HINDU TEXTS: THE VEDAS, BHAGAVAD GITA, RAMAYANA AND MAHABHARTA

SACRED HINDU TEXTS

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Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana,
scene from the Ramayana
Hinduism have many sacred documents but no single sacred text such as the Bible. "The result," writes historian Daniel Boorstin, is "a wonderfully varied and constantly enriching Hindu jingle-jangle of truths, but no one path to The Truth." Hindu texts are so closely associated with Sanskrit that all translations are regarded as profanation.

There are five primary sacred texts of Hinduism, each associated with a stage of Hinduism’s evolution. They are: 1) the Verdic Verses , written in Sanskrit between 1500 to 900 B.C.; 2) the Upanishads , written 800 and 600 B.C.; 3) the Laws of Manu , written around 250 B.C.; and 4) Ramayana and 5) the Mahabharata , written sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 when Hinduism was popularized for the masses.

Hindu cosmology was explained in the Vedas. The Upanishads provided a theoretical basis for this cosmology. The Brahmanas , a supplement to the Vedas, offers detailed instructions for rituals and explanations of the duties of priests. It gave form to abstract principals offered up in the earlier texts. Sutras are additional supplements that explain laws and ceremonies.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

Vedas

Hinduism in India traces its source to the Vedas, ancient hymns composed and recited in Punjab as early as 1500 B.C. Three main collections of the Vedas--the Rig, Sama, and Yajur--consist of chants that were originally recited by priests while offering plant and animal sacrifices in sacred fires. A fourth collection, the Atharva Veda, contains a number of formulas for requirements as varied as medical cures and love magic. The majority of modern Hindus revere these hymns as sacred sounds passed down to humanity from the greatest antiquity and as the source of Hindu tradition.[Source: Library of Congress *]

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Sanskrit Atashgah Siva-inscription
The sacred texts known as the Vedas, or Vedic Verses, were written in Sanskrit between 1500 to 900 B.C. They are associated with the founding of Hinduism and consist of four texts: 1) the Rig Veda , a collection of 1,028 hymns and prayers; 2) the Soma Veda , a collection of verses taken mostly from the Rig Veda that have been rearranged for chanting at sacrifices; 3) the Yajur Veda , prose with instructions on how the prose is to be used in ceremonies; and 4) the Antharva Veda , comprised primarily of formulas and spells

The religion described in the Vedas is more Aryan religion than Hinduism because so much emphasis is put on sacrifices. Many important gods in the Vedas have all but been forgotten while gods like Shiva and Vishnu that are minor gods in the Vedas are now major figures in Hinduism.

The Vedas seems to have been written by people who lived in the Punjab and had little knowledge of people in the Ganges Plain and elsewhere in India. Few people read the Vedic verses today. They were largely passed down orally over the century until an Englishmen wrote them down in the 18th century. Vedic (pronounced VAY-dick) is Sanskrit for knowledge.

Content of Vedas

The Vedas describe pantheon of gods, supported by the belief that God is everywhere in everything. Gods are referred to as devas , derived from the old Sanskrit div , meaning brightness. They are not beings arranged into a hierarchy or order of nature, but rather sources of blinding light that leave anyone who comes in contact with them awestruck and spellbound.

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Rig Veda page
Early descriptions of the caste system are found in the Vedas, which describe Aryan society as being divided into the four major castes: the Brahmins (priestly caste); Kshatriyas (warrior caste), the Vaisyas (farmer caste); and Sudras (laborers). The distinction is made primarily to define Brahmas as priests and ceremonial leaders.

The Vedas are filled with conversations and stories with moral or spiritual messages. One conversation between a father and son goes:
"Fetch me a fruit of the banyan tree."
"Here is one, sir."
"Break it."
"I have broken it, sir."
"What do you see?"
"Very tiny seeds, sir."
"Break one."
"I have broken it, sir."
"Now what do you see?"
"Nothing sir."
"My son," the father said, "what you do not perceive is essence, and in that essence the mighty banyan tree exists. Believe me, my son, in that essence is the self of all that is. That is the True, that is the Self. And you are that Self, Sveraketu!"

Vedas and Polytheism

The vast majority of Vedic hymns are addressed to a pantheon of deities who are attracted, generated, and nourished by the offerings into the sacred flames and the precisely chanted mantras (mystical formulas of invocation) based on the hymns. Each of these deities may appear to be the supreme god in his or her own hymns, but some gods stand out as most significant. Indra, god of the firmament and lord of the weather, is the supreme deity of the Vedas. Indra also is a god of war who, accompanied by a host of storm gods, uses thunderbolts as weapons to slay the serpent demon Vritra (the name means storm cloud), thus releasing the rains for the earth. Agni, the god of fire, accepts the sacrificial offerings and transmits them to all the gods. Varuna passes judgment, lays down the law, and protects the cosmic order. Yama, the god of death, sends earthly dwellers signs of old age, sickness, and approaching mortality as exhortations to lead a moral life. Surya is the sun god, Chandra the moon god, Vayu the wind god, and Usha the dawn goddess. *

Some of the later hymns of the Rig Veda contain speculations that form the basis for much of Indian religious and philosophical thought. From one perspective, the universe originates through the evolution of an impersonal force manifested as male and female principles. Other hymns describe a personal creator, Prajapati, the Lord of creatures, from whom came the heavens and the earth and all the other gods. One hymn describes the universe as emerging from the sacrifice of a cosmic man (purusha ) who was the source of all things but who was in turn offered into the fire by gods. Within the Vedic accounts of the origin of things, there is a tension between visions of the highest reality as an impersonal force, or as a creator god, or as a group of gods with different jobs to do in the universe. Much of Hinduism tends to accept all these visions simultaneously, claiming that they are all valid as different facets of a single truth, or ranks them as explanations with different levels of sophistication. It is possible, however, to follow only one of these explanations, such as believing in a single personal god while rejecting all others, and still claim to be following the Vedas. In sum, Hinduism does not exist as a single belief system with one textual explanation of the origin of the universe or the nature of God, and a wide range of philosophies and practices can trace their beginnings somewhere in the hymns of the Vedas. *

By the sixth century B.C., the Vedic gods were in decline among the people, and few people care much for Indra, Agni, or Varuna in contemporary India. These gods might appear as background characters in myths and stories about more important deities, such as Shiva or Vishnu; in some Hindu temples, there also are small statues of Vedic deities. Sacrificial fire, which once accompanied major political activities, such as the crowning of kings or the conquest of territory, still forms the heart of household rituals for many Hindus, and some Brahman families pass down the skill of memorizing the hymns and make a living as professional reciters of the Vedas. One of the main legacies of Brahmanical sacrifice, seen even among traditions that later denied its usefulness, was a concentration on precise ritual actions and a belief in sacred sound as a powerful tool for manifesting the sacred in daily life. *

Upanishads

The Upanishads or Seances are commentaries on the Vedas. Written between 800 and 600 B.C and comprised of a series of discourses and dialogues by "men whose hair had grown white and who had seen their sons' sons," they provide a theoretical basis for Hindu cosmology and teach that liberation can be obtained by doing tasks that are "difficult and painful as walking the razor's edge" and were written when Hinduism was going through a period of deep introspection on "the infinite depth of the Soul" and "brooding on the meaning of existence." The poet W.B. Yeats translated the Upanishads.

Kalpana Srivastava wrote in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal: “Upanishads are store house of psychological material. The nature of mind and its functions and different psychological phenomena–normal, abnormal, pathological, paranormal, and spiritual–are explained in Vedas and Upanishadas. The core themes, according to the ancient philosophical tradition are centered around self, soul, human nature, human existence, and human experience.” [Source: Kalpana Srivastava, Industrial Psychiatry Journal, July-December 2012 *~*]

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Rig Veda

“There are 12 major Upanishads, which fall into three groups, ‘each standing for definite stage of thought development connected with the two Ultimates of reality’ Brhadaranyka, Chandogya, Is’a, Kena, Mandukya, Aitereya, Taittiriya, and Kausitiki are the ones, which come under the early Upanishadic period. Mundaka and Katha fall into the mid-Upanishadic period. Prasna and Svetasvatara belong to the later Upanishadic period. Upanishads Mandukya and Taittiriya, have significance in contemporary psychology in the context of studies on consciousness and personality. *~*

The ancient Indian model of “Personality”, given in the Upanishads, consists of the ‘five’ sheaths. They are ‘Annamaya’ (food sheath), ‘Pranamaya’ (vital air sheath), ‘Manomaya’ (mental sheath), ‘Vijnanamaya’ (intellectual sheath), and ‘Anandamaya’ (bliss sheath). ‘Annamaya’; a segment of human system is nourished by ‘anna’, that is, food. ‘Pranamaya’ is that segment which is nourished by ‘prana’, that is, ‘bioenergy’. ‘Manomaya’ is the segment nourished by ‘education’. ‘Vijnanamaya’ is nourished by ‘ego’ and ‘Anandamaya’ is the segment nourished by ‘emotions’.

The Vedas and the Upanishads and two other texts---the Sambitas and the Brahmanas “and a few sutras are collectively known as the Shruti , which means “that which is heard.” They are considered the eternal truth and have traditionally been handed down orally. The Aranyakas (“Forest Books”) is a later philosophical work associated with the Upanishads . It offers guidance in leading a holy life and understanding rituals.

The Laws of Manu were written around 250 B.C. These texts established Hindu law based on a large number of wise sayings a and prohibitions in everyday life. The principals of the caste system were outlines in the Laws of Manu.

The Puranas (“Sacred Traditions”) are lengthy medieval texts that rehash old legends; deliver new ones; and clarify Hindu cosmology, theology and religious practices. There are separate puranas devoted to Shiva and Vishnu. Other texts that emerged in the medieval period are the dharamasutras (law books) and bhashyas (philosophical works). In these book are deeply spiritual and literary songs that are known and cherished by most Hindus. Around this time a wide number of texts began appearing in local languages.

Ramayana and Mahabharta

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Hanuman slaying demons
on Ramayama manuscript
Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Indian people have treasured, in particular, two great epics: the Ramayana (2nd century B.C.) and the famous epic poem, the Mahabharata (500–400 B.C.), both of which may be based on actual historical events. The Ramayana has been, and still is, a rich source for art.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are epics like the Iliad or Jason and the Argonauts. Believed to have been written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, with some parts probably written earlier and some parts probably written later, they are comprised of myths and stories about romance and war, and are part of a collection of texts, known as Shmriti (“That Which has been Remembered”), which are regarded as being supportive of the shruti .

Amid the adventure of Hindu gods and heroes are found laws and regulation regarding caste, eating, idolatry, sacred places, festivals and superstitions. There are also long didactic passages offering guidance on politics, morality, ethics and religion.

Although the Ramayana and Mahabharata were written millennia ago they remain very much alive today. When a serial drama version of the Ramayana was shown on television in the late 1980s and early 1990s the whole country was quiet on Sunday morning as people tuned in. The sale of television sets soared. Those that could not afford new sets gathered around windows to watch episodes. In some places the buses stopped running so the drivers could tune in. The shows was also very popular in Pakistan. One of the most devastating bombing attacks in Karachi took place outside a television shop where people had gathered to watch the series.

Ramayana

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Rama, Sita and Lakshmana
Ramayana (Sanskrit for "The Romance of Rama" or “The Career of the Rama”) is a great epic poem that is 24,000 verses long. it consists of seven books and tells the story of Rama, or Ramachandra, the King of Ayodhya and the God of Truth, and his adventures. The work is attributed to the poet Valmiki although it was probably written by several authors and embellished over the centuries by others.

The Ramayana is a cornerstone of religion and literature not only in India but in other South Asian and Southeast Asian nations as well. It was originally written in Sanskrit but has been translated into numerous other languages. There are many variations.

The Ramayana is somewhat reminiscent of the Odyssey in its organization and plot. The stories may be based on a real life king named Rama who helped spread Hindu and Aryan ideas throughout India. Hindu nationalists believe this and based their 1980s attack on mosque in Adoyda’said to have been built on the site of Rama’s birthplace---on this belief.

Simply reading or hearing the Ramayana is said to bring about good things. The last paragraph reads: “He that has no sons shall attain a son by reading even a single verse of Rama’s song. All sin is washed away from those who read or hear it read. He who recites the Ramayana should have rich gifts of cows and gold. Long shall he live who reads the Ramayana, and shall be honored, with sons and grandsons in this world and in Heaven.”

Characters of the Ramayana

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Ravana
Rama is the hero and central character of the Ramayana. An avatar of Vishnu, and the eldest of King of Ayodhya’s four sons, he is noble, handsome and skilled and is regarded as the fearless defender of the law of dharma . Sita is the heroine and the wife of Rama. She is held up as a paragon of virtue, chastity and devotion. Rama is armed with a bow given to the gods by Shiva and passed down to an ancestor of Sita’s father. Until Rama comes along no one is able to pull the bow which Rama is able to do with ease.

Ravana is the demon king of Lanka and the chief of the raksasas (demons). He is a grotesque figure with 10 heads and 20 arms. He carries a variety of weapons in his 20 hands. Each time a head is lopped off in a battle another quickly grows to replace it. It has been said that he symbolizes lust and greed and uses his powers to disrupt the cosmic order and sanctity of women and the family.

The good guys in the Ramayana include 1) King of Ayodhya (stepfather of Rama); 2) Laksmana (half-brother of Rama); and 3) Sugriva (king of the monkeys). 4) The monkey-god general Hanuman (See Hindu Gods) is one of the main characters. He is considered tricky and doesn't hesitate to lie or change his appearance to get what he wants. Often time what he wants most is the approval and adoration of mankind.

The bad guys in the Ramayana include 1) Indrajit (“the invisible warrior” and son of Ravana); 2) Marica (a demon disguised as a golden stag); 3); Viradha (a demon, abductor of Sita); and 4) Vali (the brother and rival of Sugriva). Ravana’s army is comprised of ugly raksasas (“night wanderers”), demons that can fly as fast as the wind and change their appearance.


Early Story of the Ramayana

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Rama in the forest
Ramayana is essentially a story of love and banishment. It begins with the gods awakening Vishnu from a deep cosmic sleep and urging him to go to earth to rid the world of Ravana, who through a promise by Brahma can not be defeated by gods and must be defeated by a man. Vishnu descends to earth as the man Rama and woes and wins Sita, daughter of the King of Ayodhya. Rama is given Sita’s hand in marriage by the king because he is able to pull Shiva’s bow.

In the early part of the story, Rama is sent into the forest by King Ayodhya so the son of the king’s second wife can be the successor to the throne. He is accompanied by his brother Laksmana and the uncomplaining Sita. While in the forest the two men live like ascetics, with no complaints from Sita, and have many adventures. In one episode a raksasa kidnaps Sita. Just as it is about to devour her Rama and Laksama rescue her and slay the demon.

Ravana is entranced by Sita’s beauty and angry at Rama because he rejected Ravana’ sister, who had fallen in live with him. Ravana conspires to abduct Sita with the help of Marica, who disguises himself as a golden deer to lure Rama and Laksmana away from Sita. While Rama and gis brother is distracted Ravana snatches Sita and takes her back to the Golden City of Lanka (present-day Sri Lanka).

Sita is kept captive in Ravana’s castle. The demon threatens Sita with torture unless she marries him. In the meantime Rama and Laksmana go through a series of adventures and battles trying to rescue Sita. They are helped by Hanuman, who discovers where Sita is kept.

Later Story of the Ramayana

When Rama can not get to the island of Lanka he seeks the help of Hanuman, who summons his army of monkeys to form a bridge from India to Lanka. On Lanka, Rama is able enlist the help of Hanuman’s army and the army of the great monkey king Surgriva who Rama helps by slaying his rival with an arrow.

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Ravana losing his heads

The battle---pitting Rama, and the armies of Hanuman and Surgriva against Ravana and the demons---is the central event of the Ramayana. It begins after Hanuman sets fire to Ravana’s city and continues through a long series of offensives, counterattacks and battles. Ravana’s forces fire arrows that turn into serpents and wind around their victims necks like nooses.

All looks doomed when Indrajit kills Rama and Laksmana and the armies of Sugriva are on the verge of defeat. At this point Hanuman travels off to the Himalayas and brings back some magic herbs that bring Rama and Laksama back to life and revive the armies of Sugriva. In a pair of duels Laksmana manages to kill Indrajit and Rama kills Ravana king with an arrow.

Rama then returns to India and is reunited with Sita after 14 years but suspects her of infidelity. Sita undergoes a trial, offers to throw herself on a funeral pyre to prove her fidelity. The epic ends with Rama banishing innocent Sita to appease his subjects. By the time Rama realizes that she has been faithful it is too late: she has been swallowed up by the earth. The self-sacrificing Sita is regarded as model for the dutiful wife. Some versions of the story have a “happier” ending, with Rama realizing that she has been true when she throws herself in a fire, proving she had in indeed been true.

Mahabharta

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Shoorsena-Saini, Mahabharta verses
The Mahabharata (Sanskrit for the “Great Bharata War”) is recognized by the Guinness Book of Worlds Records as the world's longest literary work in verse. Written mostly at the beginning of the Christian era when Hinduism was popularized for the masses, it is composed of 100,000 couplets and is divided into 18 books. It is 15 times longer than the Bible and eight times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined.

The Mahabharta is filled with stories of love, honor, betrayal, good deeds, evil acts, victory and defeat. Hundreds of television program have been made from its episodes. It has been said that everything that exists in life can be found in the Mahabharta , and if it isn’t in the epic then it can’t be found anywhere. The conclusions of the episodes are much more morally ambiguous than in the Ramayana. There are great heros and battlefield but victories often evoke more of a sense of tragedy than celebration.

The Mahabharta is somewhat reminiscent of the Iliad , with much of the action and plot related to battles and warfare. The great war featured in the Mahabharata may be based on a real battle that took place sometime around the 13th or 14th century B.C. The verses were originally written in Sanskrit. Some of the richness of the poetry and resonating sounds of the original have been lost in translation.

Story in the Mahabharta

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Manuscript from Nepal
in Newari and Sanskrit
The Mahabharta describes a conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas, two related clans in the Kuri tribe in the Delhi area, in Vedic times. The story begins when the oldest of the five Pandava brothers, a king, wages his entire kingdom, including his wife, on a dice game and loses. His queen is forced to come into the gambling hall and strip before the winners. After an appeal to the gods, a sari magically appears every time she takes her clothes off until finally she is surrounded by a mountain of saris, shielding her naked body from the leering eyes in the hall.

A deal is struck that allows the Pandavas to reclaim their kingdom after spending 14 years in the forest. When that the time is up the blind King Dhritarashtra, head of the Kauravas, refuses to hand over the throne and Pandava prepare for battle. King Dhritarashtra is assisted by his counselor Sanjaya, who has special powers which enable him to see events in far off places. The battle is regarded as metaphor of the struggles that go on within an individual.

Krishna is the charioteer of Prince Arjuna, the third Pandava son. He helps the prince and teaches him about the knowledge of truth and devotion to the Higher Self. Arjuna has a magical bow named Gandiva that can shoot 30,000 arrows at one time. Krishna also gives Arjuna a "third eye" that allows the archer to see the deities in "universal form"---"all wonderful, resplendent, boundless...If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.”

Bhagavad Gita

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Khom Sanskrit
The Bhagavad Gita ("Song of God") is an epic poem consisting of 701 Sanskrit couplets. Part of the Mahabharata , it blends theology and political science with a dramatic story of dynastic struggle. According to legend it was written by the sage Vyasa. It probably existed independently of the Mahabharata and was added and revised to its present form around the A.D. 2nd century. Today, it is the most widely read Hindu text.

The Bhagavad Gita is essentially a devotional poem set among the battles of the Mahabharata . It outlines rituals accessible to everyone. This contrasts with the rituals described in old Vedic texts, which involved sacrifices and elaborate rites that were only open to upper castes. Many customs and fetishes have evolved around the Bhagavad Gita . Some people wear a miniature copy of it around their neck for luck and to ward off evil.

The Bhagavad Gita begins at the battlefield of Kurukshetra, a popular pilgrimage place today. Arjuna is brooding over the upcoming clash because he has friends, relatives and teachers on the other side. Krishna advises him to pour himself into the battle and not worry about the consequences, telling the warrior that is the only way he can find knowledge, freedom and peace.

Much of the text is made of dialogues between Krishna and Arjuna with Krishna encouraging Arjuna to fight and overcome his reluctance not to fight. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight because he is a warrior by caste and it is his duty to fight, saying: “For there is more joy in doing one’s duty badly that in doing another’s well. It is a joy to die doing one’s duty, but doing another man’s duty brings dread.”

Passages From the Bhagavad Gita

A famous dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna---one that has been described by the Library of Congress as "one of the great jewels of world religious literature”---occurs after Krishna changes from the human form into the "universal form" before battle to inspire Arjuna to defeat an enemy which has Krishna said are "already put to death by my arrangement."
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Krishna and Arjun on
the chariot Mahabharata
Do the work that you have to do.
For work is better than inaction.
You cannot even keep your body alive
if you are wholly inactive...
If I did always work
Unwearying...
men would follow my ways.
The worlds would perish if I did not
work?
I should bring back chaos.
and all beings would suffer...
Cast all you acts upon me.
With your mind in the highest Soul.
Have done with craving and selfhood.
Throw off your terror, and fight!

Concepts in the Bhagavad Gita

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Student learning Vedas
The central premise of the Bhagavad Gita is that all Hindus (or even all people), even Untouchables, who obey the rules of their caste and follow the teachings of god will be reincarnated in successfully higher castes and eventfully end up in heaven. Connected with this is the idea that all actions should be guided by dharma, the external divine law that says people should fulfill their duty and let God decide the consequences of their actions. The Bhagavad Gita also address the immortality of the soul in a universals sense and teaches that God can take human form to relay his message.

Unlike Buddhism, which encourages its followers to withdraw from the world, the Bhagavad Gita encourages people to involve themselves in the world with a detached ego. Arjura learns that: 1) he is not limited to his physical form; 2) human consciousness flows through the entire universe; and 3) nothing in the world really matters. With these realizations Arjuna is freed of doubt and delusion and can realize his Higher Self and find fulfillment.

The Bhagavad Gita talks about three ways of approaching the world: 1) through the mind; 2) through emotions; and 3) through actions. Those are tied with three yogas, or methods of union with the Higher Self: 1) duty, 2) insight and 3) devotion.

There are three main obstacles, or gunas , that hinder development: 1) Sattva , being too attached to happiness, purity and righteousness; 2) Rajas , attachment to passion and activity; and 3) Tamas , attachment laziness and ignorance. Chapter V, 12 of the Bhagavad Gita reads:
The disciplined man, having relinquished the fruit of action.
Attains perfect peace.
The undisciplined man, impelled by desire.
Is attached to the fruit of fruit and is bound.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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