Hinduism is said to have three pillars, three sources or authority, through which its wisdom can be learned. Scripture, Temples, and Gurus. This section will look at each of these three in turn. One thing that should become clear through this section is the diversity and variation within the Hindu tradition. Like other theological traditions Hinduism developed around central texts and a sacred language that have been subsequently interpreted and reinterpreted as the tradition spread and evolved both geographically and historically. A defining feature of Hinduism is how loosely the tradition is organised. This makes it hard to speak of the tradition as singular; it is more accurately a collection of intertwined traditions. But, it also means that Hinduism is resourceful and adaptable, something that it has shown over its long history.
As is perhaps already clear, Sanskrit holds special importance in Hindu theology. It is the language of the gods. Comparable to Church Latin in Roman Catholicism, Quranic Arabic in Islam, or Classical Chinese in Imperial China. As with all of these languages, over time different versions of Sanskrit developed; and so the name given to the language that the Vedas and other ancient texts were composed in is ‘Vedic Sanskrit’.
According to Hindu theology Sanskrit was created by Brahma, who generated and passed on the Vedas in Sanskrit to enlightened sages, or Rishis. This starts the oral tradition that lies at the heart of Hindu theology. Within this tradition many famous grammarians worked to perfect the language and produce what is termed ‘Classical Sanskrit’. The word ‘Sanskrit’ translates into ‘perfected, good – formed, work’ or ‘Perfectly formed’. It is sometimes held in opposition to ‘Prakrit’ which can be translated as ‘Normal, artless, originally – formed, made.’ The vision of Sanskrit, at least by these ancient grammarians is that it perfects as supersedes the various imperfect languages that humans are born into. Sanskrit is held up as being the perfect language; elegant, beautiful, and endlessly expressive. Its mere use works to purify the speaker, their topic, and the listener and the world around them. Truly a divine language.
Hindu scripture is traditionally split between Shruti and Smriti. Shruti can be translated as ‘What is Heard’, whereas Smriti translates as ‘What is Remembered’. The difference is the degree of separation between the reader/listener and the divine source of the words. Shruti are the more authoritative texts because they are thought to be composed by sages, or Rishis, who were enlightened and inspired through their connection to a creative divine source, usually Brahman. Smriti, on the other hand, are derivative texts not the product of divine revelation but of humanity itself. Smriti texts are held to be authoritative based upon their contribution to the elaboration, commentary, and analysis of the Shruti texts. From this basic understanding we will launch into a brief explanation of the key Hindu scriptures.
Shruti – Revealed
The Shruti texts that form the foundation of Hindu theology are the four Vedas. The composition of the Vedas is currently traced back to sometime between 1700 and 500 BCE. They are as follows:
- Rig-veda (lit. Praise – Knowledge). The oldest of the Vedas dates to between 1700 and 1100 BCE, with the most likely dates being between 1500 and 1200 BCE. They are some of the oldest written works in the world. It is by far the most important of the Vedas due to its age and the quality to which it has been preserved.
- Yajur-veda (lit. Worship – Knowledge). This Veda offers descriptions and instructions for the completion of various rituals for the health and prosperity of the individual and the community.
- Sama-veda (lit. Song – Knowledge). The Samaveda Samhita is thought to be composed, in its entirety, to music. Alongside this the veda also is home to some of the most important Upanishads in the Hindu canon.
- Atharva-veda (lit. Everyday – Knowledge). Provides further instruction for various rituals, alongside medical advice and further significant Upanishads.
The Vedas are built layer upon layer composed in different styles and focussing on different topics. The earliest layer in each is called Samhita; this layer is a collection of songs, hymns, mantras and psalms that celebrate the actions of the various deities that make up Hindu cosmology. After this come the Brahmanas; this layer offers instructions on how to perform certain rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices. They often do so with reference to ancient myths and legends. These first two layers naturally come together as the liturgy for various Hindu acts of worship. Building on this foundation the Aranyakas offer commentary on the meaning behind the ritualised actions. Then, the Upanishads dive deeper into more abstract theology taking these lines of enquiry to their conclusion.
Smriti – Remembered
- Ramayana – An epic poem chronicling the life of Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu. Significant not only for its massive cultural impact but also of the way that it portrays ideal relationships that form the ground of society.
- Mahabharata – An epic poem chronicling the Kurukshetra War fought between two groups of cousins. It’s extensive scope covers large areas of Hindu theology, cosmology, and mythology. It’s most famous section is the Bhagavad-gita in which the Prince Arjuna seeks guidance in the midst of battle from his guide, and another avatar of Vishnu, Krishna.
- Puranas – The Puranas are an entire genre of works. They are vast in scope and encyclopedic in style. Usually each focuses on a particular deity or topic, they weave together to give huge amounts of information on Hindu cosmology, mythology, and folklore.
There are many other well respected works, especially those written by prominent theologians, such as the Vedanta Sutras or others like them. And building of these works as a foundation many schools of thought have arisen. In the next subsection we will look at the most prominent of these.
The Six Major Schools of Interpretation (sad-darshana);
- Samkhya – Strongly rationalist, argues that only consciousness and matter exists, and recognises three of the six proofs, or methods, for gaining knowledge that are traditional in Hindu theology: Perception, Inference, and Trusted Testimony..
- Yoga – While having strong links and widespread agreement with the Samkhya school on matters of epistemology and ontology. Yoga focuses on self-improvement and attempts to better the mind, body, and soul.
- Nyaya – Famous for its contributions in the field of Logic and Epistemology. It argues that suffering arises as the result of action in a state of ignorance; therefore achieving liberation is strongly tied to seeking truth.
- Vaisheshika – Once a fully independent theology, Vaisheshika grew closer over time to the Nyaya school. However it remains distinct, and shares more than a few similarities with Buddhism.
- Mimamsa – This school is famous for its focus on textual analysis and hermeneutics of the Vedas. It is also very diverse, with many sub-schools based on these different interpretations.
- Vedanta – The largest and most prominent of the six schools is also the most diverse. It derives much of its focus on analysis of the Upanishads. It is closely tied to the Mimamsa school.
Temples and Traditions
The second pillar of authority in Hinduism is the Temple. These sacred spaces, alongside monasteries, shrines and other holy places, are designed to bring humanity and divinity together. They are a living part of Hindu theology as they are usually resplendent with art and symbolism that places each one firmly within a tradition of Hindu theology. Through the temples therefore, adherents can physically step into the flow of tradition and engage with the architecture, art, and history that ties them to the theology of the land. This geographic situatedness is one of the aspects of Hindu theology, like other traditions, that is often overlooked. Different traditions grew out of particular places and the actions of particular people. For most people, the link to these theological traditions is their local Temple. There are four main theological traditions, in this subsection we will look through each of them.
One of the two larger denominations, Vaishnavism is more common in Northern and Western India. It holds up Vishnu, the preserver, as the primary deity and is comprised of numerous smaller groups that are more closely associated and devoted to particular avatars of Vishnu. Favourite avatars that are worshipped as deities in their own right are Krishna, Rama, and Jagannath.
The regional variations are tied to the close association between one of these avatars and a particular place. For example Rama holds a special importance to the people of his birthplace Ayodhya; whereas Jagannath is thought to be housed at a temple in Puri, where the annual procession of his chariot, Ratha Yatra, is a major event.
As a result of the large number of smaller deities and avatars associated with Vishnu, the temples will be focused on any number of images or figures depicting the deity that the temple is dedicated to. The avatars of Vishnu are the subjects of countless folklores and legends, making them popular figures to dedicate temples to. Some, like Krishna and Rama, have even developed traditions where they, and not Vishnu, are seen as the primary deity.
The other of the two biggest Hindu denominations is the predominant tradition in South India, although like Vaishnavism, is by no means restricted to only that region. Just as Shaivism sees Shiva, the creator and destroyer, as the primary deity. Worship of Shiva is closely tied to the practice of Yoga, but the theology informing the Shaivist tradition is diverse.
Starting around 2000 years ago Shaivism rapidly grew in popularity, and spread not just through the Indian subcontinent, but via trade-routes to South-East Asia where there remain many temples dedicated to Shiva.
While Shiva as part of the Trimurti is known as the destroyer, in the tradition of Shaivism his theological significance is expanded. In this tradition Shiva is the Creator and the Sustainer, the Lord of the Dance, and the prime Yogi. This has all developed through an association that has been made between Shiva and Atman, the ground of all reality, the universal soul.
Very popular in Northeastern India, particularly West Bengal and Assam. It focuses on the Divine Feminine and is based upon a theology that sees the personification of reality as feminine. The supreme Godhead is named Shakti, and is comprised of numerous goddesses, who are all different aspects of the same divine grounding of existence.
The most important festival in Shaktism is the Durga Puja, a festival that is dedicated to the goddess Durga. This festival takes on a particular significance in North-West India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. It is synonymous in these regions with the festival of Navratri. Both festivals celebrate the divine feminine, Devi, and her victory over evil.
Shakti itself is seen as a primordial cosmic spirit or power that is personified in the divine mother. Other goddesses are seen as aspects of Shakti. Most popular in Shaktism are the goddesses Durga, Lakshmi, Parvati, and Kali. All of whom have numerous temples dedicated to them across India.
Emerged as a unifying movement. In response to the growth of splinter groups like Buddhism and Jainism, as well as sectarian violence from one Hindu sect against the other. The Smarta tradition has long advocated for a unified Hinduism and argues that all the many gods and goddesses be treated as equal manifestations of the same divine power.
Unlike the other major traditions of Hinduism, which seem to have developed gradually over time, Smarta can be traced with relative ease to the teaching of one theologian: Adi Shankara. Shankara lived in the 700s and travelled all across India. His numerous commentaries, writings, and teachings were consolidated into Advaita Vedanta theology.
There is a stronger association in this tradition with Brahmanical orthodoxy. That is a widespread recognition of the legitimacy of all the various groups and sects based upon a recognition of the authority of the Brahmin class. However, this is a generalisation that does not always hold, especially in contemporary Hinduism. This focus on leadership, however, brings us to the final, and arguably most important pillar of Hindu authority.
Gurus and Leaders
The first step in Hinduism, as in most things, is to find a good teacher. On the Indian subcontinent, for thousands of years, there have been many to choose from. The Polytheism of Hindu theology is seen here in the blending of specific divinities with specific schools, and in particular the leaders of those schools; the gurus. Gurus usually belong to a specific tradition; not just in a wider tradition like the four we briefly discussed above. A Guru’s authority will often be justified by the relationship they had with the Guru that they served as a disciple of. This creates entire lineages of Gurus and their students passing down a particular tradition. Some Gurus trace back their lineages for many generations. In this way not only are the various traditions preserved, but the Gurus of today rest their authoritative status on their position within the larger flow of Hindu history.
Guru is a Sanskrit term best translated into English as ‘Venerable’, but more colloquially translated as ‘Master’, ‘Teacher’, or ‘Guide’. This meaning of, somebody worthy of veneration, captures some of the semi-divine status that Guru’s can hold in the imaginations of their followers. Despite the diversity contained within Hinduism, it is important to bear in mind the commonality of seeking to achieve the Four Aims by following the example of particular extraordinary figures. This is seen not unique to Hinduism but can be seen here pushed to extremes in some incredible ways, incorporating the entirety of a person.
Gurus, offering various paths to Moksha, condone various practices. In this world of great variety and choice there is a strong emphasis in many traditions on focus and control. The process of achieving Moksha is often likened to overcoming ignorance, realising a deeper truth about the nature of reality. This is variously done either through an ascetic rejection of materiality as much as possible, a yogic expansion of control over the body and the self, or embracing and cultivating an acute appreciation of beauty in the arts. There is no single universal right way of achieving the Four Aims, but a common theme running through many practices is the ability to find and cultivate a relationship with the divine and through that relationship gain a greater view of reality.
It should be clear then that Hinduism is a living and continuously evolving set of traditions. Inspired, but not bound by a rich collection of literature composed in a sacred language. Through history these traditions have evolved as they have moved across space, carried by respected Gurus and their disciples that keep the various traditions alive. A key strength of Hinduism as a theological tradition, is therefore seen in its ability to adapt and reform across time and space. This is a process that continues today.