Hinduism is described by several intellectuals as a great, olden
Banyan tree, which has its roots deeply seeping the earth and has numerous
branches, each one of which is an extension of the wisdom of ancient sages,
devotees, and learned ones. The sources of Hinduism- books, art, oral
traditions, and practices are the repositories of the pearls of primordial
knowledge, through which anyone can experience the beauty of the Hindu
religion. The sheer number of books on the Hindu religion is mind-blowing,
owing to the fact of India’s geographical, cultural and linguistic vastness,
and listing the “best” or “a few” is a task next to impossible.
According to Hindu tradition itself, the
sacred books are assembled into certain groups of texts, representing the
prevalent ideas and practices of a particular period in Indian cultural
history. In this article, we will explore five of these textual traditions, and
suggest 5 book recommendations for Hindu religious book
four Vedas- Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda,
and Yajurveda are the soul of the Hindu religion, invisible but ever present in
its faith and rituals. They are accorded the status of “Shruti”- knowledge
“which is heard” and signify the omnipresent, universal, and uncontaminated
truths of the world. The term “Veda” is taken from the root “vid”, meaning “to
know” or “knowledge”. Originating from the mouth of Lord Brahma himself, the
Vedas are “Apaurusheya”- untouched by Purusha or humans. These texts are
historically associated with the Aryans, a Sanskrit-speaking people who lived in the Indian subcontinent and
worshipped deities such as Surya, Indra, Mitra, and Varuna, mainly through Yajna
or homa (ritual sacrifice).
All four Vedas are further divided into Samhita, Brahmana,
Aranyaka, and Upanishad. The Samhita is the main book containing the hymns,
Brahamana is the elaboration of the hymn and its outcomes, Aranyakas are an
interpretation of sacrificial rituals and Upanishads are texts containing
spiritual and metaphysical philosophies.
The Rig Veda is the oldest among all the Vedas and contains
verses in praise of Vedic deities. Sama Veda puts the verses of Rig Veda into
musical notes, Yajur Veda deals with yajnas (ritual sacrifices) and Atharva
Veda contains details of charms, mantras, and magical chants. Hindu deities
such as Surya and aspects of gods such as Rudra (Shiva) were first brought to
the people through the Vedas. The mantras and hymns used by Vedic Aryanas such as the Gayatri
Mantra and Sri Suktam continue to be a part of the Hindu Puja routine. Veda’s
unwavering authority, the volumes of knowledge contained in them, the quality
of language and poetics, and the historical and religious information they
carry make the Vedas a must-read for anyone who wishes to take a dip into the
ocean of Hindu wisdom.
Though a part of the Vedic literature, the Upanishads (18 in
number) are taken as an independent and sacred portion of Hindu religious
books. The term “Upanishad” means “to sit near”, which in most cases was done
by a pupil or group of students, who gathered around a Guru or teacher, who
answered their questions while engaging in stirring and deep discussions.
Upanishads thus represent a tradition of knowledge dissemination much more
personal and individual in comparison to the Vedas.
The ideas of Brahman as the supreme divinity, aatman as self or
soul, Mukti as cutting off worldly ties, and Bhakti as the way to it are some
of the powerful themes contained in the pages of Upanishads. If Vedas were
centered on sacrifice in the open, Upanishads teach a way to surrender self in
front of the divine element in the performance of an “internal Yajna”, in which
aatman becomes the offering in the Yajna, karma is the tool and Moksha or liberation is the result. The devotional Bhakti of
Hinduism, the poetry of devotional poets, practices of worship centered around
a deity, and philosophies of life professed in the world as Hindu religion
today, owe a great deal to the theories of Upanishads, reading which is a positive
spiritual and intellectual exercise.
The saga of an epic battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas,
two groups of cousin brothers in the war field of Kurukshetra, the Mahabharata, compiled between 400 BC to 400 CE, is a seminal text in
understanding and appreciating Hindu culture. The contents of this text are
linked with the oral bardic (Suta) tradition prevalent in ancient India, in
which a bard traveled through a region, singing the praises of a king or
warrior. The text is credited to Krishnadvaipayana Veda Vyasa.
Among the numerous lessons of the Mahabharata is the emphasis on
following one’s dharma- Rajadharma (duty of the king), Stridharma (duty of a woman), Patnidharma (duty of a wife), dasa dharma (duty of a
servant), etc. Interlinked with this idea is the theory of karmic retribution-
that our deeds (as prescribed by the duty of our status) decide our fate in the
next birth. The Bhagavad
Gita, a part of the Mahabharata and famous
world over for its esoteric and practical teachings, charts out the truth of
being a human- as a component in the divine scheme of things, one should never
shy away from fulfilling one’s duty. Giving the lessons on Yoga- oneness with
the supreme principle through different paths- Sankhya, Gyan (knowledge), Karma
(meditation), Bhakti (devotion), and Moksha
(salvation) Srimad Bhagavad Gita continues to guide the modern human being in
the samsara saagar (ocean of worldly existence).
An Itihasa (history) and kavya (poetry), the Ramayana of Valmiki
are the Adi-Kaavya (first Sanskrit poetry), written in lyrical Sanskrit that
evokes the Karuna Rasa or the emotion of compassion in the heart of the
audience and reader. Seeing a couple of Kronch birds separated due to the arrow
of a hunter, Maharishi
Valmiki uttered a heartfelt sigh, which came
out in the form of a beautiful verse. Inspired by Lord Brahma and Narada Ji,
Valmiki went on to write the Rama-Katha, or the story of Sri Rama, which lives
in the socio-cultural fabric of India today.
The story of Ramayana has given Hindu society its archetypes- the evil
personified as Ravana, virtue as Sri Rama, devotion as Hanuman, faithfulness to
husband as Sita Maa, love and respect for brother as Bharata and service to
elders as Lakshmana. The episodes of Ramayana inspire instant Rasa (emotive juices)
in the mind, reminding the listener of the greatness of Sri Rama and the beauty
of a life lived in the service of dharma. The impact of Ramayana on the Indian
psyche is such that the epic was translated and retold in several regional
languages, and is still narrated and performed in the house and festivities of
Hindus across India.
Purana means “old” and is used to denote a collection of
eighteen texts related to Veda
Vyasa, the son of sage Parashara. The Puranas
introduce themselves as “the sweet fruit of the tree of the Veda”, which means
they contain the condensed wisdom of the Vedas, made accessible to all. The
tradition of the Puranas rests on the learned shoulders of reciters or
Pauranika, who read the stories and events contained in these texts in front of
an audience. The primary Puranas are called Maha Puranas. Bhagavata, Narada,
Vishnu, Varaha, Garuda, Padma, Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Shiva, Skanda, Agni,
Brahmanda, Brahmavaivarta, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Vamana and Brahma Purana are
the Maha Puranas, followed by minor or Upapuranas.
The content of the Puranas is divided into Sarga (creation),
Pratisarga (re-creation), Manavantara (time of the Manus), Vamsha (genealogies
of sages and divines), and Vamshanucharita (details of royal dynasties). They
give a detailed description of periods, the four Yugas- Krita or Sata Yuga,
Treta, Dwapara, and Kaliyuga. Puranas also mention historical details of
ancient ruling lineages such as Nanda, Kanva, Maurya, Shunga, and Guptas.
In the context of the Hindu religion, the Puranas extend and
intensify the ideas of Bhakti, tirtha (pilgrimage), dharma (duty), karma
(action), and Moksha. Sectarian Puranas- associated with a particular deity
such as Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, and Ganesha mention the legendary events related
to these divinities, their powers, wars they fought with the evil forces, their
forms, stories of their devotees and philosophical teachings in simple language
that can instill in the mind a sublime calmness and positivity.
Writers, yogis, researchers, intellectuals, and enthusiasts have
exhausted themselves in an attempt to find the ends of the cosmic wisdom of
Hinduism. Every book on the Hindu religion that you will pick can answer all
your questions while leaving you with newer ones. The Vedas, Upanishad,
Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Puranas are five of the most popular, spiritually
rich, and groundbreaking literary works of the Hindu religion, which can be
visited by anyone to begin their journey into the mystical realms of Hinduism.
Exotic India Art offers select collection Hindu books, including
these five, in Sanskrit, translated in the regional languages of India, and
with English translations for the international followers of Hindu philosophy.
Visit the largest online collection of books and pick your next read from the
treasure of Hindu textual traditions now.
Hindu World, by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby
>> A History of Ancient
and Early Medieval India by Upinder Singh
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