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A Hindu Perspective on Revelation and the Word

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The Hindu tradition possesses an enormous range of religious texts that can be regarded as scriptures, so many that it is almost impossible for a single person to have knowledge of them all. Most of these are written in the ancient language of Sanskrit, but some more recent scriptures were composed in the vernacular languages of India such as Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati or Bengali. Hindu teachings have traditionally differentiated between two types of scripture, designated as the Shruti and the Smriti. The Shruti are the works contained within the four Vedas, including the Upanishads, and these are believed to be eternal and not the composition of any human being. Realised sages who possess higher knowledge are able to gain access to the Veda at the beginning of each new creation and these sages then reveal them to humanity as a whole. They are not, however, the composers of the Veda, they are simply its 'hearers' and for this reason the Veda is known as the Shruti, that which is 'heard'. The traditional belief has been that the eternal Shruti descends from the higher domain of the spirit and so is not subject to the imperfections that might beset the thought processes current in this world of limitation. The wisdom of the Shruti is therefore without blemish, although it might need some interpretation from learned scholars or acharyas.


The Smriti consists of a great number of other Sanskrit works, the most prominent of which are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the eighteen Puranas, amongst which the Bhagavata Purana is best known for its descriptions of the life of Krishna. Within the Mahabharata we also find the Bhagavad Gita, which has a very high status amongst Hindus, although it is not strictly speaking a part of the Shruti. These works do not have the same status as the Shruti and are not regarded as eternally existing; the name Smriti indicates that they are the composition of enlightened sages such as Vyasa and Valmiki.


In establishing religious and philosophical doctrine, the great Hindu acharyas (teachers such as Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya) all insist that knowledge of the highest reality cannot be attained through direct perception or by means of human reason. For this absolute understanding we must rely on the revelation of the Shruti which is supported by the writings contained in the Smriti. Hence these acharyas only very rarely compose their own works and their main contribution takes the form of commentary on Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and other important scriptural texts. The point is that they are insisting that the highest truths can only be known by means of the revelation of sacred texts, which contain eternal truths. Of course different acharyas produce radically different interpretations of the meaning of the texts on which they comment, but the principle remains the same; absolute spiritual truths can be understood only through the revelation of sacred texts and the Veda in particular.


What has been stated here represents the traditional view of the acharyas who have established Hindu religious teachings and of their immediate successors and followers. Hinduism, however, is a very complex tradition, and in practice alternative ideas are frequently encountered. Firstly, we must note that Hinduism as whole is the sum total of a large number of separate but interconnected religious strands and that each of these strands tends to emphasise different scriptural sources. For example, Hindus who venerate Shiva as the Supreme Deity may not overtly deny the authority of the Veda, but in practice they will pay little attention to the Vedic texts and instead make use of their own Shaiva scriptures, which are often written in the more accessible vernacular languages of the different regions of India.


We must also be aware that Hindu teaching reveals that there is a spark of the divine within each of us. The spiritual quest is often seen as being one that seeks to reveal that lost divinity and to make it once more our overt identity. Where a sadhu (religious leader) is perceived as having achieved this state of enlightenment, then his or her words and writings acquire a scriptural status, for they are not just the revelations of a human being but the word of God coming from a divine source within a human being. Hence we see that for many Hindus the highest scriptural authority is to be found in the teachings given by the particular spiritual guide they choose to follow. Again they will not usually deny the authority of Shruti and Smriti, but they will choose to seek inspiration from this alternative source.

Scriptures are a servant not a master


It is also very important to understand that despite the established doctrine, in practice scripture does not have the same role or status for Hindus that it does for some other religions. For most Hindus the main point of authority is family and community and Hindus tend not to place a great deal of emphasis on scriptural study. The teachings and stories are widely known, but this knowledge is not typically derived from reading or study of the texts. Although in theory the Shruti, and the Upanishads in particular, are the highest religious authority, very few Hindus regularly study them or even the Bhagavad Gita, which is a more accessible work. It is also the case that a citation from a sacred text will rarely carry the same weight for a Hindu that it would for a Christian, Muslim or Jew; and Hindus will frequently say that they do not accept or believe every teaching contained in their vast array of scriptures. Mahatma Gandhi wrote:


I have already suggested often enough in these columns that all that is printed in the name of scriptures need not be taken as the word of God or the inspired word.

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