100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 22


The Hindu Scriptures


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Hinduism has no sole book that is the basis of its doctrines, but it has countless sacred writings that have added to its dogmas and forms of worship. While Hindu belief upholds that the ultimate reality is beyond all scriptures, it is likewise persuaded that the scriptures benefit people in adjusting their lives towards this ultimate reality. Because of this a corpus of holy literature so immense has been amassed that according to some it would take seventy lifetimes of dedicated study to read it all.

    Hindu scriptures can be categorized into shruti and smriti. Shruti, i.e. what is “heard,” is considered to be forever truthful divine revelation, while smriti, i.e. what is “remembered,” is akin to tradition. Where there is a disagreement, shruti takes priority over smriti.

    The Vedas are shruti, and to Hindus are what the Bible is to Christians or the Qur’an is to Muslims. Since in Hinduism the universe lacks beginning or end, the Vedas emerge at the start of every cycle of time. Subsequently Brahma recites the Vedas and sages hear them afresh. Then each guru orally conveys these divinely heard scriptures to his pupils.

The Religion of the Vedas

The oldest known religion of India, which the invading Aryans (c. 1500 B.C.) found among the Nagas, and which still survives in the ethnic nooks and crannies of the great peninsula, was apparently an animistic and totemic worship of multitudinous spirits dwelling in stones and animals, in trees and streams, in mountains and stars. Snakes and serpents were divinities—idols and ideals of virile reproductive power; and the sacred Bodhi tree of Buddha’s time was a vestige of the mystic but wholesome reverence for the quiet majesty of trees. Naga, the dragon-god, Hanuman the monkey-god, Nandi the divine bull, and the Yakshas or tree-gods passed down into the religion of historic India. Since some of these spirits were good and some evil, only great skill in magic could keep the body from being possessed or tortured, in sickness or mania, by one or more of the innumerable demons that filled the air. Hence the medley of incantations in the Atharva-veda, or Book of the Knowledge of Magic; one must recite spells to obtain children, to avoid abortion, to prolong life, to ward off evil, to woo sleep, to destroy or harass enemies.*

* Cf. Atharva-veda, vi, 138, and vii, 35, 90, where incantations “bristling with hatred,” and “language of unbridled wildness” are used by women seeking to oust their rivals, or to make them barren. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6-12) formulas are given for raping a woman by incantation, and for “sinning without conceiving.”

    The earliest gods of the Vedas were the forces and elements of nature herself—sky, sun, earth, fire, light, wind, water and sex. Dyaus (the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter) was at first the sky itself; and the Sanskrit word deva, which later was to mean divine, originally meant only bright. By that poetic license which makes so many deities, these natural objects were personified; the sky, for example, became a father, Varuna; the earth became a mother, Prithivi; and vegetation was the fruit of their union through the rain. The rain was the god Parjanya, fire was Agni, the wind was Vayu, the pestilential wind was Rudra, the storm was Indra, the dawn was Ushas, the furrow in the field was Sita, the sun was Surya, Mitra, or Vishnu; and the sacred soma plant, whose juice was at once holy and intoxicating to gods and men, was itself a god, a Hindu Dionysus, inspiring man by its exhilarating essence to charity, insight and joy, and even bestowing upon him eternal life. A nation, like an individual, begins with poetry, and ends with prose. And as things became persons, so qualities became objects, adjectives became nouns, epithets became deities. The life-giving sun became a new sun-god, Savitar the Life-Giver; the shining sun became Vivasvat, Shining God; the life-generating sun became the great god Prajapati, Lord of all living things.*

    For a time the most important of the Vedic gods was Agni—fire; he was the sacred flame that lifted the sacrifice to heaven, he was the lightning that pranced through the sky, he was the fiery life and spirit of the world. But the most popular figure in the pantheon was Indra, wielder of thunder and storm. For Indra brought to the Indo-Aryans that precious rain which seemed to them even more vital than the sun; therefore they made him the greatest of the gods, invoked the aid of his thunderbolts in their battles, and pictured him enviously as a gigantic hero feasting on bulls by the hundred, and lapping up lakes of wine. His favorite enemy was Krishna, who in the Vedas was as yet only the local god of the Krishna tribe. Vishnu, the sun who covered the earth with his strides, was also a subordinate god, unaware that the future belonged to him and to Krishna, his avatar. This is one value of the Vedas to us, that through them we see religion in the making, and can follow the birth, growth, and death of gods and beliefs from animism to philosophic pantheism, and from the superstition of the Atharva-veda to the sublime monism of the Upanishads.

    These gods are human in figure, in motive, almost in ignorance. One of them, besieged by prayers, ponders what he should give his devotee: “This is what I will do—no, not that; I will give him a cow—or shall it be a horse? I wonder if I have really had soma from him?” Some of them, however, rose in later Vedic days to a majestic moral significance. Varuna, who began as the encompassing heaven, whose breath was the storm and whose garment was the sky, grew with the development of his worshipers into the most ethical and ideal deity of the Vedas—watching over the world through his great eye, the sun, punishing evil, rewarding good, and forgiving the sins of those who petitioned him. In this aspect Varuna was the custodian and executor of an eternal law called Rita; this was at first the law that established and maintained the stars in their courses; gradually it became also the law of right, the cosmic and moral rhythm that every man must follow if he would not go astray and be destroyed.

    As the number of the gods increased, the question arose as to which of them had created the world. This primal role was assigned now to Agni, now to Indra, now to Soma, now to Prajapati. One of the Upanishads attributed the world to an irrepressible Pro-creator:


    Verily, he had no delight; one alone had no delight; he desired a second. He was, indeed, as large as a woman and a man closely embraced. He caused that self to fall (v pat) into two pieces; there from arose a husband (pati) and a wife (patni). Therefore . . . one’s self is like a half fragment; . . . therefore this space is filled by a wife. He copulated with her. Therefore human beings were produced. And she bethought herself: “How, now, does he copulate with me after he has produced me just from himself? Come, let me hide myself.” She became a cow. He became a bull. With her he did indeed copulate. Then cattle were born. She became a mare, he a stallion. She became a female ass, he a male ass; with her he copulated of a truth. Thence were born solid hoofed animals. She became a she-goat, he a he-goat; she a ewe, he a ram. With her he did verily copulate. Therefore were born goats and sheep. Thus indeed he created all, whatever pairs there are, even down to the ants. He knew: “I, indeed, am this creation, for I emitted it all from myself.” Thence arose creation.


    In this unique passage we have the germ of pantheism and transmigration: the Creator is one with his creation, and all things, all forms of life, are one; every form was once another form, and is distinguished from it only in the prejudice of perception and the superficial separateness of time. This view, though formulated in the Upanishads, was not yet in Vedic days a part of the popular creed; instead of transmigration the Indo-Aryans, like the Aryans of Persia, accepted a simple belief in personal immortality. After death the soul entered into eternal punishment or happiness; it was thrust by Varuna into a dark abyss, half Hades and half hell, or was raised by Yama into a heaven where every earthly joy was made endless and complete. “Like corn decays the mortal,” said the Katha Upanishad, “like corn is he born again.”

* An almost monotheistic devotion was accorded to Prajapati until, in later theology, the all-consuming figure of Brahma swallowed him up.

In the earlier Vedic religion there were, so far as the evidence goes, no temples and no images; altars were put up anew for each sacrifice as in Zoroastrian Persia, and sacred fire lifted the offering to heaven. Vestiges of human sacrifice occur here, as at the outset of almost every civilization; but they are few and uncertain. Again as in Persia, the horse was sometimes burnt as an offering to the gods. The strangest ritual of all was the Ashvamedha, or Sacrifice of the Horse, in which the queen of the tribe seems to have copulated with the sacred horse after it had been killed.* The usual offering was a libation of soma juice, and the pouring of liquid butter into the fire. The sacrifice was conceived for the most part in magical terms; if it were properly performed it would win its reward, regardless of the moral deserts of the worshiper. The priests charged heavily for helping the pious in the ever more complicated ritual of sacrifice: if no fee was at hand, the priest refused to recite the necessary formulas; his payment had to come before that of the god. Rules were laid down by the clergy as to what the remuneration should be for each service—how many cows or horses, or how much gold; gold was particularly efficacious in moving the priest or the god. The Brahmanas, written by the Brahmans, instructed the priest how to turn the prayer or sacrifice secretly to the hurt of those who had employed him, if they had given him an inadequate fee. Other regulations were issued, prescribing the proper ceremony and usage for almost every occasion of life, and usually requiring priestly aid. Slowly the Brahmans became a privileged hereditary caste, holding the mental and spiritual life of India under a control that threatened to stifle all thought and change.

The Vedas as Literature

It is quite unlikely that the ancient Sanskrit tongue, which Sir William Jones pronounced “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either,” should have been the spoken language of the Aryan invaders. What that speech was we do not know; we can only presume that it was a near relative of the early Persian dialect in which the Avesta was composed. The Sanskrit of the Vedas and the epics has already the earmarks of a classic and literary tongue, used only by scholars and priests; the very word Sanskrit means “prepared, pure, perfect, sacred.” The language of the people in the Vedic age was not one but many; each tribe had its own Aryan dialect. India has never had one language.

    The Vedas contain no hint that their authors knew writing. It was not until the ninth or eighth century B.C. that Hindu—probably Dravidian—merchants brought from western Asia a Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician; and from this “Brahma script,” as it came to be called, all the later alphabets of India were derived. For centuries writing seems to have been confined to commercial and administrative purposes, with little thought of using it for literature; “merchants, not priests, developed this basic art.” Even the Buddhist canon does not appear to have been written down before the third century B.C. The oldest extant inscriptions in India are those of Ashoka (269-232 B.C.). We who (until the air about us was filled with words and music) were for centuries made eye-minded by writing and print, find it hard to understand how contentedly India, long after she had learned to write, clung to the old ways of transmitting history and literature by recitation and memory. The Vedas and the epics were songs that grew with the generations of those that recited them; they were intended not for sight but for sound. From this indifference to writing comes our dearth of knowledge about early India.

* Ponebatque in gremium regina genitale victimae membrum.

Here quoting British scholar T. W. Rhys Davids.

Perhaps poetry will recover its ancient hold upon our people when we again recite it rather than silently read it.

    It remained for the authors of the Upanishads* to take up these problems, and elaborate these hints, in the most typical, and perhaps the greatest, product of the Hindu mind.

* Aka the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”) because they signified the ultimate core, crowning, and sealing of the Vedas.

What, then, were these Vedas from which nearly all our understanding of primitive India is derived? The word Veda means knowledge;§ a Veda is literally a Book of Knowledge. The Hindus apply the word Vedas to all the sacred lore of their early period; like our Bible it indicates a literature rather than a book. Nothing could be more confused than the arrangement and division of this collection. Of the many Vedas that once existed, only four have survived:

I. The Rig-veda, or Knowledge of the Hymns of Praise;

II. The Sama-veda, or Knowledge of the Melodies;

III. The Yajur-veda, or Knowledge of the Sacrificial Formulas; and

IV. The Atharva-veda, or Knowledge of the Magic Formulas.

Each of these four Vedas is divided into four sections:

1. The Mantras, or Hymns;

2. The Brahmanas, or manuals of ritual, prayer, and incantation for the priests;

3. The Aranyaka, or “forest-texts” for hermit saints; and

4. The Upanishads, or confidential conferences for philosophers.*

    Only one of the Vedas belongs to literature rather than to religion, philosophy, or magic. The Rig-veda is a kind of religious anthology, composed of 1028 hymns, or psalms of praise, to the various objects of Indo-Aryan worship—sun, moon, sky, stars, wind, rain, fire, dawn, earth, etc. Most of the hymns are matter-of-fact petitions for herds, crops, and longevity; a small minority of them rise to the level of literature; a few of them reach to the eloquence and beauty of the Psalms. Some of them are simple and natural poetry, like the unaffected wonder of a child. One hymn marvels that white milk should come from red cows; another cannot understand why the sun, once it begins to descend, does not fall precipitately to the earth; another inquires how “the sparkling waters of all rivers flow into one ocean without ever filling it.” One is a funeral hymn, in the style of Thanatopsis, over the body of a comrade fallen in battle:


From the dead hand I take the bow he wielded

To gain for us dominion, might and glory.

Thou there, we here, rich in heroic offspring,

Will vanquish all assaults of every foeman.

Approach the bosom of the earth, the mother,

This earth extending far and most propitious;

Young, soft as wool to bounteous givers, may she

Preserve thee from the lap of dissolution.

Open wide, O earth, press not heavily upon him,

Be easy of approach, hail him with kindly aid;

As with a robe a mother hides

Her son, so shroud this man, O earth.


    Another of the poems (Rv. x, 10) is a frank dialogue between the first parents of humankind, the twin brother and sister, Yama and Yami. Yami tempts her brother to cohabit with her despite the divine prohibition of incest, and alleges that all that she desires is the continuance of the race. Yama resists her on high moral grounds. She uses every inducement, and as a last weapon, calls him a weakling. The story as we have it is left unfinished, and we may judge the issue only from circumstantial evidence. The loftiest of the poems is an astonishing Creation Hymn, in which a subtle pantheism, even a pious skepticism, appears in this oldest book of the most religious of peoples:


Nor Aught nor Nought existed; yon bright sky

Was not, nor heaven’s broad woof outstretched above.

What covered all? What sheltered? What concealed?

Was it the water’s fathomless abyss?

There was not death—yet was there naught immortal,

There was no confine betwixt day and night;

The Only One breathed breathless by itself;

Other than It there nothing since has been.

Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled

In gloom profound—an ocean without light—

The germ that still lay covered in the husk

Burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat.

Then first came love upon it, the new spring

Of mind—yea, poets in their hearts discerned,

Pondering, this bond between created things

And uncreated. Comes this spark from earth

Piercing and all-pervading, or from heaven?

Then seeds were sown, and mighty powers arose—

Nature below, and power and will above—

Who knows the secret? Who proclaimed it here,

Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang?

The gods themselves came later into being—

Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?

He from whom all this great creation came,

Whether his will created or was mute,

The Most High Seer that is in highest heaven,

He knows it—or perchance even He knows not.

§ Greek (f)oida, Latin video, German weise, English wit and wisdom.

* This is but one of many possible divisions of the material. In addition to the “inspired” commentaries contained in the Brahmanas (written between 900 and 700 B.C.) and Upanishads (written between 800 and 500 B.C.), Hindu scholars usually include in the Vedas several collections of shorter commentaries in aphoristic form, called Sutras (lit., threads, from Skt. siv, to sew). These, while not directly inspired from heaven, have the high authority of an ancient tradition. Many of them are brief to the point of unintelligibility; they were convenient condensations of doctrine, mnemonic devices for students who still relied upon memory rather than upon writing.   

    As to the authorship or date of this mass of poetry, myth, magic, ritual and philosophy, no one can say. Pious Hindus believe every word of it to be divinely inspired, and tell us that the great god Brahma wrote it with his own hand upon leaves of gold; and this is a view that we cannot easily refute. According to the fervor of their patriotism, divers native authorities assign to the oldest hymns dates ranging from 6000 to 1000 B.C. They probably collected and arranged the material between 1000 and 500 B.C.

They are composed in stanzas generally of four lines each. The lines are of 5, 8, 11 or 12 syllables, indifferent as to quantity, except that the last four syllables are usually two trochees, or a trochee and a spondee.

The Smriti literature

As contrasted to shruti, divinely authored Sanskrit Scripture, smriti has a human author and may even be composed in one of the provincial languages of India. Numerous smriti texts exist, the most important being the epics, the dharma, the tantras, and the puranas.   

    The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are protracted epics revered by Hindus, who rightly protest that no foreigner can judge them, or even understand them. To the Hindu they are not mere stories, they are a gallery of ideal characters upon whom he may mold his conduct; they are a repertory of the traditions, philosophy, and theology of his people; in a sense they are sacred scriptures to be read as a Christian reads The Imitation of Christ or The Lives of the Saints. The pious Hindu believes that Krishna and Rama were incarnations of the divine Vishnu, and still prays to them; and when he reads their story in these epics he feels that he derives religious merit as well as literary delight and moral exaltation.

    Beginning (c. 400 B.C.) as a brief narrative poem of reasonable length, the Mahabharata took on, with every century, additional episodes and homilies, and absorbed the Bhagavad-Gita as well as parts of the story of Rama, until at last it measured 107,000 octameter couplets—seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. The name of the author was legion; “Vyasa,” to whom tradition assigns it, means “the compiler.” A hundred poets wrote it, a thousand singers molded it, until, under the Gupta kings (c. 400), the Brahmans poured their own religious and moral ideas into a work originally Kshatriyan, and gave the poem the gigantic form in which we find it today. The central subject was not precisely adapted to religious instruction, for it told a tale of violence, gambling and war. Book One presents the fair Shakuntala (destined to be the heroine of India’s most famous drama) and her mighty son Bharata; from his loins come those “great Bharata” (Maha-Bharata) tribes, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, whose bloody strife constitutes the oft-broken thread of the tale. 

    Upon the theme of love and battle a thousand interpolations have been hung. The god Krishna interrupts the slaughter for a canto to discourse on the nobility of war and Krishna; the dying Bhishma postpones his death to expound the laws of caste, bequest, marriage, gifts, and funeral rites, to explain the philosophy of the Sankhya and the Upanishads, to narrate a mass of legends, traditions and myths, and to lecture Yudhisthira at great length on the duties of a king; dusty stretches of genealogy and geography, of theology and metaphysics, separate the oases of drama and action; fables and fairy-tales, love-stories and lives of the saints contribute to give the Mahabharata a formlessness worse, and a body of thought richer, than can be found in either the Iliad or the Odyssey. What was evidently a Kshatriyan enthronement of action, heroism and war becomes, in the hands of the Brahmans, a vehicle for teaching the people the laws of Manu, the principles of Yoga, the precepts of morality, and the beauty of Nirvana. The Golden Rule is expressed in many forms;* moral aphorisms of beauty and wisdom abound; and pretty stories of marital fidelity (Nala and Damayanti, Savitri) convey to women listeners the Brahman ideal of the faithful and patient wife.

    Embedded in the narrative of the great battle is the loftiest philosophical poem in the world’s literature—the Bhagavad-Gita, or Lord’s Song. This is the New Testament of India, revered next to the Vedas themselves, and used in the law-courts, like our Bible or the Qur’an, for the administration of oaths. Wilhelm von Humboldt pronounced it “the most beautiful, perhaps the only true, philosophical song existing in any known tongue; . . . perhaps the deepest and loftiest thing the world has to show.” Sharing the anonymity that India, careless of the individual and the particular, wraps around her creations, the Gita comes to us without the author’s name, and without date. It may be as old as 400 B.C. or as young as the year 200.

    The mise-en-scène of the poem is the battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas; the occasion is the reluctance of the Pandava warrior Arjuna to attack in mortal combat his own near relatives in the opposing force. Thereupon Krishna, whose divinity does not detract from his joy in battle, explains, with all the authority of an avatar of Vishnu, that according to the Scriptures, and the best orthodox opinion, it is meet and just to kill one’s relatives in war. That Arjuna’s duty is to follow the rules of his Kshatriya caste, to fight and slay with a good conscience and a good will; that after all, only the body is slain, while the soul survives. Krishna proceeds to instruct Arjuna in metaphysics, blending Sankhya and Vedanta in the peculiar synthesis accepted by the Vaishnavite sect.

    It is a poem rich in complementary colors, in metaphysical and ethical contradictions that reflect the contrariness and complexity of life. We are a little shocked to find the man taking what might seem to be the higher moral stand, while the god argues for war and slaughter on the shifty ground that life is un-killable and individuality unreal. What the author had in mind to do, apparently, was to shake the Hindu soul out of the enervating quietism of Buddhist piety into a willingness to fight for India; it was the rebellion of a Kshatriya who felt that religion was weakening his country, and who proudly reckoned that many things were more precious than peace. Overall, it was a good lesson which, if India had learned it, might have kept her free.

    As the Mahabharata resembles the Iliad in being the story of a great war fought by gods and men, and partly occasioned by the loss of a beautiful woman from one nation to another, so the Ramayana resembles the Odyssey, and tells of a hero’s hardships and wanderings, and of his wife’s patient waiting for reunion with him. The Ramayana is briefer, merely running to 24,000 verses; and though it, too, grew by accretion from the third century B.C. to the second century, the interpolations are fewer, and do not much disturb the central theme. Tradition attributes the poem to one Valmiki, who, like the supposed author of the larger epic, appears as a character in the tale; but more probably it is the product of many wayside bards like those who still recite these epics, sometimes for ninety consecutive evenings, to fascinated audiences. From the outset, we get a picture of a Golden Age. For Rama and his wife Sita are too good to be true, but their lives display dharma in many diverse roles and endeavors.

    Dharma plays a larger role in an additional class of smriti literature. No code of laws applied to all India. In the ordinary affairs of life the place of law was taken by the dharmashastras—metrical textbooks of caste regulations and duties, composed by the Brahmans from a strictly Brahman point of view. Morality or dharma was the rule of life for each man as determined by his caste. To be a Hindu meant not so much to accept a creed as to take a place in the caste system, and to accept the dharma or duties attaching to that place by ancient tradition and regulation. Each post had its obligations, its limitations, and its rights; with them and within them the pious Hindu would lead his life, finding in them a certain contentment of routine, and never thinking of stepping into another caste. “Better thine own work is, though done with fault,” said the Bhagavad-Gita, “than doing others’ work, even excellently.” Dharma is to the individual what its normal development is to a seed—the orderly fulfillment of an inherent nature and destiny. So old is this conception of morality that even today it is difficult for all, and impossible for most, Hindus to think of themselves except as members of a specific caste, guided and bound by its rule. In addition to the dharma of each caste, the Hindu recognized a general dharma or obligation affecting all castes, and embracing chiefly respect for Brahmans, and reverence for cows.

    The reverence of the Mother Goddess who was worshipped under many names (Kali, Parvati, Uma, Durga) but mostly by the name of Shakti, became common around the fifth century. She was the theme for an immense body of Hindu literature termed the tantras, sacred literature that developed from this time and centered on her. Tantric literature accommodates itself to females. The Shakti, or energizing power, of Shiva was conceived sometimes as his consort Kali, sometimes as a female element in Shiva’s nature, which included both male and female powers; and these two powers were represented by idols called linga or yoni, representing respectively the male or the female organs of generation. Tantra sometimes comprises the balancing of these two parts—Shiva (embodying consciousness) and Shakti (embodying energy)—analogous to the yin and yang of Daoism.

    Finally, the Vedas having died in the language in which they were written, and the metaphysics of the Brahman schools being beyond the comprehension of the people, Vyasa and others, over a period of more than a thousand years (350-1500), composed eighteen Puranas—“old stories”—in 400,000 couplets, expounding to the laity the exact truth about the creation of the world, its periodical evolution and dissolution, the genealogy of the gods, and the history of the heroic age. The most admired one, the Bhagavata-purana, deals with the early life of Krishna. These books made no pretense to literary form, logical order, or numerical moderation; but through the intelligibility of their language, the attractiveness of their parables, and the orthodoxy of their doctrine they became the second Bible of Hinduism, the grand repository of its superstitions, its myths, even of its philosophy.

* Aka the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”) because they signified the ultimate core, crowning, and sealing of the Vedas.

* E.g.: “Do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain.” “Even if the enemy seeks help, the good man will be ready to grant him aid.” “With meekness conquer wrath, and ill with ruth; by giving niggards vanquish, lies with truth.”

E.g.: “As in the great ocean one piece of wood meets another, and parts from it again, such is the meeting of creatures.”