World's oldest literature
are the Veda, a collection of
religious and philosophical poems and hymns composed over several generations beginning as
early as 3000 BC. The Veda was composed in Sanskrit, the intellectual language of both
ancient and classical Indian civilizations.
Some Vedic hymns and poems address philosophic themes, such as the henotheism
that is key to much Hindu theology.
Henotheism is the idea that one God takes many different forms, and that although
individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really revere but one
Four collections were made and came to be viewed as sacred in Hinduism.
There are four Vedas:
Its traditional date goes back to 3000 BC, something which the German
scholar Max Mueller accepted. As a body of writing, the Rig-Veda (the wisdom
of verses) is nothing short of remarkable. It contains 1028 hymns (10,589
verses which are divided into ten mandalas or book-sections) dedicated to
thirty-three different gods. The most often addressed gods were nature gods
like Indra (rain god; king of heavens), Agni (fire god), Rudra (storm god;
the 'howler'), Soma (the draught of immortality, an alcoholic brew).
The Sama-Veda or the wisdom of chants is basically a collection of samans or
chants, derived from the eighth and ninth books of the Rig-Veda. These were
meant for the priests who officiated at the rituals of the soma ceremonies.
There are painstaking instructions in Sama-Veda about how particular hymns
must be sung; to put great emphasis upon sounds of the words of the mantras
and the effect they could have on the environment and the person who
The Yajur-Veda or the wisdom of sacrifices lays down various sacred
invocations (yajurs) which were chanted by a particular sect of priests
called adhvaryu. They performed the sacrificial rites. The Veda also
outlines various chants which should be sung to pray and pay respects to the
various instruments which are involved in the sacrifice.
The Atharva-Veda (the wisdom of the Atharvans) is called so because the
families of the atharvan sect of the Brahmins have traditionally been
credited with the composition of the Vedas. It is a compilation of hymns but
lacks the awesome grandeur which makes the Rig-Veda such a breathtaking
|The term Upanishad ('upa' near; 'ni' down; 'sad' to sit) means sitting
down near; this implies the students sitting down near their Guru to learn
the big secret. In the splendid isolation of their forest abodes, the
philosophers who composed the Upanishads contemplated upon the various
mysteries of life and its creation – whether common, or metaphysical. The
answers were however not open to all, but only for select students. The
reason for this was simple: not everyone can handle knowledge.|
The composition of the Upanishads marks a significant and stride forward in
the direction of knowing the mystery of earth's creation and one comes
tantalizingly close to the answers. Through episodes, commentaries, stories,
traditions and dialogue, the Upanishads unfold the fascinating tale of
creation, life, the essence of life and of that beyond to the seeker of
truth. In the
Upanishads, views about Brahman (the Absolute, or God) and atman (one's true self) were
It is said that the Upanishads were written to counter the
growing influence of Buddhism in India.
is no exact date for the composition of the Upanishads. They continued to be composed over
a long period, the core being over 7th -5th centuries BC. The Upanishads were originally
called Vedanta, which literally means the conclusion to the Vedas.
are 18 principal Upanishads viz.:
The Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad is widely accepted to be the most important of all
Upanishads. It has three khandas or parts. The madhu khanda contemplates on the
relationship between the individual and the Universal self. The muni khanda or yajnavalkya
is a debate which goes on to give the philosophical backing to the earlier teaching. The
khila khanda tackles various rituals of worship and meditation.
This Upanishad is a part of the Sama-Veda. The name comes from
the singer of the songs (samans) who is called Chandoga. The initial chapters of the
Upanishad, discuss the ritual of sacrifice. The others debate the origin and profundity of
the concept of Om, among other things.
This one forms part of the Rig-Veda. The purpose is to make the reader understand
the deeper meaning of sacrifice and to take him away from the outer trappings of the
A part of the Yajur-Veda, this Upanishad is divided into three sections or
vallis. The siksa valli deals with the phonetics of the chants, while the others,
brahmananda valli and bhrgu valli deal with self-realization.
Also called the Isavasya Upanishad, this book deals with the union of God, the
world, being and becoming. The stress is on the Absolute in relation with the world
(paramesvara). The gist of the teachings is that a person's worldly and otherworldly goals
need not necessarily be opposed to each other.
The name of this Upanishad comes from the first word kena, or by whom. It has two
sections of prose and two of poetry. The verses deal with the supreme spirit or the
absolute principle (brahmaana) and the prose talks of ishvara (god). The moral of the
story is that the knowledge of ishvara reveals the way to self-realization.
Also called the Kathakopanishad, this Upanishad uses a story (katha) involving a
young Brahmin boy called Nachiketa to reveal the truths of this world and the other beyond
Prashna literally means question, and this book is part of the Athrava-Veda. It
addresses questions pertaining to the ultimate cause, the power of Om, relation of the
supreme to the constituents of the world.
This book also belongs to the Atharva-Veda. The name is derived from 'mund' or to
shave, meaning that anyone who understands the Upanishads is s(h)aved from ignorance. This
book inscribes the importance of knowing the supreme brahmaana, only by which knowledge
can one attain self-realization.
The Mandukya is an exquisite treatise which expounds on the principle of Om and
its metaphysical significance in various states of being, waking, dream and the dreamless
sleep. The subtlest and most profound of the Upanishads, it is said that this alone will
lead one to the path of enlightenment.
The name of this Upanishad is after its teacher. It comments on the unity of the
souls and the world in one all-encompassing reality. The concept of there being one god is
also talked about here. It is dedicated to Rudra, the storm god.
Kausitaki Brahmana Upanishad
The Upanishad has come down to us in bits here and pieces there. The core of the
text is dedicated to illustrating the fact that the path to release is through knowledge.
This is a comparatively later Upanishad as it has references to the Trinity of
Hindu Gods (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma) which is a later development, and plus references to
the world being illusory in character reflects Buddhist influence.
Belonging to the Yajur-Veda, this Upanishad puts down a dialogue between the sage
Subala and Brahma, the creator of the Hindu Trinity of Gods. It discusses the universe and
Belonging to the Athrava-Veda, this Upanishad addresses some questions pertaining
The Paingala is again a dialogue, this between Yajnavalkya, the sage mentioned the
Brhad-aranyaka's muni khanda and Paingala, a student of his. It discusses meditation and
This Upanishad delves into the state of kaivalya or being alone.
Belonging to the Sama-Veda the Vajrasucika reflects on the nature of the supreme being.
core of the teachings of the Upanishads is summed up in three words: tat tvam asi… you
The Puranas are a genre of important Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religious
texts, notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from
creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods,
and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography.|
usually give prominence to a particular deity, usually written in the form
of stories related by one person to another. Brahmin scholars read from them
and tell their stories, usually in Katha sessions (in which a traveling
Brahmin settles for a few weeks in a temple and narrates parts of a Purana).
The different Puranas are:
Agni (15,400 verses) - Contains details of Vastu Shastra and Gemology
Bhagavata (18,000 verses) - The most celebrated and popular of the
Puranas, telling of Vishnu's ten Avatars. Its tenth and longest canto
narrates the deeds of Krishna, introducing his childhood exploits
Bhavishya (14,500 verses)
Brahma (10,000 verses) - Describes about Godavari and its
Brahmanda (12,000 verses) - includes Lalita Sahasranamam, a text some
Hindus recite as prayer
Brahmavaivarta (17,000 verses) - Describes Worshipping protocols of
Devis, Krishna and Ganesha
Garuda (19,000 verses) - Most hallowed Purana regarding the death and
Harivamsa (16,000 verses) - more often considered itihasa
Kurma (17,000 verses)
Linga (11,000 verses) - Staunch Shaiva Theological Purana
Markandeya (9,000 verses) - The Devi Mahatmya, an important text for
the Shaktas is embedded in it
Matsya (14,000 verses)
Narada (25,000 verses) - Describe the greatness of Veda and Vedangas.
Padma (55,000 verses) - Describe the greatness of Bhagavad Gita. Also
known as Geetha mathmya.
Shiva (24,000 verses)
Skanda (81,100 verses) - The longest Purana, it is an extraordinarily
meticulous pilgrimage guide, containing geographical locations of pilgrimage
centers in India, with related legends, parables, hymns and stories. Many
untraced quotes are attributed to this text.
Vamana (10,000 verses) - Mostly describes about North India and areas
Varaha (24,000 verses)
Vayu (24,000 verses)
Vishnu (23,000 verses)
The Upapuranas are ancillary texts. They include: Sanat-kumara, Narasimha,
Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna,
Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha,
Mudgala, and Hamsa.
The Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas are devoted to Ganesha. The Devi-Bhagavata
Purana, which extols the goddess Durga, has become (along with the Devi
Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana) a basic text for Devi worshipers.