Discovering Sacred Texts: Hinduism

Posted By on October 2, 2019


What is distinctive about being a Hindu? It’s like a mixture of religion, culture, the arts. It’s like this whole kind of cultural
matrix I guess you could call it. It’s not like the so-called
Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Hinduism is a much more dispersed
faith. You have different denominations which may share overlapping features with other
denominations, and they all combine to form the Hindu tradition. And I would call this
a form of polycentrism. Hinduism is an extraordinarily visual faith, certainly through the temples
and through the sacred texts and through the images of Hinduism, all these different deities
are expressed and manifested through colour, through different shapes, different sizes
and different features. One of the ways that polycentrism manifests itself, expresses
itself, is precisely in its regional variations. So you may have a deity or a god described
or expressed in a certain way in north India which may not be the same in south India.
So besides that visual dimension which Hinduism is well-known for, Hinduism is fundamentally
an oral tradition. And this goes back to the time of the Vedas. A puja involves a number of stimulations to the senses, and to help the
devotee focus onto the deity and to towards the realisation of truth, or towards concentrating
or knowing the truth. Bells for instance, the ringing of a bell, is an auditory stimulation.
The lighting of the lamp is a visual stimulation. The Vedas are the canonical texts of
Hinduism. Canonical in the sense that they are at the foundation of the tradition. And
they have been called Sruti. Sruti in Sanskrit means that which is heard by the ancient sages. There are several different texts within the Vedas. What we have here
is an example of a seventeenth-century palm leaf manuscript that’s written in Tamil. It
is a Tevaram. Tevaram is a combination of two words: Teva, meaning God, and Aram, meaning
garland. So the songs are sung as veneration to a deity, and they are sung as part of worship
as part of adorning the deity with the songs. Therefore it works the same way as a flower
garland does. Tamil Vedas are texts that are quite
different, written in Tamil, but they’re also called Veda, therefore they are also supposed
to give you saving knowledge. So this is what I mean by polycentrism. You have two texts
that on the face of it look very different and they seem to teach different things. But
in the hands of the theologians, that are meant to be actually teaching the same body
of saving literature. They give the same saving message. Even though many of the scriptures
are now written down, even the Vedas, it’s important how you say them, how you chant
them, because that gives them effectiveness. Up until the introduction of paper and
printing this would have been how south Indians would have written their sacred texts and
many other different kinds of texts. In reality Hindus in an everyday life
do not read vedas, do not read the Upanishads, nevertheless they will probably read some stories from
the Ramayana or Mahabharata, or definitely sing some devotional hymns. So we have two kinds of texts, sruti and smriti, the Vedas and then the non-Vedic
texts, and both of them play a part in giving a Hindu an idea of what it is to be a good
person in the world, how to follow dharma, how to avoid unrighteousness, by a combination
of both these texts. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, texts like that, the great storytelling
texts, are called smriti, and that has to do with what has been remembered and passed down
in tradition. So these stories are obviously
easier to pass down the generations, because the previous generation can tell the next
generation, and they can recite these stories, the stories are easier to remember. The Ramayana teaches how Rama, as king of his kingdom Ayodhya, was present in human
affairs, and it teaches about what it is to be a righteous human being, not only a righteous
king, which Rama is, Rama is a righteous king, but also what it is to be righteous in human
life. We are looking at a manuscript
produced in the Mewar, a region of nowadays Rajasthan in the seventeenth century. The
manuscript was a project with lasted many years and involved many different artists
and workshops. It contains more than five-hundred different paintings illustrating the text.
So we can see here Rama and Lakshmana, his brother, and Sita, as they settle in the Citrakuta
forest. The other story that I like is of Hanuman,
who had a monkey like form. There was a whole, there were many monkeys who were devotees
to Rama, and his greatest devotee was Hanuman. He didn’t have any care for worldly objects
or materialistic belongings. The storytelling through the great epics
and the puranas and the other texts, have many different versions, and these multiple
versions give a sense of creativity and also accommodate specific circumstances. So I can
tell you a story in order to meet a particular need, and I can then change the plot and some
of the characters in order to meet another need. Hindus are very comfortable with that. Here we have a manuscript of the Bhagavad Gita, a bound volume from Rajasthan, probably
created in the eighteenth century. The manuscript is illustrated by miniatures depicting stories
from the life of Krishna. The Bhagavad Gita is certainly one of
the most famous devotional texts of Hinduism. And so briefly, what happens are Arjuna is
about to enter a fight with his cousins, it’s a fight between two groups of cousins. It’s
a kind of good versus evil story, but it’s not so black and white, there are many shades
of grey in between as well. And as he’s about to fight, he kind of has a moment of doubt
and confusion. He says to himself “how can I fight? How can I fight against my own cousins?
This is going to destroy a whole family. This is going to cause destruction of the world.”.
And he puts down his weapons, essentially, and he doesn’t know what to do. And at that
time his Lord, his God Krishna, says that no, you must fight. And as he tells him, as
he exhorts him to fight, he kind of gives a whole sermon on the human condition, on
why humans are here, what they have to do in their lives, and the devotion that they
have to offer. And so he links his condition at that very moment to what he needs to do
and to the overall human condition. So devotees do read the Bhagavad
Gita at home. That is the most widely read as far as our younger generation are concerned.
And one of our deities represents that: Lord Krishna took one of his main disciples, Arjuna,
into war, and that war brought out a lot of lessons, which were depicted by Lord Krishna,
and helps with examples of daily life. In Hinduism, there is only one divine source,
or one divine principle, but that principle manifests in lots of different forms. The
one source is like the sun, which emanates lots of different rays, and these rays are
rays of that one single source. Similarly the different deities are emanations of the
one source.

Posted by Lewis Heart

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