History and Sources

What other early scriptures are especially important for Hindus?

Over a span of perhaps two thousand years (c. 3000-1000 B.C.E., according to some Indian scholars), Hindu ritual specialists produced a substantial body of sacred literature by way of commentary and reflection on the Vedas. The earliest of these works were manuals for priests, or Brahmanas, each attached to one of the four Vedas. These Brahmanas elaborated on the mythic stories to which the Vedic hymns often had made only passing allusions, expanding on the tradition much as the early Jewish rabbis had developed the oral Torah. The Brahmanas served the practical purpose of recording for posterity precise directions for correct ritual performance. Still another layer of scriptural development gave rise to a series of works called Aranyakas, “Forest Treatises.” Composed by and for hermits, these texts offered further commentary on the Vedas meant to foster the contemplative life. Aranyakas were connected with the Brahmanas much as the Brahmanas were linked to the various Vedas. With their emphasis on inward reflection, the Aranyakas signal an important turn away from the ancient Vedic and Brahmanical reliance on external ritual. Another type of sacred text called the Upanishads evolved from about 1500 to 500 B.C.E. The name upa-ni-shad means, loosely, “sitting at the feet of” a mentor. These remarkable documents, many in the form of a dialogue between teacher and student, reflect deeply on the nature of the divine and of the self. Life’s true meaning rests not primarily in dealing with forces beyond human control, but in understanding both the ultimate causes of all things and the relationship of the self to those causes. The Upanishads represent major developments known collectively as Vedanta, the “end or culmination of the Vedas.”


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