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Essence of the Upanishads & An Overview of Hindu Scriptures

Most Hindus would have heard of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, but few would have read or deciphered them. Hinduism has a long list of scriptures evolved over thousands of years. A few Enlightened souls or Vedic students may know the entire list of our Scriptures. The vast majority of Hindus would not. This is an attempt to change this.

 Every Hindu should be proud of the span and depth of knowledge in our ancient scriptures. 

You don’t need to know Sanskrit or even need to read and interpret them in English as there are scholarly commentaries by knowledgeable enlightened souls  that summarise the learnings for us.

This Blog is a Layman’s Guide on 3 Topics that every Hindu, young and old, should be aware of

  • The Essence of the Upanishads or Vedanta
  • An Overview of the different holy books, teachings & philosophies that constitute Hinduism and its Scriptures in all its rich glory
  • An introduction to some of the established paths and practises in Hinduism that a seeker can explore

Shruti & Smriti 

All Hindu Scriptures can be classified under two headings – Shruti & SmritiShruti  means “that which is heard.  It includes the four Vedas and its four  embedded texts—the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the early Upanishads. There are no authors associated with them. This knowledge was transmitted verbally across generations for thousands of years. It is still maintained in its pristine glory and is finally now documented.

Smriti (that which is remembered) are a body of Hindu texts usually attributed to an author. They were traditionally written down but are constantly revised. This includes law books like Manu’s Code – Manusmriti, The Epics, The Puranas, The Yogashatras etc.   

What comprises the Vedas?

There are 4 Vedas – Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. Each Veda consists of 4 sections

  • Samhita
  • Brahmanas
  • Aranyakas
  • Upanishads

The Samhita’s are hymns in praise of nature & Gods. The famous Gayatri Mantra in the Rig Veda is part of the Samhita. The Brahmanas explain the ways and means to perform rituals and sacrifices. For example, the first chapter of the Chandogya Brahmana, one of the oldest Brahmanas, includes eight suktas (hymns) for the ceremony of marriage and rituals at the birth of a child.

The Aranyakas consist of knowledge that was imparted in the forest to students in Ashrams or to people who had completed their responsibilities and left for the forest in the last phase of their lives. The solitude of nature is very conducive to understanding the subtle truths.

And finally the Upanishads, which is considered the essence of the Vedas. They are also referred to as the Jnana Kanda or the wisdom section of the Vedas. Since it is the last part of the Vedas it is also called as Vedanta. The word Veda means learning – so Vedanta can also mean the end of all learning – one who has read, understood and internalised the Vedanta has reached his goal of the ultimate Truth. That’s why its also called as Para Vidya.

What does the word “Upanishad” mean

The word Upanishad comprises of 3 syllables UPA – NI – SHAD.

Upa means close. It could mean being close to the teacher or moving closer to the Truth by paying attention to dissolve obstacles. Shad means to sit down. The Mind is settling down and becoming receptive, you are ready to listen. The great saint & scholar Shankara interpreted Shad as ” To shake yourself awake from the sleep of ignorance”. Ni means accepting the Teacher at a higher level. There is voluntary humility. The student is ready to sit down and understand.

In totality, the word Upanishad refers to the student and teacher sitting down together with the intent of moving closer to the Supreme Truth. This is done with complete humility, setting aside all the obstacles.

Are the Upanishads meant for Intellectuals only?

They are crystal clear gems of the Vedas. They are direct. The teachings of the Upanishads follows the approach of eliminating falsehood so what remains is the TRUTH.

Since its impossible to define GOD, the Upanishads follow the approach of “Neti Neti“. This is a Sanskrit expression which means “not this, not this”, or “neither this, nor that”. It constitutes an analytical meditation helping a person to understand the nature of Brahman by first understanding what is not Brahman.

The Brahman is neither this nor that. GOD has no form, no shape, no colour, its not male, not female…. etc. Some feel that reading the Upanishad makes you an atheist as the Upanishads are great in denial. They do have different interpretations, but an enlightened master can explain it in very simple terms.

Sri M talks on the Upanishads are simple, clear and illuminating. Here is a brief 14 min talk by Sri M on “An introduction to the Vedas & Upanishads

How many Upanishads are there?

There are over a 100 Upanishads of which 11 are principal Upanishads on which most of the great Acharyas have commented. There is a lot of similarity between the Aranyakas and the Upanishads and some people treat them under the same banner. The Brihadaranyaka is considered to be the biggest Upanishad.  The title Brihadaranyaka Upanishad literally means “great wilderness or forest Upaniṣhad“. It is credited to ancient sage Yajnavalkya and is part of the Yajur Veda.

Who has authored the Vedas? 

The Vedas come under the classification of Shruti. In most cases there is no known author. Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasya collected and compiled Vedic Truths in one place and recorded them in the Vedas. In recognition for this work he is called Ved Vyasya and his birthday is celebrated as Guru Purnima.

There are Four Mahavakyas or great sentences in the Vedas. Three of them speak of the divinity of the soul and the fourth speaks of the nature of GOD. They are

  • Aham Brahma Asmi – I am Brahman
  • Tat Tvam Asi – You are That (Brahman)
  • Ayam Atma Brahma – This individual Self is Brahman
  • Prajnanam Brahma – Supreme Knowledge is Brahman

The Upanishads try to explain the Ultimate Subtle Truth – the Brahman, Infinite or Indescribable as experienced by the Rishis in their deep state of meditation. GOD is equally present everywhere and a drop of the Ultimate Truth is enough to get you addicted. Once you taste that nectar, you are ready to forego everything.

How many schools of Hindu Religious Philosophy exist?

Six different systems of philosophy called Darshanas were developed by Hindu sages over different periods of time. Their foundation is in the Vedas.

  • The Sankhya school founded by Kapila
  • The Purva Mimansa school founded by Jaimini
  • The Uttara Mimansa or Vedanta school founded by Vyasa ( Not to be confused with the Upanishads)
  • The Yoga school founded by Patanjali
  • The Nyaya school founded by Gotama
  • The Vaisheshika school founded by Kanada

Authors of these philosophical systems wrote the original treatise using very concise aphorisms called Sutras in Sanskrit. Sutras are known for being brief and easy to memorise. However, due to their cryptic nature, they needed explanatory notes or commentary which were written later by other scholars.

Sage Vyasa’s treatise, which forms the basis of the Uttara Mimansa system, is known as the Brahmasutra. Several commentaries have been written on this book by Shankara, Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya.

What is Advaita Vedanta (Non Duality) ?

The term Advaita refers to its idea that the soul (True Self, Atman) is the same as the highest metaphysical reality (Brahman). The followers of this school seek spiritual liberation through acquiring  knowledge of one’s true identity as Atman, and the identity of Atman and Brahman.

Advaita Vedanta traces its roots in the oldest Upanishads. It gives “a unifying interpretation of the whole body of Upanishads”, the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Advaita Vedanta is the oldest extant sub-school of Vedanta, which is one of the six Hindu philosophies or Darshanas. Although its roots trace back to the 1st millennium BCE, the most prominent exponent of the Advaita Vedanta is considered to be the 8th century scholar Adi Shankara.

Advaita Vedanta emphasises Jivanmukti, the idea that moksha (freedom, liberation) is achievable in this life in contrast to other Indian philosophies that emphasise videhamukti, or moksha after death.

What are the Puranas ?

The deeper truths of the Hindu scriptures are at times difficult to understand without a teacher. To present the teachings in an easy-to-understand manner for the common man, the sages created a special type of literature called the Puranas. In the Puranas the scriptural teachings are presented through stories and parables.

There are 18 Puranas available today, the most popular amongst which are Bhagavata Puranas, Skanda Purana, Vayu Puranas, Padma Purana, Markandeya Purana and Agni Purana. The Chandi or Devi Mahatmyam is part of the Markandeya Puranas.

The Two Great EPICS – Ramayana & Mahabharata 

The two great Epics were composed by Sage Valmiki and Vyasa respectively. Also called as Itihasa these epics contain many scriptural teachings with the story of various clans and dynasties. The depth of moral and spiritual teachings in them has elevated them to the level of a scripture. The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most popular scripture of Hinduism, is part of the Mahabharata.

The Bhagavad Gita contains most of the essential teachings of the Upanishad’s, giving it a status very close to that of the Upanishad’s

What is Tantra?

In parallel with the Vedic discipline, Hinduism has another set of disciplines called the Tantra’s. Here, God is looked upon as both Male & Female called Shiva & Shakti respectively. Shakti is the creative power of Shiva. In modern terms, Shiva can be compared to Potential Energy and Shakti to Kinetic Energy. When Shiva becomes active, he is called Shakti. This Shakti has created the world. The relationship between Shiva & Shakti is like the relationship between fire and its burning power. They are always inseparable and ONE. Shakti however has many names – one of them is Parvati.

In Tantra they say that “Para Shakti” is the life giving energy that creates life in the womb and then settles down coiled in the Muladhara as the dormant Kundalini energy.

The scriptural texts of the Tantras are usually in the form of dialogues between Shiva & Parvati. The dialogues where Shiva is the speaker giving spiritual learnings to Parvati are called the Agama texts. Where Parvati plays the role of the teacher and Shiva is the listener the texts are called Nigama. Of the original 28 Shaiva Agamas, only 20 are available now.

The Tantra literature is vast. Among the 64 prominent texts are the Mahanirvana, Kulasara, Prapanchasara, Kularnava, Rudra Yamala, Vishnu Yamala, Brahma Yamala and Tantraraja. 

The Pancharatra Samhita’s

They are the scriptures of certain Vaishnavite sects. The number of scriptural texts pertaining to these Samhita’s is 250. Of them Brihad – Brahma, Ishvara and Jnanamritsara Samhita’s are particularly noteworthy.

What are the two Spiritual Paths in Hinduism ?

Hinduism offers two major spiritual paths or sets of religious duties. One for the householder, and the other for the monks. The established path of the householder is called “Pravritti Marga” or the path of permitted sensual desires. The path for the monks is “Nivritti Marga”  or the path of renunciation of sensual desires.

What are the The Four Yogas or Paths to Salvation?

In addition to “Pravritti Marga” and  “Nivritti Marga”, hinduism speaks of many methods or paths to reach God. These are 4 paths that an individual can choose based on his emotional build up.

  • Bhakti Yoga – The path of devotion, suitable for Emotional people
  • Jnana Yoga – The path of rational enquiry, ideal for rational thinkers
  • Raja Yoga – The path of mental concentration, best suited for a meditative person
  • Karma Yoga – The path of right action. Best suited for a householder or a person naturally inclined towards activity

The word Yoga means yoke – the connecting link between the spiritual aspirant and God. Yoga also means a method or technique to establish mental communion with God.

What are Siddhis or Supernatural powers ?

During the course of practising Raja Yoga, an adept seeker gains mastery of his mind. In the process he acquires eight extraordinary powers called Ashtasiddhi

  1. Anima – To grow as small as a molecule and penetrate solid objects
  2. Laghima – Extreme lightness of the body or the ability to levitate
  3. Vyapti – The ability to expand
  4. Prakamya – The acquisition of irresistible will
  5. Mahima – The ability to make the body extremely large
  6. Ishitva – Aquiring God like powers
  7. Vashitva – The power to bring everything under ones control
  8. Kamavasayita – The ability to obtain whatever one desires

Other powers may also develop in the journey of a serious seeker – the ability to fly (Khechari Vidya), the conquest of death (Mrityunjaya Vidya), the ability to acquire Hidden Treasures (Patala Siddha), the ability to enter another person’s body (Kaya Siddha), knowledge of the past, present & future (Trikala Jnana), the power to die at will (Iccha Mrityu), the power to make oneself invisible (Antardhana), going beyond hunger and thirst (Kshutpipasa Nivritti) and the power to understand all animal languages (Sarvabhutaruta Jnana)

These powers are like milestones on the path to spiritual progress but can be obstacles to reaching the ultimate goal. Students are thus advised not to use any of these powers or Siddha’s. 

What is Kundalini & The 7 Chakras ? 

The path of Raja Yoga also explains the process to activate the dormant Kundalini energy that lies coiled up in the base of the spine at the Mooladhara Chakra.  Raja Yoga helps one to awaken the Kundalini power through meditation and other spiritual practices.

The vital energy energy or nerve current of a person works in his body by passing thru two channels called the Ida (Left Channel) and Pingala (Right Channel). There is a 3rd channel between the two called the Sushumna which normally remains closed. To raise the Kundalini, one needs to cleanse the Sushumna channel, and allow the energy to rise through this central passage piercing the Chakras on the way up. The Chakras are subtle energy or nerve centres along the spine.

Although Raja Yoga literally means the “King of all Yogas” it has its own hazards. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, a past master of Raja Yoga, there must be perfect chastity in thought, word and deed. Without it, the practise of Raja Yoga is dangerous and may lead to Insanity.

The practise of Kundalini needs to be done under the guidance of a master. The human body is not prepared for the surge of energy that is associated with the rise of the Kundalini.

What are Gunas ?

The concept of Gunas plays a very important role in Hinduism. According to the Sankhya school of philosophy the world has two parts – Spirit & Matter. The Matter part of the world has its source in Prakriti or Mother Nature.

Prakriti is composed of three extremely subtle and intangible substances called Sattva, Rajas & Tamas. If Prakriti is a rope these 3 substances are the strands that make the rope. A Strand or a String is called Guna in Sanskrit. That is why these substances are called Sattva Guna, Rajo Guna  and Tamo Guna. 

Prior to the creation of the world the 3 Gunas were in a perfect state of equilibrium. When they start mingling and overlapping the state of harmony is lost and creation starts. There is no entity in the world or in heaven which can be free from the 3 Gunas born from Prakriti. The Gunas are finer and subtler than anything we know of in this world. Their existence cannot be perceived because of their subtlety. However, each Guna has its own distinctive quality or characteristics.

Sattva Guna is light & buoyant. It is the nature of pleasure and joy. The luminosity of light, the ability of the mind, the sense to know things, the reflecting power of the mirror and the transparency of glass and crystals are all due to the presence of Sattva Guna in them.

Rajo Guna causes activity, movement and restlessness. Avarice, hankering, anger, ego, vanity, wish to dominate others are all characteristics of Rajo Guna. It is the cause of all types of painful experiences.

The characteristics of Tamo Guna are inertia, passivity, sluggishness, heaviness and negativity. It resists activity or movement. It makes the mind sluggish incapable of knowing things clearly.

Sattvo Guna gives spiritual liberation. Rajo Guna causes bondage through attachment to action and Tamo Guna causes confused thinking. The Gunas share one common characteristic. They are always in conflict with each other. Each one trying to subdue the other and become predominant. At the same time they cooperate with each other. The world exists because of the cooperation of the Gunas. To attain spiritual liberation one has to go beyond the three Gunas. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna “Go beyond the three Gunas” go beyond matter and manifest your divine spirit. 

The ultimate goal in Hinduism is to attain Moksha by embracing The Ultimate Truth or Brahman or GOD. There are many paths to get there, all of which requires  effort and sustained commitment. A simple way to get started is by following 3 things in your daily life 

  • Always be Truthful 
  • Be Compassionate and help others 
  • Minimise your EGO & Desire 

______________________________________________________

I am just a compiler of information. The information for this blog has been sourced from the following references.

  • The Essentials of Hinduism by Swami Bhaskarananda
  • Wisdom of the Rishis by Sri M
  • Talk by Sri M on Introduction to the Vedas & the Upanishads, Other Talks by Sri M on the Upanishads.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Kiran Bilakhia

    I’ve attended lectures regarding the classification of our scriptures, but when you have it in writing the memory serves better!Thank you so much for summarising this.God bless you.

    • vak1969

      Thanks – Yes putting it together was a learning for me too, and yes when you write and read at frequent intervals its easier to recollect.

  2. M S Iyer

    Very well written

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