The Sacred Vedic Scriptures
From the Rg Veda to the Upanisads
 
VEDA
Rg Veda
Sama Veda
Yajur Veda
Atharva Veda
PRIEST
Hotri
Originally the “pourer,” but came to specialize in chanting verses from the Rg Veda Samhita (often rearranged according to metrical and melodic considerations) 
Udgatri
Mastered collection of “songs” (saman) rearranged from the Rg Veda Samhita, which came to be known as the Sama Veda
Adhvaryu
The main ritual actor, he specialized in prose and verse mantras (sacred formulations of sound that have the power to bring transcendental  truths into reality).
Brahman
Oversaw the whole ritual, protecting the brahman (power of the mantras) by ensuring that nothing was omitted or incorrectly performed; counteracted mistakes by reciting magical incantations from the Atharva Veda
TEXTS
Rg Veda Samhita
Brahmanas
Aranyakas
Upanisads
Sama Veda Samhita
Brahmanas
Aranyakas
Upanisads
Yajur Veda Samhita
Brahmanas
Aranyakas
Upanisads
Atharva Veda Samhita
Brahmanas
Aranyakas
Upanisads
 
 
 

Speculative Developments
Creation in the Rg Veda
There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
       There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.
       Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat [tapas].
       Desire came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.
       Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.
       Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
       Whence this creation has arisen — perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not — the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows — or perhaps he does not know. (
Indian Religions, 51 [Rg Veda, 10.129])
  • What is the source of creation in this passage?
  • How does this compare with the biblical account of creation?
  • How is it connected to the yajna ritual?
 
The Power of Knowledge
Creation in the Brahmanas
A genre of texts next emerged that primarily deal with the power (brahman) within the recitation of sacred verses (mantra), and with the ritual practices of the priestly class (brahmana; Brahmin in this text, to minimize confusion). The Brahmanas, as these texts are called, are composed in Vedic Sanskrit prose, and extol the virtues of sacrificial rites known as yajna. They contain commentaries on hymns from the Vedic Samhitas, and describe a variety of rituals in detail. They also offer interpretations of aspects of ritual practice, and explanations for their origins. The interpretations often strive to demonstrate parallels between three realms: the macrocosm, which is the abode of the gods, the mesocosm, which is society and the worldly realm, and the microcosm of individual human life and ritual action. Hence, the fire sticks that are rubbed together to kindle the sacrificial fire are equated with the sexual union between a Vedic god and goddess, and the clarified butter used to stoke the fire is likened to the rain, to semen, and to the divine child produced by their sexual union. (IH, 30)
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In the beginning, Prajapati existed alone. He reflected, ‘How may I produce progeny?’ He exhausted himself practicing asceticism, and he generated Agni from his mouth. Since he generated him from his mouth, Agni is therefore an eater of food. And he who knows that Agni is an eater of food becomes an eater of food himself. ... Prajapati then reflected, ‘I have created from myself a food-eater, Agni, but there is no food here other than me, whom he would not eat.’ Now, the earth was bald at that time; there were no plants nor any trees. And this was in his mind. Then Agni turned towards him with an open mouth, and the greatness went out of the terrified Prajapati. Speech is his own greatness; and speech went out of him. He desired an offering made in himself. He rubbed his hands (note: by rubbing or churning with his hands he produces sacrificial butter); and because he rubbed his hands, therefore this and this palm are without hair. Then he obtained an offering of clarified butter or an offering of milk; for both of these are made of milk. This offering did not please him, for it was mixed with hair. He poured it away into the fire saying, ‘Burn and drink this [osa dhaya].’ From it the plants were born; therefore they are called plants [osadhayas]. A second time he rubbed his hands; then he obtained another offering, an offering of clarified butter or an offering of milk; for both of these are made of milk. This offering pleased him. He was uncertain whether to offer this offering or not. His own greatness said to him, ‘Offer it.’ Prajapati realized that his own [sva] greatness had spoken [aha] to him. And so he said, ‘Svaha’ as he offered it. Therefore one says ‘Svaha’ as an offering is made.
       Then he [the sun] rose up and grew hot, and then he [the wind] became mighty and blew. Then Agni turned away. Prajapati performed the offering, produced progeny, and saved himself from Agni, who was death and who was about to devour him. And whoever knows this and offers the Agnihotra oblation, he produces progeny just as Prajapati produced progeny. And in this way he saves himself from Agni, death, when he is about to devour him. And whenever one dies and is placed in the fire, he is reborn from the fire just as he is born from his mother and father, for the fire consumes only his body. (Hindu Myths, 32-3 [Shatapatha Brahmana])
  • What is the relationship between Prajapati, Agni, and the fire sacrifice?
  • How does this passage represent an evolution of the original principles of the Vedic sacrificial tradition?
  • What is the significance of “knowledge” in this passage? What about “rebirth”?
Prajapati Dismembered...
...and Restored
When Prajapati had emitted from himself his created beings, his joints were loosened. Now, Prajapati himself is really the year, and so his joints are the two junctures of day and night, the full moon and the new moon, and the beginnings of the seasons. With his loosened joints he was unable to get himself together, and so the gods drew him together by means of these sacrificial offerings; with the Agnihotra oblation into the fire they drew together the joint that is the two junctures of day and night; with the full-moon offering and the new-moon offering they drew together the joint that is the full moon and the new moon; and with the three offerings that are given every four months they drew together the joint that is the beginning of the seasons. With his joints drawn together, he went forth to eat this food, the food that is for Prajapati to eat. Whoever knows this and begins to fast at that very moment, he draws together the joints of Prajapati that are that moment, and Prajapati helps him. Whoever knows this and begins to fast becomes truly an eater of food. Therefore, he should begin to fast at that precise moment. (Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism, 13 [Shatapatha Brahmana, 1.6.3.35-7])
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Prajapati creates by means of  [heat]. ... The creative power or energy which came from his own tapas, however, was used up in creating the universe. Prajapati had to be restored. He was restored by Agni, fire, which is both the source of tapas and its primary earthly manifestation.
       But Agni, in the most basic identity, is the fire sacrifice, so it is ultimately the fire sacrifice that restores Prajapati. The maintenance of the entire universe can then be said to depend on regular performance of the fire sacrifice, which provides the tapas that sustains the continual process of creation. (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 33)
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The Internalizaton of Ritual
From the Brahmanas to the Upanisads
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The Aranyakas
The Aranyakas are a loosely defined genre of texts that bridge the concerns of the Brahmanas and those of the Upanisads. They are even sometimes classified within those categories. Thus the Brhadaranyaka, which is attached to the Satapatha Brahmana, is regarded as an Upanisad. Like the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, or wilderness (aranya) texts, concern themselves with sacrificial rituals of offerings into sacred fires, and like the Upanisads, endorse the value of meditative practices. The Aitareya Aranyaka even designates itself as an Upanisad. As their name suggests, the Aranyakas uphold the value of retreating beyond the outskirts of the village to study their teachings. In fact, their content is held to be dangerous and to be studied in secret while adhering to an ascetic lifestyle. As such, they are eventually associated with the forest-dweller (varaprastha) stage of life prescribed by orthodoxy. However, the concerns of the texts may actually derive from the ritual practices of nomadic warriors who herded cattle and dwelt apart from village communities. The Aranyakas emhphasize symbolic speculation on the nature of rituals rather than exclusive attention to the performance of the rite itself, and thus, although they are primarily concerned with Brahmana-like ritual action, are clear forerunners of the speculative spirit encountered in the Upanisads.

The Upanisads
The oldest Upanisads, which may have been composed as early as the eighth century BCE, are appended to the Aranyakas or partially embedded within them. There are as many as 18 principal Upanisads — “principal” because they are appended to the previously mentioned genres of Vedic literature, namely the Vedic Samhitas, the Brahmanas, and the Aranyakas. ... The term “upanisad” is said to derive from the classic image of a student sitting (sad) down (ni) beside (upa) a spiritual mentor. The format of many of the Upanisads reflects this terminology since they are framed as conversations between a disciple (sisya) and teacher (guru). Although there are consideragble variations in the content of the Upanisads, they are generally classified as texts of speculative philosophy, and become a cornerstone of the Indian philosophical tradition that subsequently develops.
       The primary concern of the Upanisads is with the nature of Absolute Reality (Brahman), the true nature of the individual self (atman), and the relationship between Brahman and Atman. This focus reflects a trend prefigured in the Aranyakas, to uncover an underlying principle of coherence that unifies the apparent diversity of the created world. (IH, 36-37)
 
Creation in the Upanisads
The Identity of Atman and Brahman
In the beginning of all things were Self [atman], in the shape of personality [Purusa]. He looked round, saw nothing but Himself. The first thing he said was, “It is I.” Hence “I” became His name. Therefore even now if you ask a man who he is, he first says, “It is I”, and gives what other name he has. He is the eldest of all. Because he destroyed all evil, he is called the first Person [Purusa]. He who knows this, destroys all evil, takes the first rank.
       He became afraid; loneliness creates fear. He thought: “As there is nothing but myself, why should I be afraid?” Then his fear passed away; there was nothing to fear, fear comes when there is a second.
       As a lonely man is unhappy, so he was unhappy. He wanted a companion. He was as big as man and wife together; He divided himself into two, husband and wife were born.
       Yadnyawalkya said: “Man is only half himself; his wife is the other half.”
       They joined and mankind was born.
       She thought: “He shall not have me again; he has created me from himself; I will hide myself.”
       She then became a cow, he became a bull; they joined and cattle were born. She became a mare, he a stallion; she became a she-ass, he an ass; they joined and the hoofed animals were born. She became a she-goat, he a goat; she became a ewe, he a ram; they joined and goats and sheep were born. Thus He created everything down to ants, male and female.
       Then he put his hand into his mouth and there created fire as if he were churning butter. He knew that He was this creation; that He created it from Himself; that He was the cause. Who knows, finds creation joyful.
       When they say: “Sacrifice to this or that god,” they talk of separate gods; but all gods are created by Him, and He is all gods.
       Whatever is liquid He created from His seed. Everything in this world is eater or eaten. The seed is food and fire is eater.
       He created the gods; created mortal men, created the immortals. Hence this creation is a miracle. He who knows, finds this miracle joyful.
       This world was everywhere the same till name and shape began; then one could say: “He has such a name and such a shape.” Even today everything is made different by name and shape.
       Self entered into everything, even the tips of finger-nails. He is hidden like the razor in its case. Though He lives in this world and maintains it, the ignorant cannot see Him.
       When he is breathing, they name Him breath; when speaking, they name Him speech; when seeing, they name Him eye; when hearing, they name Him ear; when thinking, they name Him mind.  He is not wholly there. All these names are the names of His actions.
       He who worships Him as the one or the other is ignorant, is imperfect; though he attain completely one or the other perfection. Let him worship Him as Self, where all these become the whole.
       This Self brings everything; for thereby everything is known. He is the footprint that brings a man to his goal. He who knows this attains name and fame.
       This Self is nearer than all else; dearer than son, dearer than wealth, dearer than anything.  If a man call anything dearer than Self, say that he will lose what is dear; of a certainty he will lose it; for Self is God. Therefore one should worship Self as Love. Who worships Self as Love, his love never shall perish.
       It is said everything can be got through the knowledge of Spirit. What is that knowledge?
       In the beginning there was spirit. It knew itself as Spirit; from that knowledge everything sprang up. Whosoever among gods, sages and men, got that knowledge, became spirit itself. Sage Wamadewa knew it and sang “I was Manu; I was the sun.”
       Even today he who knows that he is Spirit, becomes Spirit, becomes everything; neither gods nor men can prevent him, for he has become themselves. (Indian Religions, 61-62 [Brhadaranyaka Upanisad])

 
The word brahman originally referred to a hallowed power within the sacred utterances (mantra) of the Vedic rsis, but by the time of the Upanisads was used to signify ultimate reality itself. ... Brahman is consistently identified as intrinsically connected to the innermost being of all things in existence, including our selves. Thus the Self (atman) is often used as a synonym for Brahman, with which it is identified. In the Katha Upanisad, for example, the youth Naciketas consults the Lord of Death, Yama, on the question of whether anything endures beyond the death of one’s body. Yama delivers a teaching on Brahman and Atman, pointing out that the Supreme Lord is the innermost Self (atman) of all beings, who although one, appears to have manifold forms. Only the wise, who recognize the Supreme Lord (i.e. Brahman) within themselves, attain eternal joy (Katha Upanisad II. ii. 12). The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (I.4.10) also presents this perspective when it points out that whoever knows “I am Brahman” (aham brahmasmi) becomes all of reality. Not even the gods can prevent it, for that person is then the very Self (atman) of the gods. However, the gods are displeased with this for such an individual is freed from serving them. Just as animals serve human beings, so too those who do not know the Self, serve the gods. (IH, 38)
 
That which is unexpressed by the word, that by which the word is expressed, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.
       That which thinks not by the mind, that by which the mind is thought, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.
       That which sees not with the eye, that by which one sees the eye’s seeings, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.
       That which hears not with the ear, that by which the ear’s hearing is heard, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.
       That which breathes not with the breath, that by which the life-breath is led forward in its paths, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here. (Indian Religions, 71 [Kena Upanisad])

“[Look at] these rivers, my dear: from east to west, from west to east they flow — from ocean to ocean they go. They become the ocean itself so that, once there, they no longer know: ‘This one am I, that one am I.’
       “Even so, my dear, all these [living] creatures, arising out of Being, do not know that they have arisen out of Being. ... This finest essence — the whole universe has it as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are, Svetaketu!”
. . . .
       “When the life has gone out of it, this [body] dies, [but] the life does not die.
       “This finest essence — the whole universe has it as its Self: 
 That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are, Svetaketu!”
. . . .
       “Good sir, will you kindly instruct me further?”
       “I will, my dear child,” said he.
       “Put this piece of salt in the water and come to me tomorrow morning.”
       [Svetaketu] did as he was told. [Then his father] said to him:
       “[Do you remember] that piece of salt you put in the water yesterday everning? Would you be good enough to bring it here?”
       He groped for it but could not find it. it had completely dissolved.
       “Would you please sip it at this end? What is it like?” he said.
       “Salt.”
       “Sip it in the middle. What is it like?”
       “Salt.”
       “Sip it at the far end. What is it like?”
       “Salt.”
. . . .
       “This finest essence — the whole universe has it as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are, Svetaketu!” (Indian Religions, 65-67 [Chandogya Upanisad])
  • If we are already identical to Brahman — the ultimate essence — then why are we unaware of the identity?
 

Karma & Rebirth
The word karma derives from the Sanskrit verbal root kr and simply means “to do,” or “to act.” Thus karma originally referred to activity of any kind. However, as early as the Upanisads, the idea had developed that one’s actions have consequences both for this lifetime and future ones. The notion of birth in other worlds is prefigured in the Vedic Samhitas, which indicate a fear of re-death (punar-mrtyu) — namely, dying repeatedly. By the Upanisadic period the concept of repeated reincarnations, or punar-janman (birth-again), unless one attained Self-realization, is clearly articulated. Karma thus developed into the notion of a moral principle of causality, in which no deed is without its consequences. Good deeds are meritorious (punya), while evil or sinful deeds (papa) have painful effects. ...
       Thus the belief in repeated rebirths in various realms, as various types of beings, became, and still is, commonplace in Hinduism. The term samsara literally means “to flow together,” or “to wander,” and thus refers to this cycle of repeated rebirths. Beings wander through the various realms, taking up birth and ultimately dying again and again. Samsara is thus often rendered as “the cycle of rebirth.” This cycle is virtually endless, and is generally regarded as having no beginning. Eventually, the term samsara is also applied broadly to worldly existence itself and reality as it is experienced by those ignorant of the nature of the true Self (atman). The individual soul (jiva) carries with it a subtle body that is the vehicle for karma. As the jiva transmigrates from one rebirth to the next, it brings along its karmic residue.
(IH, 63-64)
Moksa, derived from the Sanskrit root “muc,” meaning “to release,” is related to its synonym “mukti” and refers to freedom from samsara. The idea of liberation arises in conjunction with the sramana (wandering philosopher) movements that began in the Upanisadic period, and reflects a pivotal shift in values from the preceding period. The religious goals of the Vedic Samhitas and Brahmanas are often centered on ritual performance and karmic action to secure wealth, longevity, and other such worldly ends. Their trans-worldly concerns are at best concerned with better rebirths in hearvenly realms. However, the Upanisads, and such sramana movements as Buddhism and Jainism, promote shedding one’s pursuit of those goals. Moksa or mukti is contrasted with bhukti, the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. The cycle of rebirth, or existence in samsara, is viewed as painful. One is in bondage to the karmic laws of causality, and enmeshed in ignorance about the true nature of the Self. Thus moksa becomes synonymous with freedom from samsara and freedom from karmaMoksa is release from worldly existence. It is freedom from the bondage of ignorance into the liberation that comes with knowledge of the Self (atman) or Absolute Reality (Brahman). (IH, 65)
 
 
The universe makes sense to me through Hindu eyes. There is Brahman, the world soul, the sustaining frame upon which is woven, warp and weft, the cloth of being, with all its decorative elements of space and time. There is Brahman nirguna, without qualities, which lies beyond understanding, beyond description, beyond approach; with our poor words we sew a suit for it — One, Truth, Unity, Absolute, Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being — and try to make it fit, but Brahman nirguna always bursts the seams. We are left speechless. But there is also Brahman saguna, with qualities, where the suit fits. Now we call it Shiva, Kirshna, Shakti, Ganesha; we can approach it with some understanding; we can discern certain attributes — loving, merciful, frightening — and we feel the gentle pull of relationship. Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals, trees, in a handful of earth, for everything has a trace of the divine in it. The truth of life is that Brahman is no different from atman, the spiritual force within us, what you might call the soul. The individual soul touches upon the world soul like a well reaches for the water table. That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing. The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite. If you ask me how Brahman and atman relate precisely, I would say in the same way the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate: mysteriously. But one thing is clear: atman seeks to realize Brahman, to be united with the Absolute, and it travels in this life on a pilgrimage where it is born and dies, and is born and dies again, and again, and again, until it manages to shed the sheaths that imprison it here below. The paths to liberation are numerous, but the bank along the way is always the same, the Bank of Karma, where the liberation account of each of us is credited or debited depending on our actions.
       This, in a holy nutshell, is Hinduism, and I have been a Hindu all my life. With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe.
       But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists! I am reminded of a story of Lord Krishna when he was a cowherd. Every night he invites the milkmaids to dance with him in the forest. They come and they dance. The night is dark, the fire in their midst roars and crackles, the beat of the music gets ever faster
— the girls dance and dance and dance with their sweet lord, who has made himself so abundant as to be in the arms of each and every girl. But the moment the girls become possessive, the moment each one imagines that Krishna is her partner alone, he vanishes. So it is that we should not be jealous with God.
       I know a woman here in Toronto who is very dear to my heart. She was my foster mother. I call her Auntiji and she likes that. She is Québécoise. Though she has lived in Toronto for over thirty years, her French-speaking mind still slips on occasion on the understanding of English sounds. And so, when she first heard of Hare Krishnas, she didn’t hear right. She heard “Hairless Christians”, and that is what they were to her for many years. When I corrected her, I told her that in fact she was not so wrong; that Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims. (Life of Pi, 53-55)