For today I'm going to go back to talking about the religion as opposed to the culture.
Hinduism does not have a single go-to book. It also does not have a central prophet or creator of the religion. At some point I will have a post about the main branches of Hinduism, but today I wanted to talk about the holy texts.
Hindu tradition is packed with wonderful books and philosophical ponderings that question and examine the purpose of life and the meaning of death. These texts are thousands of years old and yet a person reading them today can still be completely at home with their profound messages.
There are the two great epic stories, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They are a source of a lot of the mythology in Indian life. The Ramayana is the life story of Rama, who is believed by many to be a god. The most common view of Rama is that he is an avatar, an incarnation of god on earth for a particular purpose (which is the same as the view of Jesus). Rama's life is a template for living a life of perfect devotion to duty and his wife, Sita, is the model for all Hindu wives.
The Mahabharata is about a tremendous war that pulled the world into the last age. As in Greek mythology, there are four ages of the earth. The final one is the Kali Yuga. This is the time that we are now living in according to Hindu mythology.
Part of the Mahabharata is the Bhaghavad Gita. This might be the most famous of the Indian texts. It means "Song of the Lord" and it is the advice that Krishna gives to the warrior Arjuna just before the battle. Krishna, of course, comes into play in many Indian stories and books. He is a side character in this story. He is also an avatar of god. The Gita (as it is known for short) is packed full of profound philosophical meaning. A couple of the key points are that death is an illusion and that action that is performed without desire for the fruits will not have karmic consequence. The purpose of life is to free ones self from the cycle of birth and death and become one with god. It is our karma (actions) that keep us chained to our human lives.
There are also a number of even more ancient books called The Upanishads. One of my favorites of these is the Katha Upanishad, in which a young boy goes to visit the house of Yama, the god of death, and understand why death exists.
All of these texts are written in Sanskrit. (By the way, that "a" is pronounced like the "a" in "father", not like the "a" in "alligator." That second sound does not exist in Sanskrit and it is a great irony that the American way of pronouncing the word includes a sound that is not present in that language. In general, you're pretty safe if you use a long "a" for Indian words).
My community growing up, and I'm sure many people in India, believe that Sanskrit was the first language. Historically speaking there is a lot of evidence that it wasn't, but that doesn't stop anyone from believing it. According to tradition, the laws of the universe can be found in the laws of Sanskrit grammar.
My mother and father have studied Sanskrit for thirty years now. The dining room table is scattered with giant dictionaries and grammar books and snip-its of the Gita and the Upanishads.
It is a very beautiful language. I learned the characters of the alphabet as a child and also several of the Vedic prayers, which are prayers found in the opening pages of most of the Upanishads.
One prayer is the following:
Asato ma sad gamaya
tamaso ma jyotir gamaya
mritur ma amritang gamaya
om shanti, shanti, shanti
Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead me from the darkness to the light
Lead me from death to immortality
May peace and peace and peace be everywhere
That last line is the ending to nearly all Vedic prayers and it is a loose translation. Really it is "om", which is the sound which is supposed to have begun the universe, the very first sound from which all others arise. And then the word for "peace" three times. Probably you have heard the word "Shanti" before and that is what it means.
Learning that alphabet as a child has been a big advantage for me in learning Hindi because it is almost identical. The script is called Devanagari, which means "city of the gods." Many Indian languages use this script or a variation of it, although some do not.
This is a taste of some of the great richness that has drawn me to this religion. It is easy to find translations of many of these texts and I highly recommend the translations done by a man named Eknath Easwaran. Give them a try, I think you'll really enjoy them, regardless of your religion.