- Scriptural texts
A good way of defining the spiritual journey is A Quest to Discover the Purpose of Life and the truth of the self.
The journey starts with the realisation that there has to be a purpose to human life and that whatever one normally does in life – and what everyone seems to be doing — is limited in nature and in its result; it cannot be the life purpose. Even if one is not really clear about what that purpose is, the understanding of the limitations of all that one is doing and their having no direct relation to one’s life purpose paves the way for downgrading of all normal goals and efforts to their real value.
Many people do get to this state of devaluing the usual goals they set for themselves, but are unsure how to move on from there. It is a state which is difficult to hold on to because the world around does not allow what is considered “success” to be discarded; keeps pushing one to pursue the same actions. Only a lucky few (people with enough grace, Isvara anugraha are able to hold their own and insist on taking up further examination and study to understand life’s purpose better.
Understanding the truth of the self and accepting it requires that one prepares oneself to be receptive – be an adhikari — to receive the knowledge and assimilate it. A good beginning in this direction is leading a life of dharma, with a prayerful attitude. However, only the study of scriptural texts under a guru who has learnt it formally from his guru, can help a person gain the knowledge of life’s purpose and how one can achieve it. That is how the journey can begin.
What texts should such a person start the study with? Indeed, what are the scriptural texts?
Sruti and Smriti
Veda (also called sruti, that which is heard) is a vast body of knowledge and information. Like many religious texts, most of it is devoted to an insight into how life should be lived, what means can be used to gain what ends etc. This portion, forming the bulk of the Veda, is called karma kanda, and focuses on action and its results.
The end portion of the Veda, called Vedanta (consisting of upanisads) forms a very small section. The subject matter of Vedanta is the self, the subject, the knower, the experiencer. This is the only place where one can find the knowledge of the nature of the self and the purpose of life.
However, upanisads are not easy to understand, both because the true nature of the self they reveal is so very different from the common assumptions everyone makes about oneself and, also because they are written in a cryptic form that is not easy to comprehend correctly.
Interestingly, no one claims authorship for these texts. They are said to be apaurisheya, without an owner. It is said that some rishis were receptive enough to be able to absorb these texts. They then taught others, who in turn taught yet others, all orally.
This tradition of teaching has continued in an unbroken lineage to current times, from guru to shishya, to shishya, in which both the text and the methodology of teaching are included. The importance and value of this parampara can be seen in the prayer where the sishya salutes not just his guru, but the entire lineage of teachers.
Next among scriptural texts are Smriti (literally, that which is remembered), texts written by rishis based on their memory, which also include their own inputs. Some common examples are manusmriti, yagnavalka smriti, parasara smriti etc.
Smritis, often called dharma sastras, codified laws that govern sanatana dharma. (Smriti is sometimes also used in the broader sense to cover all scriptural texts, save the Vedas) These laws and codes of conduct, like any law or code of conduct, are generally relevant to the specific period of time and specific region.
Veda, on the other hand, is eternal and relevant to any time and any place and universally applicable to all human beings. It is the only authoritative source of knowledge about the nature of the self.
Clearly, it is difficult to start the spiritual journey by studying the sruti directly, even with a guru. And, smriti, while being a sacred text that helps us plan and live our lives purposefully, does not directly give us the knowledge. Are there other texts, then, that one could start with?
Puranas and Itihasa
Puranas are also written by various rishis. Purana means that which is ancient and yet new and relevant (pura va nava). These are generally in story form and highlight one or more aspects of life and values for living. They, therefore, form excellent guides for everyone. For instance, the story of King Harishchandra emphasises the value of speaking the truth.
Itihasa (iti ha sa – thus it was), are major epics. The best known ones are Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ramayana consists of about 25000 slokas (verses) while Mahabharata has about 100,000 slokas. It is said that every conceivable situation that one may encounter in life is covered in the Mahabharata.
The source of the knowledge everyone is seeking is sruti. All other texts are secondary and are useful for living a life of dharma in preparation for access to the knowledge of the self.
All of this may sound as if starting on this journey is extremely difficult! Not so, there is an easy way to start, as we shall see in the next article.
Swami Ganeshaswarupananda can be reached on email@example.com