Saturday, 26 June 2010

Rajasthan - The Book is the Word

Most major world religions are defined by their most sacred book.  Both the Bible and the Qur'an have high profiles and are known the world over.  The most sacred Hindu collection of scriptures - the Vedas are probably less well-known, at least in the West and, like Hinduism itself, pretty obscure in their origins.  In fact, as I've hinted at in the title of this blog, the book is the word in Hinduism, meaning its a mainly oral tradition.  The sacred texts weren't always written down, but learned by devotees and passed from generation to generation. 

In the eyes (and ears) of believers, the Vedas are sruti, meaning 'that which is revealed' and have a divine source, rather than human authors.  Secular and non-Hindu scholars have been obsessed with dating these scriptures and slotting them into an appropriate historical context but, in many ways, the source is irrelevant to Hindu scholars, as the word is divine and beyond definition or historical concepts.

As in many other traditions (including Ireland), there was a great reverence for the pandit or bard, who would learn, not only the sacred texts, but also the mythology of Hinduism and tell stories to the villagers, as a form of entertainment and enlightenment, after a hard day working in the fields.  Just like the Celtic bard, Hindu pandits are not only versed in literature and the story-telling tradition, but are usually accomplished musicians, music being an easy way to encode human experiences for generations to come.  In a more formalised system called Sampradaya, the ancient Hindu scriptures were 'remembered' in this way.

There is some debate over which texts are to be considered sruti and the importance of scriptures varies from one part of India to another.  Generally, all four collections of Vedas are considered to be sruti, including the Atharvaveda which is a book of Hindu spells and charms.  The Upanishads are also considered to be sruti and these are secret scriptures that are only taught by a sage to his disciple.  Both the Vedas and the Upanishads were 'revealed' in Sanskrit.

All other scriptures and stories are considered to be smriti or 'handed down/remembered'.  These are the ones that pandits would have recited to entertain their community and include the great Hindu epics, such as the Mahabharata, Bhagavad-gita and Ramayana.  I'm sure the Mahabharata would have been a favourite of the kshatriya or warrior caste, as it deals with an ancient conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas.  The Bhagavad-gita is considered to be part of the Mahabharata and tells about the life of Lord Krishna.  It's a book that was in my parents' house, as a child and perhaps raised my 'Hindu consciousness' somewhat, with its beautiful pictures and potent symbolism.  Most of all I want to read the Ramayana and perhaps I'll have time to do this, next time I blog about India.  It's a fairly classical story, dealing with the essential Hindu concept of dharma and I'll try to summarise as follows:

Boy (Rama) meets girl (Sita).  Boy is cheated out of his kingdom by wicked step-mother (Kaikeyi).  Boy, girl and boy's best friend (Lakhsmana) head off to the forest for a big adventure.  Girl gets kidnapped by bad guy (Ravana), who is also somewhat of a handsome rebel!  Boy enlists the help of the monkey-king (Hanuman), defeats bad guy, wins back girl and returns in triumph to reclaim his kingdom. 

All pretty standard stuff?  This is where it gets complicated!  Through a heavily symbolic ordeal by fire, Sita manages to convince Rama that she hasn't been violated by Ravana and is as virginal as the day he met her.  Rama believes her and affirms his love by taking her as his wife.  Unfortunately the people in his kingdom can't accept Sita's version of events and Rama banishes her once more to the forest, despite the fact that she is pregnant with twin boys.  It's a clear message of dharma (duty) above all else.  Despite being in love with Sita and going through so many ordeals to win her back, Rama has to sacrifice his love to keep peace in his kingdom.  There are many interesting variations on this theme - some of them painting Ravana as a hero, others telling the story from Sita's point of view. 

I'm following some people from India on Twitter and there's been a lot of chatter in the past few weeks about the new movie Raavan which, interestingly, interprets aspects of the Ramayana for a modern audience, although with more guns and car chases than the original, I would imagine!

Other smriti scriptures include the sutras and puranas.  The sutras are a collection of aphorisms and statements related to concepts such as dharma, yoga etc.  The puranas are mythological stories of Hindu gods, avatars and incarnations.

I often see people reading either the Bible or the Qur'an on my daily commute to work.  After learning about the sacred Hindu texts, I suddenly found myself being more aware of the existence of the vedas and, lo and behold, on my way to work I saw an Indian woman reading, what looked like, a sacred Hindu book.  Although I couldn't quite see the title of the book, I knew it was sacred by the gilded pages and the ornate lettering at the beginning of the chapter she was reading.  I was feeling quite pleased with myself and immensely clever, until the train arrived and she closed the book, revealing its title: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix!  Ah well, I guess it's an epic of sorts!


The picture of Rama and Sita on the throne was taken from Wikimedia Commons.  It's in the public domain and copyright free.

The illustration from the Bhagavan Gita Chapter 18, Verse 78 was provided copyright free by flickruser ISKCON desire tree on behalf of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (more popularly known as the Hare Krishnas). 

I owe a lot of the research I did on this topic to a book called Hinduism:  A Very Short Introduction by Kim Knott.  I've used a book in this series before and I absolutely love these books, which are published by Oxford University Press and immensely readable, without losing the essence of a topic. 

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