Discovering Sacred Texts: Hinduism

Discover the diversity and richness of Hinduism, from the ancient oral tradition of the Vedic texts, the colourful stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the ways in which gods and goddesses are worshipped today.

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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.

Prof Julius Lipner: 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 are 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 in which 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.

David Joseph: 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.

Prof Julius Lipner: 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 śruti. Sruti in Sanskrit means that which is heard by the ancient sages.

Arani Ilankuberan: 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.

Prof Julius Lipner: 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.

Arani Ilankuberan: 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.

David Joseph: In reality Hindus in an everyday life do not read vedas, do not read the venerations, nevertheless they will probably read some stories from the Ramayana or Mahabharata, or definitely sing some devotional hymns.

Prof Julius Lipner: So we have two kinds of texts, śruti and smṛti, the Vedas and then the non-Vedic texts, and both of them play a part in giving a Hindi an idea of what it is to be a good person in the world, how the 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 smṛti, and that has to do with what has been remembered and passed down in tradition.

Tushar Shah: 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.

Prof Julius Lipner: 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.

Pasquale Manzo: 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 which 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.

Tushar Shah: 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.

Prof Julius Lipner: 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 then I can change the plot and some of the characters in order to meet another need. Hindus are very comfortable with that.

Pasquale Manzo: 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.

Tushar Shah: 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.

Ajay Jobanputra: 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.

Prof Julius Lipner: 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.