VEDAS AND UPANISHADS
We often come across the term Vedas and Upanishads or have heard of these terms when related to the Hindu Mythology. So what exactly are these Vedas and Upanishads, and why do we follow them?
The Vedas are the oldest Hindu texts that date back to centuries ago. Hindus regard the Vedas as having been directly revealed to or “heard” by gifted and inspired seers (rishis) who memorized them. It is believed that these were written down round 2500 years ago, in the beginning of Kali-yuga.
Most of the religion of the Vedic texts, which revolve around rituals of fire or sacrifices, have been eclipsed by later Hindu doctrines and practices although today, as it has been for several millennia, parts of the Vedas are memorized and repeated as a religious act of great merit: certain Vedic hymns (mantras) are always recited at traditional weddings, at ceremonies for the dead, and in temple rituals.
Vedas are considered to be extremely powerful and these chants are held the power to control ones destiny. Not only are the mantras capable of invoking gods and demons but also possess the knowledge of anything and everything. They act as a principle guide that one needs to refer to time and again. Even in the field of Kurukshetra, Krishna talks about the vedas, to Arjuna and how mankind can learn from it.Although today we live in an entirely different generation and century, the words in these are still more than relevant. The Vedas are divided into four categories:
THE RIG VEDA
The most important and, according to scholars, oldest of the Vedas. It is divided into ten books (called mandalas) and has 1028 hymns in praise of various deities. These include Indra, Agni, Vishnu, Rudra, Varuna, and other early or “Vedic gods.” It also contains the famous Gayatri mantra and the prayer called the Purusha Shukta (the story of Primal Man). The two Sanskrit words Rig and Veda constituting it translates to ‘praise or shine’ and ‘knowledge’ respectively.
THE YAJUR VEDA
A priestly handbook for use in the performance of yajnas (sacrifices) It is divided into two sections, the earlier “black” and the more recent “white.” Yajur Veda, of Sanskrit origin, is composed of Yajus and Veda; the two words translate to ‘prose mantras dedicated to religious reverence or veneration’ and knowledge. Third of the fourth canonical texts of the Hindu dharma, this liturgical collection is famous as the ‘book of rituals.’ The ancient Vedic text is a compilation of rituals offering formulas or the prose mantras to be chanted or muttered repeatedly by a priest. At the same time, an individual performs the ascertained ritual actions before the sacrificial fire or the Yajna.
This consists of chants and melodies to be sung during worship and the performance of yajna. The Sama Veda is divided into two major parts: the four melody collections, or the Saman, the songs and the latter the Arcika, or the verse books a collection (Samhita) of hymns portions of hymns, and detached verses.
Widely referred to as the ‘Book of Songs,’ it is derived from two words, Saman, of Sanskrit, meaning Song, and Veda, meaning Knowledge. The Sama Veda has served as the principal roots of the classical Indian music and dance tradition, and proudly the tradition boasts itself as the oldest in the world. As the tradition had followed, the verses of Sama Veda are sung using specifically indicated melodies called Samagana by Udgatar priests at rituals dedicated to different diet
Contains hymns, mantras and incantations, largely outside the scope of yajna.
Within each of the four books there are four types of composition, or divisions, as shown below. In the narrowest of senses, only the Samhitas comprise the true Vedas. The first two divisions relate to the performance of sacrificial rituals (the karma-kanda section), whereas the second pair consists of philosophy (and belong to the jnana-kanda section).
- The Samhitas – literally “collections,” in this case of hymns and mantras. They form the Veda proper.
- The Brahmanas – prose manuals of ritual and prayer for the guiding priests. They tend to explain the Samhitas. They also contain early versions of some stories.
- The Aranyakas – literally “forest books” for hermits and saints. They are philosophical treatises.
- The Upanishads – books of philosophy, also called “Vedanta,” the end or conclusion of the Vedas.
There are also two important bodies of supplementary literature, related closely to the Vedas themselves. They are:
- The Vedangas, which expound the sciences required to understand and apply the Vedas.
- The Upavedas (usually considered smriti) which deal with the four traditional arts and sciences.
- Kalpa (ritual detail)
- Siksha (pronunciation)
- Vyakarana (grammar)
- Nirukti (etymology)
- Chandas (metre)
- Jyotisha (astronomy/astrology)
The Four Upavedas (following the Vedas) explain arts and sciences
- Ayur-veda (medicine)
- Gandharva-veda (music and dance)
- Dhanur-veda (warfare)
- Shilpa-veda (architecture)
What does Upanishads mean?
The Upanishads are an assortment of texts central to Hinduism that are recorded from oral traditions. They contain information regarding the philosophical principles and concepts of Hinduism, including karma (right action), brahman (ultimate reality), the atman (true Self or soul), moksha (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation) and Vedic doctrines that explain Self-realization through yoga and meditation practices.
Upanishad is a Sanskrit word that translates in English to mean “sitting at the feet of” or “sitting down near.” This illustrates the position of receiving wisdom and guidance humbly from a teacher or guru.
The 11 most important Upanishads:
- Aitareya Upanishad. This is one of the oldest Upanishads and is linked with the ancient Rigveda text. It discusses a four-tier universe, the creation of beings, the embodiment of Atman as the divine creator, and the qualities of Brahman.
- Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. This Upanishad was written by the ancient sage Yajnavalkya. Within its three chapters, it describes the relationship between Jiva and the Atman and explains different methods of meditation.
- Isha Upanishad. This is a shorter Upanishad of only eighteen verses. The word “Isa” means “Lord of the Universe,” which is described in this text as “unembodied, omniscient, beyond reproach, without veins, pure and uncontaminated.”
- Taittiriya Upanishad. This Upanishad is divided into three parts and the second section proclaims that the highest aim is to see Brahman as omniscient, infinite, and the highest truth.
- Katha Upanishad. This is one of the most Upanishads, and some of its passages are found in the Bhagavad Gita. It is a discussion between Yama, the god of death, and Nachiketa, a young Brahman boy. They discuss in detail the spiritual path to liberation, the concept of re-birth, and the way in which a yogi should leave their body behind.
- Chandogya Upanishad. This Upanishad discusses the importance of meditation, the power of the Om mantra, and the significance of Prana, the central life force energy.
- Kena Upanishad. This Upanishad narrates the uniqueness of creation and the single power that controls the whole world.
- Mundaka Upanishad. This Upanishad contains sixty-four mantra-like poems. This text provides instruction on meditation and discusses the nature of Brahma and Atman.
- Mandukya Upanishad. This is the shortest of all the Upanishads with only 12 verses. It describes the four states of consciousness in which the Om mantra represents.
- Prasna Upanishad. This Upanishad is a series of philosophical questions asked by several disciples and answered by the Sage Pippalada. The text discusses the nature of Brahman and the origin, existence, and goal of life.
- Svetastara Upanishad. This Upanishad is unique in that the emphasis is not on the Brahman but focuses on the bhakti or devotion of personal deities. This text contains several metaphysical discussions about the creation and purpose of existence.
The Four Mahavakyas
The Mahavakyas are the most revered and powerful sayings in the Upanishads. The regular contemplation and meditation on these mantras purify our minds, promote introspection and insight, and lead to transcendental states of awareness. The Mahavakyas present different points of view on how to see the indivisible oneness of all things.
- Prajnanam Brahma–Brahman (Ultimate Reality) is supreme consciousness.
- Aham Brahmasmi–I am Brahman (the Supreme Self )
- Tat Tvam Asi–Thou art that.
- Ayam Atma Brahma–Atman (True Self) is Brahman (Ultimate Reality).
Hence we realise that the Vedas and Upanishads constitute a gigantic part of the Hindu mythology.They serve as guiding principles of how one should live a life, from all aspects.