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The Art of Hindu Religious Discourses
- C.R. Kaushik, Texas, USA

November 2008

Sruti is a term that describes the sacred texts, which comprise the central canon of Hinduism. These works span the entire history of Hinduism beginning with some of the earliest known Hindu texts and ending in the early modern period with the later Upanishads. Sruti are not man made but revealed knowledge heard by rishis (saints or sages). The revealed knowledge was spread and carried over generations spanning many centuries by word of mouth. The Srutis (sruthva) are therefore identified with the Veda itself. The Vedas were handed over thru generations by oral instructions, as the pivot of whole educational system of ancient India was the teacher or Guru. The Vedas are learnt by hearing hence they are Sruti.

Sruti literature differs from Smriti or "remembered" texts which refers to a specific body of Hindu religious scripture. The Smritikaraka defined the qualification of the Guru in their Smritis. Thus the human intervention through smritis was essential to preserve the purity of the imparting of Srutis. Also the Smriti mandates that the person who learns the Vedas should impart it to others and prescribes penalties for the failure of such duties. Thus traditionally the guru sishya parampara system ensured that the vedas were transmitted from one generation to the next by listening. This time-tested methodology because of its purity of transmission of knowledge by a proper guru, who was bound by the rules of the smritis on his conduct as a guru, was adopted as most suited mass communication methodology in discourses on Dharma to the common man. Our Smritis include Dharmasastra, Itihasa (Mahakavyas or Epics Mahabharata and the Ramayana), eighteen Puranas, Vedanga (the Shiksha, Vyakarana, Chandas, Nirukta, Jyotisha, & Kalpa), Agamas or the doctrines, Darsana or philosophies (Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa & Vedantas).

The Smritis were learnt by selected sishyas (Students) who by their religious discourses imparted mass knowledge. Sishyas are told by their gurus to do these discourses when they find them to be most suitable for propagation of our scriptures by Sravanam (Listening) and Pravachanam (Expounding). Hence it is but natural Sravanam (Listening) was sufficient in Bakthi marga, as constant sravanam leads to Keerthanam, (Singing the praise of the Lord) which is another limb of Bakthi. The Pattabisheka Sarga Pala sthuti in the Ramayana speaks only of Sravanam (Listening) and nowhere mentions Parayanam (Reading scriptures), which came only later when the written compositions became popular with scientific advance.

The Art of Hindu Religious Discourses was a necessary off shoot with meaningful interpretations of our Smritis and with necessary ancillary explanations. Religious Discourses thus became a purposeful scientific art, which only a select few who were well versed in our Sruti, Smritis, could do effectively and accepted as the Gurus in the field.

Right from the beginning, our ancestors carried our traditions by word of mouth through storytelling and discourses. This tradition has continued till today. In India each region has developed its own style and tradition of religious discourses in various regional languages. Epics, Puranas and ancient stories of wisdom in Sanskrit were the common material for religious discourses in most of the regions of India. Such performances were usually held in Temples, weddings and other religious or social functions and nowadays discourse has become a part of the fine art season in sabhas too. The art of religious discourses was usually a one-person theatre, but now a days more than one also perform. The performer had to be versatile and resourceful in all the aspects of the exposition and was looked upon as an acharya (teacher) who can explain religious and mythological texts of the past with simplicity, to the present and future generations. Prasangam (Lecture), Patakam (Dissertation), Upanyasam (Sermon), Pravachan (Expounding Scriptures), Harikatha (Story of the Lord), Harikeertan (Lord's Praise), Kalakshepa (Narration with Music), Villupattu (Reciting with bow instrument), Burrakatha (Tales with Tambura Instrument) are some of the traditions that are practiced in different parts of India. They are all similar in the sense that they are all discourses and story telling on religious theme, yet they are different in presentation style. Pravachana (Expounding Scriptures) and Kathakalakshepa (Narration with Music) are the two main forms of Hindu discourses popular throughout India.

Pioneers of Religious Discourse
Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar (1847-1903) and Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri (1845-1911) were the pioneers of religious discourses in India. Both of them had conducted programs together during their early days. Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri later did only Pravachans with minimum music. Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar continued his Kathakalakshepam style. Only Carnatic Keerthanas were sung by Bhagavatars before, Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar adopted fine elements from the Maharashtra naamkeertans, introducing various forms like Saki, Dindi, Ovi, Arya, Abhanga pada etc. into the art of Kathakalakshepa and started his own new style, which became the standard for all other Bhagavatars in this field and he was considered as the 'Father of the Thanjavur style of Kalakshepa'. Brahmasri Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri pioneered his own style of Pravachans with slokas and chants and indepth interpretations of every aspect of the story. Reading the original sloka and presenting the meaning was the methodology followed by Pundits before. Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri was the first exponent who gave various interpretations and commentary to each verse and created a new style and was considered the 'Father of Pravachans'.

The radio, television and the computer have become our modern day raconteurs. Present day discourses include satire and humor and are able to convey the message in several languages and reach larger audiences. As long as there are devotees to hear and pundits prepared to narrate, the art of Hindu religious discourses will continue to be an interesting way to spend time, spread bhakti and induce good character to the community.

C.R. Kaushik a freelance writer belongs to a Sastriya family of scholars and educationalists from Thanjavur District. The author grew up in Chennai and had most of the early education from the University of Madras and presently resides in Texas, USA. Indian Art, Culture, Tradition, Hinduism, Temples, Spirituality and Fine Arts are some of the author's favorite topics.