TAT SAVITUR VARENYAM
BHARGO DEVASAYA DHEEMAHI
DHIYO YO NAHA PRACHODAYAT.
Remover of pain and sorrow,
The Bestower of happiness,
Oh! Creator of the Universe,
May we receive thy supreme sin-destroying light,
May Thou guide our intellect in the right direction.
bhoor = embodiment of vital spiritual energy(pran) ;
bhuwah = destroyer of sufferings ;
swaha = embodiment of happiness ;
tat = that ;
savitur = bright like sun ;
varenyam = best choicest ;
bhargo = destroyer of sins ;
devasya = divine ;
these first nine words describe the glory of God
dheemahi = may imbibe ; pertains to meditation
dhiyo = intellect ;
yo = who ;
naha = our ;
prachodayat = may inspire!
"dhiyo yo na prachodayat" is a prayer to God
WHAT IS HINDUISM?
Hinduism was actually given its name by people from outside
India.Muslim invaders from the West referred to the people and
culture of India as Hindu, which literally means “those across the
Indus River”—a very important river system that runs through
northwest India and present-day Pakistan. The Indus has often
served as an informal boundary between India and Central Asia.
Adding the “-ism” simply designates the beliefs and practices of
those people called Hindus.
The Hindus themselves use the term sanatana Dharma to
describe their religion. It means “the everlasting Law.” This word
dharma, which refers to a person’s proper station in life, is one of
the key concepts of Hinduism.
Most Hindus would not define their religion in terms of a
single creed that embodies the faith because different Hindus
may believe in many different things. However, certain characteristics
do recur frequently within the wide spectrum of beliefs
in the Hindu religion, and this allows us to view Hinduism as
The first characteristic that Hindus share is a regard for the
Vedas (the earliest sacred Hindu texts) as inspired and divine,
even though believers vary widely in how they interpret and
use the Vedas in their own lives. Some, like members of the
Hindu reform movement called the Arya Samaj, make the
Vedic literature central to their religious outlook. Others, no
less Hindu, scarcely use the actual Vedic texts at all and instead
rely more heavily on later literature. Whatever the role of the
ancient Vedas in daily practice, all Hindus would affirm that the
texts are central to Hinduism.
A second characteristic that pervades Hinduism is the
doctrine of karma and reincarnation. Simply put,Hindus believe
that after death, human beings are reborn into different bodies
over and over again, a process called reincarnation. The quality
of life we encounter in those future incarnations depends
on how we act in our present lives, in the here and now. The
force or impact of these present-day actions on future lives is
A third characteristic common to all Hindus is the belief
in a social class system associated with the stages of life.
Controversial as it is, the caste system—a strict hierarchical
division of society in which everyone is born to a particular
rank that can not be changed in the present life—serves as a
unifying force in the Hindu vision of society.
Thus, rather than being characterized as an overall spiritual
concept or belief, Hinduism is more easily defined in terms
of what its followers do—their rituals, ceremonies, family
practices—and the caste system that organizes their society. In
fact, Hindu society is a rich network of mutual duties and
responsibilities that create a very cohesive community. It would
not be wrong to say that “Hindu is as Hindu does.”
One essentially has to be born Hindu in order to be considered
a Hindu by others. This means that Hinduism is an ethnocentric
religion—a faith intended for a particular set of people and for
a particular culture. Western religions, on the other hand, are
universal; they are intended to include everybody in the world.
Although many Westerners share beliefs similar to those of the
Hindus, this does not make them Hindus in the eyes of the
THE CASTE SYSTEM
The caste system of India actually had its origins in the sacred writings of the
Bhagavad Gita, although some scholars argue that the hierarchical society
put into place was an abuse of what the Gita meant when it said there are
four orders of human beings: Brahman, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras.
The Bhagavad Gita says in Chapter Four, Verse Thirteen:
The Lord says:
“The fourfold caste has been created by Me
according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma.”
Chapter Eighteen, Verse Forty says:
“There is no being on earth, or again in heaven among the
gods, that is liberated from the three qualities born of Nature.”
Chapter Eighteen, Verse Forty-one says:
“Of Brahmanas, Kshtriyas and Vaishyas, as also the Sudras,
O Arjuna, the duties are distributed according to the qualities
born of their own nature.”
The Mahabharata Santi Parva explained:
Brigu said, “. . . (The Creator created) human beings with their
four divisions, viz., Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras.
The complexion the Brahmanas obtained was white; that which
the Kshatriyas obtained was red; that which the Vaisyas got was
yellow; and that which was given to the Sudras was black.”
[The words expressive of hue or colour really refer to
attributes. What is intended to be said is that the Brahmanas
had the attribute of Goodness (Sattwa); the second order
had the attribute of Passion (Rajas); the third got a mixture
of the two, i.e., both goodness and passion (Sattwa and
Rajas); while the lowest order got the remaining attribute,
viz., Darkness (Tamas).]
Bharadwaja said, “If the distinction between the four orders
of human beings be made by means only of colour (attribute),
then it seems that all the four orders have been mingled
together. Lust, wrath, fear, cupidity, grief, anxiety, hunger,
toil,—possess and prevail over all men. How can men be
distinguished by the possession of attributes? The bodies of
all men emit sweat, urine, faeces, phlegm, bile, and blood.
How then can men be distributed into classes? Of mobile
objects the number is infinite; the species also of immobile
objects are innumerable. How then, can, objects of such very
great diversity be distributed into classes?”
Brigu said, “There is really no distinction between the different
orders. The whole world at first consisted of Brahmanas.
Created equal by the Creator, men have in consequence of
their acts, become distributed into different orders. They that
became fond of indulging in desire and enjoying pleasures,
possessed of the attributes of severity and wrath, endued
with courage, and unmindful of the duties of piety and
worship,—these Brahmanas possessing the attribute of
Those Brahmanas again who, without attending to the
duties laid down for them, became possessed of both
the attributes of Goodness and Passion, and took to
the professions of cattle-rearing and agriculture, became
Vaisyas. Those Brahmanas again that became fond of
untruth and injuring other creatures, possessed of cupidity,—
engaged in all kinds of acts for a living, and fallen away from
purity of behaviour, and thus wedded to the attribute of
Darkness, became Sudras.
Separated by these occupations, Brahmanas, falling away
from their own order, became members of the other three
orders. All the four orders, therefore, have always the right
to the performance of all pious duties and of sacrifices.
Even thus were the four orders at first created equal by
Brahma (the Creator) who ordained for all of them (the
observances disclosed in) the words of Brahma (in the
Vedas). Through cupidity alone, many fell away, and became
possessed by ignorance.
The Brahmanas always devoted to the scriptures on
Brahma; and mindful of vows and restraints, are capable of
grasping the conception of Brahman. Their penances therefore,
never go for nothing. They amongst them are not Brahmanas
Introduction to Hinduism 7
that are incapable of understanding that every created thing
is Supreme Brahman. These, falling away, became members of
diverse (inferior) orders. Losing the light of knowledge, and
betaking themselves to an unrestrained course of conduct, they
take birth as Pisachas and Rakshasas (demons) and Pretas and
as individuals of diverse Mleccha species.
The great Rishis who at the beginning sprang into life
(through the Creator’s will) subsequently created, by means
of their penances, men devoted to the duties ordained for
them and attached to the rites laid down in the Eternal Vedas.
That other Creation, however, which is eternal and undecaying,
which is based upon Supreme Brahman and has sprung
from the Primeval God, and which has its refuge upon yoga,
is a mental one.”
Bharadwaja said: “By what acts does one become a Brahman?
By what a Kshatriya? By what acts again does one become a
Vaisya or a Sudra? Tell me this, O foremost of speakers.”
Brigu said, “That person is called a Brahman who has been
sanctified by such rites as those called JATA and others; who
is pure in behaviour; who is engaged in studying the Vedas;
who is devoted to the six well-known acts (of ablutions every
morning and evening, silent recitation of mantras, pouring
libations on the sacrificial fire, worshiping the deities, doing
the duties of hospitality to guests, and offering food to the
Viswedevas); who is properly observant of all pious acts; who
never takes food without having offered it duly to gods and
guests; who is filled with reverence for his preceptor; and who
is always devoted to vows and truth.
He is called a Brahmana in whom are truth, gifts, abstention
from injury to others, compassion, shame, benevolence
He who is engaged in the profession of battle, who
studies the Vedas, who makes gifts (to Brahmanas) and
takes wealth (from those he protects) is called a Kshatriya.
He who earns fame from keep of cattle, who is employed in
agriculture and the means of acquiring wealth, who is pure in
behaviour and attends to the study of the Vedas, is called a Vaisya.
He who takes pleasure in eating every kind of food, who
Hindu community, for the simple reason that these Westerners
were not born into the Hindu community.
HINDUISM IN THE WORLD
The fact that one must be born Hindu to be considered an
adherent of the faith has not prevented Hinduism from becoming
is engaged in doing every kind of work, who is impure in
behaviour, who does not study the Vedas, and whose conduct
is unclean, is said to be a Sudra.
If these characteristics be observable in a Sudra, and if
they be not found in a Brahmana, then such a Sudra, is no
Sudra, and such a Brahmana is no Brahmana. By every means
should cupidity and wrath be restrained.
This as also self-restraint, are the highest results of
Knowledge. Those passions (cupidity and wrath), should,
with one’s whole heart, be resisted. They make their appearance
for destroying one’s highest good.
One should always protect one’s prosperity from one’s
wrath, one’s penance from pride; one’s knowledge from
honour and disgrace; and one’s soul from error.
That intelligent person, who does all acts without desire of
fruit, whose whole wealth exists for charity, and who performs
the daily Homa, is a real renouncer (karma-sannyasa).
One should conduct oneself as a friend to all creatures,
abstaining from all acts of injury. Rejecting the acceptance
of all gifts, one should, by the aid of one’s intelligence,
be a complete master of one’s passions. One should live
in one’s soul where there can be no grief. One would then
have no fear here and attain to a fearless region hereafter.
One should live always devoted to penances, and with all
passions completely restrained; observing the vow of
taciturnity, and with soul concentrated on itself; desirous
of conquering the unconquered senses, and unattached in
the midst of attachments.
The indications of a Brahmana are purity, good behaviour
and compassion unto all creatures.”
one of the major religions of the world. About 760 million
people worldwide—including over 80 percent of the population
of India—are Hindu.1 This makes it the world’s third-largest
religion. (Only Islam and Christianity are larger.) Just as important,
Hinduism continues to be a vital force among people of
Indian descent living outside India. Hindus are to be found in
Africa, North and South America, and in Europe—anywhere
that people from India settled and made a home.
There are many Hindus in the United States, although they
usually keep a low cultural profile. The Pluralism Project at
Harvard University estimates that there are more than one
million Hindus in America. The same study lists approximately
680 Hindu temples in the United States. California alone has
over one hundred temples, and New York and New Jersey both
have more than fifty temples. There is at least one Hindu temple
in every state except Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South
Dakota, and Iowa.
Hinduism is made up of three great religious forms and three
broad streams that continually flow and mingle together. The
three great forms of Hinduism are polytheism, the worship of
many gods; monism, the concept of seeking union with that
“One Spirit” beyond the world and self; and finally, monotheism,
which is worship that concentrates on “One Personal God.”
The first stream of Hinduism is the way of works, which
emphasizes performing proper ritual and doing one’s duty in
society. The second stream is the way of knowledge, the path of
the mystic who seeks unity with the eternal. The third and most
popular stream is the way of devotion, the path of those who put
their faith in a personal god.
There are no real denominations within Hinduism as there
are, for example, in Christianity. The fact that different people
worship different gods is taken for granted. Hindus believe that
all the gods and goddesses are really different expressions of one
God, and that any form of Hinduism, if practiced sincerely, will
. By far the most numerous are Vaishnavites,
or those who worship Vishnu.
bring about release from this world of pain and suffering. This
release is called moksha.
If the essence of Hinduism could be summarized in a few
words, those words might be “structured diversity.” We might
think of Hinduism as a rainbow in which all the different colors
are represented, but in which each of these colors has a very
distinct place in the spectrum. Both the diversity and the
structuring are essential to the Hindu outlook on life. One of
Hinduism’s most unique characteristics is its acknowledgment
that human beings are different not only from each other but at
various times within their individual lives as well. Perhaps no
other religion is so aware of the different conditions and types of
humanity. Examples of almost every type of religious activity in
the world may be found in some form somewhere in Hinduism.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can point to important individuals
(Abraham,Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad) who served
as the founders of their faith.Hindus have no one historical figure
who stands at the beginning of their religion. The foundation of
Hinduism is a body of texts called “the Vedas.” Though Hinduism
has many sacred texts, only the Vedas are called shruti (“that
which is heard”). Non-Vedic sacred literature is called smriti
(“that which is remembered”). The word shruti points to the
direct contact with the divine that resulted in the Vedas.
The Vedas were revealed to rishis, a word that means “seer.”
(It may be no more than coincidence, but it is interesting to note
that the earliest word for a prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures also
means “seer.”) Hindus believe that the rishis saw the truths that
are contained in the Vedas; they did not invent or create them
out of their own minds. For that reason, the Vedas are considered
to be apaurusheya (impersonal, entirely superhuman).
They are revelation.
The word Veda comes from the Sanskrit root vid, meaning
“to know.” Veda means “knowledge.” Sanskrit, the sacred language
of Hinduism, is a distant relative of English. Both are Indo-
European languages. For that reason, we can find words in
English that are related to the Sanskrit word Veda, such as wit,
wisdom, and even video. Related words in different languages are
The Vedas are believed to be eternal, without beginning or end.
They are not simply written texts. Hindus believe that they came
out of the breath of God and are filled with eternal spiritual
truths, or divine knowledge, which can never be destroyed. This
seems to be a similar concept to that of biblical inspiration, which
claims that the scriptures are “God-breathed.”
Not all Hindus would say that the Vedas are “God-breathed,”
though many would, for most Hindus believe in a personal
God. However, some Hindus refer to the divine as Brahman, a
term for ultimate reality thought of as that which is beyond all
designations of physical or personal attributes, and therefore
impersonal. It is important to recognize that here impersonal
means “not limited by personality,” and therefore greater, not
less, than something that is personal.
One is accepted as a Hindu whether one thinks of the ultimate
reality as personal or impersonal. And no matter how one thinks
of the divine, whether as a personal Lord or impersonal Brahman,
all Hindus believe that the Vedas are divinely revealed. For
Hinduism, one does not have to have a personal God to have
revelation and scriptures.
Even though Hindus believe that the Vedas are more than
written texts, we can still inquire into the historical origins of the
written texts known as the Vedas. Where did the Vedas come
from? We turn to that question in the next section.
ORIGINS OF VEDAS
In the late eighteenth century, Sanskrit was found to be similar
to many European languages. This discovery gave birth to the
concept of a family of languages known as Indo-European.
English, French, German, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Russian, even
Armenian and Gaelic, are all Indo-European languages. Linguists
posit that all of these languages are descended from a single,
proto-Indo-European language. But who were the speakers of
this language, and where did they live?
Almost immediately, the quest for the Indo-European homeland
became intertwined with the question of the supposed superiority
and the inferiority of cultures. If India was the homeland, its
culture would have to be acknowledged as the mother culture of
the European nations. On the other hand, if Indo-Europeans were
late arrivals in India, that might suggest that India received much
of its culture from ancient Europe.
In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth
century, India was under British rule. It was the colonial period,
and India was one of many British colonies. Although some
British scholars admired India’s culture, others were dedicated to
the belief that colonial rule was justified because British culture
was superior to Indian culture. Not surprisingly, the latter group
favored the view that the original homeland was somewhere in
Europe, and India was the recipient rather than the source of
Indo-European language and culture. According to this model,
the Indo-Europeans who settled in India were part of a vast
movement of tribes out of the homeland, fanning out in all
directions. These migrating tribes would eventually become the
people we know as the Greeks, Latins, Celts, Germans, and Slavs.
According to the standard Western reconstruction of India’s
history, one group of Indo-European-speaking people traveled
even farther from the original homeland. They traveled south and
east to an area near the Caspian Sea, where they settled for an
unknown amount of time before resuming their migration southward
and eastward. One branch of this group moved into what is
now India around the middle of the second millennium B.C., while
another branch settled in what is now Iran. Both branches called
themselves the Aryans, meaning “the noble people.” Indeed, Iran
comes from the same root as Aryan. Scholars refer to the branch
that entered India as the “Indo-Aryans.” They are presumed to
have been tall and light-skinned, similar to modern Europeans.
The Indo-Aryans were warriors and nomads. They had horsedrawn
chariots, cows, sheep, goats, and dogs. They overran the
indigenous people of India, whom they called Dasas. It is not
known for sure who the Dasas were, but some scholars think
they were the remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization, which
thrived between 2500 and 1500 B.C.
The invading Indo-Aryans brought with them the religious
beliefs and practices described in the Vedas. In other words,
according to the Western reconstruction of India’s history,
the Vedas arrived late in India, and reflected a nonindigenous
religion. Vedic religion incorporated some elements of the
indigenous religious beliefs as it developed in India, but its core
was of foreign origin.
THE INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION
Around the turn of the twentieth century, archaeologists began
to uncover evidence of an advanced culture that flourished in
Foundations of Hinduism 15
northwest India from around 2500 to around 1500 B.C.—that is,
just prior to the posited time of arrival of the Indo-Aryans. As
with other great civilizations, this one grew up along a river that
served both as a water source and as a major artery of transport.
In this case, the river was the Indus, so this culture is generally
called the Indus Valley Civilization.
Evidence uncovered so far indicates that the Indus Valley
people had a highly organized civilization with a number of
cities. Major excavations have been at Harappa in the Punjab
and Mohenjodaro in Sindh, both of which were fortified cities.
These cities appear to have carried on extensive trade with
Mesopotamia. Their sophisticated writing system, which bears
no resemblance to any other script known to us, is one of the
great historical mysteries. It has not yet been deciphered; we do
not even know to which language family it belongs.
For reasons not fully understood, this civilization went into
decline. Some believe that there may have been significant
changes in climate, or there may have been major shifts in the
flow of the all-important Indus River.
At one time, it was widely believed that the Indus Valley cities
were overrun by invading Indo-Aryan peoples. Some Vedic
hymns celebrate the conquest of indigenous peoples. They
describe how Indra, the divine warrior, violently overthrows the
fortresses of his enemies.
More recent evaluation of the archaeological evidence has cast
some doubt on this once popular invasion and conquest theory.
It now appears more likely that the Indus Valley Civilization had
entered a period of decline before the Indo-Aryans arrived.
Others believe that the migration of the Indo-Aryan peoples
was more gradual and peaceful, and that it led to a process of
assimilation rather than conquest.
We cannot say for certain to what degree the Indus Valley Civilization
contributed to the development of Hinduism. As with
other aspects of that culture, we can only try to reconstruct their
religion on the basis of rather scant evidence.
The most common artifacts of the Indus Valley Civilization
are clay and soapstone seals. They are usually flat and square or
rectangular sections of soapstone or shaped clay averaging about
an inch on each side. They have scenes and inscriptions upon
them that provide most of the samples of the script.
One intriguing figure appears on several of the seals. This
figure wears a trident-shaped headdress, sits in a yogic posture,
and is surrounded by animals. Though there are variant interpretations,
the figure may have three faces, two of which are
shown in profile. He appears to have an erect phallus (in Hindu
terminology, a lingam).
Some scholars believe this figure may be a prototype for the
later popular Hindu god Shiva. Shiva carries the trident suggested
by the headdress. Shiva is called “Lord of Animals,”which
may correspond to the animals shown on the seals. Shiva is often
shown sitting in a yogic posture as the figure on the seal seems
to be doing. Shiva’s religious emblem is the lingam. Thus, this
figure is frequently called the “proto-Shiva” because many of the
attributes of this Indus Valley figure might somehow have been
transferred to the later Hindu god, Shiva.
THE SOCIETY OF THE INDO-ARYANS
The Indo-Aryan tribes were under the leadership of a hereditary
chieftain called a rajah (cognate of the Latin word rex). As the
Indo-Aryans acquired more territory and adopted a settled rather
than a nomadic lifestyle, the functions of the rajah became more
complex. He maintained his own private army to defend his people,
as well as a cadre of priests to secure divine blessings for them.
Most of the settling tribesmen became farmers and herders.
The father (pitar ; cognates include Latin pater, German vater,
and English father) was the head of the household and the
owner of the family property. In the early Vedic period, he also
served as the family priest.
The role of women in the Vedic Age is debated, but, at least in the
early period, it appears that women enjoyed a relatively high degree
of domestic authority and were not secluded.
1. From blazing Ardor (tapas) Cosmic Order came and Truth;
from thence was born the obscure night;
from thence the ocean with its billowing waves.
2. From Ocean with its waves was born the year
which marshals the succession of nights and days,
controlling everything that blinks the eye.
3. Then, as before, did the creator fashion
the Sun and Moon, the Heaven and Earth,
the atmosphere and the domain of light.
Tapas (ardor), rta (order), and satya (truth) are important Hindu
concepts. Tapas is the second to last hymn of the Rig Veda. Tapas means
“ardor,” “ascetic fire,” “arduous penance,” and “concentration.”
In this hymn, tapas is the energy that gives birth to cosmic order
and to truth.
Rta is the structure or formal principle of reality. Satya is the content,
the substance, the material principle of reality. Owing to rta, the world
is a cosmos rather than a chaos, an ordered and harmonious whole
rather than a jumbled, archaic soup. Owing to satya, the world is not
merely a game or a deception. Satya is not primarily an epistemic truth
but an ontic truthfulness—it is being what one appears to be. No reality
can emerge without these two principles of rta and satya, of harmony
The ocean represents space, and the year represents time. Once
there is space and time, life (all that “blinks the eye”) can appear,
along with sun and moon, heaven and earth, etc.
In Hinduism, the renunciant who spends his days meditating is
said to be performing tapas. The meditator is not idle; he is an active
collaborator in the maintenance of the world. His ardor, energy, and
power of concentration are believed to be capable of both creating
and destroying the world.
Source: Raimon Panikkar, The Vedic Experience. Available online at
model, the Indo-Aryans were the upper class during the Vedic
period. A wife and mother had authority over the household
children and servants. She co-celebrated the domestic rites with
her husband. Daughters were not censured for remaining unmarried,
and they participated in the selection of a husband and the
shaping of the marriage contract.3
Between 1500 and 500 B.C., the Vedas, originally oral literature,
were gradually written down. During this same time period,
public rites and sacrifices became more and more complicated.
Philosophical speculation probed questions concerning the origins
of the universe and its order. Although the Indo-Aryans did not
have the rigid caste system of later India, the names of the four
varna (“social classes”: Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra)
appear in a Vedic hymn celebrating the creation of the cosmos.4
The names of many deities, both male and female, appear in the
Rig Veda.Most frequently mentioned is Indra, a god of war who
was also associated with storms, especially the monsoon rains.
He held in his hands a thunderbolt called a vajra.
Rudra was a mountain god associated with the destructive
storms that swept down from the Himalayas. Awestruck, people
beseeched him to be auspicious (shiva) rather than harmful.
Indeed, Rudra did have a merciful side. In his mountain terrain,
he presided over medicinal plants, and appeared at times as a
gentle healer. In later Hinduism, the great god Shiva would
inherit these complex, contradictory characteristics.
Other Vedic deities included Varuna, who upheld the laws of
nature and the moral law, Vayu (the wind), and Surya (one of
several sun gods). Agni, the fire god, served as the intermediary
between the gods and humans through the sacrificial offering.
There were female deities as well: Ushas (the dawn), the rivers
Saraswati and Ganga, and Vac (the ritual power of speech).
Although Indra is the most frequently mentioned deity, the
Vedic pantheon had no hierarchical order. Indeed, from the vantage
point of Western theology, one of the most confusing things
about the Vedas is their tendency to elevate each of the gods in
turn to the highest rank. One after the other is lauded as creator
and sole ruler of the universe. Everything that could be said of all
the gods collectively is said of each one in turn. This is, strictly
speaking, neither monotheism (for there are many gods) nor
polytheism (for each god in turn absorbs all the others). Scholars
call it henotheism, and describe it as the temporary elevation of
one of many gods to the supreme position. Even at this earliest
stage, India had a fluid theological system that offered no rigid
boundaries between deities, and allowed for the supreme being to
be called by many different names. Classical Hinduism would
continue to espouse a similar theology.
Although later supplanted by Vishnu and Shiva, Indra was a king of
the gods during the Vedic Age. He was the god of thunder and storms,
and a great warrior. He defended the heavens and the earth against
the forces of evil. It was said he could revive warriors who had fallen
in battle. His weapon was the vajra (“lightning bolt”).
Indra’s wife was Indrani, and his attendants were the Maruts. Two
hundred fifty Rig Vedic hymns are dedicated to him, more than to any
Indra’s heavenly court was known as Svarga. It was located in the
clouds surrounding the sacred mountain Meru, but Indra’s heaven could
move anywhere at his command. Svarga included an enormous hall where
slain warriors went after death. Apsaras and Gandharvas danced and
entertained the court. There were games and athletic contests as well.
Indra’s most famous exploit was his victory over the demon Vrtra.
Vrtra, who had assumed the form of a mighty dragon, had sealed off
all the water in the world. This caused a terrible drought. Indra vowed
to get back the life-giving waters. He rode forth to grapple with Vrtra.
Indra had to destroy Vrtra’s ninety-nine fortresses to find the dragon.
The two clashed in a long battle, but Indra emerged the victor. The
waters once again fell from the skies, and Indra became a great hero.
The gods elected him to be their king.
Source: “Indra.” Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online,
THE VEDIC AGE A DISCUSSION
The aforementioned outline of ancient Indian history is
found in all standard textbooks on the subject. Nonetheless,
it is being challenged in India. A large element of the general
populace, and a small but increasing number of Indian scholars,
claim that the Vedic period ended around 3000 B.C., thereby
preceding rather than following the Indus Valley Civilization
(c. 2500–1500 B.C.). They also deny that there was an Indo-Aryan
invasion.According to this group of scholars, both the Vedas and
Vedic culture were indigenous to India. Hence, proponents of
this model have been labeled “Indigenists.”
This has become a highly politicized debate.Western Indologists,
for the most part, do not take the Indigenist position
seriously. They believe that claims of an indigenous Vedic
culture are based on nationalism rather than on scholarship.
Indigenist scholars, for their part, say that Western scholarship’s
refusal to seriously consider the Indigenist position is evidence
of neocolonialist sentiments.
Although he is not at all Certain that it will ever be substantiated, Bryant believes that the
indigenous Aryan position cannot be ignored. Western scholars
need to concede that it merits “a place at the table.” On the other
hand, Bryant believes that the Aryan invasion theory remains a
reasonable way to account for much of the available evidence.
In sum, Bryant believes that both models can accommodate
much of the evidence which is currently available. However, if
the script on the Indus Valley seals is ever deciphered, that would
tip the scales in one direction or the other. If the language on the
seals is Indo-European, it would lend support to the Indigenist
claim that Indo-Aryans were in India prior to the Indus Valley
Civilization. If the language is not Indo-European, that would
lend weight to the Indo-Aryan invasion hypothesis.
Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. Each Vedic
collection has four subdivisions: the Samhitas, which is the
original collection of hymns, songs, or poetry; the “ritual
texts,” which explain how to carry out Vedic ceremonies; the
“forest treatises,” which are supposedly the spiritual writings
of “forest dwellers”—hermits who have renounced the world;
and last and probably most important for modern Hinduism,
the Upanishads, which are the teachings of the great Hindu
masters and show the path toward moksha (liberation from
Rig Veda Samhita
The Rig Veda Samhita is the most important of the hymn
collections, reaching something approximating its present form
in about 1000 B.C. It is not unlike the Book of Psalms in the
Bible. It consists of 1,028 hymns organized into ten books. These
hymns praise and glorify deities called devas, a word meaning
“the Shining Ones” or “Beings of Light,” suggesting entities filled
with luminous sacred power.
The names of many devas suggest that these divine beings may
originally have been personified natural forces: The name of
the god Agni, for example, means “fire”—his name is related
to the English word ignite ; the name of the god Surya means
“sun,” Vayu means “wind,” Soma is a sacred plant, and so forth.
Female devas are hardly mentioned. The only one to have a
hymn dedicated to her is Ushas, the “dawn.”
These images drawn from nature over time acted like a seed
crystal in a chemical solution. A wide variety of attributes, functions,
and characteristics condensed around each nature god,
and thus, the significance of the deity was broadened through
analogy and metaphor. For example, Agni, the god of fire, is
very important. The very first hymn of the Rig Veda identifies
him as the priest among the devas. As the god of fire, he acts
as a mediator between humankind and the gods, serving as
the force that brings the burnt sacrificial offerings of humans
up to the devas in heaven. He is the deva of the light of the fire,
of truth, and so he becomes the guardian of the cosmic order.
In other hymns, Agni is identified with the sun in the sky and
lightning in the atmosphere. Agni comes to be everywhere.
The devas—superhuman sacred beings—are the gods and
goddesses we associate with polytheism, or the worship of many
Hymn I. Agni.
1. I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth.
2. Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.
3. Through Agni man obtaineth wealth, yea, plenty waxing day by day,
Most rich in heroes, glorious.
4. Agni, the perfect sacrifice which thou encompassest about
Verily goeth to the Gods.
5. May Agni, sapient-minded Priest, truthful, most gloriously great,
The God, come hither with the Gods.
6. Whatever blessing, Agni, thou wilt grant unto thy worshiper,
That, Angiras, is indeed thy truth.
7. To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
Bringing thee reverence, we come.
8. Ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law eternal, radiant One,
Increasing in thine own abode.
9. Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us for our weal.
gods. In some ways, they are much like angels in the Western
religions. However, angels serve a higher god; the very meaning
of the word angel is “messenger.” The devas do not serve a
particular supreme being.
There are greater and lesser devas in the Vedic hymns. No one
deity in the Vedas is regarded as the supreme being in the
monotheistic sense. The most popular deva in the Rig Veda is
Indra, the deva of storms and a war leader in heaven. His mightiest
feat was to slay the dragon Vrtra and to release the life-giving
waters that the dragon had hoarded. Above Indra is Varuna, the
great god of the sky, who is a guardian of the moral order.
The early Vedic tradition points to rita (sometimes spelled rta),
which means the “cosmic order,” as the supreme ordering principle
for god and human alike. Like many archaic conceptions of
reality, rita expresses a dynamic view of how the world works. It
was exemplified in the natural cycles of natural phenomena such
as the sun, moon, planets, and seasons. The term rita is related to
the English words rite, ritual, right, and art. The word eventually
passed out of use and was replaced by the term dharma, which
refers to the cosmic order and all its extensions in the natural
order, the social order, and the moral order.
The many gods of Vedic polytheism have changed greatly over
the centuries. Indra, Varuna, and Agni became less important,
and gods that were once relatively minor, such as Vishnu and
Rudra, who became Shiva, grew to have great importance in
modern Hinduism. Unlike the God worshiped in faiths such
as Islam and Christianity, none of the Hindu gods has declared,
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The people of
India are very comfortable with the idea that the divine is all
around us, taking many different forms and answering to many
The central religious activity in the Vedic religion is sacrifice.
Sacrifice is a basic impulse that can be found in practice all over
the world. To offer something to someone, even at a purely social
Sacred Scriptures in Hinduism 25
level, is an attempt to enter into a special kind of relationship
with the recipient. In whatever form it takes, sacrifice is a way
of entering into a relationship with the divine.
In the earliest Vedic period, sacrifice was a way of connecting
with the devas in order to win various worldly favors. Sacrifice
might bring victory in battle, more cows and horses, fertile
fields, or many sons, something valued in the Hindu culture.
Various ritual texts, composed from about 1000 to 800 B.C.,
include descriptions of the great ceremonies and sacrifices.
They describe not only how to carry out the physical acts of the
rituals but also they stress the bandhus (“sacred connections”),
or special relationships between sacrificial objects and the
gods or cosmic powers. Using these sacred connections in a
special kind of meditation, the sacrificer is said to be able to make
the offering effective. In the ritual texts, it is sacrifice itself—not
the devas—that is the central concern. The sacrifice can bring
immortality and even divine status.
Like the devas, the idea of sacrifice evolved over the centuries.
The notion that sacrifice was a means of acquiring spiritual
power, however, remained constant. Such sacrifices might
include offerings to the devas for rebirth or the sacrifice of
pleasure and profit in order to follow a more virtuous life.
Sacrifice can mean renouncing the world and devoting oneself
to spiritual life, or the practice of harsh asceticism to gain
such strong spiritual power that one becomes, for all practical
purposes, equal to the devas themselves.
The “forest treatises,” which prescribe a certain type of meditation,
were written at around 800–600 B.C.—a time when India
was undergoing major social change. People were becoming
more settled. Villages were evolving into larger towns and cities.
A written script and a money-based economy made life much
more complex than it had been before. Some religious people
(mostly men but some women as well) saw life in the big cities
as not very supportive of the religious life. They chose to leave
the villages and went out into the forests. This pattern can still
be found in Hinduism today when elderly people, having
performed all their social requirements—having “paid their
dues,” so to speak—go into retirement and concentrate fully on
their religious practices.
These forest-dwelling individuals did not have access to the
Vedic sacrifices that were performed in the towns. Thus, with
the help of the forest treatises, they used their imaginations to
reconstruct the Vedic sacrifice in their minds. It was as if a contemporary
Roman Catholic, forgoing traditional Mass, instead
performed all the details of the Mass in his or her imagination,
hoping for all the benefits that actual attendance would bring.
Upanishads, which might be best translated as “private sessions,”
are texts containing what were once secret doctrines and
practices passed down from a teacher (guru) to his disciples.
Now these doctrines and practices are available to everyone.
They were composed between 600 and 400 B.C., during a time
when there was a radical shift in thinking, not only in India
but all over the world. Some historians have called this
“the axial age,” meaning a time when the human mind
turned, as on an axis, away from archaic, mythic thinking to
more rational philosophical thought.
The Upanishads were not focused on the many Vedic gods
in the Samhitas and the sacrifices offered to them. Because of
this, they went beyond the sort of religion found in the earlier
Vedic literature. Since the Upanishad texts are considered
the culmination of the Vedic literature, they are called the
Vedanta—the “end” or “pinnacle” of the Vedas—and the influential
Vedanta philosophy, associated with the great thinker
Shankara (788–820), is based on the Upanishads. Of all the
Vedic texts, the Upanishads have been the most influential in
both classical and modern Hinduism. English translations of
them are readily available.
As in other parts of the world, Upanishadic men—and, again,
1. The Pupil asks: “At whose wish does the mind sent forth
proceed on its errand? At whose command does the first
breath go forth? At whose wish do we utter this speech?
What god directs the eye, or the ear?”
2. The Teacher replies: “It is the ear of the ear, the mind of the
mind, the speech of speech, the breath of breath, and the
eye of the eye. When freed (from the senses) the wise, on
departing from this world, become immortal.
3. “The eye does not go thither, nor speech, nor mind. We do
not know, we do not understand, how any one can teach it.
4. “It is different from the known, it is also above the unknown,
thus we have heard from those of old, who taught us this.
5. “That which is not expressed by speech and by which speech
is expressed, that alone know as Brahman, not that which
people here adore.
6. “That which does not think by mind, and by which, they say,
mind is thought, that alone know as Brahman, not that
which people here adore.
7. “That which does not see by the eye, and by which one sees
(the work of) the eyes, that alone know as Brahman, not
that which people here adore.
8. “That which does not hear by the ear, and by which the
ear is heard, that alone know as Brahman, not that which
people here adore.
9. “That which does not breathe by breath, and by which
breath is drawn, that alone know as Brahman, not that
which people here adore.”
a few women—looked to find “the one behind the many,” the
one divine behind the many devas, the one supreme power
behind all the powers of the sacrifice. The Upanishadic thinkers
were seeking the common denominator of all existence.
They finally settled upon Brahman, a term that might be
translated as “Infinite Spirit,”“Holy Power,” or “the Eternal.”This
is the absolute being behind all changing phenomena. Brahma is
not only the source but also the essential reality of all things.
On this subject, there is a decisive difference between Western
religion and Hinduism. The ancient Israelites chose to
concentrate on one god and to exclude all other gods. The
Hindus, on the other hand, chose to concentrate on one god
whose essence also embraces all other gods. For ancient Israel
and later Western religions, the one god is the “supreme
personal god,” a creator who is above and beyond his creation.
In the Upanishads, in contrast, the Infinite Spirit—from
which all creation comes—fills and encompasses everything
in nature and in self, rather than remaining a separate entity.
The Infinite Spirit transcends all qualifications and attributes,
The technical term for a religion that centers on one being
THE HINDU IDEA OF CREATION
Sri Ramana Maharshi said:
All metaphysical discussion is profitless unless it causes us to
seek within the Self for the true reality.
All controversies about creation, the nature of the universe,
evolution, the purpose of God, etc., are useless. They are
not conducive to our true happiness. People try to find out
about things which are outside of them before they try to find
out “Who am I?” Only by the latter means can happiness
beyond all personal attributes, infused with all of creation,
is monism. In contrast, the religions of the West are all
monotheisms, which means that they worship a God who is
personal and stands above and beyond the world he made.
Brahman, or the Infinite Spirit, is at the very foundation of
everything in Hinduism, which means that the Infinite Spirit is
the basis of an individual’s personal existence. At the core of
one’s being, there is Brahma. This supreme spirit is the “True
Self,” the atman. The key phrase in the Upanishads is “You Are
That One”; in Sanskrit, this phrase is Tat tvam asi.
With the change in how the divine is envisioned, there is
also a change in practice. For example, sacrifice is irrelevant to
the Infinite Spirit, which is totally self-sufficient. Instead, what
one is called upon to do religiously is to work to gain direct
knowledge concerning the nature of one’s existence, to discover
the True Self. This is accomplished by turning attention from
outerworldly concerns inward. Meditation replaces sacrifice;
knowledge replaces ritual. The life of renunciation, on the other
hand, is a sacrifice of the world.
Like members of other religious and cultural traditions, Hindus have
particular methods of greeting one another in public. When meeting
a friend or when showing respect to a holy person, elder, or god, a
Hindu person will join his or her hands, placing the palms together in
a gesture of humility. He or she then bows before the other person
and says, “Namaskar,” “Namaste,” or “Pranam,” which means
Hindus believe that the Infinite Spirit, Brahman, lives within the
heart of every individual. Therefore, when they join their hands, it is
a symbol of the concept of the meeting of two separate persons, as
the “self” meets “itself.” Combined with the words namaskar or
namaste, the joining of the hands in greeting is intended to impart to
the person, something to the effect of “I bow to God in you; I love
you and I respect you, as there is no one like you.”
Source: Available online at http://www.hindunet.org/namaste/index.htm.
Hindus continued to generate very important sacred texts after
the end of the Vedic period. The Hindus call these later texts
smrti, “that which is remembered,” as distinct from the Vedas,
which are shruti, “that which is heard,” referring to the texts’
early oral transmission.
The smrti texts include the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
These great epics are thrilling tales of love and war. Though set
many centuries before they were written in their present form,
they are repositories of the ideals of classical India (from 300 B.C.
to A.D. 1200) and are treasured today.
The Mahabharata, the longest epic in the world, tells the
story of two sets of stepbrothers: the Pandu brothers, led by
their eldest brother, Yudhisthira, and the Kuru brothers, led
by Duryodhana.When the old king becomes blind, he decides
to pass the kingdom of Bharata (a name for India) to his
heir. Yudhisthira is the logical choice, since he exemplifies
kingly virtue, whereas Duryodhana, try as he may, simply
cannot equal his stepbrother.
So Duryodhana decides to win the succession with a trick.
Knowing that Yudhisthira, though very righteous, has a weakness
for gambling, Duryodhana brings in a cheat who is able
to trick Yudhisthira out of his fortune and eventually out of his
right to the succession. Yudhisthira is forced to agree that he
and his brothers, the simpleminded but stouthearted Bhima
and the handsome warrior Arjuna, will go into exile for twelve
years. During the thirteenth year, they must disguise and hide
themselves so as not to be identified. If they are found, they will
forfeit the right to rule forever.
During the Pandu brothers’ exile, they have many adventures.
Arjuna also wins the hand of the beautiful Draupadi for his
brother Yudhisthira, even though her heart belongs to Arjuna.
Meanwhile, Duryodhana rules the kingdom. Despite his most
ardent efforts, however, he is unable to maintain the land’s
prosperity, and as he struggles to improve the kingdom’s
fortunes, he becomes more and more oppressive in his rule.
Sacred Scriptures in Hinduism 31
Yudhisthira comes back to claim his right to the throne.
Duryodhana arrogantly refuses even a last-minute compromise
in which Yudhisthira and his brothers would be content with
ruling one small city each. Civil war is inevitable.
Both sides look for allies. Both Yudhisthira and Duryodhana
go to one of the major warrior tribes ruled by a man named
Krishna and ask for his aid. Krishna offers a very strange
proposition: Each side may choose either his warriors or
him.However, if they choose him, he will not fight. Duryodhana
immediately chooses the warriors. The Pandus seem to be
“stuck” with the nonfighting Krishna, but Arjuna asks Krishna
to be his charioteer. (In these ancient battles, charioteers were
expected only to drive the chariot, not to participate in battle.)
The Bhagavad Gita
The showdown occurs on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Both
sides line up in battle formation and await the signal to attack.
At this point, Arjuna asks Krishna to drive him across the front
lines so he can see his enemies. Immediately upon seeing them,
he is heartbroken. As is the case in any civil war, among the
ranks of the enemy are some of his closest friends, relatives, and
teachers. Even Duryodhana, deluded and misled as he is, is not
a truly evil man. Arjuna knows that this war is going to result in
social chaos. He has his doubts about the wisdom of fighting
this battle and confides his doubts to Krishna.
Krishna sympathizes with Arjuna’s scruples but in the end tells
him that he must do his duty (dharma) and fight for his
brother’s righteous cause.According to the view presented in the
Upanishads, Krishna tells Arjuna that, in reality, the True Self
(atman) neither kills nor is killed. It is eternal and unchanging.
Krishna says that everything that is born must die and everything
that dies is reborn. Thus, even if Arjuna kills his enemies
in their present bodies, they will be reincarnated, reborn in new
bodies according to their karma. Finally, Krishna tells Arjuna
that, although the two of them know that Arjuna might turn
from the battle for the highest moral motives, the other Pandu
warriors will think him a coward and call him disgraceful
names. Krishna concludes: “Die and you win heaven. Conquer
and you enjoy the earth. Stand up now, Son of Kunti, and resolve
to fight. Realize that pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and
defeat, are all one and the same: then go into battle.”6
Arjuna wants to understand these points more clearly and
engages Krishna in an extended spiritual dialogue. Their conversation
reaches its climax when Arjuna realizes that he is speaking
with God in human form.He asks to see Krishna in his full divine
splendor, a favor that Krishna grants him. This part of the story
is one of the classic descriptions of a religious vision and may
well be based on an actual spiritual experience.
The battle at Kurukshetra does indeed take place. The Pandus
emerge victorious though at considerable cost. Yudhisthira is
then able to take his rightful place on the throne of India.
This section of the Mahabharata is known as the Bhagavad
Gita, or “Song of the Blessed Lord,” often simply called “the
Gita.” It is the most important part of the epic and circulates
The dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna opens up a whole
new dimension of religion in Hinduism. Krishna presents himself
as the Supreme Lord, the Highest Personal God. All other
gods are merely manifestations of him in accordance with their
time, place, and spiritual aptitude. Here, we are essentially seeing
a type of theism, a worship of one god—though, true to Hindu
understanding, it is not a worship that excludes other gods.
Krishna also acknowledges the Infinite Spirit explored in the
Upanishads, which underlies everything and everyone; but he
tells Arjuna that it is hard to come to the necessary spiritual
knowledge and that not everyone has the skill, aptitude, or
circumstances to live a life of renunciation. Instead, Arjuna—
and, by extension, all people—can achieve the highest spiritual
benefit simply by honoring and worshiping Krishna, God the
Krishna also reinterprets the meaning of sacrifice. It is
no longer just making offerings to the various devas, as in
the polytheistic religion of the Vedas. Nor is it abandoning all
worldly concerns to seek the Infinite Spirit, as in the monistic
religion of the Upanishads. Rather, it is offering up one’s self and
all one’s actions to be made holy by Krishna—a relationship
with God that is closer to monotheism.
The Bhagavad Gita is sometimes called “the Bible of popular
Hinduism,” and it is treasured by Hindus much as the Gospels
are valued by Christians. Many Hindus memorize it and quote
from it extensively to support doctrinal positions. There are
devotees of Krishna, among whom are the members of the
International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON),
more popularly known as the Hare Krishnas, who maintain
that knowledge and practice of the Gita alone will bring about
salvation. The Bhagavad Gita is considered one of the world’s
great spiritual classics.
The other Hindu epic is the Ramayana. Like the Mahabharata, it
tells the story of a prince who is sent into exile. This time, the
prince is named Rama, and he is forced to leave his capital city
with his beautiful wife, Sita. The demon king, Ravana, sees Sita
and, lusting after her, kidnaps her and takes her to his fortress on
Sri Lanka, the large island off the southeastern coast of India.
Rama searches for his wife and is able to locate her with the aid of
the monkey king, Hanuman, who has his monkeys form a bridge
across the sea to Sri Lanka. Rama, his brother, and their army are
able to cross and lay siege to Ravana’s fortress. Eventually, Rama
and Ravana engage in one-on-one combat and Ravana is killed.
Rama is then reunited with his wife.
Sita maintains that she never yielded to Ravana, and Rama, of
course, believes her. But when he returns to his kingdom, which
now welcomes him, there are many who doubt Sita’s virtue. She
had been the prisoner of Ravana for a year, and, for all his
demonic attributes, Ravana was actually a handsome man who
would have been attractive to many women. To prove her virtue,
Sita throws herself on a fire and remains unscathed. This act
shames her accusers. Afterward, Rama and Sita reign happily.
Sita becomes the model of heroic womanhood. In Hindu belief,
a man is heroic in terms of his physical strength, while a woman
is heroic in terms of her virtue.
These epics become the embodiment of the finest ideals
in Hinduism: Rama, the brave hero determined to win back
the woman he loves from a lustful demon; Yudhisthira, the
righteous king even with his tragic flaw of gambling; Arjuna,
the conscience-stricken warrior for right; Sita, the loving and
ever-faithful wife; and Draupadi, the beautiful inspiration of
heroes—all tap into universal virtues that are admired all over
Modern India is determined to preserve its epic heritage, and
so every means of contemporary and popular culture is used to
bring these epics to life for its present-day population. Students
in school read simplified stories in their textbooks based on the
epics. Children of all ages find epic heroes in comic books sold
at every Indian newsstand. Television programs that serialize the
Ramayana have far outdistanced in popularity any competition
from Western television. So fascinated are the people that once,
when a television episode was delayed because of mechanical
failure, there were riots in the street.
The Indian people love movies as well, and the Indian film
industry is very large and active. Episodes from the epics have
been the basis for innumerable movies, and a number of Indian
actors and actresses specialize in portraying figures from the
epics. Bombay, the center of Indian filmmaking—affectionately
called “Bollywood” (“Bombay” + “Hollywood”)—is one of the
largest movie production systems in the world.
Theistic Hindus (those who are devotees of one of the great gods
or the Goddess) generated extensive devotional literature. The
eighteen great Puranas (“ancient texts”) contain India’s great
mythic stories about Hinduism’s many gods and goddesses. The
Agamas, another set of popular devotional writings, are divided
into three sections—one devoted to Vishnu, a second to Shiva,
and the third to Devi. The Agamas contain theology and instructions
for worship. The Tantras describe Shiva’s conversations
with his divine consort, who is the embodiment of feminine
power, or “Shakti.” They also describe secret spiritual practices.
The preceding survey of Hindu scriptures, as extensive as it
is, does not exhaust the various types of sacred literature found
in Hinduism. There are popular collections of devotional poetry
associated with great poets like Tulsidas or Caitanya, and
religious songs as well. Great gurus or teachers will write or
dictate texts that serve as a type of scripture for their followers.