Hinduism

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Four Sacred Collections That Comprise the Vedas

The Vedas are a collection of the oldest sacred scriptures of Hinduism written in Sanskrit. They are categorized as sruti (“what is heard”), and mantras contained in them are recited as prayers and used in various religious rituals. The main part of the Vedas is Samhitas – collections of mantras, which are followed by Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The latter are the comments to the Vedic Samhita.

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There are four Vedas. The Rigveda is a collection of hymns written on the Vedic language. It was made, apparently, around 1700-1100 BC and is one of the most ancient Indo-Iranian texts and one of the oldest religious scripts in the world. Chief gods of the Rigveda are Agni (the god of sacrificial fire), Indra (the heroic god praised for killing his enemy Vritra) and Soma (a sacred drink or plant from which it is made). Other prominent gods are Mitra, Varuna, Ushas (dawn) and Ashwins. The collection also contains fragmentary references to possible historical events, especially the struggle between the Vedic Aryans and their enemies – dasas. The Rigveda is the most ancient and important of the Vedas; it is a valuable source for the study of the ancient Indian history and mythology.

The Yajurveda is a collection of mantras intended to accompany the sacrifices made in Vedic rituals. Other texts, namely the Brahmanas and Sutras Shrauta, describe how to perform rites and sacrifices and give the philosophical interpretation of mantras contained in the main part of the Yajurveda. According to most scientists, this collection of mantras was compiled in the early Iron Age, about 10th century BC, and reflected the practice of Vedic religion of those times.

The Samaveda consists of hymns, their parts and separate poems taken mainly from the Rigveda, transposed and arranged without regard to their initial order to better match the religious ceremonies in which they were to be used. Poems were not designed for a simple reading, but for singing to specially marked melodies using seven svar (notes). The Samaveda may have been compiled around 1300-1000 BC.

The Atharvaveda is a sacred text of Hinduism that was mainly compiled by two groups of rishis known as Bhrigu and Angirasas. The Atharvaveda is unique in the sense that it reflects those aspects of life of the ancient Indians, the memory of which would have disappeared forever if it had not been recorded in this part. It tells not about the gods and myths, but about the man, his/her public and private life, his/her illnesses and anxiety, etc. Man is represented through intimate aspects of his/her existence in the Atharvaveda.

The Concepts of the Upanishads

The Upanishads are the ancient Indian religious and philosophical works about nature; they belong to the class of Sruti (“revelation”) and are adjacent to the Vedas as an explanation of their esoteric meaning. There are about 200 texts of the Upanishads. They are rooted in the ancient Vedic wisdom and concern deep, metaphysical questions about the origin of the universe, the nature and essence of the unmanifested Godhead (Brahman) and the manifested gods (Vishnu, Yama, etc.), the unity of spirit and matter, the universality of the human mind and nature of the “soul” and “Ego” (Atman). 

The main ideas of the Upanishads are expressed in the following concepts:

  • The problems of the prime causes as well as the issue if the ultimate beginning of life dominate in the Upanishads and help to explain the origin of all the natural and human phenomena. The idea that spirit (Brahman or Atman) is the root cause of the foundation of being occupies the dominant place in the collection. 
  • The central idea of the Upanishads is the proclamation of the identity of the spiritual essence and its manifestation in both the man and nature. Most briefly this identity of subject and object is expressed in the famous dictum of the Upanishads – “Tat tvam asi” (“Thou art that” or “You are that”). This is the idea of unity and identity of being.
  • The triadic nature of Being (Brahman – Atman – Purusha meaning “spirit, soul, body”) is approved in many texts. This idea is symbolized by the sacred syllable Aum or concepts Satiyam (true), Jalan (all of it), etc.
  • The concept of transmigration of souls (samsara) and retribution for past actions (karma) was first expressed in the Upanishads. This idea had established a causal link in the chain of human actions and existence in general. Human behavior was determined by universal, moral law of dharma. According dharma, it was enjoined to observe the established responsibilities and different stages of life for each varna (category of people).
  • The central concept in the theory of cognition of the Upanishads is the division of knowledge into two types: the lower and the higher. The lower one is the knowledge of the empirical reality. The higher one is the knowledge of the spiritual Absolute as this is the perception of life in its entirety.
  • In some texts, it is said about the recurring cycles of occurrence, creation of reality and its subsequent destruction, dissolution. The image of the eternally spinning wheel (chakra) usually acts as the symbol of this cyclical existence. The principle of global regularities is manifested through the world moral law – dharma.

The Upanishads are different from Vedas by the fact that they contain the preaching on how to achieve the balance with the Absolute and complete perfection, while Vedas are the collection of prayers that are used in rituals.

The Caste System

Castes are classes or races into which the people of India are divided. It can be learnt from the earliest works of Sanskrit literature that during the initial colonization of India, the nations that were speaking the Aryan dialects were divided into four major estates, later called “Varnas”: the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (merchants, ranchers and farmers) and the Sudras (servants and handymen). In the early Middle Ages, varnas were preserved, but they broke down into numerous castes (jati) fixing the class accessory even more rigidly. The Hindu believes in reincarnation and claims that anyone who follows the rules of their caste will turn out to be in a higher one in the next life. However, those who break these rules will lose their social status.

A representative of each caste had to do their own duty. This idea has remained the leading in the history of Hindu society: everyone should take a certain place, perform the determined social role and comply with all the related obligations and prohibitions. However, there have always been people that treated their caste responsibilities very thoughtlessly. Over the centuries, the social system in India has become even more complicated; there has been a division of labor, and the number of community groups and statuses has increased from four to several thousands. The caste can be determined in many ways: by the type of clothing and the manner of wearing it; by the presence of certain relationships, or their lack; by the hair and signs painted on the forehead; by the nature of the home, food and even vessels for cooking, as well as by name. It is difficult to pass oneself off as a member of another caste in India.

Compliance with the rules is controlled by the special caste committee or council – the Panchayat, which means “five”; although, in fact the number of committee members may be more. It consists of the oldest and the most respected people of the village or neighborhood. The Council judges the guilty, and its decisions can be appealed only to the local rajah. The Panchayat impose a repentance and purification for a small offense. As for the more serious one, the guilty person is temporarily exempted from the caste. Concerning the serious sin, for example, the murder of a cow, the most severe punishment is imposed that is the expulsion from the caste.

Social Levels of the Hindu Caste System

Today, there are five main castes in India:

  • The Brahmins. The Brahmins show a high level of human consciousness. They create designs or change something radically at the global levels. This may be a region, country, or, maybe, the planet. The Brahmin can create the occult doctrine, which has every chance to gain recognition and followers in the world. It is a huge success for the Kshatriya ruler to have the Brahmin as an expert advisor.
  • The Kshatriyas. The representatives of the martial arts that are on the level of creating of their schools and movements belong within the lower status members of the caste. Those who work at the global levels have higher status.
  • The Vaishyas. The Vaishyas, or craftsmen, perform work on the creation and production of finished “products” that are in demand. The word “products” is broader than the goods; it could be both newspapers and services. The craftsman can be an engineer and a specialist, a doctor and a psychologist. If the Sudras are just performers, the Vaishyas can create or build something new in their area under the certain conditions. 

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  • The Sudras. This level includes the ordinary workers and apprentices. Sweeping the streets, garbage collection, routine operations at the plants are their responsibilities. They must perform the work under the direction of the Vaishyas.
  • The Dalit. The caste consists of two major groups. The first group is called strangers-nonhumans. The second group consist of degraded people that have reached the point of no return; i.e. the souls of people who have degraded from life to life and are unable to return to normal life. It is believed that the souls of members of the second group will be destroyed in the coming years. The field of their application is unskilled work.

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