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Hinduism is not based on any single book nor on the words of any single teacher or prophet. It is based on the Eternal Truth.
However there are, literally, thousands of books and scriptures to guide both the beginner and the scholar, verily a cornucopia of spiritual literature.
The first set of books, which are the primary authority or the very soul of Hinduism, are known as "Sruti", meaning that which has been heard or revealed. These Srutis are known as the Vedas. The word 'Veda' is derived from the word 'vid', to know, and the Vedas are holy or spiritual knowledge of the Eternal Truth. The word `Rishi' is derived from the word dris', to see. The Rishis were the Seers or Sages to whom the Vedas were revealed by Divine intervention and in whose hearts and minds they were heard. The Vedas are apaurusheya (of divine origin) and are unchangeable and eternal. They teach the highest truths ever known to man, and are valid for all time and all ages.
Hindus believe that Creation is anadi (that which has no beginning) and that it is eternal. At the end of each kalpa (a unit of time equal to a day of Brahma, the Creator, amounting to 4.320 million earth years), it exists in a subtle form in God, from whence each time is recreated a new Universe. At the end of the last age, there was a great deluge or pralaya, which destroyed the Universe. Brahma, the Creator, is believed to have meditated at the dawn of this age, called the Swetavaraha Kalpa, when the Great God appeared in the form of the sound of OMEhhgggffhdsfgdyhgrutth also known as the Pranava. (OM, as the symbol of the Absolute, is therefore the most sacred symbol of Hinduism.)
Brahma then prayed to Him for knowledge to create a new Universe. From the vibrations of the sound of OM (also spelt AUM), the Lord conceived the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda. The Great God then taught these four Vedas to Brahma who created our present Universe with this supreme knowledge received by him. In other words, the Vedas existed even before the creation of our universe.
Sage Veda Vyasa codified the four Vedas. His disciples, Paila, Vaisampayana, Jaimini and Sumanta taught them to their disciples and the latter, in turn, to their pupils. This is how the Vedas have come to us through thousands of years. They are therefore called amnaya, or that which has come to us by tradition.
The Rig Veda consists mostly of hymns in praise of the Divine, the Yajur Veda mainly of hymns used in religious rituals and rites, the Sama Veda of verses from the Rig Veda set to music, and the Atharva Veda guides man in his material and daily living.
The Vedas have several parts. They are the mantra (or hymns), the Brahmana (or the explanatory treatises for using mantras in rituals), the Aranyaka or forest books (which are the mystical interpretations of the mantras and rituals), and the Upanishad. The Upanishads are the most important part of the Vedas, as it is believed that knowledge of the Upanishads brings about the destruction of avidya or ignorance, one of the greatest failings of mankind.
There are about 108 Upanishads in all. Of these, 12 are the most important the Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki and Svetasvatara.
The Upanishads reveal some of the greatest truths ever known to mankind. They contain the essence of the philosophy of the Vedas and the profound spiritual truths contained in them have blazed through the ages, guiding Man in his search for spiritual enlightenment.
The next sets of books are the Upa Vedas or the Subsidiary Vedas, which are four in number. The first is Ayurveda, the science of extending life, including in its study the systems of maintaining good health and the use of medicines derived from herbs, roots and fruits. Highly developed in ancient India, this science of Indian medicine and pharmacology had the positive side of promoting health, the curative side consisting of the treatment of diseases, and a highly developed school of surgery. Many medicines of the ancient Hindus have since been adapted into the European medical system and are in use to this day.
Charaka, the greatest of ancient Hindu physicians, was possibly the first to speak of a code of ethics for the physician to treat patients without thought of gain or reward, and to keep in strict confidence the illness of a patient.
.Sushruta, the great surgeon of ancient India, mentions 120 surgical instruments in use at that time. Plastic surgery was a well-developed science as was the art of setting right deformed parts of the body such as the ears, nose and lips. The latter skill was taken from India to the West by the surgeons of the British East India Company as late as in the 18th century.
The second Upa Veda is the Dhanurveda, the science of archery and the use of weapons. Even weapons like missiles are covered in this ancient treatise. However the rules of warfare were strictly laid down, and the use of such weapons was permitted only for the destruction of evil and for the protection of the physically weak, of sages in meditation, of holy men and mendicants, of women and children.
Even during warfare, rules and regulations were strictly observed. For example, opposing armies laid down their arms at sunset and dined together amicably, commencing hostilities only at sunrise the next day.
The third Upa Veda, the Gandharva Veda, is the science of music and dance. The sage Bharata has written the Natya Shastra, the oldest book in the world on this subject. He is believed to have been taught by Sage Tandu after the latter witnessed the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva.
The recitation of the Vedas, especially of the musical Sama Veda, placed great emphasis on musical notation and sound, and as they were learnt by rote by word of mouth, the science of sound and acoustics, with emphasis on musical chanting, reached high standards of perfection. The earliest musical octave was accurately divided into 22 quarter tones. Musical instruments of ancient India included a wide variety of percussion instruments (drums), wind instruments (such as the flute), and stringed instruments (such as the vina), many of which have survived to this day.
Music was considered a method of reaching God-head. The Veda of the Hindus and the Zend-Avesta of the Zoroastrian religion are the earliest known instances of words set to music.
The fourth of this series of Upa Vedas is the Arthashastra. This is a treatise on polity, state administration, and the conduct of commerce.
We then have the Vedangas, the explanatory limbs of the Vedas. The first, called Siksha, was written by Sage Panini. It is the science of phonetics and also deals with pronunciation and accent.
Panini also authored another Vedanga, Vyakarana, the science of grammar. Panini's commentaries on this subject guide students of the Sanskrit language to this day.
The third Vedanga is Nirukta, the science of the etymology of the words in Vedic Mantras. It is the science of linguistics dealing with the formation and meanings of words.
The fourth, the Chandas Shastra, teaches prosody, the art of versification, and deals with the use of metres in prose and poetry.
The Kalpa Shastra deals with the science of rituals and ceremonials in religious rites.
The last Vcdanga is Jyotisha, the science of astronomy and astrology. Knowledge of astrology was utilised in ancient India to fix auspicious timings for events of peace and war. It was only after the 6th century that this school of study gave importance to predictions on the future of individuals, which have become the craze today.
The world owes much to Indian mathematics, which knowledge was conveyed to the Arab and the Greek worlds. The concept of zero (or sunya), abstract concepts of numbers, algebra, the decimal system, all owe their origin to the ancient Hindus. The Isavasya Upanishad taught, as a philosophical concept, the revolutionary mathematical truth that Infinity divided by any number continues to be Infinity.
Astronomy was the more important branch of the science of Jyotisha and the ancient Hindus, with their mathematical excellence, sent their advanced theories to Europe through the Greeks. Aryabhata, the ancient Indian astronomer, opined that it was not the sun that moved round the earth but the earth which, on its axis, rotated around the sun. Knowledge of the equinoxes, the movements of the sun and the moon, and fantastically accurate predictions of eclipses are evidence of the depth of study of the ancient astronomers. The open-air observatory at Jaipur with its minutely accurate instruments is an indication of what its precursors must have been.
Writer – Shaunthala Jagannathan