How Shall We View God, continued
The next set of Hindu scriptures to be developed were the Upanishads, so named (“Upa-ni-shada” meaning “sitting near”) because they were originally tutorials given to select pupils who sat near their teachers to hear the sacred teachings. The earliest of these teachings date from about the 6th century B.C., and they have survived in their present form from about 200 B.C. They contain the idea that there is a oneness of all things throughout the created universe, that the individual soul (known as atman) and the universal soul (Brahman), the “One God” of Hinduism, are the same; that the visible world is an illusion (maya) but that Brahman is eternal, limitless, omnipresent and may be male or female; that the individual soul is without beginning nor end but exists through a cycle of successive births and deaths (samsara); that the total effect of actions (karma) decides the next existence of the soul; and that the soul is capable of achieving freedom from this cycle of successive births and deaths and becoming one with Brahman through selfless action (“When all attachment arising from desires is destroyed, man’s mortality ends, and only then does atman reach Brahman”).
Brahman is without form, but Hindus are free to imagine this Supreme Spirit in any way that is meaningful to them, and they have done so in terms of its various aspects. The first major aspect of Brahman is Brahma, who created and continues to create the world. One of the Vedic gods of light, Vishnu, (who looks after the world) becomes a second prominent aspect of Brahman. And Rudra, Chief of the Storm Deities, is combined with the male deity of the pre-Aryan Indus people to become Shiva, who continually destroys part of the world so that Brahma can continue his work of creation.
The earliest of the Upanishads are called shruti (or heard) texts, and are considered to be not of human origin, for they are believed to have been revealed by Brahman to certain inspired wise men of old. The next set of Hindu scriptures, which were composed from 500 B.C.E. onwards, are called smriti (or remembered) texts. Based on tradition, this smriti literature is considered to be valid for all devout Hindus insofar as it does not contradict the shruti texts which, as a direct revelation from God, retain supreme authority.