UNDERSTANDING RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE AND EXPRESSION
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RELIGION 111 - Dr. Rennie

Major Hindu Scriptures
Vedas
Sutras
Epics
Puranas
Traditional Hindu Society or Varnashramadharma
Classes
Stages of Life
Aims or Ends of Life
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Major Hindu Scriptures

The God Indra on his traditional mount The Four Vedas

Rigveda

Samaveda

Yajurveda

Atharvaveda

Are composed of:

Rigveda Samhita (Rk = hymn or verse) is the oldest and most important. Dating from at least 1,200 B.C.E. and completed about 900 B.C.E. This veda is divided into ten books (mandalas or "cycles") containing a total of 1,028 hymns addressed to various deities. Most important of whom are Indra, (c. 250 hymns) mighty warrior god and slayer of Vrtra--the demon-serpent who obstructed the fertile flow of the waters; Agni, (c. 200 hymns) god of fire; Soma, god of the intoxicating drink of the gods (=soma) to whom the whole of the ninth book is addressed. These last two are particularly concerned with the domestic sacrificial rituals of Aryan society.) Mitra and Varuna, whose main concern was the protection of rta, the sacred and divine order of the cosmos. Rudra, a fearsome and destructive deity has links with the later Shiva.

Samaveda Samhita (saman = chant) a handbook of chants used by one of the Brahman priests who presided at the sacrificial rituals. Largely derived from books eight and nine of the rgveda.

Yajurveda Samhita (yajus = spoken ritual formula rather than a chant or verse) the increasing emphasis here is on the mechanics of the sacrifice. Although animal sacrifice was known, especially the hugely elaborate Ashvamedha or horse sacrifice, and the purushamedha or human sacrifice is referred to, sacrifice is usually of vegetable offerings and soma.

Atharvaveda Samhita (named for a priestly family, the Atharvans) a later compilation of complete hymns and spells which are less directly attached to the domestic sacrificial rituals.

Each Veda Samhita, or collection of hymns, is supplemented by:

Brahmanas - prose discussions involving rules for and explanations of rituals, the Brahmana attached to each different Veda is relevant to a different priestly function.

Aranyakas - "forest books" of esoteric learning which form a bridge from ritualism to the

Upanishads - speculative philosophical texts.

These supplements to the Samhitas were mainly composed between 700 and 300 B.C.E. Together all four subdivisions make up the Veda.


The Sutras. Short texts ascribed to particular sages which date from between the 7th and 2nd centuries B.C.E. They are usually attached to particular schools and consist of ritual, ethical, and legal teachings. These are given in concise, aphoristic form so as to be easily memorable. After memorization the full exposition would be provided by a qualified guru. There are three groups; the Shrauta-, Grihya-, and Dharmasutras. The first expounded on the Vedas (sruti), the second on domestic ceremonies (griha = home), and the third on correct conduct (dharma).

"Ascetic practice, study, and dedication to Isvara constitute preliminary yoga" (Yogasutra 2.1). Another important sutra is the Yogasutra of Patanjali, a text of about the 2nd century CE containing 194 aphorisms on yoga which expounds the eight "limbs" of yoga, known as the "royal" yoga, Raja- or even rajadhirajayoga. This is an important influence upon the yoga practiced by most Hindu Sadhus. These eight limbs are:

1. Yama - Restraints (Yogasutra 2.30-31)
"The restraints are nonviolence, truthfulness, honesty, not stealing, celibacy, and absence of greed. These, universal and unqualified by birth, place, time or circumstance, are the great vow."
2. Niyama - Observances (Yogasutra 2.32)
"The observances are purity, contentment, ascetic practice, study, and dedication to the Lord of Yoga" (Yogeshsvara).
3. Asana - Posture (Yogasutra 2.46)
"The posture is steady and easy."
4. Pranayama - Breath control (Yogasutra 2.49)
"Then pranayama is the regulation of breathing out and in."
5. Pratyahara - Loss of self/Abstraction/Withdrawal (of the senses) (Yogasutra 2.54)
"Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the sense organs from their objects..."
6. Dharana - Concentration (Yogasutra 2.52-53/3.1)
"Then the curtain is withdrawn and the mind is fit for concentration. . . . Concentration is binding thought in place."
7. Dhyana - Meditation (Yogasutra 3.2)
"Meditation is the unbroken focus of the mind on its object."
8. Samadhi - trance/ecstasy/enstasy (Yogasutra 2.45)
"Samadhi is accomplished through dedication to the Lord of Yoga" (Yogeshsvara) and the Lord of Yoga is described as "a distinct person (purusha), untouched by the effects of affliction and action" (Yogasutra 1.24). However, it is worthy of comment that the god Krishna is refered to as Yogeshvara in the Bhagavad Gita (e.g. 11:4), composed approximately in the 1st century C.E., that is possibly 100 years before the Yogasutra


Krishna as Arjuna's charioteer The Epics

Although "Smrti," less authoritative traditional texts, the great Sanskrit epic poems are probably the most influential pieces of literature in the whole Indian tradition. They are sometimes even refered to as a Fifth Veda. In 100,000 verses in the shloka form attributed to the sage Vyasa, the Mahabharata tells of the great war between two royal families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas ending in their mutual destruction. The enormously influential Bhagavadgita is a section of this epic. It was apparently compiled from about 500 BCE, reaching its final form by the first century CE.

The Ramayana, which was also certainly in circulation by the first century CE, relates the legend of Prince Rama, usurped from his throne and exiled, his beautiful wife Sita kidnapped by the demon Ravana, his calm self-control and noble generosity provides an exemplar of admirable dharmic conduct. They both probably originate in oral traditions of the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. and were written down between that time and the 1st century C.E.
See this Mahabharata link


The Puranas. "Tales of Olden Days" These extremely popular tales of the origins and doings of the gods date from between 300 and 1,000 C.E. although most of their content was established during the Gupta era (c. 320 - 500 CE). They more closely resemble what we commonly know as "myths" based on the model of the Greek myths. There are eighteen major Puranas classifed by the three ancient qualities or gunas: sattva (light or purity), rajas (passion), and tamas (darkness or inertia). The sattva puranas are those mainly concerning Vishnu, the rajas puranas are those concerning Brahma and the tamas puranas (again, mainly) concern Shiva.


Traditional Hindu Society.

There are four major divisions of traditional Hindu society:

Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warrior-aristocrats), Vaishyas (literally "all"; mainly farmers, merchants, tradesmen, artisans), and Sudras (slaves or serfs).

As well as this social division into classes the life of the individual was divided into stages (although this only applied theoretically to males of the three higher classes). These stages were as follows:

Following initiation into the tradition, a coming-of-age ceremony usually performed only for males of the first three Varnas one enters Brahmashrama, the student stage in which total obedience is given to the Guru. Marriage is the rite of passage which generally marks entry into the Grihastha (householder) stage of marriage, productivity, and the pursuit of social well-being. Usually about the time when one's children are having children of their own one is expected to enter intoVanashrama, the stage of retirement in which one "withdraws into the forest" (vana) and distances oneself from mundane involvements. Lastly one might enter Sanyasa, and seek total dissociation from worldly involvement.

It must be recognized that these divisions or stages of life were ideal and not at all rigidly enforced.

In following this dharma or social order it was accepted that four aims or ends were valid:

Kama, all pleasures of the flesh including sexual gratification was the most obvious and the most superficial. While sensual pleasures are accepted as real and genuinely gratifying and are not at all discouraged by implications of karmic retribution, they are characterized as transient, fleeting, temporary, short-lived and finally disappointing--the pursuit of the unadvanced person. Better than this is Artha, gain, profit, or material advancement, including political and financial power and stability. Although its satisfactions last longer and have greater implications than those of kama they too are finally limited and unsatisfactory, the drive for power is insatiable and, of course, "you can't take it with you." Thirdly one can strive for the pursuit of Dharma; in the words of J. F. K. "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Duty, service, honor, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and the pursuit of the traditional ideal constitute a higher and finally more satisfying goal than mere physical or material self-satisfaction. Again, it is possible that this was the original extent of varnashramadharma since this final goal would include the stage of vanaprastha, withdrawal to seek spiritual emancipation. Thus perhaps the fourth goal, Moksha, escape from samsara, was a later addition. Whatever is the case this certainly becomes the highest and ultimate goal of the Hindu religious life. Pleasure, success, and the responsible performance of duty, all these are finally inadequate to the total commitment of the human spirit. The true and undying goals of human being are these--being, awareness, and bliss, without limitation and without end which is characteristic of the godhead (Brahman). This is seen as finally available to the human spirit in Moksha, emancipation, release, escape from the eternal wheel, total and final dissociation from worldly attachment. This, of course, is recognizable as the final end of Buddhism, Nirvana.

Again, it should be borne in mind that these goals are idealizations--they are not sought by every Hindu and they are not sought in strict order. You must avoid connecting the different goals with the different stages.


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brennie@westminster.edu