Studying & Interpreting the Scriptures
The Vedas are the scriptures of authority in Hinduism. The word Veda is derived from the Sanskrit term Vid which means to know. Vedas are books of spiritual knowledge. They contain the utterances of the seers of Hinduism called Rishis who experienced spiritual truths and expressed them as the Vedas. The end portion of the Vedas contains the Upanishads which are the gems of Hindu philosophy. There are eleven main Upanishads. They offer a variety of ideas relating to spirituality. They are poetic expressions about the nature of reality as the spirit (Brahman); the essential nature as the spirit (Atman) and discuss the relationship between Atman and Brahman.
The Bhagavad Gita literally means ‘song of the divine’, and is a synthesis of the Upanishadic teachings. It reconciles a variety of ideas expressed in different Upanishads and offers the prescription of how to bring religion into our daily lives. It also incorporates the idea of pluralism. It accepts that spiritual progress can be made in a variety of different modes.
Sanskrit (literally meaning sophisticated) is considered to be the mother of many Indo European languages. It is the language of the scriptures of Hinduism. Many hymns found in the early portion of the Vedas called Samhitas are recited at religious ceremonies like worship, rites of passage, or at the time of celebrating festivals.
Historicity of texts. The Vedas were passed on as an oral tradition for perhaps a thousand years before being written down in ancient Sanskrit in around 1000BC.
Hinduism is a living evolving religion; the teachings of modern seers are seen as being as valid as the teachings of the ancient texts. In Hinduism therefore there is less of a fixation on establishing the historicity of some of these texts.
Hinduism has produced spiritual giants in all ages. The prescription they offer for religious living displaces earlier books of codes of conduct. For example the Manusmriti is not used in any Hindu home while the teaching of more recent proponents of Hinduism, such as the Shiksapatri used by the devotees of the Swaminarayan movement, become texts of authority for most Hindus.
The Bhagavad Gita can be taken as an allegory of the human condition. Everyone is Arjuna, faced with the dilemma of discriminating between what is right and wrong. The mind is the battlefield, riddled with potential conflict and uncertainty. Only when people recognise their true self as divine, does this confusion and doubt fall away.
It is not just the Bhagavad Gita that contains allegories and metaphors, but all religious texts. Since ancient times, it has been recognised that a greater depth of understanding can be reached by using figurative language. Its analysis gives the individual a sense of discovery and realisation of incredibly potent and subtle teachings.
Philosophic vs theological interpretation of texts: Hinduism is open to challenges of rationality, so philosophic interpretations are given higher validity. As Shankara, a figure of authority in Hinduism, pointed out, people have to test the teachings of shruti – meaning theological texts, by yukti, meaning rational interpretation, and only accept them if they are borne out by swanubhuti – first-hand personal experience.