What is the Holy Book of Hinduism?
Holy Books of Hinduism
The body of sacred literature in Hinduism is vast and diverse enough to write volumes on. Here, I will give only a brief introduction to the holy books of Hinduism. First, let’s distinguish between two types of Hindu literature: Śruti and Smṛti.
Śruti (pronounced “SHROO-thee”) are the holy books within Hinduism that are considered to be divinely inspired, and thus infallible and authoritative. The word “Śruti” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to hear”, as it was believed that ancient seers “heard” or perceived these texts by direct revelation from a higher power. The sense of hearing is of great importance to Hindus, for whom sound and vibration embody the divine itself. The Hindu scriptures were originally transmitted orally, with chanting, and the sound of the words themselves was considered to be living and holy.
Smṛti (SMUR-thee) literature, in contrast to Śruti, is considered to be of human origin, rather than divine. Smṛti comes from a root meaning “to remember”. Thus, although these books have a lower status than the divinely inspired Śruti, they contain important traditions that have been passed down (remembered) by humans.
The Śruti, the divinely inspired holy books of Hinduism, were written at different times, in different places, by different people, and for different reasons. However, all of these texts can be broadly classified as “Vedas” (VEY-dthus). Veda means “knowledge”. The Vedas are classified into four groups--Saṃhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upaniṣads--but only two of them are important enough to discuss in this short introduction to Hinduism’s holy books. These are the Vedic Saṃhitas (“collections“) and the Upaniṣads. Although a common misperception is that the Vedas and the Upaniṣads are two different sets of literature altogether, the Upaniṣads are a subcategory of the Vedas. They are the last additions to the Vedic literature, and so they are also called Vedanta, which means “the ending of the Vedas”. One way of picturing this is by way of analogy: the Vedas are the full body of divinely revealed literature in Hinduism, as the Christian Bible is within Christianity. Within that body of literature, the last parts, the Upaniṣads, are called the “ending of the Vedas”, like the last parts of the Christian Bible are called the “New Testament”.
The Vedic Saṃhitas
The oldest books within the Vedas, the Vedic Saṃhitas, were large collections of prayers and hymns in praise to different gods. These hymns were primarily to be chanted from memory by priests as they performed various rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. There are four Vedic Saṃhitas: Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. The oldest and most important of these is the Rigveda. “Rig” is from a Sanskrit word meaning “praise”. Some of the oldest hymns in this collection may date from as early as 5000 BCE, although the collection probably didn’t reach its final form until about 1000 BCE - 300 BCE. The Rigveda is the foundational holy book of ancient Hinduism, which essentially served as a source for everything that came after it. The other Vedic Saṃhitas largely draw from and comment upon the Rigveda.
The word Upaniṣad is thought to mean “sitting down beside”, because these texts are different conversations between disciples (students) and gurus (teachers). A disciple would “sit down beside” his guru while receiving instruction. In English, “Upaniṣad” (pronounced oo-PUH-nish-uhdh), is commonly spelled “Upanishad”. The Upaniṣads were composed later than the Rigveda, probably between the seventh and the fifth centuries CE.
While the older Vedas were primarily concerned with proper ritual action to be conducted by priests, the Upaniṣads had much broader concerns. They presented secret teachings of speculative philosophy, investigating the nature of Ultimate Reality and the Self, and the relationship between the two. Absolute Reality, called Brahman, was the totality of all things. As such, it was also the essence of each individual thing, including each living soul, or Self. The Self was called Atman. Atman was considered to be identical to Brahman. Atman, the one true Self, is Brahman (the One essence of all that is) manifested within each individual creature.
The Epics were long narrative poems that told stories, similar to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These were not Śruti. That is to say, Hindus did not consider them to be of direct divine inspiration. All the same, these books are tremendously important to Hindus worldwide. The most important Epics were Valmiki’s Ramayana, composed sometime between 400 BCE and 400 CE, and Vyasa’s Mahabharata (200 BCE - 200 CE).
The influence of these two books upon Hinduism overall is enormous, as was the length of the Epics themselves. For example, the Mahabharata contains 1.8 million words, making it ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It has been called the longest poem ever written.
The Bhagavad Gita
The epic poem, Mahabharata, mentioned above, contains a volume within it called the Bhagavad Gita (BHUH-guh-vuhdh GEE-thaa). The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the single most important holy book of Hinduism today. Although technically it is not Śruti, since it is part of an Epic, most Hindus treat it as though it is divinely inspired in practice. The Bhagavad Gita is a long conversation between Kṛṣṇa (aka “Krishna”) and the distressed warrior Arjuna, whose duty requires him to face his own kinsmen in battle. At a loss for what to do, Arjuna is given advice by Krishna. Krishna is considered by Hindus to be an avatar, that is, an incarnation, of the “preserver god”, Vishnu. Krishna, in advising Arjuna, describes some of Hinduism’s most important concepts. Some of these concepts include taking action without attachment to possible results, good or bad; loving devotion to the divine; and the great realization that every person is Brahman/Atman, and can therefore never really die, since Brahman/Atman is not bound to any individual body and can never die.
The Puranas (“stories of old”) are myths which were written later, discussing creation, renewal, and the Hindu cosmological schema of repeating cycles of time. They also discuss divine genealogies, and they prominently feature many of the great gods who are central to Hinduism today. Some of these gods include the so-called Hindu “trinity” of Brahma, the creator god, not to be confused with Brahman, which is Absolute Reality; Vishnu, the preserver god; and Shiva, the destroying god. These three gods represent the cycles of the universe.
In Hinduism, the universe is thought to cycle through periods of destruction and rebirth. In this context, "destruction" entails the absorption of all reality back into the cosmic singularity, Brahman. "Rebirth" is accomplished via progressively baser emanations from the same cosmic source, Brahman. This cycle repeats itself eternally. Since creation and destruction are a cycle, neither is possible without the other. Thus, destruction is, in a certain sense, a form of creation. Shiva is not a malevolent god, just because he destroys. Rather, he clears the old out and makes way for something new.
I hope that from this short introduction to the holy books of Hinduism it is apparent that Hindus consider a great variety of literature important, and that this literature is as diverse and complex as it is beautiful. Hinduism, as the world’s most ancient surviving religion, could have it no other way.
© 2011 Justin Aptaker