Hindu scripture are some of the oldest known texts in the world, with the Vedas dating back to roughly 1500 BCE. These texts started as mantras, chants, and ritual language from a spiritual community. The Vedas contain the Upanishads, which are ancient wisdom sayings that were passed down orally from master to student for centuries.
- Originated in India roughly 4000 years ago
- Followers: Around one billion
- Holy Texts: Vedas and epic poetry
Sources of Hindu wisdom include:
- The best of the Bhagavad Gita, which is a small part of the Mahabharata — an epic poem about war, princes, philosophy, and more. (See highlights from the Mahabharata below.)
- The best of the Ramayana, a poem about the divine prince Rama and his fight to save his wife Sita (forthcoming)
- Highlights from the Upanishads (forthcoming)
- Highlights from the Vedas (see below)
Selected Wisdom Tales from the Mahabharata
A Game of Dice
Once there was a king whose wealth was almost more than you could imagine. He showed it off to everyone, and his cousin grew envious. Knowing that the king loved to gamble in a game of dice, he plotted a way to get his wealth. He would have his uncle, a talented dice player, face off against the king.
So the families all gathered together for a game of dice. Each time, the king gambled a part of his wealth, and each time he lost. Soon enough, the king was left with nearly nothing. And still, he was driven to win the game of dice. So the king gambled his four brothers and lost. Then he gambled himself and lost. Finally, in complete desperation to win everything back, he gambled his wife — and, again, lost.
And with that, the king and his brothers were sent into exile.
The King at the Lake
Once there was a king who lost everything in a game of dice and was exiled from his kingdom, along with his four brothers.
In exile, they came upon a lake. Suffering from thirst, the brothers all rushed to get a drink, but just as they bent to take the water into their mouths, a nature spirit in the form of a bird warned them that the water would be poisonous if they didn’t answer a set of questions first. The brothers ignored the warning, cupping water into their mouths, and, soon enough, died. Hoping to both revive his brothers and get a drink of fresh water, the former king said he would answer the questions.
The list of questions was long — more than 100 in total. But here are few, along with the former king’s answers.
- What makes you wealthy if you give it up? Desire.
- What makes you happy if you give it up? Greed.
- What is charity? Protecting all creatures.
After answering the questions and proving he lived wisely, the former king was able to revive his brothers.
Highlights from the Upanishads
The Upanishads talk about birth, death, karma, Brahman, and Atman.
Karma: The consequence of an action
Brahman: The ground of all being, the universal unity behind everything, the supreme spirit
Atman: Generally translated into English as “Self” with a capital “s,” consciousness itself, the part of a human being that has always existed and always will exist.
The Boy Who Spoke With Death (Nachiketa and Yama)
Once there was a boy who hungered for wisdom. He traveled to Death’s house, only to find that Death was away on business.
Determined to get what he came for, the boy waiting for three days at Death’s doorstep. When Death finally returned, he apologized for his absence and offered the boy whatever he wished for as a way to make up for the inconvenience.
More than anything, the boy wished to know what happens after death.
Upon hearing this request, Death said that even the gods did not know such answers. He pled with the boy to choose a different wish, offering him all the riches in the world if he did. But the boy stayed determined, saying that all the pleasures in the world would pass away but wisdom would not.
At this, Death told the boy that he had chosen the right path, as a life lived in pursuit of wisdom brings joy while a life lived only in pursuit of pleasure brings misery. Because of the boy’s determination, Death taught the boy about life’s mysteries and what happens after death.
Seeing the Self in All (Isha Upanishad)
“The Spirit, without moving, is swifter than the mind; the senses cannot reach It: It is ever beyond them. Standing still, It overtakes those who run. To the ocean of Its being, the spirit of life leads the streams of action. … Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.”
Highlights from the Early Vedas
These mantras, chants, and ritualistic language are among the oldest religious words in the world. They contain songs of worship for various gods and elements, including earth and fire.
A Hymn About the Mystery of Creation
This hymn talks about what was before creation — and suggests that perhaps the gods themselves do not understand the mystery.
“Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then a cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?
Then there were neither death nor immortality,
no was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.
At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.
In the beginning desire descended on it—
that was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is, is kin to that which is not.
… But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
they, whether they fashioned it or whether they did not,
they, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
they know—or maybe even they do not know.”
This hymn was likely sung in grief at funerals. Feel the common humanity it expresses, reflecting on how long human beings have faced pain in life.
“Go away, death, by another path that is your own, different from the road of the gods. I say to you who have eyes, who have ears: do not injure our children … Open up, Earth; do not crush them … wrap them up as a mother wraps a child in the edge of her skirt.”