The Vedic Roots of Hinduism
Brahman, Atman, Karma & Moksha

Hinduism: Vedic Roots
Poll Everywhere

Mohenjodaro: ancient bathing tank
Early Foundations
According to theories advanced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European scholars, the highly organized cultures of the Indus Valley and other parts of the subcontinent were overrun by lighter-skinned nomadic invaders from some homeland to the north, whose peoples also spread westward and developed European civilizations. The theory argued that the Vedas, the religious texts often referred to as the foundations of Hinduism, were the product of invaders and not of indigenous Indians, or perhaps a combination of both cultures.
Map: Indus Valley Civilization
Map: Aryan Migration Theory
Map: Early Vedic Period
The theory of an invasion of, and religious influence on, the Indus Valley civilizations by “Aryans” from the north was based largely on linguistic similarities between classical European languages such as Latin and Greek to Sanskrit, the ancient language in which the Vedas were composed. Similarities were also noted bewteen Vedic religious traditions and those of the ancient Iranian Zoroastrian faith. However, the word “Aryan” is used in Vedas to mean a noble person who speaks Sanskrit and practices the Vedic rituals. It is not a racial category. Nevertheless, the idea of an invasion of the Indus Valley by “Aryans” persisted until recent times, when it has become the subject of intense research by scholars of historical linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, and textual analysis. There is as yet not confirmed evidence of what actually happened, and the “Aryan Invasion Theory” is strongly contested by many scholars who think there is no proof to support it. (Living Religions, 73)
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Appropriately placed at the very beginning of the Rig Veda, this hymn invites Agni, the divine priest, to come to the sacrifice.
Agni Suktam
Hymn to Agni

  1. I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.
  2. Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.
  3. Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.
  4. Agni, the sacrificial ritual that you encompass on all sides — only that one goes to the gods.
  5. Agni, the priest with the sharp sight of a poet, the true and most brilliant, the god will come with the gods.
  6. Whatever good you wish to do for the one who worships you, Agni, through you, O Angiras, that comes true.
  7. To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage
  8. to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of the Order, growing in your own house.
  9. Be easy for us to reach, like a father to his son. Abide with us, Agni, for our happiness.
(Rig Veda: An Anthology, 99 [Rig Veda 1.1]; cf. Hymn to Agni)

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Map: Late Vedic Period
Varna (caste)
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The Upanishads
The Upanishads
(c. 600-400 BCE)

Brahman (big bang)
In the beginning there was Existence alone — One only, without a second. He, the One, thought to himself: Let me be many, let me grow forth. Thus out of himself he projected the universe, and having projected out of himself the universe, he entered into every being. All that is has its self in him alone. Of all things he is the subtle essence. He is the truth. He is the Self. And that, ... THAT ART THOU. (Living Religions, 77 [Chandogya Upanishad])
  • How does this compare with Jewish, Christian, and/or Islamic conceptions of creation?
Atman (individual soul)
The wisdom of the Upanishads is like a powerful bow. Make your intelligence a sharp arrow. Concentrate. Use the bow and the arrow to find your mark, the Brahman.
Small ohm symbolThe syllable om is the bow, the atman is the arrow. It is said that the Brahman is the object of the bow and the arrow. Do not hesitate in trying to achieve your aim. Be as unmoving as the arrow and attain your target. ...
The spokes of a wheel surround the nave. Like that, the veins surround the heart. And in the heart is the being with many forms. He is the Brahman. Meditate on him, meditate on his symbol, the syllable om. May you be blessed so that you may cross the ocean of ignorance. ...
       The Brahman is in the forefront and he is
everything. The Brahman is to the back, he is to the north and the south. He is above and below. This universe is nothing but the supreme Brahman. (
Anthology of Living Religions, 65)
III. Karma, Rebirth & Moksha
The Upanishads express several doctrines central to all forms of Hinduism. One is reincarnation. In answer to the universal question, "What happens after we die?" the rishis taught that the soul leaves the dead body and enters a new one. One takes birth again and again in countless bodies — perhaps as an animal or some other life form — but the self remains the same. Birth as a human being is aprecious and rare opportunity for the soul to advance toward its ultimate goal of liberation from rebirth and mergingwith the ultimate reality of Brahman.
Karma is an important related concept. Karma means action, and also the consequences of action. Every act we make, and even every thought and every desire we have, shapes our future experiences. Our life is what we have made it. And we ourselves are shaped by what we have done: “As a man acts, so does he become. ... A man becomes pure through pure deeds, impure through impure deeds.” Not only do we reap in this life the good or evil we have sown; they also follow us after physical death, affecting our next incarnation. Ethically, this is a strong teaching, for our every move has far-reaching consequences.
Varnasrama Dharma Ladder
The ultimate goal, however, is not creation of good lives by good deeds, but a clean escape from the karma-run wheel of birth, death, and rebirth, or samsara. To escape samsara is to achieve moksha, or liberation from the limitations of space, time, and matter through realization of the ultimate reality. Many lifetimes of upward-striving incarnations are required to reach this transcendence of earthly miseries. This desire for liberation from earthly existence is one of the underpinnings of classical Hinduism, and of Buddhism as well. (Living Religions, 77-8)
Moksha (liberation)
Realise the Brahman in whom can be found heaven, the earth, and the atmosphere. In him reside your senses and your heart. Forget everything else and attain the one and only Brahman. That is the way to salvation. ...
       He is the fount of all wisdom; he is omniscient. The Brahman resides in the radiance of the heart. He rules over the mind and life. He is bliss. He is immortality. The learned ones are those who can visualise the Brahman in their own atmans.
He is the cause. He is action. When an individual visualizes the Brahman, his heart is freed from all bondage. All his doubts are dispelled. He rises above the confines of mere action. ... (Anthology of Living Religions, 65)
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Reflection Paper Icon
How does the relationship between Brahman and atman in Hinduism compare with the relationship between God and humans in the Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam)?