No doubt there is much in these old books that is startling by its very simplicity and truth, much that is elevated and elevating, much that is beautiful and sublime.
- F Max Muller, Introduction to translation of Upanishads.
Oxford, October 1876
To the modern mind, the period between 1500 BC and medieval times appears primitive and underdeveloped in linguistic, literary, scientific and philosophical spheres. But the study of Hindu scriptures and Indian philosophy reveals that the old Indian civilization was, as the Indian scholar Surendranath Dasgupta describes, "…a concrete unity of many sided developments in art, architecture, literature, religion, morals and science."
The study of Indian religion and philosophy takes us back to the Vedas. The Vedas, four in number (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda), are the most ancient of any religious scriptures. They contain hymns (Samhita), sacrificial and ceremonial rituals (Brahmanas), mantras for the priests (Aranyakas) and philosophical suggestions (Upanishads). They were compiled and written in Sanskrit language around 1500 BC (some scholars date them to much earlier times).
During the Epic period (600BC) classic epics were written, most influential being Mahabharatha. A part of Mahabharatha is Bhagavad Gita, the most popular of the Scriptures.
During the Sutra period (600-200 BC) there was a significant intellectual stir in India that challenged the authority of Vedas and their practices. This has resulted in the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism. The traditionalists then produced a set of cryptic statements called Brahma Sutras (555 in number) to remove any doubt about the Vedic teachings.
Subsequent scholars and philosophers have interpreted these Sutras, and developed well thought out and reasoned philosophies during the scholastic period (200 BC-12 century AD). Of these, six are called Orthodox Schools of philosophy; Nyaya, Visesika, Samkhya, Veda, Mimamsa and Vedanta. The heterodox schools include Buddhism, Jainism, Charvakism (Materialism).
Together, Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Gita are called the Triple Canon of Hindu Scriptures, and form the solid foundation for subsequent religious and philosophical developments, and a must read for any serious student of Hindu religion.
The orthodox schools have explored and synthesized newer interpretations of traditional teachings. Heterodox schools have introduced new concepts without a fatal departure from Vedic foundation, and were based on ethical conduct. The rise of sects like Vaishnvism, Shaivism and Shaktism have cemented the devotional and ceremonial aspects of religion. The progression from Vedic to Epic to Sutra to Scholastic periods has resulted in an amalgam of varied concepts that complement each other.
While Nyaya and Visesika schools developed a logical and effective ways of acquiring knowledge, Samkhya and Veda schools have produced a scientific way of looking at the universe and the human soul. Mimamsa and Vedanta reinforced Vedic doctrines of faith and non-dualistic understanding of life respectively.
Many a scholar studied the Indian history and civilization. There is a great deal of admiration for Hindu scriptures and Indian philosophy with equal share of skepticism and criticism.
But there is a consensus that the study of this subject is a worthwhile exercise for the profound nature of their concepts, strength of their logic, beauty of the language, and also for their practical value in our daily lives. Hindu scriptures shine a bright light on essence of life and human condition, and offer spiritual and intellectual framework to uplift the human spirit.
The practice of Hindu religion requires right knowledge, absolute devotion and renunciation of fruit of action. The Indian tradition describes four basic elements of life — artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Artha covers professional and material aspects that are helpful in sustaining life. Kama reflects man’s passion for pleasure and happiness. Dharma is a person’s obligations and duties for himself, fellow humans and society. Moksha is the liberation or freedom from suffering by shedding ignorance and seeking the union of individual self with the Ultimate Self.
The logical (Nyaya-Visesika), scientific (Samkhya), meditative (Yoga), theistic (Mimamsa), spiritual (Vedanta), practical (Gita), ethical (Buddhism – Jainism), and devotional (Shaivism — Vaishnivism) elements in the teachings of Hindu religion and philosophy are available to any willing individual. Nirvana is a state of freedom, and salvation is the ultimate Bliss. Yoga, meditation, pilgrimage, and service are some of the tools used in their pursuit. And, the Sacred texts and different philosophical doctrines are the manuals to guide us through the journey.
This column is an attempt to connect the dots and explain the cohesive nature of the religion developed over thousands of years. I hope to be forgiven for showing unbridled enthusiasm for these religious and philosophical texts for their marvelous history, enduring legacy, and for promoting spiritual enlightenment that stimulates the human mind and comforts the human soul.
Dr. Janna Pathi is a general surgeon who lives in Beaver Dam.