The oldest literature of Indian
thought is the Veda, a collection of religious and philisophical 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. Four collections were
made, so it is said that there are four Vedas. The four as a group came
to be viewed as sacred in Hinduism.
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 Supreme Being.
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 pronounced
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 spiritual experience.
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
There 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
In the Upanishads,
views about Brahman (the Absolute, or God) and atman (one's true self)
There are 18 principal
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
This Upanishad is a part of the Sama-Veda (see The
Vedas). 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 actual act.
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
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 the veil.
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 the absolute.
Belonging to the Athrava-Veda this Upanishad
addresses some questions pertaining to renunciation.
The Paingala is again a dialog, this between Yajnavalkya, the sage
mentioned the Brhad-aranyaka's muni khanda and Paingala, a student of
his. It discusses meditation and its effects.
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.
The core of the teachings of
the Upanishads is summed up in three words: tat tvam as… you are that.