The Treasure of Hindu Sanskrit Texts

1. The Rig-Veda • 1500 - 1200 BC

This 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 beings.

2. The Atharva-Veda • 1200 - (?) BC

The 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.
3. The Satapatha-Brahmana • 1000 BC

The 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).

4. The Upnishads • 500 BC

The 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.

5. The Grhya-Sutras • 600 BC

Along 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.

6. The Dharma-Sutras • 600 - 300 BC

Though 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 our era.

7. Manu-Smriti • 200 - 100 BC

The 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').

8. The Bhagavad-Gita • (?) BC

At 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.

9. The Maha-Bharata • 300 BC - 100 AD

The '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.

10. The Ramayana • (?)

The '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.

11. The Puranas • 100 - 1000 AD

The 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.

12. The Tantras • 500 - 600 AD

The 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.

13. Kalidasa • 300/400 AD

Kalidasa 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.

14. Bhartrahari • (?)

To 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.
15. Bhavabhuti • (?)

We 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 Goddess.

16. Ramanuja • (?)

Born 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.

17. The Gita-Govinda • (?)

The 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.

18. Sarva-Darshana-Samagraha • (?)

This 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.

19. The Adhyatma-Ramayana • (?)

An 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.