Reading One: Vedic Creation Hymn
This short passage is actually one of several creation hymns in the Vedas. There are
several different stories and explanations of creation in the Hindu tradition, which
underlies the main theme of this creation story – that no one knows exactly what
happened at the creation of the world.
This hymn discusses skepticism at knowing exactly what existed at the beginning of
existence, as it states that there was neither “existence nor non-existence” – most likely
because those are human concepts and therefore meaningless beyond our realm.
The text refers to “that one” which is a reference to Brahman, the ultimate reality or
Spirit of Hinduism. The term “God” is usually not used in reference to Brahman – words
like “one”, “spirit”, or “unity” are often used instead.
The text also describes the beginning of existence as coming from “desire”, and “poets”
who sought “wisdom” and therefore created a “bond”. This connects to one of the
essential teachings of Hinduism, which is that the goal of all our lifetimes is to overcome
desire for this world. Desire is what keeps us trapped in the cycle of
reincarnation. When we give up the “desire” that creates a “bond” to this world, which in
Hinduism is a form of ‘original sin’, then we can be released back to Brahman and
eternal, perfect existence.
The last section of the hymn focuses on the unknowability of the specifics of the
creation of the universe. The hymn mentions that not even the gods know, because
they came “afterwards” – in Hinduism the gods are part of this creation, and also have
to find their way back to Brahman. The hymn ends with the mysterious claim that
maybe not even God himself, the “one who looks down on it” knows exactly how this
universe came to be.
This hymn gives us an important insight into Hinduism, which does not emphasize
believing in certain doctrines in order to return to God after death. It instead
emphasizes that there are multiple paths, multiple understandings of the truth.
Rig Veda Book 10
Then there was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond
What covered it, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed
depth of water?
Death was not then, nor was there anything immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing
Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminate chaos.
All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that
Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the
Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below
There were creators, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
Who really knows and who can here declare it, from where it was born and from where
comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came
He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he
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The Isha Upanishad
Reading Two: The Isha Upanishad
This Upanishad focuses on the “Self,” which is called the “atman” in Sanskrit. The
atman is our eternal soul, the one part of us that does not die. For Hindus, this “Self” is
also divine – so you will see in the passage that the “self” is often connected with the
“Lord”. Our atman/self is our divine spark within us that connects us to Brahman.
This passage emphasizes the idea in Hinduism that one’s spiritual journey is the
journey to understand our “self,” our soul. Hindus claim that coming to know the self will
also lead one to better understand God, because our soul is divine.
So this passage focuses on how important our soul is, and so it should be the focus of
our lives. Then the passage goes on to create a dichotomy between “real knowledge”
and “not knowledge,” and that one will lead to eternal life and one will not. This section
can be interpreted many ways (as all scripture can!) but the “not knowledge” is
connected in the passage with “good works” while the “real knowledge” seems to focus
on looking within and to the gods. So while the passage definitely does not denigrate
“good works,” it seems to insist that “good works” alone will not bring a person to true
enlightenment. Good works have to be coupled with strong spiritual work focused on
the Self, usually done through meditation and yoga.
One of the most important phrases in this Upanishad is the teaching that we should
“see all beings in our self and our Self in all beings” – and that those who can do that
will no longer have fear or taste death. Hinduism teaches that our soul is the most
important part of our being, and that our soul is divine. Furthermore, all beings have the
same divine soul within them, making us all, ultimately, one. In other words, we are all
one, and we are all part of God.
ALL this, whatsoever moves on earth, is to be hidden in the Lord (the Self). When thou
hast surrendered all this, then thou mayest enjoy. Do not covet the wealth of any man!
Though a man may wish to live a hundred years, performing (good) works, it will be thus
with him; but not in any other way: work will thus not cling to a man.
There are the worlds of the Asuras (gods) covered with blind darkness. Those who have
destroyed their self (who perform works, without having arrived at a knowledge of the
true Self), go after death to those worlds.
That one (the Self), though never stirring, is swifter than thought. The Devas (senses)
never reach it, it existed before them. Though standing still, it overtakes the others who
are running. Mâtarisvan (the wind, the moving spirit) bestows powers on it.
It stirs and it stirs not; it is far, and likewise near. It is inside of all this, and it is outside of
And he who sees all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, he never turns away
When to a man who understands, the Self has become all things, what sorrow, what
trouble can there be to him who once beheld that unity?
He (the Self) encircled all, bright, incorporeal, scatheless, without muscles, pure,
untouched by evil; a seer, wise, omnipresent, self-existent, he disposed all things rightly
for eternal years.
All who worship what is not real knowledge (good works), enter into blind darkness:
those who delight in real knowledge, enter, as it were, into greater darkness.
One thing, they say, is obtained from real knowledge; another, they say, from what is
not knowledge. Thus we have heard from the wise who taught us this.
He who knows at the same time both knowledge and not-knowledge, overcomes death
through not-knowledge, and obtains immortality through knowledge.
All who worship what is not the true cause,
enter into blind darkness: those who delight in the true cause, enter, as it were, into
One thing, they say, is obtained from (knowledge of) the cause; another, they say, from
(knowledge of) what is not the cause. Thus, we have heard from the wise who taught us
He who knows at the same time both the cause and the destruction (the perishable
body), overcomes death by destruction (the perishable body), and obtains immortality
through (knowledge of) the true cause.
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The Chandogya Upanishad
Reading Three: Chandogya Upanishad
The Chandogya Upanishad is one of the most famous and often-read Upanishads. It
tells the story of a father teaching his son the ultimate truth of Hinduism. In the
beginning of the Upanishad, the father sends the boy away to study the Vedas with a
religious instructor. This was a common practice among the Brahmin caste (the class of
Hindu society that every Hindu priest must come from). It takes the boy 12 years to
study the Vedas! When he returns home, his father apparently thinks that he is too full
of himself because he believes that the Vedas (the most sacred Hindu scriptures) tell
everything that needs to be known about Hinduism. But the father decides to teach his
son that there is more to Hinduism – there is a mystical knowledge as well that cannot
come from reading scriptures alone. The Upanishads, ironically, emphasize this theme
over and over again – in a work of scripture the stories keep repeating that religion is
more than just scripture!
The father then teaches the boy about the underlying unity of everything in the
world. He uses examples of several different elements – clay, gold, iron – to
demonstrate this point. He says that if you know one item of these elements you know
them all, because underneath all their differences, they are all the same. In Hinduism,
the same is true for everything in the world – there are differences, but they are only
superficial. Since everything has the divine essence within it, everything is actually
Brahman, and all is one.
In the next section the father uses a few experiments with a seed and salt to teach his
son about the “Self” and “subtle essence” of the whole world. The father is connecting
the Hindu concept of “Brahman”, “Truth,” or in western terms, God, that pervades the
entire universe, and the “atman”, or personal soul that we each have within us. In
Hinduism, the two are one and the same – our personal soul is divine, our divine spark,
that is made of the same essence as God. This teaching is summarized in the phrase
that he repeats to his son over and over, “thou art That” – or you are Brahman.
Ch. 6, Khandas (aka sections): 1, 12, 13
There lived once a boy named Svetaketu Âruneya. To him his father said: ‘Svetaketu,
go to school; for there is none belonging to our caste, darling, who, not having studied
(the Vedas), is, as it were, a Brahmin by birth only.’
Having begun his apprenticeship (with a teacher) when he was twelve years of
age Svetaketu returned to his father when he was twenty-four, having then studied all
the Vedas,–conceited, considering himself well-read, and stern.
His father said to him: ‘Svetaketu, as you are so conceited, considering yourself so wellread, and so stern, my dear, have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear
what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we
know what cannot be known?’
‘What is that instruction, Sir?’ he asked.
The father replied: ‘My dear, as by one lump of clay all that is made of clay is known, the
difference being only a name, arising from speech, but the truth being that all is clay;
‘And as, my dear, by one nugget of gold
all that is made of gold is known, the difference being only a name, arising from speech,
but the truth being that all is gold…–thus, my dear, is that instruction.’
The son said: ‘Surely those venerable men (my teachers) did not know that. For if they
had known it, why should they not have told it me? Do you, Sir, therefore tell me that.’
‘Be it so,’ said the father.
‘Fetch me from thence a fruit of the Nyagrodha tree.’
‘Here is one, Sir.’
‘It is broken, Sir.’
‘What do you see there?’
‘These seeds, almost infinitesimal.’
‘Break one of them.’
‘It is broken, Sir.’
‘What do you see there?’
‘Not anything, Sir.’
The father said: ‘My son, that subtle essence which you do not see there, of that very
essence this great Nyagrodha tree exists.
‘Believe it, my son. That which is the subtle essence, in it all that exists has its self. It is
the Truth. It is the Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art That.’
‘Please, Sir, inform me still more,’ said the son.
‘Be it so, my child,’ the father replied.
‘Place this salt in water, and then bring it to me in the morning.’
The son did as he was commanded.
The father said to him: ‘Bring me the salt, which you placed in the water last night.’
The son having looked for it, found it not, for, of course, it was dissolved.
The father said: ‘Taste it from the surface of the water. How is it?’
The son replied: ‘It is salty.’
‘Taste it from the middle. How is it?’
The son replied: ‘It is salty.’
‘Taste it from the bottom. How is it?’
The son replied ‘It is salty.’
The father said throw it away and then come back to me.’
He did so; but salt exists for ever.
Then the father said: ‘Here also, in this body…you do not perceive the Truth (Sat), my
son; but there indeed it is.
‘That which is the subtle essence, in it all that exists has its self. It is the Truth. It is the
Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art That.’
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Khanda 1: https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01119.htm (Links to an external
Khanda 12: https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01130.htm (Links to an external
Khanda 13: https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01131.htm (Links to an external
The Bhagavad Gita
Reading Four: Bhagavad Gita
In this section near the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, we enter into the conversation
between Arjuna and Krishna. Arjuna, a soldier, feels hesitation before a battle in the
civil war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. He does not want to have to kill
people he knows, even though he knows that they are in the wrong for starting this
war. He tells Krishna that he will not fight that day.
What follows is Krishna’s response. Krishna is a god who has disguised himself as
Arjuna’s driver in order to help save humanity from the disastrous consequences of this
war. He encourages Arjuna to fight because it is important that the war come to a
resolution so that the fighting will stop. It is Arjuna’s duty (or Dharma) to fight because
that is his role in society, and the violent Kaurvas must be stopped so that the country
can be at peace again.
But he also justifies fighting in the war by teaching Arjuna about the difference between
the soul (atman) and the physical body. They are different and separate from each
other. The soul is eternal while the body is temporary. He says that this is important for
a warrior to understand because he’s not really killing his enemies on the battlefield –
he is only killing their bodies and their souls will live on, reincarnating back into the
world. (In this story, Arjuna is the good guy and those he will fight are the bad
guys). Krishna says that we have always existed and will always exist, because our
souls are eternal – our physical bodies and lives are just temporary.
So we should do what is right, what our society needs of us, focusing on our soul and
not our physical body.
Chapter 2, Verses 4-30
Arjuna said: How shall I strike my grandfather, my guru, and all other relatives, who are
worthy of my respect, with arrows in battle, O Krishna?
It would be better, indeed, to live on alms (aka to be poor) in this world than to slay
these noble personalities, because by killing them I would enjoy wealth and pleasures
stained with their blood.
We do not know which alternative, to fight or to quit, is better for us. Further, we do not
know whether we shall conquer them or they will conquer us. We should not even wish
to live after killing our cousin brothers, who are standing in front of us.
My senses are overcome by the weakness of pity, and my mind is confused about duty
(Dharma). Please tell me what is better for me. I am Your disciple, and I take refuge in
I do not perceive that gaining an unrivaled and prosperous kingdom on this earth, or
even lordship over all the celestial controllers will remove the sorrow that is drying up
After speaking like this to Lord Krishna, the mighty Arjuna said to Krishna: I shall not
fight, and became silent.
O King, Lord Krishna, as if smiling, spoke these words to the distressed Arjuna in the
midst of the two armies.
Lord Krishna said: You grieve for those who are not worthy of grief, and yet speak
words of wisdom. The wise grieves neither for the living nor for the dead.
There was never a time when these monarchs, you, or I did not exist; nor shall we ever
cease to exist in the future.
Just as the soul acquires a childhood body, a youth body, and an old age body during
this life; similarly, the soul acquires another body after death. This should not delude the
The contacts of the senses with the sense objects give rise to the feelings of heat and
cold, and pain and pleasure. They are transitory and impermanent. Therefore, one
should learn to endure them. Because a calm person who is not afflicted by these
sense objects, and is steady in pain and pleasure becomes fit for salvation.
The invisible Spirit (Atman) is eternal, and the visible physical body, is transitory. The
reality of these two is indeed certainly seen by the seers of truth.
The Spirit by whom this entire universe is pervaded is indestructible. No one can
destroy the imperishable Spirit.
The physical bodies of the eternal, immutable, and incomprehensible Spirit are
perishable. Therefore fight, O Arjuna.
The one who thinks that the Spirit is a killer, and the one who thinks the Spirit is killed,
both are ignorant. Because the Spirit neither kills nor is killed.
The Spirit is neither born nor does it die at any time. It does not come into being, or
cease to exist. It is unborn, eternal, permanent, and primeval. The Spirit is not
destroyed when the body is destroyed.
O Arjuna, how can a person who knows that the Spirit is indestructible, eternal, unborn,
and immutable, kill anyone or causes anyone to be killed?
Just as a person puts on new garments after discarding the old ones; similarly, the living
entity or the individual soul acquires new bodies after casting away the old bodies.
Weapons do not cut this Spirit, fire does not burn it, water does not make it wet, and the
wind does not make it dry. The Spirit cannot be cut, burned, wetted, or dried. It is
eternal, all pervading, unchanging, immovable, and primeval.
The Spirit is said to be unexplainable, incomprehensible, and unchanging. Knowing the
Spirit as such you should not grieve.
Even if you think that the physical body takes birth and dies perpetually, even then, O
Arjuna, you should not grieve like this. Because death is certain for the one who is born,
and birth is certain for the one who dies. Therefore, you should not lament over the
All beings are unmanifest, or invisible to our physical eyes before birth and after death.
They manifest between the birth and the death only. What is there to grieve about?
Some look upon this Spirit as a wonder, another describes it as wonderful, and others
hear of it as a wonder. Even after hearing about it very few people know what the Spirit
O Arjuna, the Spirit that dwells in the body of all beings is eternally indestructible.
Therefore, you should not mourn for anybody.
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