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The Vedas are four in number: of these the Rig-Veda is probably the oldest, then the Yajur-Veda, then the Sama-Veda, and last of all the Atharva-Veda. Each of these Vedas consists of two main parts : the sanhita, or collection oFmantras or hymns; andra, Brahmana, or ritualistic precept and illustration, which stands in somewhat the same relation to the Sanhita as the Talmud to the Law. Attached to each Brahmana is an Upanishad, containing secret or mystical doctrine. The Sanhita and Brahmana are for men generally; the Upanishads are for the more philosophical inquirers.

The Upanishads, originating as commentaries on the Vedas between about 800 and 200 BC, contain speculations on the meaning of existence that have greatly influenced Indian religious traditions. The oldest of them can hardly be dated later than about 600 BC, since some important doctrines first met with in them are presupposed by Buddhism.

The notion is inherent in the Upanishads that the material world is an illusion produced by Brahma, though it is expressly stated only in one of the later works of this class, the Svetasvalara Upanishad. The great fundamental doctrine of all the Upanishads is the identity of the individual atman with the world atman, being summed up in the famous formula tat tvam asi, 'thou art that.' With this doctrine is closely associated the theory of the transmigration of souls, which appears even in the oldest Upanishads, and which Buddha received into his system without question. The earliest form of this theory is found in the Satapatha Brdhmana, where the notion of being born again after death and dying repeatedly is coupled with that of retribution. In one of the Upanishads there is the beginnings of the doctrine of karma, or 'action,' which makes the character of each subsequent birth depend on a man's own deeds in the previous one. The Upanishads do not offer a complete and consistent conception of the world logically developed. They are rather a mixture of half-poetical, half-philosophical fancies, of dialogues and disputations dealing tentatively with metaphysical questions. Their speculations were only later reduced to a system in the Vedanta philosophy. The Upanishads are inchoate and self-contradictory. Only if the term is used in a vague and general sense can one speak of their philosophy. Their various lucubrations on Brahman, the world, and the human soul, do not allow themselves to be systematized simply because they were never meant to form a system. They are excursions after truth, often irreconcilable, but held in some sort of unity by the common quest of ultimate reality and redemption. And in them the religious interest is predominant. It is not disinterested knowledge which is sought, but knowledge which delivers from the curse of birth.

Most important is the concept of atman (the human soul), which is an individual manifestation of brahman. Atman is of the same nature as brahman , characterized either as an impersonal force or as God, and has as its goal the recognition of identity with brahman. This fusion is not possible, however, as long as the individual remains bound to the world of the flesh and desires. In fact, the deathless atman that is so bound will not join with brahman after the death of the body but will experience continuous rebirth. This fundamental concept of the transmigration of atman, or reincarnation after death, lies at the heart of the religions emerging from India.

Indian religious tradition sees karma as the source of the problem of transmigration. While associated with physical form, for example, in a human body, beings experience the universe through their senses and their minds and attach themselves to the people and things around them and constantly lose sight of their true existence as atman , which is of the same nature as brahman . As the time comes for the dropping of the body, the fruits of good and evil actions in the past remain with atman, clinging to it, causing a tendency to continue experience in other existences after death. Good deeds in this life may lead to a happy rebirth in a better life, and evil deeds may lead to a lower existence, but eventually the consequences of past deeds will be worked out, and the individual will seek more experiences in a physical world. In this manner, the bound or ignorant atman wanders from life to life, in heavens and hells and in many different bodies. The universe may expand and be destroyed numerous times, but the bound atman will not achieve release.

The true goal of atman is liberation, or release (moksha), from the limited world of experience and realization of oneness with God or the cosmos. In order to achieve release, the individual must pursue a kind of discipline (yoga, a "tying," related to the English word yoke) that is appropriate to one's abilities and station in life. For most people, this goal means a course of action that keeps them rather closely tied to the world and its ways, including the enjoyment of love (kama ), the attainment of wealth and power (artha), and the following of socially acceptable ethical principles (dharma).

The Upanishads are full of cosmogonies inherited from Vedic religion; but apparently they have not yet arrived at the belief in a periodical course of alternate creation, maintenance, and dissolution of worlds which later became general in India. The earlier texts several times describe Brahma or some cognate power as consuming his creatures separately; but a collective destruction is nowhere mentioned in them.

After the creative age of the Upanishads had passed away, philosophy was taught for the most part by means of the aphorisms of unparalleled concision known as the Sutras. Often these were mere mnemonics, intelligible only by the help of a teacher. Thus the philosophy which claimed to be the Vedanta, the true and legitimate expression of the teaching of the Upanishads, was handed down by Sutras which Badarayana is said to have written. These Sutras, together with the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita, form the three institutes (prasthanas) on which any philosophy which claims to be Vedantic must still be based.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:13:51 ZULU