TTY 2016: Vedic religion

The Vedas: Religion and practice in ancient India

Hinduism is the religion of those humans who create, perpetuate, and transform traditions with legitimizing reference to the authority of the Veda.

– Brian K. Smith, a western scholar of Hinduism

When I wake up in the morning… I touch the floor twice with my hand, and bow and address the earth, saying, “You are so great. The ocean is your cloth, the treasures within the ocean are your gems, the mountains are your breasts, and all of their streams are your tributaries. All of the gods and goddesses serve you. With great gratitude I put my feet on you.” So in this way, each day I honor the earth before I step on her broad face.”

– Vivek Godbole, a Brahmin priest, translating a Vedic prayer

In this class we will be exploring Vedic religion, the ancient antecedent of what today we would call Hinduism. Much of what we know of this tradition comes from a enormous compendium of scriptures, collectively called the Veda. From at least 1500 BCE until a few centuries ago, these scriptures were passed orally by generations of priests. Belief in the authority of the Veda is of the utmost importance for most contemporary Hindu traditions. The ritual practice at the heart of this tradition is the yajna, a fire ceremony in which pure substances (harvested grain, clarified butter, precious gems) are offered to the gods through the medium of sacred fire.

Handouts: History handout; Handout for lecture on the Vedas

Required assignments:

Read A Day in the Life of a Vedic Priest by Peggy Bendet, a contemporary journalist who visits a Vedic priest in his home and shala (school).

Read this article in the Huffington Post by the scholar who testified in the Encinitas yoga trial! In it she explains why she believes that the middle school yoga classes were religious.

Read Whatever You Do, Perform It As Sacrifice  by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. As you read, look for the ways in which the word “yoga” is used. Does it seem to be used differently from the way in which we commonly understand yoga in America? If so, how?

Watch this video of a yajna.

Contemplate YOUR understanding of the meaning of the word “scripture”. Think about the religious traditions that you know best. What are their scriptures? What are the various beliefs about and attitudes toward scripture in them? Do an internet search and see if you can find any interesting definitions of “scripture” on the web. Come to class prepared to offer your own thoughts on scripture in class discussion.

Experiment with the practice of offering. As American citizens, we are often described as “consumers”, and our way of life is based on ever-increasing consumption. What if we instead saw ourselves as “offerers”? You can experiment with this mentally, offering the outcome of a particular action to someone or something. Or you can give things to people, to animals, to the earth… the only limit to this practice is your own imagination.

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