As I was drafting my post on the Upanishads based on my favourite translation of all times, The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran, I read again his introduction to the Vedas. And, although my last post gives a brief summary, I think Easwaran’s introduction gives the essence and makes a wonderful starting point in the quest to understanding the Upanishads.
So here it is in an abridged form….
The religion of the ancient dwellers of the Indus Valley was based on ritual sacrifice and lyrical, life-affirming hymns meant for incantation in an ancient form of Sanskrit.
These hymns dating back from perhaps 1500 B.C reveal an intimate, almost mystical bond between worshipper and environment, a simultaneous sense of awe and kinship with the spirit that dwells in all things. Even in translation they have compelling beauty. They worship natural forces and the elemental powers of life: sun and wind, storm and rain, dawn and night, earth and heaven, fire and offering.
These powers are the devas, gods and goddesses. In hymns they seem very near, present before us in the forms and forces of the natural world. Fire or Agni is worshipped as the actual fire on the hearth or altar and as the divine priest who carries the sacrificial offerings to the gods. The storm is Indra, leader of the gods, lord of war and thunder who rides on his swift chariot to fight the demons of the Sky. The wind is Vayu. Night is Rati and dawn is Usha, the loveliest and most luminous of all goddesses.The sun is Surya who rides his chariot across the sky, or Savitri the giver of life. And death is Yama, the first being to die and thereby first in the underworld.
Throughout the hymns of this early age there is little or no trace of fear.The forces of life are approached with loving reverence and awe, as allies of humanity in a world that is essentially friendly so long as its secrets are understood. And despite the pantheon of deities, it seems clear even in the earliest hymns that one Supreme Being is worshipped in different aspects. ‘Truth is one,’ one hymn proclaims, ‘though the wise call it by many names.’
These poetic outpourings, were chanted while offerings were poured into the fire. Such fire ceremonies were performed for the Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers of clans by the Brahmins whose function in society was to preserve rites already too ancient to be understood.
As time passed, Brahmins produced commentaries to explain the meaning of these ancient rites. Hymns and commentaries together became a sacred heritage passed from generation to generation. These are the Vedas, India’s scriptures.
Veda comes from the root vid, ‘to know’. TheVedas, Hindus believe are revealed knowledge or Shruti, given to humanity at the dawn of time. They exist in four collections: Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, with Rig Veda being the oldest.
The first part of each collection, called karma-kanda, preserves the hymns and philosophical interpretations of rituals used in Hindu worship to this day.
The second part, called jnana-kanda, concerns not ritual but wisdom: what is life about; what death means; what the human being is; what is the nature of the Godhead that sustains us; in short the burning questions that men and women have asked in every age.
The ritual section of the Vedas define the religion of a particular culture; but the second part, the Upanishads, is Universal and as relevant to the world today as it was to Hindus five thousand years ago.
So what is an Upanishad?
We will look at it in some detail in next series of posts.
(Meanwhile, to read one of the oldest and most beautiful hymns on Creation from the Rig Veda, click here)