1500 - 1200 BC
text presents a collection or an anthology of about a thousand hymns
addressed to principal gods of the Vedic pantheon. The language is
a very archaic Sanskrit.
Along with the homage rendered to gods, and mythological or ritual
descriptions, we find formulas utilized by poets to invite a god to
participate as a distinguished guest in the sacred offering. Some
of the compositions are of an entirely different character: for example,
the famous poem on the creation of the world; or the Hymn of Man,
which describes the Primordial Sacrifice, consisting of the immolation
of the gigantic man (Purusha) from whose limbs have come forth all
1200 - (?) BC
Atharva-veda is slightly less ancient than the Rig-veda: but in
nature, it is quite different. It is a collection of versified prayers
or hymns, some of a magical or an allegorical character, others
dealing with cosmogony. The latter compositions develop speculative
material which appeared in some of the 'recent' hymns of the Rig-veda.
Among the former figure two texts which we present here: one, a
prayer to Varuna as god of Cosmos (a prayer which ends with a magical
imprecation); the other, a charm agains fever.
Brahmana (or Brahmanical exegesis) of the Hundred Paths
is the first great work of Vedic literature written in prose. Tentatively
it may be placed in the tenth century B.C. As in all the texts of
the same class, discussions on sacred formulas (mantras) or
doctrinal points concerning sacrifice are to be found along with mythological
ramblings and erudite or allegorical digressions. The Satapatha
contains the oldest speculation on brahman, or the Absolute Principle
(see, for instance, No. 2 below).
Upanishads or 'Approaches' are collections of texts developing the
ritual or cosmogonic data of the Veda in a strongly speculative direction
and installing on new foundations the ancient equivalence felt between
the human and the divine world. They mark the 'end of the Veda,' the
point of completion of Vedic representations which was foreshadowed
by the assumed identity between the atman, or 'individual soal,' and
the brahman, or 'universal soul'. The teaching is imparted in discursive
form with the help of parables, dialogues, maxims. The Two principal
Upanishads are the 'Great Aranyaka' and the Chandogya.
with solemn ceremonies, there are 'domestic' rites whose details are
preserved in the 'Domestic Aphorisms' of the Vedic period.
Except for certain adjustments, these practices have remained in general
use in India. These collections are classified, like all Vedic texts,
according to different 'schools'. They form part of the 'unrevealed'
portion of the Veda.
600 - 300 BC
belonging to the Vedic canon, aphorisms relating to 'dharma', that
is to the Hindu norm, are the most ancient extant treatises of a juridical
characer which form part of Smriti. They are, however, still concerned
with religious preoccupations as can be seen in the exposition of
the Brahmanical initiation which marked the admission of a youg boy
to the prerogatives of his social class. These texts must have appeared
during the period between the sixth and the third centuries before
200 - 100 BC
Manava-dharma-shastra or Laws of Manu constitute a classic
of Indian juridical theory. This work condenses in form of diversified
maxims all of the content of dharma, whether it be the specifically
religious rules, institutions, customs and ethical precepts which
dominate an individual's existence; whether it be the individual established
in the world (and, consequently, subjected to the directions of social
castes and of ashramas) or the individual isolated from the
world (ascetic). These rules are presented within the framework of
a large cosmogonic fresco: Manu is here the primordial man who receives
the revelation of the supreme designs of Brahman and is at the same
time the promulgator of Smriti or 'Memorized tradition' (secondarily
issued from the Shruti or 'Direct Revelation').
the time when the warrior Arjuna is about to engage in final battle
against his enemies, the kauravas, he is seized with fear at the possibility
of having to shed blood. He questions his chariot companion, Krishna.
The latter removes his hesitation: Arjuna must perform his duty as
a warrior; besides, Krishna tells him, life and death are of little
worth when compared with eternal values. That is how the famous poem,
The Celestial Song, begins. Gradually revealing himself to Arjuna
as the Supreme Lord, Krishna teaches action without desire, which
conducts a human being to Libration.
The Bhagavad-Gita has rightly been called the gospel of Krishnaism.
300 BC - 100 AD
'Great Story of the War of the Bharatas' is a huge epic poem of 90,000
double verses. It describes the ruthless rivalry which separates the
two lines of descendants of Bharata, the hundred Kauravas, on the
one hand, and their cousins, the five Pandavas, on the other. The
Pandavas are victorious at the end of a general carnage which leads
ultimately to their own death.
The narration is interrupted here and there by related episodes, by
fables and apologues, or by political and moral dissertations which
transform this long poem into a kind of resume of the principal values
of Hinduism, a resume, however, which allots more space to the dharma
of the warrior than to that of a Brahmin or an ascetic.
'Story of Rama', an epic in 24,000 double verses, is the work of Valmiki,
who found its elements in a rich pan-Indian legend which contained
themes of folklore and perhaps also cortain prehistorical reminiscences.
It is the story of the adventures of prince Rama (Ramachandra), sone
of Dashratha, and of his noble wife Sita from the time of their exile
to their triumphal return to Ayodhya, after which there follows an
unjust repudiation and the death of Sita.
The main story lends itself to digressions. Some of these, if linked
together, would form a code of Hindu conduct and morals. Although
it presents from many points of view, in its composition and its contents,
the courtly and polished India of later times, the work is probably
to be dated near the redaction of the Maha-Bharata.
100 - 1000 AD
Puranas or 'Antiquities' are versified texts, each of which is, as
a general rule, devoted to a description of the characteristics and
exploits of some great divinity and to a statement of the elements
of his related cult and the pilgrimages which are associated with
it. Actually, the treatises, often voluminous, contain details on
the creation of the world, the genealogy of gods, human pre-history,
royal dynasties - in addition to many digressions, some concerning
secular subjects, other dealing with religious or speculative matters.
From the beginning of our era to the tenth century and even later,
the vast subject matter of Puranas has nourished the beliefs and practices
of the Hindus. There are eighteen principal Puranas and a great number
of secondary Puranas.
500 - 600 AD
Tantras, or the 'Treatises on the Doctrine', mainly describe an
often elaborated and generally symbolical ritual which characterizes
those aspects of Hinduism which are called Tantrism. Like the Puranas,
the Tantras also contain much speculation concerning rites, as well
as mythical episodes which are ordinarily connected with the cult
of Shakti, or 'Energy,' who is conceived as the wife of Shiva and
as a supreme divine Being. Versified works, of which quite a number
are known today, the Tantras were compiled at about the sixth or
the seventh century.
is the greatest name in the lyrical poetry of India. His works, which
are probably to be placed in the fourth or fifth centuries, comprise
many dramatical comedies (including the famous Shakuntala and at least
three works of the 'lyrical epic' type. His verses narrate the life
of the descendants of the hero Raghu (the Raghuvamsha), the meeting
of the god Shiva and Parvati and the birth of their son Kumara (the
Kumarasambhava), a lyrical love-elegy (the 'Cloud Messenger' or 'Meghaduta),
and so on. Exalting alike the virtues of the saint or the hero, his
works are rich in mythological allusions and in maxims; they represent
the Brahmanic ideal in its perfection of harmony.
Bhartrhari, an author of the seventh century, we owe stanzas on
love, worldly wisdom and renunciation. These stanzas are collected
in three 'centuries' and form an epitome of rare formal perfection.
They exemplify the moral values at the basis of Hinduism.
owe to this eighth-century author three famous drams, of which the
two better known are a dramatized story of the later days of the hero
Rama (th Uttararamacarita) and a love story interspersed with tragic
scenes (the Malatimadhava). The excerpt below is a scene from the
latter which demonstrates the preparation for a human sacrifice in
honour of Chamunda, one of the innumerable designations of the great
in the region of Madras in the eleventh century, Ramanuja instituted
a form of Vedanta based on the notion of the 'qualified brahman',
that is a personal god endowed with attributes which comprehend souls
and things. As a consequence, according to him, religious practice
comprises a form of bhakti, or 'devotion', which has in part an intellectual
tendency. He introduced in his work the idea of prapatti, or 'abandon'
(to the divine will).
The thought of Ramanuja is adopted by the sect of the Srivaisnavas
who themselves depend partly on the theoretical texts of Visnuism,
called Samhitas, and partly on the movement of the Alvars.
Song of Govinda (Krishna as a cowherd god) is the work of Jayadeva
(Bengal, end of twelfth century). It describes the love of Krishna
and Radha, the nostalgia of the god from whom Radha is kept apart
by rancor, the suffering of Radha, and their reconciliation. This
passtoral, in which a mystical tone is mingled with that of lyric
love, appears as a sort of a booklet consisting of a suite of cantilenas
terminated by refrains.
treatise is a resume of the principal systems of Indian philosophy.
It dates from the fourteenth century. We include it here since the
first system described in it is that of the Charvakas, or Materialists.
The preponderance of religious texts in India should not let us forget
that there have been movements of agnostics, sceptics and atheists
whose literature is almost entirely lost. The part they played should
not be ignored when an attempt is made to trace the aspects and limits
of the religious character of India.
edifying poem in 4,200 double verses, which combines a Tantric purpose
with a moral borrowed from the Ramayana. This is a 'Ramayana on the
plane of the atman.' Herein is to be seen a dialogue between Shiva
and the Goddess on the divine character of Rama and Sita. The work
must date from the fifteenth century.