Sacred Text

Sacred Text: The Vedas

The Vedas are a collection of hymns and other religious texts composed in India between about 1500 and 1000 BCE. It includes elements such as liturgical material, as well as mythological accounts, poems, prayers, and formulas considered to be sacred by the Vedic religion. (7)

The origin of the Vedas can be traced back as far as 1500 BCE, when a large group of nomads called the Aryans, coming from central Asia, crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains, migrating into the Indian subcontinent. We do not know much about the authors of these texts: In Vedic tradition the focus tends to be on the ideas rather than on the authors , which may allow one to look at the message without being influenced by the messenger.

Vedic literature is religious in nature and as such tends to reflect the worldview, spiritual preoccupations, and social attitudes of the Brahmans or priestly class of ancient India. The Vedas were first composed sometime around 1500—1000 BCE in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent– present day Pakistan and northwest India — and they were transmitted orally over many generations before eventually being committed to writing. Like the Homeric epics, parts of the Vedas were composed in different periods. The oldest of these texts is the Rig–Veda, but it is not possible to establish precise dates for its composition. It is believed that the entire collection was completed by the end of the second millennium BCE.

In general, the Vedas have a strong priestly bias, as the priestly class had the monopoly in the edition and transmission of these texts.

The Rig-Veda is the largest and most important text of the Vedic collection; it includes 1028 hymns and it is divided into ten books called mandalas . It is a difficult text, written in a very obscure style and filled with metaphors and allusions that are hard to understand for the modern reader. The Sama-Veda has verses that are almost entirely from the Rig-Veda, but are arranged in a different way since they are to be chanted. The Yajur-Veda is divided into the White and Black Yajur-Veda and contains explanatory commentaries on how to perform religious rituals and sacrifices. The Atharva-Vedacontains charms and magical incantations and has a more folkloristic style.

The Vedas present a multitude of gods, most of them related to natural forces such as storms, fire, and wind. As part of its mythology, Vedic texts contain multiple creation stories, most of them inconsistent with each other. Sometimes the Vedas refer to a particular god as the greatest god of all, and later another god will be regarded as the greatest god of all.

Some elements of the religion practiced by the natives of India before Vedic times still persist in the Vedas. The Pre-Vedic religion, the oldest known religion of India, which was found in India before the Aryan migrations, was apparently an animistic and totemic worship of many spirits dwelling in stones, animals, trees, rivers, mountains, and stars. Some of these spirits were good, others were evil, and great magic skill was the only way to control them. Traces of this old religion are still present in the Vedas. In the Atharva-Veda, for example, there are spells to obtain children, to avoid abortion, to prolong life, to ward off evil, to woo sleep, and to harm or destroy enemies. (7)

Sacred Text: The Upanishads

The Upanishads are a collection of texts of religious and philosophical nature, written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE, during a time when Indian society started to question the traditional Vedic religious order. Some people during this time decided to engage in the pursuit of spiritual progress, living as ascetic hermits, rejecting ordinary material concerns, and giving up family life. Some of their speculations and philosophy were compiled into the Upanishads. There is an attempt in these texts to shift the focus of religious life from external rites and sacrifices to internal spiritual quests in the search for answers.

Etymologically, the name Upanishad is composed of the terms upa (near) and shad (to sit), meaning something like “sitting down near .” The name is inspired by the action of sitting at the feet of an illuminated teacher to engage in a session of spiritual instructions, as aspirants still do in India today.

The books, then, contain the thoughts and insights of important spiritual Indian figures. Although we speak of them together as a body of texts, the Upanishads are not parts of a whole, like chapters in a book. Each is complete in itself. Therefore, they represent not a consistent philosophy or worldview, but rather the experiences, opinions, and lessons of many different men and women. (4)

Sacred Text: Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Indian text that became an important work of Hindu tradition in terms of both literature and philosophy. The earliest translations of this work from Sanskrit into English occurred around 1795 CE by Sir Charles Wilkins. The name Bhagavad Gita means “ the song of the Lord ”. It is composed as a poem and it contains many key topics related to the Indian intellectual and spiritual tradition. Although it is normally edited as an independent text, the Bhagavad Gita became a section of a massive Indian epic named “The Mahabharata,” the longest Indian epic. There is a part in the middle of this long text, consisting of 18 brief chapters and about 700 verses: this is the section known as the Bhagavad Gita. It is also referred to as the Gita , for short.

Around the time when the Gita was written, asceticism was seen in India as the ideal spiritual life. Ascetics from different sects along with Jains and Buddhists all agreed that leaving everything behind (family, possessions, occupations, etc.) was the best way to live in a meaningful way.

The Bhagavad Gita revolves around the following questions:

How can someone live a life spiritually meaningful without withdrawing from society?

What can someone who does not want to give up family and social obligations do to live the right way?

The Gita challenges the general consensus that only ascetics and monks can live a perfect spiritual life through renunciation and emphasizes the value of an active spiritual life.

The Plot of the Gita

The plot of the Gita is based on two sets of cousins competing for the throne: The Pandavas and the Kauravas .

Diplomacy has failed, so these two clans’ armies meet on a battlefield in order to settle the conflict and decide which side will gain the throne. This is a major battle and it takes place in Kurukshetra, “the field of the Kurus,” in the modern state of Haryana in India.

Arjuna , the great archer and leader of the Pandavas, is a member of the Kshatriyas caste (the warrior rulers caste). He looks out towards his opponents and recognizes friends, relatives, former teachers, and finally realizes that controlling the kingdom is not worth the blood of all his loved ones. Emotionally overwhelmed, Arjuna drops down, casts aside his bow and arrows, and decides to quit. He prefers to withdraw from battle; he prefers inaction instead of being responsible for the death of the people he loves.

His chariot driver is the god Vishnu, who has taken the form of Krishna. Krishna sees Arjuna quitting and begins to persuade Arjuna that he should stick to his duty as a warrior and engage the enemy.

The Bhagavad Gita is presented as a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, a man and a god, a seeker and a knower.(8)