This is a book I would have loved to read when I was a child - but I guess this was as good an age as any to start. I am immensely grateful to Roopa Pai for putting it down so easily and simply (any further complexity and I would have given up) so I could make sense of things that never made sense as a whole. I could never figure Hinduism out as a whole and always wanted to know what the Vedas were that everyone keeps referring to. I learned the names of the four Vedas and that was it. As always I made notes for myself after reading this wonderful book for future reference.
The Vedas are 3500 year old sacred, hymns of praise to the elements written in Sanskrit. They contain poetry, philosophical stories, spells, mantras, incantations, musical notations. The Upanishads are part of the Vedas, a new layer to the Vedas (2700 years old) and are stories, conversations between teachers and students discussing the principles written in the Vedas. They illustrate the ideas and make them easier to practice and follow. Many unknown sages have put together this compilation of distilled knowledge - Veda actually means Knowledge. There are four Vedas - Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva.
In its original form the Vedas were oral - they were not written down - and were transmitted orally for 2000 years. (In 500 CE the Rig Veda was written down.) The oral transmission is what's called Shruti - sometimes set to music and song. It's said that the sages were able to tune into the song of the universe (as most natural wisdom happens) and were inspired (a state of using instinct, reason and intuition). One of the key findings they found and put down in the Vedas was that there is Universal energy that pervades everything (Brahman) and there is indestructible energy within each of us (Atman).
Oral transmission meant that teachers and students had to learn by heart using the ear, tongue and mind. Vedic gurukuls had a tough entrance - only from Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya classes - leaving out Shudras who were ineligible just as women were. The student entered the gurukul at 12 years and left at 24, learning the Vedas along with a practical application of that knowledge, in the right learning environment. The basics of the sounds, patterns, sequences, tricks and techniques were taught exhaustively. To remember the exhaustive number of hymns, in the right manner they used memory techniques in chanting like Prakrithi (nromal sequence) and Vikrithi (jumbled sequence). When said right, one is said to attain a stillness where one can learn anything, when all your energies converge.
The Vedas are attributed to be the handiwork of the Aryans, a race of cow herders that descended from Central Asia. From initial settlements in Punjab thy grew in all directions.They split into janapadas or dynasties like Kuru and Kosala (Mahabharata and Ramayana). Being big on pleasing Gods, they were into hymns and yagnas. The yagnas were mega feasts with a purpose, for showing gratitude, and required much planning and protocol. Yagnas needed a Yajamaana, the one who owned the yagna, and the priest, to conduct it well and get paid for it.
The Upanishads reexamined the Vedas and came with more holistic and universal meanings - where all were considered equal etc. Jainism and Buddhism which came afterwards rejected the idea of caste, Jainism also rejected animal sacrifice and preached ahimsa or nonviolence.
There is no mention of 'Hindu' in the Vedas or the Upanishads. In fact the name Hindu comes from what the Persians called the people who lived beyond the river Sindhu. These people who lived beyond the Sindhu, the Aryans, believed in Sanatana Dharma or eternal law - a universal code of ethics and duties prescribed for them in the Vedas.
The Aryans believed in three main components - Bhu (earth, fire, rivers), Svah (sky, sun, moon, dawn) and Bhuvah (all that's between the earth and the sky, winds, clouds). Their Gods were Indra. Agni, Soma, Ashwins, Varuna, Maruts, Ushas, Savitr, Vayu, Brihaspati, prithvi, Apas, Vishnu, Rudra, Saraswati, Yama - and they believed they were all the manifestations of One God, Ishvara. There is some evidence of a Pashupati seal found at Harappa, dated 5000 years ago, 1500 years before the Vedas!
Each Veda consists of four parts - Samhita, Brahmna, Aranyaka and Upanishad. The Samhita is a collection of actual set of hymns chanted during the rituals, the Brahmana is an interpretation explaining the significance and meaning of each mantra and ritual with details of how to carry them, the Aranyakas are questions on the interpretations in the Brahmana and making new interpretations, and the Upanishads (also called the Vedanta or the end of the Vedas) do not refer to any rituals but explain the thoughts from the Aranyakas in a practical manner through stories. While the Samhita is about the 'doing', the other three are about the 'thought' behind it. (The Bhagavad Gita carries the essence of the wisdom of the Upanishads.) Like - to win the war one needs both wisdom and action.
The Samhita of Rig, Yajur and Sama Veda are about Gods, yagnas and philosophy while the Samhita of Atharva Veda is about everyday human concerns. The Samhita of Rig Veda is the oldest, hymns of praise to the Gods, with 10 books or Mandalas comprising 10, 600 verses which are part of 1028 hymns. Mandalas 2- 9 are hymns to Gods and Mandala 1 is the story of creation. The Samhita of Sama Veda is 1875 Rig verses set to music, to melodious chanting. The Samhita of Yajur Veda is a mix of prose and poetry - prose comprising of formulae recited during sacrifices (again broken into two -Yajur Shukla or the pure version and Yajur Krishna, the impure version). The Samhita of the Atharva Veda is less about gods and more about the fears and hopes of common people mostly about spells, prayers, mantras, plants and herbs and their healing powers. This is the inspiration behind Ayur Veda that Charaka and Shusrutha (1120 illnesses and treatments) wrote about.
To perform the yagnas which were of daily, fortnightly, quarterly and harvest significance four types of brahmins were required - the hotri (who knew the Rig Veda), Udgati (choir), Adhvaryu (for clearing, preparing sacrificial ground, slaughtering animals, cooking) and Brahmana (the high priest who overlooked the entire process).The top 3 yagnas were Ashwamedha Yagna (where a horse was let loose and all the lands it travelled became the lands of the king who performed the yagna and if challenged the challenger had to face war), Rajasuya yagna (all invited to a major feast and all who came conceded that the one who is performing the yagna was their lord) and Soma yagna (welfare of humanity). The rituals were important to the Aryans and so were yagnas which they believed improved willpower, focus and discipline.
There are also Suktas about Aryan Gods (thousands of them) but chiefly to the lord of Fire, Agni Sukta. Stories about creation are those that were - born of thought, word or dream, from a divine being, from dismemberment, from a cosmic egg and from an earth diver. The Hiranyagarbha Sukta is the hymn of the golden embryo, the Nasadiya Sukta is the hymn of that which is non-existent, the Vishwakarma Sukta is the hymn of the Divine Architect, the Purusha Sukta is the hymn of Man (where the Brahmins become the upper parts and Shudras form the lower parts), Yama Sukta is the hymn to Yama, the Pavamana Sukta is the hymn for purification, the Sapatna Nashana Sukta is the hymn for destruction of enemies and the Sangacchadhvan Sukta is the hymn of unity.
There are Upavedas, applied knowledge - and they comprise of Dhanurveda (art of warfare), Yuddhakala (art of war), Ayudhavidya (knowledge of arms), Veeravidya (science of a warrior), Shastra vidya (weapons), Svarakhsaakala (self defence), Sthapatya Veda (Architecture, Vastu shastra), Gandharva Veda (knowledge of divine musicians, music, dance, music as therapy, drama and poetry) Ayurveda (science of life - treatment of children, extraction of foreign objects, antidotes, body maintenance tonics, exorcism of spirits). The rituals are detailed in the Atharva Veda and they are meant to be followed to the T with no short cuts. The idea being that one should not be flexible with rituals but be flexible with ideologies.
The Upanishads reveal the secrets or insIghts behind the knowledge of the Vedas. They are the texts on which the Gita is based on. There are 200 Upanishads of which 10 are considered principal. They are part of the Shruti literature and were composed between 700 BCE to 1 CE. Upanishad means - sitting close and at a lower level.
Some of the big ideas discussed in the Upanishads are of Samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth), Karma or action (there is no right or wrong, only consequences), Dharma or potential (know your role, play it to the best potential), Moksha or liberation (highest goal of lasting happiness breaking Samsara's golden chains). The Upanishads conclude that the - universe is not random and there is an underlying order, God is not out there, you are God, the world we see is make believe, a shadow, the body is a costume and the real you is the Atman, you contain the universe, the Supreme Consciousness, there is one universal energy the Brahman and you are not created but you are God.
The Cliffnotes to Upanishads are - Brahma sutras, the Gita and the Badarayana (555 stories, 4 chapters, collates and organises lessons of Upnishads, a handy guide for logical learners). The Gita written by Vyasa tells the 4 goals of human life through a story - Dharma (do your duty, fulfill responsibility, live to your potential), Artha (accumulate material wealth, give extra wealth away), Kama (pursuit of pleasure) and Moksha (ultimate happiness, detachment from worldly pleasures). The idea of Nishkama Karma or doing our duty without being attached to the results of action is given here.
The Muktika Upanishad gives the definitive list of 108 Upanishads. The 10 chosen as the Principal ones are - Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taitiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka. Each has its own Shanti mantra to be recited before studying it.
The Isha - the sameness of things - says that renouncing attachment is the way to bliss, the source of unhappiness comes from seeing others as different, and if we see ourselves in everything we are blissful. Balance is the key to blissful life. The Kena says that nothing happens without desire, the Brahman cannot be grasped and can only be explained through Neti, Neti Neti or 'not this, not that'. Treat everything as you would treat yourself. Katha is the secret of eternal life, death is of body and not soul, letting go of expectations is the key to happiness. The Prashna asks questions like where all beings come from, which power is most important, where is lifebreath born and such other questions. The meditation on AUM is a big release. The Mandukya is also about chanting of AUM (A - chant with devotion to make you serene, U chanting makes you master your dreams, M chanting stills your mind and the pause after that is the Turiya, the Atman and Brahman are experienced). The Taitereya talks about the many layers or Koshas of the human body - body (Annamaya kosha), life breath(Pranamaya kosha), mind (Manomayakosha), personality (Vijnamaya kosha) and heart (Anandamaya kosha). The Aitereya talks of three births to the self - soul to the body, baby created, baby born. The Chandogya talks about consciousness, and says something very profound - don't take yourself and your life too seriously. The Brihadaranyaka talks about making things possible and how by staying strong you can achieve it.
Out of the Upanishads come the four Mahavakyas or Great truths - Prajanam Brahma - "Insight is Brahman", Ayam Atma Brahma - "This Self (Atman) is Brahman",Tat Tvan Asi - "That are you" and Aham Brahmasmi - "I am Brahman".
In the 8th century, a boy scholar named Shankara was born in Kaladi, Kerala and he advocated Advaita (not two) and equated Atman and Brahman as one. He proposed a system of six popular gods - Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesha, Muruga and Surya and formulated a system of ritual worship for each. he established the Chaturdham - the four centres of Advaita - Sringeri math (Sringeri), Sarada math (Dwaraka), Jyotirmath (Badrimath) and Govardhan math (Odisha).
It is this version we follow now. There is a lot of wisdom contained in these texts, but also many interpretations of it, some mischievous. The discrimination against certain castes and against women is certainly one - however it is a known fact that anyone in power would like to keep it to themselves and find ways to perpetuate prosperity for themselves and their own. So take the best of it and leave out what's not relevant.
I for one am not convinced about why anyone falls under this ambit of religious choice - even more as a Hindu - a term that is loosely used, unless by choice. To hold the texts of the Aryans and impose them and their interpretations on people who have neither read them nor had access to them seems arbitrary. The Vedas and Upanishads have their own place and that is great for those who follow them and who have practiced them, like the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas too perhaps, but to the rest who have been kept out, its like being forced into something you never chose, something that never treated you right. (If you're not there, you're here.) Once we see the whole in context, simple as it may seem in this book, we can clearly see that it's choice that rules - one cannot arbitrarily bring everyone under the umbrella and say we're all one and equal and lets pray to these gods like this - when clearly we are not even aware of what all this is about. So for all the wisdom of the sages and of Shankara, I'd still say, great, but let us choose what to do, eat, pray for and label ourselves in this day - and most importantly, like Lal Bahadur Shastri said, let it be a private affair. No one, certainly no political party can appropriate a whole population under the theme of a religion and claim majority backing. Certainly not when the majority of this population cannot put their religion or its basic tenets in perspective for themselves. It would be interesting to know how many Hindus know basic questions about the religion, its sacred texts and history.
I love the fact that Roopa Pai has made the effort to understand and put it down in a manner that a child can now understand what was so inaccessible to most people. She may have done more to explain the ideas than anyone else has in the past and in a manner that is so easy and fun to read. Thanks Roopa Pai for your wonderful effort and for this wonderful book!