Monday, June 20, 2011

A little primer on Hindu Literature

Working in tourism, I meet a lot of people whose religion is enshrined in a Book. The written word is held in great reverence, and the Book has a position of religious and moral authority.

Coming from that kind of background, a lot of tourists naturally ask me "What is the holy book of the Hindus?". Usually I tell them a simplistic answer, for example, I usually say "The four Vedas are the primary books".

But it's not that simple. The Vedas are not really "books", are they? They are ancient oral recitations that were written down much later. The truth is, Hindus don't really have a universally agreed upon single "written" Holy Book. What we do have, is a vast oral as well as written tradition which serves as the source of religious, moral and philosophical knowledge. Combined together, these make up Hindu religious literature.

Most Hindus themselves don't know how this literature is classified, so I wrote this little primer (my mom helped me put this together). I realise the article is somewhat school-bookish :) but this information is surprisingly hard to find.

Hindu scriptures are broadly divided as follows:

The Srutis (Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads):
  1. The Vedas are collections, of hymns, melodies, rituals and incantations. They are considered the primary texts of Hinduism. According to Klaus Kostermaier, a Canadian professor of religious studies, the beginnings of the Vedic ritual can be traced to 6000 BC in Northwest India. The dating is open to controversy.
  2. The Brahmanas are commentaries on the Vedas, explaining the rituals. These were composed in the Brahmanic period (900 BC to 500 BC).
  3. The Aranyakas - literally, forest treatises - are meant for sages living a life of renunciation. Unlike the Brahmanas, which deal with rituals, the Aranyakas deal with the philosophical aspects of the Vedas. The Aranyakas are also from the Brahmanic period.
  4. The Upanishads are mystical contemplations designed to teach the means of liberation from rebirth and suffering. Thus they are also called Vedanta - the end of the Vedas - since they teach the ultimate secret to reach the highest metaphysical state. The oldest of these dates from the Brahmanic period, but some of the recent Upanishads are from the medieval times.
The Smritis (Smritis, Itihasas, Puranas):
  1. There are several Smritis, or Codes of Law, whose authority is based on the standing of the author. The most well known of these is the Manu Smriti, thought to date between 200 BC to 200 CE.
  2. The Itihasas - literally, 'histories' - are older than the Smritis. They include the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The epics were composed between 500 BC to 100 BC.
  3. The Puranas are texts that provide information about the creation of the universe, the genealogies of kings, rules for life, and mythologies of various Gods and holy places. They are thought to date between the 300 CE and 1200 CE.
While the classification of these scriptures is more or less well accepted, their historical dating is controversial. The major languages in which these scriptures appear are Sanskrit in the North, and Tamil in the South. Apart from these, Hindu literature also includes many other treatises - for example, the Sutras are shorter succint versions of Hindism's voluminous primary literature.

The above literature is common to all Hindus. But some Hindu sects have their own sectarian writings - such as the Samhitas of the Vaishnavaites, the Agamas of the Saivaites, and the Tantras of the Saktas.

Because of the huge size of oral literature, as well as the large volume of written texts and explanations, there is no single Book that everyone accepts as gospel truth. Instead, a large body of interpretations has flourished, which vary from place to place within India, allowing for a lot of flexibility in the way you practise Hinduism.

To me, the most amazing thing about Hindu texts is that in spite of the huge volumes, they have been committed to memory by a specialized group of people (Brahmin priests). In case you didn't know, in 2003 UNESCO proclaimed the tradition of Vedic chant a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". Pretty cool huh? :) :)

We don't usually acknowledge or realize it, but we are truly lucky that we can still hear the same chanting of these texts as was heard thousands of years ago. Not many civilizations can claim that. We don't have to go to a religious centre like Varanasi to hear this; or to a grand wedding. We can hear it everywhere in India; even at a smallish family ritual. Here are photos of typically smaller rituals where you can hear Sanskrit chanting:

Kerala Palakkad Brahmin "Bangle ceremony" - to pray for the well-being of the unborn child. In this ceremony, the mother is usually in the seventh month of pregnancy. You can see the holy fire into which ghee is being poured by the father of the child. The priest is reciting a prayer which is repeated by the father. The chanting will go on for a couple of hours, and the sound of the mantras is thought to have a favourable effect on both the mother and the unborn child.

From Mangalore in Karnataka, a Grihapravesham ceremony (housewarming). Again the priest will light a holy fire. The couple whose home it is, are sitting beside the priest. The floor is beautifully decorated with designs using turmeric and red kumkum. The prayers and the smoke will sanctify the house, rid it of insects and pests, and make it fit for a joyful life.

From Pune, Maharashtra: Engagement ceremony. The parents of the bride and the parents of the groom agree to give their daughter/son in marriage. The priest in the centre officiates. Auspicious gifts are exchanged. This is a sort of "contract" read out in the presence of witnesses.

Sanketi Brahmin thread ceremony in Chennai - The young man in the centre is being initiated in "Brahmopadesham" - the Ultimate Truth. His father (on the right) follows instructions from the priest (on the left).

If I hunt through my photo collection, I will find lots more of these...proof that in the daily life of Indians, the old ways continue uninterrupted. Even though we live in a modern world, these rituals and texts provide continuity and emotional sustenance to the people who follow them. I guess this is what characterises "a living religion".

If you're curious about how the Rig Veda sounds when chanted, I suggest you try this link: It sounds fantastic. After a minute or so, you'll find yourself caught in the rhythm and power of it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Food walk in Old Delhi (Part 2)

I've been meaning to write this for a while; a continuation of the earlier Old Delhi food walk I did with my friend Dhruv. Somehow, there just hasn't been enough time to write. But yesterday, I was looking at my album of Old Delhi, and the photos brought it all back to vivid life.

After my morning visit to Dhruv's home, we walked to Chawri Bazaar Metro Station. We spotted this gentleman hard at work, at a little street restaurant near Dehati Pustak Bhandar:

Rolling out a bedmi.

What he is rolling out is a specialty poori called a bedmi, that's typically eaten for breakfast. It's the dough itself that makes the bedmi different from a regular poori. Apart from refined flour, the dough also includes mung dal (soaked and ground), chillies, coriander power and garam masala. So - basically - it's a spicy poori, and the dough has a rough consistency.

Deep frying the bedmi after the oil is hot. It will turn a golden brown soon.
Note the two ladles that he is using? I couldn't figure out why he had one ladle in each hand, until he made his next poori.

The first golden brown bedmi is set to drain while a second puri is added to the oil.
In the morning, there is a big crowd for breakfast; and bedmis are quickly made one after another. That's why they have the two ladles; one to fry, and one to drain. It speeds up things and keeps the bedmi crisp but not too oily.

The bedmis are served hot, with a simple aloo-sabji.
The poori is quite heavy, so by the time I ate one, I was stuffed. Don't forget, I had already earlier been pigging out on gol gappas, kulcha chole and milk cake :)

But Dhruv wasn't about to let me off lightly. In true Dilliwalla style, he said to me, "But you've got to try a nagori halwa!" The nangodi or nagori turned out to be a tiny puri, a little larger than a gol gappa.

Making a little hole in the nagori

You can stuff the nagori with the same aloo-sabzi if you want a savoury bite. But if you prefer something sweet for breakfast, you can stuff it with halwa instead.

Sweet halwa in the nagori

If you want, you can also mix the two tastes, sweet and savoury, by sstuffing with halwa and dipping the nagori into the aloo sabzi as well (not my thing!).

We ended the morning with sweet refreshing tea. I left Old Delhi in a happy state - great food, good company, and to top it all, I clicked lots of interesting photos (material for several more posts, thank you Dhruv!).