, had to be instructed in Hindu requirements as set forth in the Code of Manu, as well as in the Koran, which is the basis of Moslem law. When reforms have been pressed, for example with reference to child marriage, or the problem of permitting divorce, a strong appeal has been made by Orthodoxy to the Laws of Manu as having permanently fixed these relationships. They charge the government with infringement of religious freedom in setting aside what was therein written.
The Laws of Manu is a fascinating law book, comparable in many ways to the Code of Hammurabi or to the Hebrew codes found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. If one desires to know caste rules, or how women should be regarded, or the obligations of servant to master, or wife to husband, or children to parents, or king to people, or people to ruler, or concerning almost any question of social relationship, here may be found what, until quite recent modern times, was the characteristic Indian answer.45
Ordinarily one would not regard the great national epics as scriptures though, in the case of the Iliad and the Odyssey, they come close to forming at least an equivalent of scripture for the Greek people, and to students of Greek religion they provide a rich mine of material with reference to the gods of classical Greek religion. But in India, if not sruti they are at least smriti, and play a highly significant role in Indian religion. D. S. Sarma in his Primer of Hinduism so classifies them along with the Puranas, the Agamas and Darsanas. This is an indication of how modern Indians regard them.46
In his introduction to the Mahabharata of which he is the supposed author or compiler, Vyasa says: ‘The reading of the Bharata is sacred: all the sins of him who reads but one portion of it shall be obliterated without exception. He who in faith shall persevere in listening to the recital of this sacred book shall obtain long life, great renown and the way to heaven."
Romesh Dutt, translator of the Epics in Everyman’s Library says of them: "The Hindu scarcely lives, man or woman, high or low, educated or ignorant, whose earliest recollections do not cling to the story and the character of the great Epics. Even the traditions and tales which spoil the Epic have themselves a charm and an attraction; and the morals inculcated in these tales sink into the hearts of a naturally religious people, and form the basis of their moral education. Mothers in India know no better theme for imparting wisdom and instruction to their daughters, and elderly men know no richer storehouse for narrating tales to children, than these stories preserved in the Epics. No single work except the Bible has such influence in affording moral instruction in Christian lands as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in India. They have been the cherished heritage of the Hindus for three thousand years; they are to the present day interwoven with the thoughts and beliefs and the moral ideas of a nation."47
The longer of the two great Indian Epics is the Mahabharata. Indeed, it is the longest epic in the world, consisting of about 220,000 lines. In comparison, the Iliad and Odyssey combined have some 30,000. It is not all strictly epic in character but a combination of epic and didactic material which has been incorporated into it. Modern scholars distinguish between the epic and the didactic epic.
The real epic consists of some 24,000 stanzas, almost twice the length of the Greek epics, but even this is not all of a piece, for in the epic itself there is reference to the fact that it originally had only 8,800 stanzas.
The original epic had its historic basis in the ancient conflict between two tribes -- the Kurus and Pandavas. This probably occurred at some time prior to 1000 B.C., though exact dating is impossible. Around this historic struggle grew up a collection of songs celebrating the prowess of outstanding leaders and this was handed down orally. This may then have been woven into a brief epic by some poet. The fact that in this epic, Brahma is the chief god is evidence to some scholars that it is still early, before the rise to prominence of the great divinities Vishnu or Shiva, who figure in the later stage of growth as on a par with Brahma. Here mention of the Greeks appears which would require a date as late as 300 B.C. or later. Macdonell assigns it to the period between 300 B.C. and the beginning of the Christian era.48 The final stage in the development of the epic was the inclusion of a vast mass of didactic material in the epic -- doubtless in order to get it known. For the Epic was popular, and if some teaching matter could be incorporated into it, it might get attention which it would otherwise fail to receive. The process is comparable to the modern effort of teachers of religion and morals to attempt to get their material into the movies, on the radio, or in television, which are the media of mass appeal of today. So one thing after another was added, designed, says Macdonell, "to impress the people, especially kings, with the doctrines of a priestly caste. It thus at last assumed the character of a vast treatise on dharma in which the divine origin and immutability of Brahman institutions, the eternity of the caste system, and the subordination of all to the priest is laid down.49
This was probably completed by about 400 AD. In the end it
comes out as a Vishnuite document in which the worship of Vishnu and his divine incarnations, especially Krishna, is promoted: This reaches its climax in the Bhagavad Gita which was one of the didactic sections included.
Sometimes the included material fits. There may be, after all, some appropriateness in inserting a lengthy discussion on immortality by two survivors of a dreadfully destructive battle as they survey the corpse-strewn battlefield. The Bhagavad Gita seems somewhat less appropriately placed. It interpolates at the precise moment when the battle lines are drawn and the warriors await only the blowing of the conch shell as signal to charge upon the enemy, a discussion running through eighteen chapters on very profound religious themes between Arjuna the warrior and Krishna the god, disguised as a charioteer. But to the Gita we will return later.
Only a very brief and inadequate summary of the Epic can be given here.
Of the house of Bharata there were two sons, Pandu and Dhrita-rashtra. Pandu had five sons called the Pandavas, by name Yudhisthira the eldest, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Dhrita-rashtra, who was blind, had several sons of whom Duryodhana was the eldest and Duhsasana the bravest. This family was called the Kauravas.
On the death of Pandu, Dhrita-rashtra, the blind king, took his brother’s five sons into his own home to rear, and they were trained in the manly arts along with his own sons, by Drona. Arjuna proved the favorite. When they were all well trained Drona suggested a tournament in which they might exhibit their skill. This was a mistake, for Arjuna excelled all in his mastery of the bow, the sword, the spear, and aroused jealousy in the minds of his cousins, the Kauravas. The tournament ended in a general fight between the cousins. King Dhrita- rashtra saw the necessity of separating the rivals, so divided his kingdom, giving a distant section of it to the Pandavas. Yudhisthira, as eldest, exercised rule and soon won the love of his subjects.
Then one day the father of Draupadi, a very beautiful princess who had come to the age to wed, announced a swayamvara, at which a husband would be chosen for her, and all neighboring kings and princes were invited to contest for the hand of the lovely princess. This is quite a common literary device and recurs frequently in the epics and other Indian literature. It brought together a colorful company, not wholly unlike the tournaments associated with the knights of the Round Table in English lore. The particular test on this occasion was to shoot an arrow through a revolving wheel and strike the eye of a golden fish. The five Pandavas attended the event disguised as Brahmins. When none of the contestants could even bend and string the bow, Arjuna stepped forward in his Brahmin’s garb, to the surprise of the crowd which scorned the notion that a Brahmin could perform a feat of physical prowess. But Arjuna, putting aside his Brahmin’s robes, easily bent and strung the bow, then sent the arrow straight to its mark and by so doing won the beautiful princess, Draupadi. Returning home with the bride, one of the brothers called out to the mother on approaching the house: "We have made a fine acquisition today." She, not having seen what it was, replied: "Share it equally among yourselves, my sons." And the mother having spoken, her words could not be set aside. So, Draupadi became the wife of all five brothers. The irrevocability of a parent’s word is a widespread belief -- it will appear again in the Ramayana. In Hebrew custom the granting of the blessing to Jacob by Isaac is a good example.
The jealousy felt by the Kauravas was not lessened by this success of the Pandavas. They plotted their downfall. They invited them to a festival, and challenged them to a game of dice. Yudhisthira had a weakness for gambling. He lost steadily until he had staked all his possessions, his kingdom, his brothers and finally his wife -- and lost them all. This meant slavery for the cousins, but the blind king would not permit this. Instead, they were exiled to the forest for fourteen years. This, too, is a familiar motif in Indian literature. It appears again and again, notably in the Ramayana.
While they were in the forest saints came to visit them and, in order to entertain and encourage them, told a number of stories, among them the Ramayana itself, indicating that it is the older of the two. In this way there are introduced into the epic some remarkable stories which have no other connection with the epic than that they were recounted to the Pandavas. One of them, Savitri and Satyavan or Love Conquers Death, may have been introduced for didactic purposes, but aside from its teaching it is a good story, beautifully told. Briefly it is as follows:
Savitri, a beautiful princess, was the only daughter of King Asva-Pati. (The Indians, too, like stories of beautiful princesses and brave noble princes, just as English and American children do.) When she reached the age to marry instead of calling the usual swayamvara and inviting the princes to contend for her hand, she was permitted by her father to set out on a search for a husband -- certainly from the standpoint of the India of more recent times a very unusual thing for a woman to do. But she found no one who suited her. One day she came upon a hermit and his wife in a forester’s cottage and at first sight fell in love with their son Satyavan, a young woodsman. Really they were a royal family, deprived by wicked men of their rule. The king consented to their marriage. The sage Narada warned her that Satyavan was doomed to die in a year, but she braved widowhood, and insisted on the marriage.
So they were wed -- lived in a humble way in the forest, and were both very happy, but she with a secret dread. On the fateful day on which he was to die, she went with him to his wood-cutting, against his wish. He was suddenly stricken. She attempted to revive him, but to no avail. Yama, god of the dead, came to take his soul away. Savitri followed after him, unwilling to turn back, though importuned to do so by the ruler of the realm of the dead. "Wherever my lord is borne there shall I surely go; he is my all, I cannot leave him. I must go with thee." Yama offered her boon after boon if she would cease following him. Still she followed. To his insistent demand that she return she only replied, "I would go back if I could, but in your arms you carry my own life."
Finally, Yama, moved by her love, cried, "Thou art innocence itself, and tenderness and truth. Thou hast taught me lessons new of woman’s fidelity. Ask any boon thou wilt and it shall be thine." This time she cried: "I ask not wealth nor throne, nor heaven itself; I crave my heart, my life, give me my Satyavan." So Yama restored her beloved to her, and all was well. The parents were restored to their throne -- and they all lived happily ever afterward, we will suppose.50
Another story told them was Nala and Damyanti. Both are princes. A swan carries to Damyanti the princess, word of Nala whom she has not seen, and she falls in love with him. When a swayamvara is set for her to choose a prince, four gods declare that Damyanti shall be for one of them and they send prince Nala as their messenger to woo for them, like John Alden in the Courtship of Miles Standish, despite the fact that he declares that he too loves her. Reluctantly he goes and pleads for them. She declares that it is him she loves and that she will reject the gods. They must all appear one day and she will choose him before them. On the given day princes and kings arrive, among them Nala and the gods, but they have all made themselves to appear exactly as Nala so that she may not be able to distinguish him from the rest. But she prays them so earnestly that at last they reveal themselves. She chooses Nala and the gods grant him eight boons. They are married and are very happy.
But Kali, another god (no connection with the goddess Kali, now so widely worshipped) is angered and swears vengeance. After several years of happy married life, two children having been born to them, Kali seeks to break up this home. He does so by means of gambling. Playing at dice, Nala, like Yudhisthira, gambles away everything, but refuses to throw for his wife. So he too is exiled.
She with true wifely devotion refuses to leave him, as Sita refuses to leave Rama. Under the spell of Kali, Nala abandons her. She, left alone and wandering in the forest, is about to be killed by a serpent, but is saved by a hunter who makes violent love to her. She calls down a curse upon him and he falls dead. Finally she becomes servant to a queen, and Nala the charioteer of the king. She eventually returns to her father but keeps up a constant search for Nala. At last she discovers his whereabouts. Then she asks her father to call a swayamvara for her to choose a husband. Nala comes as charioteer to the king he serves. They are reunited. He wins back his kingdom by a throw of the dice, the demon leaves him, and they live happily ever after. There is no moral not to gamble implied in the story.
After the long exile was ended preparations were made for a war between the two houses -- although attempts were made to effect a reconciliation between the rival clans. When these failed, before beginning the battle they drew up a set of rules of warfare-perhaps the first "London Conference" in the history of the human race. The provisions were most interesting, designed clearly to maintain good sportsmanship throughout. In what striking contrast they stand to the current practices in modern warfare. First, there must be no strategy or treachery. It must be a straightforward, honorable combat, everything above board! In intervals, between active fighting there was to be friendly intercourse between the camps. Since they were not to fight at night, this left time for fraternization. It must have made war so much pleasanter! Before they had finished they did fight at night also. Rules are so hard to keep in wartime! Fugitives were not to be killed. (Remember how in the last war prisoners were often machine gunned en masse.) Horsemen must fight only with horsemen, foot-soldiers with those likewise on foot. There must be a sporting chance given. No submarines attacking passenger ships, no airplanes bombing civilians. When fighting only with words -- it was the custom to hurl insults at each other endlessly before beginning to fight (cf. the Philistines and the Hebrew armies in the story of the slaying of Goliath51) --
arms must not be taken up against the enemy. Nor should any attack be made without fair warning, no Pearl Harbors, no sudden air attacks on cities! And finally, when two were engaged in combat no third party should intervene. War was to be a fair contest of skill and prowess.
It need not be said that the rules were not always kept. There were acts of treachery, there was fighting at night, more than one did attack an enemy -- this is all related in the poem. Rules of war worked then about as well as now when it is the control of atomic weapons that is the desired goal of those who would make war more humane.
Finally the battle was joined and raged for eighteen days and some nights. There are recounted stories of valiant combat, individual and collective. Probably no stories of mortal struggle were ever more vividly told. One is reminded on page after page of the Iliad of Homer. Enormous numbers were engaged. Even chariots were counted by the millions. But at the end of the struggle only eleven survivors remained. The Pandavas were victorious but it was a tragic triumph. Yudhisthira, conscience-stricken at the vast sacrifice of life and property is about to abdicate his throne and become an ascetic. He is persuaded rather to perform the horse sacrifice and so relieve himself from his guilt. This he does. After he has given enormous quantities of gold to the priests he is freed from his sins and rules his kingdom justly and well.
But Krishna, who until now has been a warrior and friend and helper, becomes involved in another war and is killed by an arrow which struck him in the sole of the foot, his only vulnerable spot. He is to appear in the Bhagavad-Gita as god as we shall later see. Inconsolable for the death of their friend, Yudhisthira and his wife and brothers abandon the kingdom and set off on their last journey, wandering forth to the Himalaya mountains to the divine mountain Meru.
It is one of the most fascinating sections of the Great Epic, beautifully translated into English by Sir Edwin Arnold under the title The Great Journey. They set out walking, but one by one failed and died. First Draupadi, the wife of the five brothers; then Bhima and the rest, until only Yudhisthira alone, followed by a dog, at last reached heaven’s gate. He was warmly welcomed but the dog was not permitted to enter with him:
"O Most High,
But "he is unclean," asserted the gods, and unfit to pass through heaven’s portal. Unconvinced, the hero, Yudhisthira, still refused to enter without the dog. Thereupon the king of heaven smiled and said:
"There be four sins, O Sakra, grievous sins:
As he spoke, the hound vanished and there stood in his stead the Lord of Death and Justice, Dharma. Then said Indra:
. . . "Because thou didst not mount
But entering heaven, Yudhisthira did not find his brothers nor his lovely wife whom he had expected to discover already there. So he cried:
. . . "I will not live
The gods besought him to remain, but he refused:
. . . "Show me those souls!
So, forth he went from heaven. Guided by a golden Deva, and descending by a path evil and dark, he entered through the "Sinners Road" into one of the hells. Some idea of the grim nature of the Hindu concept of these hells may be seen in the following passage:
. . . The tread of sinful feet
While in this dreadful place, he suddenly heard the voices of
. . .-- words of woe
Then Yudhisthira called aloud, "Who speaks with me?" Out of the darkness came the voices of Karna and Bhima, Arjuna and the other brothers, and finally the voice of his wife, Draupadi. This angered him, for only recently he had seen in heaven men against whom he had fought in the great war, and he could not understand how such as they were accorded paradise, and those he loved consigned to hell. Every instinct urged him to turn back toward heaven, but to his angel guide he said:
. . . "Go to those thou serv’st;
Whereupon the angel returned with the message to the gods.
"Come thou to see! Karna, whom thou didst mourn, --
So everything ends happily:
Unlike the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is traditionally supposed to be the work of a single poet, Valmiki. The story of its composition and recital before King Rama himself is told in the twelfth book of the poem itself. This is really a supplement to the real epic which properly ends with the happy return of lovely Sita to her lord after her long captivity by the Rakshasas. But first the story, one of the most interesting ever told. Very briefly, it is the story of King Rama and his faithful queen who was abducted by a demon and carried away to Lanka (Ceylon) where, despite all his blandishments, Sita remained unmoved and scrupulously loyal to Rama. Meanwhile Rama had for a long time vainly sought to find her, until aided by his monkey friend, Hanuman, he discovered her whereabouts and after a bitterly fought war he was victorious and rescued his beloved wife.
Rama was a prince of the Kosalas, eldest son of King Dasa-ratha and, as such, the heir apparent to the throne. Came a day when the good king decided to abdicate the throne and place his eldest son upon it. Great preparations were made for the event and with much enthusiasm the people awaited the crowning of their well-loved prince. But behind the scenes trouble stalked. Dasa-ratha had more than one queen and one of the younger ones coveted the throne for her son rather than for Rama. By a ruse Dasa-ratha was tricked into offering her any boon she might ask, and the beautiful, but wicked, Kaikeyi at once demanded that her son be enthroned instead of Rama, and that Prince Rama be banished for fourteen years to Dandak’s forest. The king was heart-broken by the cruel request, but having given his word, there was nothing he could do about it -- (cf. the story of Jacob and Esau, and the word of the mother of the Pandavas telling the brothers to share their prize, Draupadi. Isaac could not restore the inheritance to Esau, even though it had been secured by deceit. It must remain with Jacob, the supplanter, because the father had spoken.) This is a frequent motif in stories out of the ancient world.
Rama might have refused to accept this cruel reversal of the plan for his coronation. He might have lifted the standard of revolt and won by battle what had been snatched out of his grasp. But he did nothing of the sort. He quietly accepted his father’s word as law, and began to prepare for his exile in the great forest.
But Rama was married. He had won in a great tournament, described in the first book of the Epic, the princess of the Videhas, "soft-eyed" Sita. She must not accompany him in his banishment. She must remain at court, serve his mother, even his rival Bharat, half-brother, now crowned king, and await faithfully the day of his return. The rigors of forest life were not for her. However, Sita was of sterner stuff. She will not listen to him but cries:
"Lightly I dismiss the counsel which my lord hath lightly said,
Here speaks Indian womanhood, for Sita is the prototype of all that is lovely and virtuous in woman. She is the ideal woman of India, sweet, compliant, loyal, humble in the presence of her lord, utterly devoted to him and to his service. This ideal is breaking down at some points in modern India, but for centuries and even today in most respects Sita embodies the Indian ideal of feminine charm and loveliness and character. She was eventually deified. as was Rama, and is very widely worshipped by India’s women today.
Rama’s brother, Lakshman, also begged to accompany him in his exile, so the three set off, lamented by parents and by the citizens of Kosala, for their fourteen years in Dandak’s forest. Even when Bharat, the son for whom Kaikeyi had demanded the throne but who himself had had no part in the plot, came to beseech Rama to return, he would not do so, for "a righteous father’s mandate duteous son may not recall."
Bharat returned to rule but vowed to wear hermit’s garb for the duration. He besought Rama that he might have his sandals with which to decorate his throne, and if at the end of the fourteen years Rama should not return alive he declared he would die upon the pyre.
While dwelling in the forest there appeared a Rakshasa maiden, sister of the king of the Rakshasas who, when she saw Rama, fell violently in love with him and besought him to forsake Sita and marry her. Repulsed, she attacked Sita to kill her. Lakshman defended her, cutting off the Rakshasa’s nose and ears. This brought on a bloody struggle with other evil demons. These were vanquished but sought revenge. They had the power to assume any shape they desired. One of them became a lovely deer and wandered near where Sita one day sat. She at once wanted the deer captured or killed. Rama set out to do so, bidding Lakshman remain with Sita. Unable to overtake or trap the deer, Rama shot the animal, which as it fell sent out a piercing cry, imitating Rama’ s voice. "Speed my faithful brother, Lakshman, helpless in the woods I die." Reluctant to leave Sita he, nevertheless, urged by her insistent plea, left her for a moment to rescue Rama. This gave the opportunity which Ravan, the Rakshasa king, awaited, and taking the form of a hermit he appeared before Sita. Seeing her surpassing beauty he fell madly in love with her. Passionately he sought to woo her, but was vigorously repulsed. Undeterred by her piteous pleadings and her unheard calls to Rama, Ravan seized her and entering his celestial car was borne swiftly to Lanka, Ravan’s home.
Rama was heart-broken at the loss of his faithful wife and sought her, helped of course by Lakshman.
The monkey king Surgriva64 had also had the misfortune to have been robbed of his wife and kingdom by his brother. Rama agrees to help him against his brother if Surgriva will aid him in finding Sita. Successful in a battle with his evil brother, by Rama’s aid, Surgriva commissions Hanuman, one of his counsellors and son of the Wind-god, to find Sita. He locates her in Lanka by the aid of a vulture who had witnessed the abduction. Arriving at the ocean, he is at first dismayed, but with a mighty leap he sails through the air for four days, reaches Ceylon, and finds Sita who, because she had repulsed Ravan’s advances, had been confined in an Asoka grove. He reassures her of her deliverance, takes to the air again and returns to report the success of his mission. Follows then the battle with Ravan. The monkey army is enabled to cross the straits by building a bridge and after fearful slaughter Ravan is slain in mortal combat with Rama. Like Hydra, he seems to have grown a new head when Rama’s sword severed one from his body. But at last Rama’s sword finds its way to the Rakshasa’s heart and he falls. Thus is Sita liberated.
But strangely enough, from our viewpoint, Rama will not receive her back as his wife. She, after bitter complaint, requests to die on a funeral pyre and Rama consents. Invoking the fire as witness of her innocence, she rushes into the flames, but Agni the fire-god arises out of the burning pyre and rescuing Sita, gives her to Rama. Rama, who now declares that he never had entertained doubts of her purity, receives her back, asserting that it was only to prove her innocence to the people that he permitted the ordeal. So they are reunited and rule happily over their kingdom.
Here scholars think probably the real Epic ended, but a final Book VII is added. In this it is recounted that suspicion was abroad concerning Sita, and the morals of the women of the land were being endangered. Unable to bear the reproach that he is setting a bad example to his people, Rama has Lakshman take Sita into the forest and desert her -- nice man! Here she finds shelter in the hermitage of Valmiki, an ascetic. Shortly after, she gives birth to twin sons, Kusa and Lava. Years pass; the twins, now grown, have become pupils of Valmiki. Rama organizes a horse sacrifice. Valmiki and his pupils attend and before Rama himself they recite in 500 cantos the story of Rama and Sita which Valmiki has composed.
Rama learns that the two young men are sons of Sita, and sends word by Valmiki asking her to purify herself by an oath before the whole assembled company. On the following day Valmiki brings Sita and the two boys, and solemnly declares that they are true sons of Rama. Rama declares himself satisfied, but still desires that Sita purify herself by means of an oath. Sita thereupon says, "As truly as I have never, even with so much as a single thought, thought of another than Rama -- may Goddess Earth open her arms to me! As truly as I have always, in thought, word and deed, honored only Rama -- may Goddess Earth open her arms to me. As I have here spoken the truth and never known another than Rama -- may Goddess Earth open her arms to me!" Whereupon, Mother Earth appears and vanishes with her into a funow.
So Sita whose very name means "the field-furrow" returns to her own element whence, as told in the first book, she had been miraculously born. Rama is greatly distressed and begs Mother Earth to restore her to him, but only god Brahma comes to comfort him with the hope that he will be reunited with her in heaven. Soon thereafter, Rama gives over his kingdom to his two sons and resumes his place in heaven as Vishnu, as whose incarnation he had been born, according to Book I.
It seems obvious on reading the entire Ramayana that both the first and last books are not real parts of the Epic, but later additions. In the Epic proper there is no indication that Rama is other than a hero. It was apparently after the deification of Rama that the other books were added. In the main part of the work it is Indra who is invoked wherever religion or mythology enters in. How long a time would be required for the process of deification to take place? Certainly a matter of centuries. Winternitz thinks that the poem had assumed its present form by about the end of the second century B.C., at least two centuries earlier than the Mahabharata. There is no agreement among specialists in the field. On the whole, however, the central core of the Mahabharata is generally considered older than the real epic story of the Ramayana.
What is significant from the standpoint of religion is that by the time these great poems were completed there had come about a very important set of changes in the religious outlook. Vedic religion was pretty well gone. The old gods, certainly in the didactic parts of both epics, had lost their power and a new group were now central, especially Vishnu, who had been but a minor sun deity in the Vedic period, was now a supreme God, who along with Brahma, the creator God, and Shiva the destroyer, was regarded as the Preserver -- and worshipped chiefly through his incarnations. The two most important of these were Krishna, found in the Mahabharata, and Rama in the Ramayana, first as hero, then as god incarnate in the later portions.
The Krishna incarnation, perhaps the most widely worshipped of all of them, finds his highest development as divinity in a portion of the didactic epic, known as the Bhagavad Gita or the Lord’s song. This excerpt from the Mahabharata has become perhaps the most widely read and best loved of all the scriptures of India. It is found in cheap editions, even vest pocket editions, of the sort almost anyone can own, and is avidly read by multitudes of Indians. It has also become the most widely diffused of the Indian sacred writings in the western world. It has been translated more frequently into English than any other Indian sacred work. Some years ago I found that it had been translated thirty-six times into English, and a number of editions have since appeared. Some of the more widely read translations are indicated on page 144. The writer’s own favorite version, is that of Sir Edwin Arnold which, while not as scholarly as many versions, has caught the spirit of the poet author and rendered it into very beautiful English poetic form.
The poem is a dialogue between Arjuna the great epic hero, and Krishna disguised as his charioteer, just on the eve of the great battle of the Bharatas. The foes are drawn up ready and waiting for the signal to attack. Then the warrior Arjuna, reflecting on how kinsmen were about to destroy each other in battle, suddenly speaks -- and in his speech gives utterance to one of the noblest protests against war ever uttered by a soldier. He says, in the translated version of Edwin Arnold:
"Krishna! as I behold, come here to shed
"It is not good, O Keshav! nought of good
"Shall I deal death on these
But Krishna replies, and it is interesting that here it is the god, not the warrior, who is defending war and justifying the slaughter of his enemies. He says:
"How hath this Weakness taken thee? Whence springs
The basis of that defense is that man cannot be killed. Only the body can be destroyed, the spirit lives on.
"He who shall say, ‘Lo, I have slain a man!’
"Nay, but as when one layeth
Then cried Krishna:
. . . "Do thy part
In this statement is found the very heart of Indian ethics. To perform the duty or dharma, corresponding to one’s position --that is to fulfil the requirements of ethics as Indians today see it.
The poem contains eighteen chapters, each treating of some special theme; one, of the way of salvation by work, another by knowledge -- but throughout there is emphasis upon salvation by faith or devotion to Krishna. There are passages here that seem to come right out of the New Testament. Only the name of Jesus would have to be substituted for that of Krishna to make it sound exactly like the gospels.
"Who cleave, who seek in Me
"Thou too, when heart and mind are fixed on Me
Perhaps the reason for its almost universal appeal is the fact that it is eclectic in its religious approach. One may seek salvation and find it by various paths. It becomes every man’s book. But it is preeminently a book of devotion. It has been compared to the Gospel of John, which, more than any other of the Gospels, has served as a devotional guide for Christians through the centuries. One writer says that if Christianity is ever to make an appeal to the educated Indian it will be through the Gospel of John, because it makes an appeal similar to that of the Gita. It is noteworthy that to many in the west who are no longer held by the ties of orthodoxy, the Gita has become a favorite bedside table book. Perhaps the thing that made it appeal to so many in India was its universalism. Salvation was for every man of every class -- for women as well as men. Krishna throws open the road to whosoever will come.
"Be certain none can perish, trusting Me!
In India many stories and legends have grown up about the Gita. Margaret Noble relates this one:
In the Gita is found a word of Krishna which says: "They who depend upon me, putting aside all care, whatsoever they need, I myself carry it to them." A Brahmin one day, copying the verse, hesitated when he came to the word "carry." This seemed to him somehow to be irreverent. How should Krishna "carry" anything? For in India to carry a load is a menial task. So he substituted for it the word, "send." A little later his wife said: "There is no food in the house." Then said he, "Let us ask the Lord to fulfil his promise. Meanwhile he went to bathe.
Soon a youth came to the door with a basket of food. "Who sent this?" the wife asked. "Your husband asked me to carry it," he replied, giving it to her: As she took the basket she noted cuts and gashes on the youth’s breast above his heart.
"Alas, who wounded thee?" she cried.
"Your husband, before he called me, cut me with a small sharp weapon." Then the youth vanished. The husband being reproved by his wife for his ill treatment of the young man, declared that he had not left the house. Then they knew. And they restored the word "carry" to its rightful place.71
Mahatma Gandhi had the highest regard for the Gita. And, strangely enough, despite the defense of killing in war given by Krishna the god, he finds in it a support for his doctrine of satyagraha or soul-force by which non-violent means he achieved such signal victories and finally won the independence of India. He wrote of it on occasion:
Nothing elates me so much as the music of the Gita or the Ramayana by Tulasidas, the only two books in Hinduism I may be said to know. When I fancied I was taking my last breath, the Gita was my solace.72
The literary problems raised by the Gita are numerous, and scholars are not at all in agreement as to its origin or the date. By some it is regarded as an original poem setting forth Krishnaism based upon the Sankhya-Yoga philosophy, but modified later by the additions in which the Vedanta is taught.73 Others think that it is an old verse Upanishad worked over by a poet in the interest of Krishnaism, after the beginning of the Christian era.74
S. Radhakrishnan, latest and perhaps most eminent of the translators and commentators on the Gita, thinks that "from its archaic construction and internal references we may infer that it is definitely a work of the pre-Christian era. Its date may be assigned to the fifth century B.C., though the text may have received many alterations in subsequent times".75
For our purposes it does not greatly matter. It will be enough to say that somewhere, not far from the beginning of the Christian era it attained its present form and has been since that time the highest expression of the essentially devotional type of Hinduism at its best. It is a tribute to its worth that in the course of time it should have taken its place alongside the Veda as sruti.
"Is the teaching of the Gita76 as authoritative as that of the Sruti?" runs a question asked in D. Sarma’s Primer of Hinduism.
"Yes, the Gita being the essence of the Upanishads is considered as authoritative as the Sruti.77
The Puranas have had much less attention from scholars than has the literature of India thus far studied. Yet contemporary Hinduism is perhaps more influenced by them than by the other scriptures. They are the scriptures of the sectarian branches of Hinduism which, while paying lip service to the Vedas as most precious, draw much of their belief about the gods of their own primary devotion and worship from these books. For most of the gods which now are popularly worshipped78 in India are gods of little importance, or quite unknown to the Vedas. Vishnu is, to be sure, a not very important sun-god in the Rig-Veda, but Rama, Shiva, Sita, Kali, Durga, Uma, Parvati, Ganesha, Lakshmi are strangers to the Veda. They are, some of them, known in the Epics, but these in religious belief if not in time, are closer to contemporary religions than they are to the Veda.
Puranic literature which by very definition of the word Purana means old or ancient, is purportedly the record of the very beginnings of the world, i.e., they are books of origins like Genesis in the Old Testament. Certainly they are the source of the popular ideas of the creation of the world, the gods, and early history of the race. They are, it need hardly be said, largely legendary. Theoretically a Purana is supposed to deal with five subjects: (1) the creation; (2) re-creation, the periodical destruction and renewal of the worlds; (3) the genealogy of the gods and the ancient Rishis; (4) the great time periods, each of which has a primal ancestor or Manu; and (5) the history of the early dynasties which trace their origin to the sun or the moon. Actually the existing Puranas do not all follow this scheme. This may have been the stereotyped form of ancient Puranas to which reference is made in very early literary sources, but certainly not of the Puranas of today.
The Puranas themselves mention eighteen Puranas which are the generally recognized ones today. Strangely enough each lists them as though no one is older than any other. Obviously this listing would be a late addition. They are, usually listed in this order:
(1) Brahma (B) ; (2) Padma (V) ; (3) Vishnu (V) ; (4) Shiva (S) ; or Vayu; (5) Bhagavata (V) ; (6) Narada (V) ; (7) Markandeya (B) ; (8) Agni (S) ; (9) Bhavisya (B) ; (10) Brahmavaivarta (B) ; (11) Linga (S) ; (12) Varaha (V) ; (13) Skanda (S) ; (14) Vamana (B) ; (15) Kaurma (S) ; (16) Matsya (S) ; (17) Garuda (V) ; (18) Brahmananda (B) .
They are generally sectarian in content. The particular divinity to which each is partial is indicated in the above list by the initial letter following the name of the Purana -- "V" for Vishnu, "S" for Shiva and "B" for Brahma. It should be said that, in general, Brahma here means not the "neuter world soul," but the personal creator god who with Vishnu and Shiva forms the Hindu Trimurti, sometimes translated Trinity.
A typical legend establishing one of the gods as the preferred divinity of worship is found in the Padma Purana, and incidentally reveals the strong sectarian bias of that Purana which is clearly Vishnuite.
Once a quarrel arose among the Rishis as to which of the three great gods, Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, was most deserving of worship. Accordingly the great ascetic Bhrgu was commissioned to go to the gods and judge for himself personally which was best. He first goes to the mountains Kailasa to visit Shiva. But Shiva is enjoying the love of his wife and doesn’t admit him at all. Bhrgu thereupon pronounces a curse upon Shiva, condemning him to take the form of the generative organs -- thus apparently accounting for the worship of the Yoni and Linga.79
He goes then to the world of Brahma but he is seated upon his lotus throne surrounded by all the gods, and, filled with pride, does not even acknowledge the homage of Bhrgu. He too is cursed by the Rishi, to the effect that no one shall worship him -- an explanation, doubtless, of the fact that almost no worship is actually accorded Brahma.
Coming to the abode of Vishnu, the Rishi finds the god asleep. Roughly kicking him in the chest, Vishnu is awakened, only to stroke gently the sage’s foot and express his gratitude and honor at his visit. He rises and with his wife does honor to the guest. Whereupon Bhrgu bursts into tears of joy, and cries: "Thou alone shalt be worshipped by the Brahmans. No other of the gods is worthy to be worshipped." He then returns and makes his report to the assembled Rishis.80
In this same Purana, Shiva, talking with his wife, himself declares the power and glory of Vishnu and his incarnations. In the course of his eulogy he tells the Rama story. He further declares, in answer to a question of Parvati, that the adherents of the Shivite sect are heretics. Undoubtedly equally sectarian proof of the superiority of Shiva occurs in the Shivite Puranas.
In the fifth book of the Vishnu-Purana which is given up wholly to stories of Krishna, chief avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, is to be found some of the most interesting material for the general reader. The stories are almost exactly like those found in the Harivamsa, usually considered by Indians as an appendix to the Mahabharata, but hardly to be distinguished from the Puranas in general style, character, or content. Here we can only sketch a few of the Krishna stories.
First of all the manner of his birth. A prophecy was made to an evil king Kamsa that the eighth son of Devaki his aunt, and wife of Vasudeva, would kill him. Accordingly he determined that the child should be destroyed. But immediately after Krishna’s birth he was exchanged for a child of a cowherd, Nanda and his wife. This child was slain by Kamsa, and Krishna grew up as a child of humble cowherd folk. Remarkable stories are told of his childhood which remind one of some of the stories told of the child Jesus in the apocryphal gospels.
One day his foster mother left him lying asleep under a wagon. Awakening and impatient for food, little Krishna with one foot upset the wagon. Another time to keep him from running away, she tied a rope around his waist and secured it to a heavy mortar. "Now get away, if you can," she said. But Krishna simply walked off with it. When it caught between two trees, he tore the trees out by their roots.
He became a trickster and played all sorts of jokes not only upon his playmates, but upon older folk as well. On one occasion he came upon a group of gopis or milkmaids bathing in a pool. He seized their robes and hid them.
As a youth he was handsome and amorous. The gopis all fell ‘in love with him. The amorous exploits of the youthful bucolic lover, told in this and in other Puranas, were later to become the basis of an erotic phase of Krishna worship in which the sports of Krishna were taken all too literally as cult practices. Others, less literal-minded, made them symbolic of mystic experience of the soul with god.
He slays monsters and dragons, and overcomes evil rulers. He rebels at the worship of Indra, and bids his followers arrange a mountain sacrifice instead. Indra is infuriated and sends upon them a terrible storm. Krishna lifts a mountain and holds it over them as an umbrella and they are protected. He attends a festival arranged by Kamsa, the bad king, bends and breaks a bow which not even the gods could bend, tears out the tusk of a great elephant which sought to trample him, and kills the beast, and finally slays Kamsa himself. He even descends into the realm of the dead, overcomes Yama, the god of death, and restores the son of a teacher who, as his fee, had required that Krishna bring back the son who had drowned at sea.
Space forbids further indication of the detailed content of these books. In their legendary accounts of the world and the gods they are the basis of much of the religious faith of India. In their regulations for daily living, in their glorification of sacred places and acts of worship they are a great stimulant to the religious practices of the people.
While it is generally agreed that there were some very ancient Puranas, upon which, to some extent, the Puranas as we have them are based, they are the latest of all the sacred writings. Puranas or at least writings that purport to be Puranas, usually called Upapuranas, have continued to appear until within relatively recent times. They all purport to come from Vyasa, reputed author of the Mahabharata, but obviously they represent a slow growth across the centuries. In literary style they stand far below the great earlier writings. They are diffuse, confused, and contradictory both within and among themselves, but India has never been primarily concerned with consistency in her literature. Indeed, there is found in one of the sacred law books this statement in effect: "If within this book there are found contradictory statements they are both to be taken as true."
Thus we come to the end of this very sketchy, yet relatively lengthy, account of Indian sacred literature. In it is to be found heights and depths of spiritual understanding that compare favorably with the best that have been found anywhere. Its vastness, its diversity, on the whole, its lack of discriminating judgment as to what may be called sacred -- so that it includes both the highly moral and the base -- make it a literature difficult for peoples of Hebrew-Christian backgrounds to appreciate fully. But that it is interesting to study, challenging to scholarship, and not without great interest in many of its parts for the general reader, there can be no doubt. To Hindus it contains the clue to salvation and the good life as at various levels they apprehend it.
Sacred Literature of Hinduism
Sources for Further Reading
References have been made to specific books on the several dlvisions or books of Hindu sacred writings. Here are mentioned sets, or series of volumes, or single volumes which contain translations of some parts of that literature.
On The Vedas
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 32 and 42 and 46 (42 Atharva Veda) . Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. 9
A. A. Macdonell, Hymns of the Big-Veda, Association Press, Calcutta, 1922.
R. T. H. Griffith, Hymns of the Rig-Veda, E. J. Lazarus, Benares, 2nd Edition, 1896-1897.
On The Brahmanas
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 12 and 44.
Harvard Oriental Series, Vol. 25.
Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Vol. 9.
On The Upanishads
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 1 and 15.
H. E. Hume, Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N. Y
On The Epics
Romesh Dutt, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Everyman’s Edition, E. P. Dutton and Company, N. Y., 1929.
Sir Edwin Arnold, Indian Idylls, Roberts Brothers, Boston. The Ramayana, translated by R. T. H. Griffith, 5 Vols.
On The Bhagavad Gita
Sir Edwin Arnold, The Song Celestial, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1885. It has appeared in many editions.
Franklin Edgerton, The Bhagavad Gita, 2 Vols., Harvard University Press, 1946.
S. Radhakrishnan, The Bhagavad Gita with Sanskrit Text and English translation and notes, Harper and Brothers, N. Y., 1948.
There are nearly two score English translations in circulation.
On The Legal Literature
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 2, 7,14 and 25. The last is the most famous Laws of Manu.
On The Puranas
H. W. Wilson, The Vishnu Purana, 5 vols., London, 1864 --1877.
In the Anthologies
Hindu Scripture, edited by Nicol MacNicol, Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1938.
The Wisdom of China and India, edited by Lin Yutang, Random House, Inc., NewYork, 1942, pp. 1-315.
Harvard Classics, Vol. 45, pp. 799-884.
Lewis Browne, The World’s Great Scriptures, pp. 57-132.
Ruth Smith, The Tree of Life, pp. 71-114.
Ballon, The Bible of the World, pp. 3-180.
Grace Turnbull, Tongues of Fire, pp. 27-42, 245-267.
Frost, Sacred Writings of the World’s Great Religions, pp. 9-68.
Sohrab, The Bible of Mankind, pp. 31-90.
1. This is given by Winternitz, Vol. I, p. 35, f.n., as from law book of Gautama XII, 4-6.